What is Postmodernism?
Postmodernism is a theory which argues other theories and critical perspectives are incapable of explaining our experiences because the world is too fragmented and unfinished to be defined. Postmodernists reject the concept of absolute truth. Therefore, religion and political systems are just futile attempts to understand the chaos.
Don’t believe everything you read online or see on television because the media only offers illusions and false hope. In the wise words of Obi-Wan Kenobi, “You will find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our point of view.”
This guide will take you through some of the codes and conventions of postmodernist texts.
The word “subjective” refers to the individual perspective rather than some sort of universal experience. Postmodernism emphasises our individual values and beliefs. For instance, there are no absolutes when it comes to concepts such as good and evil. We are all free to determine our own morality and our opinions will be relative to our context.
Since truth is also subjective, media texts no longer have to pretend they are accurate or realistic. Look at this disclaimer from the limited series “Inventing Anna” (2022):
The media can only provide the audience with a mediated version of events. The truth is something we can invent.
Postmodernist media texts will often acknowledge their own artificiality and remind the audience they are media products. Some films will draw attention to the filmmaking process or the conventions of storytelling. Breaking the fourth wall and parody are also typical aspects of postmodernism.
Most filmmakers want the audience to suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves in the world of the story and its characters, but postmodern films can be described as self-conscious because they don’t let the audience forget they are watching a carefully constructed narrative. One way films can demonstrate self-awareness is to play with the codes and conventions of cinema.
A great example comes from the made-for-television “Murder 101” (1991). The film stars Pierce Brosnan as a college professor who teaches a class on writing the perfect murder but he becomes the prime suspect in the death of one of the students. The twists and turns of the plot reference the conventions and clichés of crime fiction. Watch the denouement because it demonstrates several features of postmodernist texts:
Once Dey Young mispronounces Meryl Streep’s name, the actors corpse and break out of character, the clapperboard marks the end of the take, and the director asks for the scene to be reset. Importantly, when the camera moves through the production team and their equipment, two characters who died in the script appear on screen again – both alive and well. In this way, the film makes it clear we have been watching a film.
Do you like scary movies? You are probably already aware of Wes Craven’s “Scream” (1996) and how it played with well-established horror film tropes by allowing the characters to talk openly about the genre’s conventions. For instance, one character outlined the “rules” to surviving the story. This self-reflexivity was continued in the sequels:
There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to create a successful sequel. Number one: the body count is always bigger. Number two: the death scenes are always much more elaborate – more blood, more gore – carnage candy. And number three: never, ever, under any circumstances, assume the killer is dead.“Scream 2” (1997)
You may be less familiar with Wes Craven’s previous attempt at postmodern horror with his “New Nightmare” (1994). The actress who starred in the original “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984), Heather Langenkamp, plays a version of herself haunted in real life by a demonic Freddy Krueger. The director and Robert Englund also portray themselves in the film. It is also worth a look:
Breaking the fourth wall
The fourth wall refers to the imaginary wall which separates the audience in the theatre from the actors on stage. We can see the performers, but they are unaware of our attention and remain in their fictional worlds. However, when an actor addresses the audience directly, they are said to be breaking the fourth wall.
In television and computer games, the fourth wall is the screen we are watching. Characters can turn towards the camera to break through this barrier and speak to the audience. Writers are also able to shatter the illusion of their stories by having the narrators talk to the reader.
Breaking the fourth wall can help develop a close relationship between the audience and characters because it allows them to reveal intimate details about their lives and build a sense of trust. The performance convention can also be used for terrific comedic effect.
In “Deadpool” (2016), for example, the self-conscious narrator makes plenty of sarcastic comments to the audience, but most of them are too rude for this website. We are going to focus on the opening scene from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986) instead:
Fading in from black, the establishing shot of the white-painted house locates the scene. Known as a J cut in film editing, we can hear the parents talking before the visual cut to the bedroom interior and a close-up of the protagonist. The use of continuity editing, including the shot-reverse-shot structure and eyeline matches, ensures the audience are aware of the space and what is happening in the sequence. The pacing is formal and traditional. The performances are perfect.
However, after 2.30 minutes, Matthew Broderick sits up and begins his famous monologue about “faking out parents” to skip school. It is wonderfully engaging. The use of text on the screen is another convention used by postmodernists to highlight the nature of film. There is also the very postmodernist concept of believing in yourself rather than an “-ism”.
Interestingly, acknowledging the very real dynamic between the audience and the actors can make the story less realistic because we are being pulled out of the narrative and back into our chairs.
Parodies draw our attention to particular styles and genres by exaggerating their codes and conventions. They might be caricatures poking fun at the rich and famous, such as the comedy sketches on “Saturday Night Live” which are often parodies of contemporary American culture and politics. Use a VPN if necessary and treat yourself to a couple of episodes on the official SNL website.
