Андрей Алферов
Film scholar, director, curator
Liberal Arts
8 minutes for reading

POSTMODERN OR METAMODERN: Cinema After the End of History

POSTMODERN OR METAMODERN: Cinema After the End of History
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Eugenia Loli. All About Perspective / magazine.workingnotworking.com

 

Debates about the end of the more than half-century-long era of postmodernism and the emergence of metamodernism as a new concept replacing the old one have been ongoing for years. And there is no end in sight.

Postmodernism has left such a profound imprint on our world that it has, to a certain extent, transformed the world itself into a postmodern entity: postmodern leaders govern postmodern countries, where postmodern people live their postmodern lives, drive postmodern cars, listen to postmodern music, and watch postmodern movies.

Using the latter as an example, let’s try to understand what postmodernism is and how it differs from metamodernism, which has also made its way onto today’s big and small screens worldwide.

 

Irony and post-irony, intertextuality, detachment, poetry after Auschwitz, the end of humanity, and the end of all things human — this is the essence of the notorious postmodernism. It emerged after two world wars amidst incredible disillusionment with the ideals that old Europe once cherished.

Postmodernists advocate for the principle of deconstruction — destroying meanings and conventional perceptions of objects. They reject any system of values and hierarchies, considering it impossible to distinguish between good and evil.

In the early 1960s, this approach was genuinely shocking to unprepared audiences. This was especially evident in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. Leone essentially launched the era of screen postmodernism with «A Fistful of Dollars» (1964), introducing a new kind of cowboy — the Man with No Name, portrayed by Clint Eastwood, embodying the good, the bad, and the ugly.

He would arrive in a small Mexican town and hire himself out as a hitman… simultaneously to two feuding clans. This first-ever spaghetti western was a remake — a cynical and daring reimagining of Akira Kurosawa’s «Yojimbo».

 

Кадр из фильма «За пригоршню долларов»
A shot from the movie «A Fistful of Dollars» / imdb.com

 

THE ART OF QUOTATION AND ALL-DESTROYING IRONY

 

In Leone’s films, both here and beyond, irony becomes indistinguishable from seriousness and quotations from direct statements. The pinnacle of his postmodern practices is «Once Upon a Time in the West» (1968), where screenwriters Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, having watched around 200 films, stole a little from each other. But they did it masterfully.

So, after that, there was no need to make or watch Westerns anymore — «Once Upon a Time in the West» had it all: ketchup-like blood running through the veins of actor Charles Bronson (though he doesn’t know it and fights fate seriously), and the bluest-eyed villain in cinema history, played by Henry Fonda, a star of Golden Age Hollywood, who, abandoning all his former humanism, coldly kills a child in the prologue.

But the main protagonist of this mocking masterpiece is, of course, Leone himself, with his unique sense of typically postmodern humor and rhythm, which still sometimes induces a feeling of astonishment today. The all-destructive, ruthless irony is a product of the deconstruction that underpins the postmodern worldview.

This trait will become characteristic of the works of, for instance, the Coen brothers — representatives of the «neo-barbarians» (an American art movement that emerged in the late 1980s) and key postmodernist authors of contemporary cinema.

Almost every one of their films contains a hidden or overt intention to confuse, mislead, and mock the viewer. They equip their narratives with false causal relationships. Take, for example, the cult classic «Fargo» (1996) — the story of a hapless husband who arranges the kidnapping of his own wife to extort ransom from his wealthy father-in-law.

The Coens set a heavily pregnant police officer in her eighth month on the trail of criminals instead of a seasoned cop, and they reduce the central idea to exposing the myth of upright American Puritans who, according to the Coens, are capable of committing the wildest crimes when life corners them. «Fargo» is a quintessential postmodern film: liters of blood, ultra-dark humor, and succinctly hilarious dialogues.

This kind of irony devalues the objectives of art as formulated by the past, turning everything upside down.

 

«THE DEATH OF THE AUTHOR» AND THE BIRTH OF METAMODERNISM
 

Roland Barthes’ famous essay «The Death of the Author» (1968) largely defined the aesthetics of postmodernism. In it, the French philosopher discussed the elimination of the author from the literary text. Any contemporary work, Barthes concluded, «is woven from quotations, references to thousands of cultural sources. The writer can only eternally mimic what has been written before».

 

Кадр из фильма «Однажды на диком Западе»
A shot from the movie «Once Upon a Time in the West» / imdb.com

 

But even before Barthes formulated the basic principles, his compatriot Jean-Luc Godard attempted to bring them to the screen in his debut film «Breathless» (1960). This manifesto of the French New Wave is an example of early postmodernism in cinema.

In «Breathless», Godard stages scenes from American films (from John Huston’s «The Maltese Falcon» to Samuel Fuller’s «Forty Guns») in the streets of Paris, filming them with a light handheld camera. At the same time, the young cynic Michel Poiccard, nervously played by newcomer Jean-Paul Belmondo, rebels on screen against the unbearable patriarchal world. Godard himself (like his fellow New Wave filmmakers) revolts against «daddy’s cinema», canceling the cine-gods of the classic French screen.

Godard was among the first to transform the products of genre American cinema into objects of high art. But the peak of screen postmodernism was, of course, the 1990s. Lars von Trier, David Lynch, Pedro Almodóvar, and Quentin Tarantino are the central figures of this all-denying movement.

