The Greatest Piece of 21st Century Meta-Fiction
Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s mass trip via a portal on Floor 7 ½ into the mind of John Malkovich came pretty close. The pair’s film Adaptation - a fantastically self-aware rumble in the jungle - came even closer. It isn’t any of Paul Auster’s absorbing brain crack-ups. And it wasn’t even Ricky Gervais’ on-going project of pretending to write a shit TV show in Extras, before writing a shit TV show in reality.
No. The most exciting piece of post-modern meta-fiction this side of Y2K is a humble television documentary from 2002; ‘When Louis Met…Max Clifford’. It’s meta, alright. So meta that identifying the layers of reality and fiction becomes a bit painful. Watching it, and thinking about what it all means, simultaneously makes you feel more intelligent and more confused.
The documentary starts innocuously enough, but soon spirals into an awesome fun-house ride of role-reversing, second guessing, shadowy duplicity and meta-contextual madness.
One of the initially exciting things is that Louis Theroux’s normally highly slick and absorbing style is well and truly ruffled by Max Clifford. We’re familiar with his affected sense of faux-naïvety – a well-oiled brand of innocence which charms Americans until they are tripping over themselves to confess to being a racist, or believing in aliens.
Unsurprisingly, Max’s defence against this technique is sturdy as a rock. But similarly, Max grapples with which exact version of himself to present.
This is a monstrous clashing of two very constructed and carefully projected personalities. Simon Cowell keeps inexplicably popping up and he also wrestles earnestly with self-image. As our protagonists are deeply concerned with manipulating the image of themselves and those around them, the documentary is a three-way battle played through puzzling kaleidoscope of image and depiction.
So, with Louis’ usually solid faux-naïve style left flapping limply, as if he’s holding his flaccid willy in his hand, he faces a serious problem of how to present himself. The resulting identity crisis is both grotesque and inherently hilarious. As Louis follows Max and Simon to a photo op of Westlife at a children’s cancer hospital (repulsively described by Max as a “win-win situation”) we see the first layer of Louis’ personality peel off to reveal the ‘Ironic Intellectual Jester’. Standing awkward and lanky, he acts like an Oxford University student at a Liverpool Met freshers’ party. Slumming it with pop culture. Louis grins, unsure of his own level of irony: “Look that’s the lads. That’s Shane. I know my Westlife. Oh. It’s Micky. Woops.”
The mask has slipped and we see Louis descend further through various layers of himself. He forgets his default liberal, multiculturalist stance and starts chipping away at both Max and Simon to admit that Simon is gay. He also tries his hand at banter (“You’re turning the tables on me and I can’t handle it!”) and later confrontation.
But in a further questioning of identity and reality from this trippy post-modern masterpiece, the abandoning by Louis of his faux-naïve personality gives Max an opportunity to fill it. Identity is fluid and Max sporadically presents himself in the way that Louis normally would. At one point Max admits that he has just kept an undesirable story about Simon out of the papers. How did he do this? Well, he just sort of phoned them up and simply explained that the story wasn’t true and no harm done really, everyone’s happy.
Some slick fuddy-duddy charm offensive from Max right there. Reminds you of a certain naïf marksman somehow…
At one point, Max-the-prankster informs an associate that Louis was involved with a secret sex scandal and even claims that the sound of Louis protesting this (it is over the phone) is in fact Simon putting on a funny voice. Louis later looks confused and scared over the incident. So much so, in fact, that he starts drawing long, half-laughing/half-singing “har-haaaaaaar” noises from his mouth. This is a genuine odd-ball move from Louis and is possibly an allusion to another particularly self-referential and intertextual broadcaster, Alan Partridge.
One central motif is the idea of Max carefully manipulating the whole encounter and how it is portrayed in a variety of media contexts. Louis, meanwhile, stylises his own reality in the documentary – acting as Inspector Media, carefully separating the organic events from the managed ones. There are loads of occasions in which Louis discovers he has been duped by Max’s stage/reality-managing antics. But if the core reality that is being altered by Max is in fact itself a projected reality – i.e. presented through a documentary lens – then, well, what the fuck?
But the pièce de résistance, the jewel in this epic post-modern crown, comes when Max Clifford needs some groceries.
Paparazzi are gathered at the supermarket ready to snap Max, who acts as if this is perfectly normal when getting some bits from the shop. But Louis discovers that Max called ahead to inform the paparazzi of his shopping trip. Before this latest piece of manipulation can begin to sink in, Max and Louis—watched by both the BBC film crew and the paparazzi—bump into a Guardian journalist. The journalist, Simon Hattenson, had previously requested to do an interview with Louis, who had declined as he himself was interviewing Max. Simon Hattenson, here and now at the supermarket, turns up claiming to also be interviewing Max.
So now we have a BBC documentary maker interviewing Britain’s leading publicist, a Guardian journalist interviewing the BBC documentary maker and Britain’s leading publicist, a film crew recording the entire thing and a gaggle of paparazzi looking unsure, I’m sure, of what the fuck’s happening.
It’s a chaotic cauldron of refracted viewpoints, misshapen personalities and intertextual crossfire. There are images, and images of images, and images of those images. Everything in this scene is so far removed from anything even nearing an organic experience that it becomes impossible to navigate the intense web of simulacra. That’s bloody good meta.
After one last hilarious and destructive twist is added to the hyperreal mayhem, that’s it. It’s all over.
Like the best of weighty post-modern texts, the documentary ends with more questions than answers. The entire experience of Louis meeting Max is a complex game of strategy, in which both protagonists try to outmanoeuvre their opponent in the aim of simulating reality in a way they see fit. Nobody really wins, except for students and fans of meta-fiction. An anti-conclusion for our anti-heroes in this wonderfully confusing anti-narrative.
Gavin Williams - @GavindaJayaJaya