Postmodernism, Hyperreality and the Hegemony of Spectacle in New Hollywood: the Case of the Truman Show

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Postmodernism, Hyperreality and
the Hegemony of Spectacle in New Hollywood:
The Case of The Truman Show
Michael Kokonis

After the screening of The Matrix on its first release, a dear cousin of mine, film connoisseur and avid fan of classical movies, spontaneously made the following comment: “This is an entirely new cinema to me!” If anything, The Matrix is a clear marker of cultural change. A film with state-of-the-art production values like this is bound to elicit in us the belated realization of how slow our response has been to the cultural products of an entirely transformed film industry, that of New Hollywood. My cousin’s casual and unwitting remark reflects the embarrassment felt by both professional critic and layman alike in coping with contemporary movies, especially when we still tend to approach New Hollywood products with the standards of the Old Hollywood cinema. Because of our adherence to tradition, we still tend to look for those classical values of “development”, “coherence” and “unity” in narratives only to find with disappointment that narrative plots become thinner, that characters are reduced to one-dimensional stereotypes and that action is carried through by loosely-linked sequences, built around spectacular stunts, dazzling stars and special effects. “Narrative complexity is sacrificed on the altar of spectacle” (Buckland 166) as today’s blockbusters turn out to be nothing but calculated exercises in profit-making, all high-concept, high-gloss and pure show. Similar cries of warning about the loss of narrative integrity to cinematic spectacle have been voiced at different periods, usually at times of crisis or change in the history of the American cinema. One could cite, for example, Bazin’s disdain at the “displacement of classicism” by the baroque style, marking the end of the pure phase of classical cinema.1 His coined term, “superwestern, ”designates the “emergence of a new kind of western” (Krämer 290), that, according to Bazin, “would be ashamed to be just itself, and looks for some additional interest to justify its existence—an aesthetic, sociological, moral, psychological, political, or erotic interest” (150-1). Similarly, in 1957 Manny Farber, taking his cue from Bazin’s superwestern, laments the “disappearance of this [classical] production system and the closing of action-oriented neighborhood theaters in the 1950s”. He claims that directors like Howard Hawks “who had flourished in ‘a factory of unpretentious picture-making’ were pushed towards artistic self-consciousness, thematic seriousness, and big-budget spectacle “(Krämer 293, emphasis added). A decade later, Pauline Kael too expresses her fears at the disintegration of filmic narrative which she attributes to the abrasion of traditional film production in general. She laments not only the emphasis on “technique” “purely visual content,” and “open-ended, elaborate interpretations” of the experimental and innovative art film of the New American Cinema, but as Krämer puts it, she was equally critical of the experiences facilitated by Hollywood’s mainstream releases. The lack of concern for coherent storytelling on the part of producers and directors in charge of the volatile and overblown process of filmmaking was matched by the audience’s enthusiastic response to spectacular attractions and shock effects, irrespective of their degree of narrative motivation. (296)

Voices of dissatisfaction were heard at another major turn in the history of Hollywood, that is in the late 1970s, when the “unprecedented box-office success of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), signaled Hollywood’s aesthetic, cultural and industrial re-orientation towards movies with more emphasis on special effects and cinematic spectacle” (Krämer 301). Unlike the classical movies produced on the assembly line under the studio regime (films that respected narrative integrity and refined story ideas into the classical three-act of exposition, complication and...
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