The Criterion Shelf: Film Plays Itself

Bil Antoniou asks ThatShelf writers Pat Mullen and Courtney Small to help him make sense of movies Film on Film.

When the Depression elevated movies from a popular amusement to a powerful industry, it quickly became common knowledge that success in that business meant high salaries, fame and, since money was at the root of everyone’s problems, a perfectly happy life. Movies about making movies, then, are usually about dispelling this myth. They’re different from the way cinema looks at theatre: backstage movies are usually about balancing one’s personal life with the drive to make great art for the stage. Movies about moviemaking, however, usually only use the film set as a metaphor for the pursuit of a real life in a false world. Alternatively, sometimes film plays itself in movies like The Day of the Locust to create very strange false worlds.

Criterion Channel has assembled seventeen films that deal with films within films in the playlist Film Plays Itself, I’ve asked That Shelf contributors Pat Mullen and Courtney Small to assist me in ranking them:


Adaptation. (Spike Jonze, 2002)

Bil Antoniou Nicolas Cage’s finest moment as both screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his fictional twin brother Donald, one of whom has been hired to do the impossible task of adapting Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief to the screen while the other follows the commercially lucrative path of writing a crappy genre film. Charlie can’t accomplish the task, so he writes a film about writing that film, at first an examination of artistic inspiration but by the end, it becomes its own animal, with Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper doing gorgeous work as Orlean and the man who tells her everything about the magnificent flowers she is researching.

Pat Mullen – No film gets at the heart of a filmmaking process quite like Adaptation does. Charlie Kaufman’s brilliant script confronts a central question of the page-to-screen process (fidelity) and completely betrays its source material (Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief). In writing himself and his fictional twin brother Donald (who even gets a writing credit) into the film, Adaptation ultimately honours Orlean’s book through the process as Kaufman’s meta-adaptation meditates on the act of adaptation itself. Orlean’s book is an enthralling essay on what it means to care about something passionately, and Kaufman’s script evokes the same feeling with his passion for storytelling. Kaufman writes Orlean into the film, turns her into an orchid-snorting philanderer, and gives Meryl Streep one of her best performances as the author.


Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950)

BA – The first movie everyone thinks of when it comes to tales of the dark side of Hollywood, Billy Wilder’s story about a hopeful screenwriter getting hired to write a comeback script from a faded silent star still gleams with perfection. Gloria Swanson’s commanding, fearless performance avoids all vanity. It’s as much about the inhumanity of the business as it is about the dangers of ego, and it just looks so damned good.

PM – As Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) said to Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) in Feud: Bette vs. Joan, “It was Gloria Swanson who was robbed in 1950. Not you, bitch!” If I had one chance to strip a winner of her Oscar and hand it to someone else, it would be to give the Oscar that Judy Holliday somehow won for Born Yesterday and give it to Gloria Swanson for Sunset Blvd. Swanson’s turn as Norma Desmond is the best non-Meryl-Streep-performance in the history of cinema. It’s a wild feat of art-imitating life as the star of the silent era comes back with a vengeance in the golden age of the talkies.


Day For Night (François Truffaut, 1973)

BA – Truffaut’s delightful ensemble comedy barely shows the intricate construction keeping it all together. He plays a fictional version of himself trying to make a film amid a series of increasingly difficult egos, from the insecurities of his leading lady (Jacqueline Bisset), the amorous needs of his male star (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and, best of them all, Valentina Cortese as an aging actress in an increasingly fragile state of mind. Thoroughly entertaining from beginning to end.

PM – Valentina Cortese should have won an Oscar for her performance as a boozy starlet aiming for one perfect shot. The centrepiece of François Truffaut’s film sees Cortese’s Séverine botch take after take of an intricately choreographed scene. It doesn’t help, either, that she’s guzzling champagne between takes. As Séverine struggles to land her lines and her blocking, though, Day for Night brilliantly captures the artifice of cinema, revealing all the tricks behind the scenes that (hopefully) deliver perfection in the end.


The Player (Robert Altman, 1992)

BA – Altman’s magnificent comeback sees him relish the opportunity to put all his frustrations with the Hollywood establishment on the screen, but he includes enough humour to avoid it feeling like a bitter lecture. Tim Robbins plays a studio executive who is being harassed by an unseen writer whose pitch he rejected, while a host of celebrities like Anjelica Huston and Burt Reynolds appear in unbilled cameos as themselves.

