Almost as long as there’s been a “Hollywood”, there have been filmmakers who wanted to take it as their subject. Those films have contained more than a hint of caution. When Hollywood takes a hard look at itself, it rarely has any illusions that beneath the glitz and glamour of Tinseltown is something more sinister factory of yore.
In recent years, high profile filmmakers such as David Fincher, Quentin Tarantino and Damien Chazelle have all turned their cameras on Hollywood and used the studio machine to reveal the politics and the introspection of shattered and taped together dreams that fill La La Land.
Fincher made his triumphant return to movies with his biographical film about the underappreciated co-screenwriter of Citizen Kane, Herman J. Mankiewicz. Mank is a provocative examination of the nexus between entertainment and media and politics.
Tarantino made his passion project, a love letter to old Hollywood, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. A story in which follows an aging movie star, losing his place in the pulp entertainment industrial complex while young new talent takes over.
Chazelle, after receiving a blank check for his work on Whiplash, told a tale of Hollywood romance and how two star crossed lovers have to choose between themselves and their dreams.
These three films, taking place roughly 20–45 years apart, offer a study in the cruel art of studio system machinations and how the filmmakers utilize their talents to tell compelling stories of politics and the reflection of movie making.
Many initial reviews of Mank were surprised by the portion of the film dedicated to politics. It is a surprising though not uninteresting addition to the narrative, one which heightens Mank’s contemporary resonance and significantly differentiates it from the cottage industry of Citizen Kane adjacent projects primarily because it’s the most blatantly fabricated aspect of this film
Greg Mitchell’s book Campaign of the Century thoroughly details the 1934 election including Hollywood’s involvement in swaying Californians against Democratic Socialist candidate Upton Sinclair. He’s the one who actually discovered the Thalberg’s newsreels in an off-site MGM archive in 1990 which Fincher dutifully recreates. Mitchell’s recent article in the New York Times sets the record straight on many of Mank’s narrative choices. MGM did produce manipulative anti Upton Sinclair newsreels, the studio did dock employees pay to support Marion’s campaign and Mayer did celebrate Marion’s win at the Trocadero.
From there, the narrative’s connection to reality begins to fray. Both Hermann and Hearst’s involvement are exaggerated or rather in Hermann’s case entirely invented. The construction of these events implies certain things about authorship, but beyond that, they place Hermann within an influential web of corrupt Hollywood actors. It’s Herman who inadvertently inspires Irving Thalberg to create phony newsreels which are funded by Hearst and turn the tide of the election; it’s Herman’s close friend who takes his life partially out of guilt for having participated in this scheme that eventually hurt the writers.
However as far as anyone can tell he wasn’t involved in these events at all. Mitchell bluntly writes “…there is no evidence that Herrmann took any stand for Sinclair let alone a nearly heroic one or even voted for him”. Joe Mankowitz however was. He admitted to writing anti-Sinclair spots for the radio including one which warned rich people that Sinclair would take their swimming pools. Shelley Metcalf is also a fictional character. The man who shot the phony newsreels, Felix Feist, was a conservative and apparently never very much bothered by his work on these. Mitchell also notes that there is not a shred of proof that Hearst actually financed these phony newsreels.
Hearst, like other conservative publishers, used his papers to denigrate Sinclair. But Mayer actually collaborated more closely with Harry Chandler of the LA Times to plan a thorough takedown of Sinclair. Chandler’s efforts there proved much more damaging than Hearst’s. Each day, the paper placed quotes from Sinclair’s novels on the front page as if they were policy positions in order to mislead the public. The LA Times gets a fleeting shout out in the film but is virtually dropped to focus on Hearst. Whether or not these inventions are strong enough to convince an audience that they inspire Herman to write Citizen Kane… I personally do not. I do think that the political debates between the characters are the film’s strongest moments.
Some of the most compelling parts in the film are the political debates between the characters. Most specifically, the scene in which Herman and his wife attend Mayer’s birthday at Hearst’s Castle. Jack Fincher’s screenplay works to dispel a common myth about Hollywood which is that it has historically been a liberal paradise. This debate unveils key figures conservative views on foreign policy. Mayer says “…Hitler-Schmidler, you don’t turn your back on a market as big as Germany”. Most of the studio heads in the 1930s were self-made jewish immigrants. Though privately concerned about Hitler’s rhetoric, chose not to criticize him publicly. As Mayer says they had a responsibility to the business and the German film market was too lucrative to pass up. They also opted for silence because speaking up would mean acknowledging their jewishness. For all the power they had they, too were susceptible to routine anti-semitic attacks. Sidney Ladensohn Stern, author of The Brothers Mankowitz writes “…they were maligned as greedy capitalists whose sensational products corrupted wholesome Christians…Americans they knew that if they depicted Nazi abuses, they risked being branded as warmongers trying to pull The United States into a European problem to help their co-religionists”.
