I had planned on writing a slightly different piece. It was to be completely concentrated on documentaries too often being about themselves more than they’re about their supposed subject matter. This has been something of necessity for a while, and the recent film Almost There made me finally set on getting it done, as it’s one of the minority that works so well because of its transparency. The best documentary of the year, The Look of Silence, is also partly about its own making. It’s not a bad thing to do, just something that is overdone.
But then I was listening to the most recent Fighting in the War Room podcast Star Wars Special, in which Joanna Robinson proposes the idea that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is really all about itself – or about the Star Wars franchise – rather than just the simple story of a new generation of heroes and villains in a galaxy far, far away. “Kylo Ren represents the prequels, Luke Skywalker is George Lucas and…,” she explains, going into spoiler territory. “And J.J. Abrams is Rey,” adds FSR’s own Neil Miller.
Matt Patches elaborates further, and in a slightly different direction, about how Rey is Abrams because “she loves magic and she loves myth” while Kylo Ren actually represents the angry fanboy who wants more Darth Vader and is in a rush to know everything. Miller suggests that Lawrence Kasdan is Han Solo (especially fitting since he’s also writing the young Solo standalone movie) with the overall conclusion being that this is a very meta movie. Was any of this reflexiveness intentional, though? Can a movie be meta without meaning to be?
That discussion reminded me of a similar conversation (probably also explored on the FITWR podcast at some point) regarding another giant movie this year: Jurassic World. The sequel, according to pop analysis, is literally about a reboot of Jurassic Park, the place, and is therefore metaphorically about itself, a reboot of Jurassic Park, the movie. On both levels, they repeat a lot of attractions, but they also both have to try for something bigger. They want their audiences to experience something recognizable but not be boring in their familiarity.
At /Film over the summer, David Chen nicely itemized the ways Jurassic World is not just about Jurassic World but also a commentary on modern blockbusters overall – a point the movie would be making ironically given that it’s part of the problem. It’s unlikely Universal would consciously want to make a movie so focused on its own faults, however. Jurassic World is about how upping the ante results in a disaster, which many of the movie’s critics would agree it does figuratively, as well. So where is the scene where the corporation behind Jurassic World, the place, still winds up making more and more money in the end?
Analyzing big Hollywood releases as being about themselves is admittedly a fun practice. I myself pointed out the ways Creed is a meta movie in which the protagonist Adonis represents his own story, while the Rocky character stands in for the previous installments of the series, literally and figuratively passing on the franchise. Apparently this sort of breakdown is easy to do with “remakequels.” But other movies this year I’ve seen similarly labeled as meta or specifically self parody include Furious 7, Avengers: Age of Ultron, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, The End of the Tour, Kingsman: The Secret Service and Terminator Genisys. Each claim is kind of a stretch, but only a bit.
It may be that big blockbuster productions, especially those rebooting a franchise in some way, have to be so conscious of their audience and therefore their brand that they wind up unconsciously reflective of them. This is markedly different from the way an artistic film enterprise occurs. Art is all about the artist, while a product is all about the product, with the latter also needing for the consumer to see some of themselves in that product. Meta movies like Jurassic World, The Force Awakens and Creed require audience proxies, even if they’re just another audience on screen, as in the spectators within the Rocky sequel.
Artists’ films can also be about themselves, of course, though these examples are usually more literally about filmmaking. The most obvious is Fellini’s 8½, but just about every great auteur has done at least one film about the production of a film or a similar artistic work. The Oscar for Best Picture this year went to one, in fact: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). It follows former Batman portrayer Michael Keaton, in a comeback film role, as a former star of a superhero movie franchise in a comeback stage role.
While fiction films and dramatized nonfiction films will usually only be about themselves in a metaphoric way, documentaries are more direct in their self absorption. The Look of Silence is concentrated on a heroic optometrist confronting participants of the Indonesian genocide, but it’s all in the service of the film project at hand, and many of those murderers on screen acknowledge this by addressing the film and director Joshua Oppenheimer. Almost There begins as seemingly all about an elderly outsider artist but becomes as much if not more so about the filmmakers’ struggle with a discovery about that artist that changes the course of their project.
Other great and not great docs this year are also very much about their own making. Amy would not be as significant a music biopic if it weren’t for the fact that the way it’s shot is so important to understanding what is on screen. The Russian Woodpecker follows an investigation of a conspiracy theory conducted via the film itself. The Wolfpack is more about its subjects performing for the documentary being made about them than about their story. Numerous other nonfiction features involve the first-person approach, many of them with flat-out self-importance as they over-explain their own purpose and process.
It always surprises me that more cinephiles aren’t into documentaries since movie lovers, and film critics in particular, get excited about movies about movies and moviemaking. They like docs about the movies and movie-related subjects, such as the boys in The Wolfpack, but they don’t always recognize and therefore appreciate that so many docs are also about at least one movie, in a way. Movie lovers should also have a greater appreciation, then, for stuff like Jurassic World for being about the making of a bad movie, in a way.
Appreciation doesn’t have to be endorsement, nor does it have to signify quality, but it could be an encouragement. And that could bring more movies about themselves, which could take away from the appreciation. It’s fun to read a big blockbuster like The Force Awakens as something meta, but the fun decreases as more and more blockbusters lend themselves to such a reading. And the more docs that go for the cheap way of firstly being first-person showcases for the making of a doc about whatever subject, then that takes way from what films like Almost There and Amy do so brilliantly.
When it comes down to it, all films can be viewed as being about their own existence, on a certain level. They’re all documentaries depicting the making of themselves, in a way. But that’s such a heady way to think about movies, which should be, first and foremost, about people or subjects and their stories. If either The Force Awakens or The Look of Silence were predominantly about themselves, they would provide a lot less value to the viewer and primarily be worthy of existence in a vacuum. Fortunately, moviemakers are a lot more interested in entertaining and enlightening than creating works that are that self indulgent.
Related Topics: Kingsman