A Show Within a Show
is sometimes the stereotypical artistic independent movie, the kind which practically requires a didactic analysis
to convince people that, though it does not aim to entertain the Lowest Common Denominator
in any way, it's a profoundly meaningful work of True Art
. If one of the main characters makes one, expect Creator Breakdown
. These films are likely to have several, if not all, of these elements:
- Being in a foreign language, usually French. As part of this, most in-fiction examples end with a "Fin" text overlay.
- Absurd length or brevity.
- Impossible for the average viewer to comprehend, though more serious than silly.
- Produced on a shoestring budget.
- Deliberately Monochrome.
- Depressing as hell subject matter presented in an unbearably maudlin style.
- Blatant attempts to offend anyone who watches it. Be it via gore, violence, nudity, sex, language, etc, etc.
- Challenges the "status quo".
- Soundtracked with atonal or otherwise experimental modern art music.
- Bucket-loads of pretentiousness.
- Rapid cuts between different subjects, often playing into all the above points.
In the best cases, use of this trope is an Affectionate Parody
or a sharp Take That
to a particular work, director or movement. In other examples, though, it's quite obvious that the writers didn't know what they were referencing
It's often the goal of the Prima Donna Director
It has to be said that though that this trope applies to people with Small Reference Pools
. For instance although Ingmar Bergman
is regarded as an "arty" director, in his lifetime his films were consistent box-office hits as were some of Fellini's films. Also there's Cultural differences in that high concepts and artistic influences as well as education levels may make some audiences have larger reference pools than others, though Rule of Cautious Editing Judgment
applies there as to which is which. Put it simply, what's obscure to some is common in other places and vice versa.
Please note that only Show Within a Show
examples are objective. Applying this trope to a real work can be considered quite YMMV.
Examples of in-fiction films
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Anime & Manga
- The Big O does this with Memories in general, but specifically there is a short film with relative importance to the plot done in the French style, complete with Deliberate Monochrome, subtitles (because the dialogue is silent), and a big curlicue "Fin" at the end. But it's more of a Film Noir with art house symbolism than a true art house film.
- From The Muppet Show special The Muppets Go to the Movies: Sam the American Eagle is translating what he thinks is the latest masterpiece by Ingmar Bergman, Silent Strawberries. (It's actually by his brother, Gummo.) It stars the Swedish Chef (who else?), who confronts Beaker, who is the Angel of Death. When the Swedish Chef asks to not die, Death gives him a rubber chicken instead. Now he can join a traveling show, and sure enough, in comes a Swedish Kermit presenting a Swedish Fozzie Bear, who tells a joke about Swedish meatballs. It ends with a sing-along to a Swedish version of "Hooray for Hollywood"; by then, Sam has left the stage in disgust.
- Mark from Rent begins the show by announcing that he is no longer shooting with a script, instead deciding he is making a documentary. He ends up documenting the year in the friend's lives, even quitting his high paying job to do so, and the end result is basically a montage of the characters/actors smiling at the camera.
- In the movie version the film it has more to it, including being more about the HIV certain members are dying from and being dedicated to Angel, who passes away from AIDS, but the end result is still mainly a montage.
- Homestar Runner
- The Brothers Chaps made an animated music video for They Might Be Giants's song "Experimental Film", starring the Homestar Runner cast. It's presented as an in-universe film made by Strong Sad and The Cheat.
- In the Strong Bad Email "narrator", Strong Bad narrates a trailer for "a four hour film with no dialogue and no plot" from "some smelly French studio".
- Strong Sad makes another in "independent", which consists of black and white stills of a dying potted plant and Homestar Runner saying things like "I just... don't think I can handle... eating this... asparagus", accompanied by Strong Sad crying into the wrong end of a saxophone.
- Don't forget "A Staple-Down Life", from DVD exclusive Puppets on the Road.
- The French segment of the Red vs. Blue Going Global video is a classic skewering of this trope (the other segments parody other national stereotypes in a very silly, but very "artsy" way).
- Moody in Weebl & Bob. "My boner has returned!" They also parodied this earlier with "Death".
