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September 10, 2012


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I was referring to THE GAUNTLET, above. James Naremore also considers Kubrick to be "the last modernist", although I've yet to read his book to find out why.

Joel Bocko

Fuzzy, good comment. Though you phrase it a bit differently, I think your elaboration on pastiche and parody agrees with my own perception: that modernism uses pastiche for a (extraesthetic) purpose whereas postmodernism uses it primarily for effect.

Overall, your definition of the two terms, and their essential distinction hews pretty closely to my own although the emphasis is a rather different. What I'm less certain about is the 'new hierarchy' aspect that postmodernists particularly are pretty keen on seeing as a central feature of modernism. I think it's more of a byproduct of the experience of modernism, evidenced both by the fact that some modernists seem to dispense with ideology, old or new, altogether (what new system did Joyce propose?) while those who don't usually embrace an array of philosophies both old (Eliot's neo-traditionalism) and new (Marxism) or even surreal fusions of the old AND new (fascism). And usually, it seems, what is so vital about modernist works comes in spite of, or as a sideshow to, the artist's ideology, rather than as a direct result of it.

I also think that 'the lady doth protest too much' when it comes to postmodernists' disavowal of ideology, and that it's another way of disguising a very particular ideology as an unquestioned norm (given which norms usually are questioned, and the suggestive premises behind assertions related to that questioning) but that's another story.

Joel Bocko

@ Fuzzy,

At the same time, though, modernists DID tend to create new systems or forms WITHIN their mediums which is probably what you were referring to: certainly modernist approaches to architecture and painting could be just as rigid as, or more rigid than, what they were replacing. 'High Modernism' I guess. Of course this phenomenon seems to have been more of a later development in modernism than anything else: more than ever, modernism seems a way station to me, a tightrope suspended between the traditional conventions of the past and an 'anything goes' approach of postmodernism. What was initially significant about modernism was the new which seemed to subvert the old elements contained alongside it; what eventually seemed significant about modernism was the lingering old which appeared to be holding back the new.

Personally, I think the postmodern solution to this problem tended to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

That Fuzzy Bastard

Joel #1: That's a lovely line about the modernist dream. And yeah, I would certainly not call postmodernism devoid of ideology (indeed, many postmodernists would say it's impossible to be devoid of ideology). But I do think there's a conscious disavowal of *aesthetic* hierarchy. Much as I love the modernists (which is a whole, whole lot), there's something a little fusty about their classicist obsessions and striving for artistic respectability. I enjoy reading Pound's Cantos, but after a while, Ashbury seems like a major relief if only because he isn't fucking mourning for the fucking Greeks all the fucking time.

Shamus: Point taken about Eastwood. And I'm so happy to hear that someone else has noticed that Lehane sucks---no offense to our host, but I thought the stupid addiction to twists that shrink, rather than expand, the world killed both Mystic River and Shutter Island.
I would disagree that postmodernism's refusal of character equals a lack of moral authority, though. There's definitely a moral sensibility in Haynes, or even Waters. It's just that the moral point of view is not expressed through relations between the characters, but through the artist's and the viewer's relationship to the characters.

Also worth noting the relationship of postmodernism and poststructuralism. "Deconstruction" is often used to mean "close reading", but that's horseshit---the word refers specifically to the collapsing of previously-established categories, revealing them as products of one another and therefore fundamentally synonymous. I've often said that Fight Club is the ultimate deconstructionist movie because the first half carefully sets up a series of oppositions (men/women, fight club/therapy group, rebellion/work, self-destruction/self-improvement, Tyler/Jack), and the second half shows how the assertion of difference was, all along, a desperate denial of their actual sameness.

Joel Bocko

An interesting subtopic might be to what extent modernism and postmodernism are defined by their references (antique classicism or more recent but premodern 'high culture' vs. mass pop culture) as opposed to the attitude they take toward those references. In other words does using a pop culture filter (even to approach classical works) automatically postmodernist? Or is there a modernist (non-dismissive) attitude possible toward pop culture? I would say so, and therefore - theoretically at least - one could be modernist without taking a fusty attitude toward classicism and notions of high culture. I think Pop modernist need not be the same thing as postmodernist AS LONG AS there is as strong a phenomenon behind the pop artifacts being revered as behind the classical. Hope that makes sense - if not I'll try to expand.

