1,000th Post Celebration – Minty’s Favourite Movies About Movies
It doesn’t seem that long ago we were celebrating the 800th post now does it? Curiously that has proved to be one of my most successful articles web-search wise, I can only assume there are a few film noir student papers out there with some discreet cribbing. So after six and a half years I breach my first millennium, a distant dream back in those halcyon days of 2006, with several movie seasons and festivals notched on the celluloid bedpost as we enter a hopefully lucky seventh year of posting. I’ve toyed with a few themes for this landmark entry but it just seemed appropriate to go a little ‘meta’ if you’ll excuse the phrase, and take a look at the more successful and entertaining movies about movies which have entertained us cinephiles over the years.
It crossed my mind to include the likes of Hearts Of Darkness or Burden of Dreams (although after recent revelations that certainly takes on another distressing dimension) but then it struck me that would be cheating as they are non-fiction of course, and such a selection would be better served by a full list of the best film documentaries which might just feature in a future article. So as always these are my personal favourites that I enjoy revisiting from time to time, conspicuous by their omission are probably the likes of 8½, Peeping Tom, Adaptation, Man Bites Dog, Synedoche New York and Irma Vep but they just don’t grab me as much as these films do, give it a few years and a couple more digestions and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Berberian Sound Studio nervously creep onto this list. But for now let’s fire up the projector and dim the lights, and begin this odyssey back in the Cold War paranoid American mid-west;
Matinee (Dante, 1993) – For a celebration of the sheer, unadulterated childish glee of the pictures then you can’t get much better than Joe Dante’s reminiscence themed paen to the movie-going experience of his youth. Fusing on the wider nuclear paranoia of the early Sixties Dante also welds together a nostalgic nod to monster movies, supplying John Goodman with his first Hollywood Huckster role (in a thinly veiled parody of William Castle) which he has now supplanted with recent turns as a cigar chomping suit occupying various positions of the Hollywood totem pole in both The Artist and Argo. Like the ‘B’ movies it venerates Matinee is bright, breezy and deliriously cheesy, with a hilariously pulsing movie within a movie – the ideal way to begin our plunge into this hall of mirrors.
King Kong (Merian C. Cooper, 1933) – Before the nervosa of the bomb and our hubristic tamperings with the infinitesimal power of the atom the movies could subconsciously ponder illuminate other fears, with arrogant filmmaker Carl Denham venturing into increasingly uncharted and perilous territory like some buffoonish Victorian imperialist (memo to colleagues, if anyone offers you an expedition to a remote peninsula named ‘Skull Island’ it’s probably best for your health to decline)in order to film his most ambitious animal themed magnum opus yet. The beautiful porcelain figure of Fay Wray, a petite vision of polite society awakens some dormant undercurrents lurking on the island, and the shrieking figurine of purity is soon threatened and seduced by the savage, monstrous dark ‘other’ – it’s not difficult to spy the metaphors now is it? So let’s see, an immigrant brought to America in chains, threatening our womenfolk and ravishing our cities, literally ascending and conquering an iconic landscape of the city in the final scenes before the obligatory ‘happy’ ending and the renewal of the status quo eh? With Willis O’Brien’s painstaking SFX which inspired a youthful Ray Harryhausen a cycle of movies was set in motion which still yields shock and awe in the Blockbusters of today – there’s even another Godzilla on the way – the scenes was set for subsequent segregated generations fascinated with visions of the gargantuanly allegoric, the fantastic and unreal, and this still remains the king of the monster movies.
The Bad & The Beautiful (Minnelli, 1952) – Something a little more acid tongued next, although Kirk Douglas monstrous producer is no less a brute than a thirty-foot, twenty-ton horny silverback gorilla. Told with an unusual framing device that you very rarely see these days The Bad & The BEautiful is the silver age rise and fall of the archetypal egocentric Hollywood producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) as seen through the eyes of three of his core companions and victims, his early director partner Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), the budding young starlet Georgia Lawrenson(Lana Turner) and his trophy wife Rosemary (Gloria Grahame), representing all the food groups of a voracious, power mad producing tyrant. This is fascinating albeit fictional take on the industry in the twilight of the studio system, exactly when independent producers were arising to challenge the hegemony of Paramount and Warner Brothers, MGM and Columbia, and it’s just a fun rollercoaster ride on that age-old tale, the immortal price of selling your soul for paralysing prestige and power.
The Last Movie (Hopper, 1969) – Delirious, chaotic, nonsensical and fevered, Dennis Hopper’s destructive directorial sequel to Easy Rider effectively derailed his career for years, but now seems like a self referential harbinger of things to come. With the herculean rails of prime pink Columbian flake and the carafes of mind bending rum, tequila, LSD and peyote drifting over this production any dreams of coherent brilliance were narcotically numbed, but as an artifact of cinema sputtering down the Lewis Carol rabbit hole this wins a prize for pandemonium. What’s the film about? What’s is saying? Who fucking cares, it’s the sheer joy of fiction and non-fiction shimmering into one at the purlieus of the frame which make this so fascinating, and like the backstory of legendary productions such as Apocalypse Now or Fitzcaraldo the story of the movies insane genesis and evolution is as fascinating as the film itself.
