Magazine article USA TODAY

Analyzing Those Movies within Movies

Magazine article USA TODAY

Analyzing Those Movies within Movies

Article excerpt

"... Although critics sometimes are accused of 'reading' too much into a film, there often is a great deal hidden in plain sight."

WHAT SEEMS TO BE casual references to movies within movies usually am anything but. These self-referential moments, which will be limited here to actual film footage introduced into the narrative, tell the viewer something about a central character or add an ironically insightful subtext to the picture.

As one example, a mainstream movie starting point might be the breakfast scene in "Field of Dreams" (1989). Kevin Costner's novice farmer has just begun hearing the "voice" that will inspire him to build a baseball diamond. This act of fantasy film redemption results in the return of "Shoeless" Joe Jackson and other Capraesque scenes of feel-good populism. Initially, however, Costner's character simply fears he is crazy. In fact, at one point Patsy Cline's "Crazy" is heard on the soundtrack, but the in-film movie reference to his anxiety occurs when he finds his daughter (Gaby Hoffmann) watching "Harvey" (1950) on television. In this picture, adapted from Mary Chase's play, Jimmy Stewart is the delightfully daft drinker Elwood P. Dowd, whose constant companion is an invisible six-foot-tail pooka (bunny) named Harvey whose comments are heard only by him. Costner quickly disparages said movie to his daughter, and young Hoffmann misses the rest of her breakfast entertainment.

In contrast to this amusing twist on Costner's anxiety level, an in-movie sequence from Woody Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters" (1986) actually saves the comedian's screen character. Allen's standard hypochondriac-neurotic New Yorker is feeling suicidal and blindly wanders into a movie revival house in Greenwich Village. He comes in on the "Dock Soup" (1933) sequence in which the Marx Brothers simultaneously am satirizing war and early sound musicals with a number entitled "This Country's Going to War." Allen has called it "probably the best talking comedy ever made," and the American Film Institute cites it as one of the country's three funniest movies (joining "Some Like It Hot," 1959, and "Tootsie," 1982). Fittingly, after Allen's "Hannah" character sees the inspired multifaceted funny scene, he decides to embrace life again. A comic catharsis of "Marxist" proportions, or the Groucho-Harpo-Chico-Zeppo artists of your choice, help one weather anything.

The in-film film reference also can reveal darker contrasting insights about characters. For instance, in Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967), when the title characters go to the movies after a botched robbery, their reactions am a study in contrast Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) is engrossed in the Depression-era escapism of the "We're in the Money" number from Mervyn LeRoy's "Gold Diggers of 1933" (1933), but Clyde (Warren Beatty) cryingly struggles with the fact he has just killed a man. Paradoxically, the next morning, Clyde offers to put Bonnie on a bus home, since her identity is not yet known and firings now am going to get "rough." Yet, he is the one who has wilted under pressure. In fact, moments before his exit offer, Bonnie is singing a refrain from the aforementioned song, "We've got a lot of what it takes to get along," while primping in front of the mirror and admiring her coin necklace--which apes the jewelry worn by the chorus line of "Gold Diggers." She never has been more in her element. It is Clyde who does not have "what it takes."

In contrast, Curtis Hanson's "Wonder Boys" (2000), adapted from Michael Chabon's novel, has one of the title characters, Tobe Maguire's gifted college student, watching a television broadcast of Oscar Wilde's haunting novel, "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (Albert Lewin's 1945 screen adaptation), while getting stoned. The Wilde sequence, like the Academy Award-winning Bob Dylan song ("Things Have Changed") in "Wonder Boys," suggests that, when one embraces everything--even with a "safety net" portrait in the closet--self-destruction is the result. …

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