If you went to the movies this past year, chances are decent that at some point, you got an explanation of the mysteries of film projection. In one of those coincidences that feels like a glimpse into some collective unconscious, at least three films from this waning awards season include a scene in which a paternal figure gives a speech on the subject. In the opening minutes of Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, Paul Dano’s character tries to assuage his son’s nervousness about his first trip to a theater with a technical account of how light passing through 24 frames per second tricks us into seeing movement. The movie-mad protagonist of Last Film Show, from Gujarati filmmaker Pan Nalin, requires no such coaxing, though the spiel he is given by the projectionist he befriends comes to the most pointed conclusion that the process is “all a mindfuck — it’s all lies.” There’s a projectionist in Sam Mendes’s Empire of Light too, and he’s downright reverential when perched in his booth above the Margate movie palace, murmuring about how “viewing static images rapidly in succession creates an illusion of motion, illusion of life.” These lectures, delivered to a collection of wide-eyed boys who are different degrees of directorial stand-ins, feel like the cinephile’s equivalent of The Talk: When a young man and a motion picture industry love each other very much, careers are born.
It’s accepted wisdom that Hollywood loves a movie about itself, even if the box-office returns for these particular titles — and for Damien Chazelle’s period piece Babylon, a majestic $78 million bomb, most of all — suggests that audiences at this particular moment very much do not. If it was unusual to see so many backward-looking ruminations about characters falling in love with film in a single year, there was nothing surprising about how they clustered together in the fall. That’s when Oscar hopefuls come out, and movies about movies have had a reliable enough run at the Academy Awards that India picked Nalin’s feature, a semi-autobiographical drama about a boy from a rural area discovering a passion for cinema, over breakout blockbuster RRR as the country’s submission for Best International Film. The joke turned out to be on them, because RRR picked up a Best Song nom while Last Film Show didn’t make it off the shortlist. In fact, while The Fabelmans and Babylon each nabbed multiple nominations, these supposedly safe bets have gotten overshadowed in the cultural conversation by the likes of Everything Everywhere All at Once, The Banshees of Inisherin, Tár, and blockbuster sequels to Avatar, Black Panther, and Top Gun, as though the industry itself was feeling little time for self-reflection.
The shorthand reflexively attached to movies like this is that they’re “love letters to cinema,” a label that’s been attached to this latest crop as well, though it doesn’t do justice to the actual relationship these films have with their medium. If these are love letters, they’re of the unrequited variety. The Fabelmans is, beneath its starry-eyed marketing, a deliberately uneasy family drama about the innate selfishness to being an artist and how young Sammy Fabelman learns to put a camera between himself and the world so that he can have control over what his audience feels. The bittersweet Last Film Show is about how its impoverished main character and his working-class friend both lose their place in the theater after it makes the switch to digital. The residents of the meandering Empire of Light may work at a crumbling multiplex that’s an artifact of grander days, but until the ending, they never seem to watch or talk about movies themselves. And Babylon, which Chazelle has made a point of calling a “poison pen” missive to Hollywood, is about how the industry grinds people to dust in exchange for the qualified immortality of living on in the movies they made, which makes it all worthwhile. It feels more accurate to consider these films, in all their combined ambivalence and sentimentality, not as odes but as premature elegies — requiems for a medium that’s far from dead, but that these directors are no longer seeing the same place for themselves in.
Peel away that “love letter” framing, and other works, ones about people whose ability to work in film was never guaranteed to begin with, start to look like relevant companions. Jordan Peele’s caustic Nope, with its collection of tokenized characters clinging onto the far edges of show business and seeing in an extraterrestrial encounter only a new opportunity to get a piece of the action, is also a movie about movies. So is Jafar Panahi’s self-lacerating No Bears, in which the director, playing a fictionalized version of himself, works on a new film in defiance of the bans that have been placed on him by the Iranian government, only for the furtive production to lead to twin tragedies. (Also worth mentioning: Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun and Ricky D’Ambrose’s The Cathedral, which both featured young protagonists peering at their family dysfunctions through camera lenses with an intensity that’s more forensic than fanciful.) In Nope and No Bears, the urge to keep trying to participate in the industry is more toxic than romantic, not that it stopped either from getting made. Babylon may end with all three of its leads getting brutally ejected from 1930s Hollywood, but in Nope, the alien, which unfurls to display an eye that looks like a baleful camera lens, devours people whole and only spits out the detritus it can’t digest.
