Wednesday, November 30, 2011


How long has this been going on? That's the Gershwin-inspired that ran through my head when I happened upon this heretofore-unknown-to-me comedy gem about ten years ago. As a self-avowed film buff who's devoted a considerable amount of childhood should-be-asleep time to watching old movies on The Late Show and The Late Late Show; how is it that this absolutely delightful little film managed to fly completely under my radar, undetected, all these years?

The Matchmaker is the 1958 screen adaptation of  the 1955 Broadway play about a meddlesome matrimonial matchmaker (Shirley Booth) in 1880’s Yonkers, New York who sets her sights on marrying her employer (Paul Ford). If the plot sounds familiar, it’s because the Thornton Wilder (Our TownShadow of a Doubt) farcical comedy is the source material for the 1964 Broadway musical Hello, Dolly! and its overstuffed 1968 movie adaptation.

It took all of 60-seconds for me to know that I was going to be wholly captivated by The Matchmaker, which opens with an antique ink engraving of a New York street scene coming to life. To the accompaniment of a jaunty musical score by Adolph Deutsch, the film introduces us to the main characters; each taking the opportunity  to break through the fourth wall, addressing us directly and letting us know that they know they're all in a movie:
Shirley Booth as Dolly Levi
"Oh, hello! Are all of you people married?"
Anthony Perkins as Cornelius Hackl
"Are you alone? He's out getting you popcorn?"
Shirley MacLaine as Irene Molloy
(Catching camera lens focused on her legs) "You ought to be ashamed of yourself! (after a thought) Pretty, aren't they?"
Paul Ford as Horace Vandergelder
"Haven't you any better way to spend your money?"
Characters continue to speak to us throughout the rest of the film. Sometimes filling us in on the plot, sometimes offering commentary, sometimes offering drolly funny asides. The effect is hilarious and instantly winning.

Which is a rather odd conclusion for me to come to given that I have always held for Hello, Dolly! only a grudging kind of appreciation. I'm not sure if it's the Jerry Herman score (it strives for the robustness of The Music Man but lands at theatrical cheese); the actresses associated with the role (garish, drag-queen-like caricatures of women), or that irksome exclamation point in its title (grammatically appropriate, I know, but an exclamation point attached to a musical just seems to bring out the Grinch in me...I'll decide if I'm excited or not, thank you). But Hello, Dolly! has never struck me as anything more than an efficient, inoffensive entertainment of the sort perfect for dinner theaters and high-school productions. Not particularly funny or clever, and far too strenuously quaint.

I do admit, however, to harboring a fondness for (and deriving perverse pleasure from) the Barbra Streisand musical version, simply due to its vast size. Viewing it is like watching someone blowing up a balloon to ever-larger want to see how big it can get before it explodes under its own pressure. I also find Streisand's schizophrenic performance somewhat fascinating (she’s old/she’s young, she’s sexy/she’s prim, she’s Mae West/ she’s Fanny Brice…)...but The Matchmaker is another matter entirely.

Somehow everything that doesn't work in Hello, Dolly! works stupendously in The Matchmaker.

Chiefly, its scale. The Matchmaker succeeds because the simplicity of its presentation is utterly appropriate to the material. The overkill of Hello, Dolly! all but submerges the gentle charm of the plot, which is as simple as a fairy tale. In that miraculous way some comedies have, The Matchmaker lights on just the right tone, just the right balance of self-awareness and innocence, to make this delicate type of fluff just take wing and soar. When I first saw this film I was fairly flabbergasted that in virtually every instance where Hello, Dolly! made me groan, The Matchmaker gets it 100% right!
Vandergelder Hay and Feed apprentice Barnaby Tucker (l.) and chief clerk Cornelius Hackl (r); near-insufferable characters in the film Hello, Dolly!,  are brought to appealing life by Robert Morse and Tony Perkins in The Matchmaker

With a cast that knows its way around comedy, both physical and verbal, I found myself laughing at long-familiar dialogue that had never elicited as much as a smile from me before. The difference: they were delivered with skilled timing and in character. The screenplay surprises time and time again by revealing real heart behind the gags and traditional mix-ups and misunderstandings of farce.
The scenes between Paul Ford and Shirley Booth are like comic sparring matches.
Each manages to make their characters farcically funny, yet touchingly human. 

