Films about film-making – the dark heart of Hollywood

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Christian Bale and Imogen Poots in Terrence Malick's Knight of Cups

Christian Bale and Imogen Poots in Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups

Debauchery, egomanism and narcissism; Getintothis’ Chris Leathley explores how and why so many directors have chosen to make films about film-making.

What drives some filmmakers to engage in reflexive storytelling?

That is, why tell the tale of one’s craft, particularly given that it can be ungenerously perceived as narcissistic, self-involved and pompous? This is the very real risk that ‘film about film’ projects carry with them but the great directors have sought to complete them nonetheless.

Moreover, for the most part, they have attempted to make far more profound statements about life and cinema than simply titillating the audience with lurid exposes of Hollywood debauchery and egomania.

Rather more often, these interrogatory meditations upon the Silver Screen are about philosophies of meaning and representation, concepts which continue to fascinate people well beyond the purview of cinema’s adoring acolytes. Alternatively, other auteurs have produced these movies as a means of trying to unravel the creative process and explain how filmic perspectives can be manufactured so alluringly, so cleverly, so dangerously.

Still more of these unique cinematic exercises are about the traumas, tensions and impossibilities of working successfully in movies. Regardless, all of the finest examples of this category of movie-making reveal something special and important about cinema – its science, its logistics, its aesthetics and its magic.

Indeed, it is justifiable to assert that films about films/filmmaking have been common means by which directors could carefully consider their chosen profession and their wider audience. Cinema of this type regularly fostered quirky takes on life and performance and ways of seeing both. Furthermore, any predisposition towards directing these kinds of films was, at least in part, a reaction to the ‘rules of the game’.

After all, so many people had spent most of their lives believing implicitly that cinema provided them with some sort of truth, objective or otherwise. Ergo, war films could tell them something of conflict. Film Noir could dissect the criminal mind. Erotica could detail our carnal desires and obsessions. Directors in mainstream Hollywood were only too aware of this collective naivety and many positively revelled in this omnipotence over so many eager cineastes.

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A few, however, felt unease about this chicanery and artistic falsehood. Reflexive filmmaking was surely, therefore, about honesty – an attempt by some to clarify the means, process and product that formed the substance of their beloved art form.

No doubt others began these experiments for alternative reasons. There was genuine drama on those sets, colliding egos, helter-skelter schedules and emotional grenades galore, all combining to foster incendiary atmospheres. Who wouldn’t want to make movies about that?

Many a screenwriter recognised that the average plots utilised by Hollywood to such compelling effect, brim full of romance, lust, hatred, rivalry, indulgence and more was clearly present on film sets throughout the globe.

Filmmakers were regular eyewitnesses to the salacious melodrama and fierce creativity of the cinematic purgatory that was their trade. Not surprisingly, they were giddily keen to incorporate aspects of their extraordinary world in yet more celluloid excess, perpetuating an eternal cycle of flamboyant filmic mythology that captivated audiences everywhere.

Moreover, it is also probably accurate to describe these categories of film as onanistic, an orgiastic climax ‘on’ the silver screen ‘about’ the silver screen. Such was the passion, the sheer devotion to their art, that directors expressed their affection and lust for movies with yet more movies.

Equally certain, is the fact that many directors sought to better understand the nature of their pathological needs via the medium itself. Filmmaking often feels like one gigantic, and expensive, therapy session for troubled souls who lacked the insight to comprehend their neuroses but still, perhaps vainly, hoped to unpack them via their chosen means.

More than once in these movies, one senses an overriding feeling of disgust at the business and the art of cinema and, therefore, a healthy amount of self-loathing on the part of filmmakers themselves. As overseers of the means of production, directors were keenly cognisant of the more repellent facets of cinema and were masochistically determined to initiate the unsuspecting filmgoers into the black heart of the matter.

There were also incentives for those directors fascinated by the potential for movie-making as allegory, a vivid parallel to the world around us. Indeed, society could be reduced, in microcosm, to the confines of the film set. Of course, most movies, as they appeared when finished, often had tidy resolutions and behaviours that were far removed from the messy and tangled reality of life.

Not so with film sets during the production itself however – there you found loose ends dangling seductively, stymied aspirations and selfish intransigence, much like life itself. Scratch beneath the celluloid surface, as so many directors were wont to do, and the smooth finesse of cinematic ‘reality’ was tarnished by messy humanity, warts and all.

Perhaps not unreasonably, many saw that this kind of meta-filmmaking held far more capacity for making salient points about our existence than the glitzy bauble of wholly fictional, dramatic escapism.