In terms of deconstruction and intertextuality, Tarantino surpassed not just his peers but also his direct mentors — Godard (after one of whose masterpieces Tarantino even named his production label, A Band Apart) and Sergio Leone.

He effectively divided the seemingly linear history of cinema into «before» and «after», turning the entire coordinate system upside down: after «Reservoir Dogs» (1992) and «Pulp Fiction» (1994), it suddenly became clear that «Piranha» or «The Snowman» is just as much a fact and cultural value in cinema as, say, Bergman’s «The Seventh Seal».

 

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It was with Tarantino that filmmakers embraced the idea that from now on, anything was possible.

However, this concept came with a catch: many postmodern opportunists who rushed to exploit this newfound liberty ultimately failed. Tarantino’s brilliance lies in precisely knowing where to derive from, how, in what proportions, and most importantly, why.

 

THE OMNIPRESENCE OF POSTMODERNISM

 

The repetition of ideas, motifs, techniques, and images used by past directors became a persistent trend in late 1990s cinema, primarily set by the author of «Pulp Fiction». With the onset of the 21st century, screens were flooded with remakes and cover versions, and quoting almost became the primary method of creating artistic works.

Not only classical samples but also modern ones, including advertisements and comics, were used. For instance, Canadian director David Cronenberg managed to create one of his late masterpieces, «A History of Violence» (2005), based on a comic book. It is a satirical and terrifying tale about an American good guy (Viggo Mortensen) who suddenly turns into an almost infernal monster. Similarly, French director Abdellatif Kechiche created his soft-pornographic, controversial Cannes hit «Blue Is the Warmest Color» (2013).

 

Кадр из фильма «Оправданная жестокость»
A shot from the movie «A History of Violence» / imdb.com

 

For postmodernists, turning the «low» into the «high» became one way to talk about the destruction of value systems in culture and society, mocking the viewer who consumes art like any other product.

Deconstruction, the blurring of meanings (as seen in «Pulp Fiction» — a film whose purpose remains open to interpretation), is a unique game with the viewer. Directors seem to invite us to make the film ourselves, employing various optical techniques, showing different perspectives on the image, and intentionally creating multiple possibilities for interpretation. Or they encourage participation in the process, much like Andy Warhol once invited viewers to color in a painting, or Julio Cortázar (in his novel «Hopscotch») turned the reader into a co-author of the text, allowing them to construct it as they wished.

Isn’t this precisely what streaming platforms do today, producing series with alternative storylines and endings?

 

NEW WAVES AND THE SINCERITY OF METAMODERNISM

 

Postmodernism has significantly altered today’s world, bending it to its will. However, in the late 1990s, in contrast to the decades-long dominance of deconstruction, stylization, and relativism, a new fluctuation began to emerge and flourish. This oscillation between sincerity and irony, enlightened naivety and pragmatic idealism, apathy, and attraction came to be known as metamodernism.

The concept of metamodernism was first articulated by Dutch philosopher Robin van den Akker and media theorist Timotheus Vermeulen in their work «Notes on Metamodernism» (2010). They discussed how «metamodernism replaces the boundaries of the present with the limits of an unpromising future, and it replaces the boundaries of familiar places with the boundaries of the boundless. In fact, this is the ‘fate’ of the metamodern person: to pursue endlessly receding horizons».

The characters in Aki Kaurismäki’s films, a cult Finnish director celebrated by the most significant international film festivals, futilely strive to reach these horizons. Kaurismäki is likely a pioneer of metamodernism in cinema. Since the late 1980s, he has been creating his socially charged fairy tales with elements of black comedy, filled with a cozy, nostalgic charm. His imaginary, utopian Finland is inhabited by drivers and waitresses, shop assistants, and cleaners, who curse their jobs when they have them and curse life when they lose them.

«Shadows in Paradise» (1986), «The Man Without a Past» (2002), «Le Havre» (2011), and «Fallen Leaves» (2023) are all chemically pure metamodernism, the gold standard. Following in Kaurismäki’s footsteps are some of the most distinctive individualists in contemporary cinema: Spike Jonze, Sofia Coppola, Michel Gondry, and Greta Gerwig.

 

Кадр из фильма «Гавр»
A shot from the movie «Le Havre» / imdb.com

 

Her «Barbie» is not just the main blockbuster of 2023 but also a vivid example of a metamodernist statement containing a conceptual oxymoron: the primitively simple coexists easily with the very complex, and faith in humanity coexists with ethical minimalism.

Metamodernism is also found in «La La Land» (2016) and «Everything Everywhere All at Once» (2022), with their confused heroes, denial, infantile cynicism, and a certain new sincerity.

But perhaps these oscillations as a form of natural order are best expressed in the universe of Wes Anderson («Moonrise Kingdom», «The Grand Budapest Hotel», «The French Dispatch») — the «main autist» of contemporary cinema. His films, with their geometrically precise color compositions, are filled with pragmatic romanticism and unbound by any ideological conventions. Joy and hope in them are balanced by minty melancholy.

To the nihilistic denial and postmodernist «protest without offering alternatives», Anderson proposes new aesthetic norms and new rules of life. Even if only on the screen, they are deeply desired. This is cinema after the end of history, which was canceled but has yet to really conclude.

And on the ruins of art from the fragments of the old world, a new — or at least a different — world is being constructed. Melancholically optimistic.

 


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