Postmodernist film is a classification for works that articulate the themes and ideas of postmodernism through the medium of cinema. Some of the goals of postmodernist film are to subvert the mainstream conventions of narrative structure and characterization, and to test the audience's suspension of disbelief. Typically, such films also break down the cultural divide between high and low art and often upend typical portrayals of gender, race, class, genre, and time with the goal of creating something that does not abide by traditional narrative expression.
Postmodernism is a complex paradigm of different philosophies and artistic styles. The movement emerged as a reaction to high modernism. Modernism is a paradigm of thought and viewing the world characterized in specific ways that postmodernism reacted against. Modernism was interested in master and meta narratives of history of a teleological nature. Proponents of modernism suggested that sociopolitical and cultural progress was inevitable and important for society and art. Ideas of cultural unity (i.e. the narrative of the West or something similar) and the hierarchies of values of class that go along with such a conception of the world is another marker of modernism. In particular, modernism insisted upon a divide between "low" forms of art and "high" forms of art (creating more value judgments and hierarchies). This dichotomy is particularly focused on the divide between official culture and popular culture. Lastly, but by no means comprehensively, there was a faith in the "real" and the future and knowledge and the competence of expertise that pervades modernism. At heart, it contained a confidence about the world and humankind's place in it.
Postmodernism attempts to subvert, resist and differ from the preoccupations of modernism across many fields (music, history, art, cinema, etc.). Postmodernism emerged in a time not defined by war or revolution but rather by media culture. Unlike modernism, postmodernism does not have faith in master narratives of history or culture or even the self as an autonomous subject. Rather postmodernism is interested in contradiction, fragmentation, and instability. Postmodernism is often focused on the destruction of hierarchies and boundaries. The mixing of different times and periods or styles of art that might be viewed as "high" or "low" is a common practice in postmodern work. This practice is referred to as pastiche. Postmodernism takes a deeply subjective view of the world and identity and art, positing that an endless process of signification and signs is where any "meaning" lies. Consequently, postmodernism demonstrates what it perceives as a fractured world, time, and art.
Modernist film came to maturity in the eras between WWI and WWII with characteristics such as montage, symbolic imagery, expressionism and surrealism (featured in the works of Luis Buñuel, Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock) while Postmodernist film – similar to postmodernism as a whole – is a reaction to the modernist works of its field, and to their tendencies (such as nostalgia and angst). Modernist cinema, "explored and exposed the formal concerns of the medium by placing them at the forefront of consciousness. Modernist cinema questions and made visible the meaning-production practices of film." The auteur theory and idea of an author producing a work from his singular vision guided the concerns of modernist film. "To investigate the transparency of the image is modernist but to undermine its reference to reality is to engage with the aesthetics of postmodernism." The modernist film has more faith in the author, the individual, and the accessibility of reality itself (and more sincere in tone) than the postmodernist film.
Postmodernism is in many ways interested in the liminal space that would be typically ignored by more modernist or traditionally narrative offerings. The idea is that the meaning is often generated most productively through the spaces and transitions and collisions between words and moments and images. Henri Bergson writes in his book Creative Evolution, "The obscurity is cleared up, the contradiction vanishes, as soon as we place ourselves along the transition, in order to distinguish states in it by making cross cuts therein in thoughts. The reason is that there is more in the transition than the series of states, that is to say, the possible cuts--more in the movement than the series of position, that is to say, the possible stops." The thrust of this argument is that the spaces between the words or the cuts in a film create just as much meaning as the words or scenes themselves.
Postmodernist film is often separated from modernist cinema and traditional narrative film by three key characteristics. One of them is an extensive use of homage or pastiche, resulting from the fact that postmodern filmmakers are open to blending many disparate genres and tones within the same film. The second element is meta-reference or self-reflexivity, highlighting the construction and relation of the image to other images in media and not to any kind of external reality. A self-referential film calls the viewer's attention – either through characters' knowledge of their own fictional nature, or through visuals – that the movie itself is only a movie. This is sometimes achieved by emphasizing the unnatural look of an image which seems contrived. Another technique used to achieve meta-reference is the use of intertextuality, in which the film's characters reference or discuss other works of fiction. Additionally, many postmodern films tell stories that unfold out of chronological order, deconstructing or fragmenting time so as to, once again, highlight the fact that what is appearing on screen is constructed. A third common element is a bridging of the gap between highbrow and lowbrow activities and artistic styles – e.g., a parody of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling in which Adam is reaching for a McDonald's burger rather than the hand of God. This would exemplify the fusion of high and low because Michelangelo is widely regarded as one of the greatest of all painters, whereas fast food is commonly named among the lowbrow elements of modern society.
The use of homage and pastiche can, in and of itself, result in a fusion of high and low. For this reason, homage is sometimes accompanied by characters' value judgments as to the worth and cultural value of the works being parodied, ensuring the viewer understands whether the thing being referenced is considered highbrow or lowbrow.
Lastly, contradictions of all sorts – whether it be in visual technique, characters' morals, or other things – are crucial to postmodernism, and the two are in many cases irreconcilable. Any theory of postmodern film would have to be comfortable with paradoxes or contradictions of ideas and their articulation.
Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West has often been referred to by critics as an example of a postmodern Western. The 1968 spaghetti Western revolves around a beautiful widow, a mysterious gunslinger playing a harmonica, a ruthless villain, and a lovable but hard-nosed bandit who just escaped from jail. The story was developed by Leone, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Dario Argento by watching countless classic American Westerns, and the final movie is a deliberate attempt to both pay homage to and subvert Western genre conventions and audience expectations. Among the most notable examples of intertextuality are the plot similarities to Johnny Guitar, the visual reference to High Noon of a clock stopped at high noon in the middle of a gunfight, and the casting of Henry Fonda as the story's sadistic antagonist which was a deliberate subversion of Fonda's image as a hero established in such films as My Darling Clementine and Fort Apache directed by John Ford.
Ridley Scott's Blade Runner might be the best known postmodernist film. Scott's 1982 film is about a future dystopia where "replicants" (human cyborgs) have been invented and are deemed dangerous enough to hunt down when they escape. There is tremendous effacement of boundaries between genres and cultures and styles that are generally more separate, along with the fusion of disparate styles and times that is a trope in postmodernist cinema. "The futuristic set and action mingle with drab 1940s clothes and offices, punk rock hairstyles, pop Egyptian style and oriental culture. The population is singularly multicultural and the language they speak is an agglomeration of English, Japanese, German and Spanish. The film alludes to the private eye genre of Raymond Chandler and the characteristics of film noir as well as Biblical motifs and images." Here is a demonstration of the mixing of cultures and boundaries and styles of art. The film is playing with time (the various types of clothes) and culture and genre by mixing them all together to create the world of the film. The fusion of noir and science-fiction is another example of the film deconstructing cinema and genre. This is an embodiment of the postmodern tendency to destroy boundaries and genres into a self-reflexive product. The 2017 Academy Award-winning sequel Blade Runner 2049 also tackled postmodern anxieties.
Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction is another example of a postmodernist film. The Palm d'Or-winning film tells the interweaving stories of gangsters, a boxer, and robbers. The 1994 film breaks down chronological time and demonstrates a particular fascination with intertextuality: bringing in texts from both traditionally "high" and "low" realms of art. This foregrounding of media places the self as "a loose, transitory combination of media consumption choices." Pulp Fiction fractures time (by the use of asynchronous time lines) and by using styles of prior decades and combining them together in the movie. By focusing on intertextuality and the subjectivity of time, Pulp Fiction demonstrates the postmodern obsession with signs and subjective perspective as the exclusive location of anything resembling meaning.
Aside from the aforementioned Once Upon a Time in the West, the Blade Runner sequels and Pulp Fiction, postmodern cinema includes films such as:
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