Gloria Withalm

“You turned off the whole movie!” – Types of Self-reflexive Discourse in Film

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"The Self-Conscious Screen - Aspects of Reference to the Movies in the Movies"
Perception and Self-Consciousness in the Arts and Sciences, International Conference under the auspices of the IASS-AIS (26-28 September 1995;
Associação Portuguesa de Semiótica; Porto)

"'You turned off the whole movie!' - Types of Self-reflexive Discourse in Film".
In: Tasca, Norma (éd.) [in preparation]. Perception et conscience de soi dans les arts et les sciences(= Cruzeiro Semiotico). Porto

Throughout film history we find a large number of movies which tell stories about their own world, their own medium: films which refer to film. When we talk about film as a medium we can describe it in terms of the various stages of the entire cycle from production to distribution and consumption, with the product itself in the center of this process. And, accordingly, all these stages can act as the object of interest of self-referential films: film-making, (fictitious or real) movie stars, institutions of the film industry, movie theaters, the audience, one special film, a particular genre, etc. But films do not only tell stories about film, they can also focus on the filmic discourse as such - they draw the attention of the spectator to the filmic codes, e.g. camera angle, montage, color (cf. the top part of Figure 1).

And, finally, there is one sub-group of self-referential films which do even more: at certain moments of the discourse they use one of the various cinematic devices to focus on themselves: lines in the dialog, the "materialization" of filmic means, or, the rarest case, the showing of the dispositif. In this contribution I will deal with these self-reflexive films, as I call them. Again, I will order the different types of self-reflexivity we can find (and the examples for these types) along the possible fields of reference of the medium film, i.e. production, distribution, consumption, and the product (cf. bottom part of Figure 1; for reasons of space, I will not discuss all types of self-reflexivity presented in the diagram).

1.   Production: Filming the Filming

1.1   A Look Behind the Screen

"Film in film", or "Hollywood on Hollywood" is one of the most popular sub-genres of self-referential films. But telling the story of film-making does not suffice to label a film a self-reflexive one. In order to belong to this category they have to include the actual situation of shooting this very film itself: The set shown has to be the very set of this film, and people appearing on the screen (apart from the characters) have to evoke the impression of being crew members, such as the cameraman or sound engineers. (It goes without saying that in the case of the narrative film, such scenes are directed to the same extent as any other scene.) A well-known example is the end of Federico Fellini's E la nave va (Italy 1983), when the camera shows us other cameras present in the studio and even reveals that the "sea" is just a plastic foil.

A similar look inside the studio is presented in the US serial Moonlighting (which is very rich in examples of self-referentiality and self-reflexivity), an ABC-comedy serial on the former star model Maddie Hayes (played by Cybill Shepherd), who is the owner of a detective agency, on her continuous quarrels with one of the private eyes, David Addison (played by Bruce Willis), and on the way, the two of them solve the cases. Several episodes have scenes in or outside the studios, one of them is titled "'Twas the Episode before Christmas" (Peter Werner, USA 1986). When the case is solved, Willis asks Cybill Shepherd whether this could be the Christmas episode, but immediately corrects himself, "It couldn't be the Christmas episode, there is no snow." Suddenly, (artificial) snow is falling gently, and from offscreen we hear a Christmas carol. They leave first the office and then the walls of their set, the camera travels along with them and shows us a part of the studio with cameras and the backsides of the decoration; while it is still snowing, the camera stops on a group of people - crew members, actors and actresses of the series, and children - who are singing the Christmas song. The episode ends in a direct address of Willis and Shepherd waving their hands and saying "Merry Christmas everybody!"

The movies of Mel Brooks are full of self-referential and self-reflexive shots and scenes. In his Robin Hood: Men in Tights (USA 1993) he also lets us have a glimpse at film-making. After some twenty minutes the camera is slowly approaching a stained glass window high up in a fortress tower. With the next shot we are inside and watch Amy Yasbeck as Maid Marian taking a bath. Her soft singing is interrupted by the sound of shattering glass; cut; the shooting camera shows us a hole in the glass window and through the hole we see another camera slowly pulling back (obviously meant to be the one which made the establishing shot of this scene).

1.2   Focus on the Camera

To show a camera as part of the studio production of this film, as described in the above mentioned movies, has definitely a self-reflexive quality, but with regard to the actual process of shooting the camera is on the same level as any other object on the screen. It is hardly ever the camera which actually produces the image we are about to see. One way to fulfill the requirements of montrer le dispositif in the strict sense (cf. Metz 1991: 86) is presented in several shots of Jane B. par Agnès Varda (Agnès Varda, France 1987): Jane Birkin talks in front of a mirror and with the camera we look both onto the woman and into the mirror where we see a reflection of the camera.

