#226. Meta-writers

Many years ago, shortly after I started this blog, I wrote about the idea that a film could be “self-aware.” As a reminder, these films know what genres they are a part of, and use that to their advantage to poke fun at the genre, while also being fully complicit in it. The “awareness” of these movies is a behind-the-scenes nod to the audience to let them know everything they are watching is all in good fun. That being said, there are a few films out there that take the more out-in-front approach to “awareness.” These films not only show you they are aware of their existence; they often feature the writer of the plot as its main character. As such, the screenwriters of these movies would be considered “meta-writers,” since the film self-references itself via its writer protagonist (or antagonist). This week’s two films feature meta-writers.

Stranger than FictionStranger than Fiction
Year: 2006
Rating: PG-13
Length: 113 minutes / 1.88 hours

Narration can be an interesting way to tell a story. Sometimes, the narrator is the main character. Sometimes, the narrator is an eternal entity like God or Death. Sometimes, the narrator is a third-party observer. Whoever the narrator ends up being, they bring a personal touch to the plot because the story is being told by somebody. The most common forms of narrators are in stories that are either a first-person narration or a third-person omniscient. An author who does not want to constrain themselves to a single character will often use the latter “voice” when narrating a story. In this way, the audience will sometimes know more than the main character, adding to dramatic tension. But what if you suddenly started hearing the author’s voice, narrating your life in the third-person omniscient voice? What would you do?

Writer’s block is as much a problem for new writers as it is for experienced ones. Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is known for writing novels where the main character tragically dies, but she’s having trouble figuring out how to kill off her most recent character, Harold Crick (Will Ferrell). To make things worse, one day Harold shows up at her home and says he’s been hearing her voice narrating his life. This revelation concerns Karen, who now wonders how many real people she has killed in her novels over the years. Unfortunately, this meeting leads to Karen finishing a draft of the final scenes where Harold is set to die. Having met Harold, she is conflicted with publishing this ending. While it would make the work a masterpiece with Harold’s death, she can’t bring herself to kill an innocent man who lives in the real world.

Seven PsychopathsSeven Psychopaths
Year: 2012
Rating: R
Length: 110 minutes / 1.83 hours

Much like the looping and repeated timelines that frequent science fiction films, many meta films will end up revealing their origins within the very story they are currently telling. A fine example of this would be the 2002 film, Adaptation. In it, the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (portrayed by Nicholas Cage) has some writer’s block as he attempts to adapt a book into a film. In the process of breaking through his block, he ends up writing himself into the film, thus resulting in the meta-writer recursion. If anything, these types of films allow for a fusion of the first-person narration and third-person omniscient voices, just due to the fact that the “god” who creates the story of the film is also often the main character. Another such example of the meta-writer recursion can be found in the 2012 action-comedy, Seven Psychopaths.

As is usually the case in these meta-writer films, Marty Faranan (Colin Farrell) is a screenwriter struggling to pad out his screenplay for Seven Psychopaths. He already has two or three of the psychopaths figured out, but when his friend, Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell), puts an ad in the local paper for any psychopaths in Los Angeles to contact Marty, he soon finds himself face-to-face with Zachariah Rigby (Tom Waits) a serial killer who killed serial killers. Meanwhile, Billy continues his dog-stealing business, which causes Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), another psychopath, to come after Billy and Marty after his Shih Tzu is stolen. To add to Charlie’s ire, Billy just killed his cheating girlfriend, revealing himself to be psychopaths #1 and #7. With their friend and fellow psychopath, Hans Kieslowski (Christopher Walken), the group heads to the desert to finish the manuscript and have a final shootout with Charlie.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 meta manuscripts

#106. Meryl Streep

Perhaps one of the most prolific actresses of our time is Meryl Streep. Of course, being prolific doesn’t necessarily mean you’re any good, but in the case of Meryl Streep, her nomination record begs to differ. While only having won three Oscars for her acting talents, she has been nominated for 14 more acting Oscars since the beginning of her career. In fact, her first nomination for her role in The Deer Hunter (1978) was a mere three years after she started acting professionally. It seems a little odd that, with as many nominations as she has received, Meryl Streep wouldn’t have won more Oscars by now. This may be due to frequent oversight on behalf of the Academy Awards. This week’s two films look at one of Meryl Streep’s Oscar wins as well as one of her many nominations that probably deserved better.

Kramer vs. KramerKramer vs. Kramer
Year: 1979
Rating: PG
Length: 105 minutes / 1.75 hours

While Meryl Streep won her first Oscar for her role as Joanna Kramer, if her role had been more significant in the film, the Best Picture winner would have joined the ranks of the select few to win the “Big Five” Oscars (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay). As it stands, the Best Supporting Actress award for this film was definitely well-earned by Streep. Three years later, she would win that coveted Best Actress Oscar for Sophie’s Choice (1982) (as the eponymous Sophie), but it would be another 12 nominations and another three decades later until she would win again, this time for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady (2011). With two wins early in her career, I’m sure much of Hollywood was surprised every time she was passed over for the award.

Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) has had it. She’s tried the married life and the life of a mother, and it really isn’t working out. Dumping their son Billy (Justin Henry) on her now ex-husband Ted (Dustin Hoffman), she walks right out the door and doesn’t look back. Ted now has to drastically adjust his life, since he was taking Joanna for granted and was constantly putting work ahead of his family. As he starts to get the hang of juggling a high-demand job with taking care of a son as a single father, in strolls Joanna wanting to take Billy back. While she doesn’t want to be with Ted anymore, she misses her son, and the two parents go into court to battle for custody. What had just begun to settle into a good routine is ripped apart with the decision of which parent will get to stay with Billy.

Julie & JuliaJulie & Julia
Year: 2009
Rating: PG-13
Length: 123 minutes / 2.05 hours

One of Meryl Streep’s many talents is celebrity impersonation. In fact, much of her work revolves around her ability to pick up accents for the characters she plays. Since she is very much a method actor in this sense, it is no wonder why she has been nominated for as many acting awards as she has. This fact has also been poked fun at by many people and has led to the belief that if Meryl Streep acts in a film with an accent, the film will automatically garner her a nomination. And yet, the accent is only part of her method acting. Since a few of the people Meryl Streep has played are well ingrained in our popular culture, there are also certain mannerisms that need to be learned for the role to be believable. Streep’s portrayal of Julia Child is just one of these roles.

The parallels between Julie Powell (Amy Adams) and Julia Child (Meryl Streep) are at the very simplest level, a love of cooking. While Julia Child is looking to change the culinary world and make a cookbook that is accessible to ordinary housewives, Julie Powell is trying to escape her world by completing the goal of cooking every recipe in Julia Child’s cookbook in the timespan of a single year. Both women have the support of their husbands, but both also have very finite barriers that stand in their way. For Julia Child, it is getting her cookbook published, whereas, for Julie Powell, it’s juggling her job with her hobby. Fortunately, despite all the difficulties, a bit of luck strikes both women, propelling Julia Child into culinary fame and Julie Powell into a similar literary situation.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 Meryl Streep sensations

Bacon #: 1 (The River Wild / Kevin Bacon)