MOVIES ABOUT MOVIES
Movies about movies
Along with honoring Jacqueline Bisset with its Lifetime Achievement Award, the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival features two of her films: Day for Night (1973) and The Last Film Festival (which was shot in 2009 but only recently finished postproduction and is just now being released). In addition to Bisset’s considerable talents, both of these movies offer a behind-the-curtain look at filmmaking. In the decades between them, Hollywood and independent producers have roasted and celebrated their own efforts many times over. While Bisset’s films are the only entries in this meta-genre playing at the festival, here’s a look at them alongside a few other selfreferential movies that are available to stream online or at your local independent video store.
HOW THE SAUSAGE IS MADE
Day for Night ,or La nuit Americaine, as the French title goes, is François Truffaut’s love letter to the art of moviemaking, with an excellent ensemble cast playing actors, producers, and other film folk going about their work on a shoot in Nice. Bisset plays Julie, who plays the title role in the fictional film Meet Pamela — the English wife of a young Frenchman ( Jean-Pierre Léaud) who falls for her father-in-law, portrayed with reserved panache by Jean-Pierre Aumont. Truffaut plays the director, who spends most of his time resolving logistical problems and wrangling various personalities. Dream sequences suggest that a deep love of the medium makes it all worthwhile, though, and the director’s enthusiasm and determination are shared by most of the ensemble. They fall in and out of love, fight, break up, swipe props from the hotel where they’re staying, and re-shoot constantly, but all seem to operate with unwavering belief in the value of the final product. Nathalie Baye, playing a script supervisor, sums it up: “I’d dump a guy for a film but never a film for a guy!” A more jaded picture of filmmaking shows up in
State and Main, David Mamet’s 2000 skewering of the craft and those who practice it. William H. Macy is the director of a production that descends upon a small Vermont town because it is said to have an old mill (it doesn’t) and because it isn’t New Hampshire, where the crew got into some trouble (surprise — it happens again). Alec Baldwin and Sarah Jessica Parker are the self-involved headliners, Philip Seymour Hoffman is a soft-spoken playwright, and Rebecca Pidgeon is his love interest, a local who isn’t spoiled and cynical like so many of the crew members. State and
Main isn’t among the director’s best films. The pointy Mamet witticisms are sprinkled with boorish jokes about gays and Jews that may be intended to unmask Hollywood attitudes but aren’t particularly funny. The opportunity to milk humor from the culture clash between the small-town New Englanders and the Tinseltown set is mostly squandered, and the Hoffman-Pidgeon romance is a bit silly. But the cast is better than the material — in particular, Baldwin and Clark Gregg, as a resentful local attorney — and there is a clever visual joke that shows how the filmmakers manage to work product placement for an internet business into a film set in the 19th century.
WRITERS ON THE STORM
In between Miller’s Crossing and The Hudsucker Proxy, Joel and Ethan Coen brought the world the peculiar 1991 movie Barton Fink, the tale of a New York playwright ( John Turturro) who has written a critically admired play about fishmongers and been lured to Hollywood, where his imagination and his typewriter promptly seize up. His neighbor ( John Goodman) claims to be a traveling insurance salesman and offers to regale Fink with tales of his exploits on the road. Fink should listen — he yammers on about creating “a new living theater, of and for and about the common man” — but he doesn’t. Instead, he seeks guidance from a respected literary figure who, he discovers, has
teetered into the abyss of alcoholism. The Faulkner-esque W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney in tragicomic mode) embodies the lost dreams and spiritual demise of those with literary ambitions who get ensnared by Hollywood, telling him, “All of us undomesticated writers eventually make our way out here to the Great Salt Lake.” Fink’s hotel room becomes a prison as he battles the blank page, willing the words to appear, which they stubbornly refuse to do. It’s a strange movie, and like many of the Coens’ works, it evolves into the filmic exposition of an operatic interior struggle.
Barton Fink is set during World War II, a choice that was perhaps made in order to draw on the period’s aesthetic nuances and sociopolitical atmosphere. The Coens seem to be fascinated with the golden age of Hollywood. They returned to it in 2016 with a lighter touch for the snarky and hilarious
Hail, Caesar! Like so many movies about movies, Hail, Caesar! is worth seeing just for the clips of made-up films — in this case, spoofs of popular genre pictures such as musicals and the surprisingly enduring gladiator epic. Ben-Hur remake, anyone?
