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Library Film Series: Hollywood Under its Own Lens

by John Schacht

July 5, 2016

Photo: A still from Francois Truffaut's 1973 film about filmmaking, Day for Night.

In his brilliant archeological culture dig into Los Angeles' backstory, 1990's City of Quartz, the progressive sociologist Mike Davis chronicles the city's Hollywood-driven mythology, at one point summarizing it via the long list of writers who've had their souls broken by the film industry:

"To move to Lotusland is to sever connection with national reality, to lose historical and experiential footing, to surrender critical distance, and to submerge oneself in spectacle and fraud. Fused into a single montage image are (F. Scott) Fitzgerald reduced to a drunken hack, (Nathaniel) West rushing to his own apocalypse (thinking it a dinner party), (William) Faulkner rewriting second-rate scripts, (Bertolt) Brecht raging against the mutilation of his work, the Hollywood Ten on their way to prison, (Joan) Didion on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and so on. Los Angeles (and its alter-ego, Hollywood), becomes the literal Mahagonny: city of seduction and defeat, the antipode to critical intelligence."

That strange commercial nexus where the movie industry and creative cinematic storytelling collide is the impetus behind Charlotte Mecklenburg Public Library's latest film series, Hollywood Shoots Itself: Movies About the Movies. The 11-film series, which runs through February, kicks off Saturday, July 9, at 2 p.m. at ImaginOn with the 1950 noir classic, Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder's dark satire on Hollywood about the doomed relationship between a down-and-out scriptwriter and a retired, reclusive film star—played by silent film heroine Gloria Swanson—clinging to memories of her glorious past.

Assembled by the library's Sam Shapiro, who's been curating film programs there for nearly 25 years, Hollywood Shoots Itself purposefully runs the gamut of genres (blockbuster musicals, comedies, cult faves, indies and foreign films) and eras: the earliest is Bombshell, a pre-Code film from 1930; 1995's Living In Oblivion is the most recent. The films touch on—either directly or indirectly—nearly every aspect of the movie-making business, from the day-to-day minutiae (Day for Night) and transition from silents to talkies (Singin' In the Rain, Silent Movie) to megalomaniac moguls (The Bad and the Beautiful), dollar-conscious producers (The Player), and larger-than-life (or stranger-than-fiction) directors (The Stunt Man, Ed Wood). Indeed, Shapiro found Hollywood's obsession with itself to be such a rich source that he's already considering a follow-up series that would add documentaries, silent films and other foreign films to the mix.

The first five entries in Hollywood Shoots Itself will be shown at ImaginOn before the series shifts to the main library's refurbished auditorium—which sports a new sound system and Blu-ray player. (See accompanying graphic for dates and times; admission is free.) Shapiro, who introduces each film with some Robert Osborne-style facts and trivia, sat down with Charlotte Viewpoint to discuss the series.

How did the idea for this theme emerge?

I've been doing film series at the library for basically 25 years, and a lot of these are films I've always wanted to show but could never shoehorn them in or find a way to put them in another series. But I started to see a trend, a lot of these were similar in the sense that they were movies about movie-making, or Hollywood in a self-reflective mode, and making films about their own business. I've always just been interested in the subject—movies about movies—and they just tied together really well.

It sounds like you didn't have trouble finding films on the topic...

Hollywood is an industry that's in the business of telling stories, so it stands to reason that they would be fascinated with the movie-making process, which is what they know better than anybody else. So it's not a shock that there are so many great movies about movie-making, because they're reflecting a light on their own industry. What's interesting is that there are so many different genres that fall into that, and this whole series represents a hodge-podge of different genres—you have Sunset Boulevard, which is kind of a nightmarish drama, various comedies like Ed Wood and Living in Oblivion, you have musicals like Singing in the Rain, The Bad and the Beautiful, with Kirk Douglas, is almost like a film noir, it's in black and white with a very dark tone to it. So even though these are films with the same theme, they represent a handful of different genres. It is a genre that's self-perpetuating; Hollywood filmmakers have a certain amount of vanity and they like to make films about themselves—but it's important to note that they don't mind making themselves look bad. A lot of these films are very satirical toward the filmmaker and cast the business in a very sharp, cynical light.

