Film lovers like me, by definition, love film. They go nuts over the latest Criterion releases, go through the viewing guide on TCM and the other stations so they can set their DVR, and sometimes arrange their whole life around the experience of watching a movie.
It stands to reason that if film-lovers love films, then the hardcore film-lovers love films about films – especially documentaries about films. What follows is 10 films about films, in no particular order. The only way to get on the list: 1) I had to like the film. 2) It couldn’t be a retrospective of the work of just one filmmakers because if it were, it would be a film about a filmmaker, not a film about films.
Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation, dir. By Mark Hartley
A free-wheeling look at Australian cinema, in particular the exploitation side of it, roughly covering the years 1970-1985. Separated into three sections we are treated to the three ‘B’s of films: boobs, blood and bombs (nudie flicks, horror and action). As a bonus, throw in a liberal helping of uber-fan Quentin Tarantino – who truly seems to have seen ever movie ever made – and you get yourself one fantastic film. As a warning: if you’re looking for the Peter Weir version of Australian filmmaking, by which I mean, respectable and acclaimed, look elsewhere.
This Film Is Not Yet Rated, dir. By Kirby Dick
If Not Quite Hollywood was about the scandalous films coming out of Australia, This Film is Not Yet Rated is about the scandalous treatment American independent films received at the hands of the MPAA. Showing scenes from films that passed and failed side by side, with little actual difference between the two, you get a good view of the MPAA as being the homophobic prude slave to big money interests (i.e., the studios) you always suspected it of being.
Divine Trash. dir. By Steve Yeager
If my rule was not to include any movies about the oeuvre of one artist, then Divine Trash comes closest to breaking it. To be fair, while much of the film is about the early work of John Waters, and his seminal film, Pink Flamingos, it’s also as much about his influences as anything else. Even though it borders on violating my first rule, it is essential here because there aren’t many other places that include bits of film from the Kuchar brothers in such close proximity to Darling Lili and discussions of the sexiness of the Wicked Witch of the West. Besides, love his films or hate them, I dare you to watch this film and then tell me John Waters does not know how to tell a story.
In America, most people think the spaghetti western genre is limited to the Dollar’s Trilogy, Once Upon A Time In The West, and maybe one other film – possibly Django, possibly Navajo Joe. This doc, produced by the IFC, dispels that, taking a soup to nuts exploration of the heyday of the genre (roughly 1964 – 1973) teaching us things we never knew before. New nugget of knowledge: the character of Django was so popular it quickly became an accepted practice of filmmakers and distributors to slip that name into the title of films, even if there was nothing about him in your film. Another: Giallo master Dario Argento started out writing spaghetti westerns.
I bought the Peter Biskind book upon which this film takes it template when it was first out in hardcover, nearly 15 years ago. Since then I’ve reached it at least five times – maybe six – and by now the edges of the pages have ceased to be white but instead are that grimy color you’d expect a well-read book to turn. I can’t say why I’ve read it so often, I guess there’s just something comforting in all those stories. My favorite: during the filming of Sorcerer, William Friedkin having an extra stare into the camera and say, phonetically, “More Per Diem, Mr. Wasserman,” simply because he knew the studio head was watching his dailies. This film is good distillation of the book, and touches on the high points, but compared to the source the film is little more than a pamphlet. While interesting, true aficionados will be quick to run for the cover of the book. On the other hand, the movie has a great soundtrack.
Celluloid Closet, dir. By Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
A fantastic movie about the history of homosexuality in movies – both overt and subvert – starting from the almost-acceptance of it in the movies in the 1930s, to it’s banishment by the Breen office and the legion of decency and ending just as we come to the grudging acceptance in the 1990’s. Punctuated with many great interview, my favorite bit is the story Gore Vidal tells about Ben-Hur, in which he pictured the film as being about the duel between ex-lovers, one spurned by the other. Even if this subtext was very subtextual, knowing about it now frankly makes the movie more interesting than it ever was.
Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, dir. By Xan Cassavettes
Ostensibly a movie about the reach and influence of Z Channel, the Los Angeles area movie channel that existed between 1974 and 1988 and really gave access to many outsider filmmakers into the homes of the most powerful people in movies. Really, though, the film is about Jerry Harvey, the programmer with eclectic tastes, who lead Z Channel through its most successful period. While the station probably would have been absorbed into or co-opted by others in the coming years, his tragic death (by murder-suicide) only hastened the demise.
American Grindhouse, dir. By Elijah Drenner
Like many others on this list, American Grindhouse is about the necessity low-budget filmmakers had with putting sex and violence in films for fun and profit. In another way, it’s about the way filmmakers of low-budget films accept the reality that the old Hattie McDaniel adage applies to them too: It’s better to play a maid in a movie, than be a maid in real life. Still, of all the films on this list, this one might be the gem of the bunch, collecting interviews from many low-budget filmmakers from yesteryear and today – including Herschell Gordon Lewis, Jack Hill, William Lustig and many more – all of whom are easily more interesting to listen to than any big-budget filmmaker. Just as Easy Riders, Raging Bulls felt like a pamphlet, one can only wonder what sort of companion book this movie would rate.
Machete Maidens was directed by Mark Hartley, who also made the film, Not Quite Hollywood, which means they both have a similar style. Except, whereas the earlier film was about Australian cinema in the 70’s, this film is about the Philippine film industry during the same period – or at least, the film industry that brought international independent producers to the Philippines to shoot their movies on the cheap. Of course, where the independents tread for fun and profit, so do the big boys, and like anything else that has success, eventually Hollywood co-opts it and kills it. Best bit: listen to Roger Corman during the credits as he reacts to some of the questions from his interview. Second best bit: the women in prison genre basically got a new life in the Philippines, so there’s lots of boobs to be seen.
Midnight Movies: From The Margin To The Mainstream, dir. By Stuart Samuels
Not the most cinematic of the films on the list, but that’s what you get from a documentary bearing the Starz label, but at least there’s little overlap with any of the other films on this list, at least in terms of subject matter. Here the topic is the rise of the the midnight movie phenomenon, from such early successes as El Topo, to Eraserhead. After watching the movie it’s clear that, if the audience is high, they will give anything a try. Despite the lack of cinematic feeling to it, this film is worthwhile simply to see Ben Barenholtz, who basically got midnight movies going.