Many art forms dip into the self-referential. From songs about songs to paintings depicting the artist painting that particular work, art is always willing to look at itself. Films are no different. From the very earliest cinematic experiments, movies drew inspiration from or indeed focused entirely on the filmmaking process. Even at the turn of the last century, filmmakers were experimenting with the ideas of putting film on film. The Big Swallow is a 1901 surrealist short in which a man steps closer and closer to the camera before swallowing it whole. Since then films have looked at the cameraman’s craft (Man With a Movie Camera – 1929), the screenwriting process (Adaptation – 2002), Sound Design (Berbarian Sound Studio - 2012) and in some movies, characters even come to recognise their own fictional existence (Stranger than Fiction – 2006). So without further ado, here is my list of Six of the Best… Films about Film.
1. Cinema Paradiso – 1988
Giuseppe Tornatore’s Italian masterpiece features a middle aged film director returning to his small Sicilian village for the first time in decades in order to attend the funeral of his friend and mentor. The movie then takes us forward from the director’s earliest years until adulthood through his love of the motion picture. I’ve never seen adoration of cinema so beautifully and overtly displayed before and the movie features clips of many famous and less so well known movies from the silent era forwards. The local cinema becomes the beating heart of the town and brings joy to many in the post war depression that hit the country hard. The process of projection is lovingly demonstrated and the movie’s final scene is perhaps the most beautiful I’ve ever seen and contains some of the most breathtaking images in all cinema history.
2. Sherlock Jr – 1924
Buster Keaton’s 1924 feature isn’t really about cinema per se but features a famous sequence in which the star falls asleep at a projector. His subconscious then walks into the theatre itself and enters the screen. This surrealist moment then forms the main narrative as Keaton plays a character on screen in his dream state. This early self-referential style of movie making was ahead of its time both in terms of the idea and the technical proficiency needed to make it work. The film also ends with Keaton mirroring a movie star’s mannerisms and actions to woo the woman of his dreams. Keaton would go back to making movies about movies with 1928’s The Cameraman.
3. Boogie Nights – 1997
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights turns the camera on the filmmaking process though the films aren’t the sort that your mother would want you watching. A film about the 1970s porn industry may well have come off as seedy but in Anderson’s hands it ended up as a near classic. The movie looks at the filmmaking process and techniques which make it work as well as the life of its stars. The movie also delves into the arrogance and big-headedness that being a star can give a person and the dangers of letting fame and stardom go to your head. The movie has an all star cast, despite its subject matter and was nominated for three Oscars. It’s an unflinching look at how the pornography industry worked and its parallels to mainstream movie making are apparent.
4. Chaplin – 1992
There have been relatively few movie biopics about the people behind movies. The Aviator – 2004 and Ed Wood – 1994 spring to mind but both of those films feature behind the camera stars. For a world obsessed with actors and celebrity, few films have touched upon the topic of ‘the film star’. Chaplin was Richard Attenborough’s biopic of Charlie Chaplin, who, for thirty years the most famous and highly paid entertainer in the world. Attenborough’s film is a fairly conventional and accurate retelling of the man behind the tramp but skirts over some of the more contentious issues in his life. Very much a film about the man rather than the star, Chaplin does however feature lots of juicy behind the scenes type footage and insight into the process of making a film. Scenes from his days at Keystone will be of special interest to anyone interested in early cinema.The movie is also notable for featuring Robert Downey Jr's finest performance to date.
5. 8½ - 1963
Federico Fellini’s 8½ is a film about director’s block. Partially autobiographical, it tells of a director lacking inspiration for his latest project and of the distractions which prevent him from completing it. The movie features themes including sex and marriage and how they impact on the director’s life but struggles behind the creative process are as much a part of the film as struggles of a more personal nature. Modernisation and having to adapt in an ever changing world is also something that’s at the heart of this movie. 8½ has become a classic which features on many top movie lists. It’s a beautifully shot, fascinating film that gets inside the mind of a director.
6. Sunset Boulevard – 1950
Billy Wilder’s 1950 whodunit Noir turns the camera on some of the seedier sides of Hollywood. The film is unafraid to show the soiled underbelly of the tentacled beast that is Tinseltown and looks not only at film but also at stardom. There are cameos abound from the great and good of the late silent era with the likes of Cecil B. DeMille, Buster Keaton and H.B. Warner appearing in small roles to add realism. The film tells the story of a faded Hollywood starlet whose madness and desire for the spotlight leads to tragedy. The screenwriting process is also examined through lead actor William Holden. Few films have ever been so self-critical but Sunset Boulevard is unashamedly so. The movie also features fascinating and insightful scenes set on the Paramount backlot and is one of the finest Noir films I’ve seen.