Self-Aware Cinema: Intertextuality and the Art of Reference

Introduction for the Week

What is self-aware cinema? It’s essentially when a film gestures to the audience that it is aware of itself as a film, and of the expectations and conventions associated with that medium. This can be as simple as breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the audience, like in Deadpool. Doing so highlights that the movie is aware of itself as a movie, and recognizes that it has an audience to interact with.

Another version of self-aware film is when a movie references another work, either directly or indirectly. This is known as intertextuality, and to me, it’s when a film reaches outside of its narrative and into narratives or objects which the viewer is already aware of. This creates an inherent conversation between the two works, and as a result, the two overlap in the viewer’s mind.

Let’s say someone references the book series Percy Jackson in their film. This does multiple things. First, it tells the viewer that the Percy Jackson series exists in the universe of the film. Second, it demonstrates that Greek mythology exists in the world of the film. Third, and most significant, it creates a comparison between these works, and between the film’s reality and our own. It encourages the viewer to make this connection, to consider how the projects work together, and to ask a series of questions. Does this reference say something about the character or their world? Do the events in the book series mirror those in the film? And finally, why include this reference, what does it add to my experience with the film?

Indirect references are even more complex. Let’s say that a film includes a famous painting in one of its backgrounds. It is not mentioned or discussed, just in the shot. What might that bring to the viewer’s experience with the film? For someone who knows the history of the painting, perhaps this creates a comparison between the events in the film and in the painting. Or, for someone who just recognizes it as a painting, perhaps this shot creates a tone for the scene or an expectation about that environment, as something fancy or high end. Or, perhaps it relates to the character’s state of mind, what they are unable to talk about directly in the scene.

My examples for this week are those which actively participate with overlap, specifically those which seem conscious of their intertextuality and what it brings to their project. I will continue this theme into next week, where I will be focusing on one narrative which is frequently referenced by other works (hint: a famous white rabbit).