Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Five Film Favorites: Movies About Making Movies

Filmmakers tell us stories. 

The people who write the screenplays and direct the movies we see on screens, large and small, sometimes appear to know a lot about cowboys, or modern teenagers in love, or lathered up serial killers, or life in the fast lane, or whatever. Still, what most successful filmmakers actually do know about, firsthand and in-depth, is what goes on behind the camera in the business of producing popular motion pictures.

Consequently, plenty of movies about making movies have been made; some of those inside looks at filmmaking are among the best features ever produced. After all, there’s no business like show business!

Which means narrowing the list down to just five titles this week wasn’t easy, but that’s my job.

Yes, “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941) is still a cool flick and it’s sort of about making movies. Yes, I always enjoy watching “Singin' in the Rain” (1952), even though most of the old studio system musicals from the 1940s and ’50s aren’t likely to ever appear on any favorites list of mine. Yes, “Wag the Dog” (1997) deserves more praise than it has received. And, most recently, I enjoyed “The Artist” (2011) quite a bit, although I‘ve only seen it once. Yes, more films could be cited in this paragraph, but today none of them have made the cut. 

This Thursday my five favorite movies about making movies are: 
  • “8½” (1963): B&W. 138 minutes. Directed by Federico Fellini. Cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée. Note: While this is a film about making a film, don’t stew over trying to make sense of it. Just watch as Fellini dazzles you with unforgettable characters and images, as he shrugs and admits to his own confusion.
  • “Day for Night” (1973): Color. 115 minutes. Directed by François Truffaut. Cast: Jacqueline Bisset, Valentina Cortese, François Truffaut. Note: An engaging look at the process of crafting a movie's plot, with the soap-opera-like private lives of the cast and crew intermingling with the production. It could be seen as a director’s bittersweet confession.
  • “The Day of the Locust” (1975): Color. 144 minutes. Directed by John Schlesinger. Cast: Donald Sutherland, Karen Black, William Atherton, Burgess Meredith. Note: This foreboding story was adapted from the Nathanael West  novel about the fresh lure of stardom in Hollywood and the same old road to hell.
  • “The Player” (1992): Color. 124 minutes. Directed by Robert Altman. Cast: Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi, Fred Ward. Note: Dealing out some payback to Hollywood, Altman pulls back the curtain to show us the blackmailing, back-stabbing side of how stories -- reduced to pitches -- get processed into movies. No doubt, Altman and his accomplices had fun making this one.
  • “Sunset Blvd.” (1950): B&W. 110 minutes. Directed by Billy Wilder. Cast: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim. Note: For a young struggling writer, down on his luck, why not coast for a while? Why not facilitate the batty fantasies of a rich, has-been movie star? What could go wrong?
Yes, there’s a thread of cynicism that runs through all five of them. Perhaps that’s because the filmmakers felt compelled to remind the viewer that show business people just make stuff up all the time. We viewers shouldn’t really believe they know all that much about cowboys or modern teenagers.

No, we movie-lovers should just enjoy the best of these filmmakers’ efforts and take them for what they are, for the most part -- made-up stories, created to tell us a larger truth.

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