When I started this blog, a friend and colleague, John Jebb, had an immediate reaction: “You’ve got to do Taxi Driver.”
He was right.
The movie-in-movie scene in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film is strange, unique, and hard to forget. The taxi driver of the title, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), has somehow wangled a date with his dream girl, Betsy (Cybill Shephard at her 1970s dreamiest). Travis isn’t the savviest guy out there, and his choice of activity for the date, a double feature at a 42nd Street grind house, is spectacularly off. (The clip starts with a look at street drummer Gene Palma, a Times Square fixture in the 1970s and ’80s.)
It gets worse. Eventually, Betsy bolts.
At this point a curatorial note is in order. The Lyric marquee lists two films — Sometime Sweet Susan, an actual 1975 porn film, and Swedish Marriage Manual, which isn’t listed in IMDB or any other reference site I could find. IMDB says the movie on the screen in Taxi Driver is Sexual Freedom in Denmark(1969). But I think it’s more likely to be the Swedish Ur kärlekens språk(1969), translated in the U.S. as Language of Love. If anyone knows for sure, I would be interested in hearing from them.
Back to Taxi Driver, I have to say I find this scene a bit much. One has to suspend one’s disbelief enough just to accept that Betsy would agree to go out with Travis, and that he would be so out of touch to think that a skin flick is an appropriate first date. But the idea she would agree to walk into the movie and stay for as long as she does strikes me as way over the top. The genius.com website has a version of Paul Schrader’s screenplay, with some character notes, starting with Travis’s reaction to Betsy’s initial discomfort at the double bill:
Travis seems confused. He is so much part of his own world, he fails to comprehend another’s world. Compared to the movies he sees, this is respectable. But then there’s also something that Travis could not even acknowledge, much less admit: That he really wants to get this pure white girl into that dark porno theatre.
Travis makes an awkward gesture to escort Betsy into the theatre. Betsy looks at the tickets, at the theatre, at Travis. She mentally shakes her head and walks toward the turnstile. She thinks to herself: “What the Hell. What can happen?” She’s always been curious about these pictures anyway, and – like all women, no matter how intelligent – she’s been raised not to offend her date. A perverse logic which applies even more in offsetting circumstances like these.
I don’t know. It seems to me that Schrader and Scorsese were mainly trying to get as much uncomfortable awkwardness into one scene as they possibly could. If so, they succeeded.
Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) is a camp classic, a mashup of Sunset Boulevardand Gypsy, with Grand Guignol touches and a cold-eyed look at elder abuse, before the term was coined. The movie opens in 1917. Baby Jane Hudson is a tap-dancing, singing vaudeville sensation; her sister, Blanche, watches jealously from the wings. (And there you have the Gypsy connection. In that 1959 Broadway musical, the child star is named Baby June; her sister Louise is the neglected one. Henry Farrell published the novel What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, on which the movie was based, in 1960.)
Next we’re in a Hollywood screening room in 1935, with executives Ben Golden (Bert Freed) and Marty McDonald (Wesley Addy). Ben doesn’t appear to be happy with the what they’re watching.
Pay attention. In a twist, it’s Blanche who has become the big movie star. Her contract demands that the studio make a Baby Jane picture for every one of hers. Ben and Marty are supposedly looking at work by the grown-up Baby Jane. But actually on the screen are scenes from two real-life 1933 Warner Brothers movies starring Bette Davis, Parachute Jumper and Ex-Lady. Ben’s dilemma is that, as he bluntly puts it, Jane “stinks.” The clips are meant to bear out this assessment.
But do they? True, Davis’s southern accent in Parachute Jumper (her character’s name is “Alabama”) isn’t the most convincing. But on the whole her work seems representative of the time — the years between the end of silent film era and 1934 imposition of the Motion Picture Production Code, when dresses were slinky, underwear was minimal, and both morals and production values were shaky. Certainly, it was sporting on Davis’s part to allow her early work to be presented as an example of bad craft.