Also, since I mentioned Von Trier as a postmodernist (but with a difference) I'd like to point out that scene in Melancholia where Kirsten Dunst frantically flips all the pages in the displayed art books from the abstract, modernist images to representational, more classical paintings (not strictly speaking; I'm talking Renaissance to 19th century if I'm remembering correctly). This could, I guess, be seen as a desire to turn back the clock on cold modernism or as a classical thread within modernism itself but there's also something kind of poignantly postmodern about it, recognizing both where this gesture comes from, and its futility.


Apologies for the multiple posts, but Joel, I did not see your post @ 4.59pm.

My case for Godard the post-modernism is quite simple: he is utterly disinterested in the shape, coherence or the completion of his narratives and he repeatedly communicates the idea that the very act of communication is impossible. A postmodernist idea, I think. That cavalier attitude to narrative does not find place in modernism (so far as I'm aware).

Re Jia, I think that you are right in that it might be misleading to call Chinese films under such a western term or whatever, but he is clearly influenced by various filmmakers (probably Godard and Antonioni, amongst others) and many of his films exhibit certain aspects of narration that "appears" (to me, anyway) postmodern. Chiefly because of the ironic juxtapositions you find in many of his films and his implicit aim to produce cinema for/in a globalized world- makes him less local, or less "national".

Also, I think you analogy of classical narrative as a kind of "dream" is attractive but somewhat misleading: it implicitly tends to privilege (post-)modernism over non-self-referential "classical" literature, which is rather like valuing William Faulkner over Leo Tolstoy, merely because one has developed / embraced more insistently strange methods of narration while the other has not.

[I had lost all interest to read the Brody bio of Godard after I'd read Bill Krohn's (and Adrian Martin's) evisceration of Brody. But how do you find it?]

Fuzzy: I find FIGHT CLUB's ending, in many ways, to be as much as a cop out as SHUTTER ISLAND's. For precisely the reasons you state, actually.

Joel Bocko

Shamus, a good point about narrative with which I generally agree, but than the question becomes: is cinema a primarily narrative art? Or rather is narrative the essential feature of the aspect of cinema with which Godard is engaging? I would suggest it is not, and that his ambiguous relationship to the truth of documentation and the magic of the moment (for which narratives are merely the clotheslines) define him as modernist. And I think the attitude toward communication is more ambiguous than you do - that he alternately and sometimes even simultaneously believes, doubts, and even attacks the notion that cinema can convey a particular state of consciousness to the viewer.

I have some issues with Brody's book - its tone struck me as rather too earnest at times, not capturing the playfulness of Godard's work, and some of his theories are a bit too reductive, particularly the notion that all of his 60s films are largely, maybe even primarily, discourses on Godard's marriage to Anna Karina. At the same time, this and other notions are illuminating in their way and I found the book's emphasis on Godard's method as opposed to merely his ideas (though it doesn't ignore those) refreshing, as it tended to humanize a filmmaker whose wild style of filmmaking is too often rationalized as some kind of deliberate intellectual statement when more often there was a lot of happy accident and fascinating failure involved. I would definitely recommend the book. I also think the cries if excessive anti-anti-Semitism were themselves excessive.

Joel Bocko

Here's an interesting discussion on my own site that arose around Brody's book (and particularly Krohn's attack piece):


I'm a fan of Brody's Front Row blog and also a bit biased toward him because he had some very nice things to say about a post of mine, but the thread was written before I was familiar with his blogging.

Joel Bocko

Oh and also I forgot to respond to this:

"Also, I think you analogy of classical narrative as a kind of "dream" is attractive but somewhat misleading: it implicitly tends to privilege (post-)modernism over non-self-referential "classical" literature, which is rather like valuing William Faulkner over Leo Tolstoy, merely because one has developed / embraced more insistently strange methods of narration while the other has not."

That would be somewhat ironic as I actually tend to privilege classicism (I keep not wanting to use this term but the only other adequate one, premodernism, seems not to carry enough punch) way above postmodernism! I view the dream comparison as complimentary toward traditional forms since it suggests they are in touch with something fundamental, something that perhaps self-consciousness renders unavailable. I suppose I lean toward modernism above all because of its balance: making room for what seems to me a natural self-consciousness (one given excessive free reign in postmodernism) while still retaining the powerful flavor, or at least aftertaste, of less self-conscious (or maybe I should say less self-reflexive) works. But, I hope, not at the expense of those less self-conscious works (which have their cinematic representatives in what Mark Cousins would call the 'closed romantic realism' of old Hollywood).

