The Mirror Cracked: Film on Film

  Dangerous Game (Abel Ferrar)

When films turn a mirror upon the process of their own making, what do we see? The picture, in general, is not a pretty one.


In Philippe Garrel’s Sauvage Innocence (2001), a director (played by the dashing young French novelist and philosopher Mehdi Belhaj Kacem) decides to film the biography of his ex-lover, an actress-singer who died from a drug overdose. (The character is modelled on Garrel’s own lover from the 1970s, Velvet Underground singer Nico.) He enlists his eager, current girlfriend (played by Kacem’s then real-life partner, Julia Faure) to take the starring role – and she accepts this mission, this immersion into a dark, destructive personality, with Method-like fervour.


Of course, by setting off this game of mirrors, the director unknowingly dooms his lover, just as James Stewart did when he ‘remade’ his new girlfriend as the spitting image of his lost love (both parts played by Kim Novak) in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo  (1958).


Garrel’s story joins a long line of movies (including The Legend of Lylah Clare from 1968, also starring Novak) that raise storytelling about filmmakers and the filmmaking process to a near-mythic, and certainly horrific, pitch: the director is a kind of vampire, feeding off real life, while the process of filmmaking is no longer creative but fundamentally destructive.


And it gets worse. In Abel Ferrara’s Dangerous Game (1993), the fictional director, Eddie Israel (Harvey Keitel), is having trouble with his lead actor, Frank (James Russo). Confronting the difficult star in his trailer, Eddie yell: “I need you to do less booze and drugs – or do more!”


Fired up by this invitation to excess, Frank throws himself into improvising his next scene, psychodrama-style – and ends up raping the leading lady, Sarah (Madonna). From this point, the production completely falls apart. The last we see of Eddie, he is alone, unconscious on the floor of his hotel room, his project an unfinished shambles. Ferrara ’s description of Dangerous Game was matter-of-fact: “People ask us all the time how we make films, so I decided to show them.”


Even when the portrait of filmmakers at work is sunnier, there is always a dark shadow cast somewhere. In François Truffaut’s classic Day for Night (1973), the happy-family atmosphere enjoyed by cast and crew is rudely interrupted by a little old lady who decries them all as immoral and irresponsible. And in the documentary Behind Saraband, a glimpse into Swedish maestro Ingmar Bergman directing his Saraband, the 86 year-old director seems to enjoy his time on set – but refers grimly, during a press conference beforehand, to the pain he will have to put himself through.


The age of bonus extras on DVD releases and cable television channels devoted solely to programs on arts and entertainment has created a seemingly insatiable appetite on the part of the public for behind-the-scenes revelation. Reflecting this trend, the 2005 Melbourne International Film Festival featured a selection titled Film on Film, which included the soon-to-be-released documentary Tell Them Who You Are.


The advent of films on film is a peculiarly modern, post World War Two phenomenon. In a more classical era of filmmaking, such self-consciousness was frowned upon. Audiences (so the old-fashioned logic went) should not be reminded, even implicitly, that they are watching a film; they should be allowed free reign to plunge themselves into a purely imaginary world.


Of course, there were occasional exceptions, like Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command (1928) about a fallen Russian general (Emil Jannings) becoming a humiliated extra in American movies, and Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jnr (1924) about a daydreaming projectionist entering his screen fantasy. Or even the original King Kong (1933), a prophetic film which is as much about the colonial power relations involved in the production of cinematic spectacle as it is about an oppressed, giant ape. (This subtext does not quite survive in Peter Jackson’s version of the Kong story.)


In the post-war climate, however, movies including Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) introduced a new note of self-consciousness, a knowing cynicism and irony, into the previously seamless entertainments of Hollywood . This mood quickly spread. And it was a truly global phenomenon: the most advanced directors in Europe and Asia during the 1950s and ‘60s quickly evolved what became known as the reflexive movie, often constructed around the hefty presence of a ‘film within the film’, whether this fictive film was being imagined, written, shot or edited by its creators.


The reflexive film-on-film takes many forms. It can be a matter of a director haunted by his inner visions of the film he is about to make, as in Federico Fellini’s trend-setting Otto e mezzo (1963). It can be the account of a growing confusion between on-screen fiction and off-screen life, as in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s soulful Good Men, Good Women (1995). It can be a postmodern game, constantly fooling the audience as to whether they are watching the film or the film-within-the-film, as in Richard Rush’s baroque The Stunt Man (1980) starring Peter O’Toole.


It can be a cartoon – Daffy Duck arguing with his off-screen animator in Chuck Jones’s immortal Duck Amuck (1953) – or an avant-garde experiment like Peter Tscherkassky’s Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine (2005), about a hero who “realises he is at the mercy of the filmmaker”. 


As in Wild Innocence and Dangerous Game, the introduction of the elaborate technology of filmmaking into a screen story often brings with it the whiff of disaster or death. As early as 1948, the famed Italian neo-realist director Roberto Rossellini made a film that reflects upon the malignant power of photography and cinematography – it is called The Machine that Kills Bad People.


