Post-modernism

a brief introduction

Post-modernism ± or postmodernism ± is a term that is used to denote a particular style of film that has developed mostly since about 1980.

Before we get to film, just a burst of background.

(as brief as possible, I promise)

Post-modernism is a philosophy ± a way of thinking about and looking at the world ± that developed long before films began to express some of its ideas. It is not necessary to understand the philosophy to be able to discuss post-modernism in film, and if you find it difficult to grasp, don't worry ± you are not alone. One recent book on post-modern theory points out, "It is difficult to talk about post-modernism because nobody really understands it."

(Post-modern films, on the other hand, are appreciated and understood by their audiences.) However, for those who would like to try, here goes:

Post-modern belief is that a correct description of reality is impossible. This is because a. all truth is limited, approximate, and is constantly evolving; b. no theory can ever be proved true ± we can only show that a theory is false; c. no theory can ever explain all things; d. thus absolute and certain truth that explains all things is unobtainable.

Actually, Aristotle said the same thing more than 2000 years ago: Finally, if nothing can be truly asserted, even the following claim would be false: the claim that there is no true assertion.

Nothing's new!

Post-modernism, then can be summed up

in the immortal words of former US president Bill Clinton: That depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is.

OK so far?

These ideas can be seen to apply to a certain type of post-modern film, such as Memento or Run, Lola, Run, that question the very basis of socalled reality. More about this later.

'Post-modernism' as applied to the visual arts ± of which film is one ± is also used in a slightly different way. This can be seen most easily in architecture. (What follows is a bit over-simplified, but you will get the idea.) Post-modernism is exactly what it says: it is 'after modernism'. The artistic movement before it was 'modernism'.

The one before that ± before modernism ± was the beaux arts or 'arts and crafts' movement, in which decoration was given precedence over utility in the hope of 'making life beautiful'.

form over function

Modernism was a direct response to this:
utility was favoured over decoration, and materials were left bare so their purpose was displayed. Beauty came from 'order'

function over form

Post-modernism was a revolt against the 'function over form' approach, which often alienated the public. Buildings can be attractive and functional.

form and function are of equal importance

How something is done (or made) is as important as what is done or made ± and the one does not necessarily serve the other.

The key features of the wonderful Sydney Opera House are the shell-like roofs above the Opera Theatre and Concert Hall ± a design which is post-modern because it has nothing to do with the function of the concert halls below.

Another feature of post-modern architecture ± like postmodern films ± is re-cycling the past, returning to decoration and ornamentation and mixing styles from different periods and places. A building might mix elements reminiscent of a number of architectural styles ± Renaissance, Baroque, neoclassical, Gothic, modernist ± in the same façade.

In the same way, the Gotham City Bo Welch created for Tim Burton's Batman Returns (1992) includes references to art deco and other architectural styles.

The dystopic Los Angeles of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) has often been cited as the epitome of the post-modern city. The film's production design gives evidence of numerous historical influences; rather than a vision of ultramodern skyscrapers and orderly, mechanised interiors, it is rather a hodgepodge of recycled decay.

So to recapitulate: the post-modern film as a created work of art is as important as the story it is telling.

Instead of character, settings, cinematography, music etc being there to serve the story, to help tell it as effectively as possible, they take on an importance of their own.

The film-maker who so chooses has total freedom to create a cinematic world ± a diegesis ± that is idiosyncratic, anachronistic, fantastic or whatever, and that does not necessarily obey laws of logic.

For example Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy was made with the integrity of traditional film-making.

The diegesis is totally consistent, fully realised and completely believable within the parameters of the story being told. We do not question its reality while we watch the films.

Brian Helgeland's A Knight's Tale (2001), however, while set in a supposedly medieval time setting ± and even with real historical characters, such as the Black Prince ± has its joust crowd singing along with 'We Will Rock You' by Queen, and its leading lady in designer dresses that owe more to the twentieth century than the fourteenth.

So basically it means that, whereas the media were previously believed to mirror, reflect or represent reality,

now the media are seen to constitute a new media reality of their own.

