Modernism, Postmodernism and Film Criticism

Postmodern cinema ironically has a history now. In 1984, Fredric Jameson observed that contemporary culture seemed to be expressing a new form of ‘depthlessness‘ – a concentration on style and ‘surface’. For Jameson these features represented a retreat from the need to supply a univocal narrative closure to the postmodern text, predicated on the fragmentation of.mass culture, the end of a rigidly fixed signifying system, a loosening of binary differences and the emergence of the individual consumer in relation to the reconfiguration of multinational capital.

In the wake of this change, postmodern film criticism has celebrated the vivid intensity of the surface and the multivocal readings ‘against the grain’ that it allows. Recently, however, some critics (such as Steven Connor and Linda Nicholson) have begun to question if this surface, and its intertextual pleasures, is all there is to the postmodern cinematic text. They are asking again what (under)pins the text and if the position of the reader is as ‘free’ as has been claimed by the theorists of relativism. Implicit in these questions is an examination of the contradictions brought about by absolute pluralism – an exploration of the limits imposed by an absence of values.

This wishes to emphasize that the thematic concerns produced within postmodern cinema reveal a very particular set of values. We argue that the scenarios found in many postmodern films express a number of repetitions, particularly around the issues of gender, sexuality and ethnicity, that make the notion of free-floating signification problematic. We wish to question why, in the light of a reflexive critical sophistication towards the strictures of the text, do audience, director, and critic continue to collude, most often pleasurably, in the maintenance of narrative structures which repetitively replay the gains and losses of ‘difference’, albeit in new and mutated forms.


Film theory within the discursive space of critical modernism strove to reveal the work of the text – especially its attempt to position the spectator, to keep the world firmly within the parameters of capitalism and patriarchy and heterosexuality. For directors such as Godard, and critics such as Jean-Louis Comolli and Narboni, the fantasy was to make a film that clearly spoke to and for the proletariat, the colonized and women in a way that did not partake of the bourgeois realist narrative structures characteristic of Hollywood. This desire to contest the text, to make the right film, to suggest that we are positioned in a way that is both collusive and exclusive,yielded up a rich vein of theoretical work. Laura Mulvey, for example, concentrates her earlier work on the cinematic narratives of Hollywood movies of the 1940s and 1950s- a period when American culture was very visibly engaged in negotiating and controlling the ‘monsters’ produced by the Second World War. The most obvious ‘monster’, within popular cinema, was the femme fatale of film noir who, for the transgression of stepping ‘out of her place’, became a woman punished and domesticated by death or marriage, mutating from Joan Crawford to Marilyn Monroe in a relatively short period as the female form was pulled back into the service of reproductive patriarchal relations. Mulvey rightly sees the 1940s and 1950s as paradigmatic of what Hollywood movies are and do.

At the same time, the political and cultural events of May 1968 produced in their wake the disillusion of the organized left, the defeat of the trade union movement and the inexorable marginalization of the working class in terms of a mass politics. These events, however, also allowed for the emergence of single-issue politics and a sensitivity, at least in theory, towards the particular circumstances of individual identity.

In the 1970s, the Vietnam War became a sort of stand-in signifier for discussions of all colonial struggles. In the fallout ensuing from America’s defeat, mainstream cinema audiences began to experience ‘difficult’ films such as Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now. The conspiracy films which proliferated in the early 1970s such as All the President’s Men, The Conversation and The Parallax View attempted to negotiate the contradictions and paranoias produced by a radical loss of political and national certainty: ‘You mean there’s a CIA inside the CIA?’ Each attempt, however, to uncover ‘the truth’ or to recover some form of normality by exorcizing the demons of a compromised state took the cinema, audience and all, further from ‘safe ground’ – until the phrase ‘there’s no place like home’, spoken once with such reassuring naivety in The Wizard of Oz, began to signify the uncanny rather than apple pie.

The critique of dominant modes of representation, combined with the normalization of ‘the shock of the new’, became a sort of Trojan horse that opened the door of the city to the theoretical and practical work that has had the ‘p’ word applied to it. The work of modern theory requires a critical distance – a position from which it can ‘speak’ in order to judge and value the text. In its critical reflexivity – a mode already latent in critically modernist theory – postmodernism weakens the authority of theory in that it is revealed as a position rather than the position. The loosening of this critical distance has generated a large volume of work around ‘reading the text differently’.

