Great Movies about Media – Vol. I

It’s always interesting when writers and filmmakers take on projects about media. It’s typically a very personal subject for them, and it’s fascinating to get a glimpse into how these artists view their art, or at least the work of others in similar fields.

To get as broad a picture as possible, I picked out four major media types — Radio, Television, Books, and Film — and chose a representative movie for each to look over. We’ll check out the movie, and then look at what it specifically says about the medium at its heart.

Radio – A Prairie Home Companion

Lohan’s surprisingly good in this role.

I don’t know about you, but I grew up on Garrison Keillor’s iconic radio variety show. When I was young, the sound of his voice was the main draw, but the older I got, the more I appreciated his gentle wit, offhand philosophy, and storytelling panache. In 2006, acclaimed director Robert Altman immortalized the show on film, drawing from a script by Keillor himself. The resulting movie was fittingly meandering, amusing, and thought-provoking as it told the story of an old radio show giving its final performance.

And John C. Reilly is unsurprisingly good in his.

What does it say about the medium?

Radio, and to some extent all forms of media, is at once timeless and fleeting. Timeless, because once a broadcast hits the air, it becomes a part of people’s lives; their personal history. Fleeting, because a radio show (or movie, or television episode) begins and ends, often quite suddenly. And radio in particular simply comes and goes; people may not even remember it. A Prairie Home Companion is preoccupied with the morbid and the macabre, whether its a suicidal teenager writing poetry or an angel trying to recall the night she died. And yet, in these dark moments, the ever-present humor provides a silver lining. Even though the show will end, that doesn’t mean it didn’t matter.

“What if you die someday?”
“I will die.”
“Don’t you want people to remember you?”
“I don’t want them to be told to remember me.”

Television – Good Night and Good Luck

This is a cool, cool movie. Not in the modern sense — Wesley Snipes doesn’t decapitate a single vampire, nor does Ryan Gosling rock a scorpion jacket. This is Sinatra cool. Good Night and Good Luck mostly takes place in a 50’s-era newsroom, where a team of television journalists deliver the news between puffs of cigarette smoke. Leading the pack is Edward R. Murrow, a man who exists nowadays as a journalism icon. The movie shows us why. When faced with the self-serving outrage of Joseph McCarthy, he fights back. Not with fervor, not with body blows, but with cool, calculated rhetoric.

Plus you get a glimpse of Downey, Jr. during his comeback.

What does it say about the medium? 

Good Night and Good Luck specifically addresses television news, which is still the area of the news where the personality of the journalist can have the most impact on the viewer. There seems to be a wide gulf between what Murrow stood for and what his legacy has become. He stood for calm in the face of assault, for the power of facts and morality delivered through tempered language. His legacy, unfortunately, has turned into a bunch of loudmouthed television anchors who can’t give the story straight. Nowadays, every journalist feels a need to editorialize. Our news is so clogged with embellishment and commentary that it’s nigh impossible to track down an honest-to-God FACT.

Still, without the journalism profession to keep the public informed on what their government is up to, movements like the Red Scare might have done much more damage than they actually did. We need watchdogs like Murrow, so the thieves don’t sneak in and rob us blind.

Books – Naked Lunch

I tried to find a normal picture. This isn’t the best I could do, but it’s close.

This is a deeply weird movie. Weird, in the sense that by the end of it you won’t even be questioning that a major character is a typewriter that turned into a beetle that literally talks out of its ass. Naked Lunch the book is essentially unfilmable. A surreal, crass collection of ideas that could never be shot and never be screened. Instead of trying to shoot such a text directly, visionary director David Cronenberg made his movie the story of the making of Naked Lunch. Sound confusing? That’s the idea. Early on, Peter Weller’s fictional version of author William Burroughs state’s the movie’s mission: “Exterminate all rational thought.”

What does it say about the medium?

Most people who write regularly can identify with the frustration of trying to perfectly communicate a thought on the page. Naked Lunch finds a way to illustrate the strange process of writing onscreen. Cronenberg’s movie is heavily allegorical, portraying the search for material as a trip to a foreign land, and the finished work as little more than letters detailing the voyage, letters that often don’t fully convey what the writer sees along the way. Creation is chaotic, it can be ugly, and — like the “bug powder” drug in this movie — it’s addictive.

Film – Ed Wood

Ed Wood is the story of the worst director in film history and how much he loved making movies. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp show what they can do together with this offbeat little movie. It chronicles Wood’s journey through the fringes of Hollywood, as he rounds up a freak show’s worth of bit players and has-beens to make movies nobody cares about. One of his crown jewels? A semi-autobiographical story about a cross-dresser entitled Glen or Glenda. Citizen Kane it ain’t, but that’s kind of the point.

What does it say about the medium?

No matter how good you think your work is, there’s always the chance it could suck. That’s the take-away message of Ed Wood, at least to anybody who creates written or filmed work of their own. Ed Wood is charismatic; he manages to convince a surprisingly large group of people that the movies he makes matter, that he has something valuable to teach the world, and that true inspiration can happen to anybody.

Ironically, that this movie exists proves that although Wood was totally wrong, he was also, strangely, right. Despite all that was wrong with him as a filmmaker, Ed Wood’s infectious enthusiasm itself made his movies valuable. Which is a message that some of the cynical accountants and critics on both sides of the film industry ought to take to heart more than they have. What matters more, the film or the filmmaker?

So what do you guys think of these statements on media? In particular, I’m curious to hear which side of the Ed Wood debate you fall under.

Also, while putting together this list I realized that there were about a dozen movies I could include. Thus, “Vol. I,” and I’ll return to the subject at a later date. Which means that if you have any suggestions, feel free to drop them below.

  • andrew

    I love that from the massive pool of movies about movies you chose Ed Wood. It’s easily in my top 5 all time. Everything about it is just perfectly executed, like the antithesis of an actual Ed Wood movie. Glad to see your take on it.

    Another great movie about making movies is Living In Oblivion. Steve Buscemi, Dermot Mulroney, Catherine Keener, and Peter Dinklage are all hilarious. Very underappreciated film.

  • Straenge

    While I love the movies you listed, I think for television, or perhaps for all of the entries here, there could be a bright side and dark side of each.. For instance, under television, I thought for sure you would mention “Network” which puts a whole new view on journalism.

  • Cube

    “Network” should have totally have been on this first list. Shame on you.

  • Jake Fortner

    Thank you for choosing three of my favorite movies: Naked Lunch, Ed Wood, and Good Night, and Good Luck! Even though Network would be better for TV, and for writing (maybe not books) Adaptation, and for movies there is 8 1/2, Man with the Movie Camera (if you want to be experimental), American Movie (documentary), etc. Although I love 8 1/2, I have to admit it’s hard to defend because it’s REALLY pretentious and self-serving for Fellini. I used to defend it forever because it was one of the first arthouse films I’d ever seen, but I had to be honest with myself . . . it’s a great movie, but Fellini is a self absorbed dick.

    Great list, though! And a great idea for one!

  • E. Lee Zimmerman

    ED WOOD? Bored to tears.

    A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION made even Baby Jesus cry.

    David Cronenberg’s NAKED LUNCH? I’d rather watch Tia Carrerra’s NAKED LUNCH.

  • Charlie Ward

    Ed Wood was an excellent choice. I watch that movie about once a month. Great movie.

    As for suggestions, if you wanted to go the comic book route then nothing beats American Splendor.