There’s probably no more ironic movie-in-other-movie than the use of a scene from the backstage musical Gold Diggers of 1933 in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Aspirational outlaws Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) and Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) graduate from small-time heists to a proper bank robbery but the getaway is delayed because their driver, C.W., has unaccountably decided to parallel park the car. A lawman jumps on the running board and Clyde shoots him in the face.
Cut to the interior of a movie theater where the three robbers have sought refuge. As Clyde berates C.W., we see the “We’re in the Money” production number from Gold Diggers. In this Busby Berkeley spectacular, the scenery consists of giant legal tender. Ginger Rogers and the other chorus girls wear costumes made of coins; they wield a giant coin in each hand for a sort of fan dance, while a third one covers their private parts. They sing:
We’re in the money,
We’re in the money;
We’ve got a lot of what it takes to get along!
We’re in the money,
The sky is sunny;
Old Man Depression, you are through,
You done us wrong!
We never see a headline
‘Bout breadline, today,
And when we see the landlord,
We can look that guy right in the eye.
(Ginger later runs through the whole thing in pig Latin, in extreme and disconcerting close-up.)
Irony number one: far from being “through,” Old Man Depression would stick around another eight years.
Irony number two: while Bonnie and Clyde may be in the money for the moment, it’s a pretty sure bet–given the ineptitude already on display–that it won’t last.
In a Facebook discussion of this blog, a friend, Dan Rubin, suggested writing about the use of See You Next Wednesday in John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (1983).
See You Next Wednesday didn’t ring a bell so I Googled it and got led down a surprising rabbit hole. SYNW turns out to be a treasured in-joke of Landis’s. There’s a reference to an imaginary movie of that name in sixteen of the films, music videos, and television episodes he’s directed, from his first film, Schlock (1973), to an episode of Masters of Horror that aired in 2006.
Most of the time SYNW appears either in a line of dialogue or on a movie marquee or poster. Here’s a mashup of a bunch of them. According to the boffins at Wikipedia, the ostensibly actual film is seen only in American Werewolf.
(Landis’s better-known running in-joke is his one-up-on-Hitchcock penchant for putting cameos of fellow directors into his movies, sometimes multiple times. Steven Spielberg and Frank Oz are both in The Blues Brothers; Beverly Hills Cop III features Joe Dante, Martha Coolidge, Ray Harryhausen, Arthur Hiller, Barbet Schroeder, John Singleton, and George Lucs; and Amy Hecklerling, David Cronenberg, Jonathan Demme, Paul Mazursky, Roger Vadim, and Lawrence Kasdan all turn up in Into the Night.)
The movie-in-movie scene comes near the end of American Werewolf. While a wolf, the title character, David (David Naughton), has killed his friend Jack (Griffin Dunne). Now in human form, he sees Jack, in the body of a zombie, beckoning him into a Piccadilly Circus cinema. He finds Jack in the dark theater and they and we watch a bit of the porno See You Next Wednesday.
“Good movie,” comments David, reminiscent of a line in The Last Picture Show. In that film the reference was to Red River and the statement was true. I can’t say I’d apply it either to See You Next Wednesday or the pretty dated American Werewolf in London.
Incidentally, the IMDB page for American Werewolf claims that the See You Next Wednesday scene came from Landis’s earlier Schlock. That’s not true, as Landis explained in an interview with The Guardian. “When I was working [in London] in the 1970s, I went to those little cartoon theaters they had, such as the Eros on Piccadilly,” he said. “So in the original script, I had him going into the Eros and there was a Road Runner cartoon playing. But when I got back to London in 1980, all these theaters had become pornos. So I had to change the script to show a porno called, in the best smutty British tradition, See You Next Wednesday. We made the porno ourselves and it was the first scene we shot. It starred Linzi Drew, who was a Page 3 girl at the time; she went on to have an impressive porn career.”
Elsewhere in the film, David has a nightmare in which a peaceful family viewing of The Muppets Show is interrupted by a home invasion of mutant Nazi zombies.
Muppets puppeteer Frank Oz turns up briefly in American Werewolf as an American embassy worker. His line, “These dumb ass kids never appreciate anything you do for them,” is an in-joke reference to the cancellation of The Muppet Show. It was Landis’s first director cameo, and a prescient one, too: Oz wouldn’t direct his first film, The Dark Crystal (a collaboration with Jim Henson) until the following year.
Set in rural Texas in 1951, Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) is informed and sometimes seemingly suffused with the entertainment of the period. That’s most noticeable on the soundtrack. Pop music provides a near-continual backdrop, including such songs (according to the American Film Institute website) as
“Blue Velvet,” “Slow Poke,” “A Fool Such as I,” “Kawliga” and “Jambalaya.” The onscreen credits include the following acknowledgment: “For their music we thank Hank Williams; Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, courtesy of MGM Records; Eddy Arnold; Eddie Fisher; Phil Harris; Pee Wee King; Hank Snow, courtesy of RCA Records; Tony Bennett; Lefty Frizzell; Frankie Laine; Johnnie Ray, courtesy of Columbia Records; Johnny Standley; Kay Starr; Hank Thompson, courtesy of Capitol Records, Inc.; Webb Pierce; Jo Stafford, courtesy of Decca Records.”
