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.
The killer in Dirty Harry (1971) was loosely based on the so-called Zodiac Killer. Very loosely. The deviations start in the opening scene, as the killer–called “Scorpio” in the film–uses a high-precision rifle to kill someone in a hotel rooftop swimming pool and leaves a note demanding the city pay him $100,000. In the last scene, Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan captures, shoots, and kills Scorpio (right after reprising the most famous line of the film: “Ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do you, punk?”). Nothing of that corresponds with the real-life Zodiac, who killed at close range, didn’t ask for money, and was never apprehended or even conclusively identified.
But the parallels were close enough for the screenwriter and director of the 2007 Zodiac (James Vanderbilt and David Fincher) to use Dirty Harry as an ironic counterpoint to the real-life police officers their film portrayed. The key cop in Fincher’s film is San Francisco Police Department Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Rufalo), whose previous previous cinematic connection is mentioned in Zodiac. One character notices the way his gun is upside-down in a shoulder holster and says, “He wears his gun just like Bullitt”–the title character of Steve McQueen’s 1968 San Francisco-set cop movie. Another replies, “No, McQueen got that from him,” which is apparently true.
In Zodiac, years of going by the book and following up fruitless leads starts to wear Toschi down. His supervisor urges him to take some time off: “Go to Candlestick [home of the Giants baseball team], see a movie.” We cut to a marquee announcing a special screening for the S.F.P.D. Whoever selected the film for the screening probably meant well but made a kind of cataclysmic blunder, with the choice of Dirty Harry. We see Toschi, seated next to his wife, slumping deeper and deeper into his seat till he has to leave–one imagines that the fantasy of a cop taking the law into his own hands is simultaneously alluring and offensive, yielding a cognitive dissonance that’s hard to bear. He walks out to the lobby; he’s still there, smoking a cigarette, when the film ends. The mayor walks by and says, “Hey, that Harry Callahan did a hell of a job with your case.”
Toschi: “Yeah, no need for due process, right?”
Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist who has become obsessed with the Zodiac case, joins Toschi and tries to offer some encouragement: “You’re gonna catch him.” As he walks out, Toschi responds, “Pal? They’re already making movies about it.”
As viewers of The Simpsons know, The Itchy & Scratchy Show is a cartoon often watched by Bart, Lisa, and their friends; it’s about a mouse who finds ever more baroque ways to maim and/or kill a cat. The cartoon-within-a-cartoon first appeared in 1988, when the characters who would become The Simpsons were a feature of The Tracey Ullman Show, and, according to the Simpsons Wiki, has been featured eighty-seven times on The Simpsons proper.
“The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” (1998) was a milestone for The Simpsons: with it, the show passed The Flintstones for the most episodes produced for a prime-time animated series. Probably not coincidentally, the episode provides a deliciously meta look at the problems confronted by a long-running show. You see, ratings for The Krusty the Clown show are plummeting whenever Itchy and Scratchy comes on, and Krusty isn’t happy. “But Itchy & Scratchy is critically acclaimed!” the cartoon’s producer, Roger Meyers Jr., tells him. “Acclaimed?” the clown snorts. “I oughta replace it right now with that Chinese cartoon where the robots turn into blingwads!”
The attempts to get Itchy & Scratchy back on its feet were surely taken from The Simpsons’ staff’s own experiences, from the self-contradictory focus groups (“So you want a realistic, down-to-earth show that’s completely off-the-wall and swarming with magic robots?”) to the notes from network execs. They’re sure the show needs a new character–a dog. “We at the network want a dog with attitude,” one suit says. “He’s edgy. He’s in your face. You’ve heard the expression ‘let’s get busy’? Well, this is a dog who gets ‘biz-zay.'” (Remember, this episode appeared in 1998, when the “let’s get biz-zay” Arsenio Hall Show had already been off the air for four years.)
The ploy doesn’t, of course, fool Lisa: “Adding a new character is often a desperate attempt to boost low ratings,” she confides to Bart. Magically and without explanation, a new kid appears in the Simpsons household, Roy; like Poochie, he wears shades and a backwards baseball cat. Á la The Fonz, he calls Homer and Marge “Mr. and Mrs. S.”
Improbably, Homer is hired to provide the voice of the cartoon dog, Poochie. He appears with “June Bellamy,” who does Itchy’s and Scratchy’s voices, at a fan event. And that gives the episode’s writer, David X. Cohen, a chance to skewer the bulletin-board-lurking obsessives The Simpsons had already begun to attract. One of them, Doug, pushes up his glasses and asks a question.
In episode 2F09, when Itchy plays Scratchy’s skeleton like a xylophone, he strikes the same rib in succession, yet he produces two clearly different tones. I mean, what are we to believe, that this is a magic xylophone, or something? Ha ha, boy, I really hope somebody got fired for that blunder.
Homer: I’ll field that one. Let me ask *you* a question. Why would a grown man whose shirt says “Genius at Work” spend all of his time watching a children’s cartoon show?
