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Monday, November 12, 2007

Self Portraits, Part 1 (originally published 1/01)

A good friend of mine who worked for a number of years as a location manager in the movie industry once told me how you separate the sheep from the goats in that profession. Any reasonably competent location manager, he explained, can secure permission for a film crew to shoot in a given location. The real trick is to get permission to go back to that same location for the next film you work on. That takes class.

The reason, of course, is that no one truly understands how enormous a pain in the neck it can be to be invaded by a Hollywood film crew until it actually happens to them. As anyone who has experienced it can tell you, it's rather like enduring a plague of locusts - locusts with Winnebagos. The recently released "State and Main" satirizes this aspect of the movie industry by showing what happens when a small New England town is descended upon by a wild and woolly film crew shooting a period piece. This is by no means the first time that moviemakers have bitten the hand that feeds them by casting a jaundiced eye on their own industry. For a sampling of how earlier filmmakers have portrayed their chosen profession, look for these titles on home video.

"Sullivan's Travels" (1941). Joel McCrea plays a movie director who feels that his pictures, though very successful, are too frivolous and trivial. He longs to make an important social drama, but realizes that he doesn't really know anything about social problems. He decides to remedy this by setting out to roam the country living the life of a hobo. The result is a near-perfect blending of comedy and drama. Writer-director Preston Sturges entertainingly makes the point that there is at least as much nobility in making people laugh as in sober social commentary. By the way, McCrea's character decides early on that the title of the serious and important movie he wants to make should be "O, Brother, Where Art Thou?" That's where the Coen brothers got the title of their newest release.

"Sunset Boulevard" (1950). Writer-director Billy Wilder's classic portrayal of a fading star who can't accept that her day in the limelight has passed is justly famous. Norma Desmond (magnificently played by Gloria Swanson) was one of the great stars of silent pictures, but her phone hasn't rung in 20 years. Still she clings to the belief that she will soon make a comeback. She herself has written the script in which she will appear. A young, out of work screenwriter (William Holden) agrees to help her revise the script, even though he knows it's hopeless. Because he needs the money, he feeds her delusions. As a creature of Hollywood, this response on his part is natural and instinctive, Wilder suggests. I'm not giving away very much by telling you that he ends up dead. The film, in fact, opens with a shot of his dead body floating in Norma's swimming pool. Then the dead man's voice narrates the story for us in flashback.

"The Bad and the Beautiful" (1952). Kirk Douglas stars as a ruthless Hollywood producer who exploits and then betrays four of his friends on his way up the ladder. Upon falling on hard times, he actually has the gall to go back to them and ask for their help again. The film was directed by Vincente Minelli (Liza's father), who brought to the project an intimate knowledge of both the business and social sides of Hollywood. A number of well-known Hollywood personalities and their sad stories were woven into the script with only minimal camouflage. The Southern novelist played by Dick Powell, for instance, is clearly based on William Faulkner, whose misadventures in Hollywood are legendary.

"Day For Night" (1973). I don't know of any film that portrays the joys and frustrations of making a movie better than this wonderful French jewel by Francois Truffaut. If you have an aversion to subtitles, don't worry. Dubbed versions of this title are actually easier to come by than subtitled versions. Truffaut himself plays the part of a movie director trying to complete a project that runs into one snag after another.

And this is only the beginning. Next week we'll look at even more examples of filmmaking as seen through the eyes of filmmakers.

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