Off-the-cuff Postmodernism

Call me crazy, but I didn’t even notice that Pastor Meyers had gone overtime the past two Sunday evenings. That’s because he was talking about postmodernism as part of the Cultural Discernment series. First off, I love all the Cultural Discernment evenings. Secondly, things that smack of philosophy and media and pop-culture, especially all mashed together, pretty much tops my list of Interesting Things I Want To Hear More About. Thirdly, postmodernism itself especially interests me, and I was glad to hear such a clear and non-judgmental presentation of it. I thought he did a really good job of pointing out the good things about postmodernism and the critiques it has made against modernism, as well as point out places where postmodernism itself goes to far, or in a misleading direction. He’s posted this week’s presentation on his blog, in case you weren’t there Sunday night.

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I am a little concerned about my own enjoyment of “postmodern” things, sometimes, though. Largely movies, because that’s where a lot of my free time goes. It seems like most of the current movies I love are postmodern in some way, and that the things I like about them are the postmodern things. Films that encourage multiple interpretations and deny that any one interpretation is “correct” or could possibly explain everything in the film (I recently saw Caché, so that’s the one I’m thinking about right now, but there are many–ooh, Mulholland Drive). Films that embrace ambiguity. I have a friend who hates ambiguous endings, and I love them, so every time we watch a film, almost, we have this argument. But here’s what concerns me at times: I believe in a God who is sovereign, who is not random, who is not subjective. I believe in a book which He wrote which is authoritative and not open to any old interpretation Joe Crackpot can come up with. (I do believe there is interpretative room in the Bible, because it is story-based…but it also has elements which cannot be interpreted away. Or you know, shouldn’t be interpreted away.) I believe we are living in a narrative which has a beginning, a middle, and will someday come to an end which is not ambiguous. In another sense, I suppose, the new heavens and new earth go on and do not end, but still. My point is that we’re not going to get to the last judgement and be wondering how many different ways we can interpret it, and try to figure out our own endings to the story, any of which are equally valid. So why am I drawn to narratives in film and novel that are built this way? And should I fight it? Does ambiguity fit into the Christian worldview in a way I don’t understand yet? Or does my very love for these postmodern interpretative games leave me susceptible to cultural brainwashing?

Other postmodern things I love that don’t give me quite the worldview headache: films and TV shows that are self-referential, or build themselves out of pop-culture references (Arrested Development, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Kill Bill, Shaun of the Dead–which I didn’t like that much, but that was because of the zombies…ugh–even Shakespeare in Love). Films that are aggressively self-aware, and constantly call the audience’s attention to the technique of the film itself, instead of to the story within the film (Run Lola Run, Tristram Shandy, which isn’t out here yet, but I’m going to see it opening day, believe me). And, as Jeff mentioned many times, the mixing of high and low culture…movies like Moulin Rouge which mix the high art opera stories of Puccini and Offenbach with the pop-rock stylings of Madonna, Marilyn Monroe, Elton John, Queen, Fatboy Slim, Nat King Cole, and Nirvana, among others. (I still make a high art/low art distinction, though…scripted TV like 24 and Veronica Mars and Lost and BtVS is high art, and reality TV like Temptation Island is low art. *nods* Oh, and any movie built around former SNL cast members who are not Will Ferrell, also low art. But perhaps I am biased. *shrug*)

I’m still a little unsure on all the terminology, especially when I tried to relate it to narrative art forms (books and film) instead of pictoral art and architecture. Even with the modernist definitions, I have some questions. It sounded like modernist art was focused on “form over function”–the traditional use of art, representation, was replaced with an interest in manipulating form. And yet, I tend to think of “form over function” as a postmodern thing, too. Especially taking something like Run Lola Run…the story is basically “girl’s boyfriend gets in a bad drug deal, needs cash, she tries to get it before he does something stupid like knock over a convenience store or gets killed by the drug dealers.” A story you could tell in twenty minutes. In fact, it is told in twenty minutes. But it’s told three times, with different outcomes, and the thing that makes the story interesting is not the content, but the way the content is presented…whiplash pans, off-kilter shots, split screen narrative, the little flashes of the futures of tangential characters, and my favorite device, the animated TV show that we see as Lola dashes down the stairs that BECOMES Lola dashing down the stairs…reality becomes animated television which becomes reality again. I was going to try to make a distinction between modernism “playing with form” and postmodernism “playing with content,” but I don’t think it really works. Especially since the concept of “form AS function” is so central to filmmaking and criticism. Also, to what extent is the modernist tendency to move away from representational art based on the development of photography in the late 19th century, which removed the need for artists to represent the physical world, and which is coincident with the rise of impressionism?

Going along with that, would things like non-linear narratives be considered modern or postmodern? Is playing with narrative structure a type of modernist “playing with form” like modernist art? Writers who pioneered non-linear narratives, like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, are modernist, but they’re considered forerunners of postmodernism. What do you do with novels like Tristram Shandy, which has been called postmodern, but was written in the 18th century? I realize that I’m trying to force strict definitions and systems on a philosophical movement that explicitly defies such categorization. Perhaps postmodernism appeals to me precisely because it pulls me out of the modernist mindset I know I often have…at least I have that one personality type that needs to be able to categorize things–the system builder. And one plot point that I absolutely adore in movies but I haven’t seen explicitly mentioned by Jeff or the other cursory reading I’ve done googling around, is the blurring/questioning of reality. I suppose that would fall under not taking anything for granted and questioning what one is told, which would be postmodern, and Jeff did mention that. This again would be one of the things that seems potentially unChristian to me…I mean, how far are we allowed to question reality? But pretty much any film that does this becomes a favorite with me: The Matrix (which in the third movie, even subverts the reality that the first one thought it had unmasked), eXistenZ, The 13th Floor, Adaptation…all awesome movies that play along the edges of what is reality, and how can we know if what we think is real really is? Many examples of this in literature, too…Borges’ libraries, Eco’s cults, Pynchon’s postal system–worlds that come into being only after they’re imagined. Sends shivers up and down my spine just thinking about it.

Am I closer to understanding postmodernism? Maybe. Am I more comfortable with my enjoyment of it? A little. But those two little aspects–the blurring of reality and the encouragement of multiple interpretations–still niggle at me a bit.

Here’s hoping for more next week! Or, you know, sometime.