This scene appeared in 1994, in the second episode (the first, if you don’t count the pilot) of the NBC sitcom Friends.
The fifteen-second sequence suggests some of the things I like, and don’t like, about Friends. On the like side: the reference to Three’s Company is canny. That comedy, which aired from 1977 till 1984, was also about a coed group of young people who lived in proximity to each other (Friends doubled the number to six) and relied a lot on sex jokes and innuendo. But with this early scene, Friends’ creators — David Crane and Marta Kauffman — signaled that this was a new era. Their show would be less broad, smarter, and (I hesitate to use the word) more realistic.
On the don’t-like side: Friends relied way too much on Chandler’s sarcastic wisecracks, and often they weren’t great wisecracks. Like this one: “I think this is the episode of Three’s Company where there’s some kind of misunderstanding.” It’s well-crafted, I grant it that — although it would have been better if the writers had respected our intelligence a bit and left out the words “of Three’s Company.”
More of a problem is that even in 1994, it was a tired joke. I remember going to comedy clubs in the early ’80s and hearing comedians talk about being in hotel rooms and turning on Gilligan’s Island — “It was the episode where they almost get off the island.” Beyond that, Chandler’s line isn’t specific to Three’s Company. Probably three quarters of all sitcoms, at least before the ’80s, revolved around some kind of misunderstanding.
Of course, Friends doesn’t need my approval. It’s been voted as the greatest sitcom by IMDB and Ranker, and Netflix just paid $100 million for the rights to keep airing it. It even has become the means by which just almost all Spanish-speaking baseball players attempt to learn English.
I would not have expected Robert Altman to have much of a presence on this blog. I feel that he preferred being in control of all the irony, rather than appropriating it from an interpolated film made by some other hand. And sure enough, only two of his many movies appear on the comprehensive Films in Films website. The first is Short Cuts (1993), in which Monster in the Closet (1986) plays on a television. (Part of the reason Altman chose that slasher flick may be that three members of his unofficial stock company — Henry Gibson, Paul Dooley, and Howard Duff — are in it.)
The second is The Player (1992). And sure enough, the main movie-in-movie scene comes from its source material, the 1988 novel of the same name by Michael Tolkin, who adapted it for the screenplay. In novel and film, the title character, master-of-the-universe movie executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), has been receiving threatening post cards from an anonymous angry screenwriter. He thinks he’s figured out that the correspondent is David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio) and phones him; his girlfriend answers and says that Kahane is at the movies — specifically, the Rialto in Pasadena, watching Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 The Bicycle Thief. (The title literally translates as “Bicycle Thieves,” but it’s commonly known by the singular in the U.S.)
In the novel, Mill slips into the theater for the last twenty minutes of the movie. Tolkin tells us his reactions, which are film-savvy, naturally, but as off as you would expect from a ’90s Hollywood exec giving notes on Italian neo-realism:
Griffin watched a father and son search for the lost bicycle. Knowing the title, it was obvious that someone had stolen the bike, that this poor man needed it, and that he and his son were now, since the movie was almost over, close to finding the bike and the person who had stolen it. It’s a good title, thought Griffin. He liked a movie where the story and the title were the same thing.
He doesn’t like the ending; it’s “so unnecessarily sad.” He wonders: “Was there a sequel?”
Altman has some nice tweaks on the scene. Griffin’s in the theater less than a minute and never once is shown watching the movie; he keeps furtively looking around for Kahane. The Bicycle Thief is so far away from his world as not to exist at all.
When the lights comes on, Griffin spots the screenwriter, and, true to form, tries to bullshit him: “Great movie, huh? So refreshing to see something like this after all these… cop movies and, you know, things we do. Maybe we’ll do a remake of this!”
The sequence is only a small part of ThePlayer‘s all-encompassing commentary on the movies, which manifests itself in varying levels of explicitness. In the very first scene, Griffin and others at this studio talk about the six and half minute tracking shot that opens Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil — and it’s all part of a eight minute and fifteen second tracking shot that opens The Player. Later, we see the shooting of a noirish feature with Scott Glenn and Lily Tomlin, Lonely Room, that’s a counterpoint to the crime story Grifffin finds himself a part of.
A post at Films in Films notes that we see dozens of classic film posters in The Player, many of which offer commentary on the action playing out in front of them.
