I don’t believe I’ve ever written about a movie-in-documentary scene. But I couldn’t resist featuring this bit from the third episode of Martin Scorsese Netflix documentary about Fran Lebowitz, Pretend It’s a City. Lebowitz is complaining (three words that anyone describing the series will use pretty often) about New York City taxicabs, in particular the little screens built into the back of the front seat on which continuously stream various kinds of content. Lebowitz says she doesn’t know how to turn them off, and we cut to a scene where she tries to and fails:
That’s Scorsese, of course, saying “He just got out of prison.” It didn’t take much searching to discover that the clip is from a public-service announcement that was shown in movie theaters in 2009, encouraging people to turn off their cell phones. So much for the power of advertising.
It’s a pretty delicious in-joke for a series that’s quite elegantly made and is filled with nice touches. And here, for your information, is the whole commercial — whose title, when it went up for awards and such, was simply “Scorsese.”
After I wrote about Janet Leigh doing her best Norma Desmond on Columbo, comments here and elsewhere directed me to two other similar TV episodes. The first (chronologically) is “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine,” which aired in the first season of The Twilight Zone in 1959 and was directed by Hollywood veteran Mitchell Leisen. Ida Lupino (a great Quizzo answer in being the only person to star in one TZ episode and direct another) is a not-just-fading-but-faded screen star. As the series’ writer and auteur Rod Serling intones in his intro,
Picture of a woman looking at a picture. Movie great of another time, once-brilliant star in a firmament no longer a part of the sky, eclipsed by the movement of earth and time. Barbara Jean Trenton, whose world is a projection room, whose dreams are made out of celluloid. Barbara Jean Trenton, struck down by hit-and-run years and lying on the unhappy pavement, trying desperately to get the license number of fleeting fame.
(Tell me again how this guy got the reputation as a great writer.)
Here’s the opening of the episode:
An immediate distinction between this and both Sunset Boulevard and the Janet Leigh Columbo is that both of those use clips from the star’s own previous work. Here, Lupino is supposed to be watching a Barbara Jean Trenton picture from 1933, A Farewell Without Tears — clearly based on the Hemingway World War I novel A Farewell toArms, with its soldier-nurse love story. But the clip isn’t from an actual vintage film. In fact, it looks like it was shot a couple of days before, and probably was; I’ll think you’ll agree that Lupino doesn’t appear any younger than her 41 years.
By the way, the real movie version of A Farewell to Arms, with Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes, came out in 1932.
I won’t spoil the ending of the episode, which like the entire run of Twilight Zone is available on Netflix, but will just say that it recalls Sherlock Jr.and anticipates The Purple Rose of Cairo.
The other aging star shows up in another Columbo episode with a Twilight Zone-ish title, “Requiem for an Falling Star” (1973), directed by Richard Quine. Anne Baxter plays Nora Chandler, who seems to have plenty of work (we see her shooting several scenes in the course of the episode) and is far from decrepit (Baxter was a youthful-looking 49 when the episode was shot). Nor does she live in the past. It’s Columbo who watches one of her old films on TV (it’s an untitled fake noir); check out her scornful dismissal at the end of the clip.
As you can tell from his reactions, Colombo is a lot more interested. No spoilers, but the clip will end up providing an important clue to solving the murder. (I forgot to mention, there’s a murder.)
A fun bonus in the episode: legendary costume designer Edith Head and her Oscars show up playing themselves.
The other day I read a New York Times piece in which Elisabeth Vincentelli extolled the virtues of Columbo, which ran on television in various forms from 1968 till 2003, and is now available on NBC’s new free streaming service, Peacock. It made me want to sample the show, an entire episode of which I had unbelievably never watched. (I guess I was more into Kojak, Harry O, and The Rockford Files.)
And then I came to this line: “In the episode “Forgotten Lady,” [Janet] Leigh is simultaneously chilling and poignant as a Norma Desmond-like older actress who rewatches her past oeuvre — including the actual Leigh movie ‘Walking My Baby Back Home’ — on a loop.”