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Thus, those were the motives for these productions alongside the obvious wish to capture the post-modernist zeitgeist that dominated the Arts in the second half of the Twentieth Century and beyond. For a while at least, there was a novelty to directors tapping into this rich vein of cultural innovation. However, in order to explain these cinematic phenomena fully, we also need to reflect on why audiences were similarly smitten by these deft filmic constructions.

For one thing, our voyeuristic natures were only partially sated by cinematic melodramas. By making the kind of movies that became three dimensional gossip magazines, a shimmering spyglass scanning the celluloid dream factory for the true dirt, people could enjoy a more all-encompassing sense of satisfaction.

Being filmgoers, we liked to watch but all the better when it was real, or at least appeared to be real. The unvarnished actions of actors and crew, with all their rage, bile and libidinous activities on display, were compelling subjects for any audience.

For another, many of these examples contained comic moments or were indeed wholly framed in a comedic context. Casts of egoistic horror-shows were ripe for puncture by merciless directors who took the credo of ‘Make ‘em Laugh’ to heart.

We, the viewers, were all too ready to oblige because, particularly in a more cynical era, we had less appetite for the Hollywood bauble without imperfection. Instead, we were positively voracious in our desire for blunt exposes of pompous, preening divas and lotharios that provided belly laughs for all.  It proved an intolerable temptation to peer behind the rich velour drapes of that elite community and very few proved willing to resist the urge.

Regardless, the real beauty of these reconstructions of film sets in action was that they were still fictions – albeit self-aware and contemplative. We, the filmgoers, will always love their stories, however they are framed.

Reality could still be heightened, motives still exemplified and tedium (as the experience of filmmaking could so often be tedious) could either be excised or utilised for dramatic effect. This made for ribald cinema and fabulous viewing. It didn’t matter that directors had told all these tales many times over, we couldn’t stop watching with goggle eyes and jaws agape.

With all this in mind, here are our top films about films and filmmaking. We know that you will have your own cherished favourites  and look forward to the ensuing debate…

The Bad and the BeautifulDir Vincente Minnelli (1952)

We know that most people’s earliest pick would be Billy Wilder’s magisterial Sunset Boulevard but our selection is equally acid and fiercely intelligent. Minnelli was responsible for some of the great feature films of Hollywood’s golden era.

None share The Bad and the Beautiful’s acerbic bite though. Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner lead a cast steeped in glamour but with a lacerating edge of self-loathing and an ethical vacuum at its rotten heart – a vacuum which is populated by the monstrous Jonathan Shields (played by Douglas), a Hollywood producer with hysterical levels of self-belief. His rise and fall (and potential resurrection?) form the compelling backdrop to this wicked, bitter elegy for a style of big studio cinema and megalomaniacal production doomed by hubris and commercial bottom lines.

Minnelli is certainly intent on forcing the viewer to come to frank terms with the personal capital used (and abused) in the course of a film career but he is not without sympathy for Shields and his aspirations.

There is even a sense that both Minnelli and Douglas are keenly aware that the all-too human flaws in Shields’ character may not be so very far removed from themselves and many of the geniuses of the medium that they had known.

It won a clutch of Oscars and made good box office which proves, as if further proof were needed, that there are ways and means beyond cosy sentiment and rose tinted lenses with which to make a healthy profit in cinema.

Le MeprisDir Jean Luc Godard (1963)

Although Truffaut would later put his stamp on this introspective genre, the first of the Nouvelle Vague luminaries to attempt a film about filmmaking was Jean Luc Godard. Godard’s lacerating take was partly a reflection of upon the deals and compromises that he himself had had to accept in order to make Le Mepris (the producers insisting on the incongruous nudity of Brigitte Bardot for example).

This was a dark meditation on the often catastrophic collision between art and commerce and in creating Le Mepris, Godard chose to lampoon these philistine influences in the person of Jack Palance’s horrendously callow movie mogul. The crass, tasteless interventions of Palance versus the gentle wisdom of Fritz Lang and the naïve aspirations of Michel Piccoli are crushingly depicted.

However, Godard is still able to tell us not just what is repulsive about filmmaking but also what is so captivating. Furthermore, Godard uses the troubling microcosm of marital breakdown as an opportunity to reflect on our own personal and professional compromises.

How much is too much? What is a genuine betrayal? Which concessions are necessary and which deserve our… contempt?

In considering all these questions, Godard still embellishes the film with typical stylistic flourishes, such as changing colour tints, unusual framing of perspective and quirky cameos. This contradicts some of Godard’s earlier baleful commentary as it implies that, beneath it all, Godard is just as in thrall to the medium as the rest of us, flawed or otherwise.

