Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Permanence of the Meta

Our hyper-sensitive, ultra-aware moviegoing public likes to be considered "meta," a term referring to the need to be in on the joke that is the fiction of a film. In a meta-movie, the viewer shares with the filmmaker any references to past movies and understand the visual or verbal asides that are made to other works of art, sometimes even those of other movies made by the same filmmaker.

Kevin Spacey's character loves to talk to the audience.
It is a burgeoning business, this act of meta-moviemaking. Horror movie directors particularly love this riff, dating back to Wes Craven and "Scream," where Craven both spoofed horror films and made a thriller of his own. Last year, "Cabin in the Woods," co-written by Joss Whedon of "Buffy" fame, used that trope, as did Tim Burton in his stop-action homily to horror, "Frankenweenie."

But the act of meta-fiction also includes that of talking directly to the audience, a device not used as often as the sardonic spoofing of past movies. In movie parlance, it is considered "breaking the fourth wall" that exists between viewer and actor. It has been the talk of the Netflix series "House of Cards," where Kevin Spacey consistently turns directly to eyeball the audience and proffer his innermost thoughts.

In one scene in episode three of the 13-part series, his congressman character is giving a sermon at his South Carolina church, while attempting to speak to the parents of a girl who recently died in a car accident and are in attendance at the service. The oily politician's true motives are to dissuade the parents from filing a negligent death lawsuit against him (the details aren't important here). Spacey's character uses the pulpit to empathize with the family and mention how grieved he was at his own father's death at age 42.

But shockingly, Spacey turns to the audience to tell us what a benighted wastrel his father really was, how he was no help to his family and virtually deserved his early death. It is as sharp a contrast to his unctuous sermon as is found in a modern movie.

The process of "breaking the fourth wall" is as old as Elizabethan England, where the theater stage fit on three walls with a proscenium arch as the fourth wall separating cast from audience. In the 19th century, talking to the audience was used liberally in France's theater of the real, and the phrase was coined by critic Denis Diderot.

In movies as different as "Fight Club," "Annie Hall" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," the meta-device has led to classic moments. It is alive today, sort of the opposite of a sequestered Congress is to tax reform (totally dead).

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