Reflexive Indies: The Dream Factory

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Directory of World Cinema: American Independent 2, edited by John Berra, published by Intellect Books, 2013

When one considers the enormous success of American cinema, or ‘The Dream Factory’, as a cultural form since its inception in the late nineteenth century, and the perennial interest surrounding extra-discursive material since then, such as star biographies, etc., it is unsurprising that as with the various film genres such as the western or war film that look outwards towards other historical and cultural influences, there are also ‘inward’ looking ‘films about films’ (such as Mulholland Drive, 2001) and/or other creative enterprises such as television production (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, 2002), theatrical production (Synecdoche, New York, 2008), or the writing of novels (Naked Lunch, 1991).

Yet, the movies in this chapter are not documentaries that accurately demonstrate the creative process in a plain mechanical fashion for the audience’s better comprehension of the reality of industrial production. These films are markedly different in that they feature fictional stories, are narrative based, and they potentially engage with the viewer in a sophisticated and more complex manner because they are reflexive, belonging to what Robert Stam calls the ‘genre of self consciousness’. Put simply, reflexive films are films that draw attention to the processes of their own construction. For example, when the eponymous Barton Fink is invited to write a screenplay for a movie studio, a normal narrative plot point has occurred, but it also offers the potential for a heightened reminder, or awareness within the spectator, that the fictional reality of the film (the diegesis) is just as constructed as Barton’s script.

Roland Barthes suggests that ‘The notion that “all westerns (or all gangster films, or all war films, or whatever) are the same” is not just an unwarranted generalisation, it is profoundly wrong: if each text within a genre were, literally, the same, there would not be enough difference to generate either meaning or pleasure.’ Although Barthes may be stating the obvious, it is useful to consider that, despite their possible claims on the surface, films about things such as creative acts can not be, and might not want to be, considered identical the thing which it is examining. The script ‘The Player’ that is shown at the end of The Player (1992) can not possibly be the script that started the production of the actual film (although, just to complicate things, the film is actually adapted from a book with the same title). This false paradox is an important point of orientation for a viewer of a reflexive film, as a film that draws attention to its own construction through overtly conscious juxtaposition between the differences and similarities of forms, can offer unique kinds of pleasure and/or meaning to an individual that other types of film simply can not…


The full 1,600 word version of this essay is published in Directory of World Cinema: American Independent 2, edited by John Berra, published by Intellect Books, 2013. 

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