Readers Write In #459: Self reflective movies and their charm

Posted on April 19, 2022

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By Kartik Iyer

Richard Linklater was working on Apollo 10 ½ : A Space Age Childhood since about 2018-19. I remember the earliest story broke when Linklater’s production company, Detour, published a press release requesting Austin residents to share pictures of the city during 1969. Over the course of the next couple of years, pictures from the set and comments from sources confirmed that the film was about the Apollo mission, space, and Linklater’s own childhood.

The title of the film confirms that cinema is vital to the movie’s narrative too. It hints at the biggest movie of that era, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Linklater has spoken about the aura surrounding the film and experience of growing up in that wild moment of change. Thus, it is unsurprising that Linklater would go back to his past; also because Dazed and ConfusedBoyhood, and Everybody Wants Some! are movies about the past.

Rick Linklater is not alone in this. Since the past five-six years, there has been a rise in movies based on its maker’s life. People largely call them self-reflective movies. The term is interesting. The screen reflects the life, emotions, conflicts, events, etc. of the director/writer. But if the director of a movie is an auteur, then it automatically suggests that the movie is making a personal statement. An argument can be made that contemporary directors like Quentin Tarantino, Edgar Wright, Anurag Kashyap, Sriram Raghavan, etc. make movies reflective of their character, personality, preferences, inspirations, etc. Thus, there is more to the term self-reflective than personal or anecdotal stories. I believe it has to do with their connection to the format of film.

Whenever a director sets out to make a movie that portrays his/her personal relation to movies, the emotions and concerns attached to the profession and its role in his/her life, and social life at large, we call it a self-reflective movie. It is about reflecting one’s thoughts and emotions about the medium through the very medium. It is similar to Martin Scorsese writing an essay about the value cinema has in our lives in the Harper’s magazine. Or, aptly, Scorsese making Hugo.

In recent years, the number of such self-reflective movies has risen. There might be plenty of lists that cover these movies. I generally avoid doing lists, but I shall be presenting one here because if I am to make a list of movies that moved me in the past few years, these self-reflective movies will be present in that list. Hence, I have decided to make a note of them separately below. I haven’t watched Linklater’s latest yet, but I will soon, in the hopes of it being one of the below.

  • Martin Scorsese’s Hugo:

For those born in a time when streaming is your first introduction to cinema, Hugo will serve as an indicator of what you’ve lost.

  • Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Endless Poetry and Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple:

Starkly different directors, vastly different styles, and very different cultural settings. Despite the differences, both these films talk about passion, art, growing up, and the costs of chasing your dream. Jodorowsky approaches it in a fantastical, surreal manner, while Tamhane keeps his ear to the ground. The point, for me, was the same.

  • Zoya Akhtar’s Luck by Chance and David Fincher’s Mank:

Akhtar’s movie is a rare one because the Bollywood film industry rarely takes a hard look in the mirror. The director confirmed it when she shared that audiences loved the movie but the people in the industry despised it; too close to home, I guess. Fincher’s Mank also looks at its own industry, albeit from a historical perspective. Although it is history, it has a lot to say about the way things are. Hence, I have clubbed these two together for what they say about the politics, economics, and culture of the movie business.

  • Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory and Mia Hansen-Love’s Bergman Island:

Both these directors approach the topics of creativity, passion, reality, and fantasy in their own unique visions. The result is a deeply moving experience. They remind me of a quote by Paul Schrader that goes something like this: a good film begins once you’ve exited the cinema. PS: Hansen-Love’s Bergman Island is one of my all-time favourites.

  • Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Richard Linklater’s Apollo 10 1/2:

These films recreate worlds that are nostalgic. Not due to their plastic quality but the ephemeral charm pervading from the specifics of culture and human experience. The can of dog foods, sandwiches inside tiffin boxes, songs on the radio, playground games, and plenty of other things that populate these films convey more than accurate representation of the past. These objects hint at a stronger subjective connection they had in the lives of the directors. And they could have evoked such a strong response only through the medium of moving pictures and sound. Perhaps it is a boomer trip, as one critic wrote. Nonetheless, the charm is strong. And warm.

I haven’t mentioned any films made in the longer past. I feel today’s self-reflective movies are a result of not just an inquisitive mind, but due to the current cinematic climate. The anxieties of today, with respect to cinema, could be a factor. Thus, filmmakers feel the need to reflect, contemplate and express why they’re doing what they’re doing, in the hopes that their purpose might help others find one. More importantly, we, as a society, might get assistance in our revaluation of cinema’s place in our world. Let’s hope we’re listening.~