There’s a movement in cinema that is maybe only ten years old that I feel well embodies a new field for what the film medium can achieve. For lack of better term, I call it the “meta-storytelling” movement. What is shared among the films in this movement is an apparently intentional braiding of a film’s stylistic construction to its content matter. This might also be considered “figure-figure,” because analysis and appreciation of a film’s construction yields further depth to the meaning of its basic narrative story. Like an allegory, there are multiple layers of meaning and motivation behind every element.
Within this trend, subjective films make intuitive sense. Hedwig & the Angry Inch, Memento, Pi, Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind–in each of these examples, the internal experiences of the protagonist are reproduced and simulated in the way the audience receives information in the story. (For the readers, think Holden Caulfield in JD Salinger’s novel Catcher in the Rye.) But recently, some films have gone beyond just using the subjective experience of the main character to frame the story for the audience. Good examples of transcendent experimentation include Christopher Nolan’s Inception, Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York and Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. Synecdoche (similarly to Kaufman’s earlier screenplay for 2002’s Adaptation) actually treats the process of creating a new work of art as a hyper reflexive process of self-reference and recursion–finding meaning from within oneself and in reference to oneself–in a form and plot that resembles Russian nesting dolls. The Fountain’s literal story is interesting, but its symbolic story is transcendent–the message of The Fountain, told through its actual plot and characters allegorically, is about being freed from the haunting terror of death through accepting it (i.e. enlightenment). This message can be interpreted from the basic story, or from its lyrical weaving and symbolism.
I have observed this cinematic trend with great interest. In fact, my reading of Godel, Escher, Bach coincided with my first viewing of The Fountain in mid-2007–and I consider that phase a turning point in my development as a film artist. As an artist and an activist, equally compelled by the promises of cinematic innovation and the urgent need for social change, I am interested in how this cinematic movement can be expanded to apply to non-fiction filmmaking. This is a tricky matter. Making a non-fiction film means not having a script, not having storyboards, not having the ability to manipulate props, sound design, important lines of dialog, etc. in quite the same way that fiction filmmakers can, to tell a comprehensive story like The Fountain tells. If I want to make a film about a real-life issue in this reflexive, layered, “figure-figure” manner, I would have to discover a real life subject matter that would call for such experimental treatment in telling its story.