The Postmodern Condition and New Age Cinema

In recent years, postmodernism has dominated the cultural industry. With respect to cinema, the impact has effected most modern film genres. Postmodernism is an ideology based on critiques of its predecessors, including questioning of authorship and restructuring of generic conventions. Challenges to the film space and the framing of shots were popularized by this movement. A popular postmodern convention would be that of “breaking the fourth wall,” although more currently it seems to be played out—hinting towards further areas of critique. Nevertheless, it is practices such as this, involving deconstructions of the medium and its generic conventions in the name of self-reflexivity, that more or less define postmodernism. Officially, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, postmodernism is defined as “a style and concept in the arts characterized by a distrust of theories and ideologies and by the drawing of attention to conventions.” The last part of this definition—“the drawing of attention to conventions”—is crucial in the understanding of postmodern aesthetics. It’s the empirical action taken in the name mistrusting what has already been established; it’s a rejection of the “grand narrative”. Postmodernism has become a broad term, aspects of which can be found in most disciplines and areas of study. In general, it encompasses the need to break away from traditions; a film can be postmodern if does just that. A postmodern film will draw attention to either its medium, genre, or both and will attempt to break or play with its already established rules which eventually alters the cannon. In Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman’s R-rated animation film Anomalisa (2015) both the medium of animated cinema and the genre of the animation film are brought to the attention of the spectator. Another example is that of Wes Craven’s self-reflexive “neo-slasher” flick Scream (1996), in which the established conventions of the slasher genre are explicitly woven into the narrative.

In the latter example, the “Ghostface” killer and his victims knowingly play out the clichéd plots of classic horror films. The unfolding of the serial killer’s actions becomes a game that the soon-to-be-victims play, and just like any game, there are rules. At the end of the film, when Randy (Jamie Kennedy) is shown to have survived a gunshot after he was thought to be dead, Sydney (Neve Campbell) expresses her shock in seeing him alive to which he responds: “I probably should be. I never thought I’b be so happy to be a virgin.” Kennedy’s Randy is a postmodern creation just in himself. His character would never exist in earlier slasher films because the rules for them had not yet been established. His comments, and others in the film similar to it, are in reference to classic horror movie tropes. In the opening scenes of both iconic slasher films Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980), the film begins with teens being slain for what would be perceived as punishment for engaging in premarital sex. Scream engages in postmodernism by acknowledging this already established convention of the genre and addressing it within the narrative. Steffen Hantke writes: “Scream’s recycling of ‘classic’ precursors transformed the more politically attuned horror of the previous generation into self-indulgent postmodern play,” (191-192). While the act of Michael Myers killing his own sister may have been an allusion to a cultural norm, Casey’s death by the Ghostface killer is  just a self-reflexive revamping of this prototypical scene. Over the phone, Casey and the killer literally discuss horror movies and directly reference both Halloween and Friday the 13th. This is done directly to let the spectator in on the game.

scream-ghostface-and-wes-craven

This aspect of postmodernism represented in Scream draws from the urge to reject the canon and grow from it. When ideas of postmodernism were birthed in the 60s, the studying of such a theory “systemically reduced the entire complex of cinema to its basic processes,” (Andrew 343). Jean-Louis Baudry’s “cinematic apparatus” focused on the ideological effects of cinema as being produced through the filmic instruments, not the actual image being shown. Thus the goal of film studies became not to analyze “the structure of masterpieces but the vicissitudes of their reception,” (Andrew 347). By the time of the 90s, the reception of the slasher film had changed; everybody knew the rules. So what was the next move? In the name of postmodernism the only move was to add something new by drawing from within. Nico Wilterdink quotes a pioneer of postmodern thought in Lyotard in defining “the ‘post-modern condition’ as ‘the end of the grand narratives’, or ‘incredulity towards metanarratives,’” (196-197). The next move was, essentially, to tell stories about storytelling. This allowed for the new wave of slasher films to draw attention to their conventions and adhere not just to classical elements of the narrative but to the audience’s new altered reception of these elements as well. As previously stated, the audience knew the rules, so they’re expectations must be subverted by letting them in on the game. The “cheesiness” behind the repeated slasher tropes eases up a bit because the film is aware of it. It’s as if the audience was expecting to see a classic slasher film that they could easily make fun of, only to find out that film beat them to the punch by making fun of itself. It emits  “dynamism with a rejection of the idea of progress,” (Wilterdink). The story is the same as it was before, there is no progress in terms of the narrative structure. The “dynamism” of the film comes from its postmodern elements, from it’s self-reflexivity and it’s adherence of the the relationship of the spectator to the film.

