Volume 4 : Miscellaneous Column (2)

Cinema as Experimental Metaphysics Self-Reflexivity in Today's Hollywood

Sitabhra Sinha

"It's not real, unless it's on TV" paraphrasing Suzanne Stone in 'To Die Fo' (1955,die. Gus Van Sant)



Let me begin by telling you a story of a certain individual A, who fancied himself as something of an amateur film theorist, who was once asked by a film society journal write an article. A, with his usual delusions of grandeur, asked whether he could write about self-reflexivity in some Hollywood movies that have been released over the past decade; it was only when this wish was granted promptly that he realized what a quagmire he has landed himself into.

Identification vs Alienation

So why did A want to write on that topic anyway? Not least because he thought that self-reflexive cinema (cinema that refers to the process and nature of cinema itself) was a fascinating device to explore how we create reality, or even to ask questions like "what is reality?", which had so far been the province of only phylosophical theorizing. It is, if you will, opening the way towards experimental metaphysics, where you can find out the true nature of reality by tinkering with the processes by which what we call "reality" emerges from our sense perception, and individual thoughts and emotions. And how does it do that, you ask? Simply, by building for us a secondary "reality" that we accept implicitey and then deliberately, systematically tearing it up to reveal it as a wholly artificial construct. In the process, this hopefully reveals something about the real, the primary "reality" that we have unquestioningly accepted for so long. How is this possible? you ask. What are you talking about? Think then of the process of reading a book, a well-wrtten piece of friction. The book I have in mind is Michael Ende's 'The Neverending Story'. A boy starts reading the book and gets immersed in the story, only to find that he is reading about himself reading a book called 'The Neverending Story'. The story continues with the reader in the story having to choose names and giving identities to characters that he is reading about in the story that is contained in the story. Sounds confusing? This self-referential nature of work of friction is exactly what I have in mind – and when a film can similarly incorporate several such layers of reality within itself, it is termed selfreflexive.

The voluntary suspension of disbelief by a viewer of a Hollywood movie is essentially identical to that of a reader of whom the characters of a novel become "real". When you as spectator/reader identify with the characters in the fiction, only then can the work succeed in expressing what it has to say. At least that's the theory on which the classical narrative style of Hollywood was based, whose roots can be traced to Aristotle's theory of drama. Brecht however came up with a completely different yardstick for measuring the effectiveness of a performance: to allow the spectator to not just view passively but be a critic of what is being presented. But to be able to do this a fiction should not ensnare its spectator/ reader in its illusion, but allow him to be alienated from its artificial reality, make him able to see it for the 'sham' that it is. Self-reflexivity happens to be a very old trick used in literature, at least from as far back as Cervantes in 'Don Quixote', e.g., when a character suddenly steps out of the work and addresses the reader directly. What the self-reflexive work of fiction does is that once we are comfortably ensconced in this false reality of the fiction, it pulls the rug from under our feet by using the device of referring to itself as a product of imagination. This trick of the work calling attention to itself as being an Artificial construct, as being a piece of fiction, is employed whenever a narrative (be it a film, a novel, or a comic book) interrupts itself to point out the mechanisms of its own creation . It's objective is to make the reader/viewer suddenly aware of the inherent complicity between the reader/viewer with the work to create an illusion of reality. Anyone who has seen the paintings of Magritte will remember the sudden sense of disorientation with which you are made to realize that the painting within the painting is meant to point out the process by which you, the viewer, is interpreting blobs of paint on canvas as a "reality". Usually in any other painting, this interpretation occurs so fast and automatically that we are not even aware of it; only a selfreflexive work can make us conscious of the process.

