In the dark ages of my life, I largely considered meta-art, or art that references itself, to be a fake art form. I always expected songs or movies to forget that they’re artistic entities, and have the delusional mindset that they’re living in the same world as the audience. The characters aren’t supposed to know they’re in a story. They’re not supposed to talk to us, or act like they know they’re at the mercy of a writer with an overactive imagination. We’re supposed to be submerged in a work, and disregard the fact that we’re usually looking at something fictional and scripted.
I have since become enlightened to the clever ways of metafiction, and consider it a welcome change from characters that are oblivious to the lives they live. I’ve even experienced second-hand embarrassment when characters did cringe-worthy things that I couldn’t prevent. All I could do is sit there in horror as characters said the wrong thing, or proceeded with their half-baked plans, while dramatic irony laughed maniacally in my face. I mean, hasn’t every reader ever wanted to scream to Romeo that Juliet wasn’t actually dead, she was just faking it like a crafty little opossum? That exasperating scenario is one that riles up its audience, and proves how effective trapping characters in a fictional bubble can be.
Often, real-world circumstances affect the course of fictional events, which creators usually choose not to acknowledge. With TV series especially, there’s a regular need to adjust story arcs as actors or writers leave the show over the course of a its lifetime. And people get upset when their favorite characters are written out of a script, which is often done through some wild plot twist or a convenient, lethal event. Anyone who watched Christina Yang take a job halfway across the world in Grey’s Anatomy has faced the bitter reality that their fictional obsession is affected by real people. I’ve even risked looking completely callous by telling people that a whole work is fictional anyways, so it doesn’t matter if a character trips down an elevator shaft unexpectedly, but for some reason, no one wants to hear that.
Meta-reference can’t be used in every creative work, because otherwise people would never be able to entertain alternative worlds, or become fully invested in characters and plots. However, when used mindfully, the brilliance of metafiction shines. Meta-reference allows characters to defy the role they’re expected to play, namely, as pawns on a chessboard. A character might do this by breaking the fourth wall. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is one of my favorite examples of this, as Ferris will talk directly to the viewer to explain why he must skip school or engage in other shenanigans. It’s like he’s bringing the viewer in on his thought processes and the events of his life, and the viewer is able to laugh with its protagonists instead of at them. There’s a sense of camaraderie as the viewer builds a seemingly reciprocated interaction with characters, and makes the character seem more real by blurring the line between fiction and reality.
Deadpool takes the concept of metafiction several steps further, with its irreverent title sequence, the jokes characters crack about their actors, and the explicit reminders that the audience is supposed to be watching a romantic action movie. By the movie’s end, Deadpool gets extra sassy through its reference to another meta scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Both movies have a smug post-credits scene telling viewers to “go home” because “it’s over.” This scene demonstrates the characters’ knowledge that they have an audience, and that the events of their lives have been used for entertainment purposes. For some reason, the characters relish and even rub this fact in viewers’ faces, which allows them to take on a life of their own, outside the script. In a way, it humanizes the characters by giving them as much information as the viewer has, and giving them a sense of control they wouldn’t otherwise have. Furthermore, Deadpool drew attention to its status as a movie by referencing another film viewers have seen, which invoked common ground with them. If a meta-reference within a meta-reference isn’t delightfully meta-referential, then I don’t know what is.
Meta-art can be a lot of fun, in all of its mildly pretentious, post-modernist glory. You might even say this whole column is mildly pretentious, and you’d be correct. You would also have to acknowledge that reminding you this is a newspaper column is a meta-referential tactic, and then you would see that I’ve already taken this topic way too far.
Featured Image by Paramount Pictures