The Sublime and the Ridiculous of Film on Film

Bounding into cinemas this month is the Coen brothers’ latest, Hail, Caesar!, continuing the long and noble tradition of Hollywood making films about itself. The story of a studio ‘fixer’ attempting to keep stars’ reputations intact during the production of a biblical epic, it takes an unusually sunny approach to its subject matter. 1950s Hollywood may have been littered with egos, gossip and numbskulls, the Coens argue, but it was benign enough. Sprinkled with glitter and centred on make-believe, nothing that terrible could happen…or could it?

Over the years, film has never quite been sure how to present itself. It could loudly trumpet its virtues Team America-style (“Hollywood, fuck yeah!”), if it weren’t for the fact that anyone who’s even come close to writing, producing or directing a film will be all too familiar with its pitfalls. If anyone ought to know about cinema’s setbacks and frustrations it’s filmmakers themselves, and they’ve been more than happy to explore these. All filmmakers, too, recognise that there’s one ingredient no story can survive without: conflict. Even if they don’t present Hollywood as the seventh circle of hell, they still need to find the obstacle to overcome, the problem to be resolved.

An early obstacle came with the introduction of sound, and there’s no character it presented a bigger challenge to than Norma Desmond, tragic anti-heroine of Sunset Boulevard. After struggling to transition into the ‘talkies’ she withdrew into her LA mansion, growing embittered and generally chewing the scenery (“I am big”, she rants, “it’s the pictures that got small!”). An encounter with a cynical screenwriter ignites dreams of a comeback, however, unleashing a maelstrom of delusion and desperation that perfectly captures the fallout of a wounded ego.The Artist mines similar turf – a star resisting the turning tides of time – but in much peppier fashion. Filmed in black and white with title cards, it’s an homage to the silent era which is instantly more forgiving of Hollywood than Sunset Boulevard. And sure enough, while George Valentin almost succumbs to his pride, he’s rescued from the brink and re-moulds himself into a tap-dancing Astaire-alike. In classic sunny-side-up fashion, The Artist turns the obstacle into opportunity, providing a literal Hollywood ending.

whether they focus on the sublime or the ridiculous – the studio shenanigans of The Player,or the brooding danger of Mulholland Drive – one thing all these films share is a love for film itself

Desmond and Valentin are far from the only egos to be held under the cinematic microscope, though. is the quintessential film-about-a-film, with Marcello Mastroianni’s director being flung into a tailspin of memories and fantasies as he grapples with his latest picture. It’s a lush rendering of the constant doubt that underpins genius, with Mastroianni confessing, “I have nothing to say, but I want to say it all the same!” Also depicting the tortures of the creative process (albeit with slightly less sumptuous scenery) is the so-meta-it-hurts Adaptation. Dramatising Charlie Kaufman’s struggle to adapt The Orchid Thief, it sees him bluster through pressured studio meetings and uninspiring writing lectures, with events from real life and the novel intertwining in a magical mess until Chris Cooper winds up in the mouth of an alligator and Meryl Streep gets zonked on opiates. No one ever said being creative was straightforward, but these films make it seem virtually masochistic.

Writers in Hollywood aren’t always so introspective, though. Occasionally they’ll look outwards, at the frankly bonkers system surrounding them. In Tropic Thunder, no one is safe – not Ben Stiller’s action hero, hoping to redeem himself after an ill-advised performance as “full retard” Simple Jack; not Robert Downey Jr’s method actor, who never drops character until after the DVD commentary; nor any of the lumber-headed producers and self-aggrandising stars attempting to stitch together a Vietnam war epic. The result is a painfully funny skewering of the blockbuster production line. Equally biting but with a narrower focus is For Your Consideration, which satirises one of the most bombastic cogs in the Hollywood machine: awards season. As its characters sabotage themselves on the hunt for acclaim, we’re exposed to the gaudy, surreal world of self-promotion that is an inevitable by-product of modern movie making.

Sometimes, we have to step away from Hollywood to best appreciate the positive effects of film. Take Son of Rambow, in which two English schoolboys form an unlikely bond while making a home-movie recreation of Rambo; or The Purple Rose of Cairo, where cinema literally becomes magical for a dowdy Manhattan waitress after a matinee hunk steps off the screen and into her life. The most loving cinematic ode to cinema, however, comes in Italy’s Cinema Paradiso. Film is a guiding force for little protagonist Toto, from his childhood helping projectionist Alfredo at the local cinema through to his return 30 years later in search of lost love. Without ever being preachy or sanctimonious, it show us how film is a tool that can help people through life, and is imbued with a childlike wonder at both cinema and life itself.

Indeed, whether they focus on the sublime or the ridiculous – the studio shenanigans of The Player,or the brooding danger of Mulholland Drive – one thing all these films share is a love for film itself. That love might be battered and jaded, but it remains throughout all the ups and downs of movie-making, borne through by an undying optimism about cinema’s potential. The sheer fact that these artists examine film via the medium of film demonstrates that some little kernel of passion is still alive within them. It’s persistent and contagious, and is what keeps them – and us – coming back to the movies time and time again.

Hail, Caesar! is in cinemas now.

More about the author

About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

Follow Harry on Twitter.

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