One of the prime characteristics of postmodern cinema is defiance against the narrative convention of genre. Genre is, essentially, a set of conventional rules that filmmakers conform to in order to make sure the audience is aware of, and comfortable with, the type of film they are seeing. Postmodern composers repudiate the concept of genre by either completely ignoring it, or by mixing together various genres and styles in a process known as ‘pastiche’, making it increasingly difficult to categorise a film in any one genre.
Pastiche is not exactly the most obscure manifestation of postmodernism – the best and most interesting mainstream directors working today, especially the Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino, employ this technique frequently. This fusion of disparate styles is reminiscent of the core postmodern tenet that the boundaries between low culture and high culture are being eroded, as it is unclear with some contemporary films whether they are made for a middlebrow/lowbrow audience, or whether they are intended to be viewed by hardcore cinephiles and other connoisseurs of high art.
Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
If Funny Games isn’t the ‘most’ postmodern film ever, then it is Ridley Scott’s cyberpunk film Blade Runner, with its fusion of divergent cultural iconography and sci-fi and film noir conventions permeating every scene. Much like other sci-fi classics like Metropolis, 2001: A Space Odyssey and even Videodrome, Blade Runner seamlessly integrates the two core tenets of the sci-fi genre – speculation on the evolution of technology, and speculation on the evolution of humanity. Blade Runner is about the creation of robots called Replicants who perfectly resemble humanity, and the film follows their rebellious desire to extend their predetermined life-span from four years by hunting down their maker, Eldon Tyrell. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a ‘blade runner’ – in other words, a hard-boiled detective taken directly from the film noir handbook – charged with terminating the apostate Replicants.
Deckard’s embodiment of the noir character archetype insinuates that disillusioned, downtrodden people will continue to exist even in a futuristic context. However, it is not merely the integration of two genres that makes Blade Runner a thoroughly postmodern film. Every frame oozes with the almost jarring intersection of high culture and low culture, and disparate cultural styles. Baroque, European architecture provides the spatial backdrop for the sordid Asian food stalls. The street language spoken in 2019 Los Angeles is ‘cityspeak’ – an incoherent mishmash of English, Japanese, Spanish and German. Through this, Scott plays upon the stereotype that LA is a city without a uniform culture.
Indeed, Scott further escalates the globalised context of 1980s America, where national boundaries were eroded by trade and travel, through the hyperbolic imperialism of the “off-world colonies” served by Replicants. Like any great work of speculative fiction, Blade Runner extrapolates on issues concerning the time in which it was made. The tracking shots through the dilapidated squalor of the LA streets represent the low social service expenditure of President Reagan at the time; the neon lights and overbearing advertisements represent the rampant capitalism and consumerism of free-market, ‘greed is good’ era.
The thematic heart of Blade Runner lies in the burgeoning empathy and sentience of the Replicants. Scott uses their growing emotions to question a fundamental ontological metanarrative – that humanity is inherently organic, not artificially manufactured. The (arguably) human Deckard is defined by a decrepit apartment and his police-officer ID number – B26354. In contrast, the Replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) has profound postmodern self-awareness – “we’re not computers…we’re physical”, he says. Indeed, Scott has Batty pierce a nail through his hand to prove not only that he can feel pain, but also to parallel Batty with Christ. Both Batty and Christ are ostensibly products of divinity (as Tyrell is the “god of biomechanics”) and yet are simultaneously paragons of humanity. Scott’s willingness to re-evaluate something so broad – the nature of humanity – would do Lyotard proud.
The Big Lebowski (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1998)
You might not ordinarily think it, but the Coen brothers are amongst the most explicitly postmodern mainstream filmmakers working today. From the subtle intertextual allusions to classic films in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (the title of the film comes from the name of a fictional film featured in Sullivan’s Travels), to the tragic, monotonous life-cycle of Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man, their films challenge expectations and exhibit subtle self-reflexivity unlike many others. Though Fargo is my favourite movie of all time, The Big Lebowski is in a league of its own in terms of postmodern subtext, with allusions to Baudrillard’s Gulf War commentary and subversions of genre expectations relentlessly pervading the film.
In The Big Lebowski, the Coen brothers constantly deconstruct the film noir genre for comedic effect. Jeffery Lebowski, better known as the Dude (Jeff Bridges), is a laidback burnout who drives around, bowls and smokes weed for leisure. The film follows his quest to replace a soiled rug after an unfortunate incident of mistaken identity, where two thugs mistake the Dude for a billionaire with the same name – the ‘Big Lebowski’. Furthermore, the ‘Big Lebowski’ implores the Dude to deliver ransom money to the people who kidnapped his young trophy wife, but as this goes awry, the Dude and his friends Walter (John Goodman) and Donny (Steve Buscemi) become embroiled in a world of nihilists, pornographers and Malibu policeman. This plot sounds like it could be straight from a film noir: it appropriates the title of Raymond Chandler’s classic noir The Big Sleep, and telling the story of an anti-hero who becomes immersed in a world of crime. However, there are some obvious idiosyncrasies.
The Big Lebowski is a postmodern inversion of a postmodern inversion of the concept of the ‘hero’ in literature and film; films noir show incredulity to idea of a stoic, heroic protagonist by making the lead deeply, morally flawed. Then The Big Lebowski turns this on its head by so clearly showing how unperceptive and un-detective-like the Dude is. To repeat myself, his days are consumed with driving around, bowling and smoking weed, but he is perceived as a “brother Seamus” (a fellow private-eye, not an Irish monk). Amidst this noir backdrop, the Coens litter homages to buddy movies, sports movies, road movies and screwball comedies – all typical genres, but rarely seen merged together. Indeed, the postmodern pastiche of low culture and high culture is displayed through the Coens’ intertextual allusions to pornography; the Dude dreams of a porn film staring himself called ‘Gutterballs’, but it looks like an elaborate Busby Berkeley art film rather than a cheap porno.
One thing that always stands out to me when watching The Big Lebowski is how many brief and bizarre references to the Gulf War are in the film. We hear references to the war on televisions and radios, Saddam Hussein gives the Dude his bowling shoes in a dream sequence, and the Dude’s famous remark to the Big Lebowski that “this aggression will not stand, man” is a direct reference to President George H. W. Bush’s statement “this will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait” when announcing US intervention against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. When this is considered, the Gulf War allegory in The Big Lebowski is pretty clear. A strong and dominant party (the Big Lebowski) goes after a smaller and weaker party (the Dude), but the intervention of external forces with confused allegiances (the German nihilists, Maude Lebowski, Jackie Treehorn) damages innocent civilians (the innocent bystander Donny dies at the end).
Ultimately, this alludes to Baudrillard’s seminal postmodern work ‘The Gulf War Did Not Take Place’ which, to over-simplify it, argued that Western perceptions of the Gulf War were informed by the media, and that the Gulf War was not actually a war as there was little combat between the US army and the Iraqi army.* The Dude and the Big Lebowski seldom interact, and rather their conflict is manifested through smaller, indirect conflicts – like the nihilists putting a ferret in the Dude’s bath.
With this particular entry, I’ve kind of assumed you’ve seen Blade Runner and The Big Lebowski. If you haven’t, then some of the details might be a bit confusing, so definitely watch these two films because they’re great!
*I think that’s kind of what it’s about, Baudrillard is so fucking dense.