I always enjoy films where even actors in bit roles are cast and directed to fit as part of an ensemble.  The cast of The Matchmaker fits seamlessly and are all rhythmically on the same page. Each plays it comically large, but real... like in those great old comedies of the '30s. I get a kick out of seeing the ridiculously young Shirley MacLaine paired with the surprisingly sweet and non-creepy Anthony Perkins. Both are just so likable, you root for their romance the first time you see them together.
Love, Turn of the Century Style

Of course, the top honors go to Shirley Booth, an actress whose work, both dramatic and comedic,  I greatly admire. I can't speak to Ruth Gordon's Dolly Levi (she originated the role on Broadway and won the Tony Award), but for my money, the role belongs to Ms. Booth. Along with being refreshingly age and appearance appropriate for the character (Booth was turning 60 when she made this film), she brings to the role a keen comic timing and inflection of delivery that imbues Dolly's busybody antics a touch of poignancy along with the humor. How she achieves this is beyond me, but I find Booth to be one of those actresses who can turn straw to gold. 
If a line of dialog is funny, she can make it uproarious; if it's only amusing, she has a way of bringing her voice, mannerisms, and facial expressions into play and arriving at something delightfully original and unexpected. She finds the authenticity in even the broadest comedy. Until I saw The Matchmaker, it never once occurred to me that there could be a human being behind that grating buttinsky known as Dolly "Gallagher" Levi. Just check out how Booth handles the big monologue Dolly has with her departed husband. I've seen it performed many times before, but Booth is the only one to make it genuinely moving.
Dolly Levi's philosophy of Matchmaking
"Life is never quite interesting enough, somehow. You people who come to the movies know that.
So I rearrange things a little."

Those familiar with Hello, Dolly! will find it fun picking up bits of dialog that became songs, taking note of added and eliminated characters, and comparing the changes in acting styles. Me, I enjoyed seeing characters reduced to one-dimensionality in the musical revealed to be rather fleshed out in their original form. And when things are at risk of becoming too sweet or cute, the device of having the actors step out of character to address the audience always seems to add a knowing wink indicating that they are aware of playing parts in a dated - but terribly charming - little confection.
Shirley Booth and Shirley MacLaine appeared as mother and daughter in Hot Spell (1958)
Robert Morse originated the role of Barnaby Tucker on Broadway
Paul Ford was the master of the flustered double-take

It's always been my feeling that a comedy that works is that rarest of movie beasts. Everyone's tastes are different and I can easily imagine how Shirley Booth's grandmotherly appeal and the old-fashioned, light-as-gossamer style of comedy employed here won't be to everyone's liking. But for those, like me, who find nothing funny in the contemporary fascination with scatology, rudeness, and the bottomless wellspring of American male oafishness; well, The Matchmaker is a godsend. I may have missed this terrific little film for the many decades it was available to be seen, but since discovering it, I've more than made up for lost time. It's one of my favorite films. Witty script, clever execution, sharp performances, heart, sentimentality, and a moral to boot!
The cast of The Matchmaker bid us farewell

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2011

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Back in 1977 I recall asking a friend if she was as eager as I to see the new Donald Cammell film, Demon Seed, opening at theaters that week. Her reply: "Ugh! Hollywood just keeps thinking of new ways to rape women." I took that for a no.

Her response surprised me. My friend and I were classmates at film school, drawn together by a love for thought-provoking, mainstream films that veered into the realm of art, and a shared fondness for Cammell's remarkable directing debut, Performance (1971).  Given that Demon Seed was only Cammell's second film in six years, I thought my friend would find provocative the prospect of a director as artistically idiosyncratic as Cammell taking on a film that, in summary, read like something better suited to William Castle or Roger Corman: a supercomputer imprisons a woman (Julie Christie) in her home, intent on impregnating her and creating a new life form.

