Films about films: The rise of self referential cinema

As the festive period recedes into the past, there are two feature films still at cinemas that, unlike bulging waistlines, are a welcome reminder of Christmas. Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese, and Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist both have lavish visuals and melodramatic styles that sit warm among the heartstrings in the colder weather. Both have also earned great plaudits from critics, lead the way in Oscar nominations, and have (spoiler alert) French(ish) leading men named Georges. They also share a more fundamental trait: they are both films about films.

In some ways this isn’t surprising; we expect self-obsession from Hollywood, an industry poised to inflict the awards season on the public this winter. There are many historical examples. The idea seems to have originated in Los Angeles: A Star is Born tells the simple story of a rising young actress making her name. However, it can be seen in films around the world: as recently as 2009 Pedro Almodovar made Broken Embraces, a brilliant but eerie tale of an aging director that’s just a little too personal. Sunset Boulevard is perhaps the greatest film about Hollywood, and finds its captivating story in the sadder side of the business – the later years of an aging star. David Lynch followed on in this tradition with Mullholland Drive, depicting a sinister effect of glossiness in film-land.

The style of films about films can vary greatly. There is the straightforward biopic, ranging from the successful (see the young Robert Downey Jr. in Chaplin), to the more bloated (Howard Hughes somehow made tedious in Scorsese’s earlier The Aviator). This kind of movie was twisted with characteristic verve by Johnny Depp and Tim Burton in Ed Wood, a film about the worst film-maker ever (which ironically brought ‘Ed’ belated cult appreciation). Then there are the more layered examples – Boogie Nights, about the porn industry, which after many shenanigans ends with another film starting to get made. Get Shorty is a gangster film about making a gangster film; its meta final line is ‘endings man, they weren’t as easy as they looked’.

The first thing to say about 2011 additions to a slightly specific genre is that they should both be seen – most importantly, they have engaging stories. Obsessed with cinema, they have deep fascination with early films in particular, nostalgically harking back to the silent era through different plot techniques, and eliciting delight from modern audiences even when remembering the clunkiest of technologies. With this they are not too saccharine, as they acknowledge the inevitable sadder side of progress: both main characters (the two Georges) are left behind to some extent with the advent of ‘talkies’.

One reason for this recent focus on film-making can be posited through thinking about Hugo. In marrying a story about Georges Méliès’ films from the 1910s with probably the best use of 3-D yet seen, Martin Scorsese links the old with the very new. 3-D was supposed to be the future, but is now looking pretty tired (see the re-release of Titanic this spring). Despite this, the development obviously caught Scorcese’s eye, and as he experimented, thought hard about the past too (one of the films key successes). The Artist has the same dichotomy at its heart, set more specifically in 1929. Is it a coincidence that this was the year last major stock market crash? Almost certainly. But the same phenomena can be seen elsewhere; films like Super 8 and Cloverfield are shot on hand-held cameras as they become available to a mass market.

Why do films about films matter? We might ask. Well, what is initially an observation only for the enthusiast extends out to other areas of life. They say that you should ‘write about what you know’, and Hollywood in particular has found a rich vein of material following this advice. More generally, the brief and by no means comprehensive list of films above shows that greats of today often hark back to older movies – from Spielberg to Tarantino the masters are extremely cine-literate. The Artist and Hugo are rich and loving in their treatment of cinema history, teaching us to treat change with respect, but also asking us not to forget the past. Don’t be surprised if either win a couple of golden statues. But then Hollywood hands those out all the time – it’s the films that live long in the memory.

By Robert Griffiths