ISSN 1466-4615

Vol. 4 No. 1, January 2000



Joy Palmer

Conventionalizing the Postmodern






_Postmodernism in the Cinema_

Edited by Cristina Degli-Esposti

London: Berghahn, 1998

ISBN 1-57181-106-0

264 pp.


Originating from a 1994 Kent State University conference, _Postmodernism in the Cinema_ brings together thirteen critical essays -- approaches editor Degli-Eposti describes as 'those that better investigate the particular relationship between the cinema and the postmodern' (14). As such, the collection is a pretty mixed bag, divided ambitiously into four sections: I, 'The Ideological, the Mnemonic, the Parodic, and the Media'; II, 'Issues of Cross-Cultural Identity and National Cinemas'; III, 'Postmodernism and Tourism, (Post)History, and Colonization'; and IV, 'Auteurial Presences'. With such sweeping scope, perhaps the book too readily establishes imposing premises to follow through. Indeed, many of the essays, mainly those in II and III, *do* attempt to complicate what Degli-Eposti characterizes as the largely 'pessimistic' approaches to the postmodern, by examining the 'relatedness of the many ways in which images can be postmodern' (14). This *relatedness* is explored from a variety of perspectives -- film's relation to nationhood, post-coloniality, cultural subjectivities, and corporeality -- most of which attempt to deal with the specifically *cultural* contexts of postmodernist practices. Unfortunately, though, just as many of the approaches in this collection fall considerably short of these challenging goals by offering fairly derivative analyses of postmodernism as, at best, a set of *identifiable* stylistic conventions, recognizable to the knowledgeable or 'competent' spectator, and, at worst, symptomatic of the cultural dominance of late capitalism, 'catering to what is obviously assumed to be a rather ignorant audience' (Shary 81). While the introductory statements of the collection and the text as a whole do not significantly contribute to philosophical debates over film culture, as I shall discuss below, many of the critical voices in this collection intersect and deviate in significant ways and so demonstrate a partial shift in critical questioning, not only in film studies, but also contemporary critical theory in general.


Degli-Eposti's introduction to the rest of the essays, fittingly titled 'Postmodernism(s)', provides a broad, rather dizzying overview of the varying definitions and terms of postmodernism. Anyone who has read other anthologies on the subject of postmodernism will know that it seems a prerequisite that such a text be introduced by an essay that glosses the history and theoretical contentions surrounding the term, and this collection is no exception. Degli-Eposti smoothly invokes the key players from postmodern theory -- Jameson, Hutcheon, Baudrillard, -- managing to elide any of the vast theoretical, not to say political differences between each of these writers. While I don't necessarily think it vital that the critic address these differences in depth, this flattening out of postmodernism into a set of stylistics is one of the major flaws repeated by several essays in the collection. Degli-Eposti ultimately provides us with the familiar 'model' of the postmodern text as one which uses 'strategies of disruption like self-reflexivity, intertextuality, bricolage, multiplicity, and simulation through parody and pastiche' (4). As such, films as diverse as _Prospero's Books_, _Blade Runner_, _Star Wars_, and _Forrest Gump_ are all noted as movies suffused with postmodernist techniques; the vast cultural differences between each movie, its reception history, its *relatedness*, remains unaddressed, and it seems that Degli-Eposti ends up perpetuating what has become the most commonplace criticisms of postmodernist critique: that it is ahistorical and apolitical in its levelling of difference as ludic semiotic-play.


Degli-Eposti's more interesting observation, that contemporary culture is *post*modern because of its 'technological effects', its hypertextuality and its positioning in a CD-Rom culture that exceeds human memory . . . and that these particular aspects 'accentuate the singularity of a new relationship between the spectator and the object of the gaze' (5), are compelling observations that she and many of the other writers leave largely unexplored. Instead, 'the spectator' and the 'object of the gaze' remain unhistoricized as categories for critique, and for the most part the unitary and disembodied gaze of the ideal viewer and monolithic concepts of 'the cinematic apparatus' remain the enabling terms of many of the analyses. In light of the problematizing critiques of 'postmodernism as stylistic disruption' theorized in more complex ways by other contributors such as Barry Laga and Rosanna Maule, it seems surprising that Degli-Eposti and other writers can so readily invoke such a stable notion of the 'competent' viewing subject as the necessary conditions that enable the dynamics of filmic postmodernism to 'reveal' themselves. Thus she argues (via Eco) that the postmodern text/film elicits a kind of 'intellectual game controlled by the citational aesthetics [that] implies various levels of spectatorial competence' (6).