Mullholland Drive (Lynch, 2001) – The road to stardom curls through this nightmare avenue, the skyline twinkling as David Thomson memorably phrased it as a ‘black velvet drape scattered with diamonds’. I’ve written fairly extensively on Lynch’s masterpiece recently but it is worth considering the Hollywood meta-narrative in more detail, as the place where dreams are realised and birthed yet also go to die, the primordial stars fall from grace which can be charted back to the decadent ebb of Florence Lawrence, Fatty Arbuckle or Lupe Vélez as well as the fictional Rita and her imaginary symbiotic lover, her tragic phantom, her dreams crushed by the voracious machinery of Tinseltown – they don’t make ’em like they used to…..
Day For Night (Truffaut, 1973) – As well as setting off a parcel of celluloid dynamite under the staid and stuffy situation of filmmaking in the late 1950’s the nouvelle vague were also responsible for injecting a self referential glee in many of their films, exploding the staid conventions of editing rhythms, formal narratives and exhausted plot structures, holding a mirror at a 90 angle to reflect and refract the notions of cinema back onto the audience and the screen. This is a rarity, a picture that really delves into the nuts and bolts of filmmaking – lab accidents, producers slashing budgets and timeframes, uncooperative animals, broken lenses, feuding and fucking co-stars – the actual physical shoot rather than the trappings of the wider industry, the pre-production or editing or marketing phases of a movies long gestation. I could have easily selected Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou or Le Mepris but I have to opt for Truffaut as a purely personal preference, he’s a warmer, more humanist filmmaker and Day For Night is as much a romance as a celebration of the movies, just be sure by all that’s good and holy that if you track this down you get the original French language version, the dubbed version is absolutely atrocious.
Duck Amuck (Chuck Jones, 1953) – Anyone who doesn’t find the golden age Warner Brothers cartoons hilariously wonderful and innovatively inventive are fools, never forget that. Humor is a very subjective beast, and for me it’s quite rare for anything so ancient to be genuinely hilarious (well, Chaplin and Keaton have their moments, I always liked Harold Lloyd and of course Laurel & Hardy are terrific but I digress) but give me one example of a similarly chaotic concoction or ingenious immolation in the Disney of MGM canon and I’ll eat my shoe. Here’s a terrific documentary on Chuck Jones, a bona fide comedic genius, this is where the real wonder of Pixar began in the twinkle of John Lassiter, Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich and Pete Docter really began….
Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954) – Another picture I’ve flogged to death but it must be included in this list, this is the pinnacle of voyeurism, the ultimate inquisition into the art of seeing, with Jimmy Stewart as the audience and the apartment blocks abutting his theatre a microcosm of cinema this slaughters the self-referential likes of Holy Motors as for me as it actually bothers to also include a story, a plot, y’know a goddamn narrative, with some emotional connection to both Jeff’s inquisitive quest and his spiraling romance with the goddess Grace Kelly. Name me another thriller which confines its hero to a wheelchair yet remains so gripping?
Ed Wood (Burton, 1995) – It’s rare to see a film earn its black & white photography, Schindler’s List of course employed the technique to mournful effect and perhaps the only other appropriate deployment of the chiaroscuro format was Dead Man and Ed Wood in the nineties. This love letter to the worst film director in history makes perfect sense when appraised a decade or two later, Tim Burton’s seizing upon a core element of the filmmaking experience which has been sadly absent from his work over the past or so, that you simply must have a genuine affection, a fascination or obsession with the characters and story you’re invoking if you really wish to set the screen ablaze. Depp is excellent and mostly in control of the hyperactive gurning before he was permitted to indulge in his cartoonish, tedious parodies, and it was also great to see the authoritative G.D. Spradlin as the Mormon reverend, providing Bill Murray with his funniest line reading of the film. A small quiet corner of forgotten film fandom Ed Wood, remains macabre and moving.
Sunset Boulevard – (Wilder, 1950) – And we end on the greatest movie about the movies, back in 1989 I acquired my first ever film guide (the Time Out incarnation if you must know) and the description in that guide of this movie has been indelibly etched in my brain – Hollywood as an old, dark, haunted house. Billy Wilder and his screenwriters Leigh Bracket decomposing narration of William Holden’s desperate screenwriter sets the sour tone and pace, his shacking up with the deluded and forgotten Norma Desmond (played with consummate, operatic glee by silent movie star Gloria Swanson) this is a cineastes delight from start to finish. Fuck Tarantino and hs references, what other film contains cameos of Buster Keaton, Cecil B DeMille, the all-powerful movie columnist Hedda Hopper, and then also throws in Erich von Stroheim as the first example of executive wielded directorial interference and destruction, the monocle and riding crop exemplar tyrant now reduced to a lowly chauffeur, still serving the goddess whose star has fallen far and burned bright from the film firmament. It’s a flawless film from the ink-stained photography and numerous classic barbed wire scenes, like a thematic ancestor to Rita in Mulholland Drive if she succeeded in her drive for prestige and glory Norma Desmond is frozen in a timeless, amber-emulsified fugue, and although the budgets, the imaginative grip and stature of the pictures did indeed diminish the glory days of old will never totally fade, trapped in the Möbius strip of the movies.