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A BRIEF HISTORY OF META-TEXTUALITY WITHIN CINEMA

A BRIEF HISTORY OF META-TEXTUALITY WITHIN CINEMA 

**CONTAINS FILM & LITERARY SPOILERS**

With the multitude of means of telling stories from video-games, literature, television, plays, songs, poems and of course, cinema, we have collectively become very sophisticated and experienced in our ability to understand fictional representations. Indeed, storytellers have, for centuries, attempted to find more complex and interesting ways to structure a narrative. One such way is the “story within a story” framing device. This could be: a play within a play; play within a film; TV show within a TV show; book within a film; film within a film; and so on. Indeed, Christopher Nolan’s incredibly complex science-fiction heist thriller Inception (2010) blew the audience’s mind with a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream concept; creating an array of stunning framing devices.

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The history of storytelling as illustrated by the Routledge Encyclopaedia of Narrative Theory shows that as far back as the likes of: Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, The Arabian Nights, Edgar Allan Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, narratives are framed from various narrator perspectives either through the devices of flashbacks and flash-forwards; stories within stories; or simply changing the narrator. In regard to stories within stories my first clear memory of such a framing device was in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In the drama the Danish Prince attempts to shock a confession from his Mother and Uncle by getting the players to re-enact his father’s murder within their own play. Conversely, films within films have been a staple too of Hollywood and non-Hollywood film productions. Examples include: the classic musical Singing in the Rain (1952); Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973), Altman’s The Player (1992) to name but a few, are examples of filmmaking actually being the subject of the movie. As storytelling has further evolved, Harold Pinter’s adaptation of The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) shows both events of John Fowles original text, but at the same time, the author of the novel involved in a love affair thus reflecting events of the book. Lastly, postmodern films such as: The Purple Rose of Cairo (1984) and The Last Action Hero (1993) even have characters from the on-screen cinema world enter the “real” world and vice versa.

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Narrative, postmodern and semiotic theorists gather plays, stories and films which quote from other texts under the umbrella of meta-fiction. Indeed, many studies, including those by post-structuralists Julia Kristeva, Gerard Genette, and subsequently by academic Daniela Casellis, assert intertextuality or meta-textuality is a shaping of a text’s meaning by another text, as well as a production within texts. Meta-textuality often involves: allusion, quotation, pastiche, parody, homage and translation. It also enables the writer or director to differentiate their product and make it somehow fresh and contemporary. For example, Quentin Tarantino’s characters, while fictional, will make all kinds of references to: television shows, films, characters, hip-hop music and even fast food joints because that’s what real people talk about every-day. While his films themselves work on a meta-textual level within: War, Westerns, crime thrillers, Kung Fu and many other genres, his characters exist in the now with their strong knowledge of popular culture.

While meta-textuality is a complex cultural theory with many different strands, I have identified four interconnecting levels within texts such as films and television.  The first level of meta-textuality is structural. Incorporating flashbacks, dreams, imagination, narration and other textual framing devices, structural meta-textuality allows the filmmaker to play and bend linearity to create a fascinating means of telling a story. Moreover, it also asks the audience to question the very nature of storytelling itself. A simple example of structural meta-textuality is in The Princess Bride (1987) where the wonderful fairy-tale stories are based around a Grandfather telling his sick grandson tales of adventure and romance. More complex is Christopher Nolan’s structural representations. His early noir classic Memento (2000) is famously told in reverse chronological fashion, thus subverting the very nature of linear storytelling. His anti-hero, Leonard Shelby, has no means of making new memories thus via tattoos and Polaroid photos he constructs a present day movie of his own life in visual form. As the story unfolds we flash back and forth to a film within a film about a character called Sammy Jankis. Yet it turns out that Sammy is an imagined character used to suppress a terrible event in Leonard’s life and the film within a film is in fact the imagined vision of an unreliable narrator.

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This second level is diegetic meta-textuality. This, on a basic level, refers to texts within texts which while featured within the story do not really comment on the text. These could involve the characters visiting the cinema, reading a book or watching a television show. The third is thematic meta-textuality where the texts within the texts directly impact the narrative, characters and themes. For example, any number of films about filmmaking or film distribution process could be classed as thematically meta-textual. Cinema releases such as: the Scream (1996) franchise, Bowfinger (1999), Boogie Nights (1997), Ed Wood, Living In Oblivion (1995), State and Main (2000), Berberian Sound Studio (2012), The Disaster Artist (2017), to name but a few, are great examples of films about filmmaking which exhibit thematic meta-fictional tropes.

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The Disaster Artist (2017) takes great delight in paying homage to Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003); a film which is often hailed as one of the worst ever made. The film shows how Tommy Wiseau came to make The Room (2003) and the disaster he encounters. Meta-textually, comedically and entertainment-wise this film is a highly satisfying cinematic experience. Even as the credits roll the sequence which shows scenes from The Room and re-enactments from The Disaster Artist are a joy to behold. Also thematically strong is Scream. It is especially clever because the characters are aware of the fact they are under threat and attempt to avoid death by making reference to various horror film tropes. Likewise, Tarantino’s uber-meta war film Inglourious Basterds (2009) features the fictional film Nations Pride, which both satirizes the German propaganda machine and the violent nature of war films in general. Tarantino is so obsessed by cinema that his wish fulfilment bloodlust even sees the Nazi hordes burned and shot down in an actual cinema.

