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Savant tries to stay clear of independent filmmakers asking for their DV films to be reviewed, as it's difficult being blunt and honest when you're rooting for the underdog. They Shoot Movies, Don't They? is a documentary about the desperate cons and ego-crushing defeats that go into trying to make it big in independent filmmaking, and even when it isn't entirely convincing it touches on a number of great topics: The nature of 'reality' video and the reality of altruism, ambition and cluelessness in Los Angeles.
That last paragraph is sort of a sneak, because They Shoot Movies, Don't They? is a bit of sneak as well. It's not a documentary but a very good mock-documentary, shot on Beta-SP late in the 1990s. It followed the enormous mock-umentary horror film The Blair Witch Project, with which it has many similarities, and made its impact on the Independent Film Channel, reportedly becoming one of that cable outlet's most talked-about features. The notoriety probably related to whether or not the events in the film are true - the film never fesses up to its fictional roots. Even in the disc commentaries the producers are in no hurry to admit that the picture is a put-on. In these days when outrageous lies and obvious fakery in Television and reality are accepted by the public at face value, I don't doubt that most casual viewers of They Shoot Movies, Don't They? are completely fooled.
They Shoot Movies, Don't They? purports to be the inside story of the downfall of an ambitious independent filmmaker, whose final fatal year happened to be the subject of a documentary cameraman. As such its credits are sort of a tangle, with the fictitious main character being played uncredited by one of the producers. All of the other actors are more or less playing themselves, pretending to have a relationship with the "main-man" Tom Paulson.
The film gives a 'reality format' gimmick a real workout and benefits from a number of unexpected angles. First, it's not the simple "boo, it's real, no it's not - or is it?" phony reality game of The Blair Witch Project, which in Savant's opinion fully exploited and exhausted the potential of "believing" in fake reality video -- anyone still thinking that hand-held cameras capturing events in a home movie fashion create some kind of perceptual reality needs to go soak their head. 1 They Shoot Movies, Don't They? is about people desperately trying to make it in Hollywood, which is basically the culture fairy tale of our age, worshipped by every dreamer on the planet. Tom Paulson gets a taste of an easy tinseltown job and gets the bug to break free and shoot his own 'personal' film called Mirage, which looks to be about a guy desperately trying to make it in Hollywood, the culture fairy tale of the age. Tom makes his movie but comes up short when it's time to sell it - the Phillistine majors tell him its worthless and only offer to take it on if he reliquishes control. That's when docu filmmaker Frank Gallagher begins to record what he can of Tom's miserable odyssey, as the filmmaker tries to scrape up matching funds. He has only a limited time to take advantage of the only offer he can get to finish his film his way, from a friend who believes in him, not his movie.
As we see Tom pitch pals and relatives for money and the camera directly confronts his girlfriend's growing discontent, They Shoot Movies, Don't They? becomes kind of a reality cinema Citizen Kane, analyzing Tom Paulson's personality. Even though Gallagher's camera follows him from office to office and watches him cringe as his expensive investor screenings go unattended, what we're really seeing is Tom being dissected, illusion by illusion. His pride dwindles with his bank account until the only thing he can bring to meetings is the fantasy of being a "winner," which is of course the theme of the movie he has made. The film is a dog that nobody wants to see because it honestly expresses Tom's dilemma - he just wants to 'make it big' and fails. Tom's editor says that the film doesn't work because Tom hasn't told a story - it has no connectivity and the audience doesn't care about the hero. Disinterested distributors say the same thing, that Mirage lacks the phony wish-fulfillment fantasies that people really want to see.
Tom's personality is hollow - when he's pressured he lamely repeats his feel-good mantras about being a winner, the spirit that helped him when he was a baseball player with a recognized talent to nurture. As a salesman of dreams he comes up woefully short ... when the "actor" playing Tom Paulson starts to drone on in mock self-confidence and shaky assertions of purpose, the mock-umentary becomes sort of a Death of a Salesman. The ending is brutally honest - the problem is always Tom's. Total commitment to a 'movie dream' can be devastating when the dreamer is revealed to be shallow and empty.
Stepping out one level of fake reality, we get to Frank Gallagher's "documentary", which does a better-than-average job of faking a docu shoot of supposedly unrehearsed events. The camera keeps rolling when Tom's girlfriend has a long pause in one of her monologues (ooh! it's powerful!). Frank eavesdrops on an important argument through a closed glass door. The camera follows Tom into reception rooms, where people look at the lens, or ask that the camera be turned off. 2 As Tom's whining, squirming, and pleading with his fed-up investor becomes a shouting session, the camera retires, waits in the hall and then sneaks back in fairly convincingly.
