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

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

“…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” (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” (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.

Adaptation (2002)
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.”

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” (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” (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” (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

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