I mean, how could my friend so oversimplify what was obviously going to be some kind of meta-commentary on the uneasy relationship between man and machine played out against the life-affirming emotional attributes of the contemporary woman vs. the cold, patriarchal dominance of technology? It was like someone saying Rosemary's Baby was just about a hell-beast raping a mortal woman. Subtexturally speaking, couldn't my friend  see that there had to be so much more to Demon Seed than the exploitative theme and the offensive premise?

And what about the Julie Christie connection? Surely Julie Christie—that skilled, intelligent, serious-minded, movie icon of the '60s, who publicly eschewed Hollywood stardom and cheesecake glamour for serious roles. Who turned her back on untold millions due of her level-headed, principled, proto-feminist disinterest in portraying helpless girlfriends and supportive male appendages—surely SHE wouldn't participate in a film that degrades women! Would she?

Julie Christie as Dr. Susan Harris
Fritz Weaver as Dr. Alex Harris
Gerrit Graham as Walter
Robert Vaughn as the voice of Proteus IV
Well, here it is some 34 years and countless viewings later, and as far as I'm concerned the jury is still out on whether my friend's diminution of Demon Seed was a rash oversimplification or simply hit the nail on the head.

The marriage between child psychologist Susan Harris (Christie) and computer scientist husband, Alex (Weaver), becomes strained following the loss of their child to leukemia. Susan fears Alex has grown increasingly remote and unemotional, immersing himself in work she views as dehumanizing technology. Specifically: the creation of an organic super-computer named Proteus IV. Attempting a trial separation, Susan opts to remain alone in their spacious, fully-automated, fortress-secure home, run by an all-seeing computer named Alfred (a.k.a., Red Flag #1).
Marital discord: "Am I so cold?"
In his defense, it is clear that Alex is confronting his grief in the only way he knows how; channeling his energies towards Proteus IV discovering a cure for the kind of cancer that took the life of his child. And indeed, it is Alex's disinterest in Proteus IV's financial and political potential that leaves him vulnerable to the profit-motivated demands of his subsidizers who wish Proteus IV to serve man's needs as they dictate. 

Alas, Proteus is a thinking computer with a moral code (of sorts), a man's voice (Robert Vaughn), and a particularly masculine tendency to think he's right in the face of blatant contradictions. When ordered to conduct research into an undersea mining operation that would disrupt the eco-system, Proteus high-mindedly declares, "I refuse to assist you in the rape of the earth!"

A point well-taken were it not for the nasty bit of business he/it feels perfectly vindicated in embarking on just moments later; the raping and impregnation of Susan.
Why? So that it, Proteus IV, who possesses all the wisdom and ignorance of all men, can feel the sun on its face and achieve the kind of immortality that only an offspring can guarantee.
Or something like that.

You see, the objective of Proteus' plan to procreate fluctuates from altruistic to despotic, depending upon whom he's speaking to and what it/ is he is trying to reason/intimidate them into doing.

And therein lies the paradox of Proteus IV. Perhaps intentionally, due to Proteus' inconsistent shifts from sadistic tormentor to world savior, we are never sure if we are meant to side with Proteus' rather logical, humane arguments (the Icon Industries money men are portrayed as villainous fat cats), or if Proteus IV is just a machine gone mad. Perfectly valid to have that point left ambiguous, but as the film is constructed, it feels less like food for thought and more like a lack of focus and sloppy storytelling. It certainly doesn't help that when it wishes to persuade, Proteus speaks in the soothing, calming tones of a yoga instructor and shows trippy psychedelic lights when he speaks. Yet when it wants to get its way, employs the psychological games of a abusive husband wife-beater ("Why do you make me do these things?").
As a child psychologist, Christie's character is established (amidst sunshine and plant life)
as possessing values opposite of those of her tech-minded husband 

Captive-women movies like The Collector (1965) and Tattoo (1981) always have a rough time justifying the amount of time they ask the audience to watch a woman brutalized for the sake of making a narrative point. For my taste, these films never successfully transcend their male-gaze oppressiveness, and after a couple of hours of rape and victimization played out for my horror entertainment, I'm usually left pretty numb to any moralistic point they profess to make at the eleventh hour. Demon Seed holds out hope because of the intelligence of Julie Christie's performance and the validity of the horror film/sci-fi thriller conflict as initially presented. But as much as I think this is one of Christie's best performances and well worth watching, I can't shake the feeling that I'm not in the sure hands of a director intentionally leading me down a path of provocative, science vs. man debates. Donald Cammell fails to leave a distinctive mark and much of what occurs feels as though the character's motivations and actions are manipulated by the demands of the genre.

