French philosopher Jacques Derrida became famous (by philosophy and academic standards) for discussing the theory of deconstruction. While I know that my rather curt and probably inaccurate explanation of Derridian deconstructionism will court harsh critiques from colleagues (current and former) and professors, deconstruction essentially asserts that all writing is about its own writing. Writing exists only with the context of the text and eventually seeks to explain itself even though it cannot. This strain of Derridian thought provoked quite a war among literary scholars in the 1980s and 1990s. And while I would have never introduced myself with the title “Deconstructionist,” some elements of Derridian theory proved quite useful in my readings and studies. (I can remember my reading of The Book of Job being enhanced by Derrida.)
Derrida’s thoughts on how the text contains itself should not only apply to the conventional modes of “written” texts: novels, poetry, essays, etc. As texts, films also fall under the theoretical scope of Derrida. I have here compiled my five favorite films that are, at their core, about the production of themselves. In other words, these are films about how film is made. They seek to explain themselves through the textual production of cinema. I have constructed a list of my five favorite films about films. Derrida will probably scold me from the grave for both my characterization of his philosophical work as well as my cinematic choices. Yet I press onward. Without further ado, my five favorite films about films.
The first post I ever wrote for the JRFJ centered on Inglourious Basterds. There are certain problems that I have with the film, but I still immensely enjoy it. More than anything, Inglourious Basterds focuses on the production of film and how the consumption of film contains both wonderful and destructive properties. The film within the film, Nation’s Pride, asks us to consider how and why we watch. How different are we from those cheering the Nazi soldier who is the hero of Nation’s Pride? Can it be a good piece of “film” independent of its protagonist and the message? Moreover, Nation’s Pride is the lure that Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent) uses to lead the Nazi leadership to its death. And of course, death comes literally through film itself. A film image of Shoshanna interrupts Nation’s Pride to announce that they will all die. (Pride literally comes before the fall.) Reels of film are then deployed as the incendiary device that burns everyone who is locked within the theatre. Film simultaneously produces and destroys.
I have never met another person who has issued the following statement: “You know, I really liked Peter Jackson’s King Kong.” Unless those individuals are hiding from me, I must be rather alone in such an assessment. To be completely honest, I really liked Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Yes, Jackson uses a lot of CGI, but with the possible exception of Guillermo del Toro, no one is more skilled in deploying CGI into a film. Besides the skillful use of CGI, I enjoyed the meta-commentary on entertainment and blockbusters. King Kong is an exercise in discussing and deconstructing the notion of the blockbuster. It literally makes us wait half the film for the blockbuster (the giant Ander Serkis inspired gorilla). Jack Black’s Carl Denham constantly searches for the blockbuster, yet his search and desire leads to death and destruction. His constant attempts to film and produce the great blockbuster lead to misery for all involved. Denham can only see through the lens of his camera, which obscures everything else.
At their best, Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman produced really fun films. True to its name, Adaptation continually adapts and changes, continually morphing into a different type of film as Nicolas Cage (playing the twin brothers Charlie and Donald Kaufman) tries to write a film script. Adaptation had Chris Cooper at his usual best, Meryl Streep doing what Meryl Streep always does (with such effortlessness), and Nicolas Cage reminding us that he was not always the actor that we now see.
Along with Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, this is my favorite Burton flick. As he chronicled the life and struggles of the now famous and infamous B-movie director Ed Wood, Burton replicated those endearing B-movie features but still left a slick, glossy finish. In his only real attempt at black and white, Burton proves adept. He lays a wonderful sheen over the Los Angeles of the 1950s, which, despite its visual appeal, always appears rather vacant and lonely, which is fitting for his subject matter. Ed Wood is simultaneously sad and endearing in its portrayal of the dedicated director, played by Burton staple Johnny Depp. Creating film is hard work, and people fail far more often than not. Yet even those failures, if produced with the fervor and love of an Ed Wood, can help us discover something valuable about film itself.
Cronenberg’s Videodrome begins with the discovery of snuff films. Then it becomes really strange. After watching it, you can never quite look at a video cassette in quite the same way ever again. Honestly, I am at a loss for how to properly describe this film. I remember that my old roommate tried to sell the film to me by saying that Debbie Harry, of Blondie fame, would be naked in it. So there’s that. Out of all the films on this list, maybe Videodrome is the one that pushes the limits of text and context and eludes its own meaning.
If you have your own favorite films about films or think it necessary to correct my misapplication of Derridian theory, please have at it in the comments.