However, in the sleep of reason marked by the eschewal of textual authority, postmodernism still produces monsters. How does this happen? In the following section, we will argue that postmodernism ‘knows’ the histories outlined above, knows the codes of representation that have become our pleasure, even if it is a pleasure that knows how compromised it is. Hollywood cinema has never been without contradiction, but postmodern cinema plays this contradiction within a frame that works to allow its pleasures, to make visible the contradiction, but still, somehow, manages to ‘tidy it up’ and put the world back in place.

The endlessly circulating commodity of postmodern cinema contains signifying systems that carry with them both the values of capitalism and the contradictory signs of the struggle produced within it. This means that the stories of postmodern cinema are particular stories that work through very particular themes. Now obviously this can be said of any period of history or culture, which is precisely why it must be said about postmodern cinema. The postmodern cinematic market-place is dominated by American products. This domination has consequences both for the form of the American film, and for other national, local and independent cinemas which tend to be absorbed, ignored or marginalized. At the same time, the American film is required to reduce its own cultural specificity in order to satisfy the demand to be ‘global’. So,while the forms, codes, conventions and narrative structure of postmodern cinema possess a strong resemblance to that of the mass-produced cinema of modernity, the need for globalization produces both an intensification of its formal specificities and an allowed and necessary address to difference. We are doubly stressing ‘difference’ here, to refer both to the organization of sexual and ethnic difference within the structure of the text and to the visibility of those representations of difference within the play of the text. Difference is allowed, celebrated and commodified. The cultural politics of difference becomes the cultural commodity of difference. Postmodern cinema celebrates, at surface level, its own exchange and use value. We are told how it was made, how much it cost and what it is about. This is especially true for what, in a sense, is a paradigmatic instance of postmodern cinema, the action film.

In the action film the history and conventions of many Hollywood genres (the western, the thriller, the horror film, the war film, the romance and the family drama) are distilled and intensified to produce a commodity that contains all of the pleasure, all of the pain, and works in as many markets as possible – while never quite eschewing American values. We would argue that these ‘intensifications’ produce the sort of observations made by Jameson and Baudrillard in terms of the intensity of the surface of the postmodern film. They also produce the critical emphasis on the reflexive nature of the postmodern text. The film and its audience, one could say, ‘know their own histories’. The pleasure of the texts consciously spills over into an audience’s knowledge of other films, other performances, other musics. One only has to think of the success of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction to see the power of these commodities to ‘reference not only social life but, more importantly, all other forms of popular culture. The referent becomes part of the treasure house of signifiers that constitute popular culture. Some theorists, like Baudrillard, extend this line of argument to conclude that the social world ‘outside’ of popular cultural terms has ‘gone away’, cinema can now only refer to other signifiers of popular culture.

Postmodern theory speaks of the end of history, the loss of the referent, the impossibility of critical distance and the celebration of ‘newfound’ difference. However, if you add the first three of these to the last one, then you are forced to ask: ‘What is difference?’ Without history, without reference to the social, without some sense of distance (what one might call an ethics or politics) the notion of difference, itself, is placed under question. It is this tension between the desire to celebrate difference within the commodity form and, at the same time, the need to construct a commodity world without history or social referent, that lets loose the kinds of difference that emerge in postmodern cinema.


The weakening of the grand narratives (Lyotard) releases difference from the tidy shackles of modernism – this does not, however, just mean that previously subjugated others are released into a different, more intense visibility (and one thinks, here, of the continued marginalization  of ‘third’ cinema from Latin America) but also that the ‘old’ binaries themselves mutate towards a more exaggerated, almost parodic, existence or are displaced through the production of new forms of otherness. Gender attributes wander across the old binary divide; Linda Hamilton, in Terminator 2, can have muscles and we can all derive voyeuristic pleasure from Brad Pitt‘s butt in Thelma and Louise. Difference itself becomes a crucial organizer and signifier within the texts of postmodern cinema. In a sense, the transmutation and seeming erosion of ‘modern’ difference allows the absolute of difference to emerge, uncannily, in the gap – a gap within which, if we are ‘allowed’ the pleasure of Linda Hamilton‘s muscles or Brad Pitt‘s butt, we can also begin to sense the enormous cost of these signifiers.

The strong version of masculinity, as played out by Schwarzenegger and Stallone in the action movie, embodies a desire for a fixed relation to the symbolic, the world where the law still operates, made less possible by the weakening of the grand narratives that also kept difference in place. Indeed. First Blood (1982) could be argued as a film in which the weight of historical trauma is borne by the body of Stallone, a new and shocking male body soon to be commodified and multiplied in the forms of Schwarzenegger, Van Damme and others. The desire to win a war that had already been lost signified in so many of the Vietnam films can itself be seen as a form of nostalgia for a present that never was. What is important for this essay is the observation that, although these bodies are on one level superhuman, too much, hysterical, they are also suffering, immolated bodies – almost to the point of death. We have become used to suffering male bodies in film genres dependent on male-male relationships, but in the post-Rambo action movies, the ‘buddy’ is absent and it is not homosexuality that is defended against, but psychosis.