Cynthia Baron's analysis, '_The Player's_ Parody of Hollywood: A Different Kind of Suture', the first of the critical essays, is perhaps symptomatic of film theory's growing restlessness over the terms of our discourse. Although Baron adopts the concept of suture to describe the identificatory practices of the spectator of the classic/realist film, she also notes that 'modernist' techniques of alienation, while typically seen as strategies that effect a radical break in the suturing forces of classical narrative, now need reevaluation in light of postmodernist films such as _The Player_. These films, she argues, 'require us to consider a different type of suture', located in 'instances in which spectators are alienated from the diegesis but not the text' (21).


She identifies _The Player_ as a text that has an 'in-between' status as both art-movie and Classical Hollywood Narrative. For though its 'parodic stylization contributes to destabilized spectator positioning', spectators are simultaneously 'sutured into the text . . . becoming engaged in the disruptive process of the narration itself' (29-30). Although Baron problematically predicates her analysis on the 'art' (read oppositional) and Hollywood (read dominant) polarity, and a largely unhistoricized version of the gaze and identificatory practices, her critique also serves to show how assigning a causal relation between the 'disruptive' postmodern narrative and 'critically distanced' viewer is insufficient when considering the constantly negotiated and shifting positions of spectator-identity.


The following three essays in this section initially promise thorough-going explorations of the ideological implications of postmodernism in mass culture. Kraidy's 'Intertextual Maneuvers Around the Subaltern: _Aladdin_ as a Postmodern Text' is convincing in the assertion that the movie is endemic of Hollywood's hegemonic 'manufacturing of the Orient' (46). Yet the writer does not completely draw together his cataloguing of the intertextual aspects of the film with analysis of subaltern identity -- instead, postmodernity is characterized as semiotic 'free-play', that 'by which the subaltern is dehumanized, dehistoricized, and denied agency' (58). This pronouncement seems to overlook the way in which post-colonial theorists have significantly complicated this humanist version of postmodernism as 'the loss of the authenticity', and offered complex analyses of the interrelations between postmodernism and post-colonial identity. This complexity is more directly and convincingly dealt with by Christine Bolus-Reichert's 'Imaginary Geographies', which appears much later in the book. Bolus-Reichert's astute analysis of how French films depict 'the colonial experience' speaks directly to how even films which have been viewed as 'progressivist' actually serve to perpetuate the colonizing narratives they set out to critique; the Self /Other relation remains in tact when the subaltern is figured as authentically *out there* to be represented in all his/her *truth*.


Both Weinstein's 'Of Mice and Bart: _The Simpsons_ and the Postmodern', and Shary's 'Reification and Loss in Postmodern Puberty: The Cultural Logic of Fredric Jameson and American Youth Movies', also resort to a kind of 'listing' of the postmodern strategies at work within each text without interrogating how these narratives are networked within broader cultural contexts. Weinstein comments upon the paradoxical positioning of _The Simpsons_within television consumer culture, but does not explore this positioning in any way, except to provide a 'reading' of a specific show, explaining all its ironic references for us. Shary's essay reiterates the totalizing 'doom-scenario' of postmodernism as the logic of late capitalism, where there is no hope for an alienated and fragmented _Wayne's World_ culture duped by the machinations commodity culture.


