Postmodernist film is a classification for works that articulate the themes and ideas of postmodernism through the medium of cinema. Postmodernist film attempts to subvert the mainstream conventions of narrative structure and characterization, and tests the audience's suspension of disbelief. Typically, such films also break down the cultural divide between high and low art and often upend typical portrayals of gender, race, class, genre, and time with the goal of creating something that does not abide by traditional narrative expression.
Overview of postmodernism
Postmodernism is a complex paradigm of different philosophies and artistic styles. The movement emerged as a reaction to high modernism. Modernism is a paradigm of thought and viewing the world characterized in specific ways that postmodernism reacted against. Modernism was interested in master and meta narratives of history of a teleological nature. Proponents of modernism suggested that social/political/cultural progress was inevitable and important for society and art. Ideas of cultural unity (i.e., the narrative of the West or something similar) and the hierarchies of values of class that go along with such a conception of the world is another marker of modernism. In particular, modernism insisted upon a divide between "low" forms of art and "high" forms of art (creating more value judgments and hierarchies). This dichotomy is particularly focused on the divide between official culture and popular culture. Lastly but, by no means comprehensively, there was a faith in the "real" and the future and knowledge and the competence of expertise that pervades modernism. At heart, it contained a confidence about the world and humankind's place in it.
Postmodernism attempts to subvert and resist and differ from the preoccupations of modernism across many fields (music, history, art, cinema, etc.). Postmodernism emerged in a time not defined by war or revolution but rather by media culture. Unlike modernism, postmodernism does not have faith in master narratives of history or culture or even the self as an autonomous subject. Rather postmodernism is interested in contradiction, fragmentation, and instability. Postmodernism is often focused on the destruction of hierarchies and boundaries. The mixing of different times and periods or styles of art that might be viewed as "high" or "low" is a common practice in postmodern work. This practice is referred to as pastiche. Postmodernism takes a deeply subjective view of the world and identity and art, positing that an endless process of signification and signs is where any "meaning" lies. Consequently, postmodernism demonstrates what it perceives as a fractured world, time, and art.
Postmodernist film – similar to postmodernism as a whole – is a reaction to the modernist works of its field, and to their tendencies. Modernist cinema, "explored and exposed the formal concerns of the medium by placing them at the forefront of consciousness. Modernist cinema questions and made visible the meaning-production practices of film." The auteur theory and idea of an author producing a work from his singular vision guided the concerns of modernist film. "To investigate the transparency of the image is modernist but to undermine its reference to reality is to engage with the aesthetics of postmodernism." The modernist film has more faith in the author, the individual, and the accessibility of reality itself than the postmodernist film.
Postmodernism is in many ways interested in the liminal space that would be typically ignored by more modernist or traditionally narrative offerings. The idea is that the meaning is often generated most productively through the spaces and transitions and collisions between words and moments and images. Henri Bergson writes in his book Creative Evolution, "The obscurity is cleared up, the contradiction vanishes, as soon as we place ourselves along the transition, in order to distinguish states in it by making cross cuts therein in thoughts. The reason is that there is more in the transition than the series of states, that is to say, the possible cuts--more in the movement than the series of position, that is to say, the possible stops." The thrust of this argument is that the spaces between the words or the cuts in a film create just as much meaning as the words or scenes themselves.
Postmodernist film is often separated from modernist cinema and traditional narrative film by three key characteristics. One of them is an extensive use of homage or pastiche, resulting from the fact that postmodern filmmakers are open to blending many disparate genres and tones within the same film. The second element is meta-reference or self-reflexivity, highlighting the construction and relation of the image to other images in media and not to any kind of external reality. A self-referential film calls the viewer's attention – either through characters' knowledge of their own fictional nature, or through visuals – that the movie itself is only a movie. This is sometimes achieved by emphasizing the unnatural look of an image which seems contrived. Another technique used to achieve meta-reference is the use of intertextuality, in which the film's characters reference or discuss other works of fiction. Additionally, many postmodern films tell stories that unfold out of chronological order, deconstructing or fragmenting time so as to, once again, highlight the fact that what is appearing on screen is constructed. A third common element is a bridging of the gap between highbrow and lowbrow activities and artistic styles – e.g., a parody of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling in which Adam is reaching for a McDonald's burger rather than the hand of God. This would exemplify the fusion of high and low because Michelangelo is widely regarded as one of the greatest of all painters, whereas fast food is commonly named among the lowbrow elements of modern society.
The use of homage and pastiche can, in and of itself, result in a fusion of high and low. For this reason, homage is sometimes accompanied by characters' value judgments as to the worth and cultural value of the works being parodied, ensuring the viewer understands whether the thing being referenced is considered highbrow or lowbrow.
Lastly, contradictions of all sorts – whether it be in visual technique, characters' morals, or other things – are crucial to postmodernism, and the two are in many cases irreconcilable. Any theory of postmodern film would have to be comfortable with paradoxes or contradictions of ideas and their articulation.
Aside from the aforementioned Pulp Fiction, films with postmodern elements include Blade Runner (1982), Fight Club (1999), Memento (2000), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Synecdoche, New York (2008), and the works of Wes Anderson.
Others include Blue Velvet, The Exterminating Angel, Ghost in the Shell, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Paris, Texas, Film Socialisme, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Thelma and Louise, Mulholland Drive, The Matrix trilogy, and Annie Hall are just a handful examples of postmodern cinema in practice.
The Coen brothers, Michael Haneke, Woody Allen, David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Peter Greenaway, François Truffaut, Charlie Kaufman, Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, Federico Fellini, Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze, Jim Jarmusch and Christopher Nolan are a few of the most popular and well-known purveyors of postmodern cinema. The majority of their work demonstrates many of the principles of postmodernist film-making.
Specific postmodern examples
Ridley Scott's Blade Runner might be the best known postmodernist film. Ridley Scott's 1982 film is about a future dystopia where "replicants" (human cyborgs) have been invented and are deemed dangerous enough to hunt down when they escape. There is tremendous effacement of boundaries between genres and cultures and styles that are generally more separate along with the fusion of disparate styles and times that is a common trope in postmodernist cinema. "The futuristic set and action mingle with drab 1940s clothes and offices, punk rock hairstyles, pop Egyptian style and oriental culture. The population is singularly multicultural and the language they speak is agglomeration of English, Japanese, German and Spanish. The film alludes to the private eye genre of Raymond Chandler and the characteristics of film noir as well as Biblical motifs and images." Here is a demonstration of the mixing of cultures and boundaries and styles of art. The film is playing with time (the various types of clothes) and culture and genre by mixing them all together to create the world of the film. The fusion of noir and science-fiction is another example of the film deconstructing cinema and genre. This is an embodiment of the postmodern tendency to destroy boundaries and genres into a self-reflexive product. "The postmodern aesthetic of Blade Runner is thus the result of recycling, fusion of levels, discontinuous signifiers, explosion of boundaries, and erosion. The disconnected temporality of the replicants and the pastiche of the city are all an effect of a postmodern, postindustrial condition: wearing out, waste."
Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction is another example of a postmodernist film. The film tells the interweaving stories of gangsters, a boxer, and robbers. The film breaks down chronological time and demonstrates a particular fascination with intertextuality: bringing in texts from both traditionally "high" and "low" realms of art. This foregrounding of media places the self as "a loose, transitory combination of media consumption choices." Pulp Fiction fractures time (by the use of asynchronous time lines) and by using styles of prior decades and combining them together in the movie. By focusing on intertextuality and the subjectivity of time, Pulp Fiction demonstrates the postmodern obsession with signs and subjective perspective as the exclusive location of anything resembling meaning.
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