Stop Making These. Just Stop. Yes, You With The Camera – I’m Talking to You.
My friends make fun of me for being such a hardass about this, but it’s one of those scourges which refuses to go away. If I learn that the main character in a movie is a struggling actor, director, screenwriter, etc. – I just tune out. I don’t get it, the fascination with telling this story over and over. In a world with bajillions of untold stories out there waiting to find a good home, why make movies and TV shows about people who make movies and TV shows? Are we that fascinating?
No, we are not.
My Pet Peeve: The Snake Eats Its Tale
Some may ask if I’m talking about things like HBO’s hit “Entourage” or NBC’s exercise in programming-a-show-until-people-like-it known as “30 Rock.” Yes I am. I understand the fascination with the highest echelons of Hollywoodland, but I cannot bring myself to watch a fictionalized TV show about it. I don’t care how great Jeremy Piven or Alec Baldwin are, this work results from intellectual laziness and then that laziness spawns all kinds of labor intensive hours for writers, directors, actors, etc. Once it’s all over and people have watched it and walked away with a set of (perhaps reasonable) prejudices about the way it works in spoiled-ass Hollywood, then what? Who cares? What’s the takeaway?
Big-budget movie naval-gazing surprises me less than when it happens on an indie level, when these overdone projects are the freshman efforts of struggling artists. I just want to shake them and say, “you got your chance to make a movie and you chose to make it about YOURSELF? YOURSELF?!I mean, not metaphorically, not allegorically, but just YOURSELF?”
Anyone who’s ever tried to make a movie has learned how much struggle, drama, perseverance, and pluck it takes to get from the initial idea to the final product, but here’s the problem – these are inevitably straw-man movies where the filmmaker is the noble hero and everyone else is a giant jackass trying to cockblock their perfect vision. And what is that vision? Well, it’s about a young screenwriter/actor/director who…
Stop. Just stop.
There are, of course, some movies about movies about movies about movies that work. Why? Because they’re not, in any way, about making movies. Also, they’re often period pieces.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
It’s interesting to note that this classic movie musical, one of the most enduring of its time, was in fact a period piece dealing with the transition from silent to sound films. And it’s more of a comment on being stuck in one’s ways as the world has moved on than a comment about movies – although that commentary is in there too.
(Suggested in his response, below, by Mike Monello)
Ed Wood (1994)
“Ed Wood” may chronicle the life of an infamous filmmaker (played to perfection by Johnny Depp), but it’s not really a movie about making movies. It’s a movie about self-delusion. It’s a movie about how we all have some pursuit that we are truly excited about, and we’re fooling ourselves to think we’re any good at it. After all it’s a biopic about the man considered to be the worst filmmaker of all time. Some deference must be paid. But mostly, it’s about a misfit trying to fit in and find his way through life as he collects weirdos along the way and self-actualizes by making the movie considered by some to be THE WORST EVER MADE. In fairness, the remake of “The Wicker Man” wasn’t out yet.
Barton Fink (1991)
The Coen Brothers‘ fourth feature “Barton Fink” is not a movie about movies, or if it is, it’s one of the more surreal takes on this concpet. The movie concerns a pretentious New York playwright (John Tuturro) in the 1940’s who sells out to Hollywood only to find himself caught between an inscrutably authoritarian studio boss, a washed-up famous novelist, and a door-to-door salesman (a creeptastic John Goodman) who plays the man of humble means but has more power than anyone else Fink knows. The movie is about the lies we tell ourselves about who we are, and how deadly clinging to that myth ultimately can be.
The Player (1992)
Simply put, Robert Altman‘s bilious hate letter to Hollywood is not a movie about movies. It’s a movie about politics, power, and how wielding power can rob someone of their soul. It happens to take place in Hollywood and lots of stars show up here and there, and industry veteran Altman manages to dispense with a lot of his thoughts about the business in which he spent his life toiling – but it’s reductive to say that it’s a movie about making movies. If anything, it’s a movie about someone (in this case, Tim Robbins as studio exec Griffin Mill) literally getting away with murder in plain sight.
Boogie Nights (1997)
PT Anderson‘s second feature is whip smart, brilliant in its writing, acting, and directing, and it’s not really about the film industry as such. It’s about the porn industry, specifically the porn industry in LA’s San Fernando Valley in the 1970’s and 1980’s. It can be said to be allegorically about the “real” film industry (in the same way that Spielberg‘s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” could be said to be about the Darwinian nature of creative struggle and realizing one’s vision), but the actual filmmaking portions of this movie don’t dress the process up one bit.
The Major Violaters
Before I even get into this, let me say that all the people who’ve made the following films (and TV show) have my sincere admiration for having gotten something made at all. Pretty much everyone on this list has real writing/directing/acting talent and my only point is that it would have been better had someone deep inside their creative circle vetoed the basic concept before it got out the door. I’m not trying to offend or say I’m a better filmmaker than anyone on this list – I’m trying to discourage this behavior in the future.
Note: There is no physical way for this list to be complete, and it’s utterly subjective. These films typify my personal bias against this genre. You probably don’t agree with me, but if I can convince just one would-be filmmaker to not make another one of these films, I’ve done my job.
The Wizard of Speed and Time (1988)
Mike “The Wizard” Jittlov plays himself – a visionary visual effects wizard and stop-motion maestro who comes to LA to spread his genius around the town, only to have his dreams crushed repeatedly by the evil machine that was the studio system in the late 1980’s. With pure imagination and lots of forced whimsy he makes his perfect film, against the odds, and really shows ‘em.
