With The Fabelmans, Steven Spielberg regales audiences with a biographical love letter to cinema. He explores the moment when the exercise of art and life itself meet. It is the birth of a vocation. You can sense this exercise in nostalgia is not only reaching out to lost youth and the friends and relatives who are no longer around. There is also nostalgia for the artisanal aspects of making a movie with others, with physical, tangible means. Check out how we see Sammy, his alter ego, handling cameras and splicers, the drag and fun of choreographing a bunch of kids playacting a WWII battle. As much as he can be a wizard with technology, he aches for the artisanal past.
I doubt that in 20 years, the Russos will serve us a nostalgia piece about the good old days of green-screened studios. The most important thing about the film, which makes it memorable, is how it speaks to us about our humanity. It is a subject that Spielberg’s contemporaries and predecessors have also tackled. If The Fabelmans left you aching for more movie love, here are five more chances to indulge.
PAIN AND GLORY (Pedro Almodóvar, 2019)
Spanish dynamo Pedro Almodovar recruited Antonio Banderas to play a thinly veiled version of himself. Salvador Mallo shares the shame shock of salt & pepper hair, a critically lauded filmography of scandalous films, and even home furnishings. Facing a health crisis, Salvador comes to terms with lost lovers (Leonardo Sbaraglia), alienated colleagues (Asier Etxeandia), and his emotionally aloof elderly mother (Julieta Serrano). He pours the memories of his poverty-ridden childhood on a script, with the luminous Penélope Cruz as the idealized mother figure. The director has been cagey in interviews, but chances are the actor he makes amends with is a stand-in for Eusebio Poncela, star of Law of Desire (1987). Incidentally, that baroque melodrama was the second of seven Almodovar movies featuring Banderas.
Over time, Almodovar has reduced the trimmings of his style, distilling his mise-en-scene to the essential. Check out how much emotional pull he gets out of a shot of Etxeandia performing a monologue in front of a white screen. Love for film and romantic love become interchangeable in a final gesture that anticipates The Fablemans denouement on its power and economy. The most simple camera movement can say so much.
* Pain and Glory is available for digital rental at Prime Video, Vudu, Apple TV, Google Play and YouTube.
IRMA VEP (Olivier Assayas, 1996 / 2022)
At the risk of falling into the byzantine debate about the frontier separating film from TV, we must consider Olivier Assayas’ 1996 movie and 2022 episodic series as a single work. Both follow a film crew working on a cursed remake of Les Vampires, Louis Feuillade’s landmark 1915 silent film serial, about a gang of criminals up to no good in early XX-century Paris. The movie plays like an artifact of the indie mad 90s, documenting the ill-fated production, with the serene Maggie Cheung at the center. Twenty-six years later, the six episode-series hinges on a remake of the remake, in the new golden age of TV series.
Academy award winner Alicia Vikander plays an international star aching to renew her love for her craft after a series of special-effects extravaganzas. Playing Irma Vep for a celebrated French director might do the trick. Biographical elements come through director René Vidal (Vincent Macaigne). Like Olivier Assayas, he married and divorced his movie's star. The Cheung stand-in appears as a ghostly memory, while Vidal succumbs to the controlled chaos of a demanding shoot. The levels of meta-commentary are dizzying when Vikander and Macaigne appear in black & white flashbacks as Feuillade and Musidora, the original Irma Vep. It works on a higher level if you have seen Les Vampires. If you have not, it is easy to correct that omission.
* Irma Vep (1996) is available for streaming at HBO Max and The Criterion Channel; the series Irma Vep (2022) is available at HBO Max. Les Vampires is available for streaming at The Criterion Channel.
DAY FOR NIGHT (Francois Truffaut, 1973)
The Nouvelle Vague stalwart plays a movie director shooting Meet Pamela, a disposable drama in the south of France - with a similar plot to the years ahead Damage (Louis Malle, 1992). Julie Baker (Jacqueline Bisset) is a British actress coming off a nervous breakdown and an impulsive marriage, nervously taking the lead role. Alphonse (Jean Pierre Leaud) is her screen partner, an insecure lothario giving it a go with the script girl (Dani). Old-time stars Séverine (Valentina Cortese) and Alexandre (Jean Pierre Aumont) round up the cast. However, this is a most democratic look at filmmaking. Producers, technicians, extras, and even jealous wives get their moment on camera. An achingly young Nathalie Baye plays an ultra-efficient assistant director.
This warm, humane comedy suggests that filmmaking exists as a self-contained, ephemeral micro-universe. The quality of the final product, and its critical fortunes, are of little or no importance. Watch this movie if you need a reminder that fallible human beings make those silver-screen dreams come true. Or rewatch it. I know you will want to.
* Day for Night is available on DVD and Blu Ray by The Criterion Collection.
BEWARE OF A HOLY WHORE (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1971)
The prolific German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder lived fast, died young, and left a monumental filmography. He was also legendary for the real life drama he played behind the camera with his close circle of collaborators, friends, and lovers. Sex, drugs, and cruelty flourished, and you can believe it when you watch Beware of the Holly Whore. Allegedly inspired by the travails he suffered during the production of Whity (1971), the movie follows a film crew stranded in a dingy Spanish hotel while they wait for money and film stock to begin shooting a movie. Fassbinder himself plays a put-upon executive producer, while Lou Castel gets the Fassbinder stand-in, a mercurial director, talented but emotionally abusive. People are horrid to each other while downing enough Cuba Libres to keep Fidel Castro solvent. Eddie Constantine, famous for playing detective Lemmy Caution in a series of films that includes Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965), plays a professional actor watching the drama around him with alarm.
Beware of a Holy Whore is a collective meltdown turned into a movie. It can be hard to watch, at times, like an uncomfortable scene where a woman humiliates a waiter for not speaking German. The punchline is that he is immune to her tirade. His lack of knowledge protects him. Every scene is uncomfortable. Show this movie to any bushy-tailed young film freak to cure him of any idealistic notion of filmmaking. But then again, it just might convince him to pursue the trade. Check out the luscious camera movements of Michael Ballhaus years before getting poached by Hollywood. The cavernous hotel lobby is a 360 degrees stage for human foibles, and his camera scans with unquenchable curiosity.
* Beware of a Holy Whore is available for streaming at The Criterion Channel.
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