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Emma Heyn Ms. Caira Barret & Mr.

Conor OKelly 18 January 2014

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Using specic examples from two or more lms of your own choosing, what do you see as the dening characteristics of modernist vs. postmodernist cinema?
Modernist and postmodernist cinema is the exploration of a particular narrative style

Film Essay

that has been extensively studied within the past decade. In this essay I will be investigating the primary themes and identifying factors of these two genres, using the examples of Ingmar Bergmans Persona and Quentin Tarantinos Pulp Fiction in order to compare and contrast the applications of these techniques in practice.

Modernism Modernism has been dened as: a style or movement in the arts that aims to depart signicantly from classical and traditional forms1 while postmodernism is classied as: a late

20th-century style and concept in the arts, architecture, and lm which represents a departure from modernism and is characterised by the self-conscious use of earlier styles and conventions, a mixing of different artistic styles and media, and a general distrust of theories.2 Through simply looking at these simplied denitions, we can immediately see

that both modernism and post-modernism were essentially trying to split from the conventions and rules set by their preceding cinematic and societal norms. In order to understand why this departure occurred, we must rst look back in history to the emergence of these categories.

Modernism and Post-modernism were both reactions and responses to their immediate sociological contexts, inuenced by everything from current affairs, nancial situations such as capitalism and communism, war, protests; in short, a cumulation of experiences that became the catalysts for a new vision that was expressed on the big screen.
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Oxford Dictionary of English. Oxford Dictionary of English. !1


Modernism emerged rst in the 1920s, then rose to prominence to a much greater extent in the 1960s. Modernism was marked by its ambiguity in narrative, rst and foremost. and is a very difcult genre to pin down, although Hamish Ford points out that: If the contemporary digital and scholarly era has seen signicant rethinking of historical accounts of cinema per se, modernist temporality has always been particularly difcult to reconcile thanks to its common disregard for narrative-based linear, teleological and non-reexive forms. This problem only escalates when modernism is commonly deemed to have passed, its presumptive internal progress and cultural currency curtailed by diverse forces including the increasing politicization of lm theory, Hollywoods 1970s resurgence, growing scholarly emphasis on genre and popular cinema, the advent of post- classical mainstream forms, and gradually increasing focus on the diverse glories of recent world cinema. Orr starts Cinema and Modernity, his deantly pro-modernism book written at the height of much lm scholarships post- modern embrace of Hollywood and popular forms, thus: In the cinema the modern is already history. But it has never been replaced. This is the paradox which confronts us in looking at lm over the last fty years.3

Hollywood had quite clearly manufactured a cornerstone for writers and directors alike that was dictated by the need for lms to set out a clear beginning, middle, and end, with distinct metaphors and clear analogies. Modernism completely broke this mould. If we take the example of Bergmans Persona, for instance, within the rst ten minutes of the lm we are presented with a series of seemingly unsystematic and eclectic images; a childrens cartoon ickering on a projector, a large spider crawling up a wall, and iconically; a child reaching towards a massive image of a woman who stares blankly out of her photograph. Bergman says, in a sort of pseudo-explanation for why he creates his lms in such a radical manner, that: These are split second impressions that disappear as quickly as they come, yet leave behind a mood- like pleasant dreams. It is a mental state, not an actual story, but one abounding in fertile associations and images.4

In a sense, what Bergman created with Persona was an opportunity for the viewer to construct his or her own narrative from the images and events placed in front of them, to a degree, encouraging them to form their own opinions of the lm, and be able to come away with an experience and criticism that was entirely unique to the individual.
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Hamish Ford, The Return of 1960s modernist cinema. pg.157 I make movies, Horizon 3, no. 1 september 1960 !2

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The response to Persona was mixed, some hailed it while other critics riled against it: That Ingmar Bergman was commonly attacked in Sweden and elsewhere in the late 1960s for his purportedly apolitical and bourgeois cinema is now largely informative for the fact that his critics were asking the famous art house director to provide ethico-political certainty and belief completely at odds with his burgeoning modernism and philosophical position. In utilizing familiar forms, no matter how fragmentary and self-consciously presented, such exemplary 1960s modernist lms as Persona, Leclisse/Eclipse (Antonioni 1962), Lanne dernire Marienbad/ Last Year in Marienbad (Resnais 1962), Szegnylegnyek/The Round-Up (Jancs 1966), 2 ou 3 choses que je sais delle/Two or Three Things I Know About Her (Godard 1966) or Sedmikrsky/ Daisies (Chytilov 1966) are unable to navigate escape from the ideological and moral residue of the culture they render, come from and enter into. This reconstituted, vastly tamperedwith use of familiar aesthetic forms results in properly immanent and reexive accounts of the given modernity from and into which the lms emerge.5!

