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What Is Postmodern Film?

By Paul Cartmell
Updated May 23, 2024
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It can be difficult to define postmodernism as it is a movement that can have varying meanings depending on the field or area to which it is applied. In general terms, postmodernism refers to the rejection of definite explanations of reality and argues that reality is a construction based on the personal understanding of every individual.

It can be helpful to think of postmodernism in relation to earlier movements of premodernism and modernism. Briefly, premodernism is a culture dominated by tradition. Modernism rejects tradition and uses reason to understand the real world. Postmodernism rejects modernist ideas that one reality is applicable for all people and argues that each individual must understand reality through their own interpretation.

In the arts, literature, and philosophy, postmodernism often describes the change in communications and technology. Within media, postmodernism is a large part of pop culture in countries like the U.S. where postmodern film often references the movies of earlier periods of film history. In film, postmodernism can be seen in a number of ways, including the altering of the state of mind of the protagonists, as a homage or pastiche of an earlier style of film and a sense of hyper-reality.

The term "postmodernism" is a product of the late-20th century and was first used by philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard in 1979. In general, it is used to explain the movement of the arts and literature from the ideas established by mass communication techniques in the late-19th century to the ideas of the late-20th century and beyond. In an effort to explain postmodern film, researchers often refer to individual films that possess examples of postmodernism.

Pastiche is one of the common examples cited by academic researchers in postmodern film. This feature of postmodern technique makes use of well-known areas of pop culture, which are referenced by the filmmakers often in a comic style. An example of a pastiche in Hollywood movies is the Austin Powers series of films that pay homage to the spy movies and culture of the 1960s.

The sterility and loneliness of modern and future life is another feature of the postmodern film that explains the changing of human nature into a machine-like detached personality. Examples of the advance of technology over human feelings are known as the flattening of affect, and include the film Taxi Driver featuring the descent into insanity of a lonely taxi driver in a big city. Altered states are another example of postmodernism, showing the changing of personality in a film's characters often because of the use of hallucinogenic drugs.

A playfulness with history can also often be included in postmodern film. Many movies attempt to ask questions of what would have happened if history had turned out differently, including such titles as Twelve Monkeys and Donnie Darko. The use of technology to negatively affect the life of human beings is often included in postmodern films as well, referred to as examples of hyper-reality. Cases of hyper-reality attempt to show that the world can be a better place when reality is not what we believe it to be. For example, The Truman Show is the story of a man who discovers that his life has been recorded for a reality TV show with his friends and neighbors being paid actors.

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Discussion Comments
By Glasis — On Mar 05, 2014

Unfortunately, attempts to acknowledge past film history have sapped the movie industry of any creativity.

Most movies produced in the United States today are either based on books, are remakes of older, classic movies or are sequels or prequels to existing movies.

A good example of the movement away from original story ideas is the number of comic book and super hero-based movies put out on a yearly basis.

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