The Humanity of 2000s Postmodernist Cinema

A scene from the film 'Moulin Rouge!' where several men are gathered together. They wear top hats, and a few of the men look at something off-screen in amazement.
Image courtesy Bazmark Productions

Postmodernism is confounding. So confounding that scholars still can’t define what it is; how do you define something that is both progressive and reactionary, silly and serious in turn? It can be understood as a turn away from absolute truth, a movement to understand our world outside of the bounds of tradition, but it is also a playground of cultural reference and boundary-breaking within the world of art. Postmodernism is arguably the dominant mode of thought in popular culture, giving us a heavy sense of irony and blurring of the concept of truth. In cinema, postmodernism once promised new and exciting narratives, though it has devolved into a cycle of self-reference as the film industry continues to prioritize re-invented versions of old favorites instead of stories of contemporary human interest.

But wasn’t postmodernism worth something once? Breaking down the boundaries of traditional thought isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even if it has led to a popular cinema that lacks creativity. After all, we can consider Blade Runner a postmodern film because it plays with the line between human and machine, refusing to characterize either as absolute, while also melding various genres like noir, sci-fi, and Western together into something entirely new. It is an innovative film, one that has re-shaped those genres with permanence. Likewise with Pulp Fiction, Blue Velvet, Chungking Express; films whose ultimate goals are artistically lofty but had mainstream appeal.

Despite their importance in the development of contemporary cinema, though, these films do lack a warmth once present in popular films. One could see this as a response to classic cinema’s happy endings and sweeping romances, a desire to reflect the hardness of the contemporary world. It’s ironic then, perhaps not so coincidentally, that postmodern cinema boomed once again in the early 2000s with a flurry of emotionally driven films that use postmodernity as a setting for their dramatic tales. Four of these films stand out as exemplary uses of genre, popular culture, and the postmodern question of truth.

Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko is, at first glance, an unforgivingly cruel film. Set in the suburbs of Virginia, the film follows schizophrenic teen Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he deals with hallucinations of a portal to another universe middle-manned by an imaginary rabbit named Frank (James Duval). These  turn out to be based in reality when Frank convinces him to commit crimes by night, further shifting our world off of its intended path. Death and time are fluid, manipulated by forces outside of human control. The film is ostensibly a thriller or sci-fi, but the themes are more in line with a family drama. When you push past the space-time continuum and frightening image of Frank, there lies a story of a young person struggling to be heard in a world of conformity. It is driven by pure adolescent id, a fact reflected in its lasting cult popularity with teenagers; its narrative obscurity being a feature, not a bug.

The blue-leaning color grade and the post-punk soundtrack give the film a layer of darkness. The soundtrack almost narrates the film, acting as a metatextual layer. The opening song “The Killing Moon” by Echo & the Bunnymen is a nod to Frank, while the lyrics sing of fate; a crucial element in trying to make sense of the film’s ending. Each song thereafter has an ominous tone, even “Head Over Heels” by Tears for Fears speaks of time and endings. 

Darko is best known for its opaque, uneasy ending. We are meant to question what really happened, if Donnie was right about the parallel universe or if it was simply an alternate reality dreamed in moments before death. And yet, despite all of the bleakness that led to that ending, we are left with human connection. Donnie’s girlfriend Gretchen (Jena Malone) makes eye contact with his mother (Daveigh Chase). They’re both missing something, though neither knows it’s the exact same loss. Even though their connection is only possible in fiction, it is strikingly human in its acknowledgement of mutual emptiness. Postmodernism doesn’t value ultimate truth; that lack of concrete reality is what makes the emotional impact of Donnie Darko possible. We may not know exactly what caused their suffering, but we do understand the feelings behind it. 

Moulin Rouge!

Moulin Rouge! is not Baz Luhrmann’s first foray into postmodern cinema, but it is his masterpiece. After putting Romeo + Juliet in Hawaiian shirts on Venice Beach he incorporated the theatre again in Moulin Rouge! through references to the opera (La Boheme in particular) and vaudeville. However, the film melds these traditions with contemporary pop music, working to create a showstopping overload of the senses. It has no regard for the boundaries between high and low culture, emulating opera just as easily as it extolls the virtues of a Madonna song. It is couture in the same way a Juicy tracksuit is couture; in name and price tag (that costume budget!) it may seem so, but it is too gauche to ever garner the respect of purists. It is a musical that was never meant to please either the Gene Kelly crowd nor fans of the theater, but people looking for a rush.

The traditional tragic story structure of the film is punctuated by a high level of visual excellence, using its incongruence to evoke our base emotions. Lust, joy, despair, envy; it’s all on display here, even if it is soundtracked by a tango-fied cover of “Roxanne.” It’s almost surprising that a film like this was made prior to the explosion of the internet. It runs at such a rapid pace, with so many pop culture distractions, that it feels as if it could only take place in a world rotted by six second clips and 280-character Tweets (even if it is technically set in 1899).

