AJFF What to Watch: Films About Television


With more of our time being spent on our smaller screens, we're taking a look at films focused on the making of television. Film titles are linked with information on where to watch.

The Front
Woody Allen is a schlemiel stumbling into unexpected nobility by aiding a blacklisted TV writer, in this McCarthy-era tragi-comedy. In an inspired bit of casting, Allen upends audience expectations in his first straight dramatic role as self-absorbed loser Howard Prince, a New York cashier and small-time bookie. When schoolmate Alfred Miller, a successful screenwriter, is blacklisted for his leftist views, Howard agrees to be a front, putting his name on Alfred's scripts and submitting them to the TV networks. The favor turns into a lucrative venture, until Howard's success draws the scrutiny of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Testifying before Congress, the coward-turned-celebrity must summon the guts to take a moral stand in the face of blackmail and personal tragedy. Drawing on real life incidents of the 1950s Red Scare, the briskly intelligent Oscar-nominated script was written by Walter Bernstein, himself a target of blacklisting along with several of the film's co-stars. Featured as a classic for its 40th Anniversary as part of the 2016 AJFF.

An ode to the Golden Age of film and television, this fly-on-the-wall comedy feast follows an affable group of famous showbiz scribes who meet for lunch, swapping jokes, ruminating on their health, and kibitzing about their careers. Twice-monthly for the past 40 years, the likes of Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Monty Hall, Arthur Hiller and other Hollywood old-timers have gathered for an invitation-only, ceremonial nosh at a Sherman Oaks deli, bantering for hours over heaping portions of matzo balls and brisket, as their longtime waitress Valerie inevitably appears just in time to step on their punch lines. Filmmaker Donna Kanter (daughter of the late comedy writer Hal Kanter) circles the lunch table to capture the priceless camaraderie of these fabled funnymen, as well as one-on-one interviews that fill in their remarkable biographies. Featured at the 2013 AJFF.

My Favorite Year
Peter O'Toole gives a flamboyant Oscar-nominated performance as a booze-loving Hollywood movie star, cut down to size by the small screen, in this comedy classic. Once a swashbuckling matinee idol, the aging Alan Swann (O'Toole) has since earned notoriety as a drunken womanizer who hides his insecurities in a bottle. Forced to perform on a 1950s network variety show, the erratic film actor becomes the responsibility of Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker), the show's hapless junior writer. The two become friends, and visit Stone's Brooklyn home, where Swann is fawned over by Benjy's neurotic Jewish mother (Lainie Kazan). As an exasperated Stone tries to keep his childhood hero out of trouble and deliver him sober to the studio, Swann belies his silver screen image, resulting in escalating panic and near-disaster in front of a live TV audience. The directorial debut of actor Richard Benjamin, the comedy features an outstanding supporting cast, and is inspired by Mel Brooks's time as a young writer on Sid Caesar's TV variety show, and his real-life interactions with another swashbuckler, Errol Flynn. Featured as a classic for its 35th Anniversary as part of the 2017 AJFF.

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You
Perhaps the most influential writer and producer in the history of television receives an affectionate and thoughtful appraisal in this documentary, featured at the 2017 AJFF. The creator of such beloved shows as All in the Family, Maude, and The Jeffersons, Lear made an indelible imprint on American culture. Using comedy and enduring characters to tackle hot-button social issues, his 1970s primetime hits prompted household debates on race, class and gender equality. From a poor Jewish upbringing in Connecticut and army service in WWII, to his steady rise through show business ranks, Lear's colorful story comes alive via a treasure trove of personal archives and adored TV moments. Now in his nineties, Lear is as sharp as ever, watching and reacting to excerpts from his work. George Clooney, Rob Reiner, Mel Brooks, Carroll O'Connor, Beatrice Arthur, and Sherman Hemsley, among others, provide spot-on testimonials. Oscar-nominated filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady fashion a definitive profile of a masterful showrunner who changed not only the face of television, but the national discourse.

Tel Aviv on Fire
A soap opera writer finds himself caught in the crossfire of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the audacious, big-hearted satire featured as part of AJFF Selects in 2019. A charming thirtysomething Palestinian slacker, Salam (Kais Nashef) drives between Jerusalem and the West Bank for his lowly job as a production assistant on a cheesy soap opera, where his uncle is a top exec. The TV show, whose action is set just before and during the Six Day War, is stilted and melodramatic but has a devoted following in both Israel and the Territories. Stopped each day at a checkpoint to reach the television studio, Salam crosses paths with an authoritarian Israeli commander Assi (Yaniv Biton), who begins contributing his own ideas for the show. Aspiring to make it as a screenwriter, Salam becomes entangled in an absurd series of quid pro quos, the action jumping slyly among fiction, fact and farce in skewering Middle East politics.