As soon as was logistically possible, I had downloaded Peacock, searched for the episode, and pressed play. It was pretty amazing. As Vincentelli noted, it was in some ways a takeoff on Sunset Boulevard, in which silent film star Desmond (Gloria Swanson) lives in the past, in part through obsessive screenings of her own films (the ones we see are Swanson’s own). In “Forgotten Lady” — which originally aired in 1975 and was directed by Henry Hart and written by Bill Driscoll — Leigh plays Grace Wheeler, a former stage and screen musical star who hasn’t been in any shows for some time, for reasons not immediately clear but will prove important to the plot. Leigh was a mere 48 at the time and though Grace favors Norma Desmond–style caftans and cigarette holders (no headdresses, thankfully), she looks youthful and lithe enough to hoof it all night long.
As Vincentelli suggests, we’re meant to understand that she watches one of her movies every evening. Maurice Evans as the butler, Raymond, plays the Erich von Stroheim role and mans the projection booth.
As in Sunset Boulevard, we see Grace watching a Janet Leigh movie, Walking My Baby Back Home (1953). In it, Donald O’Connor plays an World War II vet who comes home and, in a classic case of terrible timing, wants to start a dance band. The plan inevitably fails but at least he gets the girl, Leigh’s Chris Hall. (Interestingly, in “Forgotten Lady,” her character in the film is referred to as “Rosie” — which is the name of Leigh’s character in another movie, Bye Bye Birdie.) From the clips seem throughout the episode, Walking looks fun enough but surely the reason it was used is cost: it and Columbo were both Universal productions.
I found “Forgotten Lady” fascinating (not surprisingly) because meta self-consciousness runs through it. Photos of Grace — Leigh at various stages of her career — abound in the home she shares with the gone-before-the first-commercial husband, Dr. Henry Willis (Sam Jaffe — who started out in the Yiddish theater, starred as Dr. Zorba on Ben Casey, pioneered the Jewish Afro, and deserves more than a parenthesis).
And there’s a book-in-movie aspect. Henry’s bedtime reading, which becomes an important plot point, is a novel called The Transformation of Mrs. McTwig. No such book exists, though the cover is a perfect rendition of a style favored by ’50s and ’60s comic novels, and an Internet sleuth has discovered that the plot description given in the episode also fits a real book, Paul Gallico’s Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris (1958).
Another key plot point is that Raymond and his wife, the maid (Linda Scott), watch and relish The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (on NBC, like Columbo), and director Hart gives us a generous portion featuring frequent guest Della Reese and Carson’s classic reaction takes.
The denouement of the episode is a second screening of Walking My Baby Back Home, to which Columbo and Grace’s old partner, Ned Diamond (John Payne — yet another old pro), have been invited. It’s a striking scene and the way Hart shows the film projected on Grace and Ned’s faces is a remarkable rendition of the way the movies have almost literally inscribed themselves on these characters.
Before you press play, two notes. First, Hart (understandably) cheats a little bit in having the sound from the movie suddenly and mysteriously muted as Grace and Ned have an emotional confrontation. (Surprisingly, this isn’t noted in the “Goofs” section of the IMDB entry on the episode.) And second, speaking of sound — you may want to mute the whole scene if you intend to watch “Forgotten Lady,” as I heartily recommend you do. As the saying goes, it contains spoilers.
The Netflix series Stranger Things has two things in common with The Sopranos. First, it’s very good. Second, a lot of television is watched in it. I just went through the IMDB “Connections” forthe 1980s-set Stranger Things and was reminded that the material visible on characters’ TV sets over the course of three seasons includes the series Knight Rider, All My Children, Magnum P.I., PunkyBrewster, Cheers (three times), and Family Feud (twice), and the movies Mr. Mom, Frankenstein, and The Thing (John Carpenter’s 1982 remake).
