The term “postmodernism” gets thrown around a lot. Anything that seems to buck normal conventions or breaks the fourth wall tends to receive the label, but what is postmodernism really? For this blog, we’ll look into the history of postmodernism as well as its place in the cinematic landscape today. We’ll examine several postmodern films, such as Blade Runner and The Truman Show. Get ready for a lesson both in filmmaking and philosophy 101.


A primer on Postmodernism

What does postmodern mean? Well, if there’s a Postmodernism, then there must be a Modernism from which it followed. But how do you separate Modernism vs Postmodernism?

Modernism is another philosophical movement that was prominent throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s typically characterized as artists being self-conscious about traditional forms of art and seeking to experiment with established forms.

Pablo Picasso is a modernist painter because his art deviated from traditional perspectives. In cinema, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, generally viewed through the lens of German Expressionism, is considered a Modernist film.

With that, let’s now answer, “What is Postmodernism in film?”


What is Postmodernism?

Postmodernism is a philosophical movement that impacted the arts and critical thinking throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Works in Postmodernism tend to have an attitude of rejection or irony toward typically-accepted narratives.

Postmodernism typically criticizes long-held beliefs regarding objective reality, value systems, human nature, and social progress, among other things. In cinema, Postmodernism brought with it darker kinds of films that viewed the world with a hint of detached irony. Postmodern movies aim to subvert highly-regarded expectations, which can be in the form of blending genres or messing with the narrative nature of a film.

For example, Pulp Fiction is a Postmodern film for the way it tells the story out of the ordinary, upending our expectations of film structure. Naturally, Postmodern cinema is more complex than having a non-linear story, and we’ll get into that in a moment.

Postmodernism Characteristics:

  • Irony
  • Pastiche
  • Hyperreality
  • Intertextuality
  • Magical realism
  • Unpredictability
  • Distortion of time
  • Themes of paranoia

Postmodernism can be difficult to pin down, specifically because the philosophy aims to reject typically-held notions of criticism and definition. If you need a more concise Postmodernism definition, then just listen to Moe Szyslak.

What is Postmodernism?  •  The Simpsons

For now, let’s go deeper into how Postmodernism made its way into cinema and how it’s evolved over the years.


Early Postmodernism examples

Postmodernism really came into its own in cinema around the 1980s. However, there are some early precursors to the movement that are worth looking into. One of the earliest examples of Postmodern films is
8 ½ from Italian director Federico Fellini, who was highly influential in the Italian neorealism movement. Even from the beginning of the film, you can tell it’s not going to abide by typical film structure.

The First Three Minutes  •  8 ½

The film is about a movie director, Guido Anselmi, who suffers from “director’s block” on the set of a science-fiction movie he’s working on. The film follows Guido’s existential crisis as he struggles to create a film that offers some kind of solution to a problem. He wants to bestow a universal truth through his work, but he just can’t figure out what to do.

Guido’s struggle reflects that of many artists. But how can you highlight a universal truth when no such truth exists? This is a central tenet of Postmodernism, and as such, 8 ½ is far ahead of the curve of other films in pointing out the futility of art.

Let’s look at another early adopter of postmodern film characteristics, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which is more than just one of the funniest films ever made. It’s a very different film from 8 ½, but it takes us one step closer to a more Postmodern Hollywood. Take this scene, in which a medieval battle is interrupted by modern police cars.

Police Scene  •  Monty Python and the Holy Grail

That scene offers the perfect example of temporal distortion. Throughout the film, we were made to believe this took place in medieval times, but now, modern (for the time) cars and police show up.

Magical realism is also on display. Throughout much of the film, things look to be as one would expect in the real world. However, magical elements are added that heighten the world. The clearest example would be the death bunny scene where a rabbit slaughters men.

Intentional or not, these works of art belong on the Postmodern film list because they subverted expectations and gave audiences something they couldn’t have anticipated long before that was more en vogue.


Postmodernism in the 1980s and '90s

Postmodernism really took off in the 1980s. More films were becoming experimental and playing with typical genre conventions. First, let’s look at the interplay between Blade Runner and Postmodernism.

