Films Within Films: Four Examples of Metafictive Cinema

Oisín Murphy
Posted November 5, 2012 in Film, Film Features

Ben Affleck’s Argo is the latest example of the classic cinematic trope of the film-within-a-film, a formal device which has been employed to various ends in the history of the art. Here, Totally Dublin picks out four choice, contemporary examples of this meta-fictive tendency.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (Wes Craven, 1994)

The modern horror film has a tendency towards arch self-referentiality, a sensibility which has its mainstream roots in the work of Wes Craven, the mind behind the Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream series, and it is the 1994 culmination of the former franchise that marked his apogee. In it, Heather Langenkamp, who played Nancy in the original Nightmare… films, begins to believe that Freddy Krueger has manifested himself in real life, harassing her with eerie phone calls and through her television, murdering his way through those involved in the (diegetic) production of the new Nightmare… instalment and those close to her. She confronts Wes Craven with her worries, and he reveals that he is working on a script for a new film featuring Freddy, in which his real-life actions are closely mirrored. Craven’s proposed solution, in which Heather must engage Freddy on the level of a fictive narrative, sends the film spinning into manic self-referentiality, providing a suitably meaty, “mind-blowing” conclusion yet to be equaled by similarly-intentioned Craven vehicles such as Scream 5. Some elements, too, seem intriguingly prototypical of Michael Haneke’s Caché (Hidden)―watch it and see.


Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002)

Charlie Kaufman’s manipulation of the conventional narrative reached its pre-Synecdoche peak with the marvelous Adaptation (itself an adaptation of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief), in which Nicolas Cage plays Charlie and Donald Kaufman, twins and screenwriters working on two very different projects. Charlie is struggling with adapting the un-cinematic, non-fiction The Orchid Thief, while Donald’s novice thriller screenplay is successfully sold to a major studio. Stung by jealousy and a looming deadline, Charlie begins to write his script self-referentially and, as intrigue involving Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) and an unscrupulous real-life orchid thief begins to unfold before the brothers, Charlie’s treatment begins to descend into the big-budget, broadly-drawn romp more suited to his brother’s sensibilities, while they themselves become implicated in a direct matter of life and death. There has scarcely been a more enjoyable blurring of the lines between cinematic fiction and cinematic reality. Nicolas Cage, too, wore a fat-suit for the entire film.


Ulysses’ Gaze (Theo Angelopoulos, 1995)

The great Greek modernist’s Cannes Jury Prize-winning paean to the end of communism and the origins of cinema in the Balkans is among the most provocative gestures of so-called “Slow Cinema”. Harvey Keitel’s “A.”, a director and archivist, embarks on a desperate search for three reels of film shot by the Manakis brothers, items which would constitute the very first film images shot in the Balkans, the origins of the war-torn area’s cinematic gaze―through these, he hopes to gain a fundamental and, crucially, common understanding of the history of the region into which he was born. At one point, “A.” recounts an event from his past (based on something which happened to Angelopoulos himself) in which he was filming at Delos, the birthplace of Apollo: in classical mythology, the Greek god of light. While he is there, a classical statuehead (of Apollo) rises from the earth and shatters before his eyes; he takes pictures on his Polaroid camera but none of them develop correctly. He is left with overexposed blur after overexposed blur. Later, a static shot contains within itself five consecutive New Year’s parties, Angelopoulos’ virtuosity exploring the nature of a vanished past and the difficulties inherent to the act of representation/remembering itself.


Austin Powers in Goldmember (Jay Roach, 2002)

Ah, the definitive cinematic mise-en-abyme! Mike Myers’ iconic super-spy’s third outing saw him take on the criminal mastermind and Dutchman Goldmember, enlisting the help of Beyoncé’s Foxy Cleopatra, the (semi-)reformed Doctor Evil, and his emotionally-distant father, Nigel, played by Michael Caine. The film opens with an ornate credit sequence in which the familiar leading roles from the past two films are performed by a host of Hollywood luminaries―Tom Cruise, Kevin Spacey, Gwyneth Paltrow and Danny DeVito―while the director of the production is revealed as Stephen Spielberg, soliciting Myers’ Austin Powers’ advice on-set. From here, Myers’ Powers enters a web of intrigue and defeats the maniacal, gold-obsessed Goldmember (but if this is reality, surely all these characters can’t be Mike Myers in disguise!) before the entirety of the narrative is revealed to have been a fictional film (directed by Spielberg), enjoyed live by the original cast/real-life characters themselves at the world premiere! And if that wasn’t enough, it turns out that Goldmember was played by John Travolta all along. It would be a mistake to say that Austin Powers in Goldmember‘s interaction with the film industry ended on release: the seminal Dutch villain served as clear inspiration for Javier Bardem’s recent performance in Skyfall.

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