Eclectically inuenced by science, art, psychology; modernism was, in some ways, a reection of a new-found universality of education and experience, playing with the techniques and narratives that were developing in the world around that with unabated enthusiasm. However, while modernism is certainly seen in many cases as a break from cinematic social norms, it must be noted that: modernist cinema is essentially narrative, but its narrative forms are based on interactions unknown or rarely apparent in both classical Hollywood and art cinema because they are based not in physical contact but in different forms of mental responses. These unusual human interactions determine [such lms] specic narrative patterns...this means that while such modernism is critical and often radical, it seldom if ever unambiguously attacks the reality portrayed on-screen. Rather than a critically blunted compromise, however, these lms soberly face the fundamental facts faced by modern art from within its economic and political real, as opposed to mounting a condent critique from an assumed alternative position. The most radical 1960s modernist feature lms even Godards are usually quite oblique in their political address, or enclosed in quotations. Rather, what we nd instead are those markers of uncertainty, unpredictability and incalculability emphasized by Kovcs. It is precisely these qualities that make an

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Hamish Ford, The Return of 1960s modernist cinema. pg. 159 !3


aesthetically and philosophically radical lm and quintessential example of post-war modernist cinema like Persona (Bergman 1966) still so challenging.6

One interesting concept that I came across while studying these genres is that they are not necessarily mutually exclusive categories.. modernism and post-modernism bleed into other genres of lm and narrative, and as such their own dening features can be difcult to extract. As such we must understand that modernism and post-modernism were not necessarily dened as a separate genre within their own immediate context, even if they were seen to be breaking away from the traditions that had been set. We, as the modern viewers are able to take a step back from the environment in which these lms were created, we can see these movements in the context of a much larger and greater historical narrative, although we may be oblivious to our own creations and genres.

However, while there is debate as to what precisely denes a lm as modernist there does seem to be some form of mutual consensus on the following features: Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, modernism focuses on a direct spectator-director relationship. There is a sense of individuality in the viewing experience and as such no lm can be critiqued in exactly the same way, the individual is able to draw from personal connections and associations, much like the art of the cubists and surrealists, an art form which, in part, inspired modernism in cinema. This leads onto the next feature; one that suggests that there is no artistic limit to what should, or can be done on screen. Although this is not simply breaking away from tradition for rebellions sake, this is a statement that conformity is not the be all and end all of narrative. In terms of storyline and characterisation, dual narratives became a popular concept, where we could explore the same account from a variety of perspectives, engaging with the material at hand in a more three-dimensional form, so to speak. Finally, there is the reection of society portrayed on screen, in some cases positive, in most cases a more self mocking with a focus on the farcical, the materialistic, leading into a more in-depth psychoanalysis, a search for the true self.


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Hamish Ford, The Return of 1960s modernist cinema. pg.152 !4


While post-modern lms do share many of these traits; such as the iconic dual narratives of Tyler Durden and our protagonist, the unnamed narrator in David Finchers Fight Club and the self reection and extensive pulp culture references found in Pulp Fiction, Post-modernism is marked as its own kind of transition away from the modern genre: Postmodernism/Postmodernity is associated with an awareness of societal and cultural transitions after World War II and the rise of mass-mediated consumerist popular culture in the 1960s-1970s. In culture and the arts, interpreters of this era describe the kinds of cultural hybrids that emerge from mixing (or rendering inoperative) the categories of "high" and "low" cultures, and hybrids in cultural forms that have developed in regions where local identities seek denition against, or in dialog with, Western "hegemonic" cultures (the mixing of "ofcial" cultures and those dened as "other" in modernist ideologies). Postmodern views of history and national identity typically cancel a commitment to modern "master narratives" or "metanarratives" like progress and goal-directed history, and disrupt myths of national and ethnic identities as "natural" foundations of unity.7

