On paper, metafiction is a simple concept, being fiction that draws attention to its artificiality and construction as a piece of fiction. At this stage the author would like to remind you that you are in fact reading an article about metacinema and not watching a film about it. I like the filmic dictum of “show don’t tell”, and so will endeavour to demonstrate rather than explain wherever possible in this article. Art in this mode is very showy, very “look at me, I’m aware of the conventions of the medium.”It’s a hard thing to do subtly, because the whole point is to draw attention to the artificiality of the given work. For this reason, metafiction is often handwaved away as too pretentious, snooty, or moralistic to be taken seriously. Ostensibly, it is not considered as a narrative mode for mass consumption.
Far and away the most common metafictional device in narrative art is the fourth wall break; this article is written under the assumption that you the reader know what that means. Perhaps this is too presumptuous of me, but explaining it at this point would seem condescending, and so I am not going to do it. Anyway, Deadpool does it a lot, and Tim Miller’s Deadpool just may be the example people point towards when they think metacinema, which is a trip, considering it is one of the most popular films of the last five years. For a narrative form that is dismissed as pretentious and too out of touch with reality, it sure is impressive that it succeeded in the way that it did. I shouldn’t feign ignorance about the fact that Deadpool was at that time, an already established brand, people didn’t go see that film for the metafiction, they went for the 4th wall breaks. I shouldn’t even call Deadpool a metafictional film, because several 4th wall breaks and intertextuality do not a metafiction make. Really good metafiction reaches further than its own cultural sphere into an intimacy with its beholder, challenging their beliefs about a given subject or the construction of their reality itself. What Deadpool does is makes the people watching it feel very intelligent for getting the references and self-depreciation, whilst feigning metafictionality. If it were metacinema, Deadpool would be asking very hard questions of its audiences instead of flinging surface level insults at the superhero-film industry.
Such questions are asked in films like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997, 2007, watch either, the 2007 is a shot for shot remake for western audiences because not enough of its intended audience saw the 1997 film). Funny Games is a horror movie, about a family who go to the coast for a holiday, which is intruded upon by two young men in golf attire. These young men are, like Deadpool, aware that they inhabit a fictional universe, but they are far more subtle about breaking the fourth wall of that universe, stripping away or exposing the conventions for the audience. You get the sense that the film operates on two spheres, the sphere of the family, and the sphere that we are in, that of the intruders. The intruders seem to be self-aware and treat what is happening like it were a cruel joke, the family does not seem to know that this is all pretend, and react in kind. The film is highly disturbing in a number of ways, and not just because of the violence in the film. The violence is there, yes, and it is dispassionate, and unglorified, and uncomfortable to witness in the highest, but the film stews in this violence drawing it out to almost boring lengths, completely intentionally. Funny Games asks the viewer if this is really what they want to watch, to some extent implicating the viewer in the sufferings of this family unit. I ask that you read nothing more about the film and go and seek it out, it’s one of the most inspired and challenging pieces of media of the last thirty years.
But there are more ways to draw attention to the artificiality and construction of a narrative work. Screenwriter and Director Charlie Kaufman frequently employs metafictional devices in his work. 2002’s Adaptation, incidentally one of my favourite films, was initially intended to be an adaptation of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief. Charlie Kaufman struggled to adapt Orlean’s book, which has no plot to speak of, and so Kaufman does two things, inserts his own struggles to adapt the book into the film, and invents his own plot. And so somewhere along the line the script mutated into a tortured examination of the creative and adaptive process featuring both Kaufman and Orlean as characters central to the narrative, thus blurring the lines between fiction and reality. Adaptation also credits Donald Kaufman, Charlie Kaufman’s fictional twin brother as a co-author. It is worth noting that Donald Kaufman also plays a central role in the narrative. Charlie and Donald Kaufman were nominated for an oscar for Best Adapted Screenwriting in 2002, despite Donald being a fictional character. The film is unlike anything else in art, a genuine loch ness monster or sasquatch, something to be marvelled at, something that shows you the true potential and utility of metafictional devices when creating narratives.
The third way a piece of media can assert itself as metafictional is through intertextuality. Intertextuality is a fancy way of saying that a piece of art “quotes” or “references” another piece of art, such that both gain an additional layer of meaning. Here’s a list: Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump, Rick and Morty, Hot Fuzz, Scream, Be Kind Rewind, Cabin in the Woods, The Simpsons, South Park, all things which in some way directly quote or reference another piece of media. There’s a lot of complicated literary theory (known as semiotics) as to how this works, which simplified is as follows: when I talk about an apple, I am not just talking about the apple as an object in the world, I am also talking about the concept of an apple, and the ideas surrounding an apple, Adam and Eve, Original Sin, Fertility, Isaac Newton, Apples and Oranges, etcetera literally endlessly. It is the same thing, referencing a part of another piece of art also references the themes, symbols, and mythology of that piece of art, to the effect that it builds meaning in the original text. There are a lot of clever ways that intertextuality can be used, with varying degrees of subtlety, but there are also very hollow and unthinking ways to use it. One of the signature “semiotic” works of art is Umberto Eco’s In the Name of the Rose, adapted into a film in 1986. In the Name of the Rose is a riff on the Sherlock Holmes murder mystery set in an Italian Benedictine Monastery which delights in medieval literature and businesses of being a monk in the medieval period. The mystery at In the Name of the Rose’s core is built upon no-longer extant texts, or texts in fragmentation, which form the crux of its undisciplined narrative.
It’s disappointing to me that metafictional devices are used more often than not purely for satirical purposes, saying nothing more than “hey look at this dumb thing, isn’t it dumb?”. Hopefully, metafictional devices can be used for far more than that and, like the aforementioned examples, artists use them to greater effect in their own work.
Words by Eamon Kelly