Of the films represented here, Moulin Rouge! is most explicitly concerned with the concept of truth; it’s repeatedly mentioned by multiple characters that they are in the pursuit of truth above all. However, truth is still relative. We are told by Christian (Ewan McGregor) that his love of Satine (Nicole Kidman) is the ultimate truth, but we see his grief when she is lost. If it is true that “the greatest thing of all is just to love and be loved in return,” then it may also hold true that the loss of it is the worst thing of all. Nothing in Moulin Rouge! feels real, not even the romance at its center. The film is an artifice, a show of what we want but even Luhrmann knows can not be held forever. It throws you through the wringer of emotion, in all its amazing sound and color, before leaving you out to dry.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Eternal Sunshine is a romance, though only by the loosest definition. Joel (Jim Carey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) break up via a memory erasure procedure offered by a firm called Lacuna. Instead of going through the actual break up process, Lacuna promises the peace of mind of never having known someone at all. This science fiction premise melds with the romantic vignettes of Joel and Clementine’s relationship, fragmenting it as if we were watching the memories erase in real time. It is a deconstruction of a romance, but it never eschews the core elements of the genre in the process, granting their intimacy proper care and even allowing for reconciliation in the end.

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is a definitively postmodernist writer, playing with culture and memory films like Being John Malkovich and I’m Thinking of Ending Things. His work is not easily understood without having some grasp on the references being made therein. John Malkovich does not work if you don’t know who John Malkovich is. Sunshine differs in that it is comprehensible without strong cultural knowledge, but difficult to read on its own terms as Joel’s memories slip away and become confused with one another. It refuses easy narrative answers and prefers that you come to some of your own conclusions.

The film’s payoff is indebted to both its strange concept and its uneasy storytelling. We don’t know all of the truths about this relationship, but neither do its leads. In the end, the choice they make is one based on connection rather than knowledge. Though Joel and Clementine can listen back to their memories through tapes given to them by Lacuna, they have distance from them, as if they were lived by someone else. The film seems to make the argument that truth is only as real as remembrance, forcing us to confront the idea that emotional bonds are more complicated than history alone. It is a love story possible only through postmodernism and its values.

Marie Antoinette

Controversial for its use of contemporary music in its historical setting, Marie Antoinette aims to complicate the identity of the infamous French queen. While Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) is usually considered to have been disengaged from the people of her country, shielded by her privilege, Sofia Coppola shows a young woman who is victimized by her circumstances. The film questions supposed truths of history, allowing us to see the villain’s side of a story. It is a gorgeous but cramped film, making Versailles out to be a beautiful prison.

The incorporation of popular music, particularly new wave, emphasizes Marie’s teenage angst. All of the bands featured in the film are associated with young people; The Cure, The Strokes, Bow Wow Wow. Marie Antoinette can then be understood as less of a period drama and more of a teen film, presenting its subject as having more in common with a late-90s Julia Stiles vehicle than a Keira Knightley bonnet drama. Marie mopes against walls and attends secret parties, she doesn’t care much for the decorum of her era or the expectations placed upon her. It’s noted multiple times that she is fourteen when the film begins. 

This tactic of making the subject matter more youthful and connected to popular culture is what makes Marie more sympathetic. We feel for her when things go wrong because it is more easily understood that she could be one of us, a young woman forced to endure things that no one should ever be expected to do. Yes, she was undeniably wealthy, but it cost her freedom. She didn’t have any power outside of that wealth, which led to overindulgence in what she had. Perhaps this isn’t the traditional reading of Marie Antoinette, but it is one that many women have connected with, showing the representative possibilities inherent in postmodern cinema for female audiences. 

Where do we go from here?

These films are potentially a flash in the pan for postmodernism, though they do stand as brilliant examples of it. Since the early-to-mid-2000s, there has been little postmodern cinema that feels quite as genuine. In fact, postmodern cinema has become even more murky to define. For every straightforwardly postmodern film like Her, there are ten Scary Movie’s and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’s. Where does the line get drawn between parody, homage, referencing, and true postmodernism? Is Marvel postmodern in its endless self-referencing and re-envisioning of our reality? What about the CGI mice squeaking out “Rhythm Nation” in the new Cinderella

It seems we’ve turned a corner with postmodernism, from indie prevalence to mainstream relevance. Despite its ubiquitous hold on cinema, there is something missing from these newer films: sincerity. We’re back to the cold genre-benders, but without the genuine inventiveness that made films like Blade Runner so appealing. We are in a phase of meaningless retreads of popular properties both driven by money-hungry studios and nostalgic audiences. Some may believe this is postmodernism’s logical conclusion, but I’m not so sure. 

Maybe one could argue that Donnie Darko, Moulin Rouge!, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Marie Antoinette aren’t true postmodernist films because they present universal desires for love and understanding. Other truths may be questioned, but our humanity is not. But in searching for a postmodernism that means something, that isn’t meant to simply shock or surprise, perhaps we should be looking back at this era of cinema. There are ways to experiment in narrative film without eschewing genuine emotionality and these films have proved that in spades.