They are the reality.

Post-modern films ± and remember that only a small percentage of the films being made can be labelled in this way ± are not necessarily creating (or recreating) a real world.

The movie is its own reality

and we are likely to find that we are reminded constantly that it is a movie we are watching.

as when special effects obtrude:

One of Clem's legs has disappeared as Joel's memory of this incident starts to fade, in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

As another memory fades, the books on the shelves behind Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clem (Kate Winslet) lose their titles and covers.

or when characters break the 'fourth wall and speak directly to the audience« (Speaking directly to the audience isn't always an indicator that a film is post-modern ± it goes back to Shakespeare and even earlier ± but it is one of the techniques that postmodern films make use of. Remember: just because a dog has four legs doesn't make everything with four legs a dog.)

Director John Hughes often has his characters talking directly to the camera but Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) may be the definitive narrator, commentator, and chastiser; like Animal in The Muppet Movie, he even tells the audience to go home at the end.

Here he explains the best ways to fake sickness to get out of going to school.

After his parents leave the room, Ferris looks us in the eye and says "Incredible! One of the worst performances of my career and they never doubted it for a second."

Woody Allen's Annie Hall (1977) Woody Allen brings Marshall McLuhan into the film to tell selfimportant movie-goer Russell Horton, "You know nothing of my work! How you got to teach anything is beyond me!" Woody looks at us and says,

"Boy, if life were only like this!"

In the same movie, screen text shows what the characters are really thinking even as they chat about other things.

In some post-modern films and TV shows, characters talk about themselves as characters, or the movie they are in. this is being 'self-referential'

as in this example from Doonesbury ± a very post-modern strip

It is a feature of a number of TV programmes, such as Boston Legal, when references are made to other episodes or even seasons,

and It's Garry Shandling's Show, in which he would come out and chat to the audience about what was going to happen in the day's episode.

In Moonlighting (the series which started Bruce Willis's career) the two leads would often discuss the episode and the script-writing, complaining if they weren't happy with what they had had to do.

In movies, self-referencing was used in comedy long before anyone started talking about post-modernism. as in Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles (1974):

Cleavon Little

Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) ± named for glamorous forties star Hedy Lamarr ± says, "You will be risking your lives, whilst I will be risking an almost-certain Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor."

Alone in his office, he looks into the camera, musing, "But where would I find such a man? [pause] Why am I asking you?"

Comedy has often broken the 'rules' like this. The difference with post-modernism is that the techniques are used for more than just to get a laugh.

As in Wayne's World (1992): When Wayne holds a Pepsi and intones that it is the "choice of a new generation" with a wink and a nod, it is doubly postmodern:

it is an example of product placement* ± in which advertising, entertainment, and 'art' are merged, and at the same time it responds to the increasing cynicism about such marketing ploys, letting the audience in on the joke even while the film still benefits financially from it.
(* Product-placement is the practice of advertisers' paying film producers to include their product in a prominent spot.)

So post-modern cinema can loosely be said to describe films in which our suspension of disbelief is destroyed, or at the very least toyed with,

not to spoil our enjoyment of the films, but to to free us up to appreciate the works on other levels,

and to give the film-makers greater freedom in how they express their ideas.

Now, just a quick bit of the history of post-modernism in the cinema for those who are interested. (If you're not, won't be long.)

Post-modernism came into films via European theatre, developing from the 'alienation effect' developed by German playwright Bertolt Brecht.

Brecht said that the theatre should not be a place of wishfulfilment and escapism, but should challenge its audiences and make them think. Part of that challenge was to stop pretending plays were real, and acknowledge that it was actors playing parts on stage. In his plays, actors might step out of character, speak directly to the audience and sometimes involve the audience.

Some European cinema directors, such as Jean Luc Godard (France) and Luis Bun el (Spain) adapted Brecht's ideas in their films as early as the 1960s.

At a time when Hollywood movies were all about escapism, these ideas were seen as radical.

It was not until about 1980 that English-language cinema began to be seriously influenced by these ideas.

One of the first post-modern English language films is The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), based on the novel by John Fowles. The film has a dual narrative. One narrative is that of the novel, set in 1867 Lyme Regis; a young man abandons his fiancée when he falls in love with a mysterious woman. in the other narrative, Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons play the actors who are making the movie of the novel.

Just as their characters in the film begin an affair, so the actors do in real life.

The film narrative moves back and forwards between the movie story and that of the actors making the movie. In other words, as you watch the film of The French Lieutenant's Woman, you also watch the story of the actors who star in that film.

Post-modern films, then, draw attention to themselves as artifices, as something created

they do not let you forget that they are films and not reality

and in case you think that that means they are going to be less enjoyable than purely escapist films, remember that some of the most exciting and popular films since 1980 are considered post-modern: Romancing the Stone The Matrix Blade Runner Austen Powers The Truman Show Pulp Fiction Groundhog Day Ghostbusters Back to the Future Scary Movie Pleasantville

Moulin Rouge

So what are the features of post-modern films? Some or all of«
yoften tongue in cheek yinsider jokes

ya deliberately artificial approach yself-awareness

multiple styles non-linear narratives confusion between image and reality
yallusions to and quotations from old movies and other modern films

even to other movies the actors have been in

Let's look at this question of quoting from or making reference to other films, or to other media.

It is sometimes referred to as an 'hommage' (which is French for 'homage' and is pronounced 'omm-ahge').

Another term for this ± one you don't need to know but will impress people if you use ± is 'bricolage'.

Here is an example of 'bricolage' from the world of art.

The artist creates his works by taking photographs of real buildings, roads, parking garages etc, chopping them up, and then reassembling them into hyper-real images like this one.

"highway composition" by Kazuhiko "Palla" Kawahara

other useful terms are 'inter-textuality' allusion parody and pastiche quotation

parody refers to the use of various styles, genres, or texts for a critical purpose pastiche is simply the mimicking of past forms without an underlying critical perspective: 'neutral mimicry without parody's ulterior motives' Of course, whether a particular borrowing is seen as parody or pastiche may well be a matter of opinion.

The main purpose ± apart from reminding us that every film is made in the context of the films that have gone before ± is to cast doubts on the reality of the story being told,

or to provide greater depth to the fictional reality. Viewers who recognise the references will have this experience enriched by their knowledge of the previous work.

For example, when Quentin Tarentino cast the actress Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997),

it was because of her past image as a sex symbol in 1970s blaxploitation films such as Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), and he wanted to channel that legacy into his own film.

Let's see how inter-textuality works in action.

O Brother Where Art Thou (2000)

Written and directed by the Coen Brothers, it is the tale of three chain-gang escapees in 1930s Mississippi. 

The title comes from a 1941 movie called Sullivan's Travels, in which a Hollywood director goes looking for the 'real America' so he can make a film called 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' 

Many of the things Sullivan does in the film are also done by the three escapees: he rides a freight train,  walks the road,

sleeps rough, goes to the movies, gets sent to prison«

But the Coens don't just quote from one film. They also make many links to the ancient Greek poem, The Odyssey.

Their hero, brilliantly played by George Clooney, is called Ulysses Everett McGill; Ulysses is the Roman name for Odysseus, the protagonist of The Odyssey.

Like Odysseus (Ulysses), Everett and his friends encounter

sirens,

a blind prophet

and a one-eyed giant (the Cyclops), played here by John Goodman.

They also encounter Governor Pappy O'Daniel (Charles Durning), who is campaigning for re-election. 

He is based on W. Lee (Pappy) O'Daniel who really served as Governor ± though of Texas and not Mississippi ± from 1938 to 1942. Like the film's Pappy, he owned flour mills. 

They pick up Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King) at a cross-roads in the middle of nowhere. 

He is based on a famed blues guitarist of the same name who, according to folk legend, sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads in exchange for his prodigious talent.

The film does not just quote, it revises:

it is an archetypal scene of Americana ± the pie cooling on the window sill

like the small boys in the stories, our boys steal the pie and run

but then Delmar's face appears ± and he has a bank note in his hand

the traditional story has been revised ± the pie is stolen but it is also paid for, which the Tom Sawyers never did.

Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge (2001) is a treasury of references to literature, to history, to musicals and other movies; and to modern pop music. Its story comes from opera (La Bohème and La Traviata) and from Greek mythology; among the characters is the artist Toulouse-Lautrec, who painted the dancers at the real Moulin Rouge in the late nineteenth century, and Sate, the composer;

the music is a mixture ± from David Bowie's 'Nature Boy' to 'The Sound of Music' to Madonna's 'Like a Virgin'.

Satine (Nicole Kidman) sings as her opening number a song originally sung by Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953),

'Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend' with snippets of Madonna's 'Material Girl' added.

but her costume is like the one Marilyn wore in Bus Stop (1956).

The top hat she wears is an allusion to Marlene Dietrich, a big star of the thirties

and the glorious red dress to Rita Hayworth, glamorous star of the forties.

± thus investing Kidman's Satine with the glamour of the big stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Luhrmann even makes allusion to his own work. The red 'L'Amour' sign on the side of the building

appears in his film omeo + Juliet, and was part of the stage set for his production of La Bohème for Australian Opera.

Pleasantville (1998): firemen rescue a cat from a tree in a tableau that mimics the great Iwo Jima memorial in Washington.

Margaret (Marley Shelton) tempts David with an apple in a gentle parody of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden

and the great mural painted by Mr Johnson (Jeff Daniels) is a nod to the

controversial ± and destroyed ± mural painted by Diego Rivera in the Rockefeller Centre in the 1930s

and so likens the impact of the Pleasantville mural to that of the Rivera mural, which outraged the Establishment of the time.

Even Shrek parodies the fight scenes in The Matrix ± one post-modern film parodying another.

The Matrix (1999) is rich in post-modern allusions, from Alice in Wonderland to Ovid's Metamorphoses, from Greek Mythology to the Bible and the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The Oracle, who shares many of the attributes of the original Greek oracle, also shares the colour scheme of Michelangelo's Delphic Oracle on the great ceiling,

and so is imbued with the authority and gravitas of ancient wisdom.

Pastiche, remember, describes the combining together of different styles and content from different periods within the same text, such as when a music video uses a montage of images from classic films, advertising, television, or rap,

or when a movie director chooses to use a number of different styles within the one film.

Quentin Tarentino's Kill Bill (2003) is a pastiche of a wide variety of sources, genres and styles, mostly taken from the movies he watched as a kid. ‡ Hong Kong kung-fu films, ‡ grindhouse style fight scenes, ‡ comic book set-ups ‡ spaghetti westerns ‡ Chinese and Japanese films ‡ horror "I steal from every single movie ever made. If people don't like that, then tough tills, don't go and see it, all right? I steal from everything. Great artists steal; they don't do hommages." Empire magazine interview, 1994

It is Tarentino who is credited with bringing post-modernism into mainstream film-making. Before Pulp Fiction, it was the preserve of independent and 'art-house' films. Pulp Fiction (1994) is full of references to other films, including to John Travolta, one of its stars, in his earlier movie Saturday Night Fever. The use of allusion and quotation mocks the whole idea of a single version of reality. This fragmentation and focus on surface images is a comment on the film itself: it both reflects on the lack of coherent meaning, as well as providing an ironic humour.

But there is far more than inter-textual references to the post-modernism of Pulp Fiction. You'll remember that the basic tenet of the post-modern philosophy is that there is no absolute truth. Everything is relative. One of the way films demonstrate this idea is through nonlinear storytelling, which is where the narrative is presented out of sequence, or where it defies linear logic; or via multiple storylines. If you tell the same story from more than one perspective ± and sometimes out of order ± then you get relative truth, since no two experiences are the same.

In a way that has become the trademark of Tarentino's films, Pulp Fiction tells its three stories in a non-linear, indeed a circular, narrative, so that it finishes where it started. Some other examples:

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Memento both ± for quite different reasons ± tell their stories backwards, so the viewer must constantly re-evaluate what has been learned.

