Behind the Screen
Charlie Chaplin, 1916
It didn’t take cinema long to realise that the art form could be its own juiciest subject. Silent cinema’s most famous musing on itself is Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr (1924), with the star as a projectionist dreaming himself into a movie. But eight years earlier, Charlie Chaplin made this illusion-puncturing short about the humdrum realities of the movie studio. Chaplin’s antics as a stage hand reveal the industrial nature of the silent film business, while a scowling director in dark glasses and cap worn backwards – grimly supervising a pie-throwing scene - is surely the first angst-ridden auteur to be depicted on screen.
Robert Altman, 1992
Producers are sometimes depicted on screen as monstrous yet magnificent (Kirk Douglas’s character in The Bad and the Beautiful, 1952), sometimes as just monstrous. But movie execs were never as abject as empty-souled, smooth-suited studio apparatchik Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins). Written by Michael Tolkin, this scabrous satire was Robert Altman’s gleeful revenge on the Hollywood system – with hordes of names from both sides of the camera showing solidarity by contributing cameos as themselves (Cher, Bruce Willis, screenwriter Buck Henry pitching a sequel to The Graduate). The opening shot, riffing on Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, is the most spectacularly mounted movie in-joke ever.
Michael Powell, 1960
The film that launched a thousand film studies dissertations on the politics of “the gaze”, Peeping Tom also virtually ended the career of its maker, British pioneer Michael Powell. Written by Leo Marks, this thriller is a rare study of the film-maker as committed (not to say deranged) loner, with Carl Boehm as a duffel-coated voyeur obsessed with capturing the look of terror. Peeping Tom is a rarity because it captures image-making at all levels – from studio fodder, through the science documentaries of the hero’s father (played by Powell himself), to backroom porn. At first reviled, later revered, Peeping Tom is easily as influential as Psycho in opening up the dark mindset of cinema.
Federico Fellini, 1963
Re-released this week, Fellini’s hyper-flamboyant autobiographical fantasia is, depending on your tolerance for the mirror gazing of maestros, one of the visionary peaks of cinematic modernism or an exercise in self-aggrandising solipsism that had the disastrous effect of encouraging generations of auteurs to take themselves deadly seriously. Marcello Mastroianni – who made agonised intellectuals look cooler and suaver than they ever do in real life – played Fellini surrogate Guido, a director running short of inspiration and making a movie in his head, out of his own life and loves. Nino Rota’s kaleidoscopic score keeps the whole crazy circus metaphor spinning to rapturous effect.
Le Mépris (Contempt)
Jean-Luc Godard, 1963
Based on an Alberto Moravia novel, Le Mépris finds Jean-Luc Godard ruefully moping over cinema’s lost glories while pushing the art form towards a radical future. The setting is Italy - Rome’s Cinecittà studios, then Capri - where the great German director Fritz Lang (playing himself) is trying to film The Odyssey under the aegis of a philistine American producer (a magnificent Jack Palance). With its sublime Georges Delerue score, and a strange prelude featuring Brigitte Bardot’s meta-commentary on her own naked body, Le Mépris is the only Godard film that could make you conceivably cry as much as it makes you furrow your brow.
Singin’ in the Rain
Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen, 1952
The most beloved of all screen musicals is also the most scholarly – a mock film-historical piece about the travails of a silent cinema star, Don Lockwood (Kelly), struggling to make the transition into the talkies. Some of the film’s choicest humour is, a little cruelly, at the expense of lofty diva Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen, priceless), Lockwood’s co-star in the preposterous The Duelling Cavalier, whose aura is destroyed by her Noo Yawk accent (“I cyan’t stan’im!”). Kelly and Donen’s classic, and the industry crisis it depicted, were paid due homage in Michel Hazanavicius’s brilliantly tricksy silent pastiche The Artist (2011).
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
Wes Craven, 1994
Horror buffs’ fascination with genre rules has made terror an unlikely breeding ground for metafiction, notably in The Cabin in the Woods, Wes Craven’s Scream series and The Human Centipede 2 (featuring a villain morbidly obsessed with The Human Centipede). Before Scream, Craven concluded his A Nightmare on Elm Street series with this paradox-laden contemplation of the perils attendant on trying to kill off his creation Freddy Krueger. Craven, Nightmare stars Robert Englund and Heather Langenkamp, and even studio boss Robert Shaye all play themselves. The ingenuity is compelling, although this fared worse at the box office than any previous Nightmare.
Goodbye, Dragon Inn
Tsai Ming-liang, 2003
Among cinema’s elegies to the lost wonders of the movie theatre – the most popular being the mawkish Cinema Paradiso – the richest and strangest comes from Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-liang. The setting is a Taipei cinema about to close; the film showing is King Hu’s 1967 wuxia classic Dragon Inn. But we’re watching the staff and the sparse audience – the lonely cashier wandering the upstairs corridors, the punter idly flicking sunflower husks at the screen, the gay men cruising the toilets. Eerie, stately and glumly comic, Goodbye, Dragon Inn will strike a chord with you even if your own lost beloved fleapit was only a humble ABC.
HC Potter, 1941
Vaudeville comedians Olsen and Johnson would be forgotten if not for this delirious vehicle, nominally an adaptation of their Broadway stage hit. Ostensibly about an attempt to turn Hellzapoppin’ the show into a backstage musical, this surreal, altogether avant-garde fantasia rings wild changes on the film-within-a-film format, beginning with an exasperated director shouting “Cut!” on an opening sequence set in hell. Later, the stars get stuck between film frames as chaos breaks out in the projection box. Hellzapoppin’ has an animation counterpart in Chuck Jones’s Duck Amuck (1953), in which Daffy Duck discovered the existential drawbacks of being a character in a cartoon.
Maps to the Stars
David Cronenberg, 2014
Written by Bruce Wagner, this lurid black comedy about psychosexual excesses in Tinseltown may not be the freshest of its kind. But it proves that there’s always morbid fascination to be had from the simple observation, boldly stated, that movie folks are just plain crazy. The most exalted example remains Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), in which silent-era legend Gloria Swanson played Norma Desmond, a screen goddess lapsed into cobwebbed ruin. Cronenberg’s film is brazen fun, though, not least because of Julianne Moore, superb as a neurotic, narcissistic star - proof that the ghost of Norma Desmond hasn’t been exorcised from Beverly Hills yet.