Made hot on the heels of the back-to-back Angel City and Last Chants, this film spun out of a chance meeting in a Santa Monica café, a friend from Oregon chatting with Michael Crichton’sister and an eager wannabe hot to jump in the movie biz. I was the ticket in. This guy (name deleted) and his friend assured that they could come up with $35,000 with no problem; I assured I could make a film in 16mm strictly to blow to 35mm, and get it in a good festival immediately on completion. Needless to say $35,000 was a big jump for me from the $3,000 and $6,000 budgets of the previous films. After some meetings, as I had decided to largely improvise the film, we settled on a basic theme - the producer guys being interested in counterfeiting. So I took this topic, which I think they imagined would be of a more practical sort, and applied it to the kind of counterfeit life which LA and the film (and arts) biz exemplify, and which in reality these two eager-beavers represented. Going back to Glaudini, whom I had liked working with in Angel City (despite some problems which became clearer in making Chameleon), I gathered a cluster of actors, mostly via Bob’s theater connections, and we began shooting, without a clear destination. On the first day shooting the film producer came to our setting, imagining glamour, the excitement of actors, and seems to have thought making films was a kind of party. I quickly disabused him of this concept as his presence was disruptive to fast and cheap working methods and ended up tossing him off the set. Which perhaps set-up the following months as the “easy” $35,000 proved elusive on a week to week basis. As the production limped along, week by week, and the relationship with the novice “producers” grew more tense, for my tastes an additional personal element of sourness invaded the film. It is one of the qualities of improvisation that reality is likely to skew matters in its direction - it certainly did here.

However, despite the endless problems with ever elusive money, the film did get made. The blowup was done in a San Fernando Valley porn lab, with the two technical guys puzzled over the absence of the anticipated material. Rushing to secure a print for the Taormina film festival, I requested - knowing my exposures were largely very much on the money, what in the business is called a “one-best light” - to say a print made with a single light setting, averaged out from a quick look at the full negative. Inviting some people to watch it with me, I was treated to a 90 minute stretch of black leader - by any accounting a “one worst light” job. Refusing to pay for this, and expecting that this incompetent lab would screw it up again, I spirited the negative out of the lab and took it to Technicolor, which struck a quick good print, and sent it off to Italy where the festival subtitled it. I fulfilled my end of the bargain with the producers, who, having looked at the finished film seemed, like the funders of Angel City, simply not to get it. Somehow they imagined they would get a full-fledged Hollywood thriller, with pumping music, etc. and found themselves disappointed. What Chameleon does have is a sure hand, technical sharpness, a nasty insider view of things LA, aerials, crane shots, a few group scenes, blow-up, all for a budget of $35,000. However the wanna-be’s couldn’t see it.

At the Taormina festival it won no prizes (the prize was basically fixed), but received rather lavish praise from the Italo and UK press, and went on to numerous other festivals, sharing the first prize at the American Film Festival in Utah, which later morphed into Sundance. A few years later, knowing I could sell it to Channel Four, UK, I bought out the producers for $5,000 and sold it for $12,000.

With the critics suggesting Hollywood would be knocking at my door, I turned my back on LA, having had enough exposure in the year to make me 100% sure I wanted nothing to do with the place. I moved to Germany, and confounding the critics (and for the most part leaving them behind) I went and made what is perhaps my most “experimental” film, Stagefright. Hollywood never knocked.

“Jon Jost’s Chameleon was probably the happiest instance of a mixed marriage at the Festival (Edinburgh 1979): combining a freak, trippy (in fact almost Corman-esque) saga of a dope-dealer and all-round hustler with an abstract distillation of patterns of color and light. The place of the latter in the film is both somewhere within the drug-laced nimbus of its title character, Terry (Bob Glaudini), and somewhere outside its ironic description of the rampant merchandising of all other human activities. In a way, this abstract element almost serves as a secondary narrative, or at least becomes the ‘point’ of the film. At the beginning, Terry is seen hustling a painter of just such abstract designs to come up with six imitations of another painter which he can unload on the art market. With some ‘persuasion’, Terry overcomes the painter’s reluctance, and at the end of the film returns to collect his merchandise. But the rolls of paper his is given turn out to be blank, and the painter defiantly protests, ‘My life is color, form, the shape of things...’ before Terry knocks him down and leaves him lying in a pool of spilled colors that returns us to the abstracts which were shown in detail in the opening shots. It is probably not too deterministic a reading to see Jost as the painter and the blank sheets as the conventional movie which he has refused to provide for audience consumption.

But in between, his narrative not only holds together but unfolds through a fascinating succession of moods as Terry drives about LA, moving from appointment to appointment, from role to role. At one point, at the end of a long sequence in which he seems to be renewing a personal acquaintance on a hilltop some way outside the city, he and his companion go into a brief song and dance (I want to be phony, I want to be fake, not real). The unreality of Los Angeles clearly serves as a prime cause, and natural cradle, for the dreaming of cocaine dreams, and through it Jost even makes contact with a literary source... Terry refers to science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick and comments, “This feller seemed like a casualty straight from his pages.”

- Richard Combs, American Film