- In Bobwhite, it is Marlene's ambition to create one of these.
- Sinfest has a parody of this type of "art house movie". Notable for the pig in a ballerina outfit at the end.
Films — Animation
Films — Live-Action
- Some early Federico Fellini's films are like this, such as 8½
- Ingmar Bergman's Persona (thanks to Pop-Cultural Osmosis pretty much everyone doing this trope makes fun of it). Film focuses on two women, one of which made a conscious decision not to ever talk, and the second is her nurse. The first part of film is pretty easy and straightforward, but later it descends into seemingly absurd talks between two women and long, incomprehensible silent scenes of, for example, nurse cutting her wrist, forcing the other woman to lick her blood and then slapping her face a few dozen times.
- It could be argued, however, that the film averts this, as its incomprehensibility is used more for Surreal Horror than anything else.
- Many fictional examples seem to borrow inspiration from "French New Wave", a film movement that used many of characteristics shown above,
- Céline et Julie vont en bateau (Celine and Julie Go Boating) is a perfectly straight example of this trope. It's French, three hours long, includes seemingly completely unnecessary scenes, has a plot (when you get to it) whose closest comparison would be Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and the ending... borrows heavily from Theater of the Absurd, that's all we'll say. It's actually un film très charmant, if you're patient with it. Jacques Rivette, the director, glories in this trope. Go ahead, see if you can sit through all of "Out One".
- Actually it has been described as having an almost identical, though comedic, story which Mulholland Dr. later revisited, adding a more explicit lesbian subtext.
- Alejandro Jodorowsky made many such movies. His first, Fando and Lis, fulfils all criteria other than "absurd length or brevity" and putting a Black Comedy spin on the angstiness. The Holy Mountain boosts the imagery to such freakish heights of psychadelia that even the sternest viewer will not get all of it.
- Warum läuft Herr R Amok?, a film where absolutely nothing happens, despite the fact that the main character kills his family and then himself. Although, the film does a pretty good job of illustrating why Herr R. runs amok. It's just not the violent crime film or psychological thriller everyone expects from the title.
- Jean Genet's Un Chant d'Amour: 30 dialogue-free minutes of homosexual erotica.
- The Soviet Armenian film The Color of Pomegranates, which you might be familiar with from the clips that were used in a Juno Reactor music video. It's a biopic, kind of, about a famous medieval Armenian wool-dyer/courtier/monk/poet/troubador/martyr (in approximately that order). It's filmed to resemble an illuminated manuscript, there's almost no dialogue, and a female actor plays six roles, including the poet himself at one point. It's undeniably a work of integrity, and of significant artistic and spiritual accomplishment, as well as a fascinating ethnography of Armenian costume, art, music, textiles, folklore, monastic life, and religious custom. (A lot to get done in an hour and a half!). Quite beautiful, too. But if you aren't at least vaguely familiar with Sayat Nova's life, the film will make no sense, and if you are, it'll only make maybe 85% sense on a good day. It was initially banned in the USSR it because they couldn't figure out what the hell it was about, and decided that therefore it was probably some kind of dangerous nationalist parable. So they cut a few minutes from it at random, and released it under the title Red Pomegranates.
- David Lynch's works, most notably Inland Empire and Eraserhead. Lynch's features actually largely make sense, at least on a plot level. His short films fits the trope much more closely than his features.
- My Dinner With Andre is 110 minutes of Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory sitting in a restaurant and talking. Aside from a brief voice-over at the beginning and end, as Wallace Shawn is travelling to/from the restaurant, that's it. Thanks to director Louis Malle's dynamic camera work, and the sheer intensity of Wallace and Andre's conversation, the movie is quite engaging.
- Andy Warhol's Empire is an exterior shot of the Empire State Building for 24 hours. He made dozens upon dozens of films like these, many of them static shots of one person. Remember the "Oscar-winning" movie Ass from Idiocracy? Consider that Warhol did a film called "Taylor Mead's Ass" (albeit as a Take That at a film critic who complained about his films being - you guessed it - based on shots of Taylor Mead's ass).
