Postmodernism and Cinema

Asim Ratan Ghosh discusses about the characteristics of post-modern cinema with examples from different significant post-modern films

Today’s life is a post-modern one. Cinema and TV are shaping our lives - life styles and attitudes towards life. The social, economic and political problems have direct relationship with it. The cinema and TV serials are simulating a hyper-real world. They pretend to show a ‘real’ life. That world lures people. They try to search out that ideal life but without success. This failure creates hatred, frustration, anger and a sense of revenge. That is why the instances of suicide, homicide and other crimes and misdemeanors are gradually increasing.

All over the world another phenomenon can be observed: social unrest and change of social order are taking place all over the world. In the economic front Capitalist flavour is almost lost. Multinationals are reigning the world. Economists call this ‘Late Capitalism’. This ‘Late Capitalism’ has direct relationship with postmodernism. In the cultural front, modernism, realism, and classicism are dying. Postmodern art and culture are replacing that place.

This post modern age is full of visual culture. This age can be called age of cinema or rather age of TV. They represent the collective ambition of the mass. They show the dreams man love to see. The love, affection, brutality, sexual excess, news for entertainment as whatever all people love to see are transferred into celluloid or videotape.

With this perspective let us look at the nature of postmodern condition which exists today. Nostalgia, a conservative longing for the past has become a very much unavoidable intense feeling – in this time. At the same time the boundary between the ‘past’ and the ‘present’ no longer exists. The feeling of both history and art come in our mind in fragmented manner, often appearing as examples of pastiche. Sexual desires are now almost open for fulfilling. Taboos about sex no longer exist. Pornographic elements, perversion, obscenity, sexual exigency etc. have become very open and explicit in these days. In cinema and TV these elements are common now and people love to see them. Sex and desire have become commodities. Representation has become more important. Process/ performance/ happening are now more important than finished art objects. Rise of consumerism is also another symptom of post-modern situation. As a consequence of a number of social reasons today’s man feel isolated, alienated and detached from the society. Anxiety, emotional disorder, breakdown of family and marriage etc. are also common post-modern features.

Naturally these post-modern condition is reflected in today’s films whether the director does that intentionally or not. Another kind of films are being produced consciously keeping the post-modern elements and using post-modern cinematic techniques.

Christian Metz in his essay ‘The Modern Cinema and Narrativity’ indicated the characteristics of the modernist cinema:

1. Importance of director as an auteur or author.

2. Anti-theatrical

3. Thought provoking

4. Emphasis on the structure of individual shots.

In this context let us look what Fredric Jameson says about post-modern cinema. He says ‘All important cinemas of the twentieth century are characteristically different. ‘Modernist’ films simultaneously resist and exhibit their status as commodity, by means of stylistic self reference’. Jameson also says that the modernist style comes from extreme desire to express oneself to keep an impression of the auteur on the artefact. The auteur theory, a strong modernist point of view emphasises on personal, individual styles of an auteur director. Foucault also accepted Roland Barthes’ stirring comment ‘Author is dead as God’. Post-modern cinema is not devoid of ‘style’ rather multiple styles are present here. The styles of different authors and different times are amalgamated here as colourful and historic examples of pastiche.

History comes frequently, but in a fragmented manner. A brilliant example of dislocated history is found in a kind of post-modern films called ‘retro’ films. Here history comes in a fragmented style. The total experience of a period is summarised in these films. Brazil is one such example. Plurality of styles or pastiche is a major element of post-modern films. TV has a major role to play in post-modern cinema. Often they offer a way to escape to the modern or the late-modern realm as a result of reaction against the post-modern.

Although the post-modern films are high sounding, one thing should be kept in mind that post-modern films are very popular because of the reason they derive their basic elements from the hearts of the post-modern people.

Now let us look into some post-modern films and find out the post-modern elements.


Storyline: The hero, Jeffrey Beaumont comes to his native place during his summer vacation. During that period suddenly his father dies. He has to take charge of his father’s hardware business. One day Jeffrey discovers a severed ear of a man in a field. To identify the owner of this ear he meets a private detective. Sandy, the daughter of the private detective and Jeffrey goes to Dorothy, a night singer’s house and Jeffrey hides behind her closet. Dorothy’s husband Don and their children were kidnapped by Frank. Frank cut off Don’s ear that time. Dorothy is Frank’s sexual slave. She seduces him and gets indulged in sado-masochistic sexual activities. When they discover Jeffrey, Dorothy asks him to strip in knife point and then seduces him. After this all of them go to Frank’s hotel. Leaving that they go to the outskirts of the town where Jeffrey was beaten up by Frank. Returning home he finds Dorothy in a completely naked state and she is claiming to be his lover. She is sent to hospital. In Dorothy’s apartment Jeffrey finds dead bodies of Don and a corrupt police man. Jeffrey and Sandy get married and started living peacefully.

Postmodern elements

1. Presentation of the unpresentable

A lawn full of green grass is shown in the film in which each blade of the grass are of gigantic size. There bugs of abnormal size are roaming. After some time we see the rotting ear in extreme close up. Its inside view can be seen with a roaring sound. Sexual excess (of Dorothy and Frank), brutality (beating of Jeffrey), violence (chopping of ear, murders) etc. are shown in the film.

2. Erasure of boundary between past and present

The film begins in such a way that audience starts believing that the background of the film must be of fifty years back. Suddenly they find cars of 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and even 1980s are going along the road — all at a time. Similarly school students wearing dresses of different periods. This way the boundary between past and present gets dissolved.

3. Nostalgia

In the initial part of the film, it appears that America of 1940s is depicted here. Merry atmosphere, clear sky, colourful landscapes, it appears that everything is going all right. Rock n’ Roll can be heard. Audience get nostalgic like Indian audience while listen songs of the older days.

