From the film in Infinite Jest to Margot's plays in The Royal Tenenbaums, here's a look at some famous fictional masterpieces.
1. The film in Infinite Jest
The title of David Foster Wallace’s 1996 near-future epic refers to a fictional film of the same name, the disappearance of which plays a major role the novel’s action. The final film of filmmaker James Orin Incandenza Jr. (also called simply “the Entertainment” or “the samizdat”), it is a masterpiece so wholly engaging, it causes its audience to forsake all other life-giving activities in order to view the film, causing a scramble for the missing film cartridge that extends all the way up to the “United States Office of Unspecified Services.” In Wallace’s imagined overly commoditized, existential reality, even great art carries dire consequences.
2. Gully Jimson’s paintings in The Horse’s Mouth
Though his body of work was small, novelist Joyce Cary dealt with big ideas like, you know, art, life, morality. In The Horse’s Mouth, his anti-heroic protagonist Gully Jimson is a brilliant-but-aging painter who has fallen from a once prosperous career into poverty and drunkenness. Ever-proudly spouting William Blake, Jimson embarks on a series of blackly comic attempts to recover and sell his surviving masterpieces, recreated in the 1958 film adaptation by Kitchen Sink school artist John Bratby.
3. The screenplay in Barton Fink
The Coen Brothers began writing Barton Fink, a film about a screenwriter with writer’s block, while themselves suffering writer’s block on Miller’s Crossing. The titular character (played by Jon Turturro, of course) has trouble finding the humanity in his first Hollywood assignment, coming off of the success of his hit Broadway play Bare Ruined Choirs. The lines between art and reality grow increasingly blurred for Fink, and eventually he finds himself in the thick of a “real” human drama. When he eventually produces a script for a boxing film called The Burlyman, the final line is almost identical to the last line in his play, “We’ll hear from that kid...and I don’t mean a postcard.”
4. Suspicious movie pitches in The Player
Robert Altman’s 1992 love letter/hate mail to the movie industry follows the story of studio exec Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), who—unlike Barton Fink—loves his industry and everything it stands for. Until, that is, he receives a death threat from a spurned screenwriter. The film is chock-full of fictional movie pitches and screenplay seeds, most notably a legal drama called Habeus Corpus, whose deeply artistic, morosely idealistic screenwriters are forced to watch it slide through the Hollywood machine and into hackdom. Which pitches come from Mills’ would-be murderer, and how does the “movie” end?
5. The picture of Dorian Gray
In his classic meditation on art vs. reality, Oscar Wilde tells the story of a portrait whose image grows old and putrid while its inwardly hideous subject remains outwardly beautiful and young. 122-YEAR-OLD SPOILER ALERT: The painting’s “truth” begins to take over Dorian’s consciousness, and when he tries to destroy it, he destroys himself. Wilde’s horrific descriptions of the painting were brought to life for the 1945 film by artist Ivan Albright.
6. The triangle painting on Seinfeld
“The Junior Mint” episode is better known for such hijinx as dropping movie candy into an open body cavity and rhyming names with female body parts (Mulva), but it also features an unseen piece of art by Elaine’s once-and-again boyfriend “Triangle Boy” Roy (Sherman Howard). George buys a piece of Roy’s “triangle” art for $1,900 after he believes Roy is going to die from his Junior Mint infection. Roy recovers and George experiences buyer’s remorse, but “the triangles” appear on the wall of George’s apartment in subsequent episodes.
7. The sculpture in “The Marble Woman”
Louisa May Alcott frequently wrote on the artistic process: In Little Women, protagonist Jo’s first published story, “The Rival Painters,” shares a title with Alcott’s first published story, and Jo’s novel is considered by most critics to be Little Women itself. Alcott’s novelette “The Marble Woman” (alternately titled “The Mysterious Model”) is a sordid tale of adventure, deceit, near incest, and forbidden love. Much of the plot revolves around a huge marble angel, carved by the brilliant and famous sculptor Bazil Yorke. The angel’s face resembles the young ward whom he claims not to love but keeps sequestered in his mansion.
8. The painfully modern painting in Aria da Capo
Better known for her poetry, feminist and writer Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote this short play to reexplore the Comedia dell’arte style of classical Italian theatre. The classical clown Pierrot attempts to impress his love interest, Columbine, by claiming that he is at once a pianist, a philanthropist, a socialist, and a painter. For the last, he describes the painting that he is making for her: “six orange bull’s-eyes, four green pinwheels, and one magenta jelly roll. The title, as follows: 'Woman Taking in Cheese from Fire Escape.'”
9. The film in The Stunt Man
Based on the novel by Paul Brodeur, this cult hit takes place on the set of a WWI film, where a crazed director (Peter O’Toole, who was nominated for an Oscar for the role) hires a Vietnam vet/convict (Steve Railsback) to replace a stunt man whom the convict has accidentally killed. Without giving away any plot points...that art vs. reality theme? Yeah.
10. The play within the play Light Up the Sky
Moss Hart’s 1948 comedy isn’t a play within a play, per se, but a play nearby a play: Several thespians meet in a hotel room outside of their theater on opening night. Having expected a tremendous reception for the new work, they are shocked to hear silence as the curtain falls, and the blame game begins. The second act sends egos running wild, before the ensemble learns that the play was so moving, the audience had forgotten to applaud. By act three, the artists funding is lost—not because of the show, but because of the actors. The cautionary tale, ye artists, beware.
11. Margot’s Plays (and Eli’s book) in The Royal Tenenbaums
Unlike Max Fischer’s play Heaven and Hell, a large portion of which actually appears in the film Rushmore, the audience knows little of Margot Tenenbaum’s works of theatrical genius. We know there are at least three, including Erotic Transference, Nakedness Tonight, and Static Electricity, one of which features animalian characters seen during their curtain call. Before the film is over, Margot writes another play, this one about her family.
Margot’s neighbor and spurned lover, Eli Cash, is an author as well. His historical fiction novel, Old Custer, famously “presupposes” that Custer did not die at the Battle of Little Big Horn, and has a series of (real-life) reviews on Goodreads.
HONORABLE MENTION: Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation is also an exploration of writer’s block: Kaufman writes himself into the very script he is supposed to be writing, based on The Orchid Thief, a real-life nonfiction book by Susan Orlean. Surely Adaptation is fiction, though—making the work of fiction itself fictitious...? Oh, Charlie Kaufman. Keep the art-in-art coming.
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Okay, art fans—this list could obviously be a lot longer. Share your favorite fictional art with us, and maybe we'll include it in Art-In-Art II: The Reckoning.