You have films about studio moguls, directors, writers, stars—was that part of the idea, to have all those elements represented, too?

As far as the stories go, a lot of them are about the filmmakers themselves, like Silent Movie, which is all about directors, producers and writers, and some of them are about actors -- like Bombshell is about a movie star. But most of these films are really about filmmakers, not so much the actors. The Stuntman, for instance, where Peter O'Toole plays this megalomaniac director obsessed with making the greatest WWI epic ever. The Player, the Robert Altman film where Tim Robbins plays the producer, is another one, and Sullivan's Travels is about a film director, too. And Day for Night, where Truffaut plays himself and is the film director. Sunset Boulevard is about the scriptwriter—maybe only one or two of the 11 films is about the actors.

Today it seems like everything in the movie business is so test-marketed, and plotted with data collection, it seems like it's taken any kind of risk-taking out of the equation...does that make for fewer films about the movie-making process?

Have you also noticed that when you go to a movie now there are often at least 10 production companies listed before the film even starts? There are all these little companies, it's not like a big studio like Universal or MGM or Touchdown—more often than not they're these little tiny companies that all putting percentages into it, and the credits go on forever because they all have to do their logos. So I think there are less risks taken because there are so many fingers in the pie, whereas earlier on it could sink studios, like Heaven's Gate sunk 20th Century Fox. If it's a bomb, the studio can go down with the ship, so to speak. Now, I think they're made more inexpensively—not the huge blockbusters, of course—and I think with digital filmmaking, because it's not shot on film anymore, it's also less of a risk because they can just keep shooting. Film was a lot more expensive.

While writers aren't the dominant theme here, that Mike Davis quote about their experiences in Hollywood seems a pretty good stand-in for the general tenor of some of these films...

I've always been fascinated by literature about Hollywood—there are all sorts of stories about William Faulkner in Hollywood. F. Scott Fitzgerald also had a similar experience to Faulkner's, where he became despondent that none of the scripts he wrote were being made into movies. He felt betrayed and as a result, one of his last books, This Side of Paradise, was sort of his revenge on Hollywood. I think Faulkner, also, when he went back to Mississippi, after going through this experience, wrote very savagely about Hollywood. A lot of these people were churned up by the factory. They came to Hollywood with idealistic idea that they would be able to seamlessly transition between their novels and scriptwriting, and they would turn movies into art that was reflected in the books, and they were all in for rude awakenings. It's always been about money and capitalism, but it's always been interesting because its coupled with imagination and creativity.

What do you want the audience to take away from the series?

It's a combination of really well-known, certifiable classics like Singing in the Rain and Sunset Boulevard, which I'm sure two-thirds of the audience have seen. But I've interspersed those classics with films I'm looking forward to introducing them to. How many of them have seen Living in Oblivion or this old film Bombshell? I'm also trying to do introduce the audience to different genres, different filmmakers, and to get them to think about the theme itself—to think about how movies are made. I think a lot of people take it granted, they don't know what goes into the filmmaking process; it's like, how does a novel get written? They don't know what goes into it, and I think these films, even though a lot of them are comedies and musicals, they do get into the nuts and bolts of the filmmaking process, and maybe it'll teach people about what goes into the creative process of filmmaking.

I've always wondered what brings them because a lot of these films are on Turner Classics or DVD, but they come because they still like to see these films in a theatrical setting with like-minded people—there's something communal about the idea of filmmaking, and though there's something to be said for watching them in the privacy of your own house, they were meant to be seen with audiences.


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Tags: Hollywood, film, Los Angeles, Mike Davis, City of Quartz, Sunset Boulevard, film noir, musical, comedy, Silent Film, Living In Oblivion, Day for Night, Sullivan's Travels, The Bad and the Beautiful, The Player, Truffaut, Wilder, Charlotte Mecklenburg Public Library, Sam Shapiro

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