Tag Archives: postmodernism

The Revolutionary Energy of the Outmoded




Fredric Jameson does not like predictions. His is an owlish and retrospective Marxism, one that happily foregoes the crystal ball of some former orthodoxy. There is a Hegelian lesson that Jameson’s writing repeatedly attempts to impart, which is that wisdom only comes in the backwards glance, that we glimpse history only in the moment when our plans fail or dialectically backfire, when our actions bump up against the objective, hurtful (but never foreseeable) limits of the historical situation. You can draw up your revolutionary schemes, paint the future as gaily or grimly as you like, but only upon review will it become plain in just what way you have been Reason’s dupe. If this point is unclear, you might consider Jameson’s response to the World Trade Center attacks, which began with the following extraordinary observation:I have been reluctant to comment on the recent ‘events’ because the event in question, as history, is incomplete and one can even say that it has not yet fully happened. … Historical events…are not punctual, but extend in a before and after of time which only gradually reveal themselves.”[1] I suspect many will find remarkable Jameson’s reluctance here to help shape the public response to September 11th. An event that has not fully happened yet is, after all, an event in which one may yet intercede, an event that one needn’t yet cede to the Right, an event to which one might yet attribute one’s own polemical and political meanings. But Jameson makes a conspicuous display here of spurning what Left criticism generally (and glibly) calls an “intervention”—as though the business of a Marxist criticism were not to intervene, but rather to bide its time, to wait until an event has been thoroughly mediated or disclosed its function, and then to identify, with the serene impotence of hindsight, history’s great game. Any event is, like revolution itself, a leap into the unknown. The owl of Minerva only flies in November.

One might wonder, then, how Jameson feels about his own writing, which has been so accidentally and accurately predictive. How does he feel, for instance, about his landmark postmodernism essay, the one that sometimes goes by the name “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”?[2] That article so neatly anticipated U.S. popular culture in the 1990s that it is hard to shake the feeling that a whole generation of artists—writers, musicians, filmmakers above all—must have mistaken it for a manifesto. (“Pastiche—check. Death of the subject—you bet. Depthlessness and disorientation—where do I sign up?”) As ridiculous as it may sound, the essay, first published in 1983, now reads like an exercise in cultural embryology, discerning the first, fetal traces of an aesthetic mode that would become fully evident only in the years that followed. One wonders, too, if young readers encountering the article for the first time now don’t therefore underestimate its savvy. One wonders if they don’t find it rather trite, since a sharp-eyed exegesis of Body Heat (1981) is really just a workaday description of L.A. Confidential (1997)—a script treatment.

We can be more precise: What has seemed so strangely prophetic about Jameson’s postmodernism argument are, oddly enough, its Benjaminian qualities. Benjamin’s fingerprints seem, in some complicated way, to be all over postmodernism. One might even say that postmodernism in America is a dismal parody of Benjaminian thought. Just cast an eye back over the last ten years, over U.S. pop culture on the cusp of the millennium—postmodernism post-Jameson. Consider, for instance, the apocalypticism that has been among its most persistent trends. The recent fin de siècle has been preoccupied with dire images of a devastated future: we might think here of the full-blown resurgence of millenarian thought and the orchestrated panic surrounding the millennium bug; of X-Files paranoia, which has told us to “fight the future”; of catastrophe movies and the resurgence of film noir and dystopian science fiction. If you were to design a course on popular culture in the 1990s, you would be teaching a survey in doom.

There is much in this culture of disaster that would merit our closest attention—there is, in fact, strangeness aplenty. Consider, for instance, the emergence as a genre of the Christian fundamentalist action thriller, the so-called rapture novel. These novels are basically an exercise in genre splicing; they begin by offering, in what for right-wing Protestantism is a fairly ordinary procedure, prophetic interpretations of world events—the collapse of the Soviet Union, the new Intifada—but they then graft onto these biblical scenarios plots borrowed from Tom Clancy techno-thrillers. The first thing that needs to be noted about rapture novels, then, is that they signal, on the part of U.S. fundamentalism, an unprecedented capitulation to pop culture, which the godly Right had until recently held in well-nigh Adornian contempt. Older forms of Christian mass culture have seized readily on new technologies—radio, say, or cable television—but they have tended to recreate within those media a gospel or revival-show aesthetic. In rapture novels, by contrast, as in the rapture movies that have followed in the novels’ wake, we are able to glimpse the first outlines of a fully commercialized, fully mediatized Christian blockbuster culture. Fundamentalist Christianity gives way at last to commodity aesthetics.