I'm not unduly fond of science fiction, but I do enjoy a good psychological thriller. Demon Seed does a lot of things wrong, but what it does particularly well is create a palpable sense of dread and tension from a situation that is the stuff of nightmares. Julie Christie's ability to convincingly take her character all the way from mild annoyance, defiance, rage, bewilderment, to abject terror is a thing to behold.

The absolute smartest thing the makers of Demon Seed did was to hire Julie Christie. Without question she is the single reason the film works at all, her assured performance never once succumbing to the usual "helpless victim" clichés of the genre. It's a major asset that Christie is an actress of sensitivity capable of conveying a vulnerability that is at the same time very strong. In fact, Christie doesn't have a weak bone in her body. And it is precisely the inconceivability of her suffering victimization at the hands of man or machine that saves the film from being unendurably lurid and morally offensive. I can't think of another actress more believable as a match for, and worthy adversary of, a diabolical super-brain. As Mia Farrow's performance transcended the horror genre and elevated Rosemary's Baby to the level of a modern classic, Julie Christie achieves as much here, but the film surrounding her standout performance isn't up to the task. She's so good that she only calls attention to how weak the script is and how poorly she's served by it.
Julie Christie gives one of the finest performances of her career in Demon Seed.
One wishes the screenplay were more worthy of her efforts.

There's no denying that Demon Seed has an intriguing premise that thought-provokingly meshes the techno-paranoia of 2001: A Space Odyssey with the body-invasion terror of Rosemary's Baby. But unlike either of those films, Demon Seed suffers from the feeling that it is perhaps a couple of story conferences short of fully understanding what it wants to say about it all.  
The computer technicians of Icon Industries
Fans of director Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise will remember Garrit Graham (foreground) as glam-rock star Beef, and Harold Oblong (far right) as a member of the rock group, The Undeads.
Ira Levin & Roman Polanski mitigated a lot of potential criticism concerning Rosemary's Baby (misogyny, sensationalism, violence against women as entertainment) through the firm establishment of a consistent point of view (Rosemary's); a defined moral imperative (Rosemary's lapsed Catholicism reflects the morally ambiguous tone of the film as her love for her child supersedes the immorality of evil); and an understanding of the story's larger social implications (the religious and social patriarchal dominance over women and their bodies is presented as inconsistent with the film's sympathetic view of Rosemary).

Like Rosemary's Baby, Demon Seed has at its center, a vulnerable, yet smart and resourceful woman. But instead of heightening audience identification/empathy through the presentation of events from her perspective (an easy enough thing to accomplish given that we've all felt helpless to the whims of machines at one time or another),  Demon Seed keeps us at a remove and puts us in the distasteful position of sharing the voyeuristic eyes of Proteus IV. 

Seeing through the distorted lens of Proteus IV
I kept hoping for the film to reconcile in some meaningful way its initial scenes emphasizing Susan's belief in the importance of feelings and expressing emotions with all the test-of-wills/battle-of-wits sequences with Proteus IV. But the film ends without a viable justification, beyond genre entertainment, for asking us to endure the many protracted scenes of physical and psychological abuse perpetrated against Julie Christie for the bulk of the film.  
Nowhere is this more evident than in the mishandling of Demon Seed's final moments, which is staged for maximum dramatic payoff, but does so at the cost of shifting focus from Susan and placing the viewer in the shoes of the science-minded Alex (who registers about three seconds of concern for his wife before becoming near orgasmic at the thought of the scientific miracle in the basement). Yes, the audience is clamoring to see the baby at this point too, but a more skilled director might have taken precautions to prevent Susan from being shunted to the sidelines at the end of the film after she has been front and center throughout.
It's a gross miscalculation of the importance of audience identification, and one of the main reasons why, in the end, I think that Demon Seed is just not up to the task set forth by its premise.  
It succeeds as a more-thoughtful-than-usual sci-fi thriller, but trips itself up on failing to comprehend how uncomfortable (if not downright unpleasant) audiences are likely to find a film that asks one to bear witness to a woman's victimization all in service of an academic techno-geek debate.
The triumph of technology over emotion?
Demon Seed ends on a thoughtful note, with Christie enigmatically studying her child/creation
from the sidelines. No embraces, no tears, no tenderness
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

