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 Fiction
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.
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