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Meta, Meta Everywhere, and Not a Drop to Drink

Metamovies ruined my party.
Recently I hosted a crafts night, as we Brooklyn girls are known for our craftiness. There we were, all knitting, crocheting, baking cookies, when someone brought up Adaptation, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze’s latest, much-publicized collaboration. The movie is about making a movie, or, rather, Kaufman’s struggle to adapt Susan Orlean’s real-life novel The Orchid Thief into a passable Hollywood screenplay. In other words, the movie is, as my friend Jocelyn described it, “meta meta meta meta.”

“I wasn’t such a big fan,” one woman admitted.

“That’s because you hate meta,” said another.

“I hate meta, too,” said someone else.

“I fucking love it,” said a woman not usually known for her contentiousness.

And off we went. Adaptation may have been the impetus, but the conversation quickly devolved into a full-on argument about whether metamovies have any redeeming value whatsoever. Granted, we’d been steadily swilling mulled wine the whole night, and granted, too that we’re the kind of high-strung women who discuss such heady topics post-college. But even so, an unusual edginess underscored the conversation that soured the rest of the night.

The next day, I wondered why we’d all gotten so angry. Metamovies, or movies about movies, have been around almost as long as movies themselves. The moving picture industry is full of narcissistic types almost by definition, and so it was to be expected that soon after the medium was invented movies about the medium would be right around the corner.

And was that necessarily bad? Ideally, metamovies can pose a series of potentially useful questions about filmmaking—What comprises a story? Why do we make movies at all? In what ways do politics inform the stories that the film industry chooses to tell, as well as how it tells them? After all, every community, particularly one as powerful as the film industry, requires a healthy self-critique in order to preserve its integrity.

But that provokes another series of questions: Why do we have to watch that self-analysis? What compels us to spend 10 dollars and two hours of our lives again and again to watch the movie industry examine its own navel? And is it worth it?

A lot of filmmakers seem to think so. Even a random, very partial list of metamovies spans genres, decades, countries, and quality levels: Full Frontal, Lost in La Mancha, Shadow of a Vampire, State and Main, Irma Vep, Get Shorty, Living in Oblivion, Ed Wood, The Player, All That Jazz, Day for Night, Contempt, and Singin’ in the Rain. Woody Allen, the king of relentless self-examination, has directed a spate of them, including Stardust Memories, Hollywood Ending, and the Purple Rose of Cairo. In fact, Allen’s fixation on movies about movies may speak volumes about their limitations. This is a guy who, despite years of analyzing himself, still walked right into the classic Electra complex, wedding his long-term girlfriend’s daughter right after he wrapped his second movie about dating a girl many years his junior. Why, then, would his cinematic self-analysis be any more effective?

Granted, the life of a filmmaker, like that of all artists, can and usually should be separated from one’s art, but this line grows ever more blurry when he or she makes movies about making movies—sometimes about movies. When there is nothing to ground a film’s characters, creators, or perhaps even its audience in something besides itself, trouble can ensue. Child brides can be acquired; craft parties can be ruined.

Adaptation is a classic example of how “autodeconstrucionism” can tumble into autoeroticism—sometimes literally. The ultimate insider movie—with two Oscar winners in its cast, Meryl Streep and Nicolas Cage, who himself happens to be the nephew of Oscar-winning director Frances Ford Coppola, whose son-in-law, Jonze, is the film’s director—Adaptation is a bona-fide study in meta. Its plot rests almost entirely on its real-life screenwriter’s struggle to bring the movie itself into existence without succumbing to Hollywood clichés. Appropriately, it begins and ends with Cage-as-Kaufman’s voiceover.

As the opening credits type across the screen, Kaufman—small voice rushing out of the side of his phantom, off-camera mouth—is already knee-deep in his self-effacing diatribe: “I’m too fat; no, I’m too insecure. Still, being fat matters, too, more and more, even for men.” His artistic process seems to be to rip himself a new asshole by burrowing through all the various assholes that he is, or that he calls himself, in order to find something authentic, original, and beautiful— his inner orchid, if you will. It’s recklessly funny because at first that level of self-abdicating honesty always refreshes, especially when it comes from a highly accomplished, successful screenwriter. If this insecure asshole can make it, you might think, then so can I.