KLUTE 1971

There are many wonderful movie actresses whose work I greatly admire. But before Dunaway, Christie, Streep, Black, Blanchett, and Portman, there was Fonda. Jane Fonda was the preeminent actress of my youth — the gold standard — and for a long while there wasn’t an actress who could touch her. As beautiful as she is versatile, Fonda's transformation from bubble-headed ingénue (Tall Story and Any Wednesday); to libertine sexpot (Barbarella); to compellingly sensitive, serious actress (They Shoot Horses, Don't They?); mirrored the evolving role of women in America and charged her screen roles with an immediacy that quickly turned her into a symbol of the times. 

Onscreen she was Woman Emergent: the glamorous embodiment of a new feminine standard of intellectual and sexual liberation. Never more so than in the role of Bree Daniels in Klute. Braless, midi-skirted, sporting that iconic shag haircut, dressed in the height of post-hippie funky '70s fashion... Jane Fonda was the sex symbol redefined, and seemed to point toward a new era for women in film in the '70s.
Ostensibly, anyway. I mean, Fonda's Bree Daniels is yet another movie call-girl.
Time is Money: Bree checking her watch in the throes of artificial passion

Yes, even as late as 1971, Hollywood was still falling back on this overused cliché in its limited stock of women's roles. If a woman wasn't a wife, a girlfriend, a marriage-minded virginity-guarder or repressed businesswoman: prostitute  (or nymphomaniac, interchangeably) is invariably where imagination-starved screenwriters landed when stumped by how to write a female character who is attractive, independent, and has a sex life.  

Cinema's fascination with prostitutes and hookers-with-hearts-of-gold unquestionably has a great deal to do with standard male studio boardroom thinking that went: women in a film = sex. Thinking which also supported the double standard reasoning that if a woman in a film has sex outside the sphere of marriage, there's a problem with audience sympathy. Thus, the good-hearted hooker was born. She gave the movie all the sex and nudity it required, but her profession kept her at a cultural remove (she couldn't tarnish the sanctity of home and marriage) but her gold heart made her sympathetic to viewers. 
But in Klute, Bree Daniels being a call-girl is more than just steamy window dressing. Her profession is integral to the plot, and, as realized by Fonda, Bree is light years away from the usual idealized fantasy image of prostitution offered in movies. 
Jane Fonda as Bree Daniels
Donald Sutherland as John Klute
Roy Scheider as Frank Lagourin
Charles Cioffi as Peter Cable

John Klute (Sutherland) is a small-town detective assigned to investigate the six-month disappearance of local businessman and friend, Tom Gruneman. His search takes him to Manhattan where it appears Gruneman is in hiding and stalking Bree Daniels (Fonda), a call-girl he allegedly frequented. As Klute's investigation takes him deeper into the seedy underworld of pimps, drugs, and prostitution, his routine Missing Persons case reveals itself to be something unanticipatedly perverse and considerably more dangerous.

I really like the scene that introduces us to the character of Bree Daniels.
As one in an anonymous, objectified line of applicants at a modeling agency, Bree is dwarfed by photo blow-ups of a glamorously dehumanized model while being subjected to a blisteringly painful (to watch) "cattle-call" inspection that makes a meat-rack look humane.
Model from1970 issue of Harper's Bazaar
Real-life model Veronica Hamel appears briefly in an uncredited role as a model in Klute. Hamel would later go on to star in the TV series, Hill Street Blues.