It is not until John Bruns's 'Refiguring Pleasure: Itami and the Postmodern Japanese Film', that a more complex interrogation of the relations between postmodernism and consumer culture is presented. Indeed, Bruns's piece is in implicit dialogue with the preceding perspectives, dismissing models of culture as 'totalitarian regimes'. Such a vision he argues, 'lacks in peripheral vision; it is a scope too narrow, like that of cameras installed in convenient stores, department stores and banks, for which only the user-practices of ideal subjects make any sense, for which only those subjects already uniformly interpellated become visible' (106). Adopting de Certeau's concept of bricolage, Bruns's excellent analysis demonstrates how Itami's 1986 _Tampopo_, a film that playfully draws from the generic conventions of the Hollywood western, musical, and gangster movie to impart the story of Tampopo and her quest for the perfect noodle, 'suggests a dramatic refiguring' of Japanese cultural identity, where 'the postindustrial Japanese subject is always in the process of speaking itself; negotiating through cross-cultural, pan-generic discursive formations'. Bruns goes on to reject Marcuse's concept of subjective 'mapping', where cultural choice is figured as 'dependent on an predetermined logic' and argues for a model of 'pleasure as the rewards for creative consumption and enunciation' (104). In _Tampopo_, ironically and appropriately, it is corporeal consumption, eating and sex, which become metaphors for these identificatory reformulations. Commenting upon the 'corporate 'take-over' of all forms of pleasure' in a country so invested in conformity, Itami, according to Bruns, represents the resourceful Japanese subject as a 'bricoleur' who will creatively rework the cultural objects around him/her, demonstrating how 'cultural narratives can be respoken, how cultural influences can be renegotiated' (105).


The issue of cultural identity is picked up in within differing frameworks by Rosanna Maule's 'De-Authorizing the Auteur: Postmodern Politics of Interpellation in Contemporary European Cinema', and Janina Falkowska's 'Postmodernist Condition in Post-Socialist Eastern European Films: The Case of a Political Pastiche and the Socialist-Hollywood Thriller in Recent Films of Polish Filmmakers'. Both these essays examine the complex discursive networks through which the category of 'European art-film' emerges. As Maule explains, the classification was initially instituted 'during the postwar consolidation of European art film as a marketing strategy to counterpart Hollywood . . .' (113). From this standpoint she goes on to present a precise delineation of the critical theories surrounding the author-function in cultural production, expertly interweaving diverse critical perspectives (Foucault, Deleuze, Bordwell, and Corrigan) with specific analysis of films by Pialat and Morretti. Maule points to the current problematic in film theory, where seemingly more radical models 'theorize authorship as a commercial strategy of enunciation that undermines its aesthetic authority' but ultimately revert back to an essentialist logic where the author is reinstated in 'its authoritative role as enunciative presence, interpellating an 'expert' audience prefigured in multimedial and global reception practices' (117) (an approach which rather characterizes those essays in the final section of the collection, 'Auterial Presences'). Instead, Maule adopts the Deleuzian concept of nomadism to argue for authorship as a 'tactic of enunciation'. Such a model, she argues, allows us to think of the 'de-authorizing idea of authorship as an intersubjective monitoring of cultural identity in institutional practices' (121). Falkowska's essay -- less theoretically dense than the former -- provides an appropriately illustrative follow-up to Maule's analysis. Though she does not specifically address the issue of authorship, her discussion shows how recent significant shifts in Polish national identity have been enunciated dialogically in the discourses surrounding films such as _The Pigs_ (1993) and _The Man From_ (1992).


Though extremely different in terms of subject matter and theoretical approach, I have chosen to discuss Ellen Strain's 'E. M. Forster's Anti-touristic Tourism and the Sightseeing Gaze of Cinema', and Barry Laga's 'Decapitated Spectators: Barton Fink, (Post)History, and Cinematic Pleasure' in juxtaposition to one another. Both essays, I feel, reveal in differing ways the manner in which film theorists are attempting to negotiate the rather 'static' and/or 'immaterial' concepts of looking relations. Ellen Strain, for instance, argues that the 'anti-touristic' impulses of Forster's literary work are partially effaced by the sweeping grandeur of filmic adaptations of his work -- specifically _Passage to India_, _Where Angels Fear to Tread_, and _Room with a View_. Strain's critique of the film adaptations is twofold: first, as Ann Freidberg has contended, the movie-viewing experience is inherently akin to that of tourism, the gaze of both cinematic spectator and tourist are intrinsically analogous because of the 'pronounced similarity in distanced perspective and 'derealized' space between tourism and media travel' (150). Second, film adaptations of Forster's work will automatically efface the critical perspective of the author, as they necessarily play upon the touristic impulses of cinematic spectator. So, while Forster explicitly critiques the 'touristic' approach to travel that is rooted in the 'commodification of experiences' (a commodification that immediately forecloses the individual's ability to have a 'true' and im-mediate pure experience) the film versions of his novels tend to indulge the very 'touristic impulses' he sought to undermine. Significantly, Strain argues that for Forster -- who she invokes as the originary locus of meaning and intent -- authentic *un-mediated experience* is located within the material body, and, as such, moments of radical subjective transformation are marked in his works by moments of extreme visceral, often violent sensation: such as Lucy Honeychurch's 'symbolic loss of virginity' as she witnesses the brutal murder of an unknown man in the Piazza della Signoria.


