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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.


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.


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?


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.


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.

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