Film Review: Listen to Me Marlon

British filmmaker Stevan Riley’s biographical documentary is the result of his exclusive access to 200 hours of audiotapes recorded by Marlon Brando over the course of his lifetime.
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Listen to Me Marlon is named for a passage in the 200 hours of audio recordings by Marlon Brando that refers to his “self-analysis,” his rejection of psychoanalysts: “Listen to me, Marlon… Listen to the sound of my voice and trust me.” Stevan Riley, a British filmmaker, was given exclusive access to the tapes that also consist of the actor’s reflections on his movie characters and film directors, his promiscuity, and his notorious on-set persona, as well as reminiscences of the influence of Stella Adler, one of the few Americans to have studied with Konstantin Stanislavski. It was in her school in New York City, based on a modified “method acting” technique, that Brando first found the training he needed to perfect his craft.

Riley decided early on that Listen to Me Marlon would be “narrated” entirely by Brando himself, with the addition of other archival materials, including the actor’s television appearances, film clips and stills, and footage of his participation in civil-rights rallies. Some commentary appears in the form of clips from interviews with Francis Ford Coppola and Bernardo Bertolucci. Riley’s exhaustive research results is an unusual, impressionistic documentary, although one that is often too tightly edited, with dozens of cuts to picture and sound in less than a minute of screen time.

The clever illusion Riley creates, of the predominance of Brando’s point-of-view, is based on the same suspension of disbelief required of all biography. Needless to say, Brando’s distinctive voice tips the balance. While the actor had gathered some of the material used in the documentary for the purpose of preserving his legacy, Riley begins with an eerie, digitally scanned image of Brando’s face that was not among his papers and audiotapes. At first, the head rotates, a static, sculpted image, but then the actor, who posed for the scan in the 1980s, begins to speak. He recites Shakespeare’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy from Macbeth.

The last lines are significant for the filmmaker’s portrayal of the actor: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more. It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing.” Rather than a chronological rendering of Brando’s life, or a simple comparison of the relationship between the actor’s work and his private existence, the documentary unfolds from the states of mind represented by portions of his recorded thoughts. For instance, Brando ruminates on the scan by observing that such technology may represent every actor’s “swan song.” Shortly afterward, he echoes the words of the soliloquy by describing his plans for a biographical documentary about “a troubled man, alone and beset with memories…”

Particularly profound are passages in Listen to Me Marlon when Brando discusses his bestial side, such as his explosive temper and his adulterous affairs, which led to three divorces, as well as troubled relationships with his many legitimate and illegitimate children. Riley chooses Brando’s reminiscences of his father, a man “with not much love in him,” as well as rather shocking archival footage of a “Person to Person” interview with the two men, to explore this narrative thread. It soon leads to Brando’s boyhood memories of his mother, who suffered physical abuse from her husband. The actor’s obvious affection for the woman who provided him with “a sense of the absurd” does not prevent him from recalling that as a child he became enamored of the “sweet” scent of liquor on her breath. Riley elides the fact that Dorothy Brando did seek treatment, and that her son remained close to her throughout her life. Marlon Brando’s autobiography is entitled Songs My Mother Taught Me.

Listen to Me Marlon adds layers of meaning through several leitmotifs, visual and aural. For instance, Brando recalls his boyhood home in Omaha as possessing a “wind you can trust.” Several times throughout the documentary, the filmmaker goes to close-ups of a wind chime that hangs in the garden of Brando’s home on Mulholland Drive, or to medium shots of an elm tree connected to Brando’s memory of the sound of wind moving through its leaves. This thread of the documentary is interwoven with other recollections of his mother who, he explains, gave him an appreciation of nature (a memory Brando’s character repeats in Last Tango in Paris). The leitmotif also appears in scenes that chronicle the peace he found in Tahiti, an island he first visited during the disastrous production of Mutiny on the Bounty (1962).

In the course of the documentary, Brando admits that he “hated” the character of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), and that he “saved Coppola’s ass” by re-envisioning his character in Apocalypse Now (1979). In more eloquent passages, he refers to the face of a movie actor as akin to the “proscenium arch of the theatre,” or the “unmanicured faces” of Tahitians as revealing a remarkably affectionate culture. What emerges is a portrait of the artist as increasingly uncomfortable with his talent and his Hollywood milieu. This is apparent in Brando’s description of acting as “lying for a living,” and is reinforced by another Shakespearean recitation. Ironically, Brando repeats Hamlet’s instructions to the acting troupe that is part of his scheme to condemn his stepfather: “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action…”

In his last significant dramatic role as Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, Brando played a broken warrior who symbolizes the “heart of darkness.” While he claims that his rewrite provided the depth which the original screenplay lacked, Coppola blamed Brando’s obesity for his problems in finishing the film. In Brando’s tirades, especially over poor direction—“Direction can ruin an actor,” he says at one point—those of us whose living memory reaches back to 1979, or to 1972 and Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, will recall that the actor, along with his co-star Maria Schneider, admitted to feeling “violated” (she more legitimately so) by the Italian director. While Riley gives weight to all this “sound and fury,” he also returns us to Brando’s “Rosebud,” the elm tree on the lawn of his childhood home.

Because of the nature of the cinematic art form, the actor, who died in 2004, will never suffer the fate of being “heard no more.” If Listen to Me Marlon is a homage to Brando’s “hour,” it is also a reflection upon the quest for meaning in a life writ large, and often spent in a struggle for self-expression wrapped in other men’s identities, perhaps most memorably in that of a longshoreman who “could have been a contender.” One is reminded of a scene from Lynn Redgrave’s one-woman play, Shakespeare for My Father, in which the actress describes Michael Redgrave’s recurring nightmare of being faceless.

One wonders if Brando’s motivation for digitizing his visage was to erase a similar fear. The scan is the most memorable image in Listen to Me Marlon, one tinged with a certain unexplainable brutality, like the post-mortem pictures of another era. Accompanied by Brando’s strange fear of it as representing the symbolic demise of his craft, it is perhaps an answer to the terror Michael Redgrave continually confronted each time he inhabited a new character—and that lies in the subtext of many of Brando’s ruminations. By design or because it was undiscoverable, Stevan Riley never explains the actor’s motive, a rather refreshing instance of biographical distance.

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