Furthermore, while Scream focuses more on the subversion of its genre, Anomalisa focuses more on the subversion of its medium as an animation film. The animation film is a genre in itself as well, but its unique conventions are in accordance with the possibilities of its medium. Within the canon of animated cinema is the idea that the characters can act in ways physically and humanly impossible, and that certain characters can exist from outside of our physical world; Mickey Mouse is a talking mouse that acts like a person, for example. Anomalisa was created through stop-motion animation similar to the classic tales of Wallace & Gromit (2008-). The latter, however, executed its narrative by taking advantage of the fantastical nature of animation. Gromit, for example, is a dog that is given humanlike characteristics, although he cannot speak. They commit a series of antics only possible within the animated realm—similar to Peter Griffin’s shenanigans in Family Guy (1999-). The former in Anomalisa, critiques this practice by creating an animated world surprisingly familiar and mundane. It almost directly portrays our physical world and the characters act, speak, and behave in general as humans do. They seem to be subject to the same laws of physics that we deal with in our universe. In typical animation conventions, the “visual language is more aligned to the graphic than to the photographic,” (Manovich 1063). The animated, graphic world regulates what is and isn’t possible. It’s not supposed to be an exact simulation of real life. Anomalisa flips the script and challenges the canon by aligning its visual language to that of the photographic as opposed to the graphic. The protagonist Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is an author specializing in customer service who is on a business trip to Cincinnati to speak at a conference about customer service—if that’s not mundane, I don’t know what is. The plot of the film is subversive of the medium of animation cinema in itself. Animation is supposed to be exciting and out of the ordinary, whereas the premise of this film seems boring and fully within the ordinary.

anomalisaKB

There is a purpose to this revisionist style, however, that further serves the film in the name of postmodernism. Whereas previous works in the field of animation cinema focused on escape from the real world to showcase its limitless ability in opposition to what humans couldn’t physically do, Johnson and Kaufman in Anomalisa chose to focus on the human condition. Within the scope of postmodern cinema is the practice of “establish[ing] not the constitution of films but the constitution of audiences,” (Andrew 347). As previously, stated this meant a focus on the spectator and a questioning of the subjectivity of a film. Commentaries on the ways in which people think and feel aren’t typically present within animated films. By doing so Anomalisa becomes a postmodern work. The beauty behind the film is that it achieves this effect in such a way that is only possible through the specifically chosen medium. Within the diegesis, except for Michael and Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), every character has the exact same voice. I don’t mean they sound similar, they are literally all the same, except for some slight adjustments in tone (woman and children having higher tones). Michael and Lisa are individually voiced and Tom Noonan voices everyone else. This stylistic choice is intended to highlight Michael’s social disillusionment and the isolation he feels in most social settings. Even his wife and son are voiced by Noonan, displaying how Michael’s internal struggles persist even at home. The response of the spectator, after hearing the same voice from multiple characters, is to pay attention to the medium. They are no longer transported to an animated fantasy world, but are forced to think about the film’s conventions in relation to others like it. The story could just as well be told through real human bodies in a real world setting, but that takes away from the polarizing effect of realizing why all the characters have the same voice. In a real world, people have different voices—that just is. The effect wouldn’t take hold. Again, by being self-reflexive and focusing on “the constitution of audiences”, Johnson and Kaufman’s stop-motion spectacle can be classified as postmodern.

Since the 1960s, the presence of postmodernism has gained more and more influence within many diverse fields and disciplines. A majority of films from recent years can be classified as postmodern. It is one of the current dominant theories within cinema. As suggested by its name, postmodernism is a creation in direct response to modernism or modernity. Wilterdink outlines modernity as “associated with restrictive rules, uniformity, authoritarianism and cultural hierarchization and the belief in progress, rationality and objective truth,” (199). In contrast, postmodernism rejects these notions in favor of uncovering something new. In the film industry, modern genres were getting played out and the “grand narratives” they represented became mundane to the audience. A restructuring of what really was possible with the medium of cinema was what flourished from this “boredom”. The two films I’ve discussed in Scream and Anomalisa can fall under this classification of postmodern because they reject the elements of their predecessors. They deconstruct their generic conventions in an effort to highlight them within the narrative. Essentially, they are self-reflexive and the narrative created or the diegeses constructed is in direct response to previous works of the same genre and medium. They are also both conscious of the relationship of the spectator to the film. In their own way, they each draw the spectator’s attention to the genre they inhabit. In Scream it’s an explication of classic slasher tropes that draws attention to the homogeneity of the genre that was responsible for its initial decline in the first place. In Anomalisa, its the mundanity and familiarity of the animated diegesis as well as the literal homogeneity of the characters’ voices that draw attention to the human condition. Towards the end of the film, when Michael is giving his speech at the customer service conference, he begins to lose his train of thought in a fit of existentialism and says: “What is it to be human? What is it to ache? What is it to be alive?” In quite literally referencing the human condition the work offers something new to the canon of animation cinema and, just as well, becomes eligible to be classified as postmodern.

 

Works Cited

  • Andrew, Dudley. “The ‘Three Stages’ of Cinema Studies and the Age to Come.” PMLA, vol. 115, no. 3, 2000, pp. 341-351.
  • Anomalisa. Directed by Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman, Snoot Entertainment and Starburns Industries, 2015.
  • Hantke, Steffen. “Academic Film Criticism, the Rhetoric of Crisis, and the Current State of American Horror Cinema: Thoughts on Canonicity and Academic Anxiety.” College Literature, vol. 34, no. 4, 2007, pp. 191-202.
  • Manovich, Lev. “What is Digital Cinema?” Critical Visions in Film Theory, edited by Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White, and Meta Mazaj, 2011, pp. 1058-1070.
  • Scream. Directed by Wes Craven, Dimension Films and Woods Entertainment, 1996.
  • Wilterdink, Nico A. “The sociogenesis of postmodernism.” European Journal of Sociology, vol. 43, no. 2, 2002, pp. 190-216.

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