Definition

     For various purposes the cinematography may call attention to itself. 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.

     Metacinema could be used for social critique, to parody a particular genre, such as superhero films, or to counter audience’s expectations of what films should deliver. Images on screen may convey ironic information that is not reflected in characters’ dialogues.

Examples

     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.

Exercise

    Your Turn:    Watch this short clip of the scene mentioned above and analyze the use of metacinema as a narrative device.