Metatheater is a term coined by Lionel Abel, and it refers to an aspect of a movie, play, or other literary medium in which the medium acts to break the illusion. A work may achieve this “broken illusion” by drawing attention to the fact that the actors are playing the role of a character, or by making the audience aware of themselves as an audience, or reminding the audience that the plot of the work is indeed fictional, ultimately emphasizing to the audience that what they are experiencing is not reality.
Aspects of Metatheater are very prominent in the film Inglourious Basterds, directed by Quentin Tarantino in 2009. The subtitles themselves force the reader to read some of the dialogue, as opposed to fully immersing himself or herself into the plot of the film. If an audience member happens to speak each of English, French, German, and Italian, he or she might not need to read the subtitles to understand the action of the movie, but the presence of the subtitles themselves distract the viewer from becoming completely absorbed in the illusion typically created by a movie. The English subtitles, when translated from French dialogue, occasionally appear as “oui” or “merci” instead of “yes” or “thank you”, but then in other parts of the film, the correct English subtitles are displayed. This assumes that an English-speaking audience member would know enough of the French language to still understand the dialogue, even though it appears in a foreign language. Also, the presence of dates and settings at the beginning of a scene (“1941 – Nazi Occupied Germany”) are very informative to a typical American audience member, as it functions to help the viewer to better understand the action of the movie, but it also serves to distance the viewer from the illusion of reality created by the movie.
Another interesting metatheatrical element used throughout the film is the segmenting of the action into chapters. Each chapter is introduced at the beginning of the scene, along with a title for the scene that explains a little about the action to come in the following scene. This, again, enhances the audience member’s understanding of the plot, but the segmenting aspect of metatheater still functions to prevent the audience from becoming too absorbed by the illusion on screen. It becomes harder to mistake the film for reality because of this segmentation, because real life is not separated into labeled sections of chapters.
Numerous different fonts appear in the opening credits for this movie. The title of the film, Inglourious Basterds, also appears in its own separate and distinct font and color. This differentiation originally seems confusing and unimportant, but each group of names appearing in a certain font seems to denote the importance and prevalence of the character that the actor is playing. Throughout the entire film, Tarantino has an interesting way of introducing various characters to the audience. He does this through the use of circles, arrows, and character name labels digitally added into the scene. This method allows director Tarantino to introduce a character or draw attention to something in particular within a shot without using dialogue between characters or narration to explain the significance of a new character. These arrows, circles and labels are reminiscent of a sports commentator’s explanation to a television audience of a particular play or highlight. While this employment of digital arrows and labels is informative and efficient time wise, it also serves to further remove the audience from the fictional illusion of the plot.
Since the settings and a few of the events in Inglourious Baserds are historically accurate, an audience member might succumb to the plausibility of the plot of this movie, believing it to be true. However, some of the elements of metatheater highlight for the audience that this is a fictional work, and that the events portrayed on screen are not necessarily historically accurate representations of the events during World War II.