In the beginning of Robin Hood: Men in Tights, villagers suddenly find their homes on fire, set ablaze by the Merry Men dramatically shooting flaming arrows. “There must be another way of doing the credits!” one exclaims. “That’s right, every time they make another movie, they set us on fire,” yells the fire captain. Another round of arrows leaves the famed director/producer/screenwriter’s name in fire on a thatched roof. “Leave us alone, Mel Brooks!” the beleaguered villagers yell at the camera.
It’s an unspoken rule of filmmaking to rarely have the subject look into the camera. It’s unsettling and breaks the illusion that the viewer is peering into a separate world with its own reality. And that’s exactly why filmmakers like Mel Brooks do it.
The practice is commonly called “breaking the fourth wall,” so named for the pretense in the dramatic arts in which the edge of the stage represents an invisible “fourth wall” to a room. Hence, the audience can peer into another reality, unbeknownst to the characters. And yet, prior to the 16th century, theatrical performers had no such rule and often turned to the audience to get responses or even solicit participation from them. With the 19th century came the development of realism, in which dramatic works insisted that the viewer merely observe from a god-like perspective.
With each new rule comes the need to break it, and thanks to vaudeville, fourth-wall shattering became in vogue again. Yet film held steadily to its proscription that actors never look into the camera. It became a staple of broadcast news anchors and TV hosts. When Walter Cronkite or Rod Serling looked into the camera, it was to introduce you to a topic. Yet having the characters acknowledge your presence was taboo in an art form that quite literally separated you in space and time from the performers, unlike in theatre.
Metacinema was used as early as 1929 with the seminal film Man with the Movie Camera, whose title describes the film fairly well. However, while this film represented a rejection of the illusory reality in favor of an explicit acknowledgment of the filmmakers, it did not reach the advanced meta stage in which the audience is asked to engage with the characters. Similarly, 70s-era entries such as Jesus Christ Superstar and The Holy Mountain ask us to acknowledge the presence of the cameras or conflate the relationship between performer and character.
It was Mel Brooks who brought those elements together to redefine metacinema for comedic purposes, thus setting a precedent for movies such as The Muppets: he created characters who regularly mocked the movie they were in, or even other movies, talked to the camera (broke the fourth wall), and asked the audience to engage with them as though they too were characters.
Breaking the fourth wall is a key part of what it means to be “meta,” that is, self-referential to the point of disrupting the normal layers of reality. Think of it this way: when you watch a standard film, you’re experiencing the following layers of reality:
- The real-world environment in which the film was shot, including the performers (the “pretext”)
- The text spoken and action made by the performers (the “text”)
- The film or digital substance in which the film is recorded and disseminated (the “medium”)
- The larger sociocultural aspects that the film taps into (the “context”)
- Your individual perception of what you say (the “subtext”)
In meta films, an extra “meta” layer is inserted between the text and the subtext: what you’re asked to engage with. The interruption of the barrier between your reality and the one depicted has to occur from either the performers or the text. For example, the dialogue may refer to the production of the film, or a performer may make reference to their real-world relationship with a fellow cast member. Both of these techniques were heavily used in the Deadpool films.
Going meta is different from in-jokes or narration, although those things may seem like it initially. After all, a narrator is speaking to the audience, no? And yet the narrator is not crossing any threshold; they are simply an additional layer of text. And in-jokes are also bound to the text. For example, if R2-D2 appears in another Lucasfilm production, it’s not meta unless the droid is somehow asking the viewer to engage with it.
While films such as The Matrix ask us to question our relationship with reality, meta films acknowledge that relationship as complicated and fickle — and ask us to celebrate that. It encourages us to enjoy what might easily be construed as
It’s still not common to see meta moments even in very meta films. They’re using sparingly, often to highlight the filmmaking process itself or to position the movie within the larger culture. For example:
Cary Elwes looks to the camera, his gorgeous blue eyes radiating out of the screen as he directly connects with the audience: “Unlike some other Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English accent.”
He’s referring, of course, to Kevin Costner’s portrayal of the titular character in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Elwes does not deliver the line with an English accent, but it doesn’t matter. He’s just letting the audience know that he, the actor, can speak with an English accent.
Later, as he trains the Merry Men, he’s watching them attempt archery, and as they fumble, his gaze shifts toward the camera, as though to say, “Can you believe these guys?” In this way, he is crossing the boundary between the characters in the audience, effectively making the audience characters — or is he making himself real? It’s all part of the fun of metacinema.
Although metacinema is still relatively rare, it’s delightful when we encounter it because it allows us to reflect on the importance of cinema in our lives. Cinema inspires us, connects us to other people and culture, and represents the pinnacle of aesthetic achievement: a perfect fusion of visuals and sound that allows us to both discover new worlds and reflect upon our own.
Robin Hood: Men in Tights concludes with the characters/actors checking their scripts after Robin loses an archery battle. “I’m not supposed to lose!” exclaims Robin. He and the others pull out their scripts only to discover that “he’s got another shot”: the ultimate deus ex machina.
If only life were that perfect.
Rachel Wayne is a writer and artist based in Orlando, FL. She earned her master’s in visual anthropology from the University of Florida and runs the production company DreamQuilt. She is an avid aerial dancer and performance artist, and also dabbles in mixed-media. She writes nonfiction stories about herself and other awesome people, as well as essays on feminism, societal violence, mental health, politics, entrepreneurship, and whatever cultural topic strikes her fancy.