Sliding Doors (1998) gives two contrasting versions of what happens to London publicist Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow):

once when she catches a train, and the alternative version when she misses it.

Woody Allen is the quintessential post-modern director. His films frequently question the validity or truth of a simple reality. Deconstructing Harry (1997) ± its very title suggests post-modernism ± embodies the idea of multiple perspectives that often marks his movies. Harry is a writer who has written a book based on his life, infuriating his family and friends (and especially his ex-wives), who saw the events he writes about in quite different ways.

The movie cuts between real time and outrageously embellished versions of stories from his life as told in his book.

Woody Allen's Melinda and Melinda (2004) tells the story of Melinda, once as a comedy

and once as a drama.

Tom Twyker's Run Lola Run (1998) presents three different scenarios for Lola's quest to take money across the city to save her boyfriend.

In each version, a variable changes, and so the course of events is different.

It has been suggested that it has the logic of a video game rather than a typical feature film.

In Stranger than Fiction (2006), Will Ferrell is an IRS agent who discovers he's actually a character in a novel being written by Emma Thompson.

Worse than that, he realises she is looking for ways to kill him off ± and he sets out to try to change her mind.

Very clever, very funny!

American Splendor (2003) is one of the most fascinating postmodern films. It combines several levels of reality. It tells the story of Harvey Pekar, a clerk who began to create a comic strip out of his own dull life. Because he couldn't draw, he got several other artists to draw the strips. Their styles are all different and this is reflected in the film. Harvey is played by Paul Giamatti and his wife by Hope Lange; but the real Harvey and his wife appear in the film also, as do the comic versions of them.

Adaptation (2002) is written by Charlie Kaufman and his twin brother Donald Kaufman. It is about Charlie's failed attempts to write a screenplay of a book called The Orchid Thief. Charlie's frustration is contrasted with his brother's success in writing a popular screenplay. Both characters are played by Nicolas Cage. Except there is no Donald; Charlie doesn't actually have a brother (except in the movie). The film also includes the writer of The Orchid Thief (played by Meryl Streep) ± a real book ± and the orchid thief himself (Chris Cooper), who is a character in her book.

In many ways, Robert Altman's brilliant satire of the film industry The Player (1992) sums it all up. It is a prime example of self-referential knowingness. It is set in a film studio, and opens with a clapper-board, signifying that it is film about making films.

Its opening shot lasts an astonishing nine minutes and tracks various characters as they move about at the start of the day.

Dialogue is all improvised and includes a discussion on the previously longest tracking shot in cinema, Orson Welles' 3 minute opening shot in A Touch of Evil.

The film features cameos by about 40 Hollywood stars as themselves,

Angelica Huston

Jack Lemmon

Burt Reynolds

as well as Julie Roberts and Bruce Willis acting in a scene from a movie being made.

And in the end, we find that the whole film is about the making of the film we have been watching.

And one last word about The Matrix; as with Pulp Fiction, there is far more to it as a post-modern text than inter-textual references.

Neo has discs hidden inside a book,

which is a copy of Simulacra and Simulation, by French philosopher Jean Baudrillard.

When Morpheus says to Neo, "Welcome to the desert of the real",

he is quoting Baudrillard.

The film has attempted to give visual expression to Baudrillard's ideas by having two worlds: the 'real' world and the digital world, which we all think is real. The Matrix is of course not the only film to raise questions about what is real and what is illusion in our world. Others include The Truman Show (1998) and Minority Report (2002).

Another important aspect of post-modernism is that film is just one among many types of media: TV, music videos, comic strips, graphic novels etc
yPopular culture interacts with and feeds off other examples of the genre and indeed other types of culture:

‡ films feed off films, off television, off music ‡ advertising feeds off films, ‡ off music, ‡ off rap, and they in turn use and quote and allude to the others.

The advent of the DVD has added yet another dimension. Now directors can show scenes they had to leave out but don't want to lose; can talk about the film, in a director's commentaries etc extras can explain special effects, and so on«

the ultimate in post-modernism!

Finally, here are a few other post-modern movies that are worth a look.

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