Sunday, March 29, 2009

Films in Films

The idea of having characters in films watching films (either on TV or at the cinema) didn't really take off until the 1970s. Its recentness suggests a post-modern notion, but for American directors of the 70s, it was rooted in respect for the directors and films they loved. Both Peter Bogdanovich and Martin Scorsese, for example, have their characters go see John Ford films in two of their early features – Rio Bravo in The Last Picture Show and The Searchers in Mean Streets respectively.

Joe Dante, king of tongue-in-cheek pastiche and in-movie references, has Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, It's a Wonderful Life, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and even Cocteau's Orphée being watched in Gremlins (1984). It's a popular – and obvious – device, particularly used in horror films, of a character watching a film scene almost like a premonition of what's going to happen to them next. Knowing, post-modern horror film Scream (1997) is littered with references to films such as Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street, and indeed in one scene a character called Randy is watching Halloween, screaming at the screen "He's behind you!" when in fact, the killer is also behind Randy. In Hellboy II, Hellboy watches Bride of Frankenstein.

Cult horror film The Black Cat (1934), starring Béla Lugosi, is being watched in Woody Allen's Melissa and Melissa. Allen's characters have been self-consciously going to the cinema since the 1970s, when they largely went to see Fellini or Bergman films. (I've been meaning to write a post defending Woody Allen for ages, mostly because of all the bad press he gets nowadays. It's now fashionable to trash Allen but let me just state: he's a great film-maker – and whilst I'm at it: think of any film-maker who made great films late in their career – not Kurosawa, not Fellini, not Antonioni, not Altman, not Hitchcock, not Welles; other directors still alive churning out crap – Scorsese, Coppola, Tarentino, Cohen, Scott – don't get as much flack as Allen. I tell you, it's all because he married his daughter. I don't care! His films are still funny and smart, even his bad ones – they're thematically consistent, stylish, sophisticated and still way funnier than all those gross-out Farrelly brothers/Apatow comedies which somehow pass for humour nowadays.)

Anyway, more recently, the idea of films in film seems to have lost its way, with rather random (or rubbish) films being watched in films: Jerry McGuire in Hitch; Hello Dolly in Wall-E.

If the notion makes one self-conscious and aware they're in the process of watching a film, it's also a realistic tact: hey, we go to the movies and watch TV too, we're just like you!

What's always irked me about that so-called 'realistic' genre the soap opera is its characters never watch soap operas. Wouldn't Eastenders be so much more realistic if its characters actually watched Eastenders (or maybe Corrie – watching themselves watching themselves may prove too post-modern for audience and actors)?

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