As ever, I’ve let my month of focusing on films about filmmaking peter out somewhat, but hello! Still here! I promised you a list and so a list I shall provide. (Thankfully, Wikipedia has its own useful list to jog my ever ineffectual memory.)
Of course, I should say a few words about the category. First off, these aren’t just films set in the world of filmmaking, of which there are plenty. In fact, at least one of the below isn’t even set in that world. No, these are films that engage with the issues around filmmaking, whether at the technical level or at a deeper more inchoate level of what it is to create a work of art, and all the moral and ethical issues this may involve, when you’re collaborating with and manipulating characters and lives (whether real or fictional).
What are your favourites? Do feel free to let me know!
In any case, here are mine:
Nema-ye Nazdik (Close-Up, 1990) There’s a strong strain of reflexivity about filmmaking that runs through a lot of the films to have come out of Iran since the 1980s. I might here mention Jafar Panahi’s Ayneh (The Mirror, 1997), which ostensibly begins like his big break-out arthouse hit of a few years before, Badkonake Sefid (The White Balloon, 1995), with a young girl on a quest, before the child actor throws a strop and walks away from the filming, and it swiftly becomes about Panahi’s own practice. There’s also Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Nun va Goldoon (A Moment of Innocence, 1995), in which he revisits a pivotal event from his youth but in such a way as to cast a light on the nature of representation on film. However, arguably the greatest of all Iranian films and — as its appearance here may suggest — one of the great self-reflexive films, is this pseudo-documentary by renowned auteur Abbas Kiarostami, made with his colleague Makhmalbaf. It’s starts off with a young man impersonating Makhmalbaf (though looking at the screenshots in retrospect, he could as well be an Ahmadinejad impersonator) to gain access to a rich family’s home, but again deals with the way that events become manipulated and changed by the presence of the camera in all kinds of fascinating and subtle ways.
Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963) Taking a different approach is this film of Godard’s (which I’ve already reviewed). It’s a beautifully shimmering modernist fantasia set in Italy, in which various different modes of film production come up against one another, and in which a couple’s relationship is refracted through the politics of filmmaking, in a typically sly and allusive way by Godard.
Showgirls (1995) I know this film has come in for a lot of derision over the years, and that it’s not even set in the film world, but it must surely count as one of the most caustic portrayals of showbusiness put down on film — and by extension, the kind of Hollywood filmmaking director Paul Verhoeven had been involved in for the past decade or so. It’s about young ingenues who come to the big city with a big dream, and the way in which that dream is brutally crushed and degraded into something ugly and exploitative. The acting is of course hammy in the extreme, but I’m not convinced that it was ever intended to be otherwise. Like the director’s subsequent Starship Troopers (1997), it takes the form of an Aaron Spelling TV soap opera of the era, with all the glossy production values you might expect (and some gloriously baroque widescreen cinematography), but filters it through industrial levels of toxic nastiness, including plenty of unsettling misogyny (which may partly derive from the Joe Eszterhas script, though it’s no less than you’d expect given the setting). However, I don’t think it’s excessive to see all that as part of the moribund culture the film is getting at, where everything and everyone is just an object to be manipulated. It is, needless to say, no feel-good movie, however it may have been repackaged since.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952) Another film I recently reviewed, but I’m pretty sure everyone knows this Hollywood classic. It does song and it does dance, and beneath it all it gives us a hint at how a film is put together, albeit in a glitzy and twinkly-toed way that effaces every bit as much as it enlightens.
Irma Vep (1996) This French film by director and former film critic Olivier Assayas sets itself in the rarefied milieu of French arthouse filmmaking, with a grumpy, reclusive auteur (the iconic Jean-Pierre Léaud) putting together a remake of a silent film serial, Les Vampires (1915), with a Hong Kong film star. This may all make it sound like the most airless bit of tedium, but by focusing on the role of Irma Vep and the actor Maggie Cheung, wrapping into the story her own baggage as a leading lady of Hong Kong action filmmaking, it becomes (for me at least) a delightful love letter to the cinema, to the kineticism of Hong Kong’s 1990s film industry, and to the dreams they inspire. It’s also got a great soundtrack.
And here also are a few honourable mentions, because I have the feeling they’re underappreciated:
A Cock and Bull Story (2005) Director Michael Winterbottom has collaborated with actor Steve Coogan many times, but this one is many ways the most delightful, being both a literary adaptation and a film about putting a literary adaptation on film, with Coogan being as amusingly self-deprecatory as he’s ever been.
Où gît votre sourire enfoui? (Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, 2001) Documentaries about filmmakers that reveal their practice may show up as a bonus feature on every DVD of the past 10 years, but most are filler and fodder of the most disposable kind. However, there are a few films that deserve to rank up here, and many of them were made as part of the French TV series Cinéstes de notre temps, many of them strong works that stand up to viewing in a cinema. I reviewed this one about Pedro Costa recently, but one could also look to Chris Marker’s film about Andrei Tarkovsky Une journée d’Andrei Arsenevitch (One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich, 1999), or to Claire Denis’s Jacques Rivette, le veilleur (1990), amongst others. These are just some of the ones I’ve seen, and all are excellent. Speaking of Marker, and although not made for this series, his film about Russian silent filmmaker Aleksandr Medvedkin, Le Tombeau d’Alexandre (The Last Bolshevik, 1992) is also a fantastic documentary, with Marker’s lightly allusive and playful touch all over it.
Stories We Tell (2012) One of my favourite films I saw last year, actor/director Sarah Polley’s film about her family is ostensibly a personal memoir film (another subgenre of filmmaking), but as her family are actors, it has a lot of thoughtful ideas about the way personal history can be represented on screen. As a result it moves far beyond being ‘merely’ a documentary to a sort of meta-text about what it means to make a documentary. Or something like that. In any case, I can recommend it.
Gods and Monsters (1998) Finally, this story of the making of James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) has Ian McKellen as the gay filmmaker, and Brendan Fraser as his muse, and it’s all very enjoyably put together.