Movies About Movies and Why ‘Argo’ is a Surprise Hit

By  · Published on October 27th, 2012

As far as I can tell, regular folk don’t care for movies about movies or films about filmmaking. They used to, back when Hollywood was a more glamourous and idolized place for Americans. Classics like Sunset Boulevard, Singin’ in the Rain, The Bad and the Beautiful and the 1954 version of A Star is Born were among the top-grossing releases of their time. But 60 years later, it seems the only people really interested in stories of Hollywood, actors, directors, screenwriters, et al. are people involved with the film industry – the self-indulgence being one step below all the awards nonsense – and movie geeks, including film critics and fans.

If you’re reading Film School Rejects, you’re not one of the aforementioned “regular folk,” and you probably get more of a kick out of stuff like Living in Oblivion, Ed Wood, Get Shorty, State and Main, The Hard Way, The Last Tycoon, The Stunt Man, The Big Picture, The Player, Bowfinger, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Argo than those people do. While it is true that The Artist faced the challenge of being a silent film, another major obstacle in the way of box office success must have been its Hollywood setting.

Argo isn’t really literally about filmmaking, though, and that might be working in its favor. Ben Affleck’s period thriller, which is expected to finally take the top spot at the box office this weekend, is about not making a film, so it should have the opposite result of most movies in which some of the main characters are film producers.

Let’s look back on this group of films about filmmaking, which technically can take us all the way to the beginnings of cinema. When moviegoing was high and celebrity was really celebrated and looked up to rather than merely set apart and looked at, stories of the makings of fame and wealth were popular. An early example is the recently rediscovered 1923 silent film Souls for Sale, and later the Depression allowed even more successes for films showcasing the better life, which included those of movie stars and other entertainers. But it’s worth noting that a film like Sullivan’s Travels, which took some dark turns with its filmmaker protagonist, was not a big hit when it was released in 1941.

A decade later, Americans must have been exhibiting more schadenfreude in their interests with Hollywood stories, especially with Sunset Boulevard and The Bad and the Beautiful, the latter of which did much better in 1952 than the more uplifting Singin’ in the Rain. Also interesting is how Hollywood itself viewed the films that presented stars as flawed characters. Some historians see the 1950 Best Picture win for All About Eve over Sunset as being a result of voters preferring to celebrate such flaws in a Broadway setting rather than in the film industry. The Bad and the Beautiful wasn’t even nominated for the top Academy Award (neither was Singin’ in the Rain, however), but both Sunset and Bad did win in screenplay categories.

The early 1960s, while still sometimes focused on fallen celebrities (box office success – but not Best Picture nominee – What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?), also brought Fellini’s 8 1/2, which ought to have been the mic-dropping end to films about filmmakers (I highly recommend Cole and Landon’s recent discussion of the film and its relationship to other self-indulgent movies about movies, including Barton Fink, Adaptation and For Your Consideration). Instead it might have been an influence on every other auteur since to make a least one movie about movies. Truffaut did Day for Night, Woody Allen did Stardust Memories, Clint Eastwood did White Hunter, Black Heart and Wes Craven did New Nightmare. Godard, always ahead of the game, had Contempt only a few months after Fellini’s film.

Not all of those were the result of the Fellini and only one of them was definitely directly inspired, but plenty other filmmakers have certainly tried to make their own 8 1/2 to a degree, because it’s a setting and subject matter they’re familiar with. Occasionally first-time filmmakers and screenwriters attempt to start their career off with a movie about movies, though, and they tend not to be good. Although Lars von Trier’s second feature, Epidemic, is decent and clever, he probably could do an even better, more interesting film involving filmmaking or screenwriting now – and I mean a fiction film as opposed to a documentary like The Five Obstructions, which would otherwise be proof.

Von Trier has done plenty of self-reflexive works, at least, and Dancer in the Dark is a terrific homage to cinema, which relates very well to these other titles. In fact, a lot of modern movies about movies are more nostalgic celebrations as opposed to literal films about filmmaking. You’ve got scripts by Charlie Kaufman, who can go direct as with Adaptation or broader about the dramatic and creative arts with Being John Malkovich and Synecdoche, New York. Oftentimes the “metaphor for filmmaking” reading applied to titles is projected by the cinephilic viewer, but then there are also more intentional instances, such as with Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige and Inception.

Of course, the less obvious or direct these movies self-indulgently deal in their own craft, the better, box office-wise. Inception, for instance, with its more fantastical spectacle and superficial story driven by a MacGuffin, does much better than, say, The Cabin in the Woods, which ultimately exposes too much of its meta-ness for wide audiences to just sit back and enjoy. And on the subject of Cabin, let me go off in a tangent for a second to recognize movies about writers and how they similarly do poorly with mainstream audiences while understandably resonating more with critics – especially if, and this seems often to be the case, such movies have the most original original screenplays of the year (I recommend you rent Ruby Sparks when it hits video this Tuesday, by the way).

So, why do people keep producing movies about movies when they’re so rarely hits? Shouldn’t they have given up in the mid ’60s after seeing Fellini do it best while noting the box office failure of Robert Mulligan’s Inside Daisy Clover? Well, they’re not always disasters, as seen recently with Tropic Thunder (which shares a good deal with Argo in its own foreigner-esteem-for-Hollywood theme), but part of the achievement there might be in the current mainstream interest in cheap parody. The comedy about a war movie production gone wrong could have been popular for the same reasons that Friedberg and Seltzer movies are, even if its fake trailers were a bit smarter.

Otherwise, the reason is that Hollywood loves itself and will keep make low-grossing films like My Week with Marilyn to honor itself on two levels – as a direct focus on its history and then as Oscar bait. And while The Artist was made outside of the American film industry and Hugo actually did okay at the box office (still ultimately a financial failure given its budget), their recognition by the Academy has equal significance in that their award-iness outdid their appeal to moviegoers. This year’s Hitchcock appears to be of the same ilk. The Master, which some see as being a metaphor for filmmaking or at least acting, somewhat fits in as well. And joining them both in Best Picture talk is Argo.

Argo isn’t exactly experiencing blockbuster success. And its placement on the box office chart this weekend might just be a matter of luck in that its an extraordinarily low point for ticket sales for any number of reasons. Still, it is doing substantially well for a fairly realistic drama involving the Middle East and Hollywood. Surely some of the appeal is in the true story, which is indeed unbelievable. It may help for its Middle East setting that the events are 30 years old as opposed to something related to the post-9/11 conflicts and it may help for its Hollywood setting that there is not any actual filmmaking going on (well, there is one instance of it).

But what the “regular folk” might not be noting is any link between history and today, which is indeed (always) there, and the fact that Hollywood is still clearly presenting a very self-indulgent and self-important tale of the power of the movies. In the way that Argo ought to be even more fascinating to us movie lovers and those in the industry, this heightened self-congratulatory idea of filmmaking being so great and valuable that it helps save the world and doesn’t even have to take place in order to do so, that the very idea – the spectre, if you will – of Hollywood and movies are enough, should rub people normally averse to films about filmmaking the wrong way.

It’s not so much a film about not filmmaking as it is a film about phantom filmmaking. And it has fortunately fooled mainstream audiences as much as the fake Argo fooled the Iranians back in 1980.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.