Every now and then, filmmakers turn the camera on themselves, offering us a unique insight into the intricacies of the moviemaking process and the film industry. As we continue to enjoy film’s enduring wonders it can be equally rewarding to look back on some films that portray the other side of the big screen and be enlightened with a renewed appreciation of the cinematic marvels we’ve come to know and love.
Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950)
Image source: Screen Goblin
A treatise on the evolution of Hollywood cinema, Sunset Boulevard portrays wistful vignettes of the reclusive, deeply troubled life of a faded celebrity unable to keep up with emerging industry practices. Also, the real-life Sunset Boulevard locale has long been associated with Hollywood film production since Hollywood’s first film studio was established there in 1911.
Jilted silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) was once revered, yet is now condemned to obscurity and resides in seclusion following her failed transition into talking pictures. Tormented by her own irrelevance in the evolving film industry, Norma is hopelessly trapped within a bubble of delusion and self-importance. The inadvertent arrival of struggling Hollywood screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) acts as a momentary distraction for her; she enlists his help to review a script she has written for her comeback film. Under the guise of working for Norma, Joe stays on in Norma’s mansion, yet gradually recognises that he has no choice but to conform to Norma’s whims for fear of provoking her volatile temperament. The sole butler of the mansion, Max (Erich von Stroheim), who turns out to be Norma’s former husband, is also devoted to sustaining Norma’s delusions to prevent her from relapsing into her self-destructive ways. As Joe becomes increasingly drawn into the self-absorbed, dysfunctional life of Norma, he realises the extent of Norma’s obsession too late, leading to his tragic and fatal end.
Sunset Boulevard is a cautionary tale that captures the transience of fame and its toxic consequences, as well as how ruthless change can be. It is a sombre tribute to Hollywood’s fallen and forgotten stars of the bygone days and their only consolation – being immortalised in the films in which they have once starred. The tragedy of being a star that shone too bright, too fast is best encapsulated by Norma’s bitter yet defiant declaration: ‘I am big! It’s the pictures that got small.’
Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen, 1952
Image source: Express UK
Set in Hollywood in the late 1920s, popular silent film star Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) is exasperated by the vain and shallow ways of his equally popular co-star Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), but tolerates her for the sake of retaining their star status as Monumental Pictures’ golden pair. In a chance encounter, Don meets aspiring actress Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) and finds himself smitten with her, although he continues working with Lina as an on-screen couple. Following the success of its debut talking film, The Jazz Singer, the studio is determined to convert Don and Lina’s upcoming film, The Duelling Cavalier, into a ‘talkie’, but to comically embarrassing results. Eventually, the studio casts Kathy to dub Lina’s voice, a venture which leads to Kathy’s rising stardom in the talking film industry.
Showcasing lively song-and-dance sequences reminiscent of the Hollywood musical tradition, Singin’ in the Rain is as entertaining as it is nostalgic. It recounts the trials and tribulations encountered by Hollywood industry stars who had a tough time making the transition from the revered era of silent films to the much-anticipated realm of ‘talkies’ (films with synchronised sound) in the 1920s. The evolution of silent films to ‘talkies’ marks a significant turn in the trajectory of film history, as eager audiences are treated to a more immersive movie-going experience with the advent of synchronised dialogue. Furthermore, Singin’ in the Rain features film sets occupied by bulky sound booths and cumbersome sound equipment, the source of Hollywood’s frustrations and foibles as Hollywood personnel attempt to work their way around new technological innovations that, despite potentially enhancing the entertainment value of films, test their patience and budgets as well.
Singin’ in the Rain presents a more light-hearted take on the new era of cinema that rendered many rising film stars redundant, leaving them to wither in the fading glory of their silent-film days. Hailed as one of Hollywood’s most iconic musicals, its musical sequences will leave you marvelling at the bubbly charm and precision of timeless choreography, courtesy of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988)
Image source: FACT
Remember the time when you were mesmerised by the glowing, moving images unfolding on the movie theatre screen, captivated by their ability to transport you to every land imaginable? Cinema Paradiso captures that fleeting innocence, a time when going to the movies was a communal source of entertainment for the young and old alike.
As a mischievous yet inquisitive schoolboy, Salvatore (Salvatore Cascio), fondly known as Toto, manages to convince the veteran projectionist of Cinema Paradiso, Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), to teach him the ropes of handling movie reels for public projection. All is well until a fire incident that destroyed the movie theatre left Alfredo blind and partially disfigured. Toto is appointed to take over as the resident projectionist for the newly reconstructed Cinema Paradiso. Despite having to face various challenges in the course of growing up, a love for cinema remains deeply anchored within Toto, seeing Toto into adulthood and the eventual destruction of Cinema Paradiso.
Cinema Paradiso revisits the old-school charm of the movie-going experience in simpler times, as well as the duties of traditional film projectionists and movie theatre operators. It also charts the rise and fall of traditional movie theatres as cineplexes continue to flourish and modest facilities are replaced by modern comforts. A landmark in Toto’s memories, Cinema Paradiso is a statement on unforgiving passage of time, a reminder that everything we hold dear will inevitably perish.
Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
Image source: Independent UK
Mulholland Drive is a perplexing, unsettling enigma of everything that could go wrong beneath the enticing veneer of Tinseltown’s glitz and glamour – shattered hopes, broken dreams, failed ambitions, mental disorders and even suicide.
Naïve, aspiring actress Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) arrives bright-eyed and fresh-faced in Los Angeles after winning a jitterbug contest. Eager to launch her Hollywood career, Betty settles into her rented L. A. apartment. To her surprise, she finds an amnesiac woman (Laura Elena Harring) lurking within the apartment, who later assumes the identity of ‘Rita’. Rita is, in fact, revealed in the opening scene to be the sole survivor of a car crash that occurred on Mulholland Drive the previous night; she sought refuge in Betty’s aunt’s apartment after escaping the crash. From there, the plot unravels like a recurring bad dream, devoid of narrative logic and populated by dark, sinister imagery. At its core, Mulholland Drive is a story of unconsummated love, jealousy and disappointment, with its lack of linear coherence a reflection of Betty’s disoriented mental state.
Menacing, unnerving and bleak, Mulholland Drive disrupts and manipulates order and rationality to expose the perils of stardom and misplaced expectations. The surreal, hallucinatory realm conjured by director David Lynch provokes, baffles and forces you out of your comfort zone into his cinematic projection of the subconscious, leaving you with the responsibility of making sense of what you just saw: the succession of eccentric characters, otherworldly objects and disconcerting encounters that form the core psyche of the film.
Mulholland Drive portrays a manipulative Hollywood; oddly alienating film sets, exploitative auditions, power play, constant competition and the isolating pressures of celebrity paint a grim picture of the price of fame and its defeated casualties. It is also punctuated by references to several films and film stars from the classic Hollywood era – lingering spectres of Hollywood past that continue to haunt the present, a mocking reminder of our unrelenting tendency to repeat mistakes from the past.
Saving Mr Banks (John Lee Hancock, 2013)
Image source: Fandango
Set in the early days of Walt Disney’s successful animation empire, Saving Mr Banks features a charismatic Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) attempting to secure the screen rights from P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the author of the much-beloved Mary Poppins premise. Alas, Disney’s seemingly innocent intentions to fulfil his daughter’s promise to bring Mary Poppins to life on screen are repeatedly refused by the unrelenting author. The prim and apprehensive Travers harshly criticises every aspect of the screen adaptation, deriding them as infringements on the integrity of the fictional world of her creation. However, Disney remains determined. After much perseverance and persuasion (and an impromptu visit to Disneyland), Travers finally relents, all the while revealing flashbacks of the traumatic childhood memories that shaped her defensiveness in the process.
Apart from being a heartwarming, bittersweet ode to the endearing fictional figures from our childhood (or an extended, sentimental Disney commercial if you’re being sceptical), Saving Mr Banks delights with glimpses into the details involved in the making of an animation film and screen adaptation. Scenes are complemented by hand-drawn sketches of character and setting visualisations, script reading sessions, and musical compositions – with a few tunes from Mary Poppins thrown in for good measure. The revelation of events occurring behind the scenes might even evoke a renewed appreciation for the meticulous efforts of the studio personnel in making a motion picture – often the result of close collaboration between various departments of a film studio.
Return to Nostalgia (Woo Ming Jin, 2015)
Image source: Malay Mail Online
Return to Nostalgia takes a trip down the memory lane of Malaysian cinema, foregrounded by the search for a presumably lost post-war film entitled Seruan Merdeka. This documentary sees the crew travelling across the country and even across the Causeway to locate the film, but to no avail. Nevertheless, the crew managed to talk to members of the public who claimed to have watched the film besides consulting film historians, archivists and scholars, leading to insights into the history of Malaysian cinema over the ages, particularly after tumultuous times of war. The crew were eventually able to locate a time-worn copy of the novelisation of Seruan Merdeka – with the final scene removed, however. The documentary culminates in the crew attempting to provide closure through re-enacting the missing final scene by extrapolating from the remainder of Seruan Merdeka’s storyline.
Return to Nostalgia sheds light on a relatively neglected aspect of cinema – film history and the people who are dedicated to preserving it. Ostensibly a documentary about tracking down a lost film, its premise allows for reflections on Malaysia’s film and wartime histories, particularly the Japanese Occupation, upon which the storyline of Seruan Merdeka is based. It also includes some behind-the-scenes footage of the crew preparing for their re-enactment of Seruan Merdeka’s final scene, as well as its storyboard visualisation as envisioned by the crew based on their interpretation of the novelised text. Besides exploring the possibilities provided by a lost film to a filmmaker’s creative process, the documentary also conveys the director’s reflections on his journey to locate and recreate Seruan Merdeka. With that, it subtly provokes questions regarding the reliability of historical accounts and the constructed nature of cinema.
Written by Choo Suet Fun