Documentaries aren’t a medium that necessarily require constant innovation to remain relevant, but it’s still exciting when they reach for unexplored methods of information delivery. 2013 saw the unskeptical oral history of The Shining‘s conspiracy theorists in Room 237. 2014 allowed the perpetrators of a horrific genocide to tell their own story through a cinematic lens in The Act of Killing. It’s arguable that 2015’s biggest contribution to the documentary as a medium might have been Listen to Me Marlon. As a biography-in-motion type of doc, its approach to storytelling is fascinating on both a visual & an aural plane. With a wealth of lengthy rants culled from hundreds of hours of home audio recordings from infamous actor Marlon Brando’s recollections & attempts at self-hypnosis, Listen to Me Marlon matches the disconnected nature of its subject’s self-interviews with an equally blurry montage of his image both alive & undead. Yes, Brando appears posthumously in the film as a digitized ghost à la Robyn Wright in the criminally under-appreciated The Congress. It’s an eerie effect, but an entirely appropriate one give the oddness of its subject.
Marlon Brando was inarguably a fascinating man. He may even have been, for a time, America’s greatest actor. A straight-forward documentary about him would have easily been worthwhile. Instead of adopting a traditional approach, though, Listen to Me Marlon lulls its audience into a hypnotic state through the actor’s infamous mumble. As Marlon reminisces on the production of The Godfather, Last Tango in Paris, On The Waterfront, The Wild One, etc., you get the distinct feeling that you’re listening to & watching a ghost. In his life, Brando had already transformed from an impossibly beautiful young specimen of a man into an angry beast of an old crank. Listen to Me Marlon stages another transformation for the actor into a third, ethereal, intangible form. It’s a compelling effect, although a thoroughly subdued one.
People looking for a recap of a storied existence shouldn’t be too disappointed by what’s delivered here. Brando was a bit of a womanizer (helpfully explaining that “A lot of your decisions are made by your penis & not your brain”) and the film makes a big to-do about the parade of beauties that passed through his arms. He also discusses the very nature of his craft, recounting how he became an actor by accident, how cinema is different from stage acting because “your face becomes the stage” in close-ups, how his drama instructor Stella Adler essentially invented method acting & modern cinema and, of course, his ever-growing hatred for the parasitic nature of celebrity culture & tabloidism. Speaking of tabloids, Brando’s personal life & familial affairs also have a juicy quality to them (in the fact that they’re horrifically tragic & nobody’s business, really), as did his strong political affiliations – which included unlikely partnerships with The Black Panthers & radical Native American Civil Rights organizations.
Like I said, though, Listen to Me Marlon is anything but straight-forward, so anyone looking for that kind of recap is a lot more likely to be satisfied by a read-through of Brando’s Wikipedia page. For all of his discussion of craft in the film, his self-reflection still tends to get philosophical & abstract. He explains that acting is “lying for a living” & ponders why people would spend hard earned cash to sit in the dark & stare at a screen. His explanations delve into the idea that people want to be alone with their fantasies & their struggle with The Nightmare of the Want of Things. Brando also has a lot of abstract, frustrated things to say about the value (or lack thereof) in cinema & the exploitative nature of celebrity culture. The film has a great wealth of interview footage, photographs, and home audio to back up his abstract ponderings, but the ponderings themselves are less of a straight line & more of a swirly mess. I’ve never seen a documentary adapt dream logic or the shape of memories as closely as Listen to Me Marlon does & that aspect of its narrative is almost just as interesting as the story of Brando’s life itself, which is really saying something.