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The final level is emotional meta-textuality. This idea is slightly more open to interpretation because one could argue that all aspects of storytelling are intended to illicit emotion in the audience. However, I am referring to films where the meta-fictional aspects have a deep emotional or dramatic impact on the characters. Such examples include the intriguing Will Ferrell dramedy called Stranger Than Fiction (2006). Ferrell portrays Harold Strick who suddenly finds his life is being narrated by an omniscient storyteller, who turns out to be Emma Thompson’s author. Here the narrator is presented as a God-like power dictating what she thinks is a fictional character in Strick. Ultimately, fiction and the “real” world collide in an emotionally satisfying meta-textual story of discovery and mid-life crises. Similar, but even darker in its representation of emotional meta-textuality is Tom Ford’s adaptation Nocturnal Animals (2016), from a novel by Austin Wright. Here Amy Adams character, an Art gallery owner is sent a novel by her former husband, Jake Gyllenhaal. As she reads the manuscript a film within a film opens up which shows events that symbolise the wrongs he feels she has done to him. In the final revelatory scenes the emotional impact is damning to her life decisions and she is left alone, in the dark, with her own guilty thoughts.

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In keeping with historical and literary modes of storytelling many films will deliver their stories in a meta-textual fashion using structural, diegetic, extra-diegetic and emotional methods. Furthermore, some films will utilise these all at the same time. One such screenwriter and filmmaker is Charlie Kaufman. His works such as: Being John Malkovich (1999), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Adaptation (2002) offer mind-blowing meta-textuality. Adaptation, starring Nicolas Cage, for example, features a screenwriter called Charlie Kaufmann trying to adapt a book called The Orchid Thief but suffering writer’s block. Instead he begins to write a screenplay about a screenwriter struggling to write an adaptation of The Orchid Thief. Did he I also mention he has a twin brother called Donald who is also a screenwriter. Now, I could begin to analyse Adaptation but that would be a whole different story within and story within a story. . .

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THE HOBBIT: BATTLE FOR THE FIVE ARMIES (2014) – FILM REVIEW BY PAUL LAIGHT

THE HOBBIT: BATTLE FOR THE FIVE ARMIES (2014) – FILM REVIEW BY PAUL LAIGHT

Me and my son Rhys have a Christmas tradition (well of the last 3 years) which involves going to the cinema to watch an action-packed if overlong adaptation of J.R.R Tolkien’s classic novel The Hobbit. After all watching Elves, Men, Women, Wizard, Eagles, Dwarves etc., slaying Orcs are what Christmas is all about! And while I munch on my popcorn and slurp my diabetes inducing soda my son falls asleep. It’s a comforting bonding experience between father and son and I just don’t know what I’m going to do NEXT year! Oh wait, the new new new Star Wars: A Force Awakens (2015) comes out. Problem solved!

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Peter Jackson is one of my directorial heroes because made his own way up the cinematic ladder. On zero budgets he made cult classics such as: Bad Taste (1987), Meet the Feebles (1989) and one of the best films ever made Braindead (1992). He then made the exquisite Heavenly Creatures (1994) which also introduced us to the ample talents of one Kate Winslet. Following the under-rated ghoulish horror-action-comedy The Frighteners (1996) he immersed himself in the world of Tolkien and delivered a brilliant vision of the classic Lord of the Rings trilogy reaching a peak as a director of epic proportions. Of course he has now returned to the king of fantasy in the last few years with The Hobbit trilogy and I’ll be honest there was absolutely no need, in terms of story, to make THREE films out of the book. But hey, he’s done it and the final film is arguably the best of the lot.

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If Lord of The Ring’s was Tolkien’s allegory for World War II then The Hobbit is clearly his response to the first ‘Great’ war; and not a chocolate bar or game of football in sight. Because the rise of Sauron echoes the rise of Fascism and the battle at Lonely Mountain — following Smaug the Dragon’s desolation of Laketown — mirrors the ruling classes battle over land rights (amongst other complex issues) which led to the disgusting loss of life during World War I. Thus, with Thorin Oakenshield holding the mountain Dwarves, Elves, Men and Monsters congregate for one hell of a battle.

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While it took a while to get there with two half-decent films afore Peter Jackson’s Battle of the Five Armies is a tremendous, staunch and bruising finale to Tolkien’s amazing vision. There is not much plot but rather incredible action and great visual storytelling. The images created showing Thorin’s descent into gold madness as he battles his addiction and greed were most memorable for me; especially at this time of ultra-consumerism. Moreover, the final battle sequences involving Thorin, Legolas, Kili and Tauriel were incredibly exciting and I had my heart in my mouth at moments. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) once again plays his part attempting to make peace and stop the folly of war plus the romance between Kili the Dwarf and beautiful Elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) added some unexpected pathos.

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Overall this is a film to watch on the biggest screen you can find. Take your brain out, sit back and watch as Peter Jackson commandeers his units and soldiers from one lusty death blow to another. There was absolutely NO need to make three films out of Tolkien’s adventure but in a way I’m glad he did because there’s nothing I like more that to watch a great piece of orchestrated action at the cinema. At the end I turned to my son and found him snoring in the seat next to me and thought yes: Christmas is here!