This association of cinematography with killing has carried over to movies including Clint Eastwood’s drama White Hunter, Black Heart (1990), a lightly fictionalised account of John Huston’s dangerous obsessions during the making of The African Queen (1951); and the horror-fantasy Shadow of the Vampire (2000), which plays to the wild rumour that F.W. Murnau, in making Nosferatu (1922), cast a real, bloodthirsty vampire.


But there is a particular energy fuelling the current obsession with behind-the-scenes stories. The making of a movie – particularly the sort where careers are on the line and a lot of money is at stake – has become a privileged site of melodramatic fancy in the public imagination, a veritable Clash of Titans between the Director (viewed as either a God or a Fool) and the System which he or she confronts (portrayed as either monstrous or pragmatic).


It is precisely this note of grandiloquence which Jean-Luc Godard captured as far back as 1963 in his masterpiece Contempt, when the Ugly American producer, Prokosch (Jack Palance), points at images of classical statues and taunts his ageing director-for-hire, the great German innovator Fritz Lang: “You and me, Fritz, we are the Gods”. And indeed, in the tawdry tale of jealousy, suspicion, rivalry and betrayal that subsequently plays out between the manipulative Prokosch, a hired scriptwriter (Michel Piccoli) and his adorable wife (Brigitte Bardot), we can discern traces of the Greek tragedy they are attempting to put on film.


Any metaphoric talk of gods or tragedy in the world of filmmaking naturally evokes the case of the legendary actor-director Orson Welles. Consider his place in contemporary pop culture. Today, most people regard his ability to achieve Citizen Kane  (1941) in the midst of Hollywood as the supreme act of an artistic maverick. Yet, only in his second feature a year later, The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles fell foul of the studio system that was far from comfortable with his freewheeling, challenging methods. The film was taken out of Welles’ hands and butchered.


Virtually from that moment on, Welles – who has become the endlessly mythologised subject of biographies, feature films and telemovies – was portrayed in two starkly opposing ways. Either he is the visionary hero unfairly crushed by nasty system (as he is sympathetically presented in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, 1994, or he is the deluded creator with a self-destructive bent, unmindful of the economic and cultural realities of filmmaking.


Sometimes, within the terms set by this kind of myth-making, it can seem as if every film emerges from an almighty struggle. At the centre of this struggle, invariably, stands the director. He or she fights against his collaborators, against the studio, against investors, against censorship. It is all a matter of compromise – viewed, in the director’s increasingly paranoid mind, as a betrayal of his or her artistic vision, or a Faustian buy-out of the soul.


In films including Godard’s Passion (1982), Barry Primus’ Mistress (1991) and Alexandre Rockwell’s In the Soup (1992), the director is surrounded by imbeciles who are armed with chequebooks – and thus empowered to influence script, casting, editing and marketing. Often, in such scenarios, the figure of the producer or studio boss is portrayed as a villain of Mephistophelean grandeur.


In Wild Innocence, for example, the creepy producer (played by Michel Subor) is a heroin addict and drug dealer who lures the weak to their death. And in the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink (1991), the studio head is a sinister figure who tells the hapless, manipulated screenwriter (John Turturro): “Thanks for your heart, Bart”. This is the writer-director as innocent, as sacrificial lamb on the pyre of a soulless, capitalist machine.


The flipside of the Director as Holy Auteur syndrome is provided by satirical portraits of the director as vain, pretentious egotist. Steve Buscemi gave us an indelibly comic version of this figure in his performance as the beleaguered filmmaker in Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion (1995), idly imagining the extravagant praise that will be heaped upon him at a movie awards night. Les Blank’s documentary Burden of Dreams (which Eddie admiringly watches in Dangerous Game) is the portrait of a director (Werner Herzog) as a purveyor of folly, leaving behind everyday, ethical niceties for the sake of pursuing, at any cost, his grand Vision.


Woody Allen has consistently worked both sides of this turf, evoking sympathy for put-upon creatives in Stardust Memories (1980), and then mocking such artistic self-importance in Deconstructing Harry (1997) or Hollywood Ending (2003).


One of the most richly ambiguous films about filmmaking is Oliver Assayas’s Irma Vep (1996). Here, a washed-up, ex-New Wave director named René Vidal (played by the iconic actor from those years, Jean-Pierre Léaud) returns to helm an impossible project: a remake, for today’s audiences, of The Vampires, a silent serial by Louis Feuillade. Asian superstar Maggie Cheung is at the centre of this cursed production, a chaos of conflicting languages, agendas and conceptions.


Eventually, Vidal has a nervous breakdown, disappears from the set and is replaced by a less artistically ambitious ring-in. To this point, one could almost take Assayas’s film as a cautionary tale about an auteur’s excess and grotesque self-delusions. But Vidal has the surprising, last word in Irma Vep. When the cast and crew gather to watch the footage he has so far shot, they discover a completely transformed, avant-garde take on The Vampires: the plot has disappeared, the images of Cheung have been scratched out and drawn on, dialogue has been replaced by a harsh musique concrète. At least for this brief moment, art trumps commerce.


