Watching movies in the movies has always been a difficult endeavor. Even if the rights are procured and the original images used, it still has to be something that has existed for awhile. If it isn’t, if it is supposed to seem new, the year or so that passes between production and release is going to date it irrevocably. And despite the chang(ed)ing landscape of film distribution, when they watch things, people are mostly watching new things.
When it is imperative that characters go to the movies like normal people (as opposed to stand ins for the director who obviously prefer screenings of forgotten classics you’d have to be in New York or LA to luck into) it inevitably comes off as a joke. As it did (and was meant to) in recent releases Don Jon and Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2. At best, the alternative is that it can simply go unnoticed, like when Doris Day walks into a theater playing Caprice, the very movie you are currently watching or the inside joke of having Midnight Meat Train on the marquee, hovering above Midnight Meat Train’s star Bradley Cooper as he has a breakdown in Silver Linings Playbook.
These sort of meta inclusions have gone too far in 2013. Gone beyond inside joke meant for the tiny percentage that will a) notice and b) have the background information to put it together. But when everyone watching is in on the joke, it becomes an Escher painting. A spiraling morass with no way out.
In Battle Of The Year, 2013’s Step Up placeholder while that franchise takes a well earned time out, Dante (Laz Alonso) makes Blake (Josh Holloway) watch a documentary about the dance tournament for which he is about to attempt coaching a team. That documentary, Planet B-Boy, was made by the director of Battle Of The Year. It serves as its own narrative feature counterpart’s exposition. Since Battle Of The Year’s cast is made mostly of actual dancers, it is only careful editing and the short lifespan of a B-Boy that prevents characters from the latter from appearing on the screen within the screen.
You don’t have to know that these movies share a director, or even know the documentary actually exists for it to feel like odd product placement. In a way, it’s aim is to legitimize the conceit of Battle Of The Year. It is saying, “look, we didn’t just make this up, this tournament really exists and you know it’s totally serious if somebody made a documentary about it. Even if ‘they’ in this case, is us.” But if you’re there watching Battle Of The Year, I don’t think you need it to reassure you that it is authentic. Either you know or you do not care. Within the movie though, potential-Coach Blake was a dancer in his youth. He might have been blissfully unaware of the career his talents could have secured him, but he doesn’t need to be given a video to watch like a teenager who just got his first job at Target. It’s one of the laziest recruitment/orientation regimens a fictional company has ever employed. And it shows, as in one of the most unintentionally funny edits in the movies this year, Battle Of The Year cuts from footage of Planet B-Boy back to the conference room where its audience of two, Blake and Franklyn (Josh Peck) are heads on the table asleep.
There’s a point later too, where the movie switches from its passive omniscience to the footage from phones, taken by the dancers themselves on their way to France for the titular battle. Which, of course, they actually did (the advertising for Battle Of The Year makes it clear it was shot at the actual Battle Of The Year) This footage decidedly less informative, of course, but it may as well be footage from the documentary too. It would be a disconcerting break regardless, but coupled with the establishment of the Planet B-Boy existing in the world of Battle Of The Year, it takes on greater scrutiny that it can bear (which is to say any.)
At the end of The Fifth Estate, really after the end because it feels almost like part of a blooper reel, Benedict Cumberbatch (as Julian Assange), repeats his interviewer’s unheard question, “The Wikileaks movie? Which one?” It’s an accurate facsimile of the narcissistic Assange were he asked this question (and he has been) but as part of this particular Wikileaks movie, which the staged Assange says is based on two of the worst books in history, it’s an awkward way to leave the audience on a somewhat lighter note. It also serves as its attempt to seem as though it has covered every possible second of the timeline all the way up to the release date. In either case (or both) it stands out as a very strange choice in an movie otherwise pretty much devoid of humor.
Of course, this all seems benign in comparison to the weirdest instance of movie watching in the movies this year. Maybe of all time.
When the print of Some Came Running fails to show up to a tiny French town’s film club meeting, they run what did show up instead: Goodfellas. What is clearly a fortuitous mix up for the audience in the movie turns into a universe-bending mind vise for the audience watching them in The Family. For as you probably know, both of these movies star Robert DeNiro. Not a frame of Goodfellas is shown to us in The Family, we only hear the opening narration (as there is plenty else to cut away to.) But it doesn’t matter.
You can laugh it off as a strained joke, but it isn’t played that way at all. It’s an integral portion of the transformation of DeNiro’s Frank Blake (Blake! Another coincidence even if it is only DeNiro’s witness protection alias). It is in springboarding from recounting the authenticity of Goodfellas under the guise of simply being an American historian rather than a lifelong embedded part of the mafia, that Frank finds he does have something worthwhile to say about his life. That spilling his guts doesn’t have to be relegated to the law, here represented by Tommy Lee Jones, who is sitting in the audience watching, much like us (or him), with a weird expression on his face.
Now, it seems as though nobody really cared about The Family, whether they saw it or not. This is unfortunate, as it plays with audience expectation to extreme degrees, giving it so much of what it thinks we want that we become disgusted with it, only to have that disgust turn to anxiety over the fates of the people we with whom we were just becoming disgusted. All of that spectacularly crafted emotional wrangling though, can be thoroughly derailed by this bizarre inclusion of Robert DeNiro watching himself. There’s no awkward winking, as there was stupidly with Nathan Fillion referencing an unnamed cancelled television show in Percy Jackson Sea Of Monsters, which was precipitated solely by the casting choice. Here you have to steel yourself for the inevitable reference to the fact that Frank bears a striking resemblance to a major character in Goodfellas. It never comes. And while that is a relief, it only comes afterward. You are sill left in a weird uncomfortable state that really has nothing to do with the movie you are watching but rather the casting of the movie you are watching. Would they have chosen to show The Godfather if they’d cast Al Pacino? Obviously director Luc Besson was aware of all of this and did it on purpose, but to what end? Did he want us to feel like this? To risk missing everything else that was transpiring because we couldn’t get our minds around this paradox? It’s like waiting for Marty McFly to run into his past self or sending John Malkovich through the crawlspace on the 7½th floor. You don’t know what might happen, but it has to be something.
But of course, it is nothing. As it must be. It wouldn’t be fair to have a movie about mobsters exist in a world where Goodfellas does not. And Robert DeNiro is in so many of those kinds of movies it’s nigh on impossible to find something relevant he isn’t.
Ultimately, these stand as a footnotes in otherwise forgotten movies. And while this versus series is supposed to pit such like-minded coincidences against each other and determine a winner, that’s pretty much impossible here. Is the winner the weirder one or the one that doesn’t affect the movie it’s in as much? Is it the more memorable or the better presented? There are no winners in this case. Both movies suffer from these odd choices, if only slightly, since neither had much to lose in the first place.
Better meta moment 2013: n/a