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When I was in college, few qualifying terms made me want to punch a wall more than “post-modern”. Whether it came from a professor or a student, it almost always signaled an oncoming barrage of convoluted nonsense. Bullshit, if you will. It was used to describe media or literature that went beyond typical genre classification. Or, sometimes, art that conformed to genre classification, but with a nudge and a wink that transcended the typical. Its use is ultimately short-sighted (like “New Media”). It takes into account an ever-changing historical context, then defines art by what it isn’t, not what it is.
Despite my discontent with that sort of analysis, I occasionally found myself in an interesting discussion regarding a common aspect of post-modernism (post-modernity? after-nowishness? tomorrowism?): Self-awareness.
Self-awareness can be utilized if a few very interesting ways to strengthen a story or message. There’s play within a play, breaking the fourth wall, writing in the writer, pastiche, or several other methods of equally inside baseball. Recently, I’ve been watching several movies that have used the concept to their advantage. Such titles do more than stand on their own, they teach audiences about the creative craft by commenting on medium, genre, process, and, occasionally, the audience itself. In no particular order, here are a few of my favorite meta movies:
Seven Psychopaths is the second feature length film written and directed by accomplished playwright Martin McDonagh, who evidently has a thing for Colin Farrell in leading roles. In the movie, a struggling writer (coincidentally named “Marty”) attempts to produce an atypical screenplay (coincidentally entitled “Seven Psychopaths”). Ring any self-awareness bells, yet? Marty begrudgingly seeks inspiration from the people around him. His best friend Billy in particular, who along with his partner Hans (Christopher Walken) kidnaps dogs from wealthy neighborhoods and returns them for rewards. Eventually, Marty discovers that they’ve all been a bunch lunatics all along.
While it has notes of action movies and comedic elements, it’s ultimately a movie about writing. Marty wants to avoid the pitfalls of the stereotypical, ultra-violent Hollywood psychopath while the movie conspicuously adds sequences inspired by such cliches. The characters, in discussing Marty’s potential screenplay, are able to discuss the movie you are watching and determine which of the many different paths it could follow. This self-awareness culminates in a climactic sequence involving shootouts, drama, and the fulfillment of many different dreams. It leaves you a bit conflicted about what you just saw, but in an intellectually stimulating way.
McDonagh’s first feature film, In Bruges (which is also excellent), has a few small self-aware winks as well. In particular, when Ray Fiennes’ character responds to the reasonable question “Why don’t you both just put your guns down and go home?” with “Don’t be stupid. This is the shootout.”
Adaptation is another movie about writing a movie. Unlike Seven Psychopaths, its self-awareness is less about the writing process and more about the character(s) involved. Writer Charlie Kaufman is direct about including a fictionalized version of himself played by Nicolas Cage (one of his best performances). As he struggles to adapt Susan Orlean’s non-fiction book, The Orchid Thief, into a feature film, he allows his struggling twin brother Donald (also played by Cage) to move in with him. Much to his dismay, Donald finds success in the screenwriting field by conforming to every tired cliche you could imagine. While this in and of itself is a commentary on Hollywood, the film’s resolution is less about the problems with Donald’s actions and more about Kaufman’s own flaws.
In parallel, we see the events of The Orchid Thief occurring as a movie within a movie, but also learn a fictitious truth (how’s that for meta?) about Orlean and her subject, the backwater Orchid hunter Laroche. They were having an affair. Kaufman and Donald find themselves intertwined in the “reality” of Orlean’s situation and things quickly get out of hand. On some level, there’s a commentary on reality versus fiction, but it can get tricky to parse amidst a fictional adaptation of a non-fiction book. Thanks to its amazing performances and quirky tone, Adaptation is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.
Horror movie junkies will notice a lot of familiar cliches in The Cabin in the Woods, or at least in half of The Cabin in the Woods. The film centers around a group of college friends who are literally pigeonholed into stereotypical roles (athlete, virgin, fool, etc) by a secret organization determined to sacrifice them to prevent the rise of apocalyptic old gods. Writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard use this organization (and, to an extent, the old gods) as a direct reference to the audience. They carefully observe the events unfolding at the Cabin, not with cold, calculating indifference, but with emotional investment. They feel for the characters as if they themselves were watching a movie.
Of course, they also display a depraved negligence towards many of the horrible events they witness, which is a statement in and of itself. As the protagonists make their way closer to the truth, the movie starts to dance around larger ideas including the quality of mankind as a whole. Despite the brushes with seriousness, Cabin is also tremendously entertaining, with strong performances from both the college kids and the secret organization. Even if horror isn’t your bag, this one is worth seeing.
Somewhere in the midst of discovering they were really funny and irreverent, Matt Stone and Trey Parker realized that they were also pretty damn smart. When South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut hit theaters in 1999, audiences got a little more than we were expecting. In addition to being a shameless, over the top musical of epic proportions, the plot of the film also loosely mirrored the circumstances surrounding its own release. The movie dealt with the issue of censorship on a surprisingly serious level. When the Terrence and Phillip movie comes out, the boys’ parents react much like older, more civil generations would react to South Park. This provides a strong window for commentary about how art and entertainment interact with society. How do we treat material that makes us uncomfortable? What is the difference between tolerance and acceptance (an issue further explored in a much later episode)? By making the movie about the controversy of the movie, Matt and Trey get the first word in on any discussion about the film.
Of course, there’s also Saddam Hussein’s penis, Satan singing what is effectively a Disney song, a war with Canada, and a fantastic musical number about what Brian Boitano would do, but that’s beside the point. This movie kicked off South Park’s semi-intellectual streak in a big way, boldly showing how Matt and Trey would keep their content fresh and relevant for the next decade (and then some). Highly recommended.
Did I miss any? What are some of your favorite meta-movies? Comment below.