Postmodern Cinema, Part One: An Introduction

I do not by any means claim to be an authority on postmodernism. To do so would be in contravention of the ethos of postmodernism, as ostensibly no-one can understand the absolute truth surrounding an idea – in this case, postmodernism itself. Already, I can tell that this is going to be a very confounding article: one full of my misunderstandings and misinterpretations of one of the most complex historical, philosophical and artistic ideologies ever, and peppered with pretension and masturbatory self-aggrandisement.

To quote Jean-Francois Lyotard, postmodernism is “incredulity towards metanarratives”; in other words, challenging the structures and lifestyles of the past in the quest for social reconstruction. Feminism, globalisation and even the spread of atheism can be seen as manifestations of postmodernism, deconstructing conventional social narratives. This ‘incredulity’ is extended in the analysis of texts, as both composers and responders apparently start to question, in a post-structuralist context, comfortable and conventional stories. Rejecting the semiotics of Saussure, where texts have entrenched, implicit meanings, critics like Jacques Derrida argue that there is not inherent truth in human communication and media. A postmodern reception of texts is driven by Roland Barthes’ consideration that responders are more important than an author’s identity and purpose in the process of generating meaning – indeed, the ‘death of the author’. Indeed, that truth is impossible.

Because my understanding of postmodernism is so relatively limited, I will invariably sound like a ostentatious pleb when trying to explain it. But as much as postmodernism is a literary and historical movement, though by no means an overarching and unified metanarrative in and of itself, postmodernism has also been integral in the innovation of contemporary cinema. However, relatively little has been written about postmodern cinema, and it is something that I find endlessly fascinating (undoubtedly more interesting than anyone reading this would find it).

The relationship between postmodernism and film is threefold: the form and style of a film can be postmodern, the subject matter of a film can be postmodern, and the way a film is interpreted can be postmodern.

Postmodern films can erode the conventions of narrative structures by self-reflexively commenting on the cinematic form itself and by combining or rejecting common film genres. They can repudiate conventional character archetypes, monomyths and the three-act structure by telling cyclic stories and fracturing linear time and space. Moreover, their content can be postmodern: films, particularly documentaries, in the postmodern period have begun to explore the illusiveness and ultimate intangibility of an authoritative, truthful account of an issue or event.

Film criticism is also an inherently postmodern idea. It is based in the idea that anyone can interpret a film however they want, without needing to consider what the composer actually wanted to convey. It is what facilitates film analysts like Rob Ager, who analyses films in inordinate detail – for instance, he interprets Stanley Kubrick’s The Shiningas a film about about Native American genocide and incestuous paedophilia. Though Ager’s conclusions sometimes clutch at straws, his videos and articles are brilliantly intriguing, and are no less valid than a surface-level review of a film that does not analyse anything beyond what the filmmaker is clearly trying to portray.*

Perhaps the most fascinating film critic working today is Armond White. In many regards, I am a massive Armond White apologist, and I adore his reviews in and of themselves. For those of you who don’t know who Armond White is, imagine your friend who only watches films that are made – without passion – for the commercial masses – films like Jack and Jill, Grown Upsand Transformers 2 – and has no interest in middlebrow art. Now give this friend a profound desire to uncover the unintended themes in ‘low culture’ texts, an IQ of about 450 and an exorbitant love of very high art as well…and you’re still only about 20% of the way to understanding the enigma that is Armond White. He loved Jack and Jill, Grown Ups and Transformers 2, but he compared 12 Years a Slave to Hostel and received death threats on Rotten Tomatoes after calling Toy Story 3 “drivel”. He simultaneously hates what the masses love, and loves what studios and producers think the masses will love. He espouses the postmodern erosion of boundaries between high culture and low culture.

Each one of his reviews is highly original, extraordinarily and beautifully written and intensely theologically and politically analytical. When you look at the way his reviews are written as singular entities, he is, in my opinion, the best film critic in the world, and often makes me wonder what I am even doing with my life. But I think he is ultimately a contrarian, appropriating the postmodern conception that the meaning of a film lies in the receiver rather than the author to suit his own – admittedly intriguing – agenda. His opinions sometimes seem inconsistent. He unequivocally condemns abortion in his negative review of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (incidentally my favourite film of the 2000s), yet he called for Noah Baumbach’s retroactive abortion in his negative review of Greenberg. His opinions seem to change from film to film, which is fine, but the motive always seems to be to condemn anything espoused by the “hipster” hoi polloi.**

But then again, if I want to be all postmodern, I shouldn’t try to arbitrarily assume Armond White’s purpose when reading his reviews. Oh god. I’m caught in an endless paradox of postmodernism within postmodernism, reminiscent of the play-within-the-play in Hamlet, one of the great self-reflexive texts ever written. Self-reflexivity…postmodernism…it’s an endless cycle. A cycle reminiscent of Albert Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus, one of the earliest postmodern literary works…

Hopefully some of the previous paragraph will make sense in the next two instalments of this article. Yes, there are four more parts to this. In the next two parts, I will be looking at what I believe are the five core tenets of postmodern cinema in more detail – self-reflexivity, pastiche, post-structuralist narratology, and memory and the elusiveness of truth – and giving three specific examples for each. I hope you continue to read the next two instalments if you have persisted through this, because I guarantee they will be more interesting than this introduction to postmodern film.

* My overview of Rob Ager is very brief. He is an incredible film theorist and I highly recommend you read and view some of his work here: http://www.collativelearning.com/. His analysis of The Shining is probably his magnum opus, so definitely watch these videos: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eWqTXPsDUMc and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0sUIxXCCFWw.

** Come on, read some Armond White. I implore you. It’s good stuff. http://www.nyfcc.com/2013/10/3450/

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4 thoughts on “Postmodern Cinema, Part One: An Introduction

  1. Neither of those theorists would call themselves postmodernists. In fact, Rob Ager has refuted that in his video response to Room 237.

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