In this same scene, Hearst says “…don’t be alarmed Mary, he won’t be around for long. Germans are a thoughtful, considerate people”. This line suggests Hearts didn’t really like Hitler and was perhaps naive about Europe’s political future which he absolutely was but sort of from the other side of the spectrum. Hearst actually admired Hitler’s leadership style and was enthusiastic about his promise to destroy communism in Germany to the point that he met with Hitler in 1934. Marios Davis claims in her memoir that she wanted to meet him too although more out of curiosity than political affiliation. Hermann plays the token Sinclair supporter in the room and thus our token liberal (side note: Charlie Chaplin was the actual Sinclair devotee in the room and credited Sinclair for his education in leftist politics).
Both of Hermann’s parents were German-Jewish immigrants and had served in World War One and lived briefly in Berlin. Hermann intimately understood the German political situation and vehemently opposed Hitler. As Rita mentions later in the film, Hermann wrote the screenplay The Mad Dog of Europe in 1933 as a way of ringing the alarm about Hitler. The screenplay followed the rise of a house painter “Adolf Mittler” in Transylvania and his oppression of the Jewish people. Coincidentally one scene recreates the Nazi book burnings and specifies several authors works being tossed into the fire including Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and Upton Sinclair. Herrmann and several producers tried every trick in the book to get that film made at one point, even the state department was involved but no one would touch it partly for the reasons stated previously.
The most intriguing aspect about Fincher’s latest is the thin line between studio politics and the real world of politics. Fincher bridges the small gap between the politics of the moguls that created the movie business. Like Kane itself, Mank jumps around in time and space, from the Vacaville bungalow where Mank, out of favor with the studios, pounded out the “Kane” script with the help of hard-working assistant Mrs. Alexander, back to the 1930s, when he ruled a roost of legendary Paramount writers and rubbed elbows with the likes of super-producer Irving Thalberg and actress Marion Davies.
Metacinema is a type of subgenre in which the film informs the audience that they are watching a work of fiction. One of the most notorious meta filmmakers of all time is French New Wave Director Jean-Luc Godard. Over time, many filmmakers have attempted to adapt the influence of Godard into their own work: Federico Fellini, Terry Gilliam, Spike Jonez, Robert Altman and so on. In recent memory, one filmmaker stands out above all else with his take on the metacinema subgenre: Quentin Tarantino. While he isn’t as outwardly self-conscious as Godard, his films are in constant dialogue with the medium’s history. Tarantino’s movies rarely feature authentic portrayal of criminals, instead you’re watching Tarantino mixing and remixing his movie watching experiences into his own films. But however the movie infused his work is, nothing will top his latest, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.
When a movie reflects on itself it creates an awareness of the moviemaking process; a prism through which the reality of the film is filtered. With Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood, Tarantino finally uses that filter on his own work, reflecting on his own cinematic history. It’s Tarantino on Tarantino. Butch heating up a pop-tart. Hans Landa finding refugees beneath the floorboards. Major Marquis Warren baiting the general. By this point the Tarantino set piece is a trademark, an unsuspecting beginning, rising tension and then BAM. Cliff Booth gets his own extended cinematic suspense piece when he enters Spahn Ranch.
But Tarantino finds a way to subvert our expectations. No gunshots this time. No ruthless killings. Tarantino has been playing with cinema history his whole career. But now that his own work has become canon he’s begun playing with himself. An example would the casting of Zoe Bell and Kurt Russell, seeing as both played stunt people in Death Proof. A film about moviemaking is the perfect excuse for Tarantino to cannibalize his own work. Rick (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an actor on the job so instead of Tarantino executing the suspense in dialogue and set pieces this time, he’s trying to execute the execution. The scene where he plays the heavy in Lancer seems like a remix of Tim Roth rehearsing as an undercover cop in Reservoir Dogs.