The Big Picture (1989)
Before he specialized in mock-docs that crapped on those with creative aspirations, Christopher Guest‘s first movie chronicles a visionary filmmaker (Kevin Bacon) who graduates from a prominent film school in LA, only to be cast into a maelstrom of executives, agents, wannabe starlets, etc. He learns that the only way to “make it” is to step on everything he stands for and to hurt all his friends. Then he regains his humanity which allows him to makes his perfect film, against the odds, and really show ‘em.
Living in Oblivion (1995)
Dream cast Steve Buscemi, Catherine Keener, Dermot Mulroney, and Peter Dinklidge all star in this total inside-baseball account of making a pretentious indie film, a command performance for only the nerdiest fans of “Anatomy of a Scene.” Tom DeCillo has made a career of making films about the film industry, but this is by far his most egregious excursion up his own “oblivion” if you will. We don’t know if Buscemi’s character gets to make his great film and really show ‘em, but perhaps DeCillo is saving that for the sequel.
Ever since his entrancing impression of Christopher Walken on SNL put him on the map, Jay Mohr has been trying to find the perfect niche for his acting talents. In 1999, he presaged Jeremy Piven‘s small-screen Ari Gold portraying a dirtbag producer Peter Dragon. His sidekick, ex-child star turned prostitute Wendy Ward (Illeana Douglas), helps him wend his way through the sewers of the Hollywood cliché machine. Wait a minute… “Peter” and “Wendy?” Oh, I get it now.
Star Maps (1997)
Director Miguel Arteta‘s humble first feature tries to show us the “dark side of Hollywood” through the eyes of a struggling Mexican would-be actor – but comes across as a prurient exercise in exposing exploitation while also being exploitation. As it wends its way toward the inevitable scene on a film set, I couldn’t help but wonder if that was how Arteta’s own film set was run, and if the fictional set reflected what he saw as how the “big boys” ran things. Arteta went on to make many far-better films (“Chuck and Buck,” “The Good Girl“) as well as being a phenomenal TV director, but I can’t help but scratch my head knowing that his freshman effort played Sundance and tore up the festival circuit. And played in movie theaters for paying customers.
Woody Allen has made a career out of putting his head up his own ass in the most amusing ways (or by defending Roman Polanski… But I digress), but this plodding, unfunny story of a film director suffering from psychosomatic blindness feels, again, like another indictment of the way people in the movie business are coddled. Who cares? It joins other Allen would-be-memoir dreck like “Stardust Memories” and “Celebrity” (not to be confused with his better inside-showbiz period pieces “Bullets over Broadway,” “The Purple Rose of Cairo, and “Radio Days“) on my permanent “do-not-watch” list.
(Also suggested in his response, below, by Mike Monello)
A filmmaker is pitted against the evil studio system in Phil Joanou‘s most masturbatory effort to date. This saddened me, as I’ve always been a booster of Joanou’s – but perhaps this film typified what I meant in a previous blog. Supposedly “Entropy” fictionalizes the making of Joanou’s earlier film, “Heaven’s Prisoners.” His dreams are crushed by greedy studio jerkoffs, he falls in love with a supermodel, jetsets around the world, gets advice from Bono, and basically makes it impossible for me to care about anything he does.
The Muse (1999)
Albert Brooks writes, directs, and stars in this namedropping starfuck-a-thon about a schlubby aging screenwriter with a waning career who’s slick friend (Jeff Bridges) suggests he get an actual Greek “Muse” (Sharon Stone) to inspire him back onto the A-list. In order for a movie with this basic concept to really work, one would think that its writing would be snappy and brilliant – as if the muse herself had inspired the once-brilliant Brooks. But no dice here, as lugubrious pacing and forced old-guy humor sink faster than Brooks’ Tomatometer.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
I love me some Wes Craven, I really do. But his triumphant return to the already over-harvested “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise starred himself, original “Nightmare” heroine Heather Langenkamp, and the original “Freddy” himself Robert Englund as themselves, dealing with a demon who had chosen Freddy as his avatar in our world. I can fully understand the attraction to this approach which I would call a “noble failure,” after all Freddy does move between worlds, does he not?
Money People: Stop Wasting Your Money
When I first moved to LA in 1999, I had a short film called “The Meeting” which I’d just directed under my arm and I was ready to take the town by storm. As luck would have it, the film got into the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival (LAIFF), now the LAFF. Playing that festival gave me a free pass to see as many films as I wanted to, for free, at the festival – so I did. And it was there that I saw “Entropy” (above), which kicked off a festival of films about people who want to make films. I felt like I was being punked. There was even one movie that was about the dark underbelly of Los Angeles but not about the movie business, but it still had to have an obligatory scene in it about one of the characters writing a screenplay about her experiences and a bald, fat, cigar-chomping Hollywood agent/manager/lawyer/exec pissing all over it. Yes, we understand. It’s hard, and people don’t get you.
I don’t remember the names of any of these films, and with good reason. Nobody remembers any of these films. They’re all completely forgettable and forgotten. They’re vanity projects of the lowest order. So we get it, we really do. Your life is hard. Now stop it.
Note: two weeks after publishing this post, the movie below was released in theaters.