It is this attention to the corporeal aspect of subjective experience that is picked up upon by Barry Laga, though his theoretical premises are distinct from those of Strain. Whereas Strain focuses on the distanced, immobile, and even 'acorporeal' aspect of looking relations, Laga's more phenomenological approach argues for a model of spectatorship that allows for the visceral bearing of the body to be taken into account. Focusing on the Coen brother's _Barton Fink_, Laga perhaps spends too much time addressing how the film could be read as a 'postmodern, (post)history text' rife with distancing techniques and alienation devices, a film 'doubly encoded throughout, forcing us to question the real/reel' (187). It is not until nearly halfway through the essay that Laga shifts his critical approach and suggests, in concordance with Steven Shaviro, that such emphasis on the deconstructing and demystifying processes of postmodernist film as creating narrative 'un-pleasure' assumes that visual pleasure is dependent on a stable, unitary subject being 'sutured' into the narrative processes, and ignores the factor that 'spectators are often delighted when there is narrative discontinuity, impossible points of view, and implausible temporal spatial arrangements' (199). In order to think differently about the position of the viewing spectator, Laga argues, it is necessary to consider how filmic images 'essentially attack the spectator in such a way that one is affected before one can reflect or respond' (199). It is by 'tapping into' this corporeality that filmmakers can begin to *really* destabilize the position of the viewer, and, according to Laga, the Coens have done just that. _Barton Fink_ is a film that 'affirms raw sensation, provokes visceral excitation . . . affirming the spectator's desire for *inauthenticity*' and '*masochistic* pleasure which is derived from submission rather than control' (200). The movie ostensibly 'decapitates' us as viewers -- we cannot possibly process via the mind what we have radically 'experienced' via the body.


I want to conclude my discussion by considering the ramifications of Laga's 'recuperative' approach. In a collection which has so largely ignored the status of the situated, bodily knowledges of spectators, Laga's approach, albeit brief, comes as a welcome change. His argument that certain filmmakers can 'exploit' the bodily aspects of film-viewing, however, is more difficult to embrace. Especially, to argue that filmmakers such as the Coens 'direct' their films to the body seems to be contradicted by Laga's (and Shaviro's) *own* figuring of the body as *outside* of language, the *a priori* raw materials for the images to play upon. Perhaps it is naive or tedious to suggest that such a version of the body perpetuates Cartesian philosophy, with the body split off from the mind, reveling in a much more authentic, unruly, even *natural* experience of the film than the mind, which imposes its own logic of order and rationality onto the disparate images before 'it'. In incorporating 'the body' into film analyses we need to be wary of *not* decapitating spectators, and not invoking The Body (capital T, capital B) as just another undifferentiated and abstract concept that replaces that of 'the gaze'. Bodies have begun to 'matter' in film theory and cultural studies in significant and invigorating ways: they offer a destabilizing force, making us question the assumptions of our body-effacing terminology that sanctions only the notion of a monocular gaze absolutely distinct from the object of its vision. However, as I hope my critique of this anthology has shown, in order to break away from such formulaic, self-enclosed analyses of film, it is necessary for our analyses to be historicized, grounded in studies of reception and the specific cultural contexts through which these narratives emerge. 'Postmodernism is not disease or a cure; it is a perception of relatedness that rejects reduction -- ontological, epistemological, sociohistorical. It is not a thing one can find out there, but a relation that runs through all things, in art, production, consumption, public policy, and in the minds of people'. [1] In short, we need to shift from analysis of postmodernism *in* the cinema, to one of cinema in the postmodern.


Michigan State University, East Lansing, USA





1. Eyal Amiran, 'Introduction', in Amiran and John Unsworth, eds, _Essays in Postmodern Culture_ (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 5.



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999


Joy Palmer, 'Conventionalizing the Postmodern', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 4 no. 1, January 2000 <>.




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