Fast forward to the 1962 present. Suburban matron Mrs. Bates (Anna Lee), wearing the full white-gloved June Cleaver look, arrives home to find her daughter (B.D. Merrill — Davis’s real-life daughter) watching an old movie on TV. When she realizes what it is, her face beams with delight.
(By the way, the “sad eye” Margaret Keane paintings on the wall were thanks to Crawford, a big fan of the artist.)
The “fine old Blanche Hudson movie,” as the dog-food pitchman calls it, is in fact Sadie McKee (1934), starring Joan Crawford, Gene Raymond (who smooches her), Edward Arnold (who rescues her from the abusive guy in the nightclub), and Franchot Tone. Unlike the Baby Jane/Bette Davis pictures, it’s presented as an enduring classic. And maybe it’s a bit more polished, but I frankly don’t see all that much of a difference.
We cut to the Bateses’ next-door neighbor Blanche (Crawford), who’s in a wheel chair for reasons that will prove important to the plot but otherwise looks quite presentable; she’s also raptly watching her old movie on the tube as Jane (Davis), who lives with her and has not aged well, walks in. (Again, it was sporting of Davis to agree to wear the grotesque little-girl makeup Jane favors.)
One more piece of good sportsmanship on Davis’s part was not objecting to the use of Sadie McKee as the example of a Blanche picture. It must have dredged up unpleasant memories. A 2017 Harper’s Bazaararticle tied to the release of Feud, a TV miniseries about the making of Baby Jane, described how Davis fell in love with Franchot Tone while making a movie with him in 1935. But Crawford, who met him on the Sadie McKee set, married him, “I have never forgiven her for that, and never will,” Davis said in a 1987 interview.
It appeared that Davis’s team-first attitude paid off, as she was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar for her Baby Jane performance. But that turned out badly. As Harper’s Bazaar reported:
Not only did Crawford campaign hard against Davis, who was the favorite for that year’s Best Actress prize, but she made arrangements to get up onstage herself at any cost. Noting that several of that year’s nominees were unable to attend the ceremony, Crawford offered to collect the Best Actress award on their behalf. And so, when the absent Anne Bancroft’s name was read out, Crawford went up to accept the Oscar on her behalf as Davis watched in shock, and posed happily with Bancroft’s award alongside the night’s actual winners backstage.
In the autobiographical The Big Sick (2017) Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani plays a Pakistani-American comedian named Kumail Nanjiani, who meets and falls in love with a woman named Emily Gardner. In real life, Nanjiani’s wife (and co-author with him of the Big Sick screenplay; Michael Showalter directed) is named Emily Gordon. I guess that counts as poetic license.
I really can’t tell you if the couple’s first date in the movie is true to life but it’s pretty funny. They meet cute when Emily heckles Kumail at a comedy club. Well, he calls it heckling when they talk afterwards; she says, “I didn’t heckle you, just woo-hoo’d you. It’s supportive.”
One thing leads to another, and pretty soon they’re back in his apartment watching a movie.
If this did happen in real life, I would be hard-pressed to tell you why Kumail would have shown the uber-schlocky Night of the Living Dead (1969) to a woman on whom he presumably wants to make a good impression. If he didn’t, then I imagine screenwriters Nanjiani and Gordon chose it because the lumbering old-school zombies are funny and Big Sick is, after all, a comedy.
We don’t find out if the couple sees a movie on their second date. On their third date, however, it’s back to Kumail’s apartment and back to schlocky horror: The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971). IMDB’s synopsis: “A doctor, scientist, organist, and biblical scholar, Anton Phibes [Vincent Price], seeks revenge on the nine doctors he considers responsible for his wife’s death.
Emily asks, “Is this your compatibility test? Like, the way people are with Vonnegut or The Big Lebowski?” (An interesting feature of Big Sick is that while he’s the comedian, she gets at least as many funny lines.) Once again, it’s hard to imagine that Kumail actually likes it, or, even more improbably, that he thinks she will. Or maybe his ulterior motive is to show terrible movies so there won’t be any resistance in moving to the next order of businesss. If so, well played, sir.
Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017) is soaked, saturated, inundated with movie love and consciousness, pun definitely intended. The look of the underwater creature around whom the plot revolves, identified in the credits as “Amphibian Man,” is copied from The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). The beauty-and-the-beast story is a King Kong update. Amphibian Man and Elisa (Sally Hawkins), the heroine, do an imaginary (?) black-and-white dance number that’s based on the Astaire-Rogers “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” from Follow the Fleet. (The song they dance to, “You’ll Never Know,” first appeared in the 1943 musical Hello, Frisco, Hello and is more or less the theme song of Shape of Water.)
Elisa’s close friend Giles (Richard Jenkins), an artist, has an in-progress drawing of Audrey Hepburn on an easel in his studio. He and Elisa live in apartments above The Orpheum cinema, and del Toro gives us to understand that the movies being projected seep through the floorboards and cast a spell on them.
As the film opens and the credits roll, we get a glimpse of one part of the double bill, the 1960 biblical epic The Story of Ruth (Shape of Water is set in 1962), playing to a near-empty house.
An article on the website Vox finds significance in the director’s choice of this film.
The most famous passage from the Book of Ruth is when Ruth, who is a Moabite, entreats her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, to let her come to Israel with her, even after Ruth’s husband (Naomi’s son) has passed away. “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you,” Ruth says. “For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”
The words are spoken between a widow and her mother-in-law, but most people know the passage as a familiar reading at weddings. The devotion it expresses — love that transcends the speaker’s home, family, and beliefs about the world — is the purest distillation of what it is to fall in love and give oneself over to the commitment that entails.
It can’t be an accident that The Story of Ruth is invoked in The Shape of Water, a film about the kind of love in which we both abandon ourselves and discover our true selves in the same moment. And del Toro imbues that idea with an additional insight: To love another, we have to learn to see the ways they’re different from us as well as the ways we’re profoundly the same.
I can’t argue with any of that but I prefer to heed the filmmaker’s own words, regarding all the films seen in The Shape of Water. That sizable list includes Mardi Gras (1958), a Pat Boone musical that makes an unlikely Orpheum double bill with Ruth, and four ’40s and ’30s musicals all seen at various times on Giles’s apparently never-turned-off television: That Night in Rio; Sun Valley Serenade; Hello, Frisco, Hello; Coney Island; and The Little Colonel, featuring yet another unlikely couple, Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. They inspire Elisa to do her own lovely impromptu dance.
Interviewed by Jason Garber shortly after the film’s release, del Toro said,
I spoke to [his friend director Alejandro Iñárritu] and he said to me I think it would be wise that the more obscure the movie, the better it is. The only one that is sort of famous is Little Colonel with Shirley Temple; the rest are really not well-known. Alejandro said that gives the movie a reality even in the fantasy. If everything is heightened, then tonally you’re screwed. I followed his advice and looked for specific movies that were in some instances kind of crappy, like the dancing horse number with Betty Grable or the beautiful but cheesy stuff in The Story of Ruth and the [truly goofy] bouncing giant ball in Mardi Gras.
In other words, sometimes a toga is just a toga. One more thing: Shape of Water was a Fox Searchlight production, and all the movies shown came from its predecessor company, Twentieth Century Fox, making it easier and cheaper to secure permissions.
There’s an interesting tension in The Shape of Water concerning screens. On one side is the big, enveloping one at the ornate Orpheum movie palace (actually the Elgin Theatre in Toronto), which never seems to have more than four or five patrons. On the other are comparatively tiny TV screens, which, when you look closely, are everywhere in this movie. As mentioned, Giles always has his set on, and so does the family of bad guy Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). At various times we see his kids watching the TV shows Hong Kong and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, and the 1959 animated Mr. Magoo comedy 1001 Arabian Nights. (How’s that for obscure and cheesy?)
But that’s not all. As Elisa walks to her bus shop, she passes a TV shop with what appear to be nine sets in the window, all showing different hot-button news events of the early 1960s: JFK speaking, civil rights marchers, Vietnam helicopters. Not only is del Toro collapsing time but the very presence of nine TVs with different content is anachronistic: in 1962 there were only three networks and two or three independent stations in a market like Baltimore (the film’s setting); and they would never all be running news at the same time. Of course, you don’t watch a movie like The Shape of Water expecting realism.
