Movies about people making movies bug me. Sure, writing professors always tell you to "write what you know," and what filmmakers purport to know is how to make films. But I suspect that advice was formulated back in the good old days, when guys such as Hemingway lived real lives first, then started drinking heavily and writing about their experiences. It never was meant to be taken to heart by a generation of brain-dead pseudo-intellectuals raised on secondhand experience as spoon-fed to them by television, movies, and radio. This phenomenon of pop culture eating and regurgitating itself has gotten out of hand.
The film-within-a-film is one of moviemaking's most overworked genres. It wasn't always that way; back in the heyday of the studio system, when guys such as Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, and Darryl F. Zanuck called the shots, the conventional wisdom was that movies about movies were self-indulgent box-office poison. Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963) and Truffaut's Day for Night (1973) -- both brilliant films crafted by two of the medium's acknowledged masters -- changed all that. But the fact that Fellini and Truffaut may well have said all there is to say on the subject did not stop hundreds of inferior imitators from jumping on the bandwagon over the years. From OK for Sound to Go for a Take to Nickelodeon to The Big Picture to The Oscar to The Carpetbaggers to The Last Tycoon, bad cinema-about-cinema has rained down without letup. The one unqualified turkey of the 1995 Miami Film Festival was Search and Destroy, a movie about an obnoxious nobody who wants to make a movie. Martin Scorsese, who should have known better -- after all, he's never directed a movie about making movies -- bankrolled that one, which was directed by renowned painter David Salle, who, we can only hope, has returned to the canvas full-time.
But just when I was ready to strangle the next angst-ridden auteur who decided to turn the camera on himself, along came a new crop of celluloid prospectors wielding dark humor as their tool of choice, unearthing 24-karat nuggets where so many before them discovered only fool's gold. Robert Altman sliced and diced big-time Hollywood filmmaking in The Player, the story of a modern studio exec who does away with a writer and makes a killing -- literally. Tim Burton's Ed Wood lovingly profiled a real-life dreamer and misfit whose unintentionally campy low-budget magnum opus, Plan 9 From Outer Space, stands as perhaps the worst film ever made. Altman explored the upper levels of the cinematic food chain; Burton fished the bottom. Arthur Borman's The Making of ". . . And God Spoke" mercilessly satirized everything in between with its tale of a pair of self-righteous losers who go broke bringing their overwrought biblical epic to the screen only to watch it become a midnight-movie cult favorite and ultimately catapult them to fame and fortune.
These movies succeeded because they avoided the number one pitfall of so many failed predecessors: They didn't take themselves too seriously. Nothing precious or self-conscious about them. In fact they gleefully ridiculed their craft and the self-important artistes who practice it. (Although in Burton's case the sarcasm came with a healthy dose of affection for his characters.)
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Add Tom DiCillo's Living in Oblivion to this list of recent winners, closer to Burton's end of the spectrum than to Altman's. DiCillo, a former actor and cinematographer (he shot eight feature films, including Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise), has an obvious love-hate relationship with his chosen medium; he conveys the tedium, the tension, the chaos, the frustration, the antagonism, the colliding egos, and the occasional bursts of inspiration and magic that render the business of motion picture production unlike any other. He combines the film-within-a-film structure with a series of dream sequences to create a lacerating lampoon of the whole mundane, behind-the-scenes process.
Steve Buscemi, whose bulging eyes, machine-gun delivery, and spindly frame suggest a man so wired on some combination of coke, caffeine, and stress that he might blow up at any minute, plays put-upon writer-director Nick Reve -- a man not unlike Tom DiCillo. Nick is trying to remain true to his vision while helming an original, small-scale, independent movie. But the collision of Nick's artistic concept with the harsh realities of the collaborative process force constant compromise. Murphy's Law takes over -- anything that can go wrong does. During the filming of one crucial scene, Nick's leading lady, Nicole (Catherine Keener, in a carefully modulated counterpoint to Buscemi's frenetic director) comes emotionally unglued as a series of mishaps force the crew to shoot take after take. A boom microphone drops into the frame. Cut! The stoner assistant cameraman shifts the lens out of focus. Cut! Microphones pick up street noise from a passing car or boom box outside the building housing the primitive sound stage. Cut! The boom mike drops into frame again. Cut! Reve orders a ten-minute break to switch from boom mike to radio mikes. The scene plays beautifully until a light bulb explodes. Cut! The veteran actress playing Nicole's mother forgets her line. Cut! She remembers the line, but when the cameras roll she muffs it again. Cut! The older woman and Nicole rehearse the scene together and nail it. Not a dry eye in the house. Unfortunately the special moment is wasted because macho, leather-clad camera jockey Wolf (Dermot Mulroney displaying a deft comic touch) drank some tainted coffee and is in the bathroom puking. Wolf returns, the camera rolls, Nicole begins . . . and someone's beeper-cell phone-wristwatch alarm goes off. Cut! Nick, who has been doing his best stoic ship's-captain routine up to this point, finally explodes, venting his mounting just-beneath-the-surface rage. Buscemi makes sure you feel the strain as Nick struggles to keep it together despite his inept crew, his temperamental cast, and his plain bad luck; when Buscemi at long last blows his stack, the ensuing tantrum is pure catharsis.
DiCillo, an insider who based much of Oblivion on his own experiences filming his first feature (1991's Johnny Suede), gets great comic mileage out of the chaos and insanity required to create an illusion of reality so fleeting and fragile that it can be destroyed with a sneeze or a misdirected wisp of smoke. DiCillo's previous adventures in filmmaking have generated much prerelease publicity for the new film, with speculation abounding that Oblivion's film-within-a-film's airheaded, egomaniacal leading man, Chad Palomino (James Le Gros in a scene-stealing turn of vapid glory), is patterned after Johnny Suede star Brad Pitt.
How many novice low-budget writer-directors would have the balls to make fun of this year's poster boy? Not many. Fewer still possess Tom DiCillo's sharp wit and self-awareness. I'll hang on to my misgivings about movies on moviemaking for a while longer. It's the rare filmmaker talented enough to pound those doubts into oblivion.