It is by no means a new invention - Shakespeare himself flirted with it for dramatic effect in Hamlet when the titular manic-depressive male character puts on a play for his mother and stepfather-cum-uncle about how a man kills his brother and marries his sister-in-law. However, in these days of French post-structuralism and deconstruction, metafiction becomes a serious commentary on the nature of life itself.
Metafiction makes for interesting cinema too. I can think of 3 recent movies.
1. Adaptation. (2002)
This movie is done by the same team that gave us Being John Malkovich - director Spike Jonze (aka Adam Spigel) and writer Charlie Kaufman. It's an utterly self-referential, hyper-aware narrative about writer's block and the business of screenwriting. Nicholas Cage stars as Charlie Kaufman (yes, the writer himself) trying to adapt an actual real-life nonfiction book titled The Orchid Thief for a film. He drives himself crazy when, faced with studio pressure, he realizes the book simply cannot be adapted into a film.
This is one of Nicolas Cage's more memorable roles - he plays a pair of identical twins. Kaufman got awfully metatextual by throwing in a fictional twin brother into the mix, but it makes for good comedic acting for Cage. Furthermore, there are constant references to Kaufman's success as the screenwriter for Being John Malkovich. Apparently the plot was far from fictional (but of course hyper-self-referential), as Kaufman was actually hired to adapt The Orchid Thief but couldn't pull it off. Sadly, I thought the ending was rather contrived and weak, and the strong cast (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper and Catherine Keener) couldn't save it. Throw in full-frontal nudity, masturbation and crude language into the mix, and the movie becomes one writer's incoherent rant against writer's block.
2. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2006)
There is a little-known satirical novel that was published in 1759 in Britain. It had the innocuous title of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. Indeed, it's actually a book about nothing (think Seinfeld, but more self-referential, autobiographical and with a British accent) where the title character simply talks about his life. In fact he doesn't reach his own birth till one-third the way of the book.
How do you adapt such a book into a film? By weaving a cheeky narrative about a film production trying to adapt it. Lesser-known Brit funnyman Steve Coogan stars as an actor playing Tristram Shandy. It's less a philosophical musing on fiction than it is a wacky take on celebrity and filmstudio politics, although the actor's life does have interesting parallels with Shandy's one.
3. Stranger Than Fiction. (2006)
I saw this movie two nights ago, and it's the best metafictional movie of the three here. It's an amazingly simple story with layers of meaning and significance that'll take days to ponder and appreciate.
Will Ferrell stars as Harold Crick, a neurotic IRS taxman who starts hearing a female voice with a British accent narrating his present activity and thoughts. Turns out he's a character in a famous author's latest book. Her name is Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson delivering a fantastic performance), and she is known for killing her main characters off in creative and compelling ways. So, Crick begins to enlist a literature professor's help (Dustin Hoffman playing a character called Jules Hilbert) to save his life.
There's a wickedly poignant and subtly layered twist as the movie nears the end, and there's a few Gospel allusions to unpack throughout the film. Besides, I think there's something significant in the characters' names. To top it off, the sexual themes and language aren't as offensively jarring as the other two.
In my next post I will explore the question: What does metafiction have to do with the Judeo-Christian Scripture?