Joel Bocko

@ Shamus, one more thing:

What do you feel makes Jia's juxtapositions, as opposed to, say, Joyce's or Eliot's, particularly postmodern? Also, are his films really global in scope or are they more about how globalization is effecting a particular place (China). Having seen only 3 of his films, and none released after 2006, maybe I'm missing the bigger picture here but on the basis of Platform, The World, and Still Life it seems his focus is (relatively) local, and that his concerns - about the familiar traditions and reference points dissolving into the wild, directionless web of modern life - are quite similar to those of the modernists (some of whom, especially in art and architecture, put a more optimistic spin on this than others - the writers in particular took a more melancholy view, didn't they? That's a whole other, interesting side topic...).


When I think of Postmodern cinema, besides some experimental cinema, I think especially of Hao Hsiao Hsien - The Puppetmaster and Three Times in particular. Some of Weerasethakul's stuff, as well, seems to blend genres and play with the film world/filmmaker's world in way that seems distinctly separate from modernism. If in Modernism, the onus of creating and/or finding meaning was thrust pretty forcefully back upon the Self - the lone, isolated individual - it seems as if Postmodernism dispensed with the idea that a "Self" could really even be found, never mind reliably establish a workable system of meaning or order.

Much of what I've noticed in PoMo theory seems to be a kind of doubling-down on Modernist ideas, often to the point of absurdity. Unlike the Moderns, the Postmodernists seem not only to be skeptical of belief/value/knowledge systems, but reflexively dismissive not just of those systems, but that any "system" could really be possible. If in Modernism, it became fashionable to break down the "fourth wall," then in Postmodernism it became necessary to do so; if you didn't, you were being dishonest. (Except that honesty, in the PoMo world, isn't really a meaningful category). At its worst, Postmodernism denounces hierarchy and repression, but robs people of any tools they would need to investigate and overcome these hindrances.

All of this is more problematic outside the aesthetic realm, but I don't think it's particularly useful within that realm, either. I like that reading of Fight Club, Fuzzy, but I'm not sure what makes it distinctly Postmodern (I'm aware that Deconstruction and Postmodernism are often distinguished from one another). To play devil's advocate, I'll offer what seems to me a Modernist reading; rather than an ironic closing-of-the-circle in which that which is meant to be escaped (repression through Capitalist Consumerism) triumphantly returns (repression through Pseudo-Fascism), there is actually a kind of liberation from both. With the destruction of the credit system complete - the buildings are successfully razed - Jack kills Tyler, destroying his need for masochistic dominance and self-loathing. But old Jack is also dead; the nebbish has become a man in full, finally ready to actually confront - and perhaps even love - the Other (in this case, a Woman), now that he has been made whole. And he destroyed Corporate Capitalism in the process. It's a Utopian story of Self-Improvement and Spiritual Renewal!

Joel Bocko

I could buy Weerasethakul as postmodern, definitely. Here's something I'm noticing though, at least with myself: when the subject or theme is broad, social, historical I tend to think 'modernist'; when it's smallscale, quiet, quirky I think 'postmodernism'. I wonder if this association is fair.

It does suggest, somewhat ironically since postmodernism is supposed to subvert old values, that the pomos - in art at least - are more humanist than the modernists or at least more in the Renaissance tradition of humanism (where man is the measure, although of course the gendered language would have to change).

That Fuzzy Bastard

Zach, I don't know if I'm totally on board with that reading of Fight Club, but it's pretty delightful nonetheless!


I want to retreat a little and suggest that modernism suggests a specific period as much as it does the innovations of, for instance, Stevens and Eliot. Modernist artists were more likely to be influenced by the First World War and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and Nietzsche and Einstein than, (as in the case of Godard) the Vietnam War and the post-structuralists. Joel, I have to disagree pretty strongly here: you might make a case for someone like Resnais as a modernist, maybe, but absolutely not Godard. It also occurs to me (although I've not seen the film entirely) that HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA might be the ultimate "writerly" text (or film): Godard creates the associations but he requires the viewer to generate the meanings. And narrative is only a part of cinema, of course, but a considerable part of post-modernism is to re-evaluate or re-consider the relationship between the author (/reality) to the text (/film), and the degradation of the narrative is an integral aspect of that process. (I also want to make a case for the Marx Brothers, as, um, proto-post-modernists: but maybe another time.)

To muddy the waters further, I think the entire post-modernist endeavour which is quite inimical to humanism: to insist that possessing values it itself absurd is the path to cynicism and nihilism (not that I have anything against cynicism nihilism per se).