PMRobert Altman is one of my favourite directors and The Player is one of his best films. Tim Robbins stars as a movie executive tangled in a Hollywood murder mystery. Featuring a laughable roster of celebrity cameos banded together by Altman’s signature overlapping dialogue, The Player is the ultimate outsider’s “Eff you!” to Hollywood.

Courtney Small – Revisiting Robert Altman’s The Player a few weeks ago, I was taken by how many celebrities are in this film. Everybody who was anybody in 1992 is in this film. However, The Player is more than an excuse to gawk at famous people for a few hours. What Altman constructs is a riveting and amusing story that exposes the seedy and shallow side of Hollywood. Not only is the large ensemble cast in fine form, but Altman’s camera navigates the multiple characters and story threads with masterful confidence.


8 1/2 (Federico Fellini, 1963)

BA – Fellini couldn’t come up with a movie to top the success of La Dolce Vita, so he made a film about a director who can’t come up with a movie to top the success of his last film. The self-reflexive storytelling is amazing. (A costume designer asks Marcello Mastroianni, who steps in for Fellini as his much more glamorous counterpart, to approve costumes for the movie we’re actually watching.) But even more incredible is the feeling of elation  the film evokes by seeing how the maestro recreates the feeling of dreaming, then ends it with his decision to simply embrace the beauty of life.

PM – Although my cat Fellini and I agree that La Dolce Vita is Federico’s best film, we quite enjoy this dreamy take on autobiography as the director reflects upon his life and movies to date.


Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami, 1990)

BA – Likely Kiarostami’s masterpiece, inspired by the real event of a down on his luck man who allowed himself to be mistaken for successful filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and then became close with a wealthy family after promising to make them key figures in his forthcoming project. The court case that follows shows both a humorous look at the near-nonsense of celebrity culture and where it can take us, but also takes us to the places that human compassion and understanding can go.

PMClose-Up innovatively shows that truth can be stranger than fiction as Abbas Kiarostami takes a story that he discovered in the news and makes it into a movie. The subject suits cinema perfectly since it considers a man named Hossain Sabzian who posed as Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and exploited the filmmaker’s image and personality to gain access to the home of the well-to-do Ahankhah family. The conceit, however, is in the film’s ingenious casting: the director hires not actors, but the subjects of the story themselves to re-enact the drama that put them in the headlines. What ensues is in many ways a dramatized documentary, or a verité-style film made entirely with reshoots. This hybrid film is Kiarostami’s most playful and audacious experiment with form and meaning.

CS – Frequently blurring the lines between fact and fiction, Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-up is a challenging and rewarding film. It is a fascinating deconstruction of the cinematic art form that stimulates the viewer both emotionally and intellectually. As one watches it becomes increasingly apparent that one viewing will not suffice. Each frame and directorial choices demand to be poured over and appreciated. Close-Up is a film that will have you looking at cinema in a whole new light.


Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)

BA – One of Godard’s most beautiful films, in which lofty screenwriter Michel Piccoli is hired to write a junky epic for producer Jack Palance, who soon has his eyes on Piccoli’s gorgeous wife (Brigitte Bardot at the height of her appeal). The sun-drenched cinematography has as much heat as the shots of Bardot’s gorgeous naked body, making your head swim as Godard adds the concerns of his artist character who is as terrified about his artistic integrity as he is about the possible dissolution of his relationship. For those who find Godard’s intellectual adventures shallow, this one won’t convert them, but it does feel much less concerned with its own cleverness than films like Alphaville and Made In USA do.


Two Weeks in Another Town (Vincente Minnelli, 1962)

BA – Ten years after The Bad and The Beautiful, Minnelli reunited with screenwriter Charles Schnee and star Kirk Douglas for a less melodramatic but much darker tale of life on the silver screen. Douglas leaves rehab to visit his pal Edward G. Robinson, playing a director who has seen better days, on the set of his latest disaster in Rome only to be manipulated back into work. What chills the bone so beautifully in this film is the notion that people may mean it when they say they’ll put friendship before work, but the business simply doesn’t give them a choice in the matter. The film culminates in a fantastic car chase that is the best expressionistic use of bad rear projection photography you’ll ever see.


The Bad and the Beautiful (Vincente Minnelli, 1952)

BA – Vincente Minnelli puts Sunset Boulevard into the format of a soap opera, eliciting one of Kirk Douglas’s finest performances as a producer whose corrosive performance has brought his career to an end and estranged his closest friends. Now he’s trying to engineer a comeback but leading lady Lana Turner and friends Barry Sullivan and Dick Powell don’t want to help out, so they tell their tales in flashback (which includes Gloria Grahame’s Oscar-winning performance). If you’re not scintillated by the plot, you can at least enjoy the cinematography (which also won an Oscar), proof that Minnelli, who was famous for his work in colour, could be just as creative and vibrant in monochrome.


