Postmodernism and Film

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Postmodernism and film

This chapter will demonstrate the ways in which Jean Baudrillard’s and Fredric Jameson’s accounts of the postmodern have had a significant impact on the field of film studies, affecting both film theory and history. The most influential aspects of each theorist’s work are outlined in the first two sections. The first section focuses on two key texts by Baudrillard: Simulations and America, while the second addresses Jameson’s famous article “Postmodernism and Consumer Society.” I shall indicate the ways in which their ideas have been taken up and/or challenged at the end of each section. The critical debates surrounding these conceptions of the postmodern have impacted upon film history due to cinema’s dual status as both an icon of modernity and a symbol of the postmodern. The third section explores the many different definitions of the relation between the modern and the postmodern and traces the ways in which this distinction intersects with other key oppositions in film theory and history, such as classical/postclassical and narrative/spectacle. The final section will use current theoretical conceptions of affirmative postmodernisms in order to provide a reading of Face/Off that challenges its status as the ultimate in meaningless spectacle.


One of Baudrillard’s key theses is contained within the title of the first work in his compilation volume, Simulations. “The Precession of Simulacra” reverses the traditional mimetic relation between art forms and reality, in which the image is said to be a copy of the real. The title asserts that the simulacrum or image has ontological priority and thus precedes the real. Baudrillard explains this reversal with reference to Hollywood disaster movies. “It is pointless to laboriously interpret these films by their relationship with an ‘objective’ social crisis . . . It is in the other direction that we must say it is the social itself which, in contemporary discourse, is organized according to a script for a disaster film.”1 The effect of granting precedence to the subjectivity, power, and politics, make it hard to judge the status of his assertions. Norman Denzin treats Baudrillard as a writer of science fiction rather than of cultural theory, concluding that the “visual effects are terrific but the narrative doesn’t work.”11 The refusal to treat Baudrillard’s work as theoretical is a common critical response and serves to draw attention to particular problems created by his style. In this account of Simulations and America I have focused on the formative role played by metaphors of circulation in order to emphasize the ways in which these images function as key moves in the overall argument. Thus, I would argue that reading Baudrillard’s texts as symptomatic of a postmodern valorization of style over substance (however tempting) is ultimately inappropriate because the style is the substance. In taking up this mode of writing philosophy, Baudrillard presents himself as one of Nietzsche’s successors. Both philosophers offer critiques of the concept of objective truth and both can be seen to adopt an overtly rhetorical style in order to draw attention to the metaphorical and interpretative status of their own theoretical writing. Baudrillard’s apocalyptic pronouncements have a further function in that they serve to provoke a response, forcing the reader to rise to the challenge that he presents. In this way, Baudrillard’s gleeful acting out of the role of agent provocateur can be seen to add an enjoyable vitality to the theoretical debates concerning the postmodern, as well as constructing him as the self-styled bad boy of the postmodern theorists.


In “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” Jameson provides a three-stage analysis of the development of capitalism, correlating each new economic order with “the emergence of a new type of social life” and “the emergence of new formal features in...
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