Everyone has their idol. The one person, or the group of people, to whom they project their hopes and dreams for their own future. For me, film directors are those people. Rarely basking in the glory of their work, they enjoy quiet praise from the depths of the sidelines, standing proudly in the gloomy shadows created by their dazzling work. Directors who get it right really get it right. There is something imperceptibly different and alluring about the way in which they see the world around them. Never satisfied with the present moment as it is, they craft new worlds, invent new places and different sounds which give life to the unlikeliest of characters. Sometimes, however, the director will do something a little different. Not always content to stand in the muffled glory of the actors around them, they turn the camera on themselves, or rather, their craft.
Films about films are funny things indeed. When we try and describe their plot lines to the unconvinced, we trail off into nothingness, stuttering and stammering that they should really just go and see the work for themselves. In terms of narrative arcs and cinematic action, very little actually happens in these films; it is, after all, cinema taking a back seat and basking in its own glory. And yet, the films which look back at themselves are some of the richest, deepest and most meaningful cinematic moments that we can think about. Brimming with intertextual references, packed full of niche nods to forgotten works that only the smugly educated will spot, films about films read like a who’s who of cinematic history. Of course, films like these are not only for the cinephile. Turning the gaze of the lens inward, they can teach us things about the ways in which we watch the world and how we exist in the real places that we have constructed. Through a need for perfection on screen, meta movies can show us how flawed we have become as viewers and how we have projected our desires to the cinema screen.
One of the most successful meta movies of recent years, The Artist plunged us right into the depths of the early days of Hollywood, bringing back the silent vs. sound debate all over again. Referencing films such as Singin’ in the Rain, Vertigo and big daddy Citizen Kane, The Artist is an ode to the glory of all things cinema. Not only that, the film introduced cinematic history to droves of audiences who weren’t in the know. All cinema needs to do, it seems, is shine its own light from time to time.
The love letter to cinema for adults and children alike, Scorsese admitted that a part of the reason he made the film was so that his children could enjoy some of his cinematic contributions. Introducing the delights of early cinematic pioneer Georges Melies to its audience, Hugo is a genuine delight, making the wonder, magic and playfulness at the heart of cinema feel so fresh again.
Of course, films have their darker days. Whilst they show us worlds unknown and stretch our imaginations, they can also take us to places we would rather leave. Telling the story of a cameraman who murders his victims in a very gruesome way, Peeping Tom reveals the voyeuristic side of cinema. Leading us to places of delight, it can also hold up a mirror to the more sinister depths of the world in which we live.
Following in the same vein as Peeping Tom, Sunset Boulevard captures the dying lights of a Hollywood starlet as she desperately tries to grasp back an iota of her previous fame. Journeying further and further down the rabbit hole, Sunset Boulevard reveals how the gaze of the camera can distort our perception of not only ourselves but the world around us.
A man makes a film. A woman lazily dozes around their apartment. The man and woman argue. It all ends in tragedy. Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris is surprisingly pared down and yet, tells us a much deeper story than some of his other works. The film inside Le Mepris is the cog around which all other things turn, the cause of so many tragedies and misunderstandings. The movie is at the centre of all things and really, pourquois pas?
The Man with the Movie Camera
Perhaps the first self-aware cinematic achievement, The Man with the Movie Camera is also the least linear film in the list. Filming Russians on streets, factories, childbirth, close ups of bulging eyes, the film is not really about anything. And yet, the frenetic nature of the movie, the to-ing and fro-ing of its narration presents cinema as a life force of its own, consuming the world around it as images and spewing it out on captured film at the end. Cinema is alive.
Burden of Dreams
The documentary made alongside Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, Burden of Dreams captures the sheer weight of the production of a film. Of course, there is a difference between a film and a Herzog Film; the director faced disease, civil war, plane crashes in the making of the film. And he pulled a steamboat over a mountain. Burden of Dreams shows us the work force of the director from a documentary maker who isn’t afraid to question the whole process. Cinema looks into itself and is puzzled by its own creation.
Singin’ in the Rain
Back to the place where it all started (for many), Singin’ in the Rain is the quintessential Hollywood movie about meeting your dreams. Much like The Artist was to do years later, the film takes an often questioning approach to the star system, unafraid to reveal its underhand tactics. Of course, it’s Hollywood, so it’s no surprise that, when this camera turns its gaze towards cinema, it likes what it sees very much.