Tarantino has always relied on our knowledge of his actors previous work which gives their performances an extra metatextual layer. His casting of Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio is also self-aware. He described them as the most exciting star dynamic duo since Robert Redford and Paul Newman. The way the two are used can be interpreted as a two-sided comment on movie stardom. Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth is treated as a movie star cruising the streets in vintage cars to Tarantino’s hip eclectic soundtrack. Cliff is yet another Tarantino badass. He’s in the canon alongside Django and The Wolf. Brad’s movie star quality is front and center when he’s on a roof taking his shirt off. In short, men want to be him while women want to ride with him. Still, Tarantino seeks to muddle the admiration years of movie watching conditioned us to feel by introducing a few caveats to Brad’s character: supposedly killing his wife, and he definitely enjoys eyeing up underage girls while “Mrs. Robinson” plays on the soundtrack. However, we let it slide because, well, he’s Brad Pitt. The film makes it easy to forget he’s basically a glorified butler. Nevertheless he treats his Chattanooga beer like a western gunslinger would a five shooter and leaps up the building like Jackie Chan in his prime. Minimal roof work is heroic if you’re Brad Pitt.
Then there’s Rick Dalton. While he might project heroism on the screen, in real life he’s a self-obsessed insecure wreck. Rick Dalton feels like he’s past his prime until he catches the eye of a promising, yet unconventional director he wants to help re-energize his career. Does this sound familiar? That’s because it’s the story of David Carradine, Robert Foster, John Travolta and Pam Grier. Tarantino is fictionalizing his own casting choices. Can you get more meta than that?
The idea of doubles in the film is the perfect metaphor for the metatextual layers found within it. Cliff has stopped doing Rick’s dirty work behind the scenes; he’s basically a stunt double in real life. He gets into real danger, while Rick gets into fake danger. They exist parallel to each other. While Rick’s on set for Lancer , Cliff’s visiting their old movie set. While Rick threatens a young girl in character, Cliff threatens a slightly older girl in real life. Cliff’s conflict seemed to happen in the external reality of the film while Rick’s conflicts are more internal. Rick and Cliffs pairing is just one of many where fiction and reality mingle to inform each other. In the scene where Rick’s reading Bronco Buster, a piece of fiction that perfectly encapsulates him. Rick stars in a fake film called Operatio Dynamite, however the footage is from a film that actually exists: Moving Target by Sergio Corbucci.
Yet the most powerful example of muddying the line between reality and fiction is Margot Robbie playing Sharon Tate and seeing herself, but not herself, on screen. In one of the most moving scenes in Tarantino’s filmography, the actress revels in watching the character she’s playing in another film. There’s no way we can look at scenes of Tate whether it’s Robbie or Tate herself and not be reminded of what happened to her. The film itself is built around that knowledge. The suspense builds because we know what happened in reality. When Tarantino changes history, he brings together all the layers. The clip that starts off the movie could very well be a promo for Rick’s POV of the final scene. The three Manson villains get into his house and are swiftly dispatched by Rick’s stuntman. Naturally, Rick actually gets the big-money shot using a prop from his own film. Again, fiction infecting reality. When he’s retelling the story, the spotlight is on him, as well as figuratively. When Cliff and Francesca retell the story, Rick’s a backdrop, like two actors promoting Rick’s starring role. The stuntman leaves on a gurney but a lead comes out completely unscathed to get all the accolades from his famous neighbors in the epilogue.
The violence that climaxes the final act is mediated by all these layers. It’s as gruesome as just about anything Tarantino has shot. Like slaughtering Nazis or slave owners, it’s satisfying because we know what the victims did in real life. There’s a modicum of payback that only fiction allows.
From the very opening scene of La La Land, one relationship is established: the comparison of reality and dreams or what you have and what you want. The film opens with the characters stuck in traffic, it’s a hot and uncomfortable day when suddenly this nightmare turns into a dream. Everybody breaks out into song and dance in the epic scene. It’s fun and is something out of an idealized world where nothing can go wrong…that is until the music stops. The dream comes to an end and these characters are yet again stuck in their reality of mundane and everyday life. The next few scenes of the movie established two main ideas: first that right now our two main protagonists, Sebastian and Mia, are stuck with what they have but also that they dream their life is dominated by thinking about and hoping that their dreams may come true.
That comparison is shown off near perfectly during the “Someone in the Crowd” song and dance number. This comparison begins with the transition from seeing fireworks after the 4-minute anthem, to a hard cut of a no parking sign. After the magical dream ends, these characters are back in their reality. Of course they’re not really doing anything to make these dreams become a reality. Mia goes to as many auditions as she can but she is just one of the many faceless and aspiring actresses. Sebastian on the other hand does as many gigs as he can, trying to scrape together enough money so that he may pursue his dream of opening up a jazz club but he isn’t willing to sacrifice anything to get that dream.