The show, which was created by Matt and Ross Duffer, collectively known as the Duffer Brothers, is quite smart about all of this, with the TV stuff often implicitly commenting on the characters and action. Thus Hopper (David Harbour), a well-meaning but perpetually frustrated paunchy cop in small-town Hawkins, Indiana, is shown watching Tom Selleck’s glamorous Magnum. And Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who is ambivalent about her extraordinary powers, to say the least, is transfixed by Boris Karloff as the monster first imagined by Mary Shelley. As Anna Leskiewicz observed in The New Statesman,
Eleven sits on a sofa, hugging a teddy bear tight to her chest. She’s watching a black and white film on a static-filled TV screen. “Who are you? I’m Maria,” a girl says. “Will you play with me?” It’s the 1931 Frankenstein, and Frankenstein’s monster looks at Maria with the same blank expression Eleven has when she’s learning a new word. As Maria and the monster wonder off, hand in hand, Eleven looks as though she’s on the verge of tears. She’s just a child, but it’s clear that she feels caught between both characters: the monster and the girl.
There’s a lot of what you might call intertextuality going on here. A Terminator trailer turns up on TV in season two, and a major bad guy in season three is Grigori (Andrey Ivchenko), who’s one big Terminator callback, down to the big gun and the Schwarzenegger-esque hairdo. The likable Russian informant Alexei is seen laughing uproariously at a Woody Woodpecker cartoon; a couple of episodes later, he wins a big stuffed Woody Woodpecker at the town fair. The glimpse of John Carpenter’s Thing (a character also has a poster for it in his room) is perhaps an acknowledgement that the demon/monster in Stranger Things is quite Thing-y. In Season 3, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) cracks open a can of New Coke. (Stranger Things’ shamelessness about product placement is part of its cheesy charm.) His buddy asks, “How do even drink that?” Lucas responds: “It’s like Carpenter’s The Thing. The original is the classic, no question about it. But the remake … sweeter, bolder, better.”
It goes on. Red Dawn (1984) gets several mentions in season three, because the Soviets-take-over-small-town plot of that film is pretty much what’s going in on ST. And, more broadly, the whole series respectfully and artfully borrows themes, look, and vibe of ’80s kids-against-the world movies like E.T.., The Goonies, and Stand By Me.
But only twice do characters see a movie in the theater, both times in season three. In the first episode, “Suzie, Do You Copy?” (written and directed by the Duffers), Steve (Joe Keery) is working at the Scoops Ahoy ice cream shop at the Starcourt Mall, hence the ridiculous sailor suit. He shows the kids a back way to sneak into the mall’s multi-screen theater.
Day of the Dead (1985) was written and directed by George Romero, and is a sort of sequel to his seminal zombie pic Night of the Living Dead. One obvious connection is that zombie-like creatures will indeed show up in Hawkins later in the season. Another is that, as Elena Nicolaou pointed out on Refinery 29, the movie and the series have “uncannily similar music. The Dead Suite, played in the opening scene of Day of the Dead, sure resembles a simplified and slowed-down version of the Stranger Things theme. Those staccato notes in a minor key are staircases to the same conclusion: We’re not headed anywhere good.” The temporary electrical blackout at the mall portends bad happenings as well.
Six episodes later, Steve, his Scoops Ahoy coworker Robin (Maya Hawke), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and the breakout character of the season, no-nonsense Erica (Priah Ferguson), are sneaking into the mall multiplex again. This time it’s more urgent: they’re on the run from the Russian bad guys, who have given Steve and Robin some nasty bruises and (via a truth serum) a bad case of the giggles.
On the screen, of course, is Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future, and Jen Chaney has made the case in Vulture that “Stranger Things 3 Is Basically One Big Back to the Future Homage.” She lists a lot of small and large similarities, including a scene in episode 1 where Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) is late for work (the power outage messed up his alarm clock) and has to get dressed in a hurry:
Jonathan, wearing just a pair of briefs, puts one foot into his pants and loses his balance, falling forward out of the frame.
That is an exact duplicate of what Michael J. Fox, as Marty, does when he tries to get his jeans back on after his first 1955 meeting with the teenage version of his mother, Lorraine. Just in case you didn’t catch these Back to the Future hat tips, the Duffer Brothers, who created the series and wrote and directed this episode, follow them up by blasting a Huey Lewis and the News song — “Workin’ for a Livin’,” not “The Power of Love” — as Nancy marches purposefully to the office.
I have to admit I skimmed a lot of her article. That’s because she dealt with how the season ends and I haven’t watched episode eight yet. I’ve enjoyed this show so much I’ve kind of put it off as long as possible.
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.