What the Heck is Meta-Cinema?
You may have heard a hipster or two dish this one out: “Dude, that was so meta.”
So what does meta mean anyway?
According to its etymology, meta is a Greek prefix meaning “after,” “along with,” “beyond,” “among,” or “behind,” but honestly this doesn’t tell us a whole lot about what it has to do with the movies.
In the broadest possible terms, meta means ‘self-aware’ or ‘self-referencing’. In other words, a film that knows it is a film. There are three basic ways that a film can refer to itself and become meta:
1) A film acknowledges its creator or the circumstances of its production.
A great example would be Pedro Almodóvar’s La ley del deseo [Law of Desire] (1987). Essentially this is a film about a gay filmmaker… produced by a gay filmmaker. The opening scene involves a popular trope of the meta-film—the film within a film. Almodóvar shows us the erotic scene being recorded in order to make us feel comfortable by reminding us that, like the film in the film, his film is only a film—it’s not real.
2) A film acknowledges its audience.
This is a strategy that we see most often in films, in the form of a character ‘breaking the fourth wall’. Breaking the fourth wall is a phrase that comes from the theatre, and it refers to the invisible wall between the stage and the audience. When a character breaks it, s/he is no longer speaking to his fellow players but directly to the audience. Any time a character turns and speaks directly into the camera, addressing the viewer, that’s meta. Some example films include Annie Hall (dir. Woody Allen, 1977) and Fight Club (dir. David Fincher, 1999). Even some animated films like Aladdin (1992) and The Emperor’s New Groove (2000) playfully use this device. Usually voice-over narration is not considered meta, because it signifies the character is telling his story from within his/her head or within the story world, unless of course the narration specifically refers to the film, as in the case of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (dir. Shane Black, 2005).
3) A film acknowledges itself directly.
This one is a little trickier to define. One way a film can acknowledge itself is by suggesting its own materiality. There is a scene in Fight Club in which we can see the edges of the film strip, and another in which the ‘cigarette burns’ that are used to cue up the next reel of film are pointed out by the characters.
But, films can refer to themselves in much more subtle and interesting ways. As long as a film is aware of cinematic conventions that surround it, it can be considered meta.
To some degree, all meta moments in films can remove their audiences from being ‘sutured’ into the narrative. When a character speaks directly to you, or when the film breaks down, or when it draws attention to itself as a construction, you lose your faith in the reliability and the reality of the story. This can provide a very stimulating viewing experience for those of us who are already on the look out for films that toy with narrative conventions.