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Posted by on Feb 23, 2015

5 Movies About Movies

As much as I love talking about movies, I love learning about how movies are made. I love the story of film and the stories behind the films. It’s appropriate, then, that some of my favorite movies are movies about the world of cinema, about our love of cinema, and about the people who make the movies. Like novelists who feature writer-protagonists, filmmakers who have made pictures about films are sticking to a subject they know intimately, and I think this makes for an honest, insightful story. It’s probably why there are so many great films out of there about cinema. I’ve chosen five, made by some of the industry’s greatest directors, as the best films about films, and all of which explore a different aspect of movies. The list is in no particular order.

1) La Nuit Americaine (1973)
Francois Truffaut’s masterpiece explores the creative, commercial, and personal side of filmmaking, with Truffaut himself starring as Ferrand, a director attempting to complete a film amidst financial troubles, technical issues, and the cast and crew’s personal woes. With such a collaborative effort like a film, many factors can hold up and effect a production: a malfunction at the film lab that destroys a day’s work, an alcoholic has-been actor puts production a day behind schedule, troubled romance arises between actors and crew members. Truffaut takes you through small details that a director must confront, such as selecting the color of a background car to larger issues like dealing with the complications of a pregnant leading lady. Indeed, through Ferrand, Truffaut seems to be questioning the absolute possibility of the auteur theory that he championed. Early on in the picture, Ferrand narrates: “Shooting a film is like a stagecoach ride in the Old West. When you start, you are hoping for a pleasant trip, but pretty soon, you just hope you’ll reach your destination.” Ferrand highlights the difficulty of a film ever truly matching what a director had envisioned from the beginning; because of the collaborative nature of filmmaking, where human interaction is key and human error is inevitable, the final product is full of compromise.

2) Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Billy Wilder’s wicked and witty indictment of classic Hollywood. The story pairs a faded and forgotten silent film star (Gloria Swanson) with a down-and-out unsuccessful screenwriter (William Holden). Filmmaking isn’t really explored here, instead, Sunset Boulevard explores the lives of those living outside the Hollywood spotlight, and in doing so Wilder and Charles Brackett’s screenplay exposes the cruelty and vanity behind the glamour of Hollywood. Regarded as one of the greatest films in American cinema, you don’t have to be a film-lover to enjoy this one; Sunset Boulevard is part noir, part comedy; a tragedy narrated with a reserved irony that softens the impact of violence, but full of enough bizarre and disturbing sequences to leave you unsettled, even 65 years after its release.

3) Ed Wood (1994)
Tim Burton’s best film happens to be one of the few he’s directed that deal with real people in real situations, (unusual territory for the director of films like Beetlejuice, Alice in Wonderland, and Batman). The movie stars Johnny Depp as the real-life Ed Wood, a wannabe film director struggling to make it in 1950’s Hollywood. Lacking any marketable talent, but equipped with a persistent optimism and charisma, Ed Wood struggles to get his films made. Wood ultimately directed Plan 9 From Outer Space, remembered today somewhat affectionately as “the worst film of all time.” Ed Wood never mocks the eponymous character; instead, the film celebrates the world of B-filmmaking, and Burton’s love for the genre and the type of fringe-directors that inspired him shines through. Shot in a beautiful black and white, with a fun and touching soundtrack by Howard Shore, and an Oscar-winning performance by Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi, Ed Wood remains Tim Burton’s most underrated film, and it happens to be my favorite film. I watched this film so much as a teenager on VHS, I can recite verbatim the trailers that came on before the feature presentation. Ed Wood is the only VHS I still own, even though I haven’t had a means of playing it for years.

4) The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
Woody Allen’s 1985 comedy is a hilarious and heartbreaking story about a woman and her infatuation with the cinema. Set in Depression-era New Jersey, the film stars Mia Farrow as Cecilia, a married woman with an abusive and unfaithful husband. Cecilia escapes to the local cinema, where she often sees the same picture over and over again. The film takes on a fantastical element when a character from a current release (also called The Purple Rose of Cairo) abandons the screen and begins a relationship with Cecilia. It’s a nice twist: while Cecilia goes the cinema to escape her harsh reality, a fictional character escapes the whitewashed film world for the real world. Unlike the other films mentioned in this list, The Purple Rose of Cairo isn’t about people making the movies; it’s about the public’s relationship with escapist movies and how we exist with a medium that can sell false hope and warped realities while at the same time providing a necessary sanctuary.

5) Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (1988)
The ultimate love letter to the movies. A sweeping epic that follows the protagonist from childhood through adulthood. Jacques Perrin plays the adult Salvatore Di Vita, a film director who returns to his hometown in Sicily to attend the funeral of Alfredo, the projectionist at the local cinema. The film then takes us to post-war Italy, where Salvatore is a young boy, mesmerized by the movies and who’ll defy his own mother just to go visit the projection booth. Like another great Italian film, Amarcord, Nuovo Cinema Paradiso utilizes place better than most films. The town of Giancaldo and its habitants and their development over the years is as much of a character as Salvatore or Alfredo. Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack ranks among of some of my favorite classical music. The film’s final scene could be viewed as a self-contained short and still be as just touching, even out of context.

There are many other great films about cinema not included that I think are great films: The Bad and the Beautiful, In a Lonely Place, 8 1/2, the underrated Bowfinger, Singin’ in the Rain, Gods and Monsters, Stardust Memories…There are undoubtedly several others I haven’t mentioned here or seen. Perhaps most noticeably, my list doesn’t include any films outside of Europe or North America. What are some good movies about movies from around the world? Feel free to comment below.

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Posted by on Feb 1, 2015

Rowland K Lee’s I am Suzanne!

This week the Museum of the Modern Art screened I am Suzanne!, a 1934 film by Rowland K Lee about Suzanne (Lillian Harvey), a rising dance star in the Parisian musical theater scene. Suzanne is stuck between two men that care more about controlling her than allowing her personal freedom: her manager, Baron, and Tony, a puppeteer from a fledging theater. Baron sets out to make Suzanne the greatest dancer in the world for his own financial gain, filling the seats every night at their popular theater. After seeing one of her performances, Tony tries to meet Suzanne in her dressing room in order to sketch her likeness for a puppet, but Baron refuses to let him in, saying “I am Suzanne.”

When Suzanne injures herself during a particularly dangerous dance number, Baron drops her and selects a new dancer to mold. Tony, then, nurses Suzanne back to health and trains her in puppetry. When Baron attempts to take Suzanne back, Tony spits Baron’s words back in his face, echoing, again, the film’s title: I am Suzanne! The real Suzanne has yet to make that declaration herself, which becomes her ultimate struggle throughout the film.

It soon becomes clear that Tony is more in love with the idealized marionette version of Suzanne that he crafts than with the human herself. Hitchcock might’ve liked the film and one could imagine that, if he had seen it, he might’ve drawn some inspiration for Vertigo from it. Despite Suzanne’s best efforts to be recognized for herself, she is often rendered voiceless and manipulated, a puppet. Wooden-puppets and human-puppets abound in the film. Rowland K Lee sets up the theme early in a not-particularly graceful dance sequence in which Suzanne is tossed and thrown around stage by male dancers, quite literally manipulated like a puppet. The dance number is later mimicked entirely in Tony’s marionette theater, with Suzanne pulling the strings. When Suzanne realizes that Tony is not much different than Baron, she rebels against the world of puppets and violently destroys one. In a surreal and terrifying dream sequence, she goes threw “puppet court.” The scene is on YouTube. Enjoy:

Suzanne’s refusal to be controlled makes her the “worst enemy” to the puppets, both the wooden ones and the humans who we see in this scene dangling by ropes. I love this scene; it’s comical and nightmarish at the same time and does a great job at highlighting the film’s theme of individual freedom versus control. I am Suzanne! is certainly a one-of-a-kind film that got in some risqué scenes just before the Hays code really took effect in 1934. The film had been lost for quite some time but has been restored and is part of the MoMA’s archive collection.

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