What Fourth Wall?
Hollywood today is not known for its creativity. The posters that line our theater hallways do not particularly boast a bold new era in film. But hidden amongst the same old factory products, there is a growing subgenre of self-aware cinema that turns the medium on its head and uses filmmaking itself as a tool with which to tell stories. The unifying factor of this new metafilm is its central concern for thinking about how stories are told in order to tell better stories.
Self-awareness is not by any means a new phenomenon in world cinema. In the 1960s, one of the challenges that the French New Wave mounted against the dominant American film industry of the time was a self-awareness of the medium. Filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut made films about what they knew best—making movies. Italian cinema at the time also featured this kind of metafilm, with the crowning jewel of Federico Fellini’s 8½, a wildly influential film that follows a filmmaker undergoing “director’s block.”
American cinema, on the other hand, was never quite as open about the tricks of its trade. An early wave of self-awareness emerged in the 1970s and ’80s, spearheaded by the satirical films of Mel Brooks (Spaceballs) and David Zucker (Airplane!). These parodies built humor around the fashionable genre conventions of the day. At the other end of Hollywood, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg infused films like Star Wars and Indiana Jones with homages to their favorite serial films from the ’30s and ’40s, again using the audience’s generalized understanding of conventions as currency in their art.
While these films were infused with an understanding of genre, the movement of self-awareness of filmmaking itself is a new one in American cinema. This goes beyond the European tradition of self-aware cinema as well. While those were films about movies, the new era of “meta-film” is one of movies that tell a story by making films about filmmaking. The language of meta-film deals not only with the expectations of a film-going audience or the lives of filmmakers, but also in the nature and practice of filmmaking itself.
The late 1990s brought some of the earliest and most notable additions to the genre. 1999’s The Matrix was a film about a constructed reality, and while it was primarily concerned with breaking down that reality, the sci-fi trilogy delved repeatedly into the theme of life as storytelling. 1998’s The Truman Show similarly questioned how the protagonist of a television show would react to the realization of his own un-reality. As the 90s gave way to the 2000s, metafilm took American cinema by storm, and has been growing ever since. From Kill Bill to Inception, the sub-genre cuts across conventional genres and often defies genre labels altogether.
This elevated self-consciousness infecting contemporary American cinema is perfectly situated for our cultural moment. If our contemporary art reveals our contemporary culture, then metafilm reveals how pervasive and powerful media has become in the lives of the average filmgoer. The directors and writers making these metafilms are a generation that grew up in the heyday of American film in the 1970s and 80s, when Spielberg and Coppola ruled the screens and television had yet to come of age as a narrative medium.
There is no better example of this aspect of metafilm than Quentin Tarantino, the most successful fanboy in the film industry. Tarantino’s films fire off references at the rate of gunshots in a Rambo film, with the Internet Movie Database’s count for 2003’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 reaching a staggering 136 references to specific films. His films have inspired an online series called “Everything Is Remixed,” cutting scenes from Kill Bill and other films against a plethora of historical genre films. In his latest effort, Inglourious Basterds (2009), history is rewritten in the halls of a cinema, celebrating the power of storytelling (or lies) to change the world, boldly refusing truth when there’s a better story to be had.
The same culture of metafilm that gave us Quentin Tarantino has also taken the history of self-aware satirical film to its meta conclusions. British director Edgar Wright of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead fame is the exemplar of this strand of metafilm. Send-ups of the action and zombie film genres respectively, Wright’s films go beyond the straight parody of the 70s and 80s, attempting to dually function as genre films and as satires of their own genre. The Cabin in the Woods, a recent horror satire, follows in this vein and builds one of the boldest entries in metafilm. Cabin’s plot follows a group of teenagers in a classic horror scenario that is literally set up by a group of puppet-masters in service of bloodthirsty ancient gods. Everyone in the filmmaking process has a metaphorical place in the movie—the filmmakers, the actors, and even the audience.
Perhaps the master of all metafilm is writer Charlie Kaufman, whose career was built on the subgenre. In 2002, Kaufman received a book named The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, and was asked to adapt it into a screenplay. Adaptation, the film that resulted, followed a distraught writer named Charlie Kaufman as he attempts to adapt a novel; his relationship with his less talented and more successful twin brother Donald Kaufman; and their encounters with a fictional Susan Orlean and a fictional book called The Orchid Thief.
Kaufman’s directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York (2008), is in many ways the mission statement of metafilm. It follows Caden, a New York theatre director who finds his life unraveling when he unexpectedly receives a grant to pursue his artistic dreams. Caden begins to pour himself into his play, constructing a city within a warehouse in the city, populating it with doppelgängers of the cast and crew and trying to understand his play by building a meta-play into it. Life and story blur for Caden, as Kaufman explores what it means to understand one’s own life.
At this point, it would be a fair to ask if “metafilm” is just another word for narcissistic self-indulgence. If poorly done, the former could potentially come off as the latter, but modern American metafilm is anything but self-indulgent. The self-awareness of the meta approach gives the filmmaker and the audience a joint lens with which to explore the world of the film. The filmmaker’s tools are brought into the story as metaphors, leveling the playing field for the audience to grapple with the story on the same thematic level.
In a speech on screenwriting, Kaufman explains the self-aware approach he takes to filmmaking: “Movies tend to be very concrete in their construction of events and characters. It’s a tricky medium in which to deal with interior lives. But I think it’s really a great medium for it. Movies share so much with dreams, which, of course, only deal with interior lives. Your brain is wired to turn emotional states into movies.”
The imagery of dreams that Kaufman elicits leads us to the most renowned purveyor of metafilm in 2000s cinema: Christopher Nolan. Nolan’s Inception is as much a film about filmmaking as it is about dreams. The film is centered on a team that builds dream worlds and populates them with characters, where the protagonist struggles to draw a line between reality and fiction. Earlier in Nolan’s oeuvre, The Prestige offers perhaps the simplest of the metafilm canon. This 2006 feature follows two rival magicians, who break down their illusions (films) in three steps (acts): the Pledge (exposition), the Turn (rising action), and the Prestige (climax). Nolan’s success and influence in both the mainstream and art film worlds places him as an ideal ambassador for metafilm, challenging the medium in which he thrives with the simple addition of a mirror.
We are living in an age of film when the audience becomes the artist, when the fanboy becomes the filmmaker. The metafilm that results is one that thrives on the vast history that preceded it and the cultural language of the medium in order to connect the filmmaker and the audience in radical new ways. Film is particularly suited to this kind of self-awareness, as it makes and breaks conventions with startling ease. In an era of endless remakes, metafilm is a frontier of creativity, cutting across from indie films to mainstream movies. We live in a fascinating time, where our cinema is peering down into the very structures it was built on, and ripping the secrets out into the open.