Metacinema refers to films that allude to itself or to the cinematic conventions. It is a self-referential act. When cinematographic elements become noticeable, when characters break the fourth wall to address the film audiences, metacinema occurs.
For various purposes the cinematography may call attention to itself. Metacinema could be used for social critique, to parody a particular genre, such as superhero films, to counter audience’s expectations of what films should deliver, or to include audiences in the performed act similar to how live theatre productions involve the audiences. Characters may look straight into the camera to confide in film audiences. Characters may talk directly to film audiences to taunt them. Images on screen may convey ironic information that is not reflected in characters’ dialogues.
For example, Steven Spielberg’s 2022 semi-autobiographical film The Fabelmans is a film about filmmaking. The following scene depicts the ingenuity of the teenage film enthusiast Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan) as well as reveals “behind-the-scene” shots of his makeshift arrangements for special effects.
Many of Shakespeare’s plays contain meta-theatrical moments when characters become self-aware or speak of their “roles” in the story. Theatrical performance is on Juliet’s mind in act 4 scene 3 of Romeo and Juliet.
After sending away her mother and the Nurse, Juliet is ready to swallow the sleeping potion, alone. She says that “my dismal scene I needs must act alone” (4.3.19). The verb to act refers to the act of taking the potion as well as acting on stage. Elsewhere in the play, Juliet uses such meta-theatrical phrases as this “love-performing knight” and seeing their “true love acted.”
Inspired by Shakespeare, some film adaptations amplify the meta-cinematic dynamics to give the characters and scenarios more depth and to enable audiences to both maintain an ideological distance to a clichéd story and to enjoy the story being told anew.
Richard III also launches frequently into confessions. He shares his motivations and plans with the audiences. To make film audiences feel complicit and helpless in witnessing Richard’s villainy, Richard Loncraine uses a mirror in his 1995 film.
The scene takes place in a men’s room and features the second half of Richard’s famous monologue, “Now is the winter of our discontent.” Richard, played by Ian McKellen, is talking to himself, looking at himself in the mirror, while washing his hands.
However, he suddenly notices the presence of the film audiences (us!). He winks at the audiences and looks at them through the mirror. He ropes the audiences in. He then turns around to address the film audiences directly in the face.
Your Turn: Watch this short clip of the scene mentioned above and analyze the use of metacinema as a narrative device.
Answer Key is provided during class.
- LaRocca, David, ed., Metacinema: The Form and Content of Filmic Reference and Reflexivity. Oxford University Press, 2021