Is Postmodernism the Reason Our Movies Suck?

It’s very easy to look at the movies released since the 3rd (AD) Millennium began and to scoff, while mentally filing the majority of them under “bad taste”. I fall into the category of movie-goer who laments (apparently annoyingly) at every remake, reboot, and new, old regurgitation of some tiny modicum of culture from the collective American past. It should be easy to accept that this practice is simply Hollywood forgoing originality for the sake of profit. Well, that was easy. Fin. Right?

Maybe. It’s pretty easy to point to the relationship of supply meeting viewer demand. For example, the reason you see so many of your favorite books being turned into movies is that such films turn in 53% more profit worldwide than non-adaptations. And a look at the development of the modern motion picture industry shows a clear progression. According to an article in the Atlantic, after the advent of television drew crowds away from the big screen, “studios began investing production money in fewer, very expensive ‘event’ pictures. This new mode of production proved problematic when these pictures failed to recover their production costs at the box office. Famous flops like Cleopatra (1963), Star! (1968), and Hello Dolly!(1969) put major studios such as 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., and United Artists on the brink of financial ruin.”

While we know the rest of the movie industry’s story, that the major motion picture companies find a way to do more than stay afloat, the writers of this article make the point that what we are observing in film isn’t new and not a practice limited to film-making.

In fact, Thomas Edison based his film The Family and the Dog off of a popular post card. Furthermore, television is the worst perpetrator of pointing a camera at any thing — person, heiress, or result of bad parenting — that even remotely could be described as popular. And I can sympathize with the article’s conclusion that there will always be attempts to play to the sensibilities of an audience, and good or bad, that “unoriginality” shouldn’t in itself be reason to discard the movie in a trash-heap of nonart. But my sympathy is tempered with intrigue.

It’s easy to point out what drives the production of these types of films: people. But what in these people drives them to like these types of films? That is a much more interesting question.

While it may seem completely random, I think Communists have particularly interesting answers to this question. I think it’s because they are so concerned in what is the social reality is saying about the present and future as a never-ending dialectical process unfolds. They are keen to note the materialistic (physical) reality that lies underneath any cultural phenomena — especially movies. This makes them entertaining film critics.

The most famous living communist philosopher, Slavoj Zizek has luckily given tons of thoughts on movies in books, articles, lectures and his own films. In a Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Zizek uses film as a way — in so far as it is useful — to talk about our reality. For example, he poses that Batman: The Dark Knight is centralized around the idea that our social order and the basic functions of society can only remain stable if they are supported by a lie. From Harvey Dent turning himself in as the Batman to Commissioner Gordon's faking of the Batman’s death, a core lie seems to always be the only thing holding society together. This analysis makes the Joker the symbol of the truth: he exposes the failure of institutions, the imperfection of the best people, the rotten core of humanity — justice appears itself to be a joke (cue the Joker’s laugh).

He is making the case that the lie in Batman, is really Plato’s “noble lie” and ties the notion directly to that which was told by the Bush Administration about Weapons of Mass Deconstruction in Iraq. Now, whether or not I agree with his analysis, the idea that our movies can speak about our society is at the least intriguing. No, it’s not a rigorous scientific endeavor, and I hear my friends asking why I can’t just enjoy a remake of a spin-off of a comic book’s origin story told by an action figure the hero played with as a child. I can’t help but wonder what such an outlook says about our generally “tasteless” movie phenomenon.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m some pessimist, writing out of a loathing for my species. (I actually loath those types of people.) But I do think we are in the middle of what some call a postmodern era. Without getting into a full discussion of what that is, I think it’s best described by (if you’re younger than a Boomer) the difference between what your grandparents wanted in life and what you want. It’s not that materially you expect completely different things; it’s more about the fact that you have no idea and the old rules and advice don’t really work anymore. Imagine that, spread across the arts, philosophy, and economy.

Postmodern expression is characterized by a lack of resolution, and of course communists have a lot to say in terms of this idea. Some in fact say our cinema reflect it and more.

Mark Fisher an activist and writer who took his own life last year was one of these people. Fisher introduced the idea that since about the 80’s we’ve been witnessing a “slow cancellation of the future” in his novel Ghosts of My Life. Fisher wanted us to notice that time itself has become something that looks outlandishly flat and unchanging, un-progressive. He argues that this is a result of the past hijacking our present. It’s not that we didn’t copy the past before — we did, but to learn from it and enjoy it. Now, he argued, we are stuck in a loop like workers on an assembly line every single day.

He spent some time on Star Wars because of it’s obvious nod to the pulpy sci-fi adventure serieses that captivated audiences in the 30s and 40s. Fisher wrote,

“Belying it’s origin in it’s fussy adventure series forms, star wars could appear new because it’s then unprecedented special effects relied upon the latest technology. By comparison, the band Kraftwerk used technology to allow new forms to emerge, while works in the nostalgic mode subordinate or subordinated technology to the task of refurbishing the old.”

He, as any good communist would, argued that this is a sign of late-stage capitalism. I’d say, he was noticing postmodernism: existence after modernity, after universality has come up short, after the enlightenment and democracies, capitalism and great wars, didn’t all-together lead us to a perfect world. In fact, it would appear that we are facing more troubles, but are stunned, caught in this loop of unreality. Unable to change despite a dire need to.

So again, what is it that our movies say about us? Is our continued fixation with the past helping us learn about what we need to do in the future, or are we reliving it so that it may pacify us?

It’s hard to disagree with Fisher’s argument when the 2019 titles — Captain Marvel, Shazam, Dark Phenoix, Toy Story 4, New Mutants, Star Wars, Godzilla, Wonder Woman, Hellboy, Detective Pikachu , and Artemis Fowl — all look like big expensive pacifiers. I feel happy inside just reading them. I can remember traveling to my cousin’s house to play video games as a child; every single one of these characters where the subjects.

The communists like Fisher and Zizek are convinced that as a result of capitalism our own history is being comodified and sold back to us to assuage the uncertainty of the future. They suggest that capitalism can only turn things into commodities, sellers and buyers — that it has no other function but to use ideology to divert attention away from the class struggle. I’m not sure how sold I am on the communist framework, if not only because I hold out hope for much richer movies to shine through, accompanied by a congruent societal movement of course. And, what that looks like is the topic of a different article — back to movies.

While I am as disgusted as they are with having to see my childhood sold back to me without any value added, I hold out hope. For in the case that the conclusion of the dialectical materialism of the communist is wrong, all it takes is one bold, innovate hit to wake people up. Postmodernism could be the reason our movies are bad, but to view history as an endless succession of eras, an ocean of classes with waves of conflict is a cursive consideration. Seeing it as something written by people and their audacity to do things differently gives us the tools of change.

Iziah Thompson is a Nneka Fritz scholar at NYU Wagner School of Public Service and analyst, with a passion for VR and writing. He often contributes politics and policy articles to the Huff Post, the Fair Observer, and His focus is on bridging the gap between what is exhibited in academic journals and where the public discourse is. Iziah believes that our society works better when people are given access to good information and policymakers use research-based approaches to move the country forward.