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Film audiences watch audiences in films in ‘Have You Seen My Movie?’

George Clooney (left) and Tim Blake Nelson in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," as seen in "Have You Seen My Movie?"
George Clooney (left) and Tim Blake Nelson in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," as seen in "Have You Seen My Movie?"Courtesy of Paul Anton Smith

Do you miss watching a movie in an actual theater, the communal, almost religious rush of sharing an emotionally compelling, visually rapturous illusion with an audience? Paul Anton Smith’s “Have You Seen My Movie?” (2016) offers the next best thing, a movie consisting of deftly edited clips from movies in which people watch movies, and sometimes in which people watch movies in which people watch movies. And in doing so, Smith achieves a self-reflexive, exhilarating, and at times claustrophobic analysis of how cinema is exhibited, watched, and recycled.

The films culled range chronologically from the Lumiere Brothers’ primal cinematic trompe l’oeil “L’arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat” (1896) to the 2012 biopic “Hitchcock”; alphabetically from Fellini’s “8½” (1963) to David Fincher’s “Zodiac” (2007); and qualitatively from Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim” (1962) to Adam Sandler’s “Jack and Jill” (2011). There are more than a thousand movies, and they are all listed at the end — see how many you identified!

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These are organized not so much by themes as by rituals of the moviegoing experience. They include the initiation rite of the box office, as an underage Nicholas Hoult sweet talks his way into a screening of “A Clockwork Orange” (1971) in Richard E. Grant’s “Wah-Wah” (2005). Cut to Woody Allen in “Annie Hall” (1977) as he suffers through a fellow patron’s pompous opinions about Fellini while waiting in line to see Ingmar Bergman’s “Face to Face” (1976).

Then there are the inevitable annoyances from other audience members, unwanted contact as in Mickey Rourke’s notorious popcorn box scene in “Diner” (1982), or obnoxious behavior as with Robert De Niro’s cigar puffing, guffawing psychopath in Martin Scorsese’s remake of “Cape Fear” (1991). Other conventions covered are red carpets at premieres, tears jerked at tear-jerkers, screams at horror films, violence on the screen and in the theater, people reciting lines along with the movie as Charlton Heston does while watching “Woodstock” (1970) in “The Omega Man” (1971), and so on.

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Smith interlinks these disparate segments with match cuts, eyeline matches, and other devices, hopping from one movie to the next, interweaving one with another to create a meta-cinematic universe of intertextuality. In its concept and editing techniques it might remind you of Christian Marclay’s 24-hour-long, minute-by-minute epic “The Clock” (2010), for which Smith served as an assistant editor. But while “The Clock” plays with more profound ideas such as the nature of time and cinema and the aesthetic meaning of montage, and which despite its length has a compelling tension and trajectory, Smith’s film is occasionally listless and struggles sometimes to rise above the level of clever connections and movie trivia. And when he switches abruptly from a moment in a treasured film to a scene in one of lesser interest, it’s more a frustration than a tease.

When it scores, though, it brings shivers. That’s the case when Smith presents the entire, rapturous “Cheek to Cheek” sequence in “Top Hat” (1935) with its epic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers pas de deux. He wisely interrupts it only to cut to scenes of enraptured audiences in different movies watching the same scene.

That’s what movies do at their best, engage strangers in a common sense of transcendence. But it may be a dying art. The recurrent scenes of the mechanics of projection, of celluloid cut and pasted together and projectors being repaired in films like Wim Wenders’s “Kings of the Road” (1976) are reminders that these tactile mechanics have long since passed into digital oblivion, and the age of theatrical viewing, in part because of the COVID pandemic, may soon follow.

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“Have You Seen My Movie?” can be streamed at the Brattle Theatre’s Brattlite: A Virtual Cinema beginning Feb. 5. Go to bit.ly/2MNCckR.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com