Either way, it is certain that few have produced cinema of such cold finesse and elegance.

Beware of a Holy WhoreDir Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1971)

Bitter as the vile cud, this film was rooted in fact. Much of it drew on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s gruelling experience on the Spanish set of Whity, an earlier film which had not gone well.

It details the grinding horror of a film falling apart due to financial difficulties, petty jealousies and sexual intrigues alongside heroic levels of alcoholic and narcotic excess. As a movie, it takes on a gruesome Grand Guignol quality, revealing every brutal element of the film’s descent into nihilism and apathy.

Perhaps the film’s most admirable quality lies in Fassbinder’s masochistic enthusiasm for taking savage pot-shots at himself (in the guise of a tyrannical director played by Lou Castel). There is no attempt to sugar-coat the movie-making process and Fassbinder makes numerous allusions to the sheer turpitude of life on set.

Like paint-stripper for cinema gloss, Beware of a Holy Whore leaves little (if any) stardust for the viewer. As a director (in)famous for penetrating dissections of bourgeois myths and hypocrisy, Fassbinder brings his ferocious glare to his own profession and the results are just as successful.

Day For NightDir Francois Truffaut (1973)

Francois Truffaut had been a respected critic at Cahiers du Cinema before leading the first vanguard of the Nouvelle Vague and making his name as a filmmaker. By the time he began work on Day For Night, he had already enjoyed a successful career and was therefore well-placed to cast his acerbic eye over his art.

With considerable vivacity and humour, Truffaut sought to depict the highs and lows of cinema throughout a shoot that experiences plenty of both.

Unlike Fassbinder however, the tone of Day For Night is not one-pitched. There is warmth here and a sincere affection for movies that positively shines at various points, most prominently during Truffaut’s dream sequences and through a smorgasbord of cinephile references.

Despite this, Truffaut is not prepared to wholly succumb to nostalgia and utilises his considerable skill in satirising the industry. The film is populated with drunken sots, suave icons, fragile starlets, earnest young rebels and a crew that ranges from consummate professionals to delinquent chancers, all of whom will elicit knowing nods from seasoned audiences.

This cross-section of the cinematic community is inserted into the fictional production with considerable aplomb, delighting the viewer without being overpowered by the self-evident artifice.

Truffaut’s approach appears almost pedagogical, as he curates an exquisite infomercial aimed squarely at a viewer who might fondly imagine what it would be like if they themselves were to try their hand at filmmaking. How you respond to Day For Night, with a cheerful chuckle or stifled gasp, might reveal your capacity to do so.

Stardust MemoriesDir Woody Allen (1980)

As is often the case, the mind fairly boggles at the tepid critical reception that was endured on Stardust Memories’ release in 1980.

To our mind, Woody Allen’s mournful and wry take on an established director’s attempted artistic pivot (from knock-about comedies to gloomy arthouse gulags) is an extraordinary cinematic delight. Stardust Memories, as you’d expect, proves to be a slyly comic perspective on the ludicrous nature of filmmaking and the attenuating celebrity lifestyle.

More fascinating than this though, is Allen’s willingness to combine his laconic commentary with poignant moments of recollection as the protagonist recalls bittersweet experiences of relationships and personal tragedies.

In that sense, the film may suffer from an uneven tone, as we veer from hilarious jabs to delicate periods of emotionally vivid introspection.

Yet, such is Allen’s confidence, his ease of touch and the exquisite grace of the cast that the film carries off every shift in narrative gear with considerable aplomb. Charlotte Rampling and Jessica Harper are worthy of especial praise for their complex and striking performances in difficult roles, performances which bring fathomless depth to a movie that might otherwise have appeared inappropriately trite or indulgent.

He may have made more famous movies with more uniformly positive critical appraisal but to us, this was Allen’s most ambitious and successful work of cinematic art.

The State of ThingsDir Wim Wenders (1982)

Just like Fassbinder and Godard, Wenders turns a weary and dispirited eye to the industry of which he was a key participant. Photographed in ambivalent monochrome, The State of Things tells, by 1982 anyway, a familiar tale of an ambitious film project collapsing under the weight of fiscal disaster and existential trauma. The cast and crew are left to muse witheringly upon the fragility of their artistic goals and material (or indeed, emotional) needs.

Where Wenders is divergent from, say, Fassbinder, is in his decision to allow his protagonist Patrick Bauchau to leave the forlorn shoot and travel to America in search of answers amongst dubious financiers and Mafiosi.

