POSTMODERNISM AND FILM
Before addressing the postmodern features of individual films—by far the more common approach to the post-modern in film that scholars have employed—one should take note of the postmodern nature of technology and distribution in the film industry today. In Hollywood's golden age, a typical film was shot on 35mm celluloid by one of a handful of studios. The cast and crew were under contract to that studio. When the film was finished, prints were copied and sent out to cinemas, which then projected the film for customers who paid a fixed price to see it, typically as part of a larger program. Today the situation is much different. Films are often shot on a digital format by the major studios (now subsidiaries of multinational corporations), but also by independent studios, independent filmmakers, or even amateurs ( The Blair Witch Project ). Stars are no longer bound to long-term contracts with the major studios. They, and also most of a film's cast and crew, have agents who negotiate rates per feature, not to mention publicists who try to generate press for them so as to elevate their prestige among fans and in the industry and thereby their salaries. Today studios bombard cinemas with prints according to saturation-release strategies. Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith (2005) opened with a staggering 18,700 prints around the world, including 9,700 in 3,700 North American theaters. Some studios will only provide prints to multiplexes who agree to show the film a certain number of times per day. With the transfer to digital technology, it has been predicted that in the near future "prints" will be e-mailed or beamed via encoded satellite channels directly to cinemas—assuming cinemas will exist in the future. It is now much more likely that one will watch a given film on DVD, video, TV, in an airplane, or downloaded (legally or illegally) via the Internet. Films are now shown with a number of advertisements before the film and, increasingly, in the film itself. The famous sequence from Wayne's World (1992), when Wayne overtly holds a Pepsi and intones that it is the "choice of a new generation" with a wink and a nod, is doubly postmodern. First, it is an example of product placement—the (usually) discreet integration of a name, product, packaging, or logo into a film—advertising, entertainment, and "art" are merged. Second, it cannily responds to the increasing cynicism vis-à-vis such marketing ploys, letting the audience in on the joke even while the film still benefits financially from it.
This portrait of the current film industry provides several entry points into a discussion of the postmodern, including the transition from celluloid to digital filmmaking. In classic film theory, the ontological basis for cinema—that is, how many film theorists accounted for its existence—was the celluloid format: light (and actors, trees, a set, or whatever stands before the camera) hits the film stock filtered through a lens and is recorded on the celluloid. André Bazin called this process the unveiling potential of film, the possibility to depict reality. For Siegfried Kracauer, another realism theorist, by recording and exploring physical reality, film "redeems" reality. What then, does the digital format, which depends on the transformation of light information received through the lens into combinations of 0s and 1s and can be recorded and copied without data loss, mean? For Baudrillard, this new configuration would surely serve as an example of how film has become pure simulacra: the distinction between original and copy is lost. The digital age of cinema represents its introduction into hyperreality. For theorist Paul Virilio, the digital revolution signals the further substitution or displacement of reality, in which a technological or virtual reality replaces the human one and the distinction between factual and virtual becomes meaningless.
In addition to the postmodern features of film as an industry and medium, how might individual films themselves be postmodern? Intertextuality, self-referentiality, parody, pastiche, and a recourse to various past forms, genres, and styles are the most commonly identified characteristics of postmodern cinema. These features may be found in a film's form, story, technical vocabulary, casting, mise-en-scène , or some combination of these.
b. Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, 28 February 1956
Guy Maddin's films contain uncanny worlds that, at once strange and familiar, are archives of film and culture references from high to low. Born and raised on the Canadian prairies, Maddin is the best-known exponent of "prairie modernism," which developed around the Winnipeg Film Group.
Aesthetically, Maddin betrays a fondness for black-and-white cinematography and a silent-film look lit from a single source. But color footage often intrudes at unlikely places, accompanied by intentionally discordant music and ambient sounds. Errors in continuity or film equipment in the shot are par for the course in Maddin movies, which have been filmed in abandoned warehouses, a grain elevator, a foundry turned garbage depot, or in his mother's beauty salon. Capturing the essence of a Maddin film is difficult. Archangel (1990), for example, takes place in the Russian city of the title during World War I and involves several cases of mistaken identity. The plot is conveyed with visual references to F. W. Murnau and Josef von Sternberg, aged film stock, crackling soundtrack, and strange breaks in the action. All suggest a film that appears to be a relic from the 1920s, but with 1990s irony. The Saddest Music in the World (2003) is a fable set in 1933 Winnipeg: a brewing magnate with beer-filled glass legs announces an international contest to perform the world's most sorrowful song. Part imaginary (film) history, part madcap musical melodrama, The Saddest Music in the World is an offbeat film that is unmistakably postmodern.
