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Five Movies About Directors

Some people like to watch movies the same way they eat sausages; ignorant to the process that led up to it, and the things that went into it. I understand that point of view, but don’t always share it. For example, movies about directors can offer an entertaining insight into how movies (and stage productions) are made.

Me and Orson Welles (2008) 

While Orson Welles is undoubtedly best known for his work as a movie director and actor, he was able to get his start in the movies because of his success on the stage.  Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) is a 17-year-old actor who lands a small part in Orson Welles’ 1937 stage interpretation of Shakespeare’s Julius CaesarWe’re supposed to be most interested in Richard and his story, but Welles (Christian McKay) commands every scene he’s in. Viewers who know a bit about Welles and his history already know how Caesar will be received, but it’s enjoyable watching how the show comes together.

This film works because we see the toll that Welles’ genius and ego take on the people around him.  Barely into his 20’s, he’s already an oversized talent (with an ego to match), even if his achievements haven’t yet caught up to his potential.

Ed Wood (1994) 

This movie, and the print biography that preceded it, are largely the reason that Ed Wood went from being the laughable butt of jokes to a likeable and sympathetic butt of jokes. His abilities and skills aren’t the subject of much debate – his films are, simply put, quite bad.

But this movie paints a picture of a man whose excitement and dedication to making movies are beyond question. The driving force for Ed Wood is simply to get the movie made, regardless of time, budget, script or talent limitations.  Wood (Johnny Depp) here might be a little too sympathetic of a character.  The conflicts we see for Wood are primarily external (he’s already fairly comfortable in his cross-dressing, and that doesn’t put many obstacles in his path), and while that’s fun to watch (and it’s easy to root for him), the lack of internal struggle makes Wood less real.

Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) gives us more to empathize with.  He’s regarded by most as being past the end of his career when he meets Wood – in fact, most film industry players think Lugosi’s dead.  Lugosi struggles with the loss of his wife, drug addiction, and with fact that if any old horror actor is likely to find work it wouldn’t be him – it’d be Boris Karloff. Lugosi’s an artist, even though his craft abandoned him long ago. Wood gives Lugosi a place to continue making his art, though Wood does everything he can to trade on Lugosi’s name (and whatever residual value it has) to help get his movies made.

Throughout the movie Wood reminded me of a three-year old when they hand you a drawing to put on the refrigerator door.  By any measure it’s a bad piece of art, but you can’t help loving the child (and by extension their drawing) because they’re so proud of having done it.

Synecdoche, New York (2008) 

This movie is not as widely seen as some of the other movies written by Charlie Kaufman, at least if domestic box office and number of votes on IMDB are any measure. (Being John Malkovich has more than 5x the numbers of Synecdoche, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has more than 10x.)  But it’s an incredible movie, even if it’s a little challenging to watch at times.

Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theater director whose professional and personal lives are a mess.  He wins a MacArthur Fellowship, giving him the resources to produce a show about something “real”, even though the logistical challenges of directing his characters to live “real” lives on a “real” stage present seemingly insurmountable challenges and take a devastating toll on him.

The film mixes Caden’s life and his work to such a degree that he (and we) sometimes struggles to keep up, and to keep track of what’s real, what’s rehearsal and what’s performance. Caden’s devotion to his art borders on psychosis…. actually it becomes psychosis. His problems are things that we face ourselves: being doomed to repeat our mistakes on an increasingly larger (and at the same time smaller) stage, fears of love and of being abandoned, and perhaps the worst of all, only learning the truth about ourselves when it’s too late to actually do anything with that knowledge. Any difficulties watching Caden’s fractal arc are for me a welcomed departure from most other movies. Synecdoche is one of those wonderful (and all too rare) films where most of us watching for the first time are going to have no idea what’s going to happen next.

Stardust Memories (1980) 

Stardust Memories is Woody Allen’s , though perhaps not quite as much of a philosophical exploration (or quite as good of a movie) as the Fellini classic. Still, I think this is one of the best movies of Woody Allen’s career.

Movie director Sandy Bates (Allen) is invited to attend a retrospective of his films, where he meets a seemingly endless stream of fans who bemoan his current efforts to make “serious” movies.  Sandy finds himself caught between his attractions to different women, as well as an unforgettable woman from his past.  His loves focus and distract him, and we’re often treated to scenes straight from Sandy’s memories and imagination. As professional, Sandy feels (and in fact becomes) imprisoned by the celebrity his past success has created.

In comparing Stardust Memories to (which is difficult not to do), I found Stardust easier to view as a traditionl “movie,” since Bates seems to have more meaningful (or at least more straightforward and relatable) interactions with the world around him than does Guido Anselmi.  There are parts where Stardust slogs a bit, but the insightful moments are more than enough to make up for the minor flaws.

8½ (1963)

The ultimate movie about movie directors or, more precisely, about struggling with a creative block. We watch the accomplished director Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) struggle on his latest project as his wife, his mistress, his movie company and the press make demands of him, forcing Guido in and out of his own dream world.

Though the themes that are examined are familiar, their presentation through Guido is intimately personal. Despite his successes, he’s still just a child – his sexual memories of Saraghina (and his subsequent discipline for the sexual exploration) are as strong as anything that’s happening in his life today. His current sexual attitudes, as we see in the particularly humorous harem scene, are still perhaps a little underdeveloped and immature.

He’s achieved professional success, but still struggles with his relationships (in speaking about his wife, his wife’s friend tells him “what she really wants is for you to be different from what you are”). That’s a tough pill to swallow. Guido even questions his own current relevance, confiding “I really have nothing to say.  But I want to say it just the same.” I can relate to that.

About Me

In 1976 I went to see The Sting with my father and sister.

Unfortunately, we arrived at the theater an hour after the show started. We went in anyway, and watched the last half of the movie. After the movie was over we stayed until the next showing, so I eventually got to watch the first half of the film (already knowing how it was going to end).

I was struck by the magic of the movies, and how we could be tricked by the actors (and by our own assumptions of what's happening on the screen), and how this was a wonderful thing.