Sacrifice is another major theme in the movie and as the audience will soon come to learn, a key component towards making your dream a reality. If Sebastian wants to succeed he needs to be willing to use his musical talents to make music that he really isn’t passionate about so in the long run he can play the music he loves. Similarly, Mia is in a spot where she doesn’t seem to be doing anything substantial to stand out. Instead she just exists. The movie does a lot to show these characters being trapped, wanting their dreams. It’s when they’re furthest away from achieving their dreams are they the strongest. The film’s director Damien Chazelle shows us off in a number of ways. The most obvious is with the musical numbers.
These musical numbers do a lot. They exist as a way to take the audience out of the everyday world and transport us into a magical one throughout. Damien Chazelle shot the various songs in a way that makes them look whimsical and artificial. For a majority of the first act, mostly all of the song and dance numbers are present. These songs are a way to show how entrenched they are in their dreams. They don’t focus on reality. Instead they focus on a glamorized world coming straight from the past. These songs are about their aspirations and what they want and they dominate the first act of the film. However in the second act, the songs are almost non-existent as the characters focus shifts away from what they want to how to get what they want. It’s also worth mentioning Chazelle uses color to show where these characters stand, especially with Mia.
When we are introduced to Mia, she wears bright and dazzling colors, as do her roommates who all have similar ambitions. However as Mia slowly starts to make her dream a reality and as the seasons go by, her clothes slowly start to lose their color, as a way to visualize her dreams starting to come true.
The way in which Mia and Sebastian meet is a direct result of them pursuing their dreams. They have three interactions before they start dating. They first see each other on their way into LA, the place where they can make their dreams come true. The next few meetings are at places where Sebastien is playing music and Mia sees him the night after a failed audition and later at a party she goes to with her aspiring-to-be actress friends. Without their dreams, they never would have met and once they do meet and realize they’re in a similar position to one another, they offer the other help so they can both succeed.
This is a lot more than at first may appear. Deep down, they both know what they have to do to succeed but needed someone else to show them what to do to make their dream a reality. Once they start to get to know one another and they start to care for one another, it becomes clear that they are perfect for one another. They care about each other, they care about each other’s dreams and they support one another. It’s only through working together and encouraging each other to succeed are they able to push themselves to reach their dreams. Their paths may have diverted from their expected journey towards their dreams but the new path they found of each other was able to push them along further than they could have ever expected. After Sebastian’s encouragement, Mia decides that she shouldn’t wait on others to appreciate her talent. Instead of waiting for the perfect script to come along, she decides to write the perfect script for herself. Sebastian chooses to bite the bullet spend some time to work with music that he doesn’t like in order for it to pay off in the long run. However these dreams start to pull them away from one another no longer are they working together and trying to have a great time with one another but instead trying to move their own careers forward. They both want each other to succeed but their success leads to the relationship to fail. Be it out of jealousy of the others career not feeling valued in the relationship or an unwillingness to cooperate the two break up.
One of the strongest aspects of the movie is the comparison of two separate scenes: the first being Mia unable to meet Sebastian at the theater because she is out to dinner and on the other is the scene where Sebastian is unable to make it to her live performance because he has stuck being photographed. Chazelle connects these scenes together and shows us at the beginning what happens when they work together and are willing to compromise with one another. At the end when they’re stuck adamantly in their own ways looking out only for themselves and not for each other.
The film ends with both characters having achieved their dreams. Mia’s the star that she always dreamed of becoming living a busy life as a mother while also flying around the country for work. Sebastian runs the club that he always dreamed of but it seems so hollow. Their dreams may have become a reality but in that their dreams entered the world of reality and as we have seen, reality is harsh. They had to sacrifice their relationship to achieve their dreams but without one another, their dreams seemed incomplete. In the final scene we see Mia having one more dream, one in which her life went another route that she ended up becoming successful with Sebastian. The two are happy together and living a humble life…but that dream popped and she is back in the harsh reality of life.
This movie tells us that there are two types of dreams: ambitions and wishes. The film spends the majority of the time focusing on ambitions. The two characters are willing to devote everything they have to their ambitions in the hope that they can achieve success. They work hard, they push back against adversity, jump the hurdles and in the end both achieve their dreams. This is undeniably an optimistic approach to looking at ambitions but even if it’s not possible for everybody, ambitions are possible to achieve. What isn’t possible to achieve are wishes. Hopes were impossible to become true, for the past to change and wish that Mia might have a life with Sebastian she won’t, because that is a dream that won’t come.