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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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the Holy Mountain

The Holy Mountain” (1973)
“Zoom back cam-er-a!” So sayeth Alejandro Jodorowsky during “The Holy Mountain,” a brilliant, often ridiculous piss-take of New Age religion and mind-expanding countercultures. The film, which finds champions of different realms striving for the deeper meaning hidden within the Holy Mountain, defies description, but it’s impossible to ignore its genesis as a reaction to the reception of Jodorowsky’s “El Topo.” That hypnotic, spiritual western became known as the “first Midnight movie” with John Lennon amongst its fans. While many had several drug-related epiphanies in regards to the picture’s meaning, Jodorowsky famously claimed he had never touched controlled substances while making “El Topo.” However, Timothy Leary eventually introduced him to LSD, and the result was this picture that, while maddening and elliptical, owes its existence to the fact that Jodo sees a deeper meaning from within film; everyone is searching, but as the fourth-wall-breaking end confirms, he’s already found it. Jodorowsky’s reputation not only as the director of the film, but as the guru that leads the cast up the Holy Mountain itself, is one that followed him for decades, though the picture’s flippant engagement with the Tarot contradicts his real-life interests. None other than Marilyn Manson, a major fan who tried to help Jodo acquire funding for a couple of canceled projects, commissioned a recreation of the famous white suit Jodorowsky wears in his entrance scene, in order to be the pastor at his wedding. Jodo called attention to the illusion, but it was others who wanted to believe.

The Last Action Hero

The Last Action Hero” (1993)
Perhaps nowhere are the potential highs and lows of going meta with your film more amply demonstrated in a mainstream context than in John McTiernan’s “The Last Action Hero.” It’s brimming with sometimes gleeful but also irritating nods and winks to constantly remind the audience that this is a movie; from the film(s)-within-a-film, to Arnold Schwarzenegger playing an onscreen action hero character made “real,” then also later showing up as ”Arnold Schwarzenegger,” not to mention the visual references to everything from “The Seventh Seal” to “Terminator 2” and at least half of McTiernan’s previous filmography. The film follows a kid who gets transported into a movie, and then causes the film’s villain to find his way back to the real world and has to team up with the fictional hero to prevent him creating real-world havoc, and it’s not just in attempting to describe the plot that you can get tied up in knots because the actual development was also something of a hall of mirrors. The original writers, Zak Penn and Adam Leff conceived the script as a satire on the kind of Shane-Black-scripted action movie that had ruled the box office for years, but who signed on to rewrite? Shane Black. Not only that, but he does such a thorough job of deconstructing and reconstructing the film that he’s the one with the screenplay credit, with Penn and Leff given just story credit instead. There’s lots to love here (Schwarzenegger’s Hamlet intoning “To be or not to be... not to be” in a fictional trailer as he blows up a castle is a prime example), and a certain smug satisfaction from the feeling that you’re in on the joke, but maybe the thing that undoes “The Last Action Hero” is that it tries to have its cake and eat it too. As it attempts to satirize the silliness of generic action tropes it still hopes to work on us in the same manner that the best straight-up action films do, and it doesn’t quite manage that feat. The film’s disappointing box office (a rushed production, bad prior word of mouth and a release date a week after record breaker “Jurassic Park” largely to blame) didn’t discourage Black from going meta again for his directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” though in a much more restrained and coherent way than he and McTiernan managed here. In fact, according to McTiernan ‘Last Action Hero’ was “the worst time I ever had in this business.”

