Meta-reference

fourth wall

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Metareference is a situation in a work of fiction whereby characters display an awareness that they are in such a work. Sometimes it may even just be a form of editing or film-making technique that comments on the show/film/book itself. It is also sometimes known as ‘Breaking the Fourth Wall,’ in reference to the theatrical tradition of playing as if there were no audience, as if a wall existed between them and the actors.

Metareference in fiction is jarring to the reader, but can be comical, as in Jasper Fforde’s novel ‘Lost in a Good Book.’ The character Thursday Next remarks to her husband that she feels uncomfortable having sex in front of so many people, when he is confused because they are alone in their bedroom, she explains, ‘all the people reading us.’ In Fforde’s ‘The Fourth Bear’ two characters lament over a bad joke made by the author, saying, ‘I can’t believe he gets away with that.’ Some novels with first person narration contain instances of metareference when the narrator addresses the reader directly (e.g. Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Jane Eyre’).

There has also been a few references to the kids simply being characters in a comic strip in ‘Peanuts.’ Once Charlie Brown told Schroeder to practice his pitching. He does, but it’s the piano sort, not the baseball sort. At the end, Schroeder says ‘Sometimes I think I should put in a transfer to another comic strip!’ Another time, Charlie Brown and Linus were very wordily talking about complaints. At the end, Linus says ‘There has also been complaints about too much talking and too little action in the modern comic strip. What do you think?’

Metareference can be traced back to traditional asides to the audience in theatrical productions, a feature of dramatic presentation which dates back at least to the ancient Greeks. These asides are an early form of the technique of ‘breaking the fourth wall,’ of which meta-reference is a major form. Several of Shakespeare’s plays begin or end with references to the actors and the play itself, most famously ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ in which Puck concludes with a speech which includes the lines: ‘If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended / That you have but slumber’d here while these visions did appear.’

One of the earliest metareferences in cinema is in the Marx Brothers’ movie ‘Animal Crackers,’ in which at one point Groucho speaks directly to the camera, saying, ‘Pardon me while I have a strange interlude.’ During the 1940s the ‘Road to…’ films starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby frequently spoke to the audience and made references to the studio, the movie, and the actors. A more recent example comes from ‘Fight Club.’ A scene near the end of the movie returns to its opening scene, but instead of saying ‘I can’t think of anything,’ the narrator now says, ‘I still can’t think of anything,’ demonstrating that he is aware of having been subjected to a cinematic time-shift; another character responds sarcastically with ‘Ah, flashback humor.’

Mel Brooks has made metareference a directorial trademark in several of his films. In ‘Blazing Saddles,’ a fight within the movie spills over into the film studio where it is being filmed and the characters fight with those from other movies. Several of the main characters flee from the brouhaha to a movie theater to see how their own movie resolves itself. Brooks continued his brand of self-reference in ‘Spaceballs’ as several characters attempt to figure out what to do next by watching an ‘early release’ of the very movie in which they appear. Brooks continues in similar fashion in ‘Robin Hood: Men in Tights’ during a scene in which the actors, unsure of the rules of an archery contest, check the movie’s script. Later in the same film, Dave Chappelle’s character references the plot of ‘Blazing Saddles’ in his bid to become the new sheriff.

In Kevin Smith’s ‘Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back’ Ben Affleck’s character asks why anyone would pay to see a movie about Jay and Silent Bob and subsequently stares directly at the camera. Espionage-thriller spoof ‘Top Secret!’ features a moment where the characters portrayed by Val Kilmer and Lucy Gutteridge remark to each other that the ridiculous situation they find themselves in is like something from a bad movie. Then they both turn their heads to face the audience. In ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,’ Ferris Bueller often turns to the audience, commenting on what was happening in the scene. ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ has a main character who often references the situations he is in; he criticizes the placement of two extras in a flashback scene, and at the end of the movie, in a hospital, various dead characters from earlier on in the movie reappear (including Abraham Lincoln) as the narrator criticizes the Hollywood trend of miraculous recovery of certain characters presumed dead.

Michael Palin coined the term ‘meta comment’ during the writing of ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus.’ It refers to a moment of commentary or dialogue spoken by an actor referring to the situation that character is in. For example in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail,’ following Sir Galahad’s discovery of the Castle Anthrax – Dingo is telling the sad tale of her life… she turns to the camera: ‘Oh, wicked, bad, naughty, evil Zoot! She is a bad person and must pay the penalty… Do you think this scene should have been cut? We were so worried when the boys were writing it, but now, we’re glad. It’s better than some of the previous scenes, I think…’

Large use of metareferences is made in ‘Last Action Hero,’ where the plot revolves around an action film fan, who is magically transferred into the movie he is watching. There he tries to convince the lead actor that he is, indeed, an action film hero, not a real-life police officer, by pointing out the extravagant cars, office spaces, and female extras, which only ever appear this way in movies, but not in real life, or by asking the lead to pronounce a written word he can’t utter, because the movie is rated PG-13. Once convinced, the hero complains about being subjected to a series of – to him real – ordeals ‘only as a form of entertainment.’ During the course of the movie, the movie villains learn how to transfer from the movie into real life and the film culminates in a showdown featuring actors meeting roles they have played, Death from Ingmar Bergman’s ‘The Seventh Seal’ walking the streets, and the hero being saved from a deadly wound sustained in real life by being transferred back into his movie, where it is – naturally – only a flesh wound.

The long-running 1950s and 1960s radio comedy series ‘The Goons’ frequently made use of meta-reference. In one episode, for example, Eccles reported that he never appeared in a scene with Moriarty because both characters were played by the same actor. The series’ announcer, Wallace Greenslade, and musicians Max Geldray and Ray Ellington were occasionally called upon to act as minor characters, and their efforts were often derided on air by the other characters.

On television, Frankie Howerd was famous for his remarks to the audience, especially in the show ‘Up Pompeii!’ in which he would speak to the camera, feigning innocence about an obvious and risqué double entendre while mockingly censuring the audience for finding it funny. George Burns started talking to his audience early on in his TV show. In his radio show, Burns would occasionally beg the audience for laughs ‘Please laugh, folks — that’s the only line I got.’ Later on toward the end of the ‘Burns & Allen’ TV show, George Burns brought in a television set and literally ‘watched’ the characters on his TV show as if he were at home, and not in the studio. Rocky and Bullwinkle makes frequent meta-references. These include several instances in which the characters speak directly to the audience, or the narrator, and speak about the show in which they are players. One such example included when Rocky protested being eaten by cannibals because the network did not approve. The cannibals say they just intend to roast him and not eat him, which is acceptable. This incident is a reference to the network complaining about Rocky and Bullwinkle being nearly eaten by human cannibals in a previous episode.

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