Self-reflexivity is, by no means, a uniquely postmodern way to construct art. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is heavily self-reflexive through its direct references to theatrical production and indeed the intertextual mise-em-abyme of using a play within the play itself. However, postmodern self-reflexivity is driven by the emergence of new media. While modern media forms like photography and cinema emerged in the modernist, post-Industrial era of art history, postmodern filmmakers use the medium of film to comment on the effects of modern media forms, and the potentially pernicious aspects of their ambiguous future. Certain self-reflexive postmodern filmmakers constantly draw attention to the fact that they are making a film, and never leave the audience in doubt that they are watching a film. Indeed, composers explicitly reference other media texts in their deconstruction of the filmic form and the effects the filmic form on the viewer.
Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)
David Cronenberg’s masterpiece Videodrome tells the story of sensationalistic cable-television producer Max Renn (James Woods), who becomes physically and psychologically corrupted after watching a series of videotapes called ‘Videodrome’ – hour-long episodes of real-life violent, pornographic, sadomasochistic, plot-less snuff film. A vaginal cavity opens in Renn’s torso where he inserts the ‘Videodrome’ videotapes, hyperbolically signifying the synthesis of technology and humanity as a product of 20th Century technological evolution, and the psychosexual penetration of the media into the human psyche.
The sexual insertion of the ‘Videodrome’ tapes into his chest, like a hermaphroditic self-fertilising plant, suggests that Renn’s potential offspring will exhibit both human and technological qualities – that new media will change the evolution of humanity in a degrading way. In order to critique the psychological impacts of ultra-violent contemporary media texts, Cronenberg makes an ultra-violent contemporary media text; both the videotape in the film and Cronenberg’s film itself are called ‘Videodrome’, insinuating that watching Cronenberg’s film and other films like it will desensitise viewers to violence and sadomasochism.
Man Bites Dog (Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel and Benoit Poelvoorde, 1992)
It has been anecdotally claimed that, in the future, reality TV will contain live, real-life deaths, and the brilliance of Man Bites Dog lies in its ability to seamlessly integrate acerbic, hilarious satire with shocking, sickening violence to hyperbolically convey this message. We’ve seen Jamie Oliver perform an autopsy on an obese man; we’ve heard of the off-screen deaths of reality TV stars like Corey Haim. But Man Bites Dog takes this a step further. It is a mockumentary, where a film crew follows the racist, misogynistic and yet engagingly charismatic serial killer Ben (played by co-director Benoit Poelvoorde), who waxes lyrical about architecture, classical music and postmen, all while brutally murdering innocent people – all on-screen in the faux-documentary. As the film progresses, the people making the documentary about Ben become gradually complicit in his crimes, from holding a child’s legs as Ben suffocates the child, to barbarically raping a woman with Ben, loudly singing one word – ‘cinema’. They even come into contact with another film crew documenting the life of a different serial killer.
The undercurrent throughout Man Bites Dog is that the modern medium of film is partially to blame for modern crimes – allegorised through the filmmakers’ complicity – presciently portraying the post-Columbine argument that exposure to violent films is a trigger for real-life acts of violence. In its climactic postmodern move, Ben and all the documentarians are killed, symbolically removing the apparent filmmakers from the process of editing the documentary and leaving it up to others to find the footage and construct meaning with the available footage – a very literal portrayal of the ‘death of the author’. Man Bites Dog is not an easy viewing experience, and it is certainly not for the faint-hearted, but it is an extraordinary parable about the future of the cinematic medium.
Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 1997)
Funny Games is one of the most thoroughly postmodern films ever made. So explicitly does it defy categorisation that simply placing it in the ‘self-reflexivity’ category of postmodernism seems reductive. Michael Haneke uses the film’s simple premise – a bourgeois, heteronormative German family find themselves victims of a home invasion perpetrated by Paul (Arno Frisch) and Peter (Frank Giering) – to castigate genre and narrative conventions, chastise mainstream cinema audiences, and critique the use of violence in film as entertainment.
Funny Games is not a particularly violent film; rather than showing the violent “games” enacted by Peter and Paul, which would be used to ‘thrill’ the audience in a conventional Hollywood ‘thriller’, Haneke cuts away from the violence and instead shows its tragic aftermath. Instead of seeing the murder of a family member in the moment (I won’t spoil which one), we see Paul making a sandwich, and then see the aftermath of the death; instead of seeing Paul and Peter murdering the family’s dog, we see the mother discovering the dog’s body as Paul wryly winks to the audience. Haneke never lets the audience forget that they are watching a film. Appropriating the postmodern theatrical devices of Bertolt Brecht, the perpetrators ask the audience whose side we are on, comment that “we’re not up to feature film length yet”, and even rewind an event in the film using a quasi-magical remote control to give the audience what they expect and what they want – for the victims to be victorious – and then take it away from us.
In Funny Games, you get tension, as you would in a mainstream unambitious thriller, but it is seldom relieved. You get violence, as you would in a mainstream unambitious thriller, but very few thrills from it. Lying beneath the surface of the film is a subtle historical account of violence, from the names of Paul and Peter that allude to one of the earliest ultra-violent texts – the Bible – to the bellicose underbelly of children’s cartoons, as Paul and Peter refer to themselves as Beavis and Butthead. Haneke’s postmodern, post-structuralist manipulation of the audience is in service of a hypothesis not dissimilar to the theses of Videodrome and Man Bites Dog: that violence can never be entertaining or beneficial because the reality of violence is so innately damaging to human behaviour, echoing Jean Baudrillard’s postmodern exploration of how the media affects our perception of reality. To quote Michael Haneke himself, “people don’t like to be confronted with reality…even the most brutal violence [in the majority of conventional films] is shown in a way that you can consume it so that you are thrilled, not touched”.