It’s not that I don’t appreciate what Fellini is aiming for here — portrait of the artist as a narcissist with mother issues, one of his abiding themes — it’s just that there’s so much whirl and spectacle that I find it difficult to keep up with why I should care about Marcello Mastroianni’s Guido and his many women (and memories of women, and fantasies of women). I’ve apparently seen this film before but I don’t remember it at all, not that I’m holding up this response as any kind of proof of anything. It’s undoubtedly a well-made film which does all those reflexive filmic things (he plays a film director) that critics love when compiling their all-time lists, and the cinematography by Gianni Di Venanzo is fantastic. I just struggle to find what’s in it that I can connect with. To each their own.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Federico Fellini | Writers Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli and Brunello Rondi | Cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo | Starring Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimée, Sandra Milo | Length 138 minutes || Seen at Rialto, Wellington, Tuesday 31 October 2000 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 15 January 2017)
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.
There are many types of filmmaking, and television advertising is one more. This is a film that finds common ground between filmmaking and political change, via the medium of television and the language of advertising.
FILM REVIEW: ‘Films about Filmmaking’ Theme || Director Pablo Larraín | Writer Pedro Peirano (based on the play El plebiscito by Antonio Skármeta) | Cinematographer Sergio Armstrong | Starring Gael García Bernal | Length 118 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 24 January 2014 || My Rating very good
As a story from his own country’s recent history, ostensibly this film by Chilean director Pablo Larraín is about the democratic overthrow of dictator General Augusto Pinochet in 1988, following 15 years of his rule, since he seized power from the left-wing Salvador Allende in a coup aided by the United States. However, it’s not really straight history, and it deftly manages to wrap in a commentary on the importance of television and the power of advertising, not to mention being a human drama about one man in the centre of this movement for change.
Among the more lauded Hollywood films that takes filmmaking as its subject is this classic musical, which casts a wry look back at the transition from silent to sound film. It’s not exactly the most accurate about how a film is made, but it includes some nice period detail nonetheless.
FILM REVIEW: ‘Films about Filmmaking’ Theme || Directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen | Writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green | Cinematographer Harold Rosson | Starring Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, Jean Hagen | Length 98 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 8 February 2014 || My Rating a must-see
I’m sitting here in front of a blank computer screen wondering what there is, usefully, that I can write about this film, which as far as musicals from (and indeed, about) the Golden Age of Hollywood go is surely as classic as they come. If you haven’t already seen it then you’re missing out, and moreover you probably know perfectly well that you’re missing out and intend to rectify that at some point. Which is just as well, because even after all this time it remains a delightful motion picture, thanks in no small part to Gene Kelly’s athletic hoofing (a quaint term for dancing which appropriately puts the focus on footwork), the spry Comden & Green songs, and its self-referential story set in Hollywood’s own (at this point, relatively recent) history.
This is another documentary which deals with the practice of filmmaking, but where Side by Side was expository, this is more a work of filmed criticism, the engagement of fans with the film medium and its creators.
FILM REVIEW: ‘Films about Filmmaking’ Theme || Director Rodney Ascher | Length 102 minutes | Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 12 January 2014 || My Rating good
Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining is, I think, a brilliant work, and have reviewed it as such on this very site. But I never would have suspected such levels of careful consideration as Room 237 presents. I suppose it’s a documentary, or maybe a work of filmed film criticism, yet if I’m not sure the information it presents is always believable, or amounts to much in the way of genuine critical insight, it’s certainly interesting.
The film takes the form of a series of clips, mainly of course from the Kubrick original, as well as archival footage, still photographs, and clips from other movies, to illustrate the arguments of a number of (unseen) contributors who each has their own interpretation of Kubrick’s film. All are, of course, enjoyable and well presented — they’d scarcely make it into a film otherwise — but they certainly run the gamut of believability. Most notably, one is insistent that it’s a coded story about the genocide of Native Americans, based entirely it seems on the placement of a particular brand of corned beef can in a couple of scenes set in the walk-in freezer. Another does a similar job linking The Shining to the Holocaust (something about the number 42; it’s all pretty shaky). And then of course there’s the faking of the Apollo moon landings, which Kubrick was obviously behind, and it’s all proved here.
It may be that I’m rather shoehorning this new Claire Denis film into my themed month. It’s certainly not about filmmakers in a traditional sense, but there’s an element of it that recalls, say, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom in dealing with a nasty fringe of exploitational filmmaking, not intended for public consumption.
