Saturday, May 07, 2011

The Meta Monster

When I look at my own art there is a recurring aspect which crops up over and over again; the element of meta.

What do I mean by "meta"?  Well its art which in some fashion acknowledges that it is art and in effect looks back at itself and comments upon itself or the medium in some way.  Simple, eh?  No.  Not really, but perhaps a few examples might help.

A very good place to start.
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is kind of a pre-cursor to meta-narrative.
The Truman Show is vaguely meta.
John Cage's 4:33 is meta-music.
The Purple Rose of Cairo and Sherlock Jr. from which Purple Rose... steals a central premise are both excellent examples.
Ferris Bueller's Day Off with it's fourth wall breaking goes from mild-meta to heavy-meta in the closing credits as Ferris actually shoos the audience out of the theatre.
The movie Adaptation is quite sly meta. As is much of Charlie Kaufmann's work
Are we beginning to get a sense of what I mean?

For some reason this has been an on going theme in much of my art.  The Juanabees' most successful show, Sitcom featured an exposition that engaged the audience first in the form of a diary, then with the admission that the diary was a clunky device, by direct address.  In university I was involved in a collective show that was entirely about meta-theatre.  My friend Matthew and I won the National Sketch Writing Competition with a piece called Le Grande Y-Grec which stretches the bounds of logic with it's performance within a performance structure.  But Matthew and I had much further to go.  In a 48 hour play-writing festival we wrote a piece called variously Moebius Play or Oroborus Play which we feared was so far up our own asses that we were going to be eaten alive by the audience, but ended up being selected as the best of the best a year later at the festival's 10 year anniversary.  Both these works are far too structurally elaborate to effectively distill into a few sentences.  Even Beast of Bottomless Lake features roughly 1/3 the narrative told through the eye of a documentary crew who we actually see filming parts of the movie we are watching - and Beast... is a fairly straight forward narrative.  Suffice to say, meta is part and parcel of who I have been (and may continue to be) as an artist.

Yesterday the buzzer rang.  It was UPS.  We had a delivery from Amazon.  I knew exactly what it was.  We had ordered one of my favourite books from when I was a kid.  The Monster at the End of this Book.

Irecall experiencing  serious delight in having this book read to me.  In fact, I rather suspect that this book may have been amongst those that my parents dreaded.  "Oh no, he wants to read that damned Grover monster book again!"
Fortunately my daughter, December, was in the middle of lunch when the package arrived.  That gave me a chance to sit down and read through it myself and re-accquaint myself with it.
There have been a number of books that have re-appeared in my life because of her that I have been happy to see - Green Eggs and Ham; Where the Wild Things Are; Hand,Hand, Fingers, Thumb; and The Very Hungry Caterpillar all leap to mind.  But none of these were met by me with such a sense of delighted re-discovery.

The plot is simple.  Grover greets everyone on the cover of the book, as you can see in the attatched image.  He finds the copywright information on the first page rather dull and moves on before he realizes what the title of the book informs us... there is a monster at the end of this book!  Lovable, furry old Grover spends the rest of the book imploring the reader to give in to his logic - that if we cease turning pages, we will never reach the end of the book and thus not have to deal with the eponymous monster.  He goes to exceptional lengths to prevent us from turning pages.  He ties them down.  He hammers them together.  He erects brick walls in front of them to prevent the reader from turning the page.  I won't give the fantastic twist ending away, but trust me this is one of those rare books that truly earns its unexpected conclusion.  Well... unexpected if you are three and reading it for the first time.

Poor Grover... not at all happy with you.  You turned another page!
I re-read the book (all twenty pages) to myself, freshly delighting in Grover's over-wrought dismay at every turn of the page.  I also found myself looking at details I recall from childhood - the pages drawn on the pages of the book - an effect I had no name for back then, but now I see as a crucial aspect of the meta-narrative of our journey towards "the monster at the end of this book."

Once I was finished reading, and once December was finished lunching we sat down together and I read the book to her - in Grover's voice.  She's too young to have been amused by anything more than the colourful pictures and her Dad talking in a ridiculously high pitched voice from the back of his throat - a voice which someday she will recognize as being very Yoda-like.  I expect that she'll come to love this book as I have - what's not to enjoy?  Who couldn't be childishly amused by someone over-reacting to you doing the one harmless thing that is is precisely what they are imploring you not to do?  Perhaps it's the contrarian in me.  Or perhaps there will be for her, as there apparently was for me, some inate whimsy in a book which seems to know that it is a book and whose very narrative is tied up in the act of doing exactly the mechanic which what one must undertake in order to read this very book?  I don't know.  What I do know is that regardless of what level she appreciated The Monster at the End of this Book yesterday it absolutely was for her, as I suspect it was for me, her first introduction to 'meta.'  Whether it has a similar effect remains to be seen.

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