In interviews, as in his films, Maddin refers to influences as diverse as Pablo Picasso, the film director Douglas Sirk, the punk group the Ramones, Mexican wrestling movies, hockey star Mario Lemieux, the 1933 musical Footlight Parade , Euripides, and Mary Pickford. His short The Heart of the World (2000), commissioned for the 2000 Toronto International Film Festival as part of its Preludes series by ten Canadian directors, is perhaps his masterpiece. In a mere six minutes he perfectly captures the style and tropes of Soviet montage cinema of the 1920s.
Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), Archangel (1990), Careful (1992), Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997), The Heart of the World (2000), Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary (2001), The Saddest Music in the World (2003)
Losier, Marie. "The Pleasures of Melancholy: An Interview with Guy Maddin." Cineaste 29, no. 3 (2004): 18–25.
Maddin, Guy. From the Atelier Tovar: Selected Writings . Toronto: Coach House Books, 2003.
Vatnsdal, Caelum. Kino Delirium: The Films of Guy Maddin . Winnipeg, Canada: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2000.
Perhaps the most renowned postmodern director is Quentin Tarantino. The dialogue of films such as Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) rely heavily on seemingly meaningless chatter about TV shows, pop music, B movies, and celebrity gossip. In Jackie Brown (1997) Tarantino cast the actress Pam Grier, relying on her past image as a sex symbol in 1970s
blaxploitation films such as Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974) in order to channel that legacy into his own film. This postmodern casting move has also been used famously by directors such as Pier Paolo Pasolini, who in his Mamma Roma (1962) cast Anna Magnani as the title character, consistently quoting and twisting the iconic image she acquired in Roberto Rossellini's Roma, Città Aperta ( Rome, Open City , 1945). Jean-Luc Godard's casting of Fritz Lang as the director in Le Mépris ( Contempt , 1963) is similar. Tarantino has made it a hallmark of his cinema, drawing on former stars such as John Travolta in Pulp Fiction and Darryl Hannah in the Kill Bill films (2003–2004).
Tarantino's casting is an example of postmodern intertextuality—a work's quoting, plagiarizing, or alluding to other films or cultural artifacts—a phenomenon that abounds in postmodern cinema. For example, in the first few minutes of Lola rennt ( Run Lola Run , 1998), Lola (Franka Potente) receives a phone call from her boyfriend Manni that he needs money desperately. Lola throws up the telephone receiver, which director Tom Tykwer films in slow motion, alluding to the famous cut from the bone to the space station in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). She then lets out a glass-shattering scream, just like Oskar's in Volker̈ndorff's Die Blechtrommel ( The Tin Drum , 1979). The two sentences at the beginning of the film, "the ball is round" and "the game lasts for ninety minutes," are famous quotations from Sepp Herberger, a well-known German soccer coach. Finally, the painting which hangs over the casino scene is of Kim Novak's back, alluding to the painting in Vertigo (1958) that Novak's character obsessively stares at in the museum.
The system of allusion and quotation such as that found in Run Lola Run —which mixes both "high" art and "low" popular cutlture from various time periods and cultures—is a typical feature of postmodern cinema, and is often referred to as pastiche . For Jameson, parody refers to the use of various styles, genres, or texts for a critical purpose, while pastiche is a blank form of parody, blithely mimicking past forms without an underlying critical perspective. This distinction may be construed as problematic, however, since whether a film engages in parody or pastiche with its intertextuality is largely a matter of interpretation. Does Jackie Brown meditate on the legacy of blaxploitation films in the presence of Pam Grier, or does she merely constitute an in-joke for the initiated? Is Run Lola Run an attempt to come to terms with (German) film history, or are the allusions empty gestures of an exhausted film industry? The answers to these questions are hardly clear-cut.
Many argue that the postmodern has also infiltrated the narrative form of many films. Unlike in Hollywood's heyday, when the plot was transmitted in the most seamless fashion possible, many twenty-first century films, both Hollywood and independent, strive for a narrative that defies linear logic. Run Lola Run presents three different scenarios for Lola's quest to save her boyfriend, and she seems to learn from the past attempts, a narrative configuration that some have likened to the logic of a video game rather than a typical feature film. Likewise, films such as Blind Chance (1987), Sliding Doors (1998), and Melinda and Melinda (2004) present alternative stories. Rashomon (1950) and Jackie Brown are films in which a single story is told from several different perspectives, but Jackie Brown parodies Kurosawa's canonical modernist experiment in Rashomon by relocating these point-of-view sequences from the epic landscapes of a Japanese forest and ruined temple to the banal setting of a nondescript US shopping mall. Other films use postmodern intertextuality as the sine qua non of their narratives. Forrest Gump (1994) is unthinkable without the fictional Forrest's postproduction insertion into documentary footage of real US presidents and celebrities; Woody Allen's imaginary history Zelig (1983) works along similar lines. These films function by blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction, history and story. Finally, some see the blockbuster's "narrative" to be a consequence of the postmodern. Schlo
Rather than functioning as a cause-and-effect story, the blockbuster often organizes itself as a series of attractions (special effects, explosions, car chases) that spectators anticipate and enjoy. What the film is "about" becomes inconsequential or, at best, secondary, to a string of shocks designed to overload the senses.
The matter of style is another tricky question in the context of postmodern cinema. Is the "machine-gun" editing in Darren Aronofsky's Pi (1998) and Requiem for a Dream (2000), Guy Maddin's The Heart of the World (2000), and MTV music videos necessarily or equally post-modern? How are these projects different stylistically from early Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein's Stachka ( Strike , 1925), Bronenosets Potyomkin ( Battleship Potemkin , 1925), and Oktyabr ( Ten Days that Shook the World and October , 1927)? The question of intention, taboo in poststructuralist thinking, might nonetheless help us here. Whereas the modernist Eisenstein made his films as propaganda tools aimed to garner support for a metanarrative (Leninism), Maddin is much more interested in evoking the mood or style of Soviet montage filmmaking, but with tongue firmly planted in cheek.
Finally, production design is often cited as a yard-stick of postmodern cinema. Whereas the modernist architecture of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus school called for a marriage of form, function, and social utility, examples of postmodern architecture might mix elements reminiscent of the Renaissance, baroque, neoclassical, Gothic, and modernist in the same facade. So too, for example, does Bo Welch create Gotham City in Tim Burton's Batman Returns (1992), which pays homage to several German expressionist films along with art deco and other stylistic touches. The dystopic Los Angeles of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) has often been cited as the postmodern cine-city par excellence. The film's production design cites numerous historical influences including, most obviously, film noir. As Giuliana Bruno has noted, the city in Blade Runner is not a vision of ultramodern skyscrapers and orderly, mechanized interiors, but rather a hodgepodge aesthetic of recycled decay ("Ramble City").
It is ironic that in spite of theorists' desire to proclaim the end of grand narratives in the age of post-modernism, there is the tendency in their writings to generalize and universalize the postmodern nonetheless. But the generation of Lyotard, Jameson, Baudrillard, and Virilio, which diagnosed the postmodern largely as an inevitable symptom of cultural exhaustion or capitalistic excess, is giving way to a younger generation of theorists less eager to predict doomsday scenarios. D. N. Rodowick, for example, has outlined a philosophy of the transition from analog to new media technologies which acknowledges the new ontological basis for digital films without claiming that this new basis must signify the end of referentiality, as Baudrillard has.
SEE ALSO Parody
Baudrillard, Jean. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place . Translated by Paul Patton. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.
——. Simulations . Translated by Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Phillip Beitchman. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983.
Bazin, André. What Is Cinema? 2vols. Edited and translated by Hugh Gray. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
Bruno, Giuliana. "Ramble City: Postmodernism and Blade Runner ." October 41 (1987): 61–74.
Denzin, Norman. Images of Postmodern Society: Social Theory and
Contemporary Cinema . London: Sage, 1991.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism . Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991.
Kracauer, Siegfried. Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality . New York: Oxford University Press, 1960. Revised edition, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.
Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge . Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
Rodowick, D. N. Reading the Figural, or, Philosophy After the New Media . Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.
Virilio, Paul. The Vision Machine . Translated by Julie Rose. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.