For a satirical look at life, especially politicians and ideology, you should check out “America’s finest news source” at theonion.com. Their humorous articles parody the conventions of traditional news organisations by taking really mundane events and presenting them as alarming.
In terms of films, according to imdb.com, “Airplane!” (1980) remains one of the most popular parodies:
The film is a spoof of “Zero Hour!” (1957) and other successful disaster flicks of the 1970s. It was produced by the same company as “Zero Hour!” so they were able to copy the plot and even lots of the original dialogue. In terms of copyright, US law allows parodies to make “fair use” of the original material.
Finally, “Weird Al” Yankovic who makes fun of pop culture with his parodies of famous songs. At over 154 million views, this is musician’s top result on YouTube:
Some media producers take great pleasure in referencing other texts. You should read our guide to intertextuality for a more detailed explanation of the concept, but let’s consider one example in terms of postmodernism – the satirical “Last Action Hero” (1993).
This cult classic is yet another film within a film. In the following scene, Danny has been transported into the fictional world of his big-screen hero, Jack Slater, where he tries to convince the protagonist they are in a terrible action film:
There are plenty of Easter eggs for the audience to enjoy – the idea of Sylvester Stallone playing the iconic Terminator is fantastic. Meanwhile, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the action hero, Jack Slater, and a parody of himself. In the dramatic climax, the fictional hero even gets to meet the Hollywood superstar. Of course, the blurring of reality and fiction is typical of postmodernism. If your would like to know more about the concept of simulation, you should read our introduction to Jean Baudrillard.
Another typical feature of postmodernist texts is their use of non-linear narratives where events are portrayed out of chronological order. This more than just flashbacks and exposition. Consider Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” (1994). The critically acclaimed film contains moments of self-reflexivity and lots of intertextuality. It also as an unconventional structure which follows three interrelated stories with different protagonists.
The film begins with an incredible duologue between Pumpkin and Honey Bunny who debate the pros and cons of armed robberies before taking the restaurant hostage.
After the sequence ends with a dramatic freeze frame and the opening credits roll, we shift to Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield in their car who are discussing the cultural differences between America and Europe. After more temporal and spatial jumps, the film ends at the restaurant with the robbery where we started.
This fragmented quality emphasises randomness and coincidence by reducing the importance of causality where one beat of the story leads naturally to the next. The postmodernist focus on subjectivity is also clear in the use of different perspectives in the diner. There is no grand order in the universe – only our individual point of views.
I agree that a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end but not necessarily in that order.Jean-Luc Godard
Another famous example of a fragmented narrative is Christopher Nolan’s ambitious “Memento” (2001):
Suffering from short-term amnesia and the ability to form new memories, the protagonist, played by Guy Pearce, struggles to uncover the identity of his wife’s murderer. The audience are asked to follow two distinct sequences: a black-and-white chronological narrative and a series of colour scenes presented in reverse order. The two sequences meet at the end of the film with the inevitable twist we would expect from crime fiction.
Typical of a postmodernist text, “Memento” constantly questions the reliability of the truth.
Postmodernism and Pop Culture
Postmodernists reject cultural elitism and argue there is no difference between high art and pop culture. Think about the most revered painters whose vibrant and realistic studies hang on museum walls around the world. The following painting is Caravaggio’s “Basket of Fruit” from the late 1500s.
Its realism is incredible. The shrivelled and worm-eaten could connote the relentless transience of life and beauty – we are all destined to rot. The image might even be decoded as a commentary on the dwindling power of the church.
Now, compare the representation of the Caravaggio’s fruit to Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup”.
The mundane soup tins are obvious signifiers of mass consumerism, but the artist collapses the distinction between highbrow art forms and manufactured goods. Both paintings are commendable or ridiculous – it just depends on your tastes and opinions. Everything is relative.
Some critics would argue the Academy Awards are elitist because they ignore commercially successful and popular films in favour of period pieces and gritty dramas. To counter the claims of snobbery. The Academy tried to introduce a new category for “outstanding achievement in popular film” in 2018 and an online vote for fans to pick their choice in 2022.
Postmodernism and Semiotics
In our series on semiotics, we looked at how words, or signs, have no inherent meaning. They gain their value because they are part of a language system. For instance, a word only begins to make sense when it is used in a sentence. Ferdinand de Saussure called this relationship the syntagm. There is also the concept of binary opposition where two words are defined by their contrasts.
In this way, language is self-reflexive because words reference each other for meaning.
Returning to the concept of subjectivity, we can use Stuart Hall’s reception theory to describe the postmodernist approach to understanding the media. Put simply, we decode messages according to our framework of knowledge. It’s all relative.