ADVANCE SCREENING FILM REVIEW || Director Claire Denis | Writers Jean-Pol Fargeau and Claire Denis | Cinematographer Agnès Godard | Starring Vincent Lindon, Chiara Mastroianni, Lola Créton, Michel Subor | Length 100 minutes | Seen at Hackney Picturehouse, London, Wednesday 5 February 2014 || My Rating very good
At some level this new film by French director Claire Denis is an hommage to film noir, that famous Hollywood style of filming crime dramas in the 1940s and 1950s which emphasised the characters’ sexuality just as it muddied its contrasty black-and-white filming with shades of moral grey. Bastards is not filmed in monochrome, but there’s plenty of darkness through which the characters drag themselves, as if hinting at barely-suppressed pools of torment. There’s a crime at its heart, too, but that takes some time to come to light. It also touches on themes familiar from Denis’ other films, a compact yet wonderful body of work of which this is a further facet.
Also a documentary, this feature about the impact of digital technology on filmmaking is far more straightforward in the way it presents both sides of its argument, while also being passionate about the medium.
FILM REVIEW: ‘Films about Filmmaking’ Theme || Director Christopher Kenneally | Cinematographers Chris Cassidy | Starring Keanu Reeves | Length 98 minutes | Seen at home (TV), London, Monday 13 January 2014 || My Rating good
After recently seeing the subtle and mysterious Où gît votre sourire enfoui? (Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, 2001), with its investigation into the play of light and the art of editing a film, watching Side by Side feels decidedly prosaic (not to mention mainstream). It’s a straightforward series of talking heads addressing the question of the impact of digital technology on modern filmmaking, though it has the sense not to weigh in on either side, and it even makes some reference to lower-budget indie cinema, though largely as a paving stone towards digital’s adoption by the big boys. Thanks to the involvement of star Keanu Reeves (who does the voiceover, and is seen on screen as the interviewer), a wide range of heavyweight personalities behind the camera have got involved, with many directors, writers, editors and of course cinematographers, and hearing their opinions on the subject is the chief reason for watching this documentary.
For this first review in my themed month, I’ve chosen a documentary, the most straightforward way to deal with the art of filmmaking. Needless to say this one by Portuguese director Pedro Costa is hardly straightforward and instead presents an elegiac look at a vanishing art, filled as much with darkness as light in its depiction of two avant-garde filmmakers at work.
SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: ‘Films about Filmmaking’ Theme || Director Pedro Costa | Cinematographers Pedro Costa and Jeanne Lapoirie | Starring Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet | Length 104 minutes | Seen at Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, Thursday 9 January 2014 || My Rating excellent
The majority of my reviews on this blog are of mainstream releases, and I can’t really pretend that the reviews for films I get around to seeing on the arid and obscure nether reaches of auteurist ephemera ever really garner much in the way of readership. Yet growing up in New Zealand there were few destinations to see decent films, so my tastes soon got shaped by the programming at the annual film festival and by my local video shop (Aro Street), and then of course I studied film at university. So I still get a thrill watching stuff that in our digital download age remains properly hard to come by, made by filmmakers with little regard for the norms of narrative cinema or apparent interest in the capricious tastes of audiences. The filmmaking team of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet are figures from a past generation of cineastes that spring most easily to mind in this respect, just as Pedro Costa can be numbered among a more updated, modern strand of the same kind of cinematic mentality (though their methods are quite different). So this documentary made by the latter about the former, for an excellent French TV series called Cinéastes de notre temps (therefore not entirely obscure), was already fascinating to me, and seeing it in a cinema with the director present and a full audience reminds me that the cinema exemplified by Straub/Huillet and Costa need not to be quite so abstracted and rarefied a pleasure. Its appeal need not even be restricted to those with an interest in either of these auteurs, for the film which results is about filmmaking as a craft — primarily via a focus on film editing — and about finding that passion for something you love, even as it all feels a little bit elegiac.
Using all the skill I have with Microsoft Paint (i.e. almost none) I have thrown together a very basic little graphic for my upcoming month of occasional themed posts dealing with films that at some level are about filmmaking. Frankly, there’s enough of these that I could fill every day with a different review, and I could categorise at least a few from every past month I’ve been doing this blog under this rubric. However, I’ve seen a few films recently that sort of fall into this category, so I figured I’d make a month just about them.
Ever since the very earliest days of cinema, there have been plenty of directors and writers self-reflexively turning the camera on their own art. Such works have taken the route of mockery and satire about their own industry far more often than of awed self-importance (which is as it should be), but there are also plenty of documentaries which give an insight into the process. There are plenty, too, that don’t render very much insight at all, and nowadays every DVD and Blu-ray release seems to get packaged with a glut of such disposable extras. However, I want to highlight what’s good when filmmakers turn their attentions towards themselves and their practice, hence this upcoming month.
Maybe I’ll even end with a list of some of my favourite movies about moviemaking. So yes, stay tuned folks.