Before ‘Filmworker’, Watch These 5 Film-on-Film Docs

Leon Vitali with Stanley Kubrick in the documentary Filmworker
Kino Lorber

By Pat Mullen

Film buffs get a thrill this week as the new documentary Filmworker takes audiences behind the scenes with director Stanley Kubrick while giving a nod to the master filmmaker’s unsung assistant, Leon Vitali. However, great cases of film on film can be few and far between. Too often films about movies pay tribute to classic cinema with a sizzle reel of greatest hits cut together with some awkwardly shot interviews. (Paging DePalma!) There are decent conversations about great filmmakers, like Hitchcock/Truffaut, insightful no-frills docs about exciting filmmakers, like The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, and energetic dips into iconic sequences, like 78/52. But the best documentary about the art of filmmaking is one that adds to the canon of great cinema while highlighting classic works and/or hidden gems.


Define “Altmanesque.” Does it denote a film with overlapping dialogue from a sprawling ensemble? What about a uniquely sensible strain of American independent filmmaking? Canadian director Ron Mann explores the expansive malleability of the term as he dives deeply into the career of late auteur Robert Altman, the force who redefined American independent cinema with films like Nashville, The Player, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, MASH, Short Cuts, and others. In truly Altman-esque fashion, Mann features an extensive who’s who of Hollywood A-listers—including Altman collaborators like Lily Tomlin, Sally Kellerman, and Keith Carradine—gabbing over top one another, intoxicated in the pure bliss of the movies.

Watch Atlman on Kanopy.

ALTMAN TRAILER from filmswelike on Vimeo.

Love, Marilyn

Somewhat Altmanesque in its own collection of starlets, Liz Garbus’s Love, Marilyn pays tribute to the most iconic Hollywood actress of all time with the stars of today. Women who have assumed the spotlight in her absence bring the words of Marilyn Monroe to life. Actresses like Uma Thurman, Jennifer Ehle, Viola Davis, Glenn Close, and Evan Rachel Wood give engaging readings of Monroe’s personal diaries, each excerpt a dramatic glimpse into Monroe’s allure and the secret life of Norma Jean. As Garbus connects the actresses and illustrates how each woman develops her own star persona in the spotlight, the doc offers a cinematic cousin to Andy Warhol’s famous Marilyn Diptych. Love, Marilyn offers variations on the same woman, each a unique illumination of Monroe’s enduring appeal while reminding us how we refashion celebrities in our own making.

Watch Love, Marilyn on TVO.

The Kids Stays in the Picture

This riveting doc by Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen might be one of the finest slices of Hollywood history ever put to film. The Kid Stays in the Picture adapts the autobiography of the same name by powerhouse producer and film executive Robert Evans, who led Paramount Pictures through some of its finest years with films like The Godfather, Chinatown, and Rosemary’s Baby. Like the good films that both made and destroyed Evans’ career, The Kids Stays in the Picture has all the ingredients of Hollywood movie making: love, heartbreak, crime, and danger. From his marriage to Love Story star Ali McGraw, who left him for Steve McQueen, to the notorious case of “The Cotton Club Murder” in which Evans was implicated in the death of Roy Radin, his producing partner on The Cotton Club who was bumped off by a coke dealer. Film buffs get an extra taste of Evans this fall when Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind finally debuts and includes a Hollywood producer reportedly based on the mogul.

Watch The Kid Stays in the Picture on VHS (remember those?) and DVD.

The Battle Over Citizen Kane

While critics often dismiss film-on-film docs as mere bonus discs for home video anthologies, The Battle Over Citizen Kane is a great documentary in its own right even if film buffs can only find it in the supplements to any good release of Citizen Kane. This Oscar-nominated doc by Michael Epstein and Thomas Lennon provides an engrossing tale of two titans as it chronicles the life and early career of director Orson Welles as well as the rise of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst, whose megalomania famously inspired Welles’s character Charles Foster Kane. Battle gives a thorough history on the rise of the studio system and illustrates how the concentration of power in the hands of a few men created outsiders like Welles, who struggled to give Kane the release it deserved and found difficulty making films thereafter. The clash of egos in this tale of two titans is positively thrilling.

Find The Battle Over Citizen Kane on collectors’ editions of Citizen Kane.

Cinema Verite: Defining the Moment

“The verité revolution was a shot seen around the world,” says Wintonick as he situates Canadian films within the global revolution cinema verité. This comprehensive study of the approach shows how innovations in technology and fresh ideas gave documentary filmmaking a new energy. Lighter portable cameras and microphones afforded new avenues for access and intimacy while giving films a style much freer than the stuffy institutional filmmaker. Within this canon, Wintonick includes Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor’s canonical NFB doc Lonely Boy (1962), which filmmaker Michel Brault likens to the offering the first shot of direct cinema in the image of Marcel Carrière holding a microphone above a crowd. The film shows how Canada put itself on the map by using the observational qualities of film to inject a sense of immediacy into the film as it let audiences be a part of Anka’s crowd of screaming fans.

Watch Cinema Verité: Defining the Moment for free from the NFB!

Cinéma Vérité: Defining the Moment, Peter Wintonick, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Other suggestions: Ryan, Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, Burden of Dreams, How to Build a Time Machine, Jim & Andy, The Cinema Travellers, Room 237, The Slippers.

What are some of your favourite ‘film-on-film’ docs?