That cinema loves a sequel is no secret. This year sees the release of belated sequels T2: Trainspotting 2 and Blade Runner 2049, the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean film, the eight The Fast and the Furious, the ninth Star Wars, the tenth X-Men and the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth films in the Marvel cinematic universe. That’s not to mention War for the Planet of the Apes – the ninth film in the franchise and the second sequel to a film that was both a reboot of and prequel to the original (and nothing to do with Tim Burton’s 2001 film Planet of the Apes).
It would be an understatement to say that these films are somewhat inaccessible to those not in the loop. Overall, however, this is fine – these franchises are generally expanded for their existing audiences and, with the exceptions of The Godfather and The Lord of the Rings films, have never really made much headway at the Academy Awards.
There is, however, another type of film that has had considerable Oscar success despite the fact, I would argue, that they are also targeted towards their specific audience and therefore similarly inaccessible. These are the films about films, and their audience are filmmakers.
Films set within the film industry are nothing new – a few notable examples that come to mind are Sunset Boulevard (1950), A Star is Born (1954) and Peeping Tom (1960). In fact, the 1928 comedy Show People, a silent comedy about an aspiring actress, suggests that Hollywood has always been somewhat self-obsessed. In recent years, however, the prevalence of ‘film-within-film’ narratives has been especially apparent. The Artist (2011), Hugo (2011), Argo (2012) and Birdman (2014) are just a few of these films that have all had sizeable success at the Oscars.
A lot of these films have a nostalgic vibe to them, and, judging by the success of the new Star Wars films or even Stranger Things, nostalgia is Hollywood’s hottest new currency. But this goes further in these films about films. Rather, these are films made by cinephiles, for cinephiles. It seems unlikely that the audience for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo were feeling nostalgic for its subject, George Méliès, whose famous film A Trip to the Moon was released over a hundred years before Scorsese’s, but for anyone with a serious passion for film it was a dream come true.
This year’s cinema-loving success story is La La Land. A love letter to the Hollywood musicals of days gone by, it tells the tale of a bittersweet romance between a struggling musician and, you guessed it, an aspiring actress. Writer-director Damien Chazelle has an obvious passion for old films, and the film is bursting with meta-humour and visual references to its influences – even the simple street lamp present in the film’s marketing posters seems to be a reference to Gene Kelly’s iconic lamppost leap in Singin’ in the Rain (1952). It’s all very Hollywood, and given recent awards history it’s no surprise that La La Land has received a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations and is hotly-tipped for Best Picture.
Walking out of the cinema where I’d just seen La La Land (for the second time, I’ll admit), I started rambling on to my friends about how much I loved the film. They seemed to have moderately enjoyed it. My over-enthusiasm for all of the references to other films I had noticed, however, was met with nothing but polite smiles. It slowly dawned on me that my initial impression of the film – that La La Land was The Best Thing Ever™ – was formed on the basis of my knowledge of pre-existing films. Unlike Alien: Covenant, this year’s sequel to the prequel to the original Alien, La La Land works as a standalone film. And yet I can’t help but feel that it is Chazelle’s engagement with other films that makes La La Land truly magical – and has earned it its critical success.
Things become especially interesting when you consider that La La Land’s two biggest influences, Singin’ in the Rain and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), are themselves homages to earlier musicals. In fact, Singin’ in the Rain is another meta-film that is explicitly about Hollywood. This phenomenon of layered intertextuality and introspection is far from an isolated case. In fact, a recent poll of critics conducted by the BBC declared the greatest film of the 21st century to be David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001). Lynch’s twisted tale of an aspiring Hollywood actress, which is about as clear example of meta-cinema as you’ll get, riffs on Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, which itself is about an unsuccessful screenwriter and struggling actress.
It seems that cinema is in a never-ending conversation with itself, about itself. This can be fascinating, but it might come with problems. With every added layer, is the conversation becoming harder and harder to join? And is this nostalgic introspection actually a case of cinematic stagnation?
Two years ago, Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s coming-of-age drama made over ten years, lost out for Best Picture at the Oscars to Alejandro Iñarritu’s Birdman, a satire about a faded Hollywood actor. This year sees a very similar situation – La La Land’s major competition comes in the form of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, a heartbreaking story of the transition of boy to man while grappling with one’s own sexuality. Moonlight is the kind of film that doesn’t come around often, and less still the kind that gets recognised by the Academy. It’s dreamy visual poetry that is both beautiful and brutal and, in contrast to La La Land, is accessible and forward-looking.
I personally have no problem with films about films. It seems obvious that filmmakers would want to make films inspired by their own life experiences and passions, and so film itself is an obvious subject. I do, however, think that the Academy need to recognise that these are films aimed at filmmakers. If, as their Wikipedia page currently states, they are truly dedicated to ‘advancing the arts and sciences of motion pictures’, it seems wrong that the Academy keeps rewarding films that are so backward and inward-looking.
La La Land isn’t a sequel or prequel or remake of any particular film – rather, it’s a reboot of all of cinema’s musical history. Moonlight, on the other hand, is a profoundly moving and exceptionally important film that can’t be reduced to a set of influences. When the Academy Award for Best Picture is handed out at the end of this month, I wonder whether they will be brave enough to break out of the Hollywood bubble. Or will the Academy – and I suspect it will – continue to live in its very own La La Land?