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Works of art that are about themselves

I watched Citizen Kane (for the umpteenth time) the other day and was again struck by how it is a movie about itself. Kane is William Randolph Hearst, but he’s also Orson Welles, boy wonder, and the movie Citizen Kane is self-consciously a masterpiece.

Some other examples of movies that are about themselves are La La Land, Primer (a low-budget experiment about a low-budget experiment), and Titanic (the biggest movie ever made, about the biggest boat ever made).

I want to call this, Objects of the Class X, but I’m not sure what X is.

46 Comments

  1. Sumit Rahman says:

    I’d say X = Hamlet. I remember reading a paper 25 years ago which had a sentence along the lines of “In Hamlet, Shakespeare is writing a play about the sort of play he is writing about.” I can’t find the paper sadly, but this short essay covers some of the same points: http://www.shakespearetheatre.org/watch-listen/hamlet-great-play-greatest-play/

  2. David J. Littleboy says:

    Gnu is, quite definitely, not unix….

  3. Objects of the Class “Objects of the Class” obviously

  4. Jonathan (another one) says:

    All That Jazz.
    Seinfeld.

    • Andrew says:

      Jonathan:

      I never saw All That Jazz, but I don’t think Seinfeld is about itself. Yes, Seinfeld had some self-referential elements (as did the Dick Van Dyke Show), but I don’t think it was about itself in the way that Citizen Kane, Primer, and Titanic were.

      • Jonathan (another one) says:

        First, you should watch All That Jazz. The Seinfeld reference is a feeble joke based on the show. If you recall, a running plot line was Jerry’s attempts to get NBC to produce a show based on their lives which was about nothing. Had NBC produced the show, it would have been the show NBC in fact produced. So indeed, Seinfeld was a show about producing a show which, had it been produced, would have been Seinfeld. You can’t get much more self-referential than that.

  5. Sullivan’s Travels, as another example.

    As for what “X” is, it’s sort-of metafiction, though not explicitly.

  6. Dzhaughn says:

    I’m not sure I understand the category, but we should admit or explain why we exclude the following:

    Tristram Shandy.

    All That Jazz (+1 above). Singing in the Rain. The Player.

    Weaker or partial cases: The Producers. Sunset Boulevard. Persona, particularly in scenes where the mirror reflects the Bergman and Nykvest filming Ullman at the end, and when the film melts.

    • Andrew says:

      Raghuveer, Dzhaughn:

      I think metafiction is different from the class of objects I’m referring to. Let’s take, for example, Singing in the Rain, a Hollywood musical about the making of a Hollywood musical. Fine. But it wasn’t about the making of Singing in the Rain. In contrast, Citizen Kane seems to me to be about the making of Citizen Kane. Similarly for Primer etc.

      Ummm, I don’t think I’m explaining myself clearly. Nonetheless, I think I’m on to something here.

      • Perhaps you mean that the fiction presented by the object is unintentionally a metaphor for the object itself?

      • Dzhaughn says:

        I agree on both clauses of the final sentence, strongly and weakly resp.

        If Titanic had hit an iceberg and sunk on its debut screening you’d have a slam dunk and we’d all be better off. Except for the part of the audience that drowned in frozen waters of the North Atlantic.

        I am sympathetic to the notion that Orson Welles playing the young Citizen Kane remains Orson Welles, at least in our cultural moment. Welles making Citizen Kane was, like Kane, brash and brilliant with a clear, unencumbered vision, smashing easily through old ceilings to new horizons. And the movie became as huge and unavoidable as the poster of candidate Kane.

        But other themes in Kane don’t seem to fit as well.

    • Terry says:

      My favorite part of Tristram Shandy is when he tears a chapter out of the book and in the next chapter explains he had to because it was so good it made the other chapters look bad.

  7. Christian Hennig says:

    Fellini’s 8 1/2 comes to mind.

  8. DanC says:

    OT: this website seems to have been hacked. Spam on your Blogroll page: https://statmodeling.stat.columbia.edu/blogroll/

  9. I agree with Sumit Rahman that X = Hamlet.

    Other film members of the class:

    Soderbergh’s “Schizopolis” is sillily, shamelessly, and enjoyably about itself.

    Godard’s “Pierrot le Fou” also comes to mind, though that’s harder for me to explain.

    In poetry, there’s Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” for instance. And Eliot’s “Prufrock.”

  10. Corey says:

    The Unstrung Harp: or, Mr Earbrass Writes a Novel, by Edward Gorey

    (I just learned it was his first independent work!)

  11. I always thought Douglas Adams final Hitchhiker’s book Mostly Harmless is about itself. A narrative about using reverse temporal engineering to change a narrative in such a way it brings a complete end to something that has gotten out of control.

  12. Michael Nelson says:

    A related set, Objects of the Class Russell: A movie that is about all movies that are not about themselves. Known to drive film editors mad.