This is of course all fakery, as many of the interviewees try too hard to affect guileless 'fresh' responses to questions. People always speak to the topic at hand and in general do a lot of emoting. Much of this is excused by the presence of the docu camera but some is not. Documentarians are helped and hindered by the fact that many people are flattered to have a camera stuck in their faces, allowing them to become stars playing themselves. Two whole generations of young people have thought about how best to appear nonchalant when and if a camera appears, to the extent that kids exiting movie premieres have pre-prepared blurbs ready for the news cameras. Also, Gallagher's camera always finds plenty of light for a pleasing image, and never misses a key moment or decisive turning point in Tom's life story. When Tom 'sneaks' away to Vegas, the camera is right there.
To its credit, the film doesn't have Tom completely ignore the docu camera. He actually tries to hit up Frank Gallagher as a potential investor. No sale, of course. The film's big dodge occurs when the docu camera is left unattended in Tom's room, so that he can document his final words on his own, essentially directing and filming a suitable "reality" ending to match the "fictional" ending in his movie Mirage. This confected trick is similar to the gag seen in more than one story about a front-line newsman. A dead cameraman's porta-pak falls just-so, and just happens to record the key battle image for a concluding freeze-frame.
The kicker is that these gags could be ten times as obvious and many viewers would still "believe" what's being put in front of them. 3 This is why the filmmakers have credence when they claim that a huge number of viewers on the Independent Film Channel were completely convinced that They Shoot Movies, Don't They? is real. The supposedly hip audience for alternative film is apparently as gullible as any other group.
The filmmaker's mockups of industry trade paper articles are quite convincing. That they're able to use Universal's name as part of their deception is an interesting legal problem that I'd like to see addressed - when he saw those real names, Savant wondered for a moment if he misread the package copy.
Goldhil's DVD of They Shoot Movies, Don't They? ... the Making of Mirage looks good for being shot on Beta SP; the attractive camerawork helps when Gallahger by necessity must cut away to generic shots of Hollywood streets, etc. The sound is also uniformly clear, an aspect of the picture that again should be taken as a giveaway that it's not a real documentary. 4
The packaging is careful not to call the film a documentary. The tagline is "A true story based on a lie" and the back-cover text calls the film a "... shocking 'reel' story unlike anything you have ever seen before." Very astute. The movie's extras aren't listed on the packaging, although there's a blank space indicating that they were left off, perhaps on purpose.
The film has two filmmaker's commentaries. One is a general discussion of the film in which the director and his pals do a certain amount of teasing about whether the film is real or not. That's too bad, because the picture has good qualities beyond that issue, and people in general don't like to be laughed at while being fooled - even Orson Welles, the instigator of the most famous "reality radio" fiasco, realized that being notorious as a Faker isn't the perfect career move, even if it does get you to run the toy trains at RKO. A second track has the same filmmakers tell us the history of trying to get They Shoot Movies, Don't They? released as a film, which is definitely educational. Tom Paulson's escapades are nothing compared to what happens in real life. There is also a promo trailer. It is somewhat interesting that the film was a big hit on the Independent Film Channel, but is not associated with their logo in its DVD release.
The Goldhil disc starts with a lengthy series of previews that can be skipped by hitting the menu button.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
They Shoot Movies, Don't They? rates:
1. And, although it's a completely unoriginal statement, it can't be repeated often enough: Reality programming has more or less ruined 90% of what appears on television, from dramatic shows to news broadcasts. It ain't real unless it's "fake real."
2. When casino guards in Las Vegas ask that the camera be turned off the moment Frank accompanies Tom to a roulette wheel, we believe that it's true 100%!
3. Reality TV -- essentially, fake reality and bald lies masquerading as reality -- has almost completely eroded the concept of 'believability.' When an average American believes in ghosts, flying saucers, impossible conspiracies and political hogwash, they're really saying they believe in everything and nothing ... they no longer have a reaction to information from the outside. This gap makes the concept of 'absolute belief' -- unquestioning adherance to a faith, or the pronounements of a church -- all the more essential for some. I'm surprised people still believe in concepts like gravity or tooth decay. They certainly don't believe in money any more -- our 'reality' media says that everything is affordable and should be consumed now, and our 'reality' government can keep inventing money to prop up a national economy that by all logic should be bankrupt three times over.
4. Although we never see any of the film-within-a-film Mirage, we do see Tom and his uncooperative, unhelpful editor (unfair!) screening his 35mm cut on a Steenbeck editing table. One problem - although we hear the soundtrack playing, only a picture reel is loaded on the machine - there should be no sound.