For more than a decade, Charlie Kaufman has been the meta-master. From his breakout script “Being John Malkovich,” which includes characters transporting into John Malkovich’s consciousness, to his directorial debut “Synecdoche, New York,” about a theater production that becomes more and more elaborate, to his upcoming, albeit slightly postponed, “Frank or Francis,” which apparently will be a satirical “meta-musical” take on Hollywood. As such, it was very tough to choose just one (feel free to vent in the comment section below), but we settled on “Adaptation,” and not just as an excuse to mention Nicolas Cage. Directed by Spike Jonze, “Adaptation” is a multi-layered, multi-plot meta-biography about a screenwriter struggling to adapt a book, “The Orchid Thief.” The nifty ultra-meta part is that the screenwriter character is called Charlie Kaufman (played by Cage) and that real-life Kaufman not only writes this self-loathing, unsure version of himself, but also his own character foil in fictional twin form Donald (also played by Cage), making the differences and similarities all the more trippy. Through sheer bloody talent, Kaufman is able to balance this conceit with enough of a dose of “reality” as to make it surreal rather than outlandish or too blatantly self-indulgent. A great example, which hits a little too close to home for wannabe screenwriters, is when Charlie attends Robert McKee’s “Story” seminar (which is a real thing and a real book on most screenwriting syllabi) after Donald’s urging, because Donald has just sold a clichéd psychological thriller spec script for 6 or 7 figures. While there, Charlie thinks about his failures and insecurities, which we are privy to due to voice-over, during which McKee (Brian Cox) flat-out decries the use of the device: “Any idiot can write a voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character!” McKee embodies what Kaufman sees as wrong in Hollywood, but also voices all of Kaufman’s fears, “You’ll bore your audience to tears… Why the fuck are you wasting my two precious hours with your movie?” The audience is left questioning their own beliefs in storytelling and the point where the surrealism ends and reality begins, blurring the line between the two Charlie Kaufmans. This scene is emblematic of the entire tone of the film. If “meta” in its Greek root means "beyond," “Adaptation” is one step beyond beyond.
“Coffee and Cigarettes” (2003)
Taking 17 years to shoot, “Coffee and Cigarettes” is a series of vignettes (11 to be exact) all centered on the theme of coffee and cigarettes. The first three vignettes were actually shorts in their own right, the third being “Somewhere in California” featuring Iggy Pop and Tom Waits, which won the Short Palme d’Or at Cannes. The Jim Jarmusch-directed black-and-white feature film is a compilation of these shorts and others about different people discussing and disagreeing about something over the titular coffee and cigarettes (GZA and RZA of the Wu Tang Clan opt for tea due to health concerns). The device of using coffee and cigarettes to link all 11 vignettes seems both forced and natural at the same time, crossing over into surreal territory, but the real meta factor is the fact that many of these vignettes include people playing versions of themselves (name and all), including one where Cate Blanchett pulls an “Adaptation” of sorts playing both a version of herself and her non-famous cousin who are at odds with each other. Steve Coogan and Alfred Molina discuss the possibility that they may be related, Bill Murray tries to serve GZA and RZA coffee, Jack and Meg White discuss Nikola Tesla... However random or improbable these moments seem, there's a push-pull of reality and fiction that means the ground keeps shifting beneath our feet. But the odd pairings on show, or the banality of the discussions that happen between stars who may or may not actually know each other, who may more may not consume coffee and cigarettes like the rest of us schlubs, give the whole thing a charm which is all Jarmusch's.
“A Cock and Bull Story” (2006)
Another film about tackling a piece of literature (see “Adaptation”) that then becomes a much about the process as the story withi, the Michael Winterbottom-directed “A Cock and Bull Story” is about the production of a film adaption of Laurence Sterne’s un-filmable meta-fictional “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.” The novel is about a man attempting to write his autobiography and in turn, the film adaptation is not only about the novel but also the attempt to shoot the film. Steve Coogan plays the titular role along with father Walter Shandy and a satirical version of the actor himself, arrogant yet with biting self-esteem issues. Following this pattern, each of the actors in the movie within a movie also plays themselves (Rob Brydon, Keeley Hawes, Gillian Anderson). So there are at least three levels of meta-narrative (the novel, the film, the film production) going on at once with the same players throughout. By capturing these elements, Winterbottom presents a multi-dimensional, multi-faceted look not only at the novel, thereby giving a regularly overlooked tome a new appreciation, but also at film adaptation, production and reception, ending with the fictional film’s premiere and poor reception. Somehow “A Cock and Bull Story” manages to present all of this onscreen without spinning out of control. Not tired of meta just yet, Winterbottom went on to direct “The Trip,” also starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, again as fictional versions of themselves on holiday around the British countryside --not quite as convoluted a plot but definitely a fun and rather brilliantly meta watch in its own right.
“Full Frontal” (2002)
Steven Soderbergh’s directing career tended to ebb and flow; he was consistently behind the camera, but often became fascinated by different methods of storytelling when he grew restless. And after invading the studio system, earning two Best Director Oscar nominations (and one win) in the same year while also wrapping up a blockbuster “Ocean’s Eleven”), the prolific, stylistic chameleon threw the industry one more curveball. He used his clout to put together a loaded cast for something that was in part a “Day For Night” homage, with several Hollywood movers and shakers colliding over the course of one day during the production of a film. The phrase “movie magic” has never been so irrelevant, as Soderbergh’s film continually blurs the line between what film everyone may or may not be working on, and whether they’re all on the same page of what looks to be a disaster. “Full Frontal” isn’t as successful as “sex, lies and videotape,” though Soderbergh frequently compared the two, particularly because many of the touches, such as Julia Roberts playing a mousy character actress cowed by “megastar” Blair Underwood, are too cute and clever by half. But “Full Frontal” is amusing when it drops the pretense of being a sly insider’s story and embraces the silliness, as when Catherine Keener amusingly interrupts her co-stars by bouncing a huge ball against their heads, or when Brad Pitt and David Fincher crash a scene because they’re shooting their own film. “Full Frontal” eventually (purposely?) outsmarts itself when its first, genuine, non-ironic moment is followed by the camera shifting backwards to reveal a crew filming on what we assumed was an airplane, but is actually a set. Soderbergh would go on to feature some similarly referential flourishes (again featuring Roberts) in “Ocean’s Twelve.”