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It’s not a lie and it’s not the truth but it’s as real as it gets. Which is to say it’s not real at all and it’s all too real. Are you confused yet? Well you shouldn’t be, because it’s Hollywood kids! The place where nothing is as it seems and everything is all too obvious. The documentary They Shoot Movies Don’t They takes us behind the glamour of the movie scenery and with an unblinking eye shows us the other side of the camera.

The Agony of Defeat

DVD is actually an improvement, or at least a work of higher order
DVD is actually an improvement, or at least a work of higher order

Tom Paulson’s career in Tinseltown starts out with a bang and all the promise in the world and ends with a bang and all the broken dreams the Boulevard can dump on him. Tom is a person for whom success had come naturally. He gave up a lucrative but uncreative and unproductive position at Universal Pictures to follow his dream. His dream in this case is the somewhat autobiographic story entitled Mirage about a baseball player who’s dreams are crushed by his own failure. In a strange twist of fate, art imitates life and Tom and his dream are also destroyed by his own failure to edit and then distribute Mirage.

We are witness to this descent courtesy of the documentary film crew and its director Frank Gallagher who follow Tom from the wrap party to his final despairing moments. It’s not a pretty picture. One after another the obstacles are thrown in his way and Mirage dies before our eyes.

In one very disturbing sequence, Tom turns to Frank (who is off camera) and asks him for the money he needs to finish Mirage. He reasons that if Mirage gets seen then They Shoot Movies Don’t They will benefit all the more for being the telling of the story of the telling of the story. But Mirage is foundering and when the Titanic sinks, you get away from the ship before it pulls you down. Frank refuses to put up the money.

In one last ditch attempt to save the project, Tom hocks his prized baseball card collection and heads off to Los Vegas to get the $40,000 he needs to keep Mirage going. The documentary film crew follows him there and it is in his hotel room that Tom uses their equipment to record his own suicide. In one last irony, it is later discovered that he had won the money he needed (in fact he’s won $50,000) but he’s also come to realize that the money isn’t going to save the film, as it was a failure from the start. It its that realization that drives Tom to shoot himself.

It’s Just a Movie

OK, there’s the fake review for the fake documentary... all in keeping with the spirit of the project. There is no Tom Paulson, there is no Mirage (it’s only a mirage... get it?). It’s just a bunch of LA actors who got the itch to make a film that looked like a documentary about a guy that gets crushed by Hollywood. The film They Shoot Movies (to be differentiated from the ‘documentary’) is a clever bit of moviemaking and I regret having missed it on its breakout showings on the Independent Film Channel.

The excellent DVD presentation more than makes up for my having missed it when it was current. The thing that really makes this nut are the two commentary tracks. One tells the story of the making and history of They Shoot Movies and the other is an ancillary tale of the selling of the film. Connecting the two commentaries is the ‘strange bedfellow’ relationship They Shoot Movies has with The Blair Witch Project, a student film that’s not a student film but nevertheless is still a student film. It would be too much of a spoiler to tell you what that relationship is.

Out from the Center

I think the way to deal with They Shoot Movies, Don’t They? is to work your way out from the center. At that center is a solid documentary in the sense that it accurately documents what is involved in the post-production and marketing of a film. And in addition to being mechanically correct, it’s dramatically engaging in that it explains Tom’s history and current situation and pulls you along in his quest.

Wrapped around that is a story about the documentarian’s dilemma of what to do with Tom’s tragedy. Should they look away or are they bound to hold an unblinking eye on the unfortunate Tom? Both Tom and Frank are faced with the same problems of ethics, creativity, and practicality. The pragmatic black-shirted producer Aled Davies appears at regular intervals like a one man Greek chorus with his own reality check of what the public wants and doesn’t want. Davies is speaking to both Tom and Frank and indeed to anyone thinking of trying to make a film or any kind of art.

The final wrapper is the commentary tracks where we step back once more and watch (or rather hear) the whole process done one more time. You have to ask yourself if the commentaries are themselves art or life... or like the other levels, a little bit of both.

Hats Off

At this point I don’t care. If the commentaries are one more level of artifice, then they are darned good ones and completely in sync with the rest of the film(s). This DVD is actually an improvement on They Shoot Movies, Don’t They?, or rather a work of a higher order than the film that appeared on IFC. If you saw They Shoot Movies, Don’t They? on any of the IFC broadcasts (if in fact it was really broadcast) then you’ve got to see the DVD and listen to the commentaries. If, like me, you came late to the party, watch the film, watch it again with commentary and then one more time with the ‘secret commentary’.

Hats off to Nobody Productions; what a great show guys, and what a tough act to follow. Just ask the folks at Blair Witch.

Picture and Sound

The movie was shot on BetaSP, so it’s pretty grainy... but that’s OK. If Blair Witch can get away with video, so can They Shoot Movies. All things considered, the sound quality is good, and the score is quite nice.

  • Tom: FYI... if you can find this magazine (see link below) there is a nice article about "They Shoot Movies, Don't They?"
    It's on your newsstands now...
    (The article is not on the website... you must get a hard copy of the magazine to see the article)
    I tell you this movie has the longest skinniest lags in Hollywood.
    http://www.movingpicturesmagazine.com/index.php October 17, 2006 reply