Postmodernism in Film

What is Postmodernism in Film? [Definition & Examples]

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Postmodernism in film is an art movement that started after WWII. Postmodern films rejected typical narrative structures and challenged mainstream conventions.

This movement is found in all art forms, including writing, painting, and music. The goal is to create work that does not follow traditional values.

Postmodern films helped to create new ways of telling stories on screen. Below, you will learn everything about this term including a detailed breakdown of the definition, recurring elements, and popular postmodern films.

What is Modernism?

To begin with, modernism was an art movement throughout the early 20th century. In the art world, Pablo Picasso was one of the key artists of this time who worked with modernist subjects like cubism and surrealism. Also at the time, there was German expressionism which is an example of modernist cinema. 

After WWII, artists began to challenge the work of modernists. At first, the filmmakers turned to cinema realism with work such as Italian Neorealism. However, soon, both filmmakers and audiences craved more escapism and creativity.  

What is Postmodernism in Film?

Postmodern cinema covers a wide range of films from the 1960s to 2000s. Film director Federico Fellini is one of the first filmmakers to create work in this category. His film 8 ½ (1963) rejected the values of Italian films of the time with a surreal dream like structure.

These filmmakers started to experiment more with narrative and storylines. They created genre films, made self-aware characters, and took risks, such as breaking the 4th wall. Most of all, the cinema of this time challenged the traditional story structure.

Postmodernism Elements

Postmodern cinema is a catch all term for a wide range of films made over 40 years. However, you can still find a few key features throughout most of these films. Let’s explore these elements in detail and include examples for each of them.

Parody

A parody is a film that comments on other film styles and audience expectations. It is a popular subgenre that has been around since the beginning of filmmaking. However, the 70s and 80s are said to be the golden age of parody cinema. 

Many postmodern films fit into direct genres such as comedy, action, and romance. A good example of a parody comedy is the Zucker brother’s debut Airplane (1980)which makes fun of Hollywood disaster movies with the use of slapstick and puns.

Philosophy

Postmodernism in film is also likely to feature storylines and characters dealing with big world questions. The question of the meaning of life comes up frequently in these films as well as the theme of identity crisis. 

Many postmodern films have larger than life storylines centered around philosophical questions. For example, Ridley Scott’s science fiction film Blade Runner (1982) asks what it means to be human and whether or not robots can have souls. 

Nonlinear Narrative

Postmodernism in film tends to include stories that unfold out of narrative order. The nonlinear narratives also include flashbacks, dream sequences, or fragmented timelines. Not all postmodern filmmakers use this element, but it is a popular storytelling device.

One way to do this is to show the ending of the film at the start of the movie. For example, director Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) features mixed timelines including having the end of the movie as the opening scene.

Characters

Another element in postmodern cinema is meta-referencing and self-awareness. For example, the characters are aware of their presence in a film or a fictional world. Once again, this isn’t in all postmodern films, but it’s a recurring element.

These filmmakers like to hint towards fiction and present an alt-reality. A good example of this is in Peter Weir’s Truman Show (1998)which follows Truman, a man living inside a TV show. Throughout the film, Truman questions the reality of his world. 

Postmodernism Examples

Postmodern cinema covers thousands of films made worldwide. These films come in different genres, styles and feature a range of storylines. However, to try and understand this movement, let’s look at some key film examples.

1. Airplane (1980)

One of the best examples of parody in postmodern films is Airplane, directed by the Zucker brothers and Jim Abrahams. The story is a skit of disaster movies, in particular the film Zero Hour (1957), which borrows its plot, characters, and some lines. 

Airplane set out to mock typical Hollywood movie tropes. The characters are also aware of the film’s plot and acknowledge the audience. Time magazine called it “a remedy for the bloated self-importance of too many other efforts”. 

2. Blade Runner (1982)

Another take on postmodernism in the film is Ridley Scott’s science fiction film Blade Runner. In this film, a detective hunts down robots whilst questioning his own reality. The film asks many big philosophical questions and presents them within a futuristic world.

In postmodern films, the characters are occupied with their own existence and question their place in the world. Blade Runner also features a mix of genres, cultures, and art styles which is another trope within postmodernism in art.

3. Pulp Fiction (1992)

Perhaps the most distinctive element of postmodern films is their mixed timelines. In Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, there is a mix of scene orders. Films made before this movement didn’t show such experimentation with storytelling.

Pulp Fiction is also an example of parody and homage, as it mocks detective films of the 1950s and other movie tropes. For example, the scene when John Travolta dances at Jack Rabbit Slims is an homage to Travolta’s dance in Saturday Night Fever (1977).

4. The Truman Show (1998)

The Truman Show is an example of hyperreality and character self-awareness. The film stars Jim Carrie as Truman, a man who has spent his entire life in a reality TV show. Truman begins to question the reality of his world and spirals into an identity crisis.

Postmodernism in film likes to question the reality of a fictional world which is evident throughout The Truman Show. At the end of the film, the TV show director speaks to Truman, stating that “the outside world is just as untruthful if not more than the fictional world”.

Postmodernism Impact

Postmodernism is present in many films after the 1960s. It allowed filmmakers to express themselves without rules and structure. Because of this, the films in this category are some of the most experimental and thought-provoking.

In the art world, it’s said that postmodernism ended in the 20th century. However, many films after this are still categorized as being a work of postmodernism. For example, Deadpool (2016) features the breaking of the 4th wall and hyper self-awareness.

The nature of postmodern cinema means that many films, past and future, will fit into this diverse category. The movement has also created post-postmodernism and meta-modernism, two new art terms that aim to define art after the 21st century. 

Wrapping Up

To sum up, postmodernism is a complex umbrella category for films made after WWII. It changed cinema by allowing filmmakers to make films with complete artistic freedom. Because of this, many new film tropes emerged, including parody and meta-reference. 

This era of filmmaking is notable for its nonlinear scripts and genre movies. You can still find many films today in this group including films in the Marvel franchise. There is no doubt that the future of filmmaking will rely heavily on the films made in the postmodern era.

Author
Amy Clarke
Amy Clarke
Amy is a content writer at the Video Collective. She is a former script supervisor and writes about careers in the film industry. Follow her on Facebook.
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