Close up

Close-Up” (1990)
Voted one of the fifty greatest films of all-time by Sight and Sound, this fascinating experiment aggressively blurs the line between reality and fantasy by depicting the true story of a man who impersonated filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Director Abbas Kiarostami actually stages his film as a collection of re-enactments, with the original participants playing themselves, calling into question exactly what was happening as this man impersonated an illusion-creator in order to dupe a couple of commoners into believing that they would help him create his own illusion. Like Kiarostami’s best works, all of which has their own reflexive, autocritical elements, “Close-Up” calls into question what role a director has as a chronicler of sorts, further skewing the story by interspersing scenes with actual filmed moments of the trial. “Close-Up” at this point ennobles impersonator Hossain Sabzian in this way, granting his brief wish to play Makhmalbaf, if only through a house of mirrors, a man posing as himself posing as a filmmaker, in a film that wouldn’t exist had he not pretended to make a film. “Close-Up” proceeds down this maddening path, establishing that Kiarostami feels as if it’s a never-ending cycle, showing how a local journalist turns the events into a story, and demolishing whatever ethics tend to trap filmmakers and reporters in different bubbles. It is maddening, But maybe the reason it gets as much play as it does in cinephile circles is that Kiarostami’s metatextuality is not simply in service of itself as a film: “Close-Up” has as much to say about Iranian culture as it does cinema.

Sunset Boulevard Swanson Holden
“Sunset Boulevard” (1950)
Struggling young man meets rich older woman. On paper that’s too easy, the ending would be too predictable and had already been done (see “The Heiress”). Soo… let’s make him a screenwriter and her a former silent film star. This would be enough for a dark satirical take on Golden Hollywood, but Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett went a step further by casting actors in roles that to varying degrees resembled their own lives, turning the screws and making “Sunset Boulevard” one of the greatest films of all time, and a hallmark meta movie. Norma Desmond is a washed-up actress trying to make her big comeback; Gloria Swanson was biding her time after a not-so-smooth smooth transition to the talkies (with arguably only one hit in “The Trespasser”). Joe Gillis hasn’t been able to find a decent writing gig in a long time; William Holden had his first starring role in 1939’s “The Golden Boy,” but had been bouncing around in minor pictures since. And we’re not going to spoil a very creepy twist, but there’s a reason Erich von Stroheim is cast as the butler. It’s all enough to give you the heebie-jeebies, especially with cameos by the likes of Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper and Buster Keaton. And off-set, life imitated the art that was itself imitating real life: Swanson nearly refused to do a screen test for the film, stating that she had “made twenty films for Paramount. Why do they want me to audition?” Cue her screen alter ego Desmond claiming that, “without me there wouldn’t be any Paramount.” Further blurring the lines between fact and fiction, Norma Desmond became Gloria Swanson’s defining role, Joe Gillis launched William Holden’s career, and “Sunset Boulevard” went on to become an all-time Hollywood classic.

Of course, we’re barely scratching the (highly polished, reflective) surface of all that is meta here. Other titles that stuck out to us in particular were Dennis Hopper’s “The Last Movie” that incorporates documentary methods in telling the story of a film shoot that goes wrong (and puts us in mind of the many meta Hollywood satires that exist), the tongue-in-cheek horror remake “The Cabin in the Woods,” “Stranger Than Fiction” about a man (Will Ferrell) hearing the narration of his own life, and “American Splendor” which uses both documentary footage and narrative film to tell the story of Harvey Pekar, author of the autobiographical “American Splendor” comic book series.

In general terms, we also suggest checking out the meta-humor work of The Marx Brothers, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, Mel Brooks, Monty Python, the Muppets, and Jay and Silent Bob. On the more serious side, auteurs to check out include Federico Fellini (“8 ½” in particular, for a European take on the filmmaking satire subgenre mentioned above), Austrian maestro Michael Haneke whose “Funny Games” is for anyone who likes their meta with a side order of bleak and punishing and Woody Allen (“Deconstructing Harry,” though you can find meta elements in the majority of his body of work, especially the “earlier, funnier” ones -- see? We can do it too!) And we can’t end without mentioning “This Is The End” star James Franco, who, with “Francophenia,” and “Interior. Leather Bar” merely a couple of the more recent examples, is maybe living as much of a meta life as is possible without creating a one-man logic paradox and collapsing the universe. Oh shit, wait, is that what happens in “This Is The End”? -- Diana Drumm, Gabe Toro, Drew Taylor, Jessica Kiang

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


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