La Ricotta (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1963)

BA – This short film by Pasolini was originally part of the Ro.Go.Pa.G. omnibus and preceded his best feature The Gospel According To Saint Matthew in 1964. Orson Welles plays a tyrannical director who can’t get what he wants out of his poor and exploited extra, who gorges himself on cheese at the craft table before trying to fulfill his job of being crucified on film. Pasolini always had something to say about his corrupt society and often got the point across with more poignant humanity in his shorter works.

Symbiopscyhotaxiplasm: Take One (William Greaves, 1968)

BA – William Greaves walks a camera crew through Central Park on a beautiful afternoon in 1968, instructing one camera to film two actors as they perform an angry scene of a bad marriage. At the same time, he tells another cameraperson to film the crew filming the film and yet another to film the onlookers. The layers of observation in this film contribute to a funny, frank, and incredibly entertaining examination of reality in art and fiction and the act of creation in itself. Still feels as fresh now as when it was first made.

PM – People love this film, but I honestly can’t stand it. It’s a “documentary” about a fake movie as director William Greaves auditions actors for a film and captures behind-the-scenes drama. However, I can’t deny that it’s a cornerstone of documentary, especially mockumentary and non-fiction filmmaking that pushed the art form beyond the constraints of Griersonian filmmaking. A film to be studied, but not necessarily enjoyed.


Hollywood Shuffle (Robert Townsend, 1987)

BARobert Townsend’s spoof of racism in Hollywood movies has fantasy sequences that run on too long and its low budget production shows. (Townsend financed it on his credit card and shot it over two years.) However, it does have its moments of brilliance (like the “Black Acting School”) and an overall shaggy appeal. Townsend plays an aspiring actor who keeps missing shifts at his job (at a hot dog stand) to attend auditions. When his ship comes in, he finds himself with a lucrative role as a stereotypical villain and wonders if this is what he really wants.


Footlight Parade (Lloyd Bacon, 1933)

BA – Backstage musicals were a staple in the thirties and Busby Berkeley choreographed tons of them, including this ridiculous fantasy about James Cagney as a producer of live stage prologues for movie theatre audiences to enjoy before the film. As usual, the “stage” numbers are ones that couldn’t possibly be enjoyed by a live audience, but Footlight Parade does touch on the uncomfortable tension between film and vaudeville as the former became more popular and the latter quickly vanished from existence.


The Day of the Locust (John Schlesinger, 1975)

BA – One of the darkest and most disturbing films about filmmaking out there, about an art director (William Atherton) new to Los Angeles who grows up fast after meeting a starlet (Karen Black) willing to do anything to make it in the biz. It’s a bit too long and drags at points, but has two sequences I’ll never forget, one of the destruction of a war film set in which we see Hollywood producers acting like immoral gangsters, and a terrifying riot in the conclusion involving Donald Sutherland as a man named Homer Simpson.


Lions Love and Lies (Agnès Varda, 1969)

BA – Made during Varda’s years in California while husband Jacques Demy developed projects there, this contribution to the counterculture project focuses on Viva, Gerome Ragn,i and James Rado (the latter two now most famous for having written the stage musical Hair) as a threesome living a happy and listless bohemian life in their groovy suburban home. Varda enjoys her usual rebellious conceits, at one point even breaking the fourth wall, and gets the great Shirley Clarke on camera, but it’s a surprisingly boring movie that doesn’t have the verve of Documenteur or Mur Murs.


David Holzman’s Diary (Jim McBride, 1967)

BA – Cinema verité documentaries of the sixties like Chronicle of a Summer, early works like People on Sunday, or experimental films like the work of Robert Frank are gently spoofed in this convincing staged documentary by Jim McBride, in which L.M. Kit Carson plays the title character who has decided to make a diary of his daily life but focuses instead on his obsessions instead. It’s brilliant in execution, though don’t be surprised if you find it impossible to sit through.


The Big Knife (Robert Aldric, 1955)

BA – This filmed adapts Clifford Odets’ vitriolic play about the movie business and its destructive effect on a virile male star (Jack Palance) who wants to get out but the evil boss (Rod Steiger) won’t let him. There’s no doubt that Odets knows what of he speaks (it’s possibly inspired by his affair with Frances Farmer) but in his determination to point fingers he creates a host of one-dimensional characters, and director Robert Aldrich doesn’t find a way to make this talky drama cinematic.