The list conjures up on a pre-rock-and-roll world and time all by its lonesome. Bogdanovich frequently uses the music as ironic counterpoint to the characters’ world. In one early scene, the town icy beauty, Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shephard), applies cold cream to her face while Tony Bennett’s Hank Williams cover “Cold, Cold Heart” plays on the radio.
And in Jacy’s house the television set is constantly going; on it we see scenes from Your Show of Shows and Strike It Rich. As her parents are wealthy and miserable, the latter game show counts for more ironic commentary.
But the movies are key. Although The Last Picture Show was adapted from Larry McMurtry’s novel, both the title and theme were perfect for Bogdanovich, a movie critic before he started directing and, then and now, a champion of classic American film. Both plot developments and the era see to it that the “picture show”–in better times the center of town life–must close. As the cashier/popcorn vendor/manager tells high school friends Duane (Jeff Bridges) and Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), “Nobody wants to come to the shows no more. Baseball in the summer, television all the time.”
The Last Picture Show is anchored by two movie-in-movie scenes in which the idealized material on the screen contrasts ironically (again) with the grim reality the characters are living. In McMurtry’s novel, the characters go to the movies to see the 1951 Ronald Reagan-Doris Day melodrama Storm Warning, described this way by IMDB:
Marsha Mitchell, a traveling dress model, stops in a southern town to see her sister who has married a Ku Klux Klansman. Marsha sees the KKK commit a murder and helps District Attorney Burt Rainey in bringing the criminals to justice.
Bogdanovich switches it, big time. Early on Sonny meets his steady girlfriend, Charlene (Sharon Taggert) at the picture show to watch a scene in the affectionate comedy Father of the Bride (1950) in which the Spencer Tracy character greets his daughter, Elizabeth Taylor.
Tracy: What’s happened to you? You look different.
Taylor: I do?
Tracy: Yeah. You look all lit-up inside. You’re not wearing your usual deadpan look, your how-did-I-get-in-this-family? look.
Sonny and Charlene move to the back row for a make-out session. All the while Sonny keeps his eyes on the illuminated visage of the girl of his and so many young men’s dreams, Elizabeth Taylor.
At the end of the novel, McMurtry’s characters watch an Audie Murphy western, The Kid from Texas. Bogdanovich swaps this one Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948), with John Wayne and Montgomery Clift. One possible reason for the switch is that the Hawks film is in black and white, as is The Last Picture Show–a daring move for a studio film in 1971. Another is that Red River is one of the greatest westerns of all time, maybe the greatest. And the scene that unfolds before Sonny and Duane and the other one or two patrons is one of the most thrilling examples of anticipation and release–and use of close-up montage–in the history of movies, the start of the cattle drive. As Duane says to Sonny as they walk out, “That was a good movie.”
One final touch. Outside the picture show lobby in the Father of the Bride scene is a poster advertising a coming attraction, another western, John Ford’s Wagon Master. It happens to have been the first starring role of one of Ford’s company of “players,” Ben Jonson. It’s the same Ben Jonson who plays the moral center of The Last Picture Show, Sam “the Lion,” stealing the picture and winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
Jan de Bont’s Twister (1996) is informed, start to finish, by The Wizard of Oz, but the principal movie that’s actually shown in it is The Shining. The Kubrick classic is on a NIGHT OF HORRORS double bill, along with Psycho, at a drive-in an Oklahoma town where tornado hunters Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt are staying.
The twister arrives in a hurry and transfixes Hunt, who has a Dorothy-like history: Twister opens with a flashback scene in which, as a little girl, she watches as her father is literally blown away. Now, in a nice touch, you can’t tell if her face is illuminated by lightning or by the movie on the big screen. Whatever, she fortunately snaps out of it just in time. Then we see some deft synchronicity: Just at the moment in The Shining when Jack Nicholson has axed his wife’s door to bits, the twister blows the drive-in to bits.
Meanwhile the main characters think they’ve found shelter in a mechanic’s garage, but nuh-uh. In some slightly heavy-handed symbolism, cans of film and then the marquee itself blow through the space, wreaking more havoc and mayhem. You just can’t trust the movies.
I was talking about this blog with the co-screenwriter of Minority Report…
I’ll just pause here and contemplate how cool it is to be able to say that.