But funny quickly congeals into frustrating for all involved. Frozen not only in his writing but in his life, Kaufman resorts to desperate measures to which we are not only privy but captive—his paralysis, after all, is our movie experience. When dropping off his date, Amelia, he fails to follow up on a sexually pregnant moment in the car. Instead, as he watches her step inside her house, he says in a voiceover, “I should go in there. It would be a romantic moment, one we could tell our children later,” as he starts up his car and drives off. A brilliant scene, but maddening, too, as it defies our expectations of a movie moment by thoroughly conforming to what we expect of life.

So rather than witnessing a sex scene with Amelia, we watch him jerk off to the book jacket photo of the writer whose work he’s struggling to adapt. It’s a cycle within a cycle that, as usual, he’s the first person to point out: “I have no understanding of myself; I’ve even written myself into my own script.”

We’re not entirely Charlie’s captives, however. In a bow to his audience, Kaufman intercuts these scenes with the story of the orchid thief himself. John Laroche is sexy not despite his missing teeth and lank, greasy hair but because he so fully and unselfconsciously inhabits that body, no matter how unattractive it may be. He acts, and that steady pursuit of what impassions him is enviable to both Orleans and Kaufman, both of whom recognize that their own passion is to “have a passion of their own at all.” Metapassion, in other words.

Besides Laroche, Kaufman’s oafish twin brother, Donald, is the only non meta main character in the movie. Donald has been taking a class with real-life screenwriting guru McKee (portrayed hilariously by Brian Cox) who makes his living teaching all the Hollywood tricks Charlie labors to omit from his own script. Earlier, he tells Donald that he rejects McKee’s formulaic solutions to storytelling because “Writing is a journey into the unknown.” Now he acknowledges this unknown has swallowed him whole, like the snake that eats its own tail. After all, he says, “I have no understanding outside of my own panic and self-loathing.” This voiceover continues as the shot drolly segues to Charlie shifting uncomfortably in McKee’s screenwriting seminar: “I went to the abyss and this is what happens.”

But McKee provides Charlie with helpful advice. “All you need is a good ending,” he says. “And for God’s sake, don’t use a deus ex machina.”

The rest of the movie loses me, and I would argue that it does so deliberately. Until this point, the film’s weaknesses have also been its strengths: though his self-castigation has sometimes teetered into self-indulgence, Charlie Kaufman has told his story about making a story both honestly and amusingly, and, for better or worse, we as an audience have been with him for the ride. Now, in order to release himself from that story, he compromises the very cinematic integrity he has forced us to watch him struggle to uphold. He drops into the plot— what else?—the deus ex machina, in the form of a badly produced, wildly implausible chase scene, complete with the murder of the two actors of the story, Donald and Laroche.

But Kaufman’s release is our loss, as we’re forced to watch his therapy, that bad solution of an ending. And by including that big wink of a scene with McKee, he’s set it up so that balking at this ending implies we’re merely missing the joke of how he’s aware of why it’s substandard. His real deus ex machina is the inclusion of his awareness of the deus ex machina—a meta deus ex machina, for God’s sake. Good old Charlie isn’t a helpless loser but a control freak who even wants to micromanage his audience’s critique. His inner orchid, it turns out, is just another asshole.

It’s hardly a coincidence that the first of McKee’s 10 commandments, which Donald helpfully posts in Charlie’s work area, is “respect thine audience.” Kaufman conflates his disrespect for the film industry with both the medium itself and its audience, and assumes that in order to even get a film made he must sacrifice a certain level of quality. Those of us stupid enough to see a Hollywood flick, he might suggest, deserve what we get.

I thought about Kaufman’s sneer of a movie while jostling with other New Yorkers in 17-degree weather at the February 15 anti-war protest. After hours of standing behind the police-enforced barricades on Second Avenue, we had resorted to protesting for our right to protest the war. Metaprotesting, in other words.

And there’s the rub. In our real lives right now, we are drowning in metaculture. We have enough analysis in lieu of action, enough pondering in lieu of producing—enough futile idling at the gate. The last thing we need are metamovies, especially ones that put us down for watching them.

In perhaps the pivotal scene of Adaptation, Donald asks McKee, “What if you’re trying to make a movie about when nothing really happens, like in real life?”

The script teacher explodes. “Are you out of your mind? Nothing happens in this world? Every day there’s genocide, murder, suicide. If you cannot find these things in daily life, then why to God are you wasting my time?”

Amen to that.


Lisa Rosman


The Brooklyn Rail

APR-MAY 2003

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