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


  1. I've only ever seen this on a hideous, grainy VHS, but I have a DVD I've yet to watch. Can't wait to see it again. Thanks!


  2. Thanks for stopping by Poseidon! This new DVD has a much-improved subtitle translation and even a decent English dub with Bisset and perhaps a few others doing their own voices.

  3. I'm so glad I watched this after seeing it on your blog! Truffaut really does do a great job of revealing things a way that keeps them magical...the scene where the firemen are putting fake snow on the set and one assistant is covered in it and it's getting brushed along the steps, for instance.
    It also led to my finding out about a Fellini film about photo-comics (fumetti) which I have yet to see, but may be interesting.

  4. I'm so happy my blog inspired you to watch it! It really is a fantastic film, isn't it? It's full of scenes like the one you detail...scenes of movie magic that keep the magic alive. I am unfamiliar with the Fellini film you mentioned. If it turns out that you enjoy it, please let me know. I love discovering new film favorites. Thanks for the comment!

  5. I first became enamored with Day for Night in the summer of 1981 - not from seeing the actual film itself (it would be another year before I had access to a VHS and none of the revival houses in Seattle showed it), but after purchasing the screenplay published by Grove Press. It contained not only the script, but many photos and what seemed like dozens of footnotes detailing trivia, the original French meanings of wordplay that didn't translate into English too well, allusions to previous Truffaut movies (the problems with the little cat came from an actual experience on the set of Soft Skin), and other little interesting bits of info.

    There is also an introduction by Truffaut and I love his anecdote about the inspiration for Day for Night: Whilst working on the editing for Two English Girls in Nice, Truffaut would cross the Victorine Studios lot where the Chaillot sets still stood. Intrigued, Truffaut decided to take different routes through the lot every day to examine the sets from various angles. From this, the idea of making a behind the scenes film was born.

    I have since seen Day for Night several times. (The first time in the mid-1990s; I now own the Criterion DVD.) But, because that Grove book was so vivid in its details, I still associate DFN with the summer of '81!

    1. Your compelling and wonderfully vivid recounting of having "discovered" DAY FOR NIGHT via the published screenplay is so richly detailed and so affectionate, it triggered what seemed like a lost memory in me.
      I responded to all the parts of the book you described as though you were holding the pages in front of me.
      So much so that I went immediately into the living room and searched through my bookcases to at last uncover my paperback copy of the Grove Press book you describe. I purchased it and read it in 1976, but actually forgot I owned it! It slipped my mind even as I wrote this piece way back in 2011...for which the book would have been a marvelous reference resource!
      I thank you for relating DAY FOR NIGHT with your Summer of '81 memories of reading this book. You've reintroduced me to it, and I'm so going to enjoy re-reading these yellowed, stiff pages again and seeing if any more memories return to me.
      I think you happened upon a superb way of appreciating a film before actually seeing it. Your experience speaks of a true fondness for cinema. I enjoyed reading your comment a great deal, and I can't thank you enough for leading me to discover a "lost" gem that was right under my nose all the time. Much appreciated, Mark!

    2. My pleasure, Ken! Books on cinema/directors/screenplays played a big part in my appreciation of film - as I mentioned, my ability to see various movies was limited by the schedules of the nearby revival houses, hoping for an airing on TV (I wasn't going to see films like A Clockwork Orange or The Conformist that way!) and lack of a VCR until the middle of 1982. (And even then, many films weren't available on video for quite some time and one had to put up with the square aspect ratio of VHS.)

      So books were useful in furthering my studies until the chance to see films such as Day for Night, The Devils, Repulsion or even Citizen Kane became possible. For instance, I went ape (pardon the pun) for Ken Russell's Altered States in 1981 and wished to see more of his films. But I had to content myself with a couple of books about his works until, little by little, I was able to view his output as the 1980s wore on.

    3. Jacqueline Bisset did an interview (which may have been on the DAY FOR NIGHT dvd, I'm not sure) where she recalled that the LAST OF SHEILA was filming in the south of France at the same time. She said Truffaut was really excited to have all of these Hollywood stars around, but she didn't care ("I was in something better, a Francois Truffaut movie! And they were so jealous! So-o-o jealous!!!") That made me laugh. I also love Ingrid Bergman's Valentina-Cortese-should-have-won-this Oscar speech.

      I haven't seen this wonderful movie in a long time but I have a memory of Bisset and Jean-Pierre Aumont driving in a car as the sun sets and then the camera pulls back and shows the car being towed by a truck while the camera follows along. Beautiful!

    4. That's funny you cite that Bisset anecdote (you're right, it's on the DVD commentary) because if you were to ask me any other factoid or detail of the commentary track, that is the ONLY one I remember.
      It stuck out in my mind because it places both films in a time context I tend to forget, plus it's just the kind of very human thing one can imagine crossing an actor's mind.

      I haven't re-watched this one since I got it on Blu-ray. I think I'm long overdue to see how it looks. Thanks for commenting, Kip!