This brings us back to Fredric Jameson. In Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism Jameson uses Lacan‘s definition of schizophrenia – a form of psychosis- as a metaphor to carry his description of the fragmentation of subjectivity and the emergence of an ‘eternal present’ at ‘the end of history’, which he sees at work in the postmodern condition. It is significant, for this essay, that Jameson does two other things. He dismisses the paternal signifier (the guarantee of the law) from his use of the metaphor of schizophrenia, as does postmodernism when it gives up on the Enlightenment project. He also, in two places in his essay, invokes the image of Marilyn Monroe, once as ‘Marilyn Herself, almost as something, someone, that stays in place when all else is fragmented and lost. For Jameson the slide of the signifier is halted by the image of a woman and the difference she represents. In a sense, Jameson performs the same sleight of hand as postmodern cinema, denying a fixing point that should not be there but is.


The contradictions within postmodern cinema’s celebration of difference can be seen in the way that a transmuted otherness emerges within particular narratives. In Predator 2 (1990) Danny Glover moves from the place of ‘black sidekick who usually dies first’ to that of black hero who survives. At the same time as Glover‘s textual liberation from stereotype, however, the predator is constructed as an other that carries signifiers of blackness – its ‘hair’ resembling dreadlocks, its figure that of a hunter or warrior. Similarly, Sigourney Weaver in Aliens (1986) plays the good mother to the alien bad mother – both protecting their children. The latter, however, the hyperbolic feminine, is represented as dripping and oozing and carrying signifiers representing the vagina dentata. The film almost gives itself away when the child ‘mothered’ by Ellen Ripley is given the name ‘Newt’ – a touch of the alien.

Blade Runner (1982) presents the transmutation of difference and otherness in a more complex way, setting humans against cyborgs. One can read the film as one in which the cyborg other reproduces humanity at the point at which the human race has ‘lost it’. However, the emergence of the cyborg, the unhuman, can be read differently. Cinema and other popular cultural forms of the 1980s and 1990s contain either the fantasy of ‘leaving the meat’ (body) or the possibility of a transformation of the body into something more, something different (Lawnmower Man, Nightbreed, Cocoon). The disappearance of the human race is on the agenda in the 1990s- and maybe we should argue that this is nothing more than a coding of the imagined disappearance of white dominance. The union of Rachel and Deckard at the end of Blade Runner, however, speaks of an escape from the misery of the human condition, into a fantasy rural idyll. The twist in the tale – the possibility that the new Adam and Eve are both cyborg, and the certainty that at least one is (something not seen before as anything other than a threat), reveals, perhaps, the depths of contemporary anxiety about the future.


The female corpse is a very insistent signifier in postmodern cinema. In the failure of the text satisfactorily to ‘put things back together’ in the  face of the commodification of difference she/it becomes the currency through which to repay an impossible debt. For example, in Basic Instinct (1992) we are ‘allowed’ to see a strong beautiful woman, Sharon Stone, maybe get away with murder. She is bisexual; getting both the men and the women that she wants. However, in order for her to achieve her end, Michael Douglas and the ice-pick under the bed, the text produces corpses – most notably those of her girlfriend Roxy,a strongly, if conventionally represented, lipstick lesbian with a taste for voyeurism and a female psychiatrist previously ‘contaminated’ by Stone’s seduction.

Silence of the Lambs (1991) reproduces the same pattern. The wonderful Jodie Foster, lesbian icon, wins out, but at the same time the text produces a trail of flayed female corpses. Other films and cultural texts may be called into evidence at this point: River’s Edge (1987) – the female corpse as a thing to be poked with a stick; Manhunter (1986)’ something about the woman’; Blue Velvet (1986) – the abjected, less than perfect body of Isabella Rossellini; Rising Sun (1993) – the digitally encoded and replayed sexual murder of an unnamed woman; Twin Peaks and Murder One – the twin female corpses wrapped in plastic. The intensity of the gaze at the female corpse could be seen as another aspect of the intensification, and loss of distance, in the postmodern text. It is almost like pornography-what is it we are looking at and why? In the films outlined above, a woman’s corpse sutures the narrative producing a double emptying of the female body, a double death; the weight of sexual difference is removed from the body, it becomes a thing, both a blockage and a suture – it makes sense of the narrative, compensates for a femininity ‘out of place’, while making no sense itself. It emerges in the real outside of signification.


