The Mirror Cracked: Film on Film
films turn a mirror upon the process of their own making, what do we see? The
picture, in general, is not a pretty one.
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.
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).
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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).
is precisely this note of grandiloquence which Jean-Luc Godard captured as far
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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