Here Wenders draws a direct contrast between the otherworldly, aesthetic purity of his abortive sci-fi project (astonishingly brought to life in a hypnotic opening sequence) and the bleak, corrupt seedbed from which his movie must spring forth. Wenders is preoccupied with this truism throughout as he considers how much scintillating cinematic art emanates from these treacherous shifting sands.

As the narrative progresses, the audience becomes equally concerned by how films are cultivated and what is required for them to be successfully completed. It is deliberately couched in terms that are referential to American culture.

For example, there are cameos from Samuel Fuller and Roger Corman and the overall mood of the film in the latter stages derives from Wenders’ fascination with authors like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and Wenders would continue this tendency with later marvels like Paris, Texas.

In the final analysis, The State of Things asks us what price a movie and what are we willing to pay? A salient question for all of the Arts and Wenders asks it with considerable potency and grace.

Close-UpDir Abbas Kiarostami (1990)

Abbas Kiarostami was an Iranian filmmaker of acute sensitivity and a rich pathos for personalities and diversity of experience. He was also a director who sought, more than most, to deconstruct the mythology of movies and to entice us all into a discussion of cinema’s power and our own distance/engagement with ‘reality’ (whatever that might prove to be).

To this end, Close-Up reconstructs real events, remarkably with a cast of those individuals who were directly involved in the original circumstances that are the subject of the film.

A devoted fan of a prominent Iranian director decides to pass himself off as his hero. In doing so, he inveigles his way into an affluent Tehran family as he seeks funds for his next venture. The film unravels how these deceptions come to be discovered but, more significantly, Close-Up experiments with how we, the audience, perceive cinematic ‘reality’ and how easily this can be manipulated.

In merging elements of documentary with dramatic fiction, Kiarostami is purposefully seeking to overturn our expectations and assumptions. Furthermore, by utilising those who were actual participants, including the trickster at the heart of the fraud, Kiarostami blurs to an even greater degree our distinctions between ‘truth’ and ‘falsehood’.

One of the many things that makes Close-Up a sensational work of cinema is that it prods the audience into questioning quite deeply concepts of ‘truth’, aesthetic appreciation and whether, objectively, it is possible to find any definitive answers (especially in film).

Motives remain, even when explained open to question, both in terms of the criminal but also in terms of the victims of the fraud and other observers.

The film’s conclusion is powerful but ambiguous as to what will happen next. The cast of characters react in ways which can seem mysterious and can be interpreted in differing hues. In making Close-Up, Kiarostami begins conversations which are both elemental and essential to any more comprehensive appreciation of cinema.

Cecil B DementedDir John Waters (2000)

Films come in all shapes and sizes. John Waters is representative of one unique branch of this cinematic tree, one that wallows unashamedly in trash sensibilities and venerates the transgressive exotica which populates our world if you are only willing to dig beneath the surface. Waters made his name with movies actively seeking to offend the righteous, the prigs and well, just about everybody within the smug social homogeneity of the suburbs.

By the time that he made Cecil B Demented (a non-too subtle exercise in cinematic homage and infantile punnery) Waters was feted as the ultimate cult director.

As a result, he was given a $10 million budget and free creative rein to indulge in a crude, gleeful satire of the movie business whilst still incorporating plenty of lust for the films and filmmakers which Waters admired.

An eclectic cast which included Stephen Dorff, Melanie Griffiths and Maggie Gyllenhaal are game for anything in this story of a gang of lunatic cinephiles who decide to kidnap a Hollywood A-Lister and produce a guerrilla movie beyond even Waters’ wildest dreams.

Cecil B Demented is a reckless exploration of the absurdity of Hollywood pretension and a brutal mockery of celebrity. Not everything works but when Waters hits the target, he conjures up plenty of laughs whilst also making the audience wince at the unpalatable truths unearthed.

It is abundantly clear that Waters relishes the opportunity to prick the balloons of many a Tinseltown egoist and, swept along by his childish energy, we relish it too.

A profane salute to the insanity of filmmaking.

Mulholland DriveDir David Lynch (2001)

Lynch’s examination of Hollywood and the film business was always likely to be completely idiosyncratic and with Mulholland Drive, he does not disappoint.

This movie, and its later companion piece Inland Empire, is part psycho-horror, part pitch black satire. Lynch has his own personal history of Hollywood disaster (the unjustly maligned Dune springs to mind) and the pressures of mainstream success and expectation through the Twin Peaks phenomena.

As such, it seems undeniable that Lynch channelled some of those historic frustrations when manufacturing the bleak and blasphemous universe within which Mulholland Drive resides. There is no adequate way in which to summarise the film’s synopsis, nor is there any necessity.