- The Cure for Insomnia. It has a running time of 87 hours. One could argue that it's Exactly What It Says on the Tin, and thus, not intended to be artistic at all.
- Bob Dylan's Renaldo and Clara: it's four hours long, and alternates between being a concert film/rockumentary, cinema verité documentary, improvised drama (with a cast full of non-actors), and surreal home movie. Even among Dylan fans it's a Love It or Hate It work, with a lot more Love Its than you might expect.
- Most films by Guy Maddin fit this trope. His film Brand Upon The Brain was silent, shot with grainy, black and white 16 mm film, and narrated and orchestrated live... all that without getting into the plot. Nearly all of his films are in grainy black and white. Some of them condescend to have a plot, say, The Saddest Music in the World. Others... not so much. If you want Guy Maddin in all his mind-screwing grandeur, try Arkangel. It's what David Lynch would have shot if a particularly deranged Dostoievsky handed him a script.
- Calamari Union, the first major movie of Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki. Filmed in black and white, in eighties Helsinki, with very little dialogue. All its sixteen protagonists are guys with black glasses, all called "Frank", except for one called Pekka (who speaks in English). In a very Warriors fashion, they cross the city at night, trying to reach the Eira neighbourhood, which is a kind of promised land according to one of the Franks. Not all of them make it. No calamari (squids) appear or are even mentioned (though the title might be a play on the historical Kalmar Union). Diverging from the Le Film Artistique purest tradition, however, the movie is not serious but humorous in a very quirky, unsettling, playful and deadpan (thus Finnish) manner, and presents intelligent criticism of consumerism and urban life. An European Cult Classic, like pretty much any movie by Kaurismäki, who admitted he was drunk for the most of the shooting. It shows.
- Vase de Noces. A lone farmer who may be the last man on earth slots the heads of dolls onto the heads of doves, collects vegetable matter in jars, sodomizes his pig — which gives birth to what are presumably human/pig hybrids, tries to raise said hybrids as humans by feeding them at the dinner table, hangs them when he is unable to — prompting the pig to commit suicide, buries himself alongside the pig with his clothes on and reemerges — clothes now mysteriously absent, tosses all the vegetable matter from the jars into a pond, fills them with his feces and urine instead, makes tea out of said feces and urine and consumes it, hangs himself. Belgian, black and white, no dialogue, the church choir chanting of medieval composers Perotinus and Monteverdi supplies the soundtrack alongside electrically-generated bleeps and bloops. According to the director, it's about an alchemical quest for immortality. We wish we were making this up.
- Dogtooth: a Greek film in which a couple keep their children imprisoned in their home to adulthood, teaching them that the outside world is incredibly dangerous, while trying to maintain a completely different world inside, ranging from different vocabulary to incest. Features lesbian incest, passionless sex scenes, long stretches without dialogue and no real ending.
- Begotten, an American black and white movie with almost no contrast at all (the colours shown are dirty white or dirty black, nothing between), no dialogue, no music, and a story showing an allegory of the Creation of Life through a succession of enigmatic and very gory scenes.
- Minimalist cinema, and Chantal Ackerman in particular. One of Ackerman's films, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is three and a half hours long of a woman doing the same things over and over again. That length is the entire point, but it's still put generations of film students to sleep.
- Michaelangelo Antonioni is another king of this trope. For example, Blow Up, a movie involving a murder mystery and a swinging London photographer at one point being molested by two female models.
- Most of Peter Greenaway's oeuvre fits this trope. While some films, such as The Draughtsman's Contract and The Pillow Book are fairly well rooted in reality and understandable (for the most part) to the average audience, works like Prospero's Books take neo-baroque to an incomprehensible new level.
- Dusan Makavejev generally makes movies that fall into this.
- Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel's film Un Chien Andalou is a prime example. Of course, given the artist... Warning: Eye Scream and major Mind Screw abound.
- Tetsuo: The Iron Man This cult film series use unusual films techniques, such as stop motion, fast editing, POV shots that looks like video on TV, have very minimal dialogue and a small budget.