No one in the business of movies needs excuses for introspection. Most theaters ditched the type of projection that their characters sermonize about onscreen years ago, lured by the potential of cutting back on shipping and labor costs at the expense of picture quality, and are now themselves being replaced by streaming platforms that funnel everything into an unending churn of content. Collective viewing is on the way out, while individual creative sensibilities are subsumed into corporate plans for IP, and when something distinctive does manage to get produced, it’s a whole other battle to get it seen in the internet age’s ongoing battle for eyeballs. An obsession with shooting on film is an auteurist cliché, but in so many of these movies, the analog becomes a way of warding off changes that have already happened. Sammy excises the evidence of his mother’s emotional infidelity from his camping-trip footage in 8mm clips that he assembles into a marriage-ending alternate cut in The Fabelmans. Samay imagines diving into a pool of 35mm tangles that are about to be melted down and made into bracelets in Last Film Show. Even Jean Jacket, the ravenous extraterrestrial in Nope, demonstrates a hip aversion to all things digital, foiling all electronic attempts to capture his image and forcing his would-be wranglers to enlist the help of a veteran cinematographer and his hand-cranked camera.
You might chalk this up to nostalgia, and it’s undoubtedly a presence in these movies. But at their heart is also genuine fear that some fundamental connection with the work is lost as it trudges its way toward the future. The Haywoods, descended from generations of horse handlers, watch the less predictable live animal they brought on set be replaced by a green screen and a prop stand-in that will never misbehave. An internet connection lets Jafar Panahi direct a production in Turkey while remaining on the other side of the Iranian border, but also leaves him distant and less able to gauge the stresses on his lead actors, a refugee couple playing versions of themselves and contributing details of their lives to his project. Then again, in Babylon, it’s the advent of sound that causes Margot Robbie’s budding Nellie LaRoy and Brad Pitt’s Jack Conrad to get pushed out of the spotlight, as though this pain — the awareness that being left behind is inevitable — had been built into the business from its very inception.
Babylon ends with its only surviving main character, the lovelorn assistant turned executive Manny Torres weeping through the film’s most cringeworthy and incredible sequence — a montage of cinematic leaps forward, from Maya Deren to The Matrix, James Cameron to the Muybridge horse (which, with its additional appearances in Nope and Last Film Show, had its biggest year since the 19th century). It’s a finale that cements the feeling that, as critic David Sims put it, “it wants to be the last movie ever made.” Not included in that kaleidoscopic collection of material from across the decades is any whiff of the superhero genre that currently dominates any cineplex one might drift into today. If there’s an insularity to this run of movies, especially the ones — like The Fabelmans, like Last Film Show — that include shots of characters dreamily reaching into the beam of a projector light, it’s not because they’re so navel-gazing, but because they feel like epilogues for a medium that, like it or not, is still going strong.
It’s a supreme indulgence to want the thing you love to die with you, but it’s an indulgence to be able to look back on the past with fondness at all. It’s no coincidence that these movies were made by men, and that it’s the men in them who are the inheritors, however precariously, of the right to go on to make movies. The tangibility of film as a physical medium is presented as a sign of its accessibility, something the children in Last Film Show can steal reels of to watch on a DIY rig they made themselves, something Sammy Fabelman can poke holes in to create muzzle fire in a shoot-out sequence. But film in the abstract, as a sanctuary or a formative community for outcasts and dreamers, is acknowledged to be more selective, down to Emerald Haywood getting pushed out of the family business by her father, or to the Dorothy Arzner–inspired director Ruth Adler vanishing from Babylon as Hollywood solidifies into a more rigid business. Women are more likely to be material — from the mercurial mother played by Michelle Williams that The Fabelmans spends more of its run time trying to understand to the theater manager played by Olivia Colman in Empire of Light, who was inspired by Mendes’s own mother. In No Bears, the lead actor in the Panahi character’s movie, Zara, finally breaks down in protest at the urgent details of her life being used and manipulated for the sake of his art, as if staging a rebellion against the entire power dynamic of filmmaking.
It’s the boundaries of human physiology that allow us to turn still pictures into moving ones. When images flick by fast enough, we stop registering the gaps in between, and they fuse into a single, steady visual. When those images capture a series of incremental changes, like, say, those of a horse gradually bunching and splaying out its legs as it gallops, it appears to us as fluid motion. Beam that stream of images onto a flat surface and you more or less have a movie, or at least a fragment of one. It’s a way of taking advantage of what our eyes and our brains can’t do, and the art that it enables is, like all art, just as shaped by our own limits when it comes to experiences. The most wistful repeated image in these movies, whether they’re aware of it or not, doesn’t involve projectors or canisters of film. When the camera pans across a theaterful of people in these movies, most of them are rapt at whatever’s onscreen, looking upward instead of at some device that, in most of their settings, doesn’t exist yet. That assumption of effortless attention feels more romantic than any longing for celluloid.
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