It’s no secret: filmmakers love movies. Shocking, right? Many a film has been about the exploits of screenwriters, directors, producers, agents, studio heads, and the process of making those movies we all love.
Based on real life or merely inspired by it, it is easy to see why the men and women behind the scenes enjoy telling stories based on their experiences. In this list we look at 10 comedies that point the camera’s gaze into a mirror to reflect back on itself (and all the people behind it).
10. Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
Part black comedy, part legitimate horror film, E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire is in turn silly and scary, farcical and deathly serious, with its tongue cemented in its cheek for the duration.
The high concept premise is a doozy, reading like an idea concocted by a bunch of film geeks after a few beers: what if the reason Max Schreck, the actor who famously embodied the Dracula character in F.W. Murnau’s silent classic Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, gives such a good performance because he was, in fact, a real vampire?
It certainly has a lot of fun with that premise, and it is no surprise to see that there is a bit of a cult following around it 15 years later. It was received positively enough back in 2000, but it has been largely forgotten in the intervening years. Although one who hasn’t seen it could be forgiven for imagining it as an Airplane!-style sendup, the filmmakers are more interested in making a film that can also stand as a sincere entry into the vampire/horror genre.
Willem Dafoe (as Shreck) gives such a sincere performance that it elevates the character beyond the conceit. Dafoe’s performance does two things: one, it is a truly astonishing imitation of Schreck’s original incarnation, and two, it is an eerie and unsettling performance in its own right, deserving of its own individual praise.
Malkovich (who stars as the maestro, Murnau) and the rest of the cast are slightly overshadowed (pun not intended) by Dafoe’s more showy performance, but everyone is quite good here.
Merhige and screenwriter Steven Katz do a wonderful job of having their invented history “explain” different shots and sequences we know from Nosferatu. It creates a fun, new (albeit fictional) context for the backstage goings-on of the film, folding the most famous elements of the vampire mythos into the underlying joke (casts no reflection, extreme crucifix allergy, et al).
The crew assumes Murnau is on the level about Schreck, having explained that he is simply a great actor who refuses to ever break character. Of course he is lying, and this casting of Murnau in the role of the ostensible villain is an enjoyable twist.
Maybe the funniest scene in the film finds several members of the crew hanging out with Schreck, unaware he is a real vampire, and how impressed they are with what they assume is an insanely intricate performance (even more impressed when he catches a bat out of mid-air and consumes it). As horror camp, it is effective. As an alt-history farce, it is even more effective. Its main audience is film geeks and horror buffs, and anyone in either group are likely to have fun with this one.
9. Man Bites Dog (1992)
An even darker film than the previous entry, Man Bites Dog is a cult favorite that presaged reality television and the found footage craze that The Blair Witch Project would popularize several years later (and, like every slasher film villain, is a trope that refuses to die to this day).
It is a subversion of the mockumentary and a dark (for those unfamiliar, let me emphasize: DARK) comedy, so incredibly disturbing in moments as to border on nightmarish. This makes it not exactly in the laugh-out-loud class of a comedy, its sense of humor found mostly in scenes between the grotesque, ugly acts of violence committed by ones of cinema’s most despicable anti-heroes.
The film follows a crew of documentary filmmakers as they record the exploits of a serial killer named Ben, who explains his process like a seasoned orator. The way it explores the mind of a psychopath is reminiscent of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, except that Ben is well socialized, conversational, even professorial at times. He spends most of the time articulately sharing his thoughts with us, right up until the next time he brutally slaughters, tortures, or rapes his next victim.
It is a grisly film, all the more unsettling when framed in the handheld, faux-doc style shooting, and for the way in which it slowly implicates the “documentarians,” and thus the audience, in the main character’s depravity.
To some degree, it is commenting on filmgoers’ preferences for this kind of violent material, and by showing it unadorned it means to reflect reality back over that fantasy. There is also something to the critique on the objectivity of documentary, when in effect ‘reality’ disappears the moment the camera is facing the subject as the filmmaker is now influencing that reality (and vice versa).
It is not surprising that this film was made by four film students — this is the kind of gleefully nihilistic, super-stylized genre experiment that you would expect from young academics. This is not a film you can recommend easily, but for anyone interested in cult cinema, and who can withstand the pervading, uncompromising ugliness of what occurs onscreen, it is very much worth watching.
Clever and influential, Man Bites Dog is an unforgettable experience… for better or worse.
8. The Player (1992)
Robert Altman earned a reputation as the definitive auteur, a filmmaker who mostly worked outside the realm of genre and was the ultimate author of each project. He was attracted to naturalism both in his performances and his compositions, and utilized improvisation toward that end. He was a man who made films on his own terms: “I have not become a mogul, I don’t build castles and I don’t have a vast personal fortune, but I have been able to do what I’ve wanted to do and I’ve done it a lot.”
In 1992, The Player, a film that pokes fun at the industry he rejected, would revitalize his career with its success. It stars Tim Robbins, who carved his own career out of a lot of great comedic, satire-laden roles in films like Bull Durham and Bob Roberts (currently back in the realm of political parody on HBO’s “The Brink”).