For me, the reflexive aspect of the film that packed the biggest emotional punch was the array of actors playing themselves, especially the ones that have died in the meantime: Steve Allen, Jayne Meadows, Jack Lemmon, Burt Reynolds, Rod Steiger, Patrick Swayze. It was like spending some good time with ghosts.
The main movie-within-a-movie in The Player is a project called Habeas Corpus. It’s pitched to Griffin early on — a message movie about capitol punishment, with no stars, and a downbeat ending where the main character dies. Needless to say, he passes, for it lacks just about every element (as he says in a different scene) that make up successful movies: “Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings. Mainly happy endings.”
For spoiler-related reasons I won’t go into, Habeas Corpus does end up getting made, and at the end of The Player, we see execs screening the ending. Lots of cameos here: Susan Sarandon, Louise Fletcher, Peter Falk, Ray Walston, Jack Riley (Mr. Carlin from The Bob Newhart Show), and Altman stalwarts Bert Remsen, Paul Dooley, and Rene Auberjonois are all in the sequence. At the end of a(nother) long tracking shot, the death-row prisoner turns out to be Julia Roberts, showing some leg. She was the very sort of star the screenwriters had vowed would not be in the movie. Her presence is just the first of a host of broken promises, and it kicks off a Hollywood Ending that provides the Hollywood ending to The Player.
All movies are about movies, but Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle (1993) is about movies more than most. The characters habitually measure their own lives against what they’ve seen onscreen. Sam (Tom Hanks), a recently widowed architect, thinks about inviting a potential date over to look at swatches, but then muses that Cary Grant wouldn’t be caught dead looking at swatches with a woman. His ten-year-old son, Jonah, asks whether Sam will have sex with the swatch-woman; Sam, in a rookie move, says yes. Jonah tells him to be careful: “In movies, women are always scratching up the man’s back and screaming.”
All told, the words “movie” or “movies” appear fifteen times in Ephron’s screenplay.
The most movie-obsessed character, by far, is Annie (Meg Ryan), whom we see in an early scene watching An Affair To Remember (1957), starring the aforementioned Grant, on TV with her best friend, Becky (Rosie O’Donnell). After some portentous dialogue between the impossibly handsome and tanned Grant and Deborah Kerr, Annie laments, “Those were the days when people knew how to be in love…. It was right. It was real. It was …”
Becky breaks in: “… a movie. That’s your problem. You don’t want to be in love. You want to be in love in a movie.”
In a clever conceit, all females in this film are obsessed with An Affair to Remember, including an Empire State Building Security guard’s wife and Sam’s sister, Suzy (Rita Wilson), who can’t even summarize the plot without breaking into tears. Her husband, Greg (Victor Garber) teams up with Sam for a very funny response.
(In a piece of dialogue that apparently was cut from the shooting script, a detective Annie has hired to stalk Sam says she reminds him of “Glenn Close in that movie,” i.e., Fatal Attraction.)
Ephron has movies on her mind too: Sleepless is a love letter not so much to the ’50s women’s picture weepy An Affair to Remember as to the classic screwball comedies of the ’30s and early ’40s, the best of which, like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, featured Grant. Bill Pullman plays the Ralph Bellamy role–the well-meaning but terminally dull fiancee Walter. Ryan’s a reporter, like Rosalind Russell in Friday and Barbara Stanwyck in Meet John Doe. And Hanks and Ryan are the impossibly good-looking (though not tanned) leads, whose love has a supernatural sway over the actions and intentions of mere mortals. Just like in the movies.
(The clip below starts with the movie-on-movie scene, which ends at about the 2:30 mark. Because of technical difficulties, I was unable to trim the rest of the clip. It doesn’t have any movie-watching stuff, but it’s pretty good. In fact, I recommend watching the whole movie if you haven’t seen it recently. As of last week it was streaming for free on Verizon Fios On Demand.)
I consider The Shawshank Redemption (1994) one of the most entertaining movies of the last twenty-five years, in large part because it has such a great story to tell. And at the heart of that story is the movie-in-movie scene.
As with Sullivan’s Travels and O Brother, Where Art Thou, the movie-watching takes place in a prison. Red (Morgan Freeman) and the other inmates in the Shawshank Penitentiary are raptly taking in Gilda (1946). Specifically, they are taking in the first appearance in the film of Rita Hayworth. Following some banter between Glenn Ford and George Macready, director Charles Vidor shows Hayworth’s glamorous head springing up, nearly filling the frame. The guys in the audience go wild. Inmate Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) sidles in and starts to say something but Red shushes him, “This is the part I really like,” he says. “When she does that shit with her hair.”