  13. Jonathan says:

    A better Shakespearean reference would, I think, be The Tempest because it is self-consciously the act of creation as the final act of creation of the retiring playwright enacted in a play as the final creation of the character Prospero. I think that’s similar recursive levels that connect the object bidirectionally. I think you mean not so much object and class, though, as a bijection, though you could say it is a class of bijectable objects.

  14. Oliver says:

    Singin’ in the Rain – “MGM’s technicolor musical treasure”.

  15. Terry says:

    To take it one step further, did Welles, over his lifetime enact the cycle of ambition and ruin that he portrayed in Citizen Kane?

    Citizen Kane was a masterpiece and an artistic triumph (if a financial flop). The movie portrays the towering ambition and achievement. But, it also shows hubris, overreaching and failure, which came to Welles LATER in life, after the triumph of Citizen Kane. So, was Welles’s later life an enactment of what he portrayed in Citizen Kane? Was Welles’s life, therefore … ABOUT Citizen Kane.

    Whoah man! Totally meta!

  16. Terry says:

    Not sure I see why this class is difficult to understand. A bazillion works of art are about the artist or the act of creation in some small or large part.

    Barton Fink
    Many Wooden Allen movies
    Ernie Kovacs’s show
    Tristram Shandy
    Ozymandius

    And of course, most Shakespeare plays:

    O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
    The brightest heaven of invention,
    A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
    And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
    Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
    Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
    Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
    Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
    The flat unraised spirits that have dared
    On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
    So great an object: can this cockpit hold
    The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
    Within this wooden O the very casques
    That did affright the air at Agincourt?
    O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
    Attest in little place a million;
    And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
    On your imaginary forces work.
    Suppose within the girdle of these walls
    Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
    Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
    The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
    Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
    Into a thousand parts divide on man,
    And make imaginary puissance;
    Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
    Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
    For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
    Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
    Turning the accomplishment of many years
    Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
    Admit me Chorus to this history;
    Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
    Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.

    Henry V

  17. Justin Smith says:

    Sometimes I like to write poems that refer to themselves in some way, like http://www.statisticool.com/haiku120.htm

    and “bootstrap haiku”, that are haiku composed of randomly sampled previously published 5-syllable and 7-syllable lines.

    Justin
    http://www.statisticool.com

  18. Terry says:

    In some sense, this class encompasses all works of art because artists can only portray what they know or can comprehend. A work of art is, therefore, always about the artist to some extent. Sometimes consciously, sometimes not.

    You see this especially in “historical” dramas. It is very difficult for creators to portray historical stories without an overlay of 21st century sensibilities. Often, creators are quite proud when they layer on their own sensibilities. (The smugness of Downton Abbey is one of its main selling points.) It is quite easy to superior about our current morality from the lofty heights of our wealth and comfort by looking down on previous eras that contended daily with war, starvation, disease, and unflattering footwear.

    Justin Timberlake nails this in Bad Teacher: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PLtdF1-0m0o

  19. John says:

    If you enjoy these kinds of movies, you might be interested the Charlie Kaufman “Adaption” which is movie about Charlie Kaufman writing the movie “Adaption”. The wikipedia page (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adaptation_(film)) calls it a meta-film

  20. Mikhail Shubin says:

    Not sure if Björk’s music video bachelorette is itself an object of class X, but it is about objects of class X.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x5nNfbTS6N4

  21. GMcK says:

    In the realm of SF, Samuel Delany’s Empire Star might fall into this category – it’s a re-entrant tale told in first person by a voice that is introduced as a minor character that becomes more important over several passes through the narrative, with the help of the titular time travel McGuffin. Muels Aranlyde, an acronym of Samuel R. Delany, appears as the character used for the base personality of an AI in the story. Aranlyde also appears in another of Delany’s novels, Babel-17, as the author of a story titled Empire Star.

    In another of Delany’s early novels, can’t recall which one, there’s a recurring character who is always writing poems about the private experiences of other characters before they experience them themselves, to those characters’ great consternation. The implication is that when the events of the story are sufficiently archetypal, they are perceived as part of the lived experience of author and reader as well as the in-story experience of the characters.

  22. Dan says:

    I think the class is “Fitzcarraldo”: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0083946/.

    It’s a movie about a guy who has to drag a steamship over a mountain in the Amazon, in order to achieve an artistic goal (building an opera house). To make the film, Herzog had to…you know.

    There’s an excellent documentary about it, which makes it clear that the self-referential struggle is the point: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0083702/

  23. Jay says:

    Never thought of Primer in this way. Although (if my interpretation is correct) it kinda fails to be in the class of X as the experiment failed at one level and not the other. Or did it? At the end of the film, the ‘success’ of the experiment remains largely unknown. Is is possible to ex ante identify an object belonging to this class?

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