4. Pastiche and parody

The film parodies 1940s American films - ‘small town’ films, Film noir and films of other genres. A mixture of different genres and different times are seen in this film which is an example of pastiche. Everything is done and shown in a mocking manner as if the whole film is a parody of 1940s’ American film.

5. Voyeurism.

Jeffrey looks at the Dorothy and Frank’s sexual activities as a Voyeur. In a later sequence Jeffrey again acts as a Voyeur. Audience also play the role of Voyeur.

6. Post modern woman’s film.

The contradictory images of American women are shown here as -‘the play boy’ role played by Dorothy and ‘traditional’ role played by Sandy. Throughout the film it mocks perceptions about women. In Indian cinema also we can find this kind of dichotomous view about women.

7. Postmodern hope

People of post modern society are very optimistic in nature. They believe finally all will end well. For that reason the film shows a happy ending. This feature is common in Indian films also.

Let us look into another film which is characteristically post-modern in nature - Brazil


Storyline : A bureaucrat works in a society which resembles Russian communist society as perceived by the people who reside out of Russia. Very often he meets a lady from outer space. Once he meets some alien enemies of the world. He was ordered capital punishment. But before execution of the capital punishment, somebody from extra-celestial world saves him. He realises that what he was thinking was not correct at all. One thing must be noted here the narrative of the film is neighther so simple nor its structure is. Let us look at the postmodern elements in the film.

1. Retro mode

In postmodern films often we find pastiche of older films:-film noir, western, musical etc. Brazil is a retro film with particle of older science fiction like Star War, soviet film Battleship Potemkin and the films of different historical period etc.

2. Erasure of boundaries between past present and future

Costumes, sets and even perceptions about future of different periods are fused with each other in this film. This science fiction film is about what people thought about future in 1930s or 1940s. The result is queer, funny as for example the computer looks like type writers. Past, present and past perceptions about future are so intermixed, they cannot be separated.

3. Ironic rethinking of historyy

According to Linda Hucheon, Brazil is a postmodern film because of its ‘ironic rethinking of history’ and its parody of two famous films Battleship Potemkin and Star War.

After the Blue velvet and Brazil let us look at a film in which postmodern society is reflected - sex, lies and video tape.

sex, lies and video tape

Storyline: Ann is John’s wife. Cynthia is her sister. John often makes love to Cynthia. On the other hand Ann goes to Graham’s place. Graham discusses with her about sex, love, marriage etc. Graham with his video camera tapes the discussion. Graham is sexually impotent; only this type of video camera can arouse him. Ann wants to break the marriage with John when she comes to know John’s affair with her sister Cynthia. John then comes to know about Ann’s affair with Graham. John beats her, rushes to Graham’s apartment, beats him and watches video tape where Ann is talking about her sexual life.

1. Reflections on post modern life styles

The central characters of the film are well off and lead their life in a postmodern way. They wear designer shirts, drives BMWs, use Reebok tennis shoes, lives in fashionable apartments — in a whole their life style are postmodern in nature.

2. Simulacra

All characters of the film are postmodern simulacra. They have become sexual objects and images. They consider members of other sex as sexual objects.

3. Open sexual discourse

People here talk about sex openly without any uneasiness and taboo. The film shows them directly although the film shows only sexual discourses.

4. Postmodern views on women

sex lies and video tape shows sexual excesses of today’s women but finally we see Ann cures Graham’s impotency by aiming video camera at him. As a contrast to ‘male gaze’ of Graham seen through out the film the ‘female gaze’ is seen finally. The film reflects on the perceptions about sex in post modern society, the film openly discusses about sex, love, friendship, marriage, postmodern voyeurism. It also shows that sex is a self standing subject. It does not depend upon anything.

5. Visual culture

video plays an important role in the society. Video in this film is used as an weapon. Here men tape women, women see them and again women turn video camera towards men. The use of videotape as shown in this film is postmodern in nature.

6. Voyeurism

Graham is a passive voyeur in this film. He sees women talking about sex on video. Those videotapes appear to be erotic to otherwise impotent men.

Other postmodern films

Long time companion is on social problems. In this film we see pastiche of realist and neorealist films. Wall Street discusses about money related problems in today’s society. This is a film on ideology using simple narrative. The Flu is a postmodern science fiction. Speaking Past is a self reflective cinema. Blade Runner is an experimental film which reveals postmodern condition and contradictions.

In post-modern films we can find plurality of style. With the invasion of post modern TV, cinema has lost one dominant style. Multiple styles can be seen in this films. In different channels of neoTV one can see postmodern, late modern, modern, premodern films all at a time. Their existence cannot be denied. This is an age of plurality.

Post modern films are very popular. Unlike postmodern theories these films are appreciated by the audience, since these films show what they want to see.

We have travelled the realms of postmodern cinema. We can see the post-modern characteristics discussed about some films are present in various films we see regularly. This is because of the reason that the audience and film-makers live in a post-modern society. The directors consciously or unconsciously make post-modern films. The basic formula of commercial films is ‘cater what public need’. Naturally post-modern audience of the post-modern society wants to see something which is post-modern in nature. The already discussed post-modern elements and characteristics can be found in various contemporary films.

- The article was originally published in July 2006 in the defunct e-zine angelfire.
-Pic-Brazil-Terry Gilliam


Yayaver said…
The Progressive Apocalypse and Other Futurismic Delights is also a readable regarding this topic referment to post modernism.
nitesh said…
Thanks for the link, yayaver.
Alan said…
But Brazil and Blue Velvet are 20-25 years old. For me postmodernism is yesterday's story, superseded by digimodernism (see forthcoming book).

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