Post Modern Cinema
The Networks of the Virtual
Amongst the key thinkers thinking the post-modern we can include Jean-Francois Lyotard, Fredric Jameson, Jean-Baudrillard and Umberto Eco. It was Lyotard who more than most tried to define what exactly we might mean when we use the term, and looked at three key aspects. The first lay in the combinatory dimension of the post-modern, the manner in which various styles could be put together to create something new, often out of the old. This can also incorporate a self-conscious or self-reflexive approach to art that makes us as likely to focus on cliches and conventions as feelings and identification. Thus characters aren't so much people we believe in, as stock figures whose compound aspect we recognize. What matters is the combination of elements, not some root source. What counts is how things are brought together: "I would say a sort of bricolage: the high frequency of quotation of elements from previous styles or periods..." ('Defining the Postmodern')
The second aspect to the post-modern lies in the collapse of grand narratives and the assumption of progress. Lyotard believes that within post-modernism there is no longer the confidence that we are moving forward; advancements in science, medicine, engineering etc. have as readily a downside as an upside. Great political changes are no longer possible in the wake of Totalitarian failures in various manifestations: from Nazism, to Stalinism, from Mao's experiment to the limits even of the 'cradle to the grave' welfare state. "So there is a sorrow in the Zeitgeist. This can express itself by reactive or reactionary attitudes or by utopias, but never by a positive orientation offering a new perspective."
These first two Lyotard himself believes aren't very complicated to understand, but the third is much more so and concerns itself with the psychoanalytical and what is known as anamnesis. Anamnesis is an old word given an important modern spin. Coming from the Ancients, Socrates used it to explain how we have knowledge that pre-exists us and educationally (through maieutics) this can be brought forth. Lyotard uses it differently. It isn't that we have this knowledge as absolute (in what Plato would call the forms), but as part of the life we are leading which contains problematic episode we cannot easily confront. Hence the psychoanalytic. "The'post' - of postmodernity does not mean a process of coming back or flashing back, feeding back, but of ana-lysing, ana-mnesing, of reflecting."
What we want to look at today using the post-modern thinkers we have invoked is how post-modern ideas are worked through cinematically, how various films by Pedro Almodovar, Quentin Tarantino, Todd Haynes, Jean Jacques Beineix and David Fincher have captured an aspect of the post-modern moment. That we can include filmmakers from Spain, France and the US indicates that the post-modern, while perhaps not especially international, is certainly cross-cultural: that it can incorporate any filmmaking nation that has passed through what Jameson would call the 'post-modern condition'.Let us take for example Pedro Almodovar, very much a post-dictatorship filmmaker whose sensibility was formed in the years immediately after Franco's death in 1975. A movement of liberation, freedom and sexual exploration immediately opened up. Called Movida, and focused chiefly in Madrid, aspects of it were a little like a more benign form of punk and played up the sexually dissident and the playfully ironic, finding in Almodovar a key figure who would go on to sum up many of its features. In an early, 1982 film, Labyrinth of Passion, he took a cameo role as a singer in a band, wearing a leather dress and lots of make up, while also writing and directing this film about incest, nymphomania and impotence, all presented with a lightness of touch that says narration can resolve all. It is merely a film that we are watching, even if it could only have been made at a time when repression was no longer evident. Almodovar's skill was to take the freedoms offered in post-Franco Spain representatioinally, and combine them with an approach to narrative that indicated the filmmaker could play with the viewer's expectation anyway he liked, because ideas like characterisation, narrative event and social problems could be incorporated easily into what is nothing more, and nothing less, than a cultural artifact. Throughout his work, which would include Matador, Kika, All About My Mother and Talk to Her, Almodovar would explore heavy themes with a post-modern light touch, testing the viewer's capacity for outrage while at the same time suggesting that if one were to take the films too seriously it would be as if the audience were taking themselves too seriously. In Kika, a rapist will do anything to achieve orgasm so when the police come to capture him his first instinct isn't to run away, but continue onanistically pleasuring himself on the balcony, with a messy, pigeon-shitting like result as his spent pleasure lands on somebody's head. In Talk to Her, the story hinges on a nurse who becomes enamoured by a comatose patient and we watch him in a black and white, silent movie style story within the film having sex with her.
On paper such moments can seem offensive indeed, but the Spanish director's purpose is to make them if not exactly palatable (he wants to flirt with the controversial), at least ambivalently perverse. The event is serious but the tone is not, with Almodovar using usually bright, de-realizing colour schemes to make us aware at all times that we are watching a film. Also, the stories are so convoluted and the motives so mixed up, that we even now have a name for it: Almodrama, a form of melodrama that is very much Almodovar's own. A good example of it is Kika, which involves a nave make up artist expected to make up a corpse. The corpose turns out to have only been comatose, and who has voyeuristic tendencies after witnessing his mother's various suicide attempts. And so on, as ingenious improbability builds on ingenious improbability.
At the same time Almodovar was working in Spain, various French filmmakers were producing films falling under the rubric of the 'cinema du look': Luc Besson, Leos Carax and Jean-Jacques Beineix. There was no political rebellion at work here. France had gone through a couple of conservative governments after the political events of May '68, before getting an albeit quickly compromising Socialist president at the beginning of the eighties, Francois Mitterand. But this is partly why we are suggesting the post-modern is not socio-specific while still very much a western movement. It gains comprehension from within the context of prosperity and freedom rather than oppression and austerity. For many, the French films were closely, and perhaps too closely, affiliated with advertising. They were selling us a lifestyle as readily as telling us a story, and whether it was Carax's The Night is Young, Besson's Subway, or Beineix's Diva, The Moon in the Gutter and Betty Blue, the films played up their artificiality to the detriment of the realist aesthetic practised in the seventies by Jacques Doillon, Maurice Pialat and Jean Eustache. British filmmaker Alex Cox introduced Beineix's Diva on television's Moviedrome and wondered if in one scene the whole set design had been shaped around the colour scheme of a box of cigarettes. Cahiers du cinema would call such films Mannerist, and admired some and were dismissive of others. It was a style they would also see in numerous American films of the time, from Coppola's Rumblefish, The Outsider and One From the Heart, to Walter Hill's Streets of Fire.
These were films that played up studio interiors and sound stages rather than location shooting, and this is precisely what Beineix took to extremes in his second feature, The Moon in the Gutter, a film its star, Gerard Depardieu, very much a realist actor, dubbed 'film in the gutter'. Beineix put the whole film in inverted commas as he told the story of a dock worker looking for revenge after his sister's rape and murder, who falls for Nastasja Kinski. Yet if The Moon in the Gutter was generally perceived as a failure, Diva and BettyBlue were regarded as successes, impressively blending the artificial with the more realistic. Whether it happened to be a moped chase sequence through the streets of Paris in Diva or the location shooting in the provinces of France in Betty Blue, it seems that Beineix was at his best combining artifice with locale. The inverted commas were all very well, but there needed to be a hint of the realist to put those inverted commas around. Diva was seen as significant enough for Jameson to write an essay on the film.
The post-modern in American cinema has taken various forms filmically. If we find Todd Haynes's films amongst the most fruitful it rests on their ability to be self-conscious without falling into the limits of that self-consciousness. When Baudrillard says "today cinema can place all its talent, all its technology in the service of reanimating what it itself contributed to liquidating. It only resurrects ghosts, and it itself is lost therein" (Simulacra and Simulation), Haynes in much of his work (from Carol to Wonderstruck), but never more so than in Far From Heaven, wants to save the reality principle from the weakening of feeling that threatens it. He would wish to find a way of countering Baudrillard's comment "Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology) but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle." (Simulacra and Simulations)
But Haynes wishes to do so not by making sure there is a reference point between the reality from which the image comes, and the codes it utilises. If Beineix could see that his films worked best in drawing upon aspects of the real world to give texture to his romanticizing, Haynes remains in the artificially self-reflexive while at the same time making sure we are moved by the characters' predicaments without ready irony. Julianne Moore falls in love with her black gardener, and her husband can no longer hide his homosexual inclinations. Yet Haynes, offering a fifties style out of Douglas Sirk, insists that we access the feeling rather than merely run with the codes. What this means is that the language is in Haynes' words utterly filmic while at the same time not at all ironic. As he says, "because it refuses a lot of familiar narrative touchstones that makes us feel like we're watching a genuine drama: contemporary codes of naturalism, psychological realizations, redemption, and any sort of heroic victory. So it refuses all of those things and maintains a completely synthetic language that comes directly out of the world of film." Haynes concludes: "And yet it's done in complete faith that that language in some way embodies more potential for emotional feeling than anything that mimics what we think of as reality. In other words, people talk about this film in relation to sincerity versus irony. And I think it's different. I think it's about the intense feelings that only come from synthetic film language, that only come from artificial experiences that we know from film, but we nevertheless invest with intense feeling." (IndieWire)
One of the problems with post-modernism for many is that this feeling is hard to access because of the self-consciosuness the viewer is expected to offer. How to conquer that emotional facility? Tarantino might reply by saying that he wants us to care more for the nature of the situation over the specifics of characterisation. Tarantino is very good at getting the audience to wonder what might happen next, over caring too much about how a character feels. When in Django Unchained, Christoph Waltz's bounty hunter is in a small town with the locals pointing their gun at him, we wonder how ingeniously he will get out of the situation. In Pulp Fiction we know that John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson don't have much time on their hands after they find themselves with blood on the back seat. The young black man's accidental death is irrelevant next to the literal messiness of the circumstances. Ingenuity again comes in as Harvey Keitel sorts it all out. We can notice then that in certain instances post-modernism doesn't ask us not to care; it just makes us care about different things. But we may also ask what happens when we care about some things over others. If we don't care about a death but do care about a mess, is this an example of misplaced priorities? If post-modernism argues for the removal of clear hierarchies, as the popular mingles with the high brow, as the artist has "an inordinate, pluri-cultural range of styles, techniques and technologies..." (Dictionary of Modern Thought) then where can we find a place in which to argue for the significance of a death over a mess? When the codes become so separated from the reality then the answer is that we cannot.
But how many can in good faith claim that in life they would react the same to a mess on the back seat that happens to be a spilled milkshake and a mess that happens to be someone's brains? Tarantino's films help us understand codes but do they help us to understand life? Haynes manages to take the codes and infuse them with an affect that nevertheless translates into our own lives: into the problem of complex emotional dilemmas. Tarantino is more inclined to ask us to read the codes very well lest we fall into naively confusing it with any semblance of emotion. We might be exaggerating our case here (Jackie Brown has affecting moments), but the Tarantinoesque resides in the awareness of codes over the enactment of feeling. Comparing Casablanca to later more clearly self-reflexive films, Umberto Eco believed "What Casablanca does unconsciously, other movies will do with extreme intertextual awareness, assuming also that the addressee is equally aware of their purposes. These are 'post modern' movies, where the quotation of the topos is recognized as the only way to cope with the burden of our filmic encylopedic expertise." ('Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage')
With Fight Club, Fincher wants to rescue that self-reflexivity from the emptiness it can arrive at, by using it all the better to insist that the post-modern can be about reality indeed. Drawing on the problem of besieged masculinity, the central character (Edward Norton) can't sleep and reckons the summit of his ambition consists of buying Ikea furniture directly from the catalogue. Fincher uses the latest in digital technology to indicate how easy consumerism happens to be for the contemporary white Urbanite as the space fills up in a single take with the items directly finding themselves in his apartment, all the while discussing them in voice-over. But the film also anticipates well the future. The film was made in 1999, but the high rises collapsing cannot but leave us thinking of the twin towers, and the determination that the bolshy Tyler Durden has to collapse the economy will likely have us thinking of the crash in 2008.
Indeed, we might say that 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis are the two events that have forced us to rethink the post-modern. The former was rehearsed so often by Hollywood in the nineties that it was as though the images couldn't be perceived for their immediate reality, so codified had they become in the movies. In the latter instance, what we had were numbers with no connection to reality, but an immense impact on reality. The previous crash of 1929 was enormous, but the US was on the Gold standard, which linked money to the available gold reserves. But Nixon took the US off the gold standard at the beginning of the seventies, and Gordon Brown sold half of Britain's gold reserves between 1999 and 2002. Money was no longer linked to any reality, but floated freely in ever more complex algorithms and based on the assumption that it was worth something if everyone could agree that it was. We had now moved into a hyper-modern or supermodern world where meaning became very fragile indeed. Post-modernism explored the fragility of our presuppositions, but now we seem to be in an age where that weakening is having a very strong impact. We might choose to blame the post-modernists themselves for this (as conservative thinkers are inclined to do), or see that post-modernism wasn't a defence of the precarious, but above all an analysis of it. As Baudrillard would say: "Just as blood is cleansed before being reinjected into the bloodstream, the real is whitewashed before being injected into the networks of the virtual." (Fragments) That doesn't sound like a glorification of the artificial, but a questioning of it.
© Tony McKibbin