Doug: I withdraw my question.
[starts eating a candy bar]
Everybody gathers at the Simpsons house to watch the episode.
Nelson’s right, it stunk. As usual, Lisa has the sharpest take: “It’s just that Poochie was a soulless by-product of committee thinking. You can’t be cool just by spouting a bunch of worn-out buzzwords.
To which Bart inevitably replies, “Don’t have a cow, Lise.”
Cohen gets in more jab at the “fans.”
Comic Book Guy: Rest assured I was on the internet within minutes registering my disgust throughout the world.
Bart: Hey, I know it wasn’t great, but what right do you have to complain?
Comic Book Guy: As a loyal viewer, I feel they owe me.
Bart: What? They’re giving you thousands of hours of entertainment for free. What could they possibly owe you? If anything, you owe them.
Comic Book Guy responds with the first iteration of what would become one of The Simpsons’ own greatest buzzwords: “Worst. Episode. Ever.”
Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981) begins, appropriately, with the sound of heavy breathing. We see the outside of what turns out to be a sorority house. A security guard lingers in front of a window, watching as two very scantily clad sorority sisters dance to loud rock music. All of a sudden a knife appears in our frame a vision, and–from the point of view of us, the audience–the guard is stabbed in the back. The killer moves over to the next room, whose occupant is having sex with a guy. She sees the slasher and yells out. But it’s too late–he’s already in the house. As he strolls the halls he observes more young women wearing very little clothing and gazing at one with no clothing, in a shower stall. Out comes the knife, and before we can say Psycho, she sees him and screams…
And we cut to John Travolta, a cigarette in his mouth, giggling. “God, that scream is terrible,” he says. We’re in a screening room where Travolta’s character–sound designer Jack Terry–and the director have just watched the same footage we have.
After some back and forth about the scream, the director asks how long the two of them have worked together. Jack: “Well, let’s see. I met you on Blood Bath, right, and then we did Blood Bath 2. And then we did Bad Day at Blood Beach, and then we did Bordello of Blood. That brings us up to date, Coed Frenzy.”
Coed Frenzy is specifically a … takeoff on? homage to? … Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), which shares the killer-in-the-sorority-house setting and is sometimes credited (?) with being the first slasher film. Blogger and author Dan Hassler-Forest makes a distinction between Black Christmas and John Carpenter’s much more successful Halloween, which came out four years later:
Halloween and its many, many imitators tend to transform the intended victims into objects for us to stare at as they are being stalked, pursued, and threatened by the killer, thereby aligning us with the aggressor’s point of view. The implicit misogyny of the resulting formula was parodied most effectively by Brian de Palma in the opening scene of his masterpiece Blow Out, where every sexist cliché in the genre book is thrown at us. As early as 1981, it was apparently obvious to someone as astute as De Palma that slasher movies were all about ogling women as fetishized sex objects before taking sadistic pleasure in seeing them suffer.
I’m not sure if I would be so quick to credit De Palma with astuteness and parody. Rather, he appears to be fetishizing (or at least directing his gaze at) the women, and then taking sadistic pleasure in their fate. The sleazy director tells Travolta, “I didn’t hire that girl for her scream, I hired her for her tits.” To me, that about sums up De Palma’s actress-casting philosophy.
Travolta goes out to Fairmount Park to record some sound effects for Coed Frenzy. (The thing I like best about this movie are the many Philadelphia locations. I moved to town the year after Blow Out was released, and the film is an archive of many things that have changed, like the Reading Terminal, RIP, and a few that have stayed much the same, like the Reading Terminal Market.) While there he happens to record the sound of a car plummeting off the bridge, a car that happens to have in it a politician and a woman not his wife. Shades of Chappaquiddick.
Listening to the recording, Jack is convinced that it contains evidence of nefarious doings, and he becomes obsessed with it. Shades of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Antonioni’s similarly titled Blow-Up, and Coppola’s The Conversation. There is some interesting exploration of voyeurism and ’70s-style conspiracy, and some typically well-crafted De Palma set pieces, but the film left a bad taste in my mouth. The repeated violence against women came off as exploitative (in a bad way) and, to use Hassler-Forest’s word again, sadistic.
Back to the subject of this blog, Dennis Franz plays a sleazy opportunist in Blow Out, as only Dennis Franz can. At one point he’s in a cheap motel room, and the TV is on, as TVs in cheap motel rooms always are. IMDB tells me that the movie he’s watching is Brian De Palma’s first film, Murder à la Mod (1968), which failed so badly that for years it was believed to be lost, and no one missed it. The plot, according to an IMDB contributor:
Naive young lady Karen wants to help her struggling amateur filmmaker boyfriend Christopher raise enough money so he can divorce his wife. Meanwhile, jolly psycho prankster Otto stalks the building where Christopher is shooting a low-grade adult movie in order to keep himself afloat.
From the get-go, apparently, De Palma was De Palma.