Anyway, the writer in question, Jon Cohen, is a friend and neighbor of mine, who actually has moved on from screenplays and now devotes his time to writing novels. When I told him about Movies in Other Movies, he directed me to a scene in the 2002 Spielberg sci-fi movie. The hero, John Anderton (Tom Cruise), wants to escape detection and since everyone is subjected to iris scans wherever they go (a prescient bit!), he engages a sketchy doctor (Peter Stormare) to perform an eye transplant on him.
The movie-in-movie aspect is consistent with the cyberpunk aesthetic of Minority Report. (Apparently, Spielberg instructed his cinematographer to create “the ugliest, dirtiest movie” he had ever made.) In the doc’s tumbledown office, a scene from what appears to be a noir shoot-’em-up is projected on a wall: futuristic technology, retro content. I say “appears” because I don’t know what the film is, and neither does Jon. He e-mailed me, “Whoever did production design or whatever, put that film in the background — it wasn’t in the script.”
I’d really like to know what’s playing, and thus I announce the first Movies-in-Other-Movies contest: the first person to identify the clip (and support his or case) will get a signed copy of my book How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them.
When Anderton wakes up post-surgery, another movie is being projected, and there’s no doubt about its identity: Errol Flynn’s The Mark of Zorro (1940). Presumably Spielberg or the production designer chose it because Zorro has a black mask and–at least until he can take off his bandages–now Anderton has a white one.
So let’s hear your thoughts on what the noir film is. And remember: Don’t scratch.
In 1991, then-Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon published Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, documenting a year he spent observing homicide detectives in Baltimore. Two years later, producers Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana and writer Paul Attanasio adapted the book into a TV series for NBC, which ran until 1999.
So: fictional Baltimore detectives based on real-life counterparts. So far, so simple. The levels of reality got more complex in a fifth-season episode, “The Documentary.” The premise is that the Brodie (like most of the characters, he’s known by his last name) has played hooky from his job as crime-scene videographer and has surreptitiously made a documentary film about the homicide unit. On a quiet New Year’s Eve in the squad room, he tells the cops about the movie, and slips the tape into a VCR machine for a private viewing. For those keeping score at home, we’ve now got a (fictional) documentary about (fictional) detectives based on real-life cops.
The title of Brodie’s opus is a mouthful: “Back Page News: Life and Homicide on the Mean Streets of Baltimore.” (The font in which it’s given is the same as that of the “Homicide: Life on the Street” credits we see rolling over the opening of Brodie’s movie.) Detective John Munch (Richard Belzer) detects a bit of plagiarism.
Munch: “Mean Streets”? What, are you ripping off Scorsese?
Brodie: I wasn’t ripping him off, I respect the man. But he doesn’t hold a candle to great documentary filmmakers like Robert Frank, or [D.A.] Pennebaker, the Maysles brothers, Ken Burns.
Munch: Oh yeah, Ken Burns. He’s the only one who’s ever managed to make something more boring than baseball. A documentary about baseball.
Another name Brodie might have added to his list of documentarians is Barbara Kopple, director of Harlan County U.S.A and many other classic films. Guess what: as we see in the final credit, she’s the director of this episode of Homicide Life on the Street. (It was Kopple’s first foray into fictional directing. She would subsequently direct two more episodes of the series, and one of a later Levinson-Fontana production, HBO’s Oz.)
A few minutes later in the documentary, two cops chase a perp into an alley. What do they encounter there but two other cops who’ve chased down another perp, shouting, “Freeze!” But it turns out they’re all actors, making TV show called “Homicide.” We know the name because it’s on the cap of the director, Barry Levinson, playing himself. The shot goes back and forth between the homicide squad (from Homicide: Life on the Street) and Levinson’s “Homicide” crew as they stare at each other and say “Homicide?” “Homicide?” “Homicide.” The layers are now dizzying.
Ever the cinephile, Brodie, holding his camera, introduces himself to Levinson and pronounces himself a “big fan.” He adds, “I’ve got to tell you, the real police in Baltimore, they don’t say, ‘Freeze.’ It’s a television thing, I think.”
Coda: The Brodie character didn’t appear in the sixth season of Homicide. In the opening episode of the season, we’re informed that his documentary, Back Page News, has won an Emmy.
Barry Levinson’s debut film, Diner–which came out in 1982 but is set in 1959–has movies on its mind, specifically ’50s movies. Start with the fact that its story, about a group of buddies in their early 20s who stubbornly refuse to grow up, is loosely adapted from Federico Fellini’s I Vitelloni (1953), with the setting transferred from Fellini’s hometown, Rimini, to Levinson’s, Baltimore. Beyond that, the Diner kids are movie buffs. Kevin Bacon’s Fenwick has a poster for The Journey(1959) on the door to his room, and a minor character is obsessed with Sweet Smell of Success (1957); he sidles around quoting lines from the Clifford Odets/Ernest Lehman screenplay, like, “JJ, it’s one thing to wear your dog collar, but when it turns into a noose, I’d rather have my freedom.” Movies even insinuate their way into TVs in the appliance store where Shrevie (Daniel Stern) works; a number of them are showing Little Women (1949) as Shrevie tries to make a sale.