But there is also another way to step outside the ongoing story and focus on the shooting camera itself, at least for a few seconds. Again, we can find examples in the films of Mel Brooks. When in High Anxiety (USA 1977) Cloris Leachman (as Nurse Diesel) and one of the doctors have a conspiratorial talk while having coffee and cookies, we can watch them from underneath the glass table in an extreme low-angle shot (which already draws the attention of the audience to the camera). Unfortunately, Leachman is constantly moving around every single item on the table - the cups, the sugar bowl, the plate with the cookies, the coffeepot - putting them right above the lenses, thus forcing the camera to move around constantly in order to correct the framing. Earlier in the film the doctors and the nurses of the "Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous" are sitting around the diner table. We watch them from outside through a large glass front, the camera is slowly travelling closer to the glass, we hear them talking, the camera is still moving toward the glass until it breaks with a loud crack; they all are puzzled and look directly into the camera which starts a slow travelling back.

1.3   Film - a Work in Progress?

There is still another way to refer to the production aspect which is not based on the film-in-film genre: the film pretends to be not yet finished and fixed - until the last minute it can be subject to changes, for instances variations on the ending, as in The Maltese Bippy (Norman Panama, USA 1969). The film presents a weird story about two friends (Dan Rowan and Dick Martin as a film director and a film actor), a make-believe werewolf plot, and a mysterious diamond. In the end (or, to be precise, what looks like the end), all the bad guys and gals have killed each other and the floor is crowded with corpses. Suddenly, a cop comes in and calls his superior. The entering man advises him to arrest the two friends, explaining, "I present the Motion Picture Production Code. You're guilty of excessive violence on film." The cop gives the order, "All right, all of you on your feet. Everybody up!" The Martin character is not satisfied and shouts, "Wait a minute, stop the camera!" Everybody around them appear in freeze frame. He adds that this is no solution for a murder mystery. When his friends asks, "You got a better ending?" he orders, "Everybody back!" and presents his (i.e., the second) ending with the butler being the murderer. Since the Rowan characters considers it to be the lousiest endings he has ever seen, he also asks to stop the action and presents his own (i.e., the third) ending.

In some films, the make-believe changes are presented as going back to the story as it was originally conceived in the script. In the animated cartoon Ain't That Ducky (Friz Freleng, USA 1945) Daffy Duck is chased. All of a sudden, he gets angry and shouts, "There's supposed to be a barrel here. It says so right in the script". A hand appears on the screen, hastily draws the barrel and Daffy hides inside. In Robin Hood: Men in Tights Mel Brooks even shows us the scripts. When Cary Elwes (as Robin Hood) is about to loose the archer's contest Prince John (played by Richard Lewis) has organized to catch him and set him in prison, he reacts in the same way as Daffy. "I - lost? I lost! Wait a minute, I'm not supposed to lose. Let me see the script." He manages to produce a script from somewhere of his costume and searches for the page, "Wait, I get another shot!" Since Maid Marian insists on the question, "Does Robin get another shot?" both Prince John and the Sheriff of Rottingham take out scripts from behind their back, leaf through the pages, and have to admit in unison, "Yes, he does! Yes, he does!"

2.   Distribution: Media industries

2.1   (TV-)Movies, characters and networks

On the one hand, there is television - both understood as the media institution and the entire program of a channel; on the other hand, there are the various items the program consists of - different movies, news, commercials, etc. Usually, the two of them have nothing in common, except that the latter are available at a fixed time on a particular channel. But, in some cases, the characters in movies or TV series comment on their being characters in TV programs, they seem to be conscious of their status. All examples for this strange awareness are short dialogs taken from the already mentioned series Moonlighting. On several occasions, the main characters give comments on the general policy of television channels, e.g. toward sex: In the episode "Portrait of Maddy" (Peter Werner, USA 1985) we witness one of the constant debates between Willis and Shepherd (this time he had his arms around her). When she urges him to "get serious!"; referring to the argued position of his fingers, Willis answers, "Maddie, I just had my hand on your behind. If I get any more serious, they gonna move us to cable." In another episode, "Shirts and Skins" (Artie Mandelberg, USA 1988), one of the employees is working on his computer and suddenly gets excited. When Bruce Willis asks what has happened, he explains, "Sir, I am succeeded in penetrating the billing system of Hackensack Mutual Insurance." But Willis first only answers, "Penetration? They allow that on TV?"

In several episodes they allude to the program structure of television. At the end of "The Bride of Tupperman" (Christian I. Nyby II & Will MacKenzie, USA 1986) Willis explains to both Cybill Shepherd and their client the plan the latter to get money from an insurance company. When the surprised Shepherd asks, "When did you figure all this out?", Willis answers briefly, "During the commercial." These comments are sometimes even made in a direct address, as it is the case at the very beginning of the episode "Brother, Can You Spare a Blonde" (Peter Werner, USA 1985). Instead of the usual main title we see Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis sitting on a table. They look directly into the camera and Willis welcomes the viewers back to a new season. Shepherd starts arguing and reveals, "The network says, tonight's show is too short. The network says, every show has to be one hour long, not 59 minutes, not 61 minutes, 60 minutes long, and we're a minute short." Willis is somehow angry with her, "Great! Now the whole world knows", and now the quarrel starts. Finally, they both jump off the table, and with a throwaway gesture toward the camera, they shout in duet, "If the producers want to welcome the viewers back, they can do it themselves."

2.2   Series, Serials, and Sequels

Series or serials are a particular type of television programs. We, the audience, know that the series is a series and that one episode follows the other. And, sometimes, also the characters seem to know it.

In the late 70s and early 80s the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation ORF produced a comedy cop series, titled Kottan ermittelt (Kottan investigates), which, over the years, has continuously increased in self-referentiality. It was directed by Peter Patzak who, by the way, always appeared in small parts à la Hitchcock. Kottan (played by Lukas Resetarits) and his colleagues are not only police detectives, but they have also a band, play(back)ing old Rock 'n' Roll songs. In the episode "Die Einteilung" ("Scheduling"), they are in the middle of a rehearsal when called to a homicide scene. Resetarits stops playing, and says, "We'll continue the rehearsal later on." Another detective answers, "Yeah, in the next episode." In another episode, titled "Fühlt wie Du" ("...feels just like you"), one of the detectives talks about the immediate tasks and explains that "the Horak trial, that's the guy from the episode before the last one, is going to start tomorrow."

Reference to a series/serial status or sequels is not restricted to per se self-referential texts (like Moonlighting or Kottan ermittelt). Both James Bond and Angélique movies often end with a voice-over announcement of the following film with the hero or heroine; when in one of the German Edgar Wallace films, Der grüne Bogenschütze (The green archer; Jürgen Roland, Germany 1960) all the bad guys are finally caught, there is still a shooting going on in the park. All the characters are disturbed until the journalist comforts them, "Never mind, they're only shooting the next Edgar-Wallace-movie." And it is again Mel Brooks who makes fun of this type of self-promoting announcement at the end of this History of the World- Part I (USA 1981). As a kind of pseudo-justification of the "Part One" in the title, he adds a trailer of a (never produced and never intended to be produced) sequel History of the World - Part II, featuring, among others, the episode "Jews in Space".

3.   Consumption: Movies and Their Audience

3.1   Movies Shown in a Movie Theater ...

Films which show the characters going to the movies and watching a film are the major examples for self-referentiality with regard to the consumption aspect. But there is also a self-reflexive variation of this theme when the movie shown in the movie theater is this movie itself. And, sometimes, the characters are well aware of the fact that they act in a movie which is "shown in a movie theater". H.C. Potter's Hellzapoppin' (USA 1941) is particularly rich in this type of scenes. Throughout the film we witness dicussions between the characters and "the projectionist". And we are even made believe to see the shadows of our own heads and shoulders doubled on the screen: In the middle of Hellzapoppin', the film is interrupted by several title cards asking Stinky Miller to go home since his mother is waiting. Since there is no reaction, the manager comes from behind a pillar and repeats the message. Still no reaction. Finally, one of the characters addresses the audience and urges Stinky Miller to do as he's said. All of a sudden, there is the shadow of a little boy on the screen who slowly gets up, moves to the side and leaves. (Chuck Jones includes this gag in a special way in his Hair-Raising Hare (USA 1946). Right in the middle of being chased by a monster, Bugs Bunny stops, takes a deep breath, and addresses the audience with the question, "Is there a doctor in the house?" A shadow of a man appears on the screen and a voice says, "Yes, I'm a doctor". But Bugs only asks his trademark one-liner, "What's up, Doc?")

The case is still more intricate when the characters themselves go to the movie theater to see their own film, thus becoming their own audience. The chase across the studios and back lots in Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, USA 1974) ends on Hollywood Boulevard in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater where billboards announce the movie Blazing Saddles. The two good guys (Gene Wilder as Waco Kid and Cleavon Little as Bart) first shoot the bad guy (Harvey Korman as Hedley Lamarr) in self defense and then, still dressed in their Wild West garments, they go in to "see the end of the flick".

3.2   "Their World" - "Our World"

When we watch a film we forget about our own everyday life, our world, and carefully follow the events in the dramatic world of the characters. And at any moment we are aware that the two worlds, the two "realities" are distinct and separated. But in some films the border between these two "realities" becomes permeable when items from the extrafilmic world are integrated into the diegesis. In Tout va bien (F 1972) Jean-Luc Godard includes checks he has actually signed to pay actors and crew, and, in Jurassic Park (USA 1993), Steven Spielberg presents a room full of souvenir merchandise for the dinosaur amusement park, shown by Richard Attenborough to Laura Dern, which looks exactly like the merchandising articles connected to the movie itself. (Some years earlier, Mel Brooks has already parodied the proliferation of merchandising articles in connection with Spielberg movies. In Spaceballs (USA 1987) he himself (in the role of Yoghurt) shows his visitors a room full of all kind of "Spaceballs products", and the evil commander of the Spaceballs spaceship is playing with 10 inches puppets of the main characters.)

The attempt of creating a connection between filmic and extrafilmic reality is also made by Claude Lelouch in his film Viva la vie! (F 1984). In the beginning it is early in the morning, and the Michel Piccoli character is listening to the wake-up radio. A voice announces an interview with Claude Lelouch about his new film "Viva la vie!" which opens tonight. Although the interviewer asks for some details of the story, Lelouch refuses to say anything about it, since for this particular film it is essential that the audience has no preliminary information. He concludes by asking the listeners to stick to this policy too. No matter whether the viewers of tonight's premiere liked the film or not, they should not disclose its story. Later that day, Piccoli calls his wife and tells that in the evening they will go to the opening night of "Viva la vie!".

4.   The Product Film

4.1   On the Materiality of Film Aesthetic Means

When watching a movie, we hardly pay explicite attention to the various film aesthetic means, such as fade, dissolve, titles or graphic inserts. And, if we do, we conceive them as something that has to do with the film as a whole, and certainly not as part of the fictional world of the movie. But in certain self-reflexive films these discursive elements are presented as belonging to the diegesis, and, in some cases, even to the actual surroundings of the characters, that is, they gain a material quality.

Starting from their use in silent movies, inserted verbal elements (title cards, subtitles, or superimposed text) are means we have learned to read as additional expressive or explanatory elements. They belong to the film, but they never belong to the profilmic space. There are some films, however, where we are confronted with an entirely different usage. In Carl Reiner's The Man With Two Brains (USA 1982) Steve Martin is driving too fast along the Austrian countryside and a cop stops him. They first have difficulties to communicate, and below them appears a line of subtitles. When the cop realizes that Martin "speaks English" he orders to "stop the subtitles" in order to have "more room down there". When in the color film Last Remake of Beau Geste (Marty Feldman, USA 1976) a sheik character meets a black and white sheik in the Sahara, more than reminiscent of the famous one played by Rudolph Valentino, they first cannot speak to each other, since the black and white sheik can only "talk" in beautifully lettered titles. But the color sheik first realizes that he can read the inserted titles, and, then, he himself even learns to speak in titles, and the two of them ride off toward a mountain ridge with the huge "Hollywood" letters. A particular conversation via subtitles is shown in the French film A quoi tu penses-tu? (Didier Kaminka, France 1991): a young French couple is on vacation in Florida. When they meet an American couple, they too can only communicate by subtitles. But Kaminka does not stop at this self-reflexive device. In every reaction shot, the subtitles are running from the right to the left in mirror writing and the characters have to step over the letters until, finally, the young man steps on one word and crashes it.

The iris was a commonly used punctuation device since the early days of cinema and throughout the aera of silent film and beyond. Still in the 40s, many cartoons of the Merrie Melodies series ended with a sort of iris-out on one of the cartoon characters. So does Crowing Pains (Robert McKimson, USA 1947), but this time the main character, Foghorn Leghorn, the rooster, puts his head and hands through the closing circle, keeps it open for another second, and says the final words in his repetitive, stuttering way. A similar iris-out on a close-up of the Feldman character ends one scene in Last Remake of Beau Geste. Like many other aesthetic means used in the film (for instance, a black and white sequence in slapstick style), the iris could be taken as a mere allusion to the time of the story, but only until Feldman grasps the iris as if trying to hold it open and puts his head through the hole, saying some additional words before he is nearly choked by the diaphragma.

4.2   The Film Is a Film

The statement made in the section heading seems to be obvious if not tautological. Of course we know that a film we are about to see is a film, but, usually, narrative films try to make us forget that they are a product. Nevertheless, there are certain films who, either at the beginning, or at the end, or even throughout the whole movie, make us aware of their being a movie. The film introduces itself as a movie, or tells the audience something that violates, or at least disturbs, the illusionist escape into the movie's dramatic world: Hellzapoppin', for instance, already starts with the written self-presentation that it is a "picture about a picture about Hellzapoppin'", and this line is a good description of the overall self-reflexive mood of the film. In some cases, the statement that this is a film is also made verbally, as for instance in The Maltese Bippy, where Dan Rowan and Dick Martin have a long direct address. After a nonsense beginning and a creepy pre-title scene on a graveyard (with a lot of wolf howling and a woman screaming) an intertitle, saying "Intermission", appears on screen, followed by the two men looking directly into the camera. The Martin character starts talking, "Well, folks, we certainly hope that you enjoyed seeing this picture as much as we enjoyed making it. And, as a personal favor: Please don't reveal the ending." The Rowan character reacts astonished and we can listen to the following lines: "What are you doing? That's not the ending!" - "I didn't know that" - "Well, the picture's just getting started" - "What picture?" - "This picture!"- "When a woman starts screaming, it's usually the end" - "It's just the beginning, and that's why all these nice people have paid good money to find out why did she scream." Only now the title credits of the movie appear on the screen.

Most of the films which only at the end make us aware that we have just seen a movie, are "normal" narrative films until this very moment. One of this examples is the Burt Reynolds movie Smokey and the Bandits (Hal Needham, USA 1980). Simultaneously to the rolling end title with the credits shown in the left third of the screen we can watch several out-takes with actors bursting into laughter or constantly mixing up their lines. Finally, during the last shot, Reynolds' voice is addressing us directly, saying he hopes that we liked the movie and that it is now time to get out of the movie theater.

A unique example of a film which constitutes itself as a film throughout the entire film is La tarea (Jaime Humberto Hermosito, Mexico 1991). In this movie self-reflexivity is established on a dual level of both story and discourse, i.e. the film tells us a story and, simultaneously, insists on being a film that tells us the story we're just watching. In the first minutes we see a woman who puts a video camera into position and hides it below a table: she is about to shoot the film for her final exam at the film academy (and in this film she wants to show how she spends the evening with a former lover and makes love to him). The point is that we see everything in the room only through the lenses of the candid camera, and even when it is thrown off the pile of books it was put on (the man discovers the camera and gets angry), we watch the action during the following minutes in an extremly canted framing.

As already mentioned, Spaceballs is rich in self-reflexive moments, but, contrary to the last example, the self-presentation as a movie is made only for a few seconds somewhere in the last third of the film. As soon as the Commander of the spaceship has got a secret information from the king, the Colonel points a remote control toward the communication wall to end the talk. All of a sudden, the whole screen turns completely dark. After a moment of silence, we hear the startled voice of the Commander and the likewise alarmed voice of the officer in the following dialog. "What did you do?" - "I turned off the wall." - "You turned off the whole movie" - "I must have pressed the wrong button." - "Well, put it back on." - "Yes, Sir, yes, Sir!" Finally, the picture reappears, and the Commander ends the scene with a sigh of relief, "We're back!"


Metz, Christian (1991). L'énonciation impersonelle, ou le site du film. Paris: Méridiens Klincksieck

Withalm, Gloria (1992). "Von Duschen, Kinderwägen und Lüftungsschächten. Eine Bestandsaufnahme zu den Methoden des Verweises im Film". Zeitschrift für Semiotik 14(3): 199-224

Withalm, Gloria (1993). "Die Felder des intertextuellen/autoreferentiellen Verweises im Film". Semiotische Berichte 17(3,4): 369-392

Withalm, Gloria (1995). "The Same Dress - Another Character. Costume as a Self-Referential Device in Movies". In: Tasca, Norma (ed.). Ensaios em homagem a / Essays in Honor of Thomas A. Sebeok (= Cruzeiro Semiotico22-25): 225-232

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Created: 20 August 2000, Last Update 22 September 2003