In Tell Them Who You Are, a sometimes acidic portrait by Mark Wexler of his famous father, Haskell Wexler, we witness a particularly intense, even vicious, version of the demythologisation of a filmmaker. Wexler senior is a celebrated cinematographer and sometime director – and, as this documentary informs us, there is no film he worked on that he did not think he could have made better himself. He is also a left-wing activist of long standing. His account of why he was fired from One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) – involving a government conspiracy against him – is cruelly juxtaposed with testimonies from director Milos Forman and the producers that such a conspiracy theory is all in Haskell’s head, and that he was simply too difficult to work with.


The popular documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991), a record of the tortuous production of Apocalypse Now (1979), comes close to presenting Francis Coppola as a lunatic (demanding, for instance, that “every scene must satisfy me on twenty levels at once”), before switching into hagiography. But for every artist who risked it all and was subsequently publicly vindicated (as happened, rightly or wrongly with Coppola and Apocalypse Now), there are a dozen directors who blow it and then struggle for years to make a comeback.


The case of Michael Cimino post-Heaven’s Gate (1980) shows that, even with a reconstituted Director’s Cut finally made available, some careers never recover from the stigma of Visionary Filmmaker Gone Crazy. In the documentary Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate, we hear that Cimino’s epic anti-Western – savaged by critics and shunned by audiences on its initial release – spelt the end of a Golden Era in American film when directors like Robert Altman, William Friedkin and Peter Bogdanovich were treated regally, given virtual carte blanche to create demanding, off-beat works.


And, in the present climate where admiration for opening weekend grosses often seems to outstrip (at least in the popular media) any nostalgia for lost artistic freedom, Cimino is still held up as – and still suffers from – the cautionary model of the unwise director out of touch with the needs of the market and the immediate desires of the mass audience.


Away from the boom-or-bust psychodramas of a director putting his or her life on the line in order to create art, there are gentler representations of the changes that a filmmaker can undergo in the process of doing their work. Abbas Kiarostami’s beautiful Iranian film Through the Olive Trees (1994) portrays the inner evolution of a director who must slowly abandon his position of distant, middle-class, intellectual privilege to truly empathise with the ordinary people he films.


A similarly modest and touching spectacle is offered by Spanish master Victor Erice in his The Quince Tree Sun (1993), as his effort to capture the smallest details of the natural world and everyday life leads him to the new, intimate tool of the video camera.


Both Kiarostami and Erice, in fact, temporarily took leave of the big, bad movie industry in order to compose an exchange of video letters, first unveild at a Barcelona art gallery in 2006. As well as providing further instances of the use of digital video to get back to basics, these letters imply a reflection on the ills of large budgets, producer interference and marketing pressure that these two canny filmmakers have spent their lives trying to escape.


Where does all this reflexivity lead? A bullish journalist in Irma Vep is quick to accuse modern cinema of “navel gazing” – especially when it is full of films that are only about other films, or (even worse) films that are only about themselves.


Yet, for all the convolutions of the film-on-film or film-within-film form, cinema is, in this regard, no different from the other arts. There comes a moment when all media take themselves as a principle subject, as Velázquez did when he painted Las Meninas or Nabokov when he wrote Pale Fire. Not simply in order to examine and exhibit their own internal processes, but to grasp the situation of their making as an intimate political allegory – a microcosm of the relations of power that inevitably shape every negotiation between creativity and industry in our contemporary world.




Postscript: Some Key Films About Filmmaking


The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) & Two Weeks in Another Town (1962). Vincente Minnelli made, a decade apart, two films that reflect a changing Hollywood industry. In the first, Kirk Douglas plays a ruthless, manipulative studio boss; in the second, everyone is at the mercy of vagaries of a spectacularly catastrophic international co-production.


Singin’ in the Rain (1952). This much-loved classic by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen is about the fraught, hilarious transition in cinema history from silents to talkies – and also from the episodic revue musical to a more story-driven fusion of song and dance.


David Holzman’s Diary (1968). In Jim McBride’s staggeringly prescient forecast of trends in Reality TV and webcam confessionals, a gormless cinephile decides to film every moment of his nerdish existence. But the camera’s cold presence changes his life for the worse.


Body Double (1984). Brian De Palma’s surreal, Hitchcock-style thriller focuses on the sorry lot of an actor (played by Craig Wasson) whose innermost fears are preyed upon and ruthlessly manipulated by co-stars, directors, agents, even drama coaches. Reality, here, is always a trick, an illusion.


Demon Lover Diary (1986). This was the first documentary to record the special kind of disaster that can befall a low-budget independent production – in this case, a Z-grade horror flick made by a couple of clueless guys. The whole mess culminates in gunshots in the night, and crew members fleeing for their lives.


Where Lies Your Hidden Smile? (2001). Husband and wife team Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet are holed up in a room, editing their film Sicilia. “Shut up, Straub!”, she constantly yells, as he relentlessly paces and declaims his Marxist theories of cinema. This is a warts-and-all master class lovingly captured by Pedro Costa.


The Five Obstructions (2003). A hilarious and ultimately quite moving account of Lars Von Trier’s mission to force mentor Jørgen Leth to remake his classic short The Perfect Human (1967) five times over – but under strict conditions or obstructions that are almost impossible to surmount. 


© Adrian Martin September 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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