Film on Film as Life on Life
by Vago Damitio
Watching a great film can give a person insights into the existence they lead. That may be the key to why human beings are willing to spend as much time as we do sitting in darkened theatres or immobilized on couches during sunny days watching things that may or may not have happened on a big screen or a tiny box. The truth is, film (and television for that matter) is a means of gaining meaningful experience (and sometimes not so meaningful experience) that we might not otherwise have the means or ability to find.
Film is, in fact, a sort of life in that it is capable of giving us the means to think or experience things in a different way; so when a director creates a film that is about film itself, they are actually showing us a bit of life about life.
Three films that take this profound approach are Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001), Robert Altman’s The Player (1992),and Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night (La Nuit Americain) (1973). In these three films, these three directors not only demonstrate that all film is self referential, but endeavor to also show that life itself can often be a viewed as a self referential experience. In doing so, they take the experience of watching the film from an externalized experience into the realm of an internalized experience by forcing the audience to participate emotionally, intellectually, and perhaps even on a more subtle plane that is easier felt than described.
In Waking Life, Linklater uses an experience that nearly everyone can relate to in order to create a bridge of empathy with the main character as he encounters situations that range from the mundane to the fantastic; that of dreams. Within both the dreams and the waking life ( and Linklater makes no clear distinction between the two) the character is forced to confront philosophical dilemmas that are presented to him by a variety of individuals who seem to be teaching as well as seeking the answers to that of which they speak. Each individual conundrum not only forces the main character to consider how this changes his definition of his own place in the universe, but also by extension of the empathy bridge forces the audience to do the same thing. Linklater emphasizes this through a variety of film techniques such as intimate close ups, eye line follow throughs, and the use of sometimes disturbing collisions of color or texture within the frame itself. By marrying classic use of the camera with the rotoscope technique of animation, Linklater draws attention not only to the philosophical questions that are used, but also to the techniques of film itself. Waking Life is less obvious in its role as a critique on the way films are made than it is on the way we think about life, but because the two concepts are so completely intertwined it serves as a wonderful starting point in which to discuss how film on film is really life on life.
Robert Altman’s film The Player is quite the opposite in this regard to Waking Life. The Player is about the business of making movies first and the life of movie executive Griffin Mills second. There is, on the surface, not a lot to like about Mills or the business of making movies. Both are capable of using, abusing, trashing, and even killing people that stand in their way. Alternatively, both are also capable of granting the dreams of those who they choose to favor and exalting them to the highest reaches of society and life. In between the two lies the reality that Altman may be trying to share with the audience; that the secret to happiness lies in harnessing two horses that want to go in opposite directions. If you do it wrong, they will tear you in half, if you harness them correctly, however, they can take you to where you want to go faster than two horses pulling in concert.
Altman, who was alternately praised and thrashed by critics and peers in Hollywood managed to rise to the top of his profession despite reviews that might have destroyed another man. Throughout all of this, Altman maintained a positive attitude towards filmmaking and one can guess, towards life. Consider this quote from critic Matthew Ross:
[W]hile many younger directors complain about the inequities of Hollywood and their inability to get their movies made, Altman remained both philosophical and wiley, committed to testing the boundaries of both the system and society with his sly, fast-footed dramas.
Like his characters, Altman was often disagreeable, especially to the establishment of filmmaking that he worked in. This is especially clear in The Player. Altman shows the audience that life is often not a bed of roses and that people are more often than not motivated by self interest rather than the altruism they project for the world to see. The making of the film within the film in The Player is a study in selling out, buying out, and finally cashing out; it is also a look at how life is anything but fair in how rewards and punishments are dealt.
Francois Truffaut’s 1973 film Day for Night looks at this dilemma of existence from a different angle. Day for Night is a sort of fake documentary about the making of a film entitled Meet Pamela (Je Vous Present Pamela). The protagonist is a director played by Truffaut himself who is struggling against budgets, the personal lives of actors, and technical difficulties to complete his film in a suddenly shortened schedule. Rather than simply being a story about the difficulties involved in making a film, Day for Night is a study of human beings and how they deal with a variety of stressful situations.
The young actor (Jean- Pierre Leaud) who plays the lead in Meet Pamela is in a near constant state of emotional turmoil because he has a very idealized view of what a woman is and expects every relationship he becomes involved in to suddenly transform not only himself but the poor women he becomes obsessed with into magical beings. He repeatedly asks other men on the set if they ‘think women are magical?’ Despite some pretty good answers, he continues in his delusions and as a result is ultimately nearly paralyzed by both jealousy and grief when he finally drives the woman he thinks he loves into the arms of another man.
Jealousy is a recurring theme that Truffaut explores in Day for Night. Some of the many incarnations of it Truffaut explores are that of a woman who travels with her husband so as to keep a constant eye on him, the young man with delusions of women, and finally the mature reaction of an older and wiser man when he learns of his young wife’s affair. This final situation occurs not out of passion but out of a sense of duty. When the young actor threatens to leave because of his grief at losing his love to another, the lead actress played by Jacqueline Bissett, attempts to convince him to stay with persuasion and ultimately realizes that the only way to get him to stay is by sleeping with him. Her affair is more of a sacrifice than a betrayal and when her husband seems to forgive her, the viewer is led to believe that he understands this.
Jealousy, however, is not the only issue that Truffaut deals with. In a way, Truffaut is using the role of a film director as an analogy of being in charge of one’s own life. Take for instance, the example of sacrifice made above; throughout the film the cast, crew, and directors make many sacrifices in order to complete the picture and yet despite all of this, the film is not made the way it is intended to be made because prior to the end of shooting, an important actor dies in a car wreck. Truffaut seems to be saying that even with sacrifice; sometimes our will cannot be achieved. At the same time, he is urging us to make those sacrifices anyway. Perhaps this is best summed up by a line from the young actor when he is asked to describe the film to the press and says:As it is in film, so it is in life. Each person must fulfill their destiny.
This is true for the characters in Waking Life, The Player, and Day for Night, but it is also true for those who watch these films. As actors upon the stage of life, each of us is forced to find meaning in our dreams, move forward in the face of difficulty, and ultimately to deal with our misperceptions and make sacrifices in order to reach our ultimate goal. As an analogy to life, film manages to give us tools to better do all of these things. Truffaut describes the filmmaking process in Day for Night and it is equally true for living one’s life as it is for making a motion picture.Making a film is like a stagecoach ride in the old west. When you start, you hope for a pleasant trip, by the halfway point, you just hope to survive.