In The Player, an embittered writer is sending his character threatening messages, and the film begins to take on the form of a thriller. His performance here as the slick incarnate of the shady, image-obsessed Hollywood producer sums up the appeal of his occasionally broad comedic style.
Altman considered this a mild film, which may be reductive (he held himself to a very high standard) but not exactly untrue. A seemingly infinite myriad of celebs cameo as themselves (including many Altman alumnus) which gives the de facto approval of the industry, and this is definitely one of his most audience friendly films, not least for it’s brevity — it is still over 2 hours, but just barely, compared to the movies he made directly before (Vincent & Theo in ’90 and Short Cuts in ’93), which both exceed 3 hours.
There are numerous formal references to cinema past. Most notably it pays homage to Orson Welles’s iconic tracking shot at the beginning of Touch of Evil. It does its own rendition of said tracking shot, and Altman has his characters even discuss how that shot is the longest in film history — then he goes ahead and makes his even longer.
While not the most claws-out Hollywood takedown, it is an immensely entertaining film, with all the wonderful nuance Altman is admired for. It is one of his most easily digestible films, yet one that also stands up alongside 3 Women, Short Cuts, and his other classics.
7. Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1991)
An experimental film by William Greaves, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One is the appropriately erudite title of this weirdly hypnotic, completely unclassifiable hippie commune of a film. There are levels upon levels of complications piled high atop the film’s otherwise loose thematic cord.
It is the Inception of cinéma vérité: one film crew films auditions for a melodramatic scene in Central Park, while another crew films the first film crew filming the auditions, and finally a third crew is capturing additional B footage. The resulting remix is both befuddling and a joy to watch.
Early in the film, Greaves instructs the B-cameraman to shoot whatever struck him, following the film’s theme of “sexuality.” He may be referring to the audition scene itself, which is a fairly cloying argument between a husband and his wife who accuses him of being gay, but it’s equally possible he is referring to the larger film (the one we’re watching).
To what degree this is reality or fiction is more or less unknowable, and that’s where you will likely find the film’s thesis most clearly. The only outright fictional scenario, as far as we can tell, is the audition scene, a stilted dialogue that feels forced and trite; but is that the point?
It is not explicitly a comedy, but it is filled with funny moments, and its spirit is light, laughs mostly found in the tension of a low-budget production. One random aside listens to an annoyed audio recording a crew member made into the mic on set.
It is a note for the assistant editor, apologizing for the lack of proper slating. You can basically hear him snort with condescension. The lack of professionalism is questioned again and again by the crew, and the same questions arise. What’s happening? What movie are we making?
In the film’s most revelatory sequence, the crew, characters in their own right, sit down in a room and record themselves have a conversation. They debate the meaning and merit of the film (without Greaves present, and purportedly without his direction), and they seem to be having the conversation we’re having: is this real? Is this ‘good?’ Is Greaves a good director, or a bad director? What IS this thing?
At one point during the discussion, the Assistant Director points out that the audience watching this footage couldn’t even know for sure whether or not this is a real conversation they’re having, or if they are just acting and Greaves is simply standing outside the door, directing the whole thing.
It is more likely to provoke thought than make a definitive statement, and that may ultimately be its point. You are going to leave with questions, not answers. On a more basic level, it is a film filled with interesting characters, with a charmingly oblique central figure in Greaves, and is an incredibly creative experimental doc with endless fascinations to ponder over once it ends.
6. American Movie (1999)
Mark Borchardt wanted to make a movie. He was unemployed with three kids and a drinking problem. He’d always dreamt of making a feature film. Not unlike Tim Burton’s vision of Ed Wood, Chris Smith — the director of this documentary, which follows the making of Mark’s horror film Coven through the production process — has a certain amount of reverence for the film’s subject, despite the amount of comic mileage is garnered from the pitfalls and pratfalls of production on Coven.
Mark’s best friend, Mike, is essentially the second lead of the doc, a recovering addict and the most committed member of his crew. His dedication to his friend provides the film with warmth and character, and also the most laughs. He is a very funny figure, seen at one point recording audio of screaming to be used in place of the screams of a tortured woman on the screen (his is quite convincing, actually).
Today, there are no small number of films that lay out the entire production process of a movie. With the advent of DVDs, behind-the-scenes docs became a standard special feature. As streaming media rose in popularity and accessibility, Peter Jackson and Bryan Singer released lengthy video diaries of the productions of their latest big blockbusters (King Kong and Superman Returns, respectively).
In 1999, American Movie was somewhat more of a rarity, in particular for the way it depicts the production of a film on this level. There is no studio backing here, and a budget so low that the industry would consider it a “no budget” feature. But only a few years later, American Movie would become a pre-requisite for young filmmakers, something you would seen screened for Film Production classes across the country.
This is a film that proved that you really didn’t need much. If you wanted, NEEDED, to make that movie you had been imagining in your head… you could just do it.
It is the same feeling many aspiring young filmmakers in the mid 90s credit to Kevin Smith with Clerks and its raw, money-less glory. Here you get to see the whole process, and find a kindred spirit in Mark. He had no money, but he had a vision for a B-grade horror movie, and he was damned if he wouldn’t make it. He was troubled, but perseverant. American Movie is a celebration of passion and hard work being their own reward.