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.