LIFE IMITATES ART IMITATING LIFE
In the field of writer’s-block cinema, Barton Fink shares the crown with Adaptation, the 2002 reality-warping semiautobiographical story of Charlie Kaufman’s attempt to create a screenplay from Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief. The real-life writer of Being John
Malkovich is played by Nicolas Cage, as is Kaufman’s fictional brother Donald. One of the funniest moments comes in the first few minutes, in which the writer, after hacking out the better part of a paragraph, begins to ponder whether it’s time yet to reward himself with a muffin. Meryl Streep is spectacular as the intrepid Orlean, and Chris Cooper perfectly inhabits the role of the lovably louche orchid-hunting subject of her book. As the movie proceeds, the story begins to incorporate filmic tropes and devices that Charlie professes to despise — car chases and so forth — as though his life is turning into a movie.
But then, what happens in pictures doesn’t always stay in pictures. Nowhere is this more true than in The
Purple Rose of Cairo, Woody Allen’s 1985 meta-comedy about a downtrodden waitress named Cecilia (Mia Farrow), who loses herself in a state of transcendent reverie at the neighborhood movie house. During Cecilia’s fifth viewing of the escapist trifle referenced in Allen’s title, one of the characters ( Jeff Daniels) notices her in the audience, steps off the screen, and strikes up a conversation, offering a new twist on the term “talkie.” In a collision that seems like it would threaten the space-time continuum, the actor who plays the character (also Daniels, natch) shows up on behalf of the studio to persuade his character to return to the screen, and the two compete for Cecilia’s affections. The script asks us to consider whether we prefer the perfection of fantasy to the messiness of reality, which is a tough choice. At least it asks nicely.
Robert Altman’s 1992 mystery The Player, based on the book by Michael Tolkin, also centers on a deteriorating boundary between cinema and reality. Tim Robbins is a fast-talking Hollywood exec who hears pitches from writers day-in, day-out. (“It’s Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman .”“Ghost meets Manchurian
Candidate.”) He begins receiving death threats via postcards from a spurned writer, resolves to straighten things out with the guy, and botches that, and then everything spirals out of control. What’s happening begins to seem almost like something out of a movie. It’s a typical Altman production in that the camera tends to wander through crowds, allowing us to catch the clever dialogue as though eavesdropping (“Art movies don’t count; I’m talking about movie movies”). The plot is like a present that unwraps itself as you go along.
The Player also offers a sort of “Where’s Waldo?” game in reverse — the challenge isn’t finding the familiar faces, it’s identifying them before they go off-camera. The entire thing is stuffed to the gills with A-list actors and directors, most appearing as themselves, a few playing along with Robbins and company in fictional roles. Peruse the credits for those you missed.
THE NATIVES ARE FESTIVE
If Mamet pesters Hollywood with a squirt gun in State and Main, Christopher Guest unleashes a fire hose on it — with as much precision — in For Your Consideration ,a 2006 production in which his usually deadpan style of humor gets turned up to 11. The legion of recurring Guest stars is here, with Catherine O’Hara heading them as an actress who attracts Oscar buzz for her role in Home for Purim. A suit from the studio (Ricky Gervais) shows up with a suggestion to widen the appeal of the film: “The Jewishness, let’s tone that down.” So it becomes Home for
Thanksgiving. O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Jennifer Coolidge, and others yuk it up, with Fred Willard leading the lunacy as the faux-hawked co-host of a fluffy entertainment-news show called Hollywood Now (his partner is Jane Lynch). For Your Consideration is over the top, but it is howlingly hilarious at times. It helps that it features more amusing fake films: Pride of Plymouth Rock, Whispers in the Attic, and Dream Alley.
Which brings us to The Last Film Festival, about the only festival that will accept in competition a movie called Barium Enigma. It’s fitting that this is Hopper’s final appearance — despite a smattering of mainstream roles, including frequent TV appearances in the 1950s and ’60s, he was the archetypal outlaw actor, gracing raw, edgy productions from Easy Rider to Apocalypse Now to Blue Velvet and beyond. The Last Film Festival grew out of a conversation between Hopper and director Linda Yellen, in which the two of them imagined the worst festival in the world. The film gives us that event, set in the small town of O’Hi — that’s in Ohio, not California. Chris Kattan plays the festival director, who’s also the town’s undertaker; Bisset is an Italian starlet flown in to give the proceedings a dose of glamor. The madcap humor provided by the ensemble cast brings to mind the chaos of Altman’s and Guest’s movies, and there are in-jokes aplenty for film buffs to unearth.
Among these is a reference to the hardworking but seldom-recognized director Alan Smithee. If you didn’t have to look him up, advance to the head of the class.
Like so many movies about movies, Hail, Caesar! is worth seeing just for the clips of made-up films — in this case, spoofs of popular genre pictures such as musicals and the surprisingly enduring gladiator epic.