This is not yet to say enough, however, because this rapprochement inevitably holds surprises for secular and Christian audiences alike. The best-selling rapture novel to date is Jerry Jenkins and Timothy LaHaye’s Left Behind, which has served as a kind of template for the entire genre. In the novel’s opening pages, the indisputably authentic Christians are all called up to Christ—they are “raptured.” They literally disappear from earth, leaving their clothes pooled on the ground behind them, pocket change and car keys scattered across the pavement. This scene is the founding convention of the genre, the one event that no rapture novel can do without. And yet this mass vanishing, conventional though it may be, cannot help but have some curious narrative consequences. It means, for a start, that the typical rapture novel is not interested in good Christians. The heroes of these stories, in other words, are not godly people—this is true by definition, because the real Christians have all quit the scene; they have been vacuumed from the novel’s pages. In their absence, the narrative turns its attention to indifferent or not-quite Christians, who can be shown now snapping out of their spiritual ennui, rallying to God, and taking up the fight against the anti-Christ (who in Left Behind, takes the form of an Eastern European humanitarian whose malign plans include scrapping the world’s nuclear arsenals and feeding malnourished children). Left Behind, I would go so far as to suggest, seems to work on the premise that there is something better—something more significantly Christian—about bad Christians than there is about good ones. This notion has something to do with the role of women in the novel. Left Behind, it turns out, has almost no use for women at all. They all either disappear in the novel’s opening pages or get left behind and metamorphose into the whores of anti-Christ. It will surprise no-one to find a Christian fundamentalist novel portraying women as whores, but the former point is worth dwelling on: Left Behind cannot wait to dispense with even its virtuous women. It may hate the harlots, but it has no use for ordinary church-supper Christians either, imagined here as suburban housewives and their well-behaved young children. Anti-Christ has to be defeated at novel’s end, and for this to happen, the good Christians have to be shown the door, for smiling piety can, in the novel’s terms, sustain no narrative interest; it can enter into no conflicts. Left Behind is premised on the notion that devout Christians are cheek-turning wimps and goody-two shoes, mere women, in which case they won’t be much good in the fight against the liberals and the Jews. What this means is that the protagonists who remain in the novel—the Christian fence-sitters—are all men, and not just any men, but rugged men with rugged, porn-star names: Rayford Steele, Buck Williams, Dirk Burton. Left Behind is a novel, in other words, that envisions the remasculinization of Christianity, that calls upon its readers to imagine a Christianity without women, but with muscle and grit instead, a Christianity that can do more than just bake casseroles for people. And such a project, of course, requires bad Christians so that they may become bad-ass Christians. Perhaps it goes without saying: A Christian action thriller is going to be interested first and foremost in action-thriller Christians.

It is with the film version of Left Behind (2001), however, that things really get curious. The film’s final moments nearly make explicit a feature of the narrative that is half-buried in the novel: The film concludes with a brief sequence that we’ve all seen a dozen times, in a dozen different action movies—the sequence, that is, in which the heroic husband returns home from his adventures to be reunited with his wife and child. Typically, this scene is staged at the front door of the suburban house with the child at the wife’s side; you might think, emblematically, of the final shots of John Woo’s Face/Off (1997), which show FBI Agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) exchanging glances with his wife (Joan Allen) over the threshold as their teenaged daughter hovers in the background. Left Behind, for its part, reproduces that scene almost exactly, almost shot for shot, except, since the women have all evaporated or gone over to anti-Christ, the film has no choice but to stage this familiar ending in an unfamiliar way—between its male heroes, between Rayford Steele, standing in the doorway with his daughter, and a bedraggled Buck Williams, freshly returned from his battles with the Beast. A remasculinized Christianity, then, cannot help but imagine that the perfect Christian family would be—two men. Such, then, is one upshot of fundamentalism’s new openness to pop culture: Christianity uncloseted.

Of course, the borrowings can go in the other direction as well. Secular apocalypse movies can deck themselves out in religious trappings, but when they do so, they risk an ideological incoherence of their own. Think first about conventional, secular catastrophe movies—Armegeddon (1998), Deep Impact (1998), Volcano (1997)—so-called apocalypse films that actually make no reference to religion. These tend to be reactionary in rather humdrum and technocratic ways, full of experts and managers deploying the full resources of the nation to fend off a threat defined from the outset as non-ideological. The volcanoes and earthquakes and meteors that loom over such movies are therefore merely more refined versions of the maniacal terrorists and master thieves who normally populate action movies: they are enemies of the state whose challenge to the social order never approaches the level of the political. It is when such secular narratives reintroduce some portion of religious imagery, however, