In the modern age, we are consuming more media than ever before. We all spend hours watching, listening, and reading media and media about this media. Sometimes we even consume media about the media about the original media.
This leads us to the problem of meta, and its infinitely recursive nature.
How meta is too meta? These are questions one might ask when watching any number of indie films. In any developed artistic community, there is always a significant meta element, where work is partially commentary on other works.
Being meta skillfully requires an understanding of the fundamental archetypes of a wide variety of works. It is difficult to create a truly meta work, because one needs to have a huge amount of both superficial and foundational knowledge about the artform one is working in.
“Meta” has become synonymous with “intellectual” or “complex”, but it is not these things.
The definition of “meta”, a term that is already incredibly difficult to define and might require an entire philosophical tome to accurately specify, is becoming increasingly associated simply with allusions and references. Just because something makes an allusion or reference to another work doesn’t make it meta.
One doesn’t have to be meta to make a good movie, and increasingly I watch films that are trying far too hard to be meta instead of simply being good. Films that rely too heavily on being meta or making references require the viewer to have consumed a huge amount of media, or the film doesn’t make sense. As I asserted, people are consuming more media than ever and the average viewer will have the capacity to understand many allusions and references. There are certain works in any artform that are cultural touchstones that a creator can reasonably assume the audience will be familiar with, but when you are referencing a 1971 straight-to-video Soviet silen film… No one is going to know what you are talking about.
Being creatively and genuinely meta is a good thing. Chocolate ice cream is a good thing. I enjoy chocolate icecream quite a bit, but if I had to eat it at every meal I–as anyone else–would grow to hate it simply due to the monotony. Now imagine that the “chocolate icecream” is actually just a paste of woodpulp and brown food-coloring, and you are imagining the current “meta” trend.
Attempting to be truly meta is a bold move. Attempting to be meta is to claim that you have something profound to say not only about your own ideas, but about the ideas of others. In the pursuit of being profound, it is easy for film-makers to fall into a trap of obfuscation where they simply make their ideas more and more complicated instead of actually making their ideas better.
How meta is too meta? I don’t know for sure. The point at which attempting to pursue being meta has diminishing returns is an entirely subjective matter. The point at which being meta simply becomes annoying is different for every viewer based on factors too numerous to realistically calculate.
I will simply say this: if you are going out of your way to try to be as meta as possible… Don’t. If your story allows for some meta-commentary, do it! If your story is boring and you want to try and trick viewers into thinking that they are watching something that isn’t garbage, don’t attempt to do something meta. Just make a better movie.
Next week: A meta post of meta-analyses of meta-commentaries on this meta-analysis of meta-commentaries!