At this point, it might also be useful to replay another postmodern characteristic differently. The notion of the ‘eternal present’ has been seen as concomitant with the end of history. However, what one observes when one confronts, particularly, ‘early’ postmodern films is that the present, the contemporary, has become a difficult category, a category in crisis. Some of the most popular films of the early 1980s Terminator, Blade Runner, Alien – involve dystopic representation of a near future, while others attempt a flight into the past of cinema itself (Purple Rose of Cairo, Barton Fink).

By the mid to late 1980s another, more utopian, tendency could be observed within mainstream cinema represented initially through the Oedipal revisionism of Back to the Future (1985) and Peggy Sue got Married (1986) in which the world and the American dream are put firmly back into place. The tenderness of the incestuous ‘time-loop paradox’ represented by the love scene in Terminator (1984) is replaced by the horror on the face of Michael J. Fox. Fox when his mother makes a pass at him. It is as if the narrative resolution becomes dependent on the abolition of the limit of time. This abolition also involves a negotiation with death.

Two of the most popular movies of the early 1990s, Field of Dreams (1989) and Ghost (1990) are examples of a whole cluster of films in which death itself is overcome. Ghost, which operates around a dead man, is interesting in that it combines another favourite concern of the 1980s – Wall Street – with the idea of life after death. Justice is only achieved through divine intervention and the spectral colonization of the body of a black woman by a dead white man. Field of Dreams is a Reaganite fantasy where the unheimlich becomes heimlich (literally German for unhomely and homely – two words used by Freud in his essay The Uncanny, to give a sense of something we thought was safe, homely, turning into something terrifying that we do not recognize, something uncanny). In a devastating series of loops predicated on the near death of a small girl, the film allows a man to ‘have it all’: the house, the wife, the child, the dead father and the entrance fee of twenty dollars. Costner‘s dream is resecured in the present, but only by bypassing the limit term of death. It is also important that the central character is a man, a father, a son and a husband – patriarchy is secured and the dead father placated.

However, in postmodernist cinema, death is not an equalizer and its limit-line becomes an organizer of gender. Thelma and Louise (1991) suffer a very different fate to that of Kevin Costner’s character in Field of Dreams. What Thelma and Louise try to avoid is ‘Texas’, a place in this film where women get raped; rape here being constructed as the high point of heterosexual difference. In attempting to ‘go around’ Texas they are caught by the law – in the end, to borrow a phrase from the first series of Star Trek, ‘they attempt to boldly go where no man has gone before’, beyond patriarchy, signification and difference, but they can’t. The image freezes, time goes into reverse. We celebrate their past, not their broken bodies, in a frozen, almost sublime moment at the edge of the collapse of difference.


There has been a shift in the formal and aesthetic structuring within the films that may be called postmodern. This shift may be marked historically, but as with modernism and postmodernism, there is no pure break. Films such as Blade Runner, Terminator, Alien and Brazil show an anxiety concerning both the present and the future constructed out of the visual detritus of the past and the signifiers of historical trauma. For example, the scenes of the future catastrophe in Terminator could be argued to be drawing their signification from the Holocaust, Hiroshima or Cambodia after Pol Pot’s Year Zero.

However, in more recent films the real relations of capital become occluded, fetishized, from the total space of the film – only to return inion the body of an appropriate other, be it woman, alien or black. Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Forrest Gump (1994) are films that strongly represent this tendency. Reservoir Dogs is a film in which all others (almost) are held at the level of speech. The ‘Dogs’ worry around the signifiers of woman, black people, Jews and homosexuals. However, we would like to suggest that there is a resonance here between the hystericized bodies of men already commented on and the hystericized speech of men in this film. This speech is predicated on anxiety. So although we are presented with what is almost a cloning of a certain kind of white heterosexual masculinity as a defence against the postmodern condition, and the fetishistic pleasures of the visual and aural surfaces of the film as it attempts to defend against any suggestion of crisis, the particularities of the speech of the ‘Dogs’ says something else: ‘What do women want? Are they virgins or whores? Do they earn to much of too little? In the case of black women, are they strong or subservient to their men?’ The sexuality of black men and women carries with it the intensity we have spoken of earlier in this essay; but it is the sexuality of black men that is the real problem for the ‘Dogs’, especially when combined with the ‘threat’ of homosexuality. The difficulty of a film full of men – a subject already well documented in modernist film theory – is displaced and projected into the discourses of homophobia and racism. What it finally produces is their deaths; the real conditions of existence return revealing a white heterosexual masculinity in crisis.

Forrest Gump, on the other hand, rather than holding anxiety at the level of speech gives two accounts of the period of US history from Vietnam until the present day, accounts which are gendered, and where the benefits and costs are placed on opposite sides of the gender divide.

Once again, the trauma is absorbed by the body of the woman from her abused childhood to her death from AIDS. Gump goes from success to success, never stopping, never understanding. In the film Forrest Gump, as Slavoj Zizek has said, ‘ideology lays its cards on the table, reveals the secret of its functioning, and still continues to function’. Gump, like the ‘Dogs’, is a perfect representation of ‘subjectless subjectivity’, ‘the absolute proletarian’ (Zizek after Marx). He understands nothing, does everything he is told and becomes a hero and a billionaire. (In fact, the ‘stupid’ man as hero has become a new Hollywood sub-genre: Dumb and Dumber, Beavis and Butthead, the characters played by Jim Carrey, The Hudsucker Proxy, King Ralph and Homer Simpson.) This is very different from the work of sexual difference in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) – a film we would see as representative of early postmodern cinema. In Alien, we can witness the beginnings of the trauma concerning the emergence of strong women – but we also see capital, in the form of the Company, represented very negatively. The alien itself could be read as the embodiment of the desire of the Company, not a representation of the ‘absolute proletarian’, but rather of the absolute of capital itself. Conversely, in Reservoir Dogs and Forrest Gump there is an attempt to protect masculinity from the demands of the new postmodern market-place where the play of difference is permitted so long as it is commodifiable.

Later postmodern cinema attempts to deal with the conditions of late capitalism but gets caught in the meshes of the logic of difference. It might be useful here to look at Barton Fink (1991), a Coen Brothers film which, like Gump and Dogs, demonstrates the formal and aesthetic signifiers of a thoroughly postmodern text (it is one of Jameson’s nostalgia movies). However, unlike the former films, it can be read thematically and politically as an allegory of the postmodern condition. Set in ‘the golden age of Hollywood’ (on the verge of the USA’s entry into the Second World War), the film shows the pathetic impossibility of Barton Fink‘s position as a left-wing Jewish writer ‘bought’ by, appropriately, Capital Pictures, and set to work producing hack scripts about ‘big men in tights’. He finds that he can no longer write. All he can do is look at the pin-up someone has left on the sweating wall of his hotel bedroom. His neighbour, Charlie Meadows, who sweats as much as the hotel walls, is a travelling insurance salesman who ‘eases the pain’ of his clients/victims by shooting and decapitating them. Fink sleeps with the abused partner of his former idol, a drunken writer reminiscent of William Faulkner. Not only is she the true creator of the writer’s scripts (again a woman structures the narrative!), but she is also the serial killer’s next victim while she and Fink sleep after sex (a woman’s corpse sutures the narrative). After her death Fink is able to reproduce his own stories about working-class fishmongers. In this, he neither satisfies the demands of Hollywood nor hears the other tales of the human condition continually offered to him by the one representative of the working class in the film – the killer. The final sequence tells the story in terms of a destroyed masculinity, a destroyed left politics and a femininity split into its extreme corporeal components. Fink sits on a beach, his ideal woman, the pin-up from his hotel bedroom, appears ‘in the flesh’ (indeed the whole mise-en-scene is that of the pin-up photograph). Next to him is a box that we all know contains the head of the woman murdered in his bed. His destruction produces a thoroughly imaginary fetish, and a little piece of the real, at the point of the greatest military conflict the world has ever seen. The dream and the horror are brought together on this beach, with Fink unable to grasp either of them fully.


The discourse of the Enlightenment can be accused of hiding its history of slavery and oppression – part of the very conditions that made it possible. Postmodernism raises those conditions to the level of the signifier, making them part of the pleasure of the text, whether we are talking about the space of drugs, crime and deprivation inhabited, at the level of signification, by most of black Hollywood at the moment, or the female corpses that litter the postmodern movie scene. As audiences we view, and yet do not see, that the blood, torture, death and horror that visually enframes the postmodern narrative, that provides the very meat of its drama, are psychic compensations for the vivid yet blank perfection of its commodity form.

Source: The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism Edited By Stuart Sim Routledge  London And New York 200 I

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