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10 Meta Movies That Break The Fourth Wall And Blur Reality & Fiction

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist June 11, 2013 at 3:21PM

“...the last man that said that to me was Archie Leach just a week before he cut his throat,” says Cary Grant in “His Girl Friday.” At which a certain portion of the audience (if they caught the gag at all, so rapid fire is Howard Hawks’ movie) presumably smiled sagely to themselves. Archibald Leach, of course, was the unglamorous moniker that Grant was born with, and while by no means integral to an understanding of the plot, that knowing reference does give the remark an extra layer. A meta-textual layer, if you will, known in these po-mo times as “meta” for short, because we’re pretty much on first-name terms with the concept by now. But including the odd meta-textual quip is one thing (there is another example in the self same movie where Grant refers to the character played by Ralph Bellamy as looking “like that actor, Ralph Bellamy”) -- stretching that impulse across a whole film is something else entirely. But that is the level it’s taken to with this week’s “This Is The End,” in which a host of young Hollywood stars including Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill et al play, well, a host of young Hollywood stars including Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill et al. It's merely another step in the ever evolving sub-category of the meta movie, and it inspires today's feature.
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Meta Movies feature

“...the last man that said that to me was Archie Leach just a week before he cut his throat,” says Cary Grant in “His Girl Friday.” At which a certain portion of the audience (if they caught the gag at all, so rapid fire is Howard Hawks’ movie) presumably smiled sagely to themselves. Archibald Leach, of course, was the unglamorous moniker that Grant was born with, and while by no means integral to an understanding of the plot, that knowing reference does give the remark an extra layer. A meta-textual layer, if you will, known in these po-mo times as “meta” for short, because we’re pretty much on first-name terms with the concept by now. But including the odd meta-textual quip is one thing (there is another example in the self same movie where Grant refers to the character played by Ralph Bellamy as looking “like that actor, Ralph Bellamy”) -- stretching that impulse across a whole film is something else entirely. But that is the level it’s taken to with this week’s “This Is The End,” in which a host of young Hollywood stars including Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill et al play, well, a host of young Hollywood stars including Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill et al. It's merely another step in the ever evolving sub-category of the meta movie, and it inspires today's feature.

Meta can be a simple cameo (e.g. Richard Burton in “What’s New, Pussycat? ,” Jeanne Moreau in “A Woman Is A Woman,” Bill Murray in “Zombieland”), an arch one-liner or even a quick glance to the camera. Meta can be autobiographical, satirical, it can be in service of a postmodernist, deconstructionist agenda or unmoored from any agenda at all. It can be intentional, as it is in the films on this list, or accidental (like when a movie featuring Star A playing a handbag snatcher plays the week after Star A is caught snatching handbags). Done well, it can add density to a serious subject, or levity to comedy, but done badly it can pull the audience out of the story for no reason. Done excessively it can just be tiresome, and a film can devour itself ouroboros-style or, in a blunter idiom, disappears up its own arse. We’ll leave it to you to judge which category “This Is The End” falls into (our verdict is here), but in the meantime here’s an eclectic list of ten films from diverse corners of our film collection that we think embody the term nicely, for better or worse.

Scream

"Scream" (1996)
It's usually when things are turbulent politically that the best horror movies are born. In the sixties and seventies there was something of a horror boom as a response to Vietnam and the shifting civil unrest in America. The country was angry and so was horror. When things are okay at home, though, things can get a little dull, and the nineties will never be remembered as the best time for horror, largely because America was enjoying a placid period of peace and prosperity (thanks a lot, Clinton). Wes Craven, who made a splash in the genre with cutting-edge works like "Last House on the Left" and "Nightmare on Elm Street," used the opportunity to thoughtfully reflect on the genre, deconstruct it, and inspire another successful wave of horror movies. Whilst "Scream" solidified this approach, Craven was already tinkering with meta-textuality in 1994's "New Nightmare," his sort-of return to the "Nightmare on Elm Street" franchise, where members of the original film are haunted by a demonic Freddy Kruger, who has leapt out of the movie and into real life. It doesn't totally work, mostly because Craven is asking a lot from actors (including Heather Langenkamp) who weren't all that great to begin with, and even saddles himself with a role, a decision which doesn't turn out particularly well. But the movie is complex and ambitious and sometimes genuinely profound, and you have to hand it to Craven (in a razor glove perhaps) for returning to the well and producing something so weird. No, it was "Scream," that really served as Craven's "thesis" film, a complete deconstruction of the modern horror genre with wit and style to spare (it's easily Craven's most beautiful-looking movie). "Scream" was a horror movie in which every character knew the tropes of earlier horror movies; more than that the masked killer was obsessed with them, taunting his victims with questions about the genre's history before brutally offing them. Kevin Williamson's hilarious, terrifying script was note-perfect, a combination of knowing satire and loving reverence; in these postmodern times being the fastest or smartest wasn't enough to help you evade death, you also had to be the geekiest. Subsequent sequels in the franchise would tackle sequels themselves, the intersection of art and reality and reboots, each with diminishing returns (and largely dependant on Williamson's level of involvement).

Fight club

"Fight Club" (1999)
Based on a similarly winking novel by Chuck Palahniuk, "Fight Club" is excessive and indulgent and overtly clever; the kind of movie that always reminds you that you're watching a movie. It's also totally brilliant. The tone is set during the opening title sequence, which in the years since "Fight Club's" release has been endlessly duplicated and ripped off. It's a continuous shot that tracks through the main character's brain, out through his head, with the "shot" finally following the barrel of a gun that's been shoved in said character's mouth. It's an impossible shot in physical reality; but we're in the meta-fantasy-world of David Fincher and "Fight Club" now, so all bets are off. Those shots that travel down the side of a building and into an underground parking garage, the same kinds of things that are employed with a straight face on primetime procedurals, were utilized here (for maybe the first time) precisely because they are so unbelievable. Characters talk directly to the camera, images are spliced into the movie at an almost subconscious level, and the movie's inherent philosophy is broken down even as its uttered, like when Brad Pitt, looking like he's been chiseled from a single slab of marble, looks at a ripped model on a bus ad and says, "Self improvement is masturbation." At one point Pitt looks into the camera and it seems as if his gaze is melting the film itself; you see the white edge of the film, supposedly spooling through the projector, start to hiccup in his presence (even the final twist is choreographed as a giant fuck you to the audience). The movie is a lark, a playful romp dressed up like some profound statement on modernity and masculinity, and those who got their feathers ruffled by it perhaps did not see that side of its humor.

This article is related to: This Is The End, Features, Feature


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