Sunday, April 5, 2009
Sometimes the conversation gets around to what good movies there are about Hollywood. We know most of the usual suspects, but which ones, we sometimes wonder, really captures the true essence of Hollywood and the moving-making dream machine.
They've been making movies about movies pretty much since they started making movies. Chaplin made more than one "Behind The Screen" film as early as 1914, trading on the assumption that the audiences already had an understanding of how the flickers are manufactured, on sets with cameras on tripods, fat directors, and piles of flour and styrofoam pillars just waiting to be thrown or tripped over.
The films have changed as Hollywood - and its perception of itself - has changed over the years. It's a continuum. Early in the sound era Hollywood was content to place romances or gangster plots on the backlots of the studios, using the soundstages as picturesque backdrops and getting the opportunity to stick a cameo or two in there. 1930's "Free and Easy" and 1938's "Crashing Hollywood" both have a jovial let's-put-on-a-show tone that belies our foreknowledge that both stars were drunken has-beens by the end of the years they were produced. 1936's "Hollywood Boulevard" follows a has-been silent actor and initially criticizes the fickle tastes and fortunes of those tied up in star-making, but ultimately devolves into a blackmail story as he tries to regain his respect, ending in a Hooray for Hollywood finale with barely an ounce of irony.
Things had changed after the war, and long after the Arbuckle and Normand scandals and a couple versions of "A Star Is Born," Hollywood is producing (or allowing to be produced) such poison letters as "Sunset Blvd," "The Big Knife," and "The Bad And The Beautiful," all haunted by a Budd Shulberg snark that links decadence, histrionic acting and an insider cache that made them seem new and modern. The entertainment media was reporting on stars, deals and how much money everyone was making, and the capitalist inspiration could not be ignored. Television cast a pale glow on Hollywood that made everything seem fallow and undead. We all hated Hollywood, in part because we wanted to get rich as everyone else with no talent had.
By the late '60s, there had developed a fatalistic resignation and sense of humor about how Hollywood corrupts - absolutely. A score of films including Charles Grodin's "Movers and Shakers," McTiernan's "The Last Action Hero," and Mamet's "State & Main" playfully and rather impotently tried to pierce the veil of deceit, ego and arrogance in Hollywood, none to much financial gain. Which meant the adage was true about people not wanting to see films about films. If we wanted to be told we were suckers for believing all the lies we were told, we'd become screenwriters.
A minor counter-movement tried to regain a sense of glamour and opportunity Hollywood offers in "The Big Picture" (1989), "Hollywood Shuffle" (1987), and even "The Muppet Movie" (1979). This would soon be balanced by a darker and excoriating trend started by "The Player" (1992) and continuing through "Swimming With Sharks" (1994) and "An Alan Smithee Film" (1997).
Except for "The Player," all bombs at the box office. And tellingly all the films minus the "A Star Is Born"s are basically pitched as comedies, most rather dark, bitchy, and absurdist. The topic may dictate the approach. Yet they're all, strangely, good-natured.
They're throwing darts at the thing they profess to hate but can't hide their affection for. People make movies about things they care about, and they care about Hollywood. The process. The struggle to do good work. To do any work.
My favorite documentation of the process is still probably Godard's "Le Mepris" (1963) from the increasingly cynical early 1960s (and increasingly cynical Godard) that folds Brigitte Bardot, the Odyssey, Hollywood hubris, Fritz Lang and the French New Wave all into a concoction that gently and effectively skewers Hollywood process, and all the drama that happens behind the scenes when people are trying to make art.
And as a bonus, it has those loving shots of Bardot's naked butt, which were inserted at producer Carlo Ponti's insistence, which Godard followed to the perverse letter, creating an abstract, discordant, beautiful and visual non-sequiter as she and Piccoli talk, a color-geled panning shot up her half-draped behind for what seems like the first 10 minutes of the film.
That imagery colors and inflects any amount of wry commentary that might be thrown our way for the next 2 hours. I believe Sofia Coppola was up to the same trick in "Lost In Translation."
It's the perfect example of how films are not borne whole but are the sum of their discordant parts, regardless of the inspirations ("I want you to have more shots of Bardot's rear in the film!") that get them there. It's an essential ingredient in what could have otherwise been a bitchy avant-garde satire of Hollywood, but instead suggests character motivations as well as all the ways films arrive at our multiplex, suggests something more real and life-affirming than Hollywood back-stabbing.
Now Bardot's derriere is an essential part of Godard's love poem to cinema, to montage, and to the viewer's fantasy of Hollywood and picture making. Yes, they call it show business - but they also call it show.