Even though self-reflexivity itself is not a new thing in literature or art, what is new, and what prompted A's plan to write on it, is the sudden emergence of self-reflexive films as mainstream Hollywood release, e.g., 'Last Action Hero' (1995, dir.Jhon McTierman), 'The Truman Show' (1998,dir. Peter Weir), 'Pleasantville' (1998, dir. Gary Ross), 'Being John Malkovich' (1999, dir. Spike Jonze), and 'EdTV' (1999, dir. Ron Howard) to mention a few. While the french new wave of the 60s had often adopted the film-within-the film approach, what has often been called "metacinema", the acceptance of self-reflexivity as a narrative code by Hollywood saw filmmakers being actively prevented from deviating from the straightforward linear narrative. For example Fritz Lang's attempts to introduce Brechtiam strategy of fragmented narrative in the Western Genre film 'Rancho Notorious' (1952) was subverted by the RKO studio, whose bosses thought any deviation from the conventional narrative code liable to confuse the audience and hence, box-office poison. However, it has been argued that the advent of television, with its fractured programming, interspresing narratives with commercial breaks, have freed filmmakers in experimenting with disjointed narratives, while the episodic nature of the TV series has made the nonlinear narration very common in mainstream films. A viewer is now expected to able to choose an arbitary path through the sea of images and events presented without an authorized sequence. Just as surrealism's shocking entry was later co-opted by the establishment when advertisements began to use such techniques (as fashion designer Pierre Cardin put it, "one must shock the eye to open it", which summarizes the surrealist credo beautifully; ironically, surrealists had evolved their style to rebel against exactly the conventional establishment that fashion designers like Cardin represent) in order to force the jaded public to notice the product they were promoting, similarly television commercials have made "simulated reality" or "self-conscious narratives" familiar to audiences. Just think of the sudden vouge of "documentary" style advertisements, e.g., for a particular brand of detergent, which pretended that a camera crew were going out in a neighborhood and interviewing a person on the street. The ads looked so "real" that the vouge quickly caught on, and soon we had many other commercials in the same vein. The irony is that this so-called "reality" is completely manufactured, a staged performance, where the apparent "person on the street" who seems to be giving a spontaneous response is actually an actress reciting well-rehearsed lines from a prepared script, and the camera crew are playing the dual role of both the people making the commercial, as well as acting out the role of a camera crew out on a servey in an apperantly real -life neighborhood. Using such mockdocumentary style has not just remained limited to commercials however; 'The Blair Witch Project' (1999) and 'Drop Dead Gorgeous' (1999) are two films that come in mind immediatly that have successfully adopted this narrative code of mock cinema verite.

Referring to TV commercials is very appropriate for at least two of the films I mentioned above, 'The Truman Show' and 'Pleasantville', each of which in their own way are take-offs on popular TV shows of the 50s or 60s. While 'The Truman Show' is about a person, the star of a TV series, who doesn't even know that his life is just an act in an enormous stage being shown live to a worldwide audience. 'Pleasantville' is about a brother-sister duo from the 90s who are somehow transported into the "reality" of a 50s TV series called 'Pleasantville'. In a sense, the films complement each other's approach to analyzing the process by which we make reality. While 'The Truman Show' is about a person who does not know that his reality is a fiction. 'Pleasantville' are about two people who are conscious that they are trapped in a fiction that is as real as the "reality" of their previous lives. In some sense, 'Last Action Hero' subsumed both these approaches, with the spectator, a young boy called Danny, entering the film to confront Jack Slater, the character played by Arnold Schwarzenegger; here Jack is in the possition of Truman while Danny is in the position of the brother-sister duo of ‘Pleasantvile’. In another sequence of ‘Last Action Hero’, Arnold Schwarzenegger playing Jack Slater, emerges from the screen into the reality of our world and confronts Arnold Schwarzenegger the actor. This is a charactor literally "coming to life" and face to face with person who plays him: Who is more real? Faced with such a situation the viewer, maybe even against his wish, asks "What is reality?" which is the question metaphysics seeks to answer.

Meanwhile, back in Plato's Cave

Like all of philosophy, this central question of metaphysics about what lies beneath reality, can also be traced back to Plato. In his book "Republic", Plato has Socrates discuss our inability to perceive the true nature of reality with our senses, and to illustrate this brings in the analogy of prisoners in a cave: "Imagine human beings living in an underground, cavelike dwelling, with an entrance a long way up, which is both open to the light and as wide as the cave itself. They've been there since childhood, fixed in the same place, with their necks and legs fettered, able to see only in front of them, because their bonds prevent them from turning their heads around. Light is provided by a fire burning far above and behind them. Also behind them, but on higher ground, there is path stretching between them and the fire. Imagine that along this path a low wall has been built, like the screen in front of puppeteers above which they show their puppets …. Then also imagine that there are people along the wall, carrying all kinds of artifacts that project above it – statues of people and other animals, made out of stone, wood, and every material. And, as you'd expect, some of the carriers are talking, and some are silent." (Plato,The Republic')

