This week Joe West gets under the skin of self-involved movies
If you’ve read our review of Seven Psychopaths, which you definitely should before seeing it, then you’ll have gathered that it’s more than a little preoccupied with movie industry naval-gazing. Its characters hammer the plot into a shape that fits the tropes of certain mainstream cinematic genres. It’s often painfully self-aware, to the point that it actually saps the fun from the narrative.
The idea of creating movies about movies, plays about plays or stories about stories is not a new one. Being self-referential and reflexive is something authors have aspired to since the first cave man drew himself doing a cave painting on the wall of a cave, doing a cave painting of himself on the wall of a cave.
This layering typically works best when a film or any other work refers not only to itself, but also to cultural elements that exist outside of it. Better still is a reference which defies logic. Or so some writers erroneously believe. It’s felt that daring to cross-pollinate movies with little nods to other franchises, characters that actors have played in the past or real world events occurring during production will make a film seem cleverer. Which is rarely the case.
Sometimes a reference to a contemporary affair is thrown in, often for no good reason. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, for example, includes mentions of President Barack Obama and the swine flu epidemic. Neither of these things existed during filming, but hastily added dialogue lines recorded during post-production allowed the references to be jammed in just prior to release. But why did they bother? So a couple of adults in the audience could go “Oh, I’m aware of those things. And thus my ego is stroked.”
So how can a movie be meta without stepping on its own toes or annoying pedants like me? Or more helpfully, what is the best meta movie of all time?
The answer is of course Three Amigos. Or ¡Three Amigos! if you want to Spanish-up the punctuation. Released in 1986, it is a film about three silent-era movie stars who get kicked off their lucrative studio contracts and are immediately hired by Mexican villagers to protect them from a terrorising group of bandits. It is assumed that their onscreen personas will match their real world personalities. They do not. Hilarity ensues, and I’m not being sarcastic, because it’s brilliant.
Not only is the film an irreverent retelling of the Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven story, but it also revels in the silliness of much earlier Hollywood movies. The Amigos even have their own character arcs, transforming from selfish idiots into heroic idiots and using the narrative tricks they picked up during their movie careers to triumph in the face of real-world evils.
Three Amigos is joyful and unselfconscious in its use of meta elements. Seven Psychopaths and a litany of other, more adult movies tend to be the opposite. Writers want people to think that they’ve created something that’s “so fucking cool” it’s almost sentient. Doing something that’s contrived or generic, but pointing out that you’re aware of its innate awfulness, is a trick that’s getting tired. We’ve got to the point where it might be more meta to not make any references to anything at all. Because doing that would be one big reference to how everything else is packed with references. And then we can all jam our heads up our own arses and suffocate smilingly, whispering ‘I’ll have what she’s having’ as we slip into a deserved early death. ¿DO YOU SEE?