The scene is one of the key points on which Shawshank‘s writer and director, Frank Darabont, departs from the movie’s source, Stephen King’s novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” King, more realistically, has the prison screening the alcohol-is-bad message movie The Lost Weekend (1945). But Gilda works better, both for the hooping-and-hollering reaction and because it works with what Andy has to say to Red, who’s known for procuring all sorts of goods for the inmates.
“What do you want?” he asks Andy.
“Rita Hayworth,” comes the reply. “Can you get her?”
For the few out there who haven’t seen Shawshank, I won’t spoil their pleasure by revealing what Andy means, whether Red comes through, or what the request means for both of their fates.
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.
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.
Terry Gilliam’s 1995 dystopian time-travel thriller Twelve Monkeys begins in the year 2035. We gradually learn that a virus released in 1996 killed off almost all of the world’s population. One of the underground-dwelling survivors, James Cole (Bruce Willis), is sent back in time to the 1990s to try to gather information about the outbreak. He winds up in an insane asylum, where his claims that he has come from the future don’t go over too well.
The TV-in-the-day-room is an essential fixture of such scenes, from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on down. Often, mindless chirpy fare on the set comments on the grim reality before us. That’s the case in Twelve Monkeys, where, in addition, everything playing on the TV relates to animals. We successively see three 1940s Tex Avery cartoons: “Swing Shift Cinderella,” “Little Tinker,” and “Who Killed Who.” We also glimpse a segment from “Horizon: The Cruel Choice,” a 1983 British documentary on animal experimentation (a theme of Twelve Monkeys), which itself includes a clip from the movie The Andromeda Strain. Then, to hit the monkey theme home, the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business briefly comes on. (It’s heard more than seen.)
In a later scene, a television is playing “Prehistoric Super Salesman,” a 1969 cartoon. IMDB’s plot description: “Woody Woodpecker is sent back to the stone age by a mad scientist and his time tunnel.”
But the big set-piece movie-in-movie scene comes late in the film, when circumstances have started to crowd in on Cole and Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), a psychiatrist he encounters in one of his visits to 1996 and who becomes his companion on the mission he comes to believe is his destiny.
The segment begins with full-screen view of a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) in which the characters played by Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak are strolling among California redwoods. The dreamy Novak, who imagines herself the reincarnation of a nineteenth-century woman, points out “my” life span on an ancient tree’s rings; the parallels with Twelve Monkeys’ time traveling is clear.
We cut away to see Cole and Kathryn sitting in a Philadelphia movie theater that’s showing a 24-hour Hitchcock marathon also including (a marquee tells us) Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest, and Psycho. The parallels to Vertigo multiply. Cole say, “I think I’ve seen this movie before, when I was a kid.” And right after he says the word “before,” Stewart asks Novak (whose present-day character is named Madeleine, just like Stowe), “Have you been here before?”
Cole is mesmerized by the movie, and gets at a striking comparison: that watching a film at different times in your life might be similar to keeping on going back in time to the same moment.
It’s just like what’s happening with us. The movie never changes. It can’t change. But every time you see it, it seems different, because you’re different.
Then someone in the sparse audience shushes him, a nice touch.
The next thing Cole knows, he wakes up alone in the theater, wearing a wig and fake mustache. On the screen is yet another Hitchcock movie, The Birds, reinforcing the animals-run-amuk thread of Twelve Monkeys. He runs out to the lobby and it’s almost as if we’ve literally stepped into Vertigo. Kathryn has on a blonde wig (making her look like so many Hitchock heroines) and actually is wearing the same style of coat Novak wears in Vertigo. At the moment when Cole sees her, the soundtrack is part of Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score.
On the Twelve Monkeys director’s commentary, Gilliam describes how things got bizarre when he and his team looked at the scene from which they mined the music.
We discovered that the cuts between Kim and Jimmy Stewart are identical to the cuts between Madeleine and Bruce. Then it got even stranger. The scene [in Vertigo] ends when they embrace and the whole room turns around them…. The foyer of the cinema [in Twelve Monkeys] is circular. We put them on a a turntable and the whole room spins around them.
That scene was eventually cut out. Still, Gilliam says, “It was almost as if the ghost of Hitchcock was making this section of the film.”