Television turns malignant when the scene moves to the top-secret research center where Amphibian Man is being kept. Whenever we see Strickland in his office, behind him are banks of monitors on which he keeps watch on everything and everyone in the facility. In a film that’s not infrequently heavy-handed, this is a subtle nod to a future (ours) where the promise of privacy is more and more swiftly starting to recede.
I recently presentedBrief Encounter as the first Movies in Other Movies Double Dip — defined as a film in which the characters watch a movie, and which itself is watched by characters in another movie. Now, a second DD — Stanley Kubrick’s TheShining (1980), which is showing on the ill-fated drive-in in Twister.
There’s a lot of television in Kubrick’s horror classic. On three separate occasions, characters watch cartoons directed by the great Chuck Jones — one with the Road Runner, one with Pepé Le Pew, and “To Itch His Own,” with Mighty Angelo the Flea. A purpose, one imagines, is to contrast their particular kind of mayhem with the different and less comic sort Kubrick is about to offer us.
For the set-piece movie-in-movie scene, Kubrick chose the 1971 nostalgic melodrama Summer of ’42. Young Danny (Danny Lloyd) and his mother, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), are watching it on an eerily unplugged-in television, in a large common room in the deserted hotel they’re spending the winter in; also eerie is the out-of-sync soundtrack on the film, not to mention the sound of high winds outside. Meanwhile, father and husband Jack (Jack Nicholson), already exhibiting signs of unusual and disturbing behavior, is asleep in their room. Or so they think.
In Summer of ’42, directed by Robert Mulligan, young Hermie (Gary Grimes) comes of age through a relationship with a beautiful young woman (Jennifer O’Neill) whose husband is away at war. In the scene Wendy and Danny watch (and by the way, this is no movie for a little boy), the two characters have their first conversation. Why did Kubrick choose it? Just a guess — maybe for another contrast, this time between Mulligan’s movie’s gauzy vision of the past and Kubrick’s very different interpretation in The Shining: that is, the past as a literal horror that won’t even stay in the past.
I finally got around to watching the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men (2007) and I found it to be pretty much B.S. — and by that I mean both beautifully shot and a load of nonsense. (I’ll throw in E.A. — excellent acting.) I understand that I am in the minority, given the film’s Best Picture Academy Award and many other honors, and it’s certainly possible that its merits are simply escaping me. But, to me, the Coens’ use of a pulp movie/pulp fiction/comic book trope — the purely evil murderous villain — in a work that clearly wants to be considered as an artistic meditation on the problem of evil is sleight-of-hand and fraudulent. And beyond that, they are perversely committed to depriving their audience of most of the pleasures of pulp. In these I count not only a happy or even an cathartic body-strewn ending, as in Hamlet or King Lear, but other melodramatic elements, like chase scenes and shootouts and scenic denouements that occur onscreen instead of off.
I would include in the b.s. the movie-in-movie scene. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who is described by an IMDB synopsis as a “hunter and welder,” comes home to the trailer he shares with his wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Mcdonald), carrying a pistol and an attache case, neither of which she has seen before. (And can I just say that if I wanted to know what it would be like to be named Llewelyn or Carla Jean and live in a Texas trailer park, the Coen brothers would definitely not be the sources I’d turn to. Their depictions of these sorts of lives, while they play well — the bros are very accomplished filmmakers — come off to me as voyeuristic and fake.)
Carla is watching on TV the 1953 melodrama Flight from Tangier. The Coens always have a reason for their choices, and in this case I can think of two. The older movie starred Jack Palance (seen onscreen), who died in 2006, and to whom the brothers may have been paying tribute. And Flight from Tangier is about a hunt for a missing $3 million. In No Country, that attache case, soon to become the MacGuffin of intense interest, has $2 million in it.