The customer, played by Ralph Tabakin (who had small parts in every Levinson film from Diner through Liberty Heights in 1999), says he isn’t interested in one of the new color TVs. “Don’t like that color for nothing,” he says. “Saw Bonanza at my in-laws. It’s not for me. The Ponderosa looked fake. Hardly recognized Little Joe.” In Levinson’s world, nearly everyone–or every male–is a standup comic in waiting. One of the siding salesman in his 1987 movie about aluminum siding salesman, Tin Men, was played by a real-life comic, Jackie Gayle. He riffed about the successful TV western, too:
You got these four guys living on the Ponderosa and you never hear them say anything about wanting to get laid…. I mean you never hear Hoss say to Little Joe, “I had such a hard-on when I woke up this morning.”… You never hear Little Joe say, “Hey, Hoss, I went to Virginia City and I saw a girl with the greatest ass I’ve ever seen in my life.” They just walk around the Ponderosa: “Yes, Pa, where’s Little Joe?” Nothing about broads. … I’m beginning to think that show doesn’t have too much realism.
A couple of the Diner guys have adventurous tastes, going to an art-house screening of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). The camera stays on them as they slump down in their seats listening to Bergman’s portentous dialogue.
Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) stage whispers some standup-style riffing: “What am I watching? The movie just started and I don’t know what’s going on.”
Billy (Tim Daly): “It’s symbolic.”
Symbolism apparently doesn’t play in Baltimore; they walk out.
The big movie-in-movie set piece takes place at a showing of A Summer Place, which wasn’t a huge success in 1959, other than its ear-wormy theme, by Max Steiner, but was much more mainstream fare than Seventh Seal. Almost all the guys are there, in large part because they’re in on a bet: whether Boogie (Mickey Rourke) can get some action from his date. He succeeds, but the Fenwick call the bet off because Boog’s methods are deemed irregular.
It’s a noteworthy scene for two reasons. Most obviously, it puts on display the guys’ attitude towards women, which is basically “bros before hoes,” fifty years before the phrase was coined. The interesting thing is Levinson’s attitude toward the attitude. Sometimes–for example the depiction of Shrevie’s lack of interest bordering on contempt for his wife, Beth (Ellen Barkin)–he coldly and convincingly nails it. But other times, as in this scene, it’s played pretty much strictly for laughs and we feel complicit.
The other thing is Levinson’s use of A Summer Place, specifically that film’s last-gasp-of-’50s-repression treatment of sex and sexuality. In 1959, Hollywood’s morals-protecting Motion Picture Production Code (sometimes known as the Hays Office) was being pushed to the breaking point by such films as Suddenly Last Summer and Some Like It Hot. Delmer Daves’ A Summer Place–based on a novel by Sloan Wilson, author of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit–wasn’t as explicit as those films. But not only is it suffused with unexpressed sexuality, such repression is one of its themes. In one of the scenes shown in Diner (and by the way, Levinson takes poetic license in this sequence, jumping around and presenting highlights from various points in Summer Place), teenage Molly Jorgenson (Sandra Dee) is on a boat with her father, Ken (Richard Egan), and looks through binoculars at a nearby island.
Molly: There’s a boy up there watching me!
[He runs off]
There he goes. Funny feeling being looked at without knowing it. Remember that family that lived next door to us back home?… Their son used to look at me.
Ken: Without you knowing it?
Molly: Well, his bedroom was right across from mine and… one night I felt naughty and went right on undressing so he could see. Then all of a sudden I… I got terribly ashamed and I ran and pulled the curtains down. I’ll never forget… I had hot and cold flashes all over me afterwards. Wasn’t that awful?
Ken: Well, I guess every human being on earth has a few things he’s ashamed of.
We’re in a sort of time warp. A Summer Place was made and set in 1959 but is a decade or so behind the times when it comes to sex. Diner, you feel, is unrealistic (as Jackie Gayle’s character would put it) the other way; its look back of 1959, while not grossly anachronistic, is colored and informed by all the sexual changes of the ’60s and ’70s.
The other movie-in-movie scene in Diner is short and easy to overlook, but it’s my favorite scene in the movie. Alcoholic, dissipated, and self-loathing, Fenwick is a total fuck-up. But then we see him in his bedroom, slumped in an armchair. On the TV (black and white) is GE College Bowl, a quiz show featuring college students that aired from 1953 to 1970. Every question posed by the host, Allen Ludden, Fenwick nails. We glimpse that maybe he’s not such a loser after all. Then Boogie walks in and asks Fenwick for some money, and the spell is broken.