There are all sorts of reasons to see Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats The Soul (debuting this week on Blu-ray, via The Criterion Collection), but here’s the one that finally clinched it for me: when they go see it in Middle of Nowhere. By inserting the earlier film into a later one, Nowhere’s director, Ava DuVernay, isn’t just telling us something about the kind of people who inhabit her story; she’s also savvily commenting on the kind of story she’s telling. And she’s not the only filmmaker to employ this very clever trick.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul in Middle of Nowhere
On their first date, Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi) and Brian (David Oyelowo) go to the movies, to a revival house that’s screening Fassbinder’s 1974 masterpiece. It is a tentative date, to put it mildly; Ruby is feeling a bit lost, a nurse married to a man in prison who’s just discovered that he’s been unfaithful with a guard. Brian is a kind bus driver who has taken a shine to her. Even if an interest or attraction exists, the relationship is, to say the least, complicated — much like that of the old German cleaning woman and the young Moroccan laborer in Ali. And like Fassbinder, writer/director Ava DuVernay sees beyond her characters’ stock types, and finds her film in the complexities of their transactions.
The Searchers in Mean Streets
Considering what a legendary cinephile Martin Scorsese is, it’s not surprising that his characters are frequently obsessed with movies, from early in his career (Harvey Keitel, playing his alter ego in Who’s That Knocking At My Door, chats up a girl by talking about John Wayne) to his most recent films (Hugo is essentially a valentine to silent movies). In Mean Streets, the first thing Scorsese’s street hoods want to do after ripping off some suburban kids for $20 is go to the movies. And the movie they see there is The Searchers, John Ford’s acclaimed and masterful 1956 John Wayne western, and a favorite point of reference among Scorsese and his “film brat” brethren. What’s more, its primary struggle is mirrored in Mean Streets: it focuses on a wise yet flawed protagonist (John Wayne/Harvey Keitel) who spends the film trying to save someone who doesn’t want to be saved (Natalie Woody/Robert De Niro). Scorsese would later make a much more explicit Searchers connection when Travis Bickle “saved” prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) in Taxi Driver.
Brideless Groom in Pulp Fiction
Quentin Tarantino’s movies are filled with tributes and name-checks for his favorite films, but actual clips from other movies pop up less often than you’d think. One of the most entertaining is on Lance the drug dealer’s television in Pulp Fiction. While eating a bowl of Fruit Brute (a breakfast cereal long out of circulation by Fiction’s 1994 release), Lance is enjoying a television showing of the 1947 Three Stooges short Brideless Groom. It’s one of the most widely seen Stooges shorts, and totally by accident — the copyrights for Groom and three others accidentally lapsed and they went into the public domain, flooding $1 VHS and DVD bins for years to come. But Tarantino doesn’t just use the clip to show us that Lance is the kind of guy who likes to lay around the house in his bathrobe, eating cereal and watching the Stooges; it also typifies the fusion of comedy and violence that was not only the team’s trademark, but prevalent throughout Pulp Fiction (particularly the scene that follows the clip, Mia’s notorious adrenaline shot revival).
Vertigo in 12 Monkeys
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece is a story of transformation — an obsessed detective painstakingly turns the woman he’s dating into the woman he lost — so it only makes sense that it would accompany a scene of transformation in Terry Gilliam’s wonderful 1995 sci-fi picture. On the run and desperate, James Cole (Bruce Willis) and Kathryn Railly (Madeline Stowe) duck into a movie theater so he can put on a blonde wig and mustache, as Vertigo plays on the screen in front of them. (“It’s just like what’s happening with us,” Cole says. Ya got that right!) And here’s a nice bit of extra trivia: Vertigo was a major influence on filmmaker Chris Marker — specifically his La Jetée , which was the inspiration for (yep) 12 Monkeys.
The Thing from Another World in Halloween
The Thing, a 1951 sci-fi/horror movie directed by Christian Nyby (and an uncredited Howard Hawks) was one of Halloween director John Carpenter’s favorite movies, so it only made sense that he would program it as part of the scary-movie marathon airing on Haddonfield television for Halloween night. (They were also running Forbidden Planet and, in Halloween II — which takes place on the same night — Night of the Living Dead.) Its presence in Halloween underscores that Carpenter is a lover of suspense cinema and not just another gore fetishist; it’s also a nice bit of foreshadowing, as Carpenter would go on to direct the remake The Thing in 1982.
Halloween in Scream
And in the great circle of horror-movie life, Halloween itself shows up in Wes Craven’s 1996 horror meta-comedy Scream. The older film is one of those cases where a film’s initial impact is blunted by years of imitation; in the case of Halloween, its astonishing financial success led to a glut of films where a masked, unstoppable killer dispatched scores of promiscuous, substance-abusing teenagers. Over the course of those films, certain clichés began to appear, and in Scream, movie-crazy know-it-all Randy (Jamie Kennedy) explains the “rules” for surviving such films — and the sequence’s background movie is Halloween, which established those rules (and which Scream wittily subverts).
The Evil Dead in A Nightmare On Elm Street
Scream wasn’t the first time Craven tipped his hat to his horror-master brethren. In the original Nightmare on Elm Street, heroine Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) tries desperately to stay awake by watching her bedroom television — specifically, Sam Raimi’s original horror fave. By throwing in a lengthy clip of the cult favorite, Craven was displaying the horror hipness of his characters, as well as himself; he also got the movie in front of some new eyeballs, since Nightmare grossed about ten times what Evil Dead had. Raimi was so flattered by the shout-out that he returned the favor in Evil Dead II, borrowing Freddy’s glove to use as a prop in the cabin basement.
Gilda in The Shawshank Redemption
“This is the part I really like, when she does that shit with her hair.” So says Red (Morgan Freeman), as he and the other convicts at Shawshank prison enjoy the sultry performance of Rita Hayworth in the title role of Charles Vidor’s 1946 film noir. Like that film’s hero, Andy Dufresne is a man undone by his love for a bad woman, but let’s be honest: the main reason writer/director Frank Darabont picks this one is for the poster, which leads to the movie’s big reveal.
The Lady from Shanghai in Manhattan Murder Mystery
Another Hayworth classic made its way into Woody Allen’s 1993 comic treat, this time even more directly. Allen frequently drops other movies into his own, from the clips of The Sorrow and the Pity in Annie Hall to the counterpoints of Mr. & Mrs. Smith, This Gun For Hire, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, and others in Crimes and Misdemeanors. And Shanghai isn’t even the only classic noir in Murder Mystery; early on, its characters attend a screening of Double Indemnity, which undoubtedly plays a part in Carol (Diane Keaton) jumping to conclusions about the death of a neighbor. But at the end of the film, Shanghai’s climactic hall of mirrors sequence plays at the suspect’s revival movie theater — while, behind the screen, a similarly reflective shoot-out occurs. Allen’s Larry sums the sequence up best: “I’ll never say that life doesn’t imitate art again!”
Scarface in New Jack City
The weird transformation of Brian De Palma’s 1983 critical and commercial also-ran to beloved touchstone of hip-hop culture was assisted, in no small part, by its appearance in Mario Van Peebles’ influential 1991 gangster picture. We see hustlers-turned-kingpins Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes) and Gee Money (Allen Payne), aka the “Cash Money Brothers,” living the high life in their fancy mansion, which comes equipped with its own screening room. And as the print of Scarface runs, an inspired Nino leaps up to appropriate Tony Montana’s “The world is mine” philosophy. But director Van Peebles does a none-too-subtle bit of foreshadowing by projecting the image of Montana’s dead body across Nino’s. “In another movie, this moment might look like simple cinematic tricksmanship,” Roger Ebert notes. “In New Jack City, it has a special impact… Nino, who looks at the dead body of Scarface and laughs, does not get the last laugh.”