Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Wow, that's meta: how Scre4m made the Movies self-aware

I remember when I first heard the term "meta-text." It was in my English class, junior year of high school. We were analyzing Turn of the Screw or Heart of Darkness or something, and the conversation turned to how the content was self-reflexive. Both are stories about telling stories, whose plots revolve around the same literary conventions used by the author when crafting the novel itself. This technique makes the readers hyper-aware of what's happening in the story while also explaining why it works as a story.

I was immediately hooked by the meta-tradition, finding it both edifying and entertaining. I gravitated towards meta-works, writing my final paper on Andre Gide's The Counterfeiters (a story about a man in the process of writing a novel entitled "The Counterfeiters"), and studying movies such as Charlie Kaufman-penned Adaptation and Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 (both movies about making movies). It wasn't long before meta became a term thrown around by hipsters and pseudo-intellectuals alike to describe anything that was even vaguely self-referential.

But only now with Wes Craven's Scre4m (pronounced scree-FOR-um, according to the posters) has meta-culture entered into the truly public sphere. The characters in Scre4m take meta-awareness to the next level: not only is there constant banter about how their lives follow the conventions of a horror film, but they also make comments about their awareness of their awareness... before getting stabbed in the most predictable ways regardless. Does Scre4m take things too far? How many levels of meta can there be before a work folds in upon itself to oblivion? How deep does the reflextive rabbit hole go?

The Scream series has embraced meta-elements almost from the very start, with the film-within-a-film "Stab" introduced in the second movie as an adaptation of the events that occurred in the first movie. Come Scre4m, there were six fictional "Stab" sequels, each becoming more self-reflexive: in Scre4m's opening gambit, it is revealed that the beginning of "Stab 6" is the end of "Stab 5", which opens up a pretty decently thought-out conversation about how far you can logically take a meta-joke. The answer, which comes in the form of the rest of the movie, turns out to be: not all that far.

We see three distinct variations of the opening gambit before the title screen, hitting us over the head with the revelation that, yes, we are in fact watching a meta-film. But after introducing the meta-aspects that would so define the film, they didn't just let them stand on their own. You even have characters blurting out lines like, "How much more meta can you get?" I guess Wes Craven was afraid of the audience losing sight of his meta-mission, and had to throw out constant reminders. As if it were less unoriginal to be self-aware while you're recycling the same old schlock we've seen in every horror movie ever...

The frustrating thing about Scre4m was that despite everybody's encyclopedic knowledge of how horror films play out and hyper awareness that they themselves were in a horror movie, nobody used that knowledge to make informed decisions of how to avoid getting killed. Everyone talks about meta-this, and convention-that, but come slashing time, nobody acts any differently. They still put themselves in the same stupid situations and get killed in the same unoriginal ways. It's like Scre4m embraced the meta-tradition in all the wrong ways - the characters wouldn't shut up about how meta everything is, but didn't alter their actions in the slightest.

A meta-plot is only successful insofar as it draws attention to the conventions and then defies them. Especially in a genre built around shock and surprise. I've seen people run up stairs. I've seen people get thrown from roofs. A new decade might bring new rules, but it sure didn't bring any new ideas.

I personally can't wait for Scre5m, which takes place inside Wes Craven's brain as he contemplates ideas for another potential horror franchise, but eventually settles on going out to lunch instead.