Post-modernism is concerned with destabilising the norms of narrative and general traditions of directors and screenwriters, with a particular focus on specic images and examples alluding to then current popular culture, and perhaps most importantly, it responded to modernism with a direct blow to metanarratives. In context, post-modernism rose to prominence from the late 1970s to the 90s: In the 1990s, understanding youth necessitates consideration of post-modern popular culture as a formative experience. It may also require in the rst instance, accepting certain generalisations about a generation which grew up and out of the 1970s and 80s. For these young people, coming of age in postindustrial times has meant coming to terms with a network of cultural and economic change. 8

There are so many lms that encapsulate the spirit of post-modernism that choosing one is almost impossible, many of them absorb one key feature of post-modernism and absolve or rarely focus on the rest: for instance, one of the key features of post-modernism is the focus on technology. While modernism took a wary and cautious approach to technology, post-modernism expresses a more neutral view generally, and shows the importance of a

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Irvine. "The Postmodern, Postmodernism, Postmodernity: Approached to Po-Mo". Pg. 7

Susan Hopkins (Spring 1995). "Generation Pulp". Youth Studies Australia pg. 1. !5


humanitarian and technological relationship, perhaps most famously displayed in the movie Blade Runner. The lm I have chosen as a sort of pseudo case study is Pulp Fiction. Writer Susan Hopkins writes of Pulp Fictions importance in a post-modern context: It is my contention that these complex, abstract notions might be anchored by analysis of the exemplary Gen-X lm, Pulp Fiction. Pulp has taken the concerns of the day and put them to work in the imagemedium of the times. I contend that the lm provides a timely and spectacular starting point for discussion of identity in post-modern times. It provides a means for imagining the relationship between personal and cultural ction: for making and being made by generation Pulp. The concept of unstable narrators and dualistic viewpoints is very apparent within the lm, another feature of the postmodern condition, and includes an eclectic combination of characters each telling a unique story within the same narrative, for instance, the two gangsters Vincent Vega and Jules Winneld carrying out orders for their godfather-esque boss while the Boxer, Butch Coolidge double-crosses said boss. These fragmented connections seem to serve as a metaphor for the genre itself; a mixture of inuences and skills thrown together to create an entirely new category, almost deantly constructed from old material.

The director as the auteur of the lm is very apparent in Pulp Fiction, another common feature with both modern and post-modern lms. Quentin Tarantino has always worked with lm, in some way or another, and so his lm are dripping with allusions to other works, ideas and concepts: The success of Pulp Fiction was not uniformly well received. Its characterisation was, after all, supercial and shallow. As art, it was ugly entertainment an indulgence in the playfulness of amorality. Love it or hate it, however, the lm is a product of the times. Tarantino is a young director who grew up on a steady diet of popular culture television trash9. He groomed himself for Hollywood behind the counter of a video store

where he watched movies incessantly and obsessively. This mindset of constant absorption led to his lms being simultaneously relatable and open to interpretation; while the recycled material and references draw the audience in from a nostalgic perspective, the words and actions take on a new meaning within his own lm and, to a degree, are able to stand on their own.

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Susan Hopkins (Spring 1995). "Generation Pulp". Youth Studies Australia Pg 2 !6


Tarantinos paramount lm it a logical extension of his pulp ction media education. More importantly it speaks to a generation equally media literate on its own terms.10

Tarantino summed up his immersive lm education by saying: Others went to lm school, I went to the movies.

I have come to the conclusion that while modernism and post-modernism have many similar traits, come from a similar backgrounds which long to break away from the status-quo and into the more contemporary, the essential difference lays in the engagement and inclusiveness of the target audience. While modernism sought for a kind of intellectually aware audience for their lms, people who would understand the psychological and sociological ideas that were being projected in front of them, post-modernism wanted to engage with its audience by using material that would be recognised and loved by many, and showed a more inclusive and complex opinion on everything from technology to violence and the point of the human condition.

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Susan Hopkins (Spring 1995). "Generation Pulp". Youth Studies Australia . Pg 4 !7


Bibliography 1. John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson: The Oxford Guide to Film Studies Oxford University Press, 1998. 2. Jill Nelmes: Introduction to Film Studies 4th Edition, Routledge, 2007. 3. Susan Hopkins. "Generation Pulp". Youth Studies Australia, Spring 1995 4. Martin Irvine. "The Postmodern, Postmodernism, Postmodernity: Approached to Po-Mo 5. Hamish Ford, The Return of 1960s Modernist Cinema - Studies in Australasian Cinema, Volume 5 Number 2, Intellect Ltd Article, 2002.

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