In another thread, we discussed the importance of wholeness and unity. Personally, I think this is necessary requirement in all great art (or close to essential, anyway). I suspect one of the reasons I feel this way is because of my experience with postmodern art. Let me describe a little of this experience as a way of introducing this thread.
As I young jazz fan in the 90s, I spent a lot of time learning about the different developments in the art form, and I enjoyed learning about the different innovations almost as much as listening to them. I started with be-bop and worked my way up from there (and back to New Orleans) until I got to the 80s. Wanting to satisfy my craving for innovation and originality in the music, I looked for contemporary jazz musicians who pushed the envelope. Many of them fell into the postmodern (pomo) camp—specifically, they liked dipping their toe in many styles of music and enjoyed combining styles and instrumentation in the search of something new. Initially, this excited me, but eventually the approach often left me dissatisfied—for several reasons. For one thing, the styles didn’t come together in an organic and seemless way; they seemed slapped together more than skillfully distilled and blended. The compositions and solos also didn’t sound very strong—they weren’t memorable or catchy. Instead, the compositions sounded more like “blowing vehicles”—songs that gave musicians a platform to improvise, but not very interesting by itself. Perhaps I could sum up my problem with much of the music by saying it wasn’t very unified or whole. The parts didn’t come together into a unified and organic whole.
I have the same feeling towards many postmodern films. I should say that my understanding of postmodernism might not be totally accurate, but I basically understand postmodernism to be a strong awareness of styles and genres and this awareness saturates the films—hence, words like “self-consciousness” used to describe the film. Additionally, the filmmakers manipulates the styles or genres, often in very clever and ironic ways (with a wink). It’s a very meta-approach, where the nature of films and film styles and genres become the content more than stories or characters.
Assuming this is a fairly accurate reading of postmodernism, here are some films and filmmakers that I consider postmodern: Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, Quentin Tarantino, Michel Gondry, Coen Brothers, David Lynch, to name a few. Now, I mentioned my problem with the lack of unity for postmodernism, and I must say that I don’t feel that way towards some of these filmmakers or some of the films they’ve made. But I do feel like the my problem with postmodernism involves wholeness and unity. I like Tarantino, but his films suffer from this, I think, even his really good films.
How do others feel about postmodern films?
I’m a big fan of most of the directors you mentioned. Seems like its a continuation of the trends that began in the French New Wave. Would your criticisms extend to them as well?
Except for Breathless, I have never liked Godard, but I must say I’m perplexed by most of his films. As for filmmakers like Melville and Truffault, I don’t really have the same problem. Oh, I would probably classify Altman as postmodern, and his films don’t have this problem I’m talking about.
Btw, I want to be clear that I don’t dislike all the filmmakers I mentioned. I like Tarantino and Gondry, but many of their films suffer from this unity problem, imo.
The kids these days are calling this “mash-up.”
I get what you’re saying, but you haven’t yet mentioned the main culprit and/or catalyst – the animation these filmmakers either grew up watching or are working with in simultaneous concert. Animation of the past 30 years filled in the gap of the application of the avant-garde imagination until film technology could catch up. Now, some film – and current animation – is doing its best to mimic that.
It may be a stretch to include the Coens in this group, as I see their work more to be of homage to the filmmakers and their respective styles they both love. But I really don’t think you can put Lynch in the group – he twisted “twisted” until it became uniquely his own.
I get what you’re saying, but you haven’t yet mentioned the main culprit and/or catalyst – the animation these filmmakers either grew up watching or are working with in simultaneous concert.
Hmm, I guess you could be right, although I tend to think technology—which increased access to art, including art from various time periods and cultures—was a bigger factor, especially with contemporary filmmakers.
Yeah, maybe they don’t belong in the pomo group, but I put them in because they seem very aware and intent on dealing with older genres. Lynch definitely developed an original approach—but would that disqualify him from postmodern filmmaker? (The complaint I have may not apply so much to him. It doesn’t really apply to the Coen’s, too, imo.)
“Post-modern” always brings up [i]Run Lola Run[/i] in my mind. <_<
CHRISTOPHER SEPESY, I don’t understand what you’re saying about animation. I don’t see how you could classify animation of the last decades as a mash-up, or a precursor to that.
“For one thing, the styles didn’t come together in an organic and seemless (sic) way…”
In terms of musicality, sometimes it’s impossible to mesh genres seamlessly. Jazz is especially difficult to meld into other genres because most music outside of jazz is based in a single key, instead of multiple chords in multiple key signatures; for example, the so-called Coltrane matrix outlines three related key signatures usually through ascending minor thirds, or descending major sixths; or multiple ‘modes’ being played in one key signature; for example, So What is played sixteen bars in C, eight bars in Db, eight bars in C, but Paul Chambers plays the song in D and Eb phrygian.
Why this is difficult to translate to other genres is because blues, ‘classical’, and especially rock (and folk) are almost always based in single key signatures throughout a given piece. So the structural aspects of jazz lend itself easily to other forms, but the theoretical aspects don’t.
Great ‘fusion’ musicians normally don’t ever even attempt to seamlessly ‘mesh’ genres. They choose a dominate sound (Davis chose the formlessness of 70’s arena rock over jazz, The Headhunters chose the groove inflections of funk over jazz, Shipp chooses the rigor of jazz over the electronic and post-production sampling that has become part of his sound), and find the areas of tension to exploit the differences and impossibilities between forms.
No one has really ever seamlessly fused jazz with any other form without giving up the structural aspect of the latter form, or the theoretical form of jazz.
It’s important to consider this in regard to cinema, too. Things are not as easily defined as one tends to think they are.
That’s also the reason any instrument could feasible be implemented into jazz. Dorothy Ashby with her harp being the first that comes to mind.
Godard said: “Art attracts us only by what it reveals of our most secret self.”
And i identify myself with postmodernism, it’s my era, it’s not that iam close minded or i have decided to like it more, it happens naturally.
I’m interested in the idea that the postmodern precedes the modern. The postmodern is the avant-garde that eventually flattens out to the modern. That, plus the idea that the line dividing modern and postmodern is very porous.
The postmodern is the avant-garde….
Clement Greenberg: Hence it developed that the true and most important function of the avant-garde was not to “experiment,” but to find a path along which it would be possible to keep culture moving in the midst of ideological confusion and violence.
The only New Wave director that could be described as postmodern is Godard.
Post-modernism means different things. Actually there are several definitions and of course the way I define them here is not going to mesh with better critical readings re: Lyotard et al. But when talking about post-modernism as a common usage description or even idiom, I am going to over-simplify them into three main approaches:
1) Post-Modern the Pejorative: self-aware, commercial pastiche that is criticized as such. When the term post-modern is used as a pejorative, the critic is complaining that the movie is a mess of pop culture, tongue-in-cheek, and irreverent mugging that doesn’t understand the history, values, or meaning of the stuff it reappropriates or even outright mocks. It could mean anything from common arguments about Tarantino to complaints about movies like Battle: Los Angeles or Transformers, where the roughest sketches of classical narrative and character arc are given a quick and impatient inserts into what otherwise is a bombastic, largely commercial, and even outright propagandistic sensual assault. The pejorative sense of the term is even used to described movies so generic and self-aware that they even seem to be privileging the expectations of the form over its actual meaning, so like you could call ‘Mumblecore’ ‘post-modern’ in that it uses ‘Indie’ genre cliches in such a mechanized and self-aware manner that it’s like the filmmaker is only engaging in an exercise instead of actually trying to say something.
Examples of good movies that are nevertheless pejoratively post-modern:
Moulin RougeHot FuzzReservoir Dogs
2) Post-modern the Pop Avant-Garde. Easily mixed/metabolized/amalgamized with ‘surreal’, ‘Dadaist,’ ‘experimental,’ and various other forms, except again ‘self-awareness’ becomes of essence and the piece usually mixes and matches references and techniques, so that the movie becomes so to speak a commentary on what it’s presenting. In other words, a Post-Modern movie about the fashion industry would be criticizing the industry for its vacuousness and commercial quality… by portraying vacuous characters unable to identify themselves in any way except by their commercial products. Usually darker undertones and the story itself breaks down in some way, people complaining about ‘The characters are so unlikeable!’ are usually missing the point. Often uses pop art techniques like music video or videogame imagery and ironic mixes of music to contrast moods of the scenes.
Examples of good Post-Modern movies delivered in the avant-garde:
3) Post-Modern the Critical Essay: a movie about what we’ve lost because of post-modernism, familiar and understanding of the tropes and usages of references and subversive techniques in Post-Modern Avant-Garde but nevertheless disturbed by Post-Modern Pejorative art and commercial culture abroad, the realization that the signifier and signified are irretrievably separated but nevertheless can be isolated from complex misappropriations if the filmmaker builds their meanings up anew with an outsider/critical historian perspective. Oftentimes mix documentary and fiction.
These ones are very very rare.
Examples of good Post-Modern movies delivered in the critical mode:
Sans SoleilRobinson in SpaceMontenegro
And now it’s Matt Parks’ turn to link to a quote from an essay that entirely contradicts everything I just said, though the biggest issue of post-modernism is as a method of deconstruction and representation of the loss of meaning as the sign has slipped precipitously away from signified and signifier, it’s both ironic and not that nobody knows/agrees what post-modernism really means.
You seem to be using ‘post-modern’ to describe the sort of films that intend you to analyze the story rather than engage it.
I love those sort of films when they’re done right, but they’re so easy to miss the mark if they indulge a bit too much in their personal axes. There’s a major slipping point between being abstract and intellectual, and narrowcasting to the self.
Actually that’s a pretty concise method of explaining it — movies where the narrative or lack thereof is the theme rather than movies that seek either only to entertain or to provide significant characters, moral perspectives, or dramatic themes.
Makavejev’s earlier films are much better examples of post-modern/critical essays. He’s another director (like Godard) who was postmodern avant la lettre. “WR” and “Sweet Movie” cleared (razed) the path for “Montenegro” and “Manifesto”.
In academe, the notion of the postmodern has been hotly contested. PolarisDIB notes some of the semantic locutions above.
At this point, I think we should talk about postmodernism_s_ rather than use one overarching term that would have to include RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and LOST HIGHWAY. Just as Modernism in art has many subcategories—surrealism, expressionism, cubism, abstractionism, futurism, etc., so too does the cinema have many postmodernisms. The scholar Hal Foster divided them up neatly into two categories: the postmodernism of resistance and the postmodernism of accommodation (mainly based on their political-aesthetic stands).
Also, individual directors may have switched from a modernist style to a “pomo” aesthetic at some point in their careers. I, for instance, would classify Godard’s early work as modernist, especially those films influenced by the theatrical theories (and practices) of Bertolt Brecht (who even makes an appearance as “B.B.” in WEEKEND). Some of his middle-period films might be said to be hybrids of or “on the cusp” of mod. and pomo, and clearly his later movies, including the recent FILM SOCIALISME, are completely in the postmodernist camp. Altman also moved from classic modernist to postmodernist around the time of POPEYE.
The two styles often have similarities and “family resemblances”: self-reflexivity, intertextuality, fragmented narratives, cipher characters, pastiche, etc. so the distinctions are often difficult to make.
^ I think the distinctions are largely toward whether the use of those techniques is toward meanings or deconstructing meanings.
Structuralism versus deconstructionism.
@DiB and Frank
Interesting posts, but I think I’m more confused about the subject than ever. :/
It’s less confusing if you think of them as periods. When you try to define them as aesthetic trends, it is very difficult. But I think postmodernism as a period is much more concrete than modernism. We can find examples of modernism throughout the entire history of cinema.
^Because cinema is an Industrial Revolution artform and modernism was in some major way a result of industrialization. Why learn how to paint beautiful portraits when we have photographs? Perhaps the form of the painting itself gives it its beauty, rather than the subject…
“And now it’s Matt Parks’ turn to link to a quote from an essay that entirely contradicts everything I just said”
Nah, not me . . . I’ll just say that, as a catch-all, I much prefer the designation late modernity to post-modernity.
In terms of musicality, sometimes it’s impossible to mesh genres seamlessly. Jazz is especially difficult to meld into other genres because most music outside of jazz is based in a single key,…
I don’t know about harmonic difficulties, but don’t you think meshing seamlessly with other genres" is in jazz’s DNA? I know I’ve spoken critically of the pomo jazz musicians, but one is a huge exception—namely, Bill Frisell. I’m actually not a huge fan of his music, but I admire it (and him as a musician) greatly. He’s taken many styles and (improbably) distilled them into an organic and seamless whole, along the way creating a highly original and identifiable style. (He’s one of the few post-70s jazz musicians I can think of that you can identify within a few notes.) He’s pretty influential as well.
I’d also mention one of your favorites, Henry Threadgill (who maybe combines more styles and instrumentation than Frisell). So seamless meshing of genres can happen, but it seems much rarer. (Maybe we’re thinking of seamless integration differently because I think Miles’ early 70s group—with DeJohnette, Henderson or Holland, Jarrett or Corea, and Moreira really did a great job of synthesizing rock, funk and jazz (and some free-ish elements, although I could have done without the free excursions. You could argue that the music wasn’t jazz, but I wouldn’t agree if you said the music wasn’t organic and seamless.)