This is the first of several scenes depicting Bree's pursuit of "respectable" employment (she's an aspiring model/actress) as being infinitely more humiliating and degrading than her work as a call girl. Potential employers take physical and emotional liberties (they feel free to touch her or make casually cruel personal comments) while she's forced to mask her humiliation and dejection behind nervous smiles. With this cinematic device, director Alan J. Pakula economically and with great visual panache (thanks to cinematographer Gordon Willis) establishes the essential conflict of Bree's life and sets the stage for why she regularly sees a psychiatrist.

Bree, asked by her therapist why is she still drawn to prostitution after professing a desire to quit:

"Because it's an act. That’s what's nice about it. You don’t have to feel anything, you don’t have to care about anything, you don’t have to like anybody. You just lead them by the ring in their nose in the direction that they think they want to go get a lot of money out of them in as short a period of time as possible...and you control it and you call the shots."

The extended monologues of Bree's therapy sessions - exposed-nerve, free-association musings on why her life isn't working, wherein she reveals her intelligence and self-awareness - are contrasted with the coolly professional patter she employs with her "johns." Gone is any trace of emotional insecurity as Bree, in a deeply seductive lower-register voice, takes command of the situation while expertly playing the role of the carnal supplicant. Anyone operating so fully in such opposing modalities is clearly someone grappling with a lot of issues, and Jane Fonda brings incredible depth and complexity to the character of Bree, inviting the audience to relate to her as an individual personality, and not merely through the prism of a fixed moral stance taken on prostitution.
Working Nine to Five
Perhaps the biggest testament to how exceptional Jane Fonda is in this, her Academy Award®- winning role, is how the persuasiveness of her performance got audiences and Academy voters alike to overlook their personal responses to Jane Fonda, the political activist, and lose themselves in the character of Bree Daniels. There aren't accolades enough for me to effectively express how much I enjoy and admire Fonda in this movie. It would have been the most pedestrian detective film imaginable without her. Whereas Klute is atmospherically rooted in the early '70s (Bree's outburst, "Goddamn hypocrite squares!" can't help but elicit a giggle), but Fonda's performance is timeless.
Life Imitates Art: Bree Daniels' mugshot (above), Jane Fonda's real-life 1970 mugshot (below).
Fonda's by now iconic run-in with the law (you can find this image on everything from purses to T-shirts) occurred after filming on Klute had completed

My absolute favorite scene in the film is Klute's initial interrogation of Bree in her apartment. Fonda is masterful in navigating the myriad emotional shifts in her character (anger, defensiveness, manipulation, vulnerability) which contrast to dynamic effect with Sutherland's stolid calm. (Love what Fonda does with Bree's reluctant confession that she is afraid of the dark.)  

In addition, this scene is a standout example of how to build suspense and generate fear by showing less, not more. Few things are more fright-inducing than those three little words "Don't be afraid," so when Klute says this to Bree and leads her away from a skylight, tension grows unbearable as the camera pulls to a confining, low angle shot that shows us only Bree's hands on Klute's back reflected in a mirror. As he reveals to her that he thinks someone is on the roof watching them, Bree's hands, seconds-ago in a caress (hands dismissed in an earlier scene as being "funny"), clench in tension while she emits a genuine terrified gasp which eerily echoes the sound of the orgasm she'd feigned moments prior with a trick. Just brilliant. Even today, this scene scares the hell out of me.

I like it when filmmakers don't play their audiences for dumb. When intelligence is applied and respect given to so-called genre films (movies that fit specific narrative constructs like westerns, horror films, and police thrillers), there's a real opportunity to create something unexpected and entirely innovative. 
John Klute's world in Tuscarora, Pennsyvania.
Bree Daniels' world in New York. A dingy apartment in a brownstone overlooking a funeral parlor.
In this shot, the small pot of flowers Bree carries connects with the lush green of the Pennsylvania scenes

With Rosemary's Baby, Roman Polanski took what could have been a routine horror film and fashioned it into a masterpiece of urban paranoia. With Klute, the late Alan J. Pakula (with the indispensable contribution of Fonda) takes an unremarkable detective story (the MacGuffin of Tom Gruneman's disappearance is dispensed with so quickly that even those who like the film would be forgiven if they fail to remember his fate) and emerges with a deeply insightful character drama that's also a solid and genuinely frightening thriller. On that last score, the contributions of cinematographer Gordon Willis (The Godfather) and music composer Michael Small (The Stepford Wives, Night Moves) can't be oversold. 