While it may not seem to be particularly Postmodern at first glance, the film abides by many tenets of the philosophy. For starters, a main conceit held throughout the film is the distinction between what is real and what is artificial. The idea of, “what is human” comes into play, and it challenges preconceived notions that anything built by humans couldn’t possibly be human.

What is human identity? If you thought you knew, Blade Runner will challenge you, as showcased in this video essay from The Nerdwriter.

The Other Side of Modernity  •  The Nerdwriter

Challenging commonly-held truths pops up all the time in Postmodern films. These can consist of truths both on a spiritual level and also in regards to filmmaking itself.

The '90s saw a ton of Postmodern works poke fun at movie genres, and this is what’s known as pastiche Postmodernism. A simpler word would be “parody.”

Scream and Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery are both Postmodern works for how they subvert the viewer’s expectations of the horror and spy genres, respectively. Consider this opening sequence from Austin Powers in Goldmember and how director Jay Roach brought multiple movie genres into the mix (spy, action, music video).

Austin Powers Opening Sequence  •  Subscribe on YouTube

Another prominent postmodern work from this era is The Truman Show. Like Blade Runner, the film challenges our ideas of what’s real by telling the story of a man slowly realizing he’s part of a TV show.

Throughout his life up until this point, Truman has existed in a state of hyperreality. Everything in his life was so meticulously crafted, he couldn’t tell the difference between reality and the facade.

Do Something!  •  The Truman Show

This era defined what Postmodernism in film would become. And it all comes down to one idea: challenging the audience’s expectations. Blade Runner challenges what it means to be human. Scream challenges what you should expect from a horror movie and points out how stagnant the genre has become. The Truman Show challenges what it means to live.


What is Postmodernism today?

Postmodernism in film generally ranges from the 1960s to the 2000s. There have been plenty of postmodern film examples in the 21st century. Films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Inception both challenged universal truths related to memory and how we perceive the world around us.

An Idea Is Like a Virus  •  Inception Postmodernism

So, is Postmodernism dead? Well, that depends who you ask. Plenty of films still abide by central Postmodern tenets. It doesn’t seem like Postmodernism is dead. Instead, it appears as thought in recent years, it has splintered off into other philosophical concepts. One of the most substantial of late is the idea of Metamodernism.

You’ve likely heard of a movie or TV show being referred to as “meta.” That means it abides by core ideas of Metamodernism. At its core, metamodernism is a mediation between Modernist and Postmodernist ideals. Take a look at one of the most meta characters ever created, Abed from Community.

Bottle Episode  •  Community

In the clip above, Abed comments on how shows resort to bottle episodes and how he specifically detests them. However, the show then proceeds to do a legitimate bottle episode. It both comments on an idea we’re familiar with, dissects it, while simultaneously abiding by that idea’s rules.

Another philosophical concept to come off the heels of Postmodernism is Posthumanism. While there are many definitions of this idea, as is the case with most of philosophy, Posthumanism seeks to counter ideas of Humanism, which emphasizes the value of human beings above all else.

The movie, Hercould be seen as both a Postmodern and Posthumanist work. Director Spike Jonze directs a movie about loneliness, but it also suggests other human beings may not actually be necessary for companionship and love.

Samantha and Theodore  •  Her

Samantha has complete artificial intelligence. Much like the replicants in Blade Runner, she’s practically a human despite being in a smartphone. But if the emotions she feels and expresses are real, then why wouldn’t that make her real?


Going into the future

Postmodernism is just the beginning. You also have Postmaterialism, Poststructuralism, Hypermodernity, and Post-postmodernism that have all come up in various art forms. And as long as there are philosophies, there will be movies trying to communicate and reconcile those ideas.

Postmodernism isn’t dead. But it is evolving.


How storytellers use dramatic irony

While a postmodern definition is tough to pin down, it’s equally as difficult to adequately define irony. Irony in all its forms, whether it’s Dramatic or Socratic, is an essential aspect of Postmodernism. And now, you can see first-hand what irony entails and what movies have done irony the best. See how dramatic irony has created plenty of memorable moments in cinema.

Up Next: Dramatic irony explained →
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