Re Jia, I agree that Jia's "focus is (relatively) local," but, like Frost and his Vermont, Faulkner and his Yoknapatawpha County, I find Jia so universal precisely because he is (mostly, though not in THE WORLD) so local. In any case, I was merely expressing a passing thought- the idea of Jia a "postmodernist" is open to revision.

Joel Bocko

Sorry, the foregoing is long!

Re: Godard, I could probably see Histoires as a postmodernist work. And I haven't seen enough of the post-Dziga Vertov stuff to be sure, but I could accept that as being in a postmodern vein. And, in a generous mood, I could even see a lot of postmodern (or, as with Groucho et freres, proto-postmodern) elements in the pre-'68 works. But ultimately films like Masculin Feminin and Alphaville seem far more akin to modernist works in their approach, aim, and general sensibility. They are playful, sure, but ultimately too serious about the questions they pose, and too ambiguous in their 'degradation of narrative' as you put it, to fit in snugly with the postmodernists. Certainly they seem as concerned with issues raised by Nietzsche as with the Vietnam War. And if it's history that matters most, why does Resnais make the cut and not Godard when their filmmaking careers started around the same time?

I think one of the problems with assigning these categories to film (although I still think it's useful to try and do so) is that there's kind of a two-track, but overlapping, history of cinema. One follows a similar trajectory to other arts, establishing and experimenting with form, grounding rules and conventions, opening up to bending those rules and developing self-consciousness, embracing self-consciousness wholeheartedly, etc (foundation-classicism-modernism-postmodernism, roughly). But at the same time, film art wasn't even born until classicism (very loosely applied) was beginning to die in the arts as a whole, and even in its infancy it was absorbing modernist influences; heck, there was a Dziga Vertov way before there was a Dziga Vertov Group! So that's the second track, an avant-garde which is aware of modernism from the get-go. And of course the two tracks overlap - some would even argue that the cinema itself, even in its most conventional narrative forms, is essentially modernist (though I don't think I would).

Hence somebody like Godard becomes tricky. Historically speaking, he arrives just at the moment, maybe even prefigures a bit, the development of postmodernism. But within the history of cinema, the form was only just reaching its modernist moment. Because Godard was certainly aware, and perhaps more concerned than most, with contemporaneous developments in art and philosophy, he was bound to soak up and express a lot of trends that might be considered 'postmodern'. But because he was also deeply concerned with the history of cinema, and his place in it, he was also bound to take a more modernist stance to its immediate history, at least initially, and his pre-'68 work represents a way station between accepting the stylistic and narrative conventions of mainstream cinema and rejecting them completely. Only the cinema could spawn a creature like Godard, who seems to exist in several historical moments and sensibilities at once.

On another note, I agree that in theory postmodernism should be less humanist than what came before, which makes curious the undeniable fact that so many postmodern developments involve a re-focusing, usually affectionately, on the human scale: think painting, where representation came back in vogue, or literature where quirky characters became all the rage, or architecture which disposed of rigid forms and tried to consider warmth and playfulness in its approach, or philosophy which disavowed monolithic, conformist ideologies and embraced diversity. Probably the best way to reconcile this renewal of humanism with a distancing from values is to note what Dave called a concern with Otherness: in most of the above examples, the interest in humanity centers on OTHER humans, on accommodating the concern and existence of inaccessible people who can be interrogated and sympathized with but never truly understood from the inside out.

From the Renaissance all the way through Modernism, it seems to me, one of the central concerns of Western art and philosophy was the self, the individual, with modernism finally expressing anxiety with the dissolution of self and identity. The eventual substitution of the faceless masses for the lonely individual probably represents the final extinction of this central feature of Western culture and the tipping point at which postmodernism, accepting the conclusions of modernism but rejecting its sterile and cold attitude towards said conclusions, can relocate its concern outward, once again concerned with individuals but now from an outside standpoint that didn't presume to understand (or perhaps even believe that there's something fundamental TO understand), only to observe and take pleasure in its observations. There's also the fact that, because its forms are actually less hostile to conventions than modernism's were, postmodernism can be combined with approaches or sensibilities that are not in themselves postmodern - a more old-fashioned sense of humanism included (one result is what might be called 'quirk culture').


Joel, if you're still there (although if you're not, who could blame you?)

