In the current edition of the Reader, I wrote on Jafar Panahi’s 3 Faces (which plays at the Gene Siskel Film Center through Thursday), focusing on how Panahi has incorporated himself into his work of the 2010s. Panahi recognizes that he’s a great subject for cinema: he’s a dissident artist who continues to make movies in Iran despite being banned from doing so until 2030. While the director’s story may be extraordinary, his use of filmmaking to regard himself belongs to a well-known tradition. Directors have been putting themselves in their films since movies began (think of Georges Méliès appearing on-screen to present his latest wonderment) but the tendency for self-reflection really took off in the 1960s with the rise of various cinematic new waves and a sense of awareness in both filmmakers and spectators about their place in movie history.
These five capsule reviews from the Reader archives consider examples of directors looking at themselves by way of autobiographical stand-ins. The films in question range from celebrations of filmmaking to cautionary tales about how directors can abuse their power on the movie set. The most famous of these is surely Fellini’s 8 1/2, the film against which nearly every new autobiographical movie is measured; for my money, though, nothing tops Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore, a bitter comedy that makes filmmaking look like absolute hell. Missing from this list are any films by Jean-Luc Godard, who’s probably looked at himself in his movies more than any other filmmaker, or Panahi’s old boss Abbas Kiarostami, whose self-regarding films are the most dizzyingly complex. To do my due diligence, let me say you should track down Godard’s Passion (1982) and Kiarostami’s Life, and Nothing More . . . (1992) if you haven’t seen either of those.
The Wings of Eagles John Ford’s unfairly overlooked 1957 film is the biography of Frank “Spig” Wead, a World War I fighter pilot who was grounded by paralysis and went on to become a Hollywood screenwriter. (He wrote Hell’s Angels for Howard Hughes and Air Mail for John Ford, among others.) John Wayne plays Wead, and the character, of course, becomes him, turning the film into a brave, memorable study of a man of action who suddenly finds himself unable to act. Maureen O’Hara, as Wead’s wife, embodies the domestic virtues that frighten him even more than his disability. Ford directs with complete disdain for period detail—rightly, for it doesn’t matter—designing his film instead around the growing stillness of Wead’s life: it begins in frenzy and ends in tranquillity. And then there’s Ward Bond, playing a crusty Hollywood director suggestively named “John Dodge”—with a shot of whiskey secreted in the cap of his walking stick. —Dave Kehr
8 1/2 If all you know about this exuberant, self-regarding 1963 film is based on its countless inferior imitations (from Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland and The Pickle to Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories to Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz), you owe it to yourself to see Federico Fellini’s exhilarating, stocktaking original, an expressionist, circuslike comedy about the complex mental and social life of a big-time filmmaker (Marcello Mastroianni) stuck for a subject and the busy world surrounding him. It’s Fellini’s last black-and-white picture and conceivably the most gorgeous and inventive thing he ever did—certainly more fun than anything he made after it. (The only Fellini movie that’s about as pleasurable is The White Sheik.) With Claudia Cardinale, Sandra Milo, and Anouk Aimée. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Beware of a Holy Whore Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1971 film about a movie crew trapped in a Spanish seaside hotel, waiting first for the star (Eddie Constantine) to arrive and then for the director (Lou Castel) to find his inspiration. This edgy, violent, impacted movie was based on incidents that occurred during the shooting of Fassbinder’s Whity, and survivors claim that it more or less accurately records the paranoia and desperate needfulness that reigned on Fassbinder’s sets. It was also the last film of his ragged avant-gardist period; with the subsequent Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, he moved into an emulation of a Hollywood director’s distance and control. With Hanna Schygulla, Ulli Lommel, and Magdalena Montezuma. —Dave Kehr
Sex is Comedy This 2002 provocation from director-writer Catherine Breillat is so perversely enjoyable it gives the lie to her image as a serious, politically incorrect purveyor of pornographic instincts. Here she parodies herself, casting Anne Parillaud (La Femme Nikita) as the demanding director of an erotic film who’s after the money shot, encouraging her actors (Grégoire Colin of Beau Travail and Roxane Mesquida of Fat Girl) to do their simulated best—one bit involves Colin trying on fake erect penises for size. It’s all layered with the kind of delectable philosophizing and psychologizing only the French can get away with, but as with most films about filmmaking, the wrap is what counts. —Ted Shen
Mia Madre Writer-director Nanni Moretti (The Son’s Room) drew on his own life experience for this 2015 study of an Italian filmmaker (Margherita Buy) trying to shoot a movie while, at home, her mother is slowly dying. The domestic scenes, which include Moretti himself as the filmmaker’s brother, are well played but familiar, giving way to ham-handed dream and reverie sequences that illustrate the heroine’s growing anxiety at her approaching loss. Fortunately the movie-production scenes deliver plenty of laughs, courtesy of John Turturro as a vain, temperamental American movie star who blows take after take and dines out on his stories of an imagined creative partnership with Stanley Kubrick. The movie within the movie, starring Turturro as a haughty factory owner clashing with his workers over layoffs, is Moretti’s little inside joke about his own left-leaning early features. —J.R. Jones v