In the short story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" from the compilation Labyrinths by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, we come face to face with the meta. Here, the meta, or metafiction in this case, is a type of self-conscious writing, or writing fiction about the act of writing fiction itself. As an English major, I constantly find myself writing "meta" in the margins of the novels I'm annotating; it is far from a rarity in writing, and also in film.
"Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" tells the story of a world called Tlön, invented by a secret society, complete with invented countries, invented inhabitants, and even an invented language. The first-person narrator of this story, possibly Borges himself, though it is never revealed, stumbles across a mention of Uqbar, a place in Tlön, in an encyclopedia and finally, after laborious exploration and inquiry, uncovers the history of this world, fully unaware of its inherent falsity. It might sound ridiculous, but how could he know if this world were real or not? The most unsettling part of this story is that there is no basis to which the narrator could know of this world's falsity; it seems to be a real world. As the story progresses, the line between imagination and reality is inextricably blurred; the fantastic world intrudes upon the real world, and there is no going back. The story ends: "If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years from now someone will discover the hundred volumes of the Second Encyclopedia of Tlön. Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön."
This story is a fantastic example of metafiction. It concerns the process of creation, but it truly becomes meta when one considers how this story is actually about itself as a story. Borges is inventing this entire story, yet there is truth within this imaginary tale concerning how humans interact with reality and with illusion. In my opinion, the meta is one of the most powerful tools an author can use in his or her writing. It is impossible to read something meta and not think of its myriad implications within the text and also in regard to your own life. The meta demands self-reflection, and thus you can learn a lot about yourself and about the world around you through your engagement with it.
I read this story by Borges a few weeks ago in an English class and found it fascinating, and I have been thinking about the meta ever since. Thus when it came time to watch another film for this blog post, my mind immediately jumped to meta films. Though there are countless films that interact with the subject, there is one that is widely believed to be the ultimate in "metacinema," as it is called, and after watching it, I found many echoes of the stimulating ideas suggested in Borges' story as well as new ideas about the nature of filmmaking in regard to reality and illusion. It is safe to say that the 1963 Italian film directed by Federico Fellini entitled 8 1/2 is both one of the strangest and one of the most thought-provoking films I have ever seen.
The story follows film director Guido Anselmi, played by Marcello Mastroianni, who is dissatisfied with the big new science fiction film he is in the process of directing, while simultaneously dealing with a complicated personal life due to his cheating on his wife, Luisa, with another woman, Carla. He is consistently bombarded by his production team, as well as a film critic, with ideas and questions about the film. Yet, the appeal of this film is not in the specifics about the plot but in both the structure and dialogue that prompt this film to be considered one of the great pieces of metacinema.
The film opens with a man sitting in his car. He is trying to drive across a bridge, but traffic has come to a standstill. At first, everything seems normal, but then we notice a man in a neighboring car is staring directly at this first man. Then, another man looks right at him, and then a woman does the same. We are next given a wide-angle shot of a bus full of people with their arms dangling out the windows, facing right at this first driver, and everybody in the standstill traffic jam stares at him. This is a terrifying image; these people are all frozen and look almost like wax figures. They do nothing except stare. The scene just gets more strange from here. First, the man fiddles with his car windows and doors and starts to panic. It seems as if he is stuck. Yet, we then see him climbing out of the roof of his car, and then he begins sailing through the air, his coat blowing behind him in the wind like a cape. He is flying. The camera then tilts down to the ground; we are now on a beach, and a different man is holding a rope. It looks as if he is flying a kite, but we soon realize that at the top of this rope is the flying man, who is then pulled down to the ground. Right before he hits the ground, we cut to a shot of a man in bed with his arm outstretched. It was all a dream.
Odd scenes such as this one occur throughout 8 1/2. At first, just as in the opening scene, the line between reality and illusion is pretty clear. The scene starts off normally, but it then becomes so fantastic that it must be an illusion. Guido next imagines himself interacting with his parents, both of whom we learn are dead, and then he imagines a scene outdoors with a beautiful woman. He also has multiple flashbacks to his childhood. These scenes are all relatively easy to follow; it might not be understood at the very beginning that they aren't really happening, but the audience can catch on relatively quickly.
Yet, as the film progresses, this line between reality and illusion begins to blur more and more until we get to the final scene, in which truth and fiction are completely indistinguishable; it seems to be both real and an illusion at the same time. The final scene features every character in the film, including Guido's deceased parents, his childhood self, and the beautiful woman we initially thought was only a part of Guido's imagination, as they perform together in a sort of circus act. As Guido states at the end of the film, "Everything is true." We can no longer figure out what is imaginary. The world has become Tlön.
The dialogue in this film presents some confusing and incredible ideas about the nature of truth and falsity in relation to film. The words "true," "real," "honest," "lie," "clear," and "understand" come up countless times in the dialogue. The film asserts itself as a piece of metacinema very early on, when the film critic gives Guido feedback on his science fiction film idea, proposing "One wonders what the authors are trying to say. Are they trying to make us think? Do they want to scare us?" which are exactly the thoughts we, the audience, are having at that moment in time about 8 1/2. Moments like this occur throughout the film, as the characters express exactly what we're thinking, thus blurring the line between the world of the film we're watching and our own world.
A key moment in the film occurs when Guido's film and his personal life are shown to be irrevocably connected. As he attempts to find an actress to play the role of his wife, Luisa, in his science fiction film, the real Luisa storms out of the theater. Guido follows her, imploring "Did something you saw offend you? It's just a movie" to which Luisa replies, "Another fiction, another lie. You put all of us in it, the way it suits you." These lines are very loaded. Guido tries to comfort Luisa by assuring her it's just a movie, but it is clearly not just a movie; the movie is their relationship. Guido puts everybody in his life into the movie; he has cast the people of his world in this film. Therefore, he functions as a director of the film, but he also functions as a director of his real life.
This film, like metafiction, raises many self-implicating questions. Throughout the film, we are trying to understand what is going on. We are making snap judgments about each scene: is this scene real? Is this another illusion? Is this real or fake? But, as reality and illusion become more and more inextricable, we come to realize that these questions are useless. As with Tlön, the real world and the imaginary world come to a merging point. Like Guido at the end of the film, we have a realization: "I'm no longer afraid of telling the truth about what I don't know, what I'm looking for, what I haven't found." We finally have to accept ambiguity, something Guido is forced to avoid by those around him who constantly ask him for clarity.
Fellini provides us mainly with questions rather than answers in 8 1/2, but one thing he does assert is the profound importance and power of the unknown. Why is it so hard for us to come to terms with ambiguity? Why is it so hard to admit and accept that we don't know? Why do we care so much about coming to a conclusion about what is real and what isn't when Fellini beautifully shows that illusions can actually be just as real as reality? Acclaimed author Tim O'Brien writes in his novel The Things They Carried, "I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth." Films are all about story-truth. Though they are directed and calculated and technically illusions, 8 1/2 proves that the world of cinema, perhaps even more so than the real world, can, in fact, provide us with truth.