Tag Archives: postmodernism

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 GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014) – FILM REVIEW BY PAUL LAIGHT

THE GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014)

FILM REVIEW BY PAUL LAIGHT

**THERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD**

“Hence, once again, pastiche: in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles… means that one of its essential messages is… the failure of the new, the imprisonment in the past.”

Frederic Jameson – POSTMODERNISM & CONSUMER SOCIETY (1983)

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I loved this film for so many reasons.  It’s a nostalgic rush and push of music, action, fantastical creatures, space operatics, zinging one-liners, knowing humour, spectacular effects and in Chris Pratt — a new cinema star (lord) for the millennium is born.  Let’s be honest there isn’t an original bone in its body but the fleshy pastiche and meaty cultural references Guardians of the Galaxy wears proudly on its sleeves take the audience on one hell of a journey.

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Marxist and cultural theorist Frederic Jameson spoke of the rise of the “Nostalgia” film and postmodernist movies such as Star Wars (1977) and American Graffiti (1973) in his seminal essay aforementioned above.  The Nostalgia film harks back and references the past drawing influences not from reality but rather cultural artefacts such as films, comics, radio, TV and music etc.  Guardians of the Galaxy involves an orphaned hero — with mysterious father — who must do battle against an evil empire, save a “damsel” in distress, all the while accompanied by a motley crue of intergalactic misfits.  Sound at all familiar?  Yes, finally the kids of today have their Star Wars. They have a new hope, kind of; a pastiche of a pastiche of a pastiche based solely on the cultural fossils of yesteryear.

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Watching this film on IMAX 3D at Wimbledon Odeon Screen 4 (my favourite cinema screen by the way) made me feel nostalgic in so many ways. It felt more like the comic books I read as a child than any film I’ve seen recently. Further, I felt a surge of history as the film opened taking me back to 1977 when my Dad took me to see Star Wars (1977).  I recall the massive queues waiting to go see Lucas’ classic and the giddiness and excitement I felt as a youth rushed through me; even more so when the film started and my consciousness was treated to one impressive set-piece after another.  I felt young again and all because of a movie!

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In a major ironic twist I too felt nostalgic for my University days and my discovery of postmodern theorists such as Jameson, Baudrillard and Foucault while studying. While it served no purpose in the real world my academic life was a great time for me.  The knowledge of postmodernism I gained enhanced further this funky fusion of comic-book anti-heroes blowing stuff up to a 70s soundtrack. Indeed, I was at peace with the world.  A bomb could have hit the cinema and I would not have cared.  It was cinematic heroin. I was happy.

Guardians is the 10th Marvel Universe movie to be produced and is based on a lesser known product from the uber-comic overlords’ oeuvre. Young Peter Quill is not having the best day. At the beginning he suffers the loss of his mother. As he runs away from the hospital he is then kidnapped by a gigantic spaceship which airlifts him to a life with the Ravagers; a group of space cowboys and outlaws – led by Michael Rooker’s Yondu.  Flash forward some many years to a galaxy far, far far away and an older Quill (effortlessly charismatic Chris Pratt) is on the hunt for a mysterious orb in order to make a few intergalactic dollars.  Quill proves himself a decent dancer and well as fighter as he uses hi-tech weapons to outfox his foes.

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The opening action sequence is a sheer joy and essentially riffs on the opening of Raiders of The Lost Ark (1981) while using Blue Swede’s funky classic Hooked on a Feeling  also used in Reservoir Dogs (1992). Let’s be honest it is all very silly but I am not watching this as a fortysomething man but rather a young boy living in the warmth of the past bathing in the nostalgia of recalling Star Wars, Raiders, Reservoir Dogs and MIXTAPES!!   I used to do mixtapes and it was such fun before the devilish digital age took over.  Anyway, the orb Quill has stolen turns out to be one of those END OF THE WORLD plot McGuffin thingy’s and a whole host of benign and nefarious characters are after it notably evil Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin), Kree mentalist Ronan (Lee Pace) and the Collector (Benicio Del Toro) etc.

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So, Quill consequently finds himself pursued and caught and thrown in prison by the Nova Corps (basically humans with funny hair.) He then unwittingly becomes part of a bunch of misfits including: Rocket (Bradley Cooper) – a feisty raccoon and weapons expert; Groot (Vin Diesel) – a tree-like humanoid; Gamora (Zoe Saldana) – Thanos’s adopted assassin daughter; and finally Drax (Dave Bautista) – a giant blue alien muscle guy. Together these unusual suspects form an uneasy but at times hilarious alliance as they fight and argue and bicker and eventually accept each other and combine to overcome the villains before them.

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If The Avengers (2012) was a remake of The Magnificent Seven (1964) then this is a remake of the Dirty Dozen (1967) (minus seven). Moreover, the film follows the successful Marvel template of superheroes (or in this case anti-heroes) saving a very Earth-like world from destruction from said poisoned destructive orb (see Tesseract).  But what makes this Space-Western such fun is the oddball off-centre characters which director James Gunn and his fellow writers clearly gave a lot of time developing. While special effects reign over the production the likes of Quill, Rocket and Groot are given a humanity and humour which adds heart to story.  Indeed the script is full of empathetic backstories and themes including: fatherless, motherless and adopted children, genocide, slaves, nature v. technology, medical experimentation, grief, tyranny of dictatorship; all of which add some depth to the otherwise fluffy frivolity of the script.

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Gunn was an interesting choice of director as he had written some mildly successful screenplays and directed two low-budget movies: the hilarious horror Slither (2006) and anti-super-hero oddity Super (2010).  But he marshals the army of cast and crew with a great sense of timing and while Guardians is generic in structure, the delight is in the incredible visuals and action, character detail and witty dialogue splashed throughout. The tone almost tipped over into farce in a dance off scene near the end and Del Toro is disappointing underused as The Collector. Plus Zoe Saldana’s character Gamora is gutsy and kick-ass until she turns to type and is saved by Quill. Although I forgave this stereotype because the scene was so memorably rendered and realised in a kind of space version of Jean Vigo’s poetic classic L’Atalante (1934).

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The film finishes with a lovely post-credit kick in the nuts with an appearance of another comic-book-anti-hero. Marvel once again has delivered the goods and their standard template will continue to be a success if they choose off-centre directors such as Gunn, Whedon and the Russo Brothers. These are young (ish) guns like Lucas and Spielberg who while they wear their cultural influences proudly on their sleeves, jackets and underwear they paradoxically retain some originality amidst the pastiche and intertextuality. Thus, Frederic Jameson’s theories seem even more valid today. He himself argued that postmodernist culture was linked to the rise of late capitalism from the 1960s onwards and as the Marvel money-making monopoly marches on who can disagree with him.