I've been thinking a bit lately about meta-text. I think this might be a result of indulging in last night's episode of "The Strain" which featured a fairly extended prologue which consisted of what seemed like a real-time playing of an old luchador movie.
I've never watched a luchador movie before. I have no idea what they're like. I have no idea why such a grainy black-and-white spectacle should take over the airwaves on a Sunday evening. The "movie" alone was opaque enough in its meaning not to make an argument for itself to exist.
Compare this with, say, a flashback. A few weeks ago "The Strain" opened with a flashback to 19th century Hungary or some such place. I didn't have to think hard about it. Although we were not in the usual, modern timeframe of the story, we are well aware that vampires are immortal and one particular vampire greatly resembles the hulking giant we are first introduced to in the flashback. And the filming style was identical to our normal "Strain" episodes. No further thought required. This is immediately apparent as a flashback to fill us in on the background story of our show.
But back to this week's luchador movie. I found myself doing a different kind of thinking. I thought to myself something along these lines: "Okay, without explanation I might assume this is a fictional film within the 'Strain' universe - a play within a play. But why am I, the viewer, being exposed to it directly? Okay, perhaps one of the characters is watching it. Okay, the film is being fast forwarded through boring parts - so there is someone watching it. What is the purpose of this film, though? It's obviously something of a takeoff on vampires, but these are traditional Dracula-style vampires, not our 'Strain' virus vamps. So we're not learning anything 'real.' We're learning something cultural. About Mexican wrestling. Oh, but you know what? Guillermo del Toro wrote this book, and he's Mexican. Perhaps he grew up on wrestling and wanted to direct an homage to those kind of films. And I know from the episode two weeks ago featuring Nigel Bennett from 'Forever Knight' that he likes paying homage to older vampire stories. So that's probably what's going on here."
See the difference between the two thought processes? One examines the text, or possibly even the subtext, for clues. The other ends up examining the meta-text. Here's a simple breakdown if you're unfamiliar with those terms:
Text - what is actually written
Subtext - what is not written but is implied or suggested
Meta-text - what is neither written nor implied but you know about the work
For instance, you could write, "They had sex." That's in the text.
Or you could write, "They closed the shades and the light went out. The next morning Jim woke up feeling exhausted, but refreshed." You could probably infer from that they had sex. Or you could infer something different. That's your right as the reader, and that's why it's subtext - it's not spelled out.
Or there could be nothing at all in the book about sex of any kind but you know that the author was Jenna Jameson, a famous porn star, so you start to wonder if there was some sex going on with the main characters during the chapter breaks.
Here's another example. (SPOILER ALERT, I guess.) I guessed the ending of ENDER'S GAME. I didn't guess it because it was telegraphed. I don't think the ending was telegraphed, but if it was, I missed the signal. And I didn't guess the ending because of any of the implied themes or subtext or anything like that.
I guessed the ending of ENDER'S GAME because when I reached the point where Ender was supposed to graduate from battle school after a huge simulation, there was about thirty pages left in the book. I was following along, duped just like everyone else, and then I simply realized that there wasn't enough sheer paper left in the book to allow Ender to go out and defeat the aliens in any kind of satisfying sense. And I knew from having read a million books before that they wouldn't leave it with a cliffhanger. And I remember sitting there going, "Damn it. There's only one way this can end. The simulation must have been real. That's the only thing there's enough time left for."
And I was right, of course. The more we learn about the way stories are told and who tells them, the more we're able to look at fiction from a different viewpoint. Knowing who the author is, why he chose his pen name, what's on the cover of the book, how thick a book is, how long a movie is, whether it already has a sequel or not...these are the kinds of things that can affect our experience. Meta-textual things.
I knew "Pirates of the Carribean II" would be a cliffhanger because Pirates III had already been announced, and the last time that had happened, with "The Matrix II," that had been a cliffhanger.
I knew the ending of "Guardians of the Galaxy" because Marvel (thanks a lot, Marvel) had released a cute little clip of a baby Groot dancing. When that never happened during the course of the movie...I realized, "Oh, Groot's going to die and come back as a sapling."
Or here's a (formerly) super common one: if you go to see an M. Night Shyamalan movie, how much time do you discuss in the car on the way to the movie theater what the twist is going to be? I had guessed the ending to "The Village" within five minutes, because I knew Shyamalan's M.O.
What about you? Have you had your knowledge of meta-text affect your viewing/reading experience?
"Manuscripts don't burn"
- Mikhail Bulgakov
Hi, I'm horror and science fiction author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."
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