The prisoners can distinguish between different shadows and sounds, give names to different shadows and even figure out certain patterns in which the shadows belong. But where the prisoners go wrong is in believing that this flat (twodimensional), monochromatic play of images is the whole of reality. Moreover, they have no knowledge of why the shapes they see are as they are. As John Partridge comments, "they do not know the source of the shadows, nor do they know that the sounds are not produces by the shadows but rather by the unseen people moving the statues." Plato argues that our perception of reality is equally flawed, an illusion, with our sense perceptions able to only discern the shadow of the underlying substance of reality.

It is interesting that modern neuroscience has given a new twist to this argument. As we now know, our sense organs decompose all stimuli falling on them into a collection of very primitive features (e.g., our retinas break up even the most complicated visual scene into a collection of features as simple as edges, and then process shape, color and motion along separate neural pathways). This splitting up of sense perceptions is necessary to enable analysis by dedicated centers in our brain, and is followed by joining all these separate parts toghether in higher brain areas. It is this bringing together of facts processed in widely different areas of the brain that produces our sense of reality. We know this from objective experiments on the brains of subjects – yet we are completely unaware of such a process as we go about our daily lives. As we are trying to be simultaneously the observed and the observer, it is clear that the subjective knowledge of how our primary reality is pieced together is something we can never know. However, by constucting a secondary reality, the simulated reality of a deliberate work of fiction, and then pointing out the process by which the illusion of reality is created, we might understand ( through an analogy as it were) how our primary realities are created. When selfreflexive films laboriously create an illusion of reality, and then suddenly show it for the illusion that it is, hopefully we get an insight into how the deeper illusion of our primary reality might be working. This is why such films are the closest we have come to doing experiments with the nature of our perceived reality and the process of its construction (the arena of metaphysics).

The Truman Show

"Through….. self-reflexivity, "The Truman Show" becomes a sort of allegory of the evolution of consciousness." - Curtis Gruenler

It is interesting that the writer of 'The Truman Show', Andrew Nicool, later on made the film 'Simone' (2002) about a digitally created actress who everyone thinks is a real person. The blurring of real and unreal is therefore very much the theme of ' The Truman Show'; and the context in which this issue is raised is the reality or otherwise of the ubiquitous reality shows of todays TV. What may seem surprising is that 'Survivor' series hit the TV screens arround 2000. This series almost singlehandedly transformed television programming so that viewers around the globe were soon in undated with shows which purported to be the genuine thing, a slice of real life in the raw, rather than a staged production inside the controlled environs of the studio. However, we will be missing the fact that Reality Television is actually not a new phenomenon. Although it became a craze only after 'Suvivor', the genre itself was very much present off and on in television: In 1973, 10 million viewers had watched 'An American Family', a 12-hour long documentary about the Loud family who had opened up their home and their life to the TV camera crew. This was arguably the inspiration of the series 'The Real World' (MTV) in which seven strangers are picked to live in a house where they are constantly under the gaze of cameras. The show is promoted as "find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting REAL". Even earlier is 'Candid camera' which debuted in 1948. So, while 'The Truman Show' may have preceded the debut of the rality craze in American primetime television, the potential for a mammoth reality TV show was visible for all to see. In the show within the film, Truman Burbank works for an insurance company; he lives an ordinary life with his wife Meryl, has neighbors and friends - until one day, when he starts to suspect that something is wrong. Incident after incident start making him question the genuineness of his "reality". Is it just psychotic paranoia, or is there really something amiss? The truth as we (the viewer of the film) know, is that Truman is the star of the biggest reality show, a person whose every move is watched avidly by viewers across the globe. Truman's struggle to grasp the unreality of his reality and finaly being able to break out of the artificial reality with which he was surrounded is what the film is about. However, it also forces us (the viewer) to ask uncomfortable questions about the complacency with which we accept our own realities. We laugh at the TV viewers in the film, rapt with attention to find out what it is that Truman is going to do next; we are amused by their naivete in getting wrapped up in what is so clearly sham. We laugh until we realize that we are also in the position of these viewers, that we are after all laughing at ourselves - only we hadn't realized it yet.


