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Monday, November 5, 2007

Shoestring Cinema (originally published 8/99)

Given the essentially narcissistic nature of Hollywood, it's hardly surprising that the movie industry regularly turns its cameras on itself. From the very earliest days of moviemaking until today, filmmakers have consistently ranked themselves among their own favorite subjects.

Naturally, a great many of these movies have tended to revolve around the major studios, those massive, venerable old temples of the Hollywood mystique. Occasionally, however, a film is made about the moviemakers who exist on the fringes of the Hollywood system. Without access to the money and resources of the majors, these guerrilla filmmakers have elevated cutting corners to an art form unto itself. That's the sort of filmmaking that is celebrated in "Bowfinger," the new comedy from the pen of Steve Martin.

Although "Bowfinger" is a bit off the beaten track for a Hollywood self-portrait, it is by no means the first film to dramatize the world of low-budget cinema. For a sampling of how earlier filmmakers have portrayed their low rent colleagues, look for these titles on home video.

"365 Nights in Hollywood" (1934). Alice Faye stars as an ambitious youngster trying to make it in Hollywood. Her big break comes when the head of her acting school receives financing to make a low budget picture and gives her a leading role. The only problem is that the school is a fake and so is its headmaster. He structures the deal so that if the picture doesn't get made the money will go to him, then hires a has-been alcoholic director to make the film. The story of a producer actively sabotaging his own project at every turn will not be unfamiliar to anyone who has worked in the movie industry.

"Targets" (1968). Writer-director Peter Bogdanovich, who was, at the time, a young, low budget filmmaker, needed someone to play a young, low budget filmmaker. Not unreasonably, he played the part himself. As director Sammy Michaels, Bogdanovich tries to persuade aging horror film star Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff, also essentially playing himself) to make one last horror picture with him. Orlok demurs, saying that the newspapers are full of actual horrors that far surpass anything he portrayed on the screen. While making a personal appearance at a drive-in in connection with one of his films, Orlok confronts one of those real-life horrors in the person of a crazed gunman on a killing spree.

"Hearts of the West" (1975). In the early studio days of Hollywood, the major studios ruled the roost with their elaborate, expansive backlots. The smaller studios, the ones who made B-pictures, mostly occupied tiny, run-down buildings along Gower Street near Sunset Boulevard. This area came to be known as "Poverty Row," or, because so many of the studios made B-Westerns, "Gower Gulch." "Hearts of the West" lovingly recreates the "Gower Gulch" days by following the misadventures of an aspiring Western pulp fiction writer named Lewis Tater (Jeff Bridges). When he is helped out of a jam by a company shooting Westerns on a shoestring, Lewis takes a job with them as a stuntman and extra.

"Hollywood Boulevard" (1976). Like Bogdanovich and dozens of other talented filmmakers, director Joe Dante began his career working for Roger Corman, Hollywood's "King of the B's." In "Hollywood Boulevard," Dante and co-director Allan Arkush parody the Corman style in a comedy made for Corman himself. Make no mistake, this is definitely an example of the very type of schlock film being spoofed. Still, for fans of that sort of material this affectionate take-off offers lots of clever references and in-jokes.

You can't currently obtain a new copy of "Hollywood Boulevard," as the video release has been put on hiatus, but the corner video store may well have a copy for rent. If not, look for "Hollywood Boulevard II" (1989). Not so much a sequel as a loose remake, it wasn't directed by Dante, who has since moved on to more lucrative and respectable assignments. Even so, it still retains the same sense of fun, as well as the same basic affection for low budget filmmaking.

And why not? As disreputable and fly-by-night as it is, shoestring filmmaking is where they all started out. No one is going to trust a green, untested kid with a multimillion dollar epic until he's cut his teeth on a few cheesy, no-budget exploitation flicks. Not in real life anyway. Everyone knows that sort of thing only happens in the movies.

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