But it’s still b.s., 1, that a Texas TV station in 1980 would be airing this obscure movie, and 2, even if that did happen, that Carla Jean would choose to watch it.
(By the way, the Movies in Movies blog notes that it’s a Technicolor movie being watched on a black and white TV. I judge that detail to be accurate: 1980 was the year when I acquired my own first color television, and Texas trailer parks may not have yet made the transition.)
With this post, I inaugurate a new tag: “Double dip.” It indicates films that have a movie-in-movie scene, and are also watched in a movie-in-movie scene in another film. The only other one I can think of at the moment is The Shining, which has a scene where characters watch Summer of ’42, and which is screening on the doomed drive-in in Twister. Come to think of it, there’s actually a sort of triple dip there: Summer of ’42 has a scene in which characters are watching Now, Voyager. Watch this space for a fuller account.
The topic for today is Brief Encounter, which has been used in more than a dozen films and television shows. The star-crossed, married-to-other people lovers in David Lean’s 1945 classic, Laura (Celia Johnson) and Alec (Trevor Howard), meet once a week for a day in town, and part of their routine is going to the cinema. We see them there twice. One of the films they watch is real but unidentifiable; the other is deeply fanciful.
First we see Laura and Alec watching a preview for the made-up film, Flames of Passion, evidently a sort of King Kong epic, which is everything Brief Encounter is not, starting with the exclamation-pointed self-proclaiming adjectives: Stupendous!, Colossal!! Gigantic!!! Epoch-Making!!! All the stuff that is repressed and suppressed in Lean’s film (made and released during World War II, set in 1938) is right out there in Flames; with its restive natives, stampeding elephants, and passionate kisses, it’s so blatant and on the nose that even the typeface for the title is made out of flames.
This movie is definitely fictional, but Flames of Passion has been used as the title of several films, most prominently a 1922 British melodrama and a 1989 gay love story, very loosely based on Brief Encounter.
The following week, they go back to see Flames of Passion, but first, a Donald Duck short. (IMDB identifies it as the 1938, “Donald’s Better Self,” but there’s no way to know for sure, as all we hear are some Donaldian quacks.)
Everybody laughs uproariously at the low comedy, which appears to offer not only relief but a sort of release from the world’s burdens — a familiar motif from Sullivan’s Travels, Sabotage, and Hail, Caesar!. What’s not familiar is the elevated level of Laura and Alec’s analysis, at least to those of us used to in-theater comments on the order of “Don’t go in there, you idiot!” (The screenplay, I should have noted earlier, is by Noel Coward.)
Alec: “The stars can change in their courses, the universe go up in flames, and the world crash around us, but there’ll always be Donald Duck.”
Laura: “I do love him so … his dreadful energy, and his blind, frustrated rages.”
Then the music starts and Alec says, “It’s the big picture now. Here we go. No more laughter. Prepare for tears.”
We see the opening title:
A lot to parse there. First, the Roman numerals affirm the year as 1938. The apparent 180-degree transformation of Gentle Summer to Flames of Passion is presumably a sardonic commentary on Hollywood’s tendency to bastardize source material. And (the fictional) “Alice Porter Stoughey” refers to the then prominence of three-named, six-syllabled American female authors, such as Alice Duer Miller, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and especially Olive Higgins Prouty, whose 1941 novel Now, Voyager became the aforementioned hit Bette Davis melodrama the following year. (Prouty was an interesting figure, in part because of her subsequent close relationship with the much younger Sylvia Plath. Wikipedia tells us that she “supported Plath financially in the wake of Plath’s unsuccessful 1953 suicide attempt: Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes, would later refer in Birthday Letters to how ‘Prouty was there, tender and buoyant moon.’ Many, including Plath’s mother Aurelia, have held the view that Plath employed her memories of Prouty as the basis of the character of ‘Philomena Guinea in her 1963 novel, The Bell Jar.“)
Lean and Coward’s final comment on Hollywood is that the next thing we see is Alec and Laura leaving the theater. She says in voiceover narration: “It was a terribly bad picture. We crept out before the end, rather furtively, as though we were committing a crime.”