Richard Benjamin’s My Favorite Year (1982) makes nice use of the “Watching yourself” trope. The movie, set in 1954, was produced by Mel Brooks and was loosely based on his experience as a writer on the Sid Caesar TV comedy series Your Show of Shows, where the swashbuckling movie star Errol Flynn was once the guest star. Evidently, Flynn’s appearance on the show was uneventful. That is not the case with the Flynn-ish figure in My Favorite Year, Alan Swann (Peter O’Toole), who is usually drunk, rarely on time, and beset by a bad case of stage fright.
In this scene, the writing staff assembles to watch some clips from Swann movies. That staff consists of Sy (Bill Macy, loosely based on Mel Tolkin); Herb (Basil Hoffman; l.b.o. Neil Simon); Alice (Anne De Salvo; Lucille Kaillen); and the “My” of the title, young Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker; Brooks himself).
What they see comes from two actual Peter O’Toole movies, Lord Jim (1968) and Great Catherine (1965). Sy isn’t a fan of the performances: “That’s not acting–that’s kissing and jumping and drinking and humping. I don’t know why we’re wasting out eyesight on this crap.” It’s reminiscent of the way Bette Davis’s early work was dumped on in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?and, as with Davis, it’s proof that O’Toole was a good sport.
Later, the star of the show, King Kaiser (Joseph Bologna; not so loosely based on Caesar) and the producer, Leo (Adolph Green), join the writers to watch another Swann movie. What they see this time isn’t a real O’Toole film but footage expressly created for My Favorite Year: a convincing (down to the Technicolor, music, and editing) homage to Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood (1939).
Later, Benjy watches more of the movie, which is called Defender of the Crown, with a co-worker he’s got a crush on, K.C. (Jessica Harper). They’re both so transfixed by it that it ends up sealing their romance. I guess Alan Swann isn’t such a terrible actor after all.
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.
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.
Update: Ben Zimmer, a good friend of Movies in Other Movies, found and sent along “‘This is a dirty movie’ – Taxi Driver and ‘Swedish sin,’” a 2011 article by Elisabet Björklund that answers some of the questions I raised above. She writes:
The film being shown is not an actual Swedish film, but a construction that has been cobbled together. The makers of Taxi Driver have been quite creative in making the film-within-the-film seem Swedish. All the footage is taken from the American sexploitation film Sexual Freedom in Denmark …, but a Swedish soundtrack has been added. This composite may be construed as a parody of Swedish films with sexually explicit content from around the time of the sexual revolution.
She goes on to describe the “added” soundtrack:
The first images show a man sitting at a desk talking to a woman. In Sexual Freedom in Denmark, the scene is an interview by Ole Lassen – the Danish cicerone or narrator of the film in the parts shot in Denmark – with journalist Lizzie Bundgaard. In Taxi Driver, however, the scene has been manipulated to make it appear that we are watching a therapy session. On the soundtrack a man’s voice informs us in Swedish that many people have been able to eliminate old habits and patterns of behaviour through consultations. Then a woman’s voice says, ‘My parents were very strict. They told me that the body was the house of God. Sex was dirty, something to be ashamed of.’
Did this Swedish dialogue and narration come from another movie, or some other source, or did Scorsese and Schrader concoct it? Björklund acknowledges she doesn’t know, and thus there remains one open question about the sequence.
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.