Suffice to say, it is an opaque ghost train of a movie, snaking its way through multiple realities and identities, all of which have something disturbing to say about performance and the dangerous construction of external and internal worlds.

In fact, Lynch appears to show that the lot of an actor or actress is to deconstruct and reconstruct numerous personas in a manner which, whilst superficially impressive, may well be psychologically destructive.

Beyond this, the central mystery hints at extensive and corrosive power relationships. Lynch’s exposure of these could just as easily be seen as a full frontal assault on Hollywood’s narcissistic excess and the invidious paymasters behind the glittering façade.

Regardless of the ‘true’ meaning of Mulholland Drive, Lynch is more than willing to turn over his work to us and ask what we make of cinematic storytelling now. In his cinematic world, all our fictions, dark or otherwise, can come hideously true.

A Cock and Bull StoryDir Michael Winterbottom (2005)

This galloping comedic juggernaut twists the malleable text at its heart (Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy) into an intelligent, sardonic post-modern masterpiece.

Made by Michael Winterbottom with an outstanding cast, including Steve Coogan, Gillian Anderson and Keeley Hawes, we are treated to a consideration of both film and literature.  Not only do we enter the text and consider the characters therein to be our ‘reality’, we also get a further omniscient perspective of the mechanics of filmmaking and the difficulties in bringing a production to full fruition.

As the film develops, the lives of the literary character and the modern-day actor become ever more intertwined as the neuroses and dysfunction of Tristram Shandy manifest themselves within Steve Coogan the actor.

A Cock and Bull Story thus becomes a wonderfully playful attempt to translate an impossible-to-adapt novel to the screen. Similarly, it also allows the viewer to indulge in a stimulating investigation of the stories which we give birth to and how we achieve this.

In that sense, this movie interrogates our realities, both those imposed upon us alongside those that we choose to impose upon ourselves and others. Rarely in the history of British cinema has there been a more humorous and intellectually provocative consideration of what it means to make films.

Tropic ThunderDir Ben Stiller (2008)

If we believed in guilty pleasures, this would be it. As it is, we don’t, and our affection for this loud, brash spoof is absolute.

It is reminiscent of flamboyant comedy classics of yesteryear (Airplane would certainly be one touchstone) but contains a good deal more bite, its teeth no doubt sharpened by the experiences of the cast within the mainstream hurly-burly. Stiller delivers a bold takedown of the typical ‘blockbuster’ that so often dominates our cinema screens.

There are crude jokes a-plenty but Tropic Thunder has value beyond this. Tom Cruise’s unrecognisable (and utterly demoniacal) producer, a deliciously OTT Robert Downey Jr as a star in the midst of an identity crisis and various other deft performances all help ensure that the laughs keep coming.

Yet amidst the comic hysteria, there are sly digs at various facets of modern cinematic culture, from franchise mania to the shallow merchandising that is so predominant nowadays.

Moreover, from incompetent novice directors and malevolent financiers through to pouting boy-child actors and clueless stunt co-ordinators, Stiller takes a machine gun to Hollywood. No quarter is given and no sacred cow is spared an inglorious death. Sledgehammer satire it might be but it utterly smashes the mark.

Knight of CupsDir Terrence Malick (2015)

A film that was greeted by decidedly mixed reviews on release this is at first glance, an overly slick arthouse take on a pampered screenwriter’s gilded life in LA.

Audiences struggled to sympathise with a character (played by Christian Bale) that is wealthy, attractive and creatively successful yet seemingly beset by an existential crisis over a lack of meaning in his life.

However, if one can sidestep this ‘empathy gap’, the viewer can find plenty of depth and subtlety within this film. Malick cleverly interweaves sacred music, utopian texts and profane excess in order to viscerally illustrate just how vacuous Bale’s existence has become and just how hopeless his search for spiritual meaning is, if he stays as an inhabitant within this tawdry domain.

As if doubling down on this vivid contrast, Malick encourages the viewer not just to despise the extraordinarily empty LA high life but also, more challengingly, to think upon how far the senseless consumption on display is reminiscent of our own facile embrace of celebrity lifestyle.

Our hopes for, and adoration of, the jet set acting elite are writ large in neon letters across our media and our society.

Surely then, Malick, who is rightly perceived as a director obsessed with spiritual and philosophical matters, is trying to draw elegant attention not just to the hollowness of moviemaking but to that of our own lives too.

In making Knight of Cups, Malick is utilising all the skills at his disposal to show us that no matter what our worldly successes may be, our search for meaning is both universal and all-consuming.

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