Klute is one of the best examples of what the New Hollywood of the '70s promised: a merging of art-film sensibilities with popular entertainment. And with Klute Jane Fonda, my favorite actress when I was growing up, joined Shelley Duvall in 3 Women and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, in giving one of the finest performances in an American film in the '70s.
"Don't be afraid..."
Said by Bree to a trick to relax him,
 by Klute to Bree to calm her,
and by the killer to Bree before...

Got this autograph of cinematographer Gordon Willis in 1984. He was flabbergasted anyone actually knew what he looked like.
A friend of mine who was Veronica Hamel's personal trainer during the Hill Street Blues years got this autograph for me

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2011

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


I really love movies, but films about the making of films tend to pose their own unique brand of problems for filmmakers.
For one, the process of  making films is so fragmented that it doesn't easily lend itself to gripping cinema. Quick bursts of frenzied activity book-ended by long stretches of people sitting around while carpenters, painters, and electricians ply their trade isn't exactly fodder for edge-of-your-seat entertainment. 

Secondly, no matter how high the stakes are ratcheted up for dramatic purposes (delays, budget cuts, tantrums, infidelity, accidents, natural disasters, death), it's hard not to make moviemaking come across as little more than elaborate dress-up and make-believe...or worse, the non-essential work of over-privileged individuals in a rarefied environment. In spite of how large the entertainment industry looms in our culture, there's no getting past the fact that in the grand scheme of things (and compared to the work of teachers, surgeons, law enforcement, and fire professionals), making movies doesn't seem all that important. Whenever the plot presents an obstacle threatening to shut down a film within a film, the more impassioned the characters' reactions, the more apt we in the audience are likely to think, "It's just a MOVIE for chrissakes!" A real killer to audience involvement.

Lastly, those who endeavor to make films about moviemaking are inevitably faced with a Catch-22: play up its obvious appeal (the excess, glamour, and unearned cultural privilege; the ugly guys with access to impossibly beautiful women; the insane amounts of money spent and wasted) and you ignite audience resentment. Emphasize the art vs. commerce conflict; the hypocrisy, greed, and compromise, and you create a world inhabited by people the audience couldn't care less about. You can't win!
Artifice & Illusion: Day for Night creates its own magic by revealing what's behind the curtain.

 Day for Night. The film takes its title from the cinematic practice of using filters to create the effect of night during the day. This very old-fashioned Hollywood device (the French term for it being "The American Night") has been rendered obsolete thanks to CGI, but is on prominent display in virtually every Roger Corman film from the 60s, and in a great many 70s TV shows and TV movies.

Ever narcissistic, Hollywood has been making films about itself since the days of the silents, but it took French New Wave director François Truffaut to make what I consider to be the best film I've ever seen about filmmaking, Hollywood-style, with 1973s Day for Night.
François Truffaut as film director Ferrand
Jacqueline Bisset as movie star Julie Baker
Jean-Pierre Léaud as leading man Alphonse
Valentina Cortese as former international leading lady, Severine
Jean-Pierre Aumont aging matinee idol Alexandre

Perhaps what all those other films needed was the kind of distancing perspective offered by this, Truffaut's thoroughly delightful valentine to cinema. Set in a small studio in Nice, France, Day for Night is almost Altman-esque in its gentle look at the intersecting  lives, personalities, and conflicts involved in the making of an utterly unremarkable  melodrama titled, "Meet Pamela."
The shooting of a formulaic film in the old-fashioned, studio-bound style that was fast growing obsolete in the '70s, affords Truffaut the opportunity to pay loving homage to American movies and the directors who influenced him in his youth. Correspondingly, he offers film fanatics like me an endearingly idealized portrait of the job of making movies that fuels my still-in-need-of-nurturing romantic notion that films are made by and for the dreamers of this world.