I'm not seeking extend this thread further but a few quick thoughts:

Resnais is a full decade older than JLG, and he had been making mature films (documentaries) since the early 50's. His work was also deeply concerned with WW2 and the Holocaust in a way that 60's Godard was not. I'm also reminded of Kent Jones' comparison between Resnais and Kubrick on the hand and Godard on the other: that Resnais' and Kubrick's films suggest solid constructions, a corporeal presence something which JLG's films do not possess.

Much of modernism's complexity arises from a belief that the world had become increasing complex and that complex ideas and thoughts were necessary, the better to throw light on the modern condition. For instance, I was reading Eliot's essays again and if I may quote-

"It is not a permanent necessity that poets should be interested in philosophy, or in any other subject. We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning."

To put it crudely, their complexity was sought to represent various aspects of consciousness, just like Last Year in Marienbad aims to film thoughts and memories, just as Providence attempts to demonstrate the creative process, not to mention the Proustian shock cuts of Hiroshima mon Amour. Does pomo have the same ambitions? I doubt it.

Your theory that films, like literature, underwent its own stage of modernity and classicism is very interesting but I cannot offer any opinion on that (I imagine that an exam paper on film theory to have a question like "Is Murnau's Sunrise among the first modernist films? Discuss"). But I disagree that Godard was consciously locating himself in any tradition - for one thing, he wrote about and admired mainly classical filmmakers (like Hawks!) and ss a filmmaker, he wanted, chiefly, unlimited freedom and unlimited budgets (one million dollars). He mostly got one but not the other. Now if he'd made Marienbad, he would have had Delphine Seyrig in a frilly nightgown AND a federo and have her skip around abstractedly, reciting Baudelaire. Or if he executed those perfect tracking shots, he would have panned across and shown the army of technicians actually operating the apparatus. JLG's instinct, thus, feels more pomo than Resnais, certainly.

I hope all this is coherent. If not, well, fuck it. I'm up to my neck in deep water anyway. The ball is in your court now sir.

Joel Bocko

"But I disagree that Godard was consciously locating himself in any tradition - for one thing, he wrote about and admired mainly classical filmmakers (like Hawks!)"

This kind of goes with my point though - Godard wanted to create films like his predecessors but also was incapable of doing so, and (eventually) knew it. Yes, part of this was personal but part of it was historical (and part of what was personal was historical, if that makes sense): by the hyper-awareness spurred by watching so many movies, by arriving around the time Resnais and others were starting to redefine the cinema (in the Cahiers round table on Hiroshima Mon Amour, I think it might be Godard who suggests that cinema has reached its modernist moment), by feeling compelled to throw everything on the pot - philosophy, art, his personal life, Godard was reflecting his times. With all these factors, Godard realized, with something of a tragic sense, he could not create the movies that made him want to make movies. I think this is something Pauline Kael nailed in her review of Band of Outsiders (or was it Masculin Feminin). It's something he himself noted when he said that whole making Breathless, he thought he was making Scarface. Only afterwards did he realize he'd made Alice in Wonderland.

I realize none of this explicitly makes the case that Godard is modernist rather than Pomo (and indeed, one could peg Lewis Carroll as Pomo avant la lettre) but I think it does point to Godard being post-classical and to me one thing that defines modernism and distinguishes it from postmodernism is its relation to classicism. Godard's moment, both historical and personal, was right when the center began not to hold rather than when it had long collapsed. That to me suggests modernism, even if his approach to this sensibility was less rigorous and more random than most modernists.


Joel, in the case of Godard, I think we'd better agree to disagree. But that very amusing description of Breathless as Alice in Wonderland- did you just pull it out of your hat or were you quoting someone?

Yes, in retrospect, it is easy to see Carroll as part of the pomo-horrorshow. (Kidding, obviously)

Joel Bocko

I was quoting him! Here's the exact quote: '"Although I felt ashamed of it at one time, I do like Breathless very much, but now I see where it belongs -- along with Alice in Wonderland. I thought it was Scarface."

Godard might be the most quotable of all film directors, although Hawks, Ford, and Welles have quite a few keepers too. And it doesn't hurt that he, chop shop style, stole and reconfigured quotations whenever possible (the brilliant cinema discourse in Masculin Feminin, and also his rephrasing of Luc Moullet's 'tracking shots are a matter of morality' into 'morality is a matter of tracking shots', which gets quoted more often I think).

Not David Bordwell

I'm not going to try to catch up with all these goddamn comments, but I just want to make one observation: "That's a lot of rage there, you want to rap about it?" is Judd Hirsch to Timothy Hutton in ORDINARY PEOPLE, not actually an Afterschool Special.

Although it's an honest mistake.

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