In 'Pleasantville', a teenaged brother-sister duo of the present find themselves inside a 1950's TV show which they don't know how to come out of; and then their presence starts to affect the reality of the world they are trapped in. Things begin to change, the values of a complacent world where the husband comes home to find his dinner on the table and docile wife patiently awaiting his return, begins to change. The disturbing questins emerge if we look at the way the film uses colour and black and white. The reality of the brother-sister duo was in colour, reminding us that the black and white TV show they are caught in is clearly not "real" to them. However, our beliefs get shaken when we see how colour emerges within the TV shows as different characters start breaking out their set patterns, their stereotypes; most noticeably when the sister, a out-going party animal in her "real life", decides for once to stop fighting the false reality to the TV show world and do something different. She breaks the pattern by staying home and reading a book. The next morning she wakes up to find herself in colour. We realize that in the real world the stereotype she had accepted for herself is a much artificial as the world of the 'Pleasantville' TV show. At this point the viewer realizes that the reality in which we live may also be just as provisional, just as much of a ‘prison of the mind’ as the artificial construct of the 'Pleasantville' world. The all-pervasive "reality" we find ourselves in may not be as immutable as we had implicitly assumed. The awareness that our reality may be changed brings us back to Brecht's original intention of using alienation to generate revolutionary awareness among viewers. Just as in 'The Truman Show', 'Pleasanville' is about how lies controlling the lives of its viewers, realities that are manufactured by the mass media, by movies and TV shows. As Suzanne Stone argues in 'To Die For', you are nobody unless you are on TV, we can argue that nothing is real unless it is shown on screen, larger than life. The electronic media gives us "reality" that is more real than reality, what Umberto Eco calls "hyperreality"

Last Action Hero

How do you convince someone that the 'reality' he has been living in is an illusion? This is one of the many metaphysical problems that 'Last Action Hero' deals with (possibly without meaning to). The young boy, Danny, hopes to do this by pointing out inconsistencies in the reality of Jack Slater's universe. To refer to Plato again, this is but the Socratic method where philosophical understanding is achieved through a ceaseless interrogation to test the consistency of a person's belief. The problem with this approach is that what may be inconsistent in the reality of Danny may be absolutely reasonable in the world of Slater - and so, when a cartoon cat walks into a scene, Danny thinks it proves his point that they are in a movie, whereas Slater finds it perfectly commonplace!

It is ironic that the most self-reflexive film to come out of Hollywood in recent times actually stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, a name one hardly associates with cerebral entertainment of any kind. However, 'Last Action Hero' is the example per excellence of Hollywood's dalliance with self-reflexivity. It is both a sophisticated self-parody and an intelligent self-critical film. While posing as an action film, with completely over-the-top car chases and action sequences, it simultaniously makes one of its characters comment on its total artificiality. Arnold Schwarzenegger playing himself in one sequence acts out the role of an out-and-out selfpromoting action superstar. With his real-life wife, Maria Shriver (playing herself) by his side, Schwarzenegger refers to the Planet Hollywood chain of restaurants that he does own in real-life. Where does acting stop and reality start? Who is acting, who is for real? The jumping in and out of reality levels, looking at the film within the film sometimes from out side and sometimes from within it, makes you realize the flexibility with which our mind seems to provisionally accept verious "realities". And that is why self-reflexivity in cinema is the best tool we have as yet of figuring out if reality is just a state of mind.


To go back to the story I started with in the beginning. After having spent weeks taking notes and ruminating endlessly with the deadline for submitting the article seemed to be looming ominously. A decided to let the form of his essay reflect the content; in short, he hit upon the idea of writing a self-reflexive essay on self-reflexivity. He gave his essay the grandiose sounding title " Cinema as Experimental Metaphysics: Self-Reflexivity in Today's Hollywood", and began it as follows : "Let me begin by telling you a story of certain individual A, who fancied himself as something of as ameteur film theorist, who was once asked by a film society journal to write an article. A, with his usual delusions of grandeur, asked whether he could write about self-reflexivity in some Hollywood movies that have been released in the past decade; it was only when this wish was granted promptly that he realized what a quagmire he has landed himself into……"




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