As a movie geek and fan of Robert Altman's ensemble films, Day for Night has built-in appeal for me merely due to its premise: a character-based, insider view of the world of moviemaking, from the first day of shooting to the wrap. Whereas Altman would have used it as an opportunity for character assassination and a chance to grind his anti-Hollywood axe (love Altman but never enjoyed 1992's sour The Player), Truffaut is like a host giving a tour of his home and introducing us to his family. The tone is lightly comic, sincere, and loving, with Truffaut poking affectionate fun at the individuals who make it their life's work making fantasy look real. With its ups and downs and myriad problems (director Ferrand/Truffaut never even finds much rest in sleep), it's obvious that there is nothing else in the world that he'd rather do.
Jean Francois Stevinin as the assistant director and Nathalie Baye as the immanently resourceful script girl.
Truffaut greatly assists in our easily identifying the various members of the film crew by having them wear the same clothing throughout the month-long shoot.
Nike Arrighi, the makeup artist
Dani as the reluctant assistant and even more reluctant girlfriend to the leading man.

Understandably, everyone who sees Day for Night falls instantly in love with Valentine Cortese's superb performance as the insecure leading-lady, Severine. The sequence in which the increasingly flustered actress flubs take after take of a scene due to two troublesomely similar doors, is deservedly one of film's highlights. As for me, the first time I saw the film the strongest impression I came away with was a heavy-duty crush on François Truffaut. With his charmingly receding hairline, matinee idol profile, soft-spoken, sweet-natured, manner (he even wears a tie to work!), he was like the Dr. Kildare of directors to me.
Brilliant, dedicated and patient, yet never less than 100% in control, Truffaut's Ferrand was my romanticized ideal of what a movie director should be:  an intelligent and sensitive artist with a respect for his craft and his actors. (I look at what pass for directors today and find little to admire. The Brett Ratners, Quentin Tarantinos, and Eli Roths not only look as though they'd fallen several rungs down on the evolutionary ladder, but often behave accordingly.)
Star Quality...take your pick

Truffaut, a student of Hitchcock and masterful storyteller in his own right, really brings a sense of fun to the manner in which he introduces the viewer to the closed-off world of filmmaking. By treating it as merely the day to day work of a group of professionals in a specialized field, he achieves what I most admire in art and poetry of any kind...he makes the mundane look extraordinary.
Aware that the vast majority of the population has no idea of how the films that have infiltrated their fantasies and culture are actually made, Truffaut is like a magician revealing the tricks of the trade. But whereas a magic trick is spoiled when the smoke clears and the mirrors are exposed, Truffaut somehow makes the job of moviemaking appear more magical and fantastic with each behind-the-scenes detail he pulls out of his hat. Indeed, a recurring visual motif in Day for Night is to have scenes end with a pre-fade-out "reveal" disclosing some unexpected plot point or character revelation. The device recalls the "Voila!" moment of a magic act.
Parts of Day for Night were filmed on the immense abandoned set for the 1969 film, The Madwoman of Chaillot

I've been a fan of film for as long as I can remember, yet after all these years, movies still have the power to feel like magic. Clueless as to how an actor achieves something along the level of Heath Ledger's performance in Brokeback Mountain, it feels like a form of magic to me. Unable to wrap my mind around how Roman Polanski, a director in his late 70s, continues to make films so sharp and surprising...that feels like magic to me. That the images in Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan were able to move me alternately from goose bumps to tears; that is magic.
Day for Night is filled with references to Truffaut's own films and passions. In this shot, Truffaut pays tribute to the directors that have influenced him by having fictional director Ferrand peruse a stack of books on cinema.

A film like Day for Night comes from a place that understands that movies get under our skin and become parts of our lives, and are therefore worthy (even in the acknowledgement of their sometimes prosaic gestation) of being regarded as art. Collaborative, sometimes compromised art, but art capable of inspiring in us the kind of passion that the late, great François Truffaut never seemed to have lost.
Dreams are what Le Cinema is for...
Copyright © Ken Anderson