- Tree Of Life fits this trope, possibly being the most abstract film to get such major stars and a $30 million+ budget.
- Ironically, due to being French, silent, and black and white, a lot of people mistook The Artist sight unseen as one of these when it's actually an incredibly simple and accessible comedy to the point a lot of critics thought it was too light to be deserving of Best Picture and campaigned for the actual Le Film Artistique in the running that year.
- The Green Elephant, a memetic Russian film, infamous for its gory content. It is filmed on handheld VHS camera, have only 4 characters, and is very depressing, although it has some comedy value.
- Catherine Breillat's Sleeping Beauty starts out similarly to its namesake fairytale with the eponymous beauty being cursed to sleep by a malevolent witch, but very soon, the movie diverges into a strange sort of crossover between Alice in Wonderland, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Pan's Labyrinth as its child protagonist goes on an inexplicable and fantastic adventure that, allegedly, represents a woman's sexuality. When she wakes up from her enchanted sleep, she finds she is suddenly a full-grown adult (despite having slept for one hundred years), and she is quick to randomly engage in sexual acts with both a young man and a young woman. To add to the Mind Screw, the man is the grandson of her adoptive brother and the woman is a grown up version of a childhood friend, both of whom are characters she met in her dream. And that's all without even mentioning the movie's very inconclusive ending...
- French director Robert Bresson has a Signature Style that involves meticulous attention to mechanical motions and the use of nonprofessional actors who give intentionally lifeless and mechanical performances. His themes are almost always depressing, to top it off. Of course, he's a critical darling.
- Leos Carax's Holy Motors is a deconstruction of this.
- The Lovers, a well-made 1958 drama by Louis Malle about upper-middle-class alienation, ennui, and the liaisons of bored housewives, managed to be permanently recorded in United States judicial history by being the subject of Jacobellis v. Ohio, which thanks to a sex scene ran afoul of Ohio's obscenity laws. The US Supreme Court determined that movies and other works with explicit content but redeeming artistic merit cannot, under the First Amendment, be censored. However, it is most noted for Justice Potter Stewart's famous statement about "hard-core pornography", viz., "I know it when I see it". Stewart went on to say that this film does have artistic merit and thus is not porn, making The Lovers one of the few works ever to officially be declared to be of serious artistic value in a government document.
- Perceval le Gallois from Eric Rohmer is very much this. In a attempt to stay faithful to Chrétien de Troyes's text (and to be as literary and unrealistic as possible), it's very distanced : all the effects are intentionally obvious, all the decors are made of monochrome painted cardboard and aren't on scale (to emulate Medieval illustration), the background is plain blue etc.To be more up to the trope, Rohmer modernized the text of Chrétien de Troyes in a way that it is technically modern French, but with the original syntax and metric (octosyllabic versification) and often with an archaic (but correct) vocabulary.
- All the music is, off course, from the period and played by in-universe musicians. Though it is a great film for those familiar with Medieval literature, it's Le Film Artistique on LSD for most.
- This kind of thing inspired Gene Hackman's famous line from Night Moves: "I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kinda like watching paint dry."
- Many "arthouse" independent short films on YouTube are heavily artistique. See this for a radiant example. The only thing missing is the "Fin" at the end.
- Just about everything ever made by American Writer-Director Harmony Korine, most known for Gummo, Julien Donkey-Boy, Spring Breakers, and Trash Humpers.
- Much of Pier Paolo Pasolini's work, especially Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom and Teorema.
- Luchino Visconti occasionally, with La Terra Trema and Death In Venice as outstanding examples. The latter could be a trope codifier (slow-paced, ponderous arguments on art and beauty, little dialogue) if not for its modest length. Not necessarily his better-known films though: Rocco and His Brothers and The Leopard, say, are certainly long but relatively conventional on a narrative and photographic level.
- Joseph Losey in his later career; he rarely met a baroque camera angle or overwrought symbol he didn't like. The results vary from excellent (The Servant) to atrocious (The Assassination of Trotsky).