Wednesday, July 04, 2007

10 Definitive Films-Within-Films

We’re talking meta-movies here this time out! In particular - movies that contain sometimes just an inkling, sometimes an almost fully formed movie of its own inside their film framework. Fictitious films abound through cinema history - a fake title mentioned here, a fabricated clip seen in passing there but these examples cited below are unique in that their film within a film is practically their sole reason for being.

1. “Mant” in MATINEE (Dir. Joe Dante, 1993)

A comic valentine to the end of the 50’s sci-fi B-movie era MATINEE is set in Key West, Florida, during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. This is the perfect setting for schlock meister showman Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) to unveil “Mant” billed as “Half Man...Half Ant...All Terror!” and presented in Atomo-Vision and Rumble-Rama.

Woolsey (who was supposedely based on like-wise schock -meister William Castle but his silhouette and appearance in his trailers are pure Hitchcock) gets his girlfriend played by Cathy Moriarty to dress as a nurse to get patrons to sign “medical consent forms” in the theater lobby, rigs the seats with electric buzzers, and even hires a guy to dress up as a giant ant and appear at a pivotal moment to scare the audience. All these gimmicks are employed to enhance the experience that is “Mant,a black and white spoof of vintage monster movies in which a man mutates into a giant ant.

Appearances from veteran actors Kevin McCarthy (the original INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS), Robert Cornthwaite (the original WAR OF THE WORLDS, the original THE THING) and William Shallert (CRY TERROR! - '58) give it creature feature cred while Moriarty does double duty as the actress playing the Mant’s distressed wife. As the high price on the Amazon ad to the right indicates MATINEE is sadly out of print but it must be noted that the original widescreen version laserdisc (circa '94) has a stand-alone extra of the entire “Mant!” movie, running about 20 min. With hope a DVD re-release with this bonus will arrive some day and give this under-rated gem its deserved due.

2. A Fistful Of Yen in THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE (Dir. John Landis, 1977) 

At just over 30 minutes this is the longest film within a film on this list. Sandwiched inside a hodge-podge of TV commercial parodies, movie trailer send-ups, and other media mocking mayhem, “A Fistful Of Yen” is a savage satire of 70’s Kung fu cinema in general but mostly it takes on the seminal Bruce Lee vehicle ENTER THE DRAGON (Dir. Robert Clouse, 1973)

As KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE was the first feature by sketch comedy trio the Zucker bros. (David and Jerry) and Jim Abrahams, this extended piece was essentially a warm-up piece to AIRPLANE! and a introduction to their joke-a-second sight gag style. Evan C. Kim plays the Lee stand-in who accepts an assignment by the Government (U.S.? British? Does it matter?) to infiltrate Dr. Klahn’s (Master Bong Soo Han) island fortress of extraordinary magnitude, foil his destructive master plan and "kill fifty, maybe sixty people."

3. Habeas Corpusin THE PLAYER (Dir. Robert Altman, 1991) 

Major Spoiler! - Andy Civella (Dean Stockwell) and Tom Oakley (Richard E. Grant) pitch a premise to slick but sleazy studio exec.Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) - a dark thriller about an innocent woman sentenced to death. Oakley insists that the project be done with no stars and no happy ending – “she’s dead because that’s the reality – the innocent die” and “when I think about this - this isn’t even an American film” he stresses. 

When "Habeas Corpus" emerges a year later we see its final scenes in a studio screening room as the creators and execs look on. It’s now completely populated by stars (Bruce Willis, Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, Peter Falk, Louise Fletcher, Ray Walston, etc) and has a contrived feel-good one-liner ending – “traffic was a bitch” Willis retorts after rescuing Roberts from the gas chamber. Why was this vision so disgustingly comprised? With dollar signs in his eyes Oakley responds “what about the way the old ending tested in Canoga Park? Everybody hated it, we reshot it now everybody loves it – that’s reality!” SNAP!

4.Je Vous Presente, Pamela (Meet Pamela) in DAY FOR NIGHT (NUIT AMERICAINE) (Dir. Francois Truffaut, 1974)

The making of “Meet Pamela” is the entire premise of the Oscar Award winning DAY FOR NIGHT. Truffaut plays a director much like himself who is consumed with every detail of his latest production. His cast and crew, all seemingly playing versions of themselves toil and plod through the never ending chaotic shooting schedule. The beautiful American actress Jacqueline Biset (who is one of the only actors that has a few lines in English) plays Pamela who in the mist of movie passion gets caught up in a romance with Jean Peirre Leaud (Truffaut regular and alter ego in the ANTOINE DOINEL series) who continually asks everyone he meets “are women magic?”

The first scene shows a busy Parisian street with dozens of people walking, children playing, a bus passing, and a man (Leaud) walking up the stairs from a subway tunnel to confront another man on the sidewalk then slap him. The director yells “cut!” and we have a unit director through a bullhorn - “the bus was 2 seconds late, the background activity was late too!” We are immediately inside both the film being made and the outer film about making it. And so it goes throughout the whole picture – we get a sense that "Meet Pamela" is a cliched melodrama far less interesting than what goes on behind the camera – which of course is in front of the camera in this film but before I blow my meta-mind out I digress…

5.Chubby Rain” in BOWFINGER (Dir. Frank Oz, 1999) Another movie about the making of a fictional movie but this one is so uniquely American in its con-artistry. BOWFINGER has many detractors but I consider it the best Steve Martin movie of the last 10 years. Granted that’s not saying much – I mean CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN, BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE, PINK PANTHER – uh, anybody? The movie being made was chosen by Martin’s not so wild but at times completely crazy small-time movie-maker wannabe Bobby Bowfinger character from a sci-fi script by his accountant (Adam Alexi-Malle) about aliens who come down in the raindrops hence “Chubby Rain.

After a cursory script skimming by slimey studio exec Robert Downey Jr. Bowfinger finds that his project would get greenlit if he gets self proclaimed “biggest black action star in the world” Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy). So when Ramsey is uninterested in the doing the film, especially after meeting Bowfinger – the cast and crew (including Heather Graham, Jamie Kennedy, and Christine Baranski) stalk him shooting film of him without his knowledge to star in “Chubby Rain.”

The hoax works for a bit but Ramsey being extremely paranoid and a pawn of a Scientology-like organization called Mindhead goes ballistic at the movie manipulations surrounding him. In the end though a deal is struck and the completed “Chubby Rain” is a pure crowd pleaser from the unknowing participation from Ramsey and the knowing participation from his geeky twin brother Jiff who serves as his double (of course also played by Murphy).

A glimpse at another ficticious film “Fake Purse Ninjas” starring Bowfinger and Jiff is seen at the end. Sure "Chubby Rain" as a film within a film is silly beyond belief but even in its fake truncated form when we see a montage of scenes from it at its premiere it looks more valid and a more solid credible film than say DADDY DAY CARE, I SPY, HAUNTED MANSION, or even NORBIT for Christ’s sake!

6. The Purple Rose Of Cairo in THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (Dir. Woody Allen, 1985) 

Since the Woodman is a fully functioning film historian himself, the idea that he would construct a completely realized movie to be watched and worshipped during the depression especially by domestically abused Celcelia (Mia Farrow) is not far fetched at all – in retrospect it seems natural as all get out. It’s just harmless escapism involving dapper dressed witty socialites on a Egyptian expedition before enjoying "a madcap Manhattan weekend" until protagonist pith-helmet wearing explorer Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) walks offscreen into Farrow's life and a world of trouble.

Then the actor playing the character - Gil Shepherd (also Daniels) has to appear to talk his alter-ego back onto the screen so the movie can play out. The other characters in "The Purple Rose Of Cairo" remain on the screen squabbling about their predicament and sometimes ridicule the few audience members while Cecelia is torn between the two men - "I just met a wonderful new man. He's fictional but you can't have everything.." One of Allen's greatest lines ever in his entire cinematic canon is spoken by an extra - credited as "Moviegoer" an irrate old lady (too lazy to do the full research on this one - several women are listed as "Moviegoer" on IMDb) complains at the box office - "I want what happened in the movie last week to happen this week; otherwise, what's life all about anyway?" 

7. "Codename Dragonfly" in CQ (Dir. Roman Coppola, 2001) So the story goes, this movie about a movie is a pastiche of the movies BARBARELLA (Dir. Roger Vadim, 1968) and DANGER: DIABOLIK (Dir. Mario Bava, 1968) - that is it's a nod to Italian knock-off spy thriller/cheap "it came from outer space" spoofs. Jeremy Davis plays an idealistic 60's film-maker in Paris in 1969 whose ego gets in the way of his artistic ambition when he works as an editor on "Codename Dragonfly". In the commentary cinematographer Bob Yeoman says "it's actually 3 movies within a movie" - the first being the black and white documentary that Davis's Paul character is self indulgentely making, the second - the sexy sci-fi "Dragonfly" project, and the third being I guess the entire CQ ("seek you") project surrounding it - I think that's it - maybe I need to watch it with commentary again. Anyway "Codename Dragonfly" is available as an extra on the CQ DVD in 2 different versions each running roughly over 10 min. - one is Paul's (Davis) the other director Andrezej's (Gerald Depardieu) compromised cut with fake "scene missing" bits and incomplete matte paintings. 

8.Home For Purim(later changed to “Home For Thanksgiving”) in FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION (Dir. Christopher Guest, 2006)

As one of Guest's lesser ensemble comedy works the film within a film here is actually pretty funny. The plot of the movie being made is about a daughter's confession of her lesbianism to her ailing mother upon coming home for a traditional holiday. Such issue driven content must be Oscar rewarded, right? So goes the premise here - funny in spurts - some of which spurts have studio exec Martin Gibb (Ricky Gervais) suggesting that they should "tone down the Jewishness" - hence the title and holiday change. Insinuated online Oscar buzz goes to the heads of the cast of "Home For Thanksgiving" particularly to unfortunately and cruelly named Marilyn Hack (Catherine O'Hara) and pretentious veteran actor Victor Allan Miller (Harry Shearer). From the evidenced quality (or lack of) in said film within film we can see way in advance how their fortunes (or lack of) will turn out. 

9.The Orchid Thief in ADAPTATION (Dir. Spike Jonze, 2002)

It could be argued that this entire movie is a movie within a movie here - it is hard to see where the screenplay Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage) is writing ends and his brother Donald's (also Cage) begin. Hired to adapt Susan Orlean's (Meryl Streep) bestselling "The Orchid Thief" Kaufman sweats bullets on how exactly to make a story out of a story-less book. He declares "I don't want to cram in sex or guns or car chases or characters learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end." His brother Donald is working on a populist thriller called "The 3". When Charlie realizes that Donald may have the accessible keys to making his work adaptable they collaborate and the movie concludes with sex, guns, a car chase, characters growing, coming to like each other, learning profound life lessons, and overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end. Charlie: “I’ve written myself into my screenplay.” Donald: “That’s kind of weird, huh?”

10. “The Mutants of 2051 AD” in STRANGE BREW (Dirs. Rick Moranis & Dave Thomas, 1983)

SCTV's beloved beer-swilling Canadian spokesmen Doug and Bob McKenzie introduce their new movie at the beginning of STRANGE BREW. It's a cheapie sci-fi epic set in the future after a worldwide holocaust. We see Bob (Moranis) drive their beat-up van suspended on very visible wires through what he calls "the forbidden zone" - "I was kinda like a one man force, eh? Like Charlton Heston in OMEGA MAN. Did you see it? It was beauty." The film breaks down, the audience revolts wanting their money back and STRANGE BREW regresses to a regular comedy setting. Too bad - if they kept the non-existant budget sci-fi thing going through the whole movie we might have really had a classic here.

Honorable Mention : “The Dueling Cavalier” (later changed to "The Dancing Cavalier" in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (Dirs. Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly) We see little of this film within a film but its production meeting brainstorming makes the concept take on a life of its own. Especially as Wikipedia notes - "The film "The Dueling Cavalier" is probably a reference to THE CAVALIER (Dir. Irvin Willat, 1928) a largely silent picture notable only for its poorly dubbed songs that were thrown in when it became clear talkies were popular."

"American Scooby" in STORYTELLING (Dir. Todd Solondz, 2001) The second half of STORYTELLING entitled "Non-fiction" details documentary film-maker Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti) filming Scooby (Mark Webber) - a high school student and his family (including father John Goodman * and mother Julie Hagerty) through the college application process. The film that results - "American Scooby" with its title, identical soundtrack and right on down to the "straw wrapper blowing in the wind" (a substitute for that plastic bag of course) is obviously a huge dig at AMERICAN BEAUTY. Apparently this is because Director Sam Mendes put down Solondz's work so file this under pay-back time. * 

Goodman, again. He is surely the meta-man to go to for fictional film appearances! "Stab" in SCREAM 2 (Dir. Wes Craven, 1997) Robert Rodriguez filmed the film-within-a-film here that dramatized the events of the first SCREAM. Also it should be noted that SCREAM 3 which was the series concluder also featured the fictional series concluder "Stab 3: Return to Woodsboro."

Also: “Tristram Shandy” in TRISTHAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY (Dir. Michael Winterbottom, 2005) and "Raving Beauty" in CECIL B. DEMENTED (Dir. John Waters, 2001)

Dishonorable Mention : S1m0ne (Dir. Andrew Niccol, 2002) Computer generated actress Simone (Rachel Roberts) created by washed-out film maker Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) stars in 3 fictional films - "I Am Pig", "Sunrise Sunset", and "Eternity Forever". What we see of them is just as unconvincing as she is. "Jack Slater IV" in LAST ACTION HERO (Dir. John McTiernan, 1993) The less said about this Schwarzenegger dud the better. Don't know why I even brought it up. "Time Over Time" in AMERICA’S SWEETHEARTS (Dir. Joe Roth, 2001) Diddo. 

Send your favorite film-within-a-film to 

More later...

No comments: