When Movies Go Meta

In a clip-laden essay, Oliver Farry surveys a history of cinema that turns the spotlight on itself:

Picture houses became a handy (some might say lazy) plot device for screenwriters, a place for characters to disappear into when pursued by police or the baddies. This was lampooned by Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles where the villainous Hedley Lamarr ducks into an anachronistic cinema in the Old West and tries to get a student rate at the box office. …

Nostalgia for one’s youth forms much of the nostalgia for picture houses, which, in the movies is often elegiac.

This stands to reason – the cinema is a place for the young, for people with time and just enough money on their hands, for young lovers, student loners and groups of teenage friends. Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show uses the closure of the local cinema in a small Texas town as a totem for the passing of an era, and of burnished youth. …

The ultimate cinema-nostalgia film is Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso, in which a successful film director reminisces about his childhood helping projectionist Alfredo (Philippe Noiret) in the cinema in a Sicilian village. The film doesn’t stint on sentimentalism but it does have a pragmatic heart underneath it all. Alfredo encourages the boy, Toto, to leave the village to do something with his life, even obstructing a blossoming relationship with a local girl to do so. The cinema, palatial as it is for such a small town, exists only thanks to good fortune – after the initial one is burned down, costing Alfredo his eyesight, it is rebuilt thanks to the lottery winnings of a local, not exactly the wisest investment, it must be said. Toto’s future career is made possible by a film industry that stays alive, while the cinema, like many others in small towns, falls by the wayside.