There is a scene in the notoriously ugly 2003 Cat in the Hat film which sees the unintentionally scary titular feline zipping down a purple slide with the two children. When the young boy compares the experience to a ride at an amusement park, the Cat’s response is to look directly into the camera as he exclaims, “You mean like at…Universal Studios! Cha-ching!”
That last word is delivered with a wink and a cash register sound effect to signify payment for the blunt advertisement, while the Cat produces two leaflets for the aforementioned theme park.
And with that shameless plug disguised as a joke about shameless plugs, self-awareness in cinema reached its all-time low point. Unfortunately, it’s just the worst case in a long history of filmmakers trying to excuse making bad and unimaginative art by declaring it as such. These lazy attempts at cleverness have become all the more prevalent in the post-Tarantino, post-Wes Craven era of irony, especially when it comes to the repetition of the well-worn formulas and techniques of genre cinema.
This, of course, makes it all the more important that we acknowledge and honour the times when a streak of self-awareness has served a greater purpose than pre-emptive self-deprecation. The ten films below, ordered purely by release year, all serve as terrific examples of cinema addressing itself in ways that are genuinely thoughtful and revealing.
Note that the term ‘genre film’ is being used quite liberally here to include any film that takes on the form or habits of a specific, well-defined genre, so this includes musicals and types of documentary. Also, this is not a list for outright parody films like Young Frankenstein or just any film that knows it’s a film, such as Adaptation.
This is a list for films that knowingly adopt the tropes, clichés and sensibilities of a certain genre and uses them in unconventional and self-reflexive ways, often in part to comment on the genre itself. In short, these are all inspired and original couplings of form and content.
1. Land Without Bread (Luis Buñuel, 1933)
Genre: Expository Documentary
Made in part as a response to the sensationalistic travelogues then being filmed in Africa, Luis Buñuel’s only documentary reveals the horrifying living conditions to be found right in his home country of Spain. But being the disgusted surrealist that he was, Buñuel further complicates his message by undermining the validity of so-called non-fiction cinema and calling into question the honesty and morality of the men who record such poverty.
The film’s narration exaggerates and exoticises the lives of the inhabitants of the mountainous region of Las Hurdes but the commentary is delivered with the dispassionate remove of a nature documentary. Even taken at face value, Land Without Bread comes across as exploitative and condescending through its footage of the crew following the transportation of a dead child’s body and the film’s need to point out the various types of ‘idiot’ living in the area.
Yet, to make things worse, its footage of a goat falling off a cliff suspiciously shot from multiple angles will make you wonder just how much of this half-hour long film was staged. So when the authoritative-sounding narrator tells us that, a month before filming began, three men and eleven mules were killed by honey bees, it’s difficult take his word for it.
By deliberately creating a gross misrepresentation of a nonetheless saddening reality, Buñuel is able to fight Spain’s respected institutions on multiple fronts. In its own distressing way, Land Without Bread is a work of pure, unrefined black comedy, though it’s easy to see why the residents of Las Hurdes hate it to this day.
2. A Woman Is a Woman (Jean-Luc Godard, 1961)
Given that a sizeable proportion of this list probably wouldn’t have existed without him, it seems almost mandatory to give a place to French New Wave pioneer Jean-Luc Godard. His landmark debut, Breathless, cleverly played on our familiarity with western crime cinema but it’s his first colour film, A Woman Is a Woman, that makes the cut here for its anarchic manipulation of the American musical form.
Godard mercilessly hacks the film’s soundtrack into ribbons. When there should be music, Michel Legrand’s orchestra remains silent, only to come in later and risk drowning out some dialogue. Swooning strings build up to musical numbers that never happen. When Anna Karina is allowed to sing, it’s always unaccompanied.
Yet for all the film’s auditory start-stops and fake-outs, A Woman Is a Woman still moves with the playful comic energy of the very films it pastiches, making it one of its director’s most accessible works. Anna Karina, Jean-Claude Brialy and Jean-Paul Belmondo may not get any big sing-along moments but music is evident in the choreography of their body language and the rhythm and repetition of their exchanges.
Dressed with as much colour coordination as a White Stripes album cover, the three leads stick out with a sense of magic and optimism against their relatively grey Paris backdrop as they make strange and eccentric gestures of devotion and contempt that conceal their true thoughts.
As is often the case with Godard, the film’s reliance on the mechanisms of Hollywood reflects a lack of direct communication. The musical embellishments highlight the pageantry of the relationships that make up the film’s love triangle. By drawing attention to the contrivance behind the musical’s emotional signifiers, Godard manages to sneak raw feeling into the party without spoiling anyone’s fun.
3. Opera (Dario Argento, 1987)
Italian master of the macabre Dario Argento once jokingly suggested that his audience should have rows of pins taped directly below their eyelids, making their eyes impossible to shut during the intense and gory parts of his films. This dubious method of maintaining viewer attention would eventually provide the trademark image for Opera, perhaps the greatest horror film ever made about the experience of watching horror films.
Argento practically inserts himself into the middle of his murder mystery via Marco, a horror director with a reputation as a sadist who tries his hand at working in the more upmarket world of opera. While the critics trash Marco’s gothic take on Verdi’s Macbeth, the breakout star of his production is Betty, a young singer forced by a masked killer to witness his murders via the above means.
The film’s fondness for POV shots and one character’s death by bullet through a peephole betrays Argento’s fixation on the act of seeing and its effects on the viewer. His gracefully precise camerawork and dark, labyrinthine sets stylishly explore the troubled psyches of his characters and, by extension, the troubled psyches of himself and his audience.
The shot of Betty tied up and gagged in a mannequin display case is an eerie representation of our complicated relationships with cinema’s scream queens, while the ravens that crowd the theatre serve as ever-present witnesses who become increasingly involved in the carnage.
Both Argento and the killer seem insistent that bloodlust is an innate part of human nature in need of an outlet, even going as far as to equate Betty’s denial of her unhealthy desires with sexual repression. So when Argento’s camera delights in the grisly but appropriate image of a raven consuming a human eye, perhaps you should just be thankful that Argento’s own alter ego, Marco, considers it unwise to use films as a guide for reality.
A masterpiece to rival the director’s more widely seen Suspiria, Dario Argento’s Opera won’t be the only film on this list to draw attention to how horror fans get off on watching gruesome acts of staged violence but it’s the only one to embrace these bloody spectacles wholeheartedly.
4. Man Bites Dog (Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde, 1992)
Genre: Observational Documentary/Serial Killer Documentary/Horror
In which an unreservedly dreadful human being is given film star status and a platform to voice his hateful thoughts. This satirical Belgian mockumentary captures the everyday activities of a serial killer named Ben as he claims his victims, dumps their bodies and finds time afterwards to grab a drink with the camera crew.
Just a quick channel-surf of late night television will reveal how we make celebrities of our murderers, so perhaps it isn’t such a great leap from reality to show the director Rémy give Ben an interview while Ben smothers a child. The passive role of the documentarian is called into question as the crew transition from observers to active participants, first helping their subject dispose of the corpses and later engaging in some truly horrific acts of their own.
By dropping any pretence of empathy with the victims and having Rémy and his cameraman cross the line between interest and idolisation, Man Bites Dog implicates not just the filmmakers but also the audiences who relish every detail. Even Ben realises that the crew ought to lean the microphone in close as he breaks a man’s neck because his viewers will want to hear that sound.
But ultimately the film’s target is broader than just those who glorify killers. Man Bites Dog incriminates any documentarian or journalist whose project exists in a moral vacuum for the sake of indulging our worst instincts. Popular exploitation is exposed by applying common sensibilities to the ugliest of individuals – and he eats up the attention like a child on his birthday.
5. Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 1997)
Many of the films on this list show great affection for the genres they scrutinise and manipulate. Michael Haneke’s confrontational indictment of violence as entertainment, Funny Games, is not one of them. The film’s unexceptional setup – family finds their serene holiday home invaded by a pair of young psychos – seems designed to attract the sort of carnage junkies who would no doubt be disappointed by the almost complete lack of on-screen bloodshed.
In fact, Haneke seems adamant about showing this audience only what they rather wouldn’t see. There may be little physical trauma but there’s plenty of emotional trauma. Funny Games isn’t ‘scary’ in the regular, escapist sense, just piercingly uncomfortable.
In its long, unnervingly still shots and raw depictions of fear and grief, the usual business of unleashing chaos and death upon peaceful and well-meaning lives becomes genuinely upsetting. Any window of hope Haneke offers for his central family is a mere red herring or narrative formality made simply to uphold the horror plot structure. Everything is predetermined, both by the film’s form and by its confidently blasé antagonists.
Thematically, there’s a lot of overlap with the aforementioned Opera but while Argento’s film essentially serves as a hundred-minute justification for itself, Funny Games makes the viewer feel uneasy for even choosing to watch such senseless cruelty. This is the rare film to deliberately make a case for its own pointlessness.
In less talented hands, this film would’ve come across as unbearably preachy and judgemental but, even if you disagree with Haneke’s assertively expressed conclusions, you can at least appreciate how he does it.
This is either a great anti-horror film or a great, if somewhat hypocritical, horror film that beats its targets at their own game through fourth wall-breaking means. Either way, every time one of the appallingly amused killers looks straight at the viewer with a mischievous smirk, it’s clear that Michael Haneke isn’t too fussed if you don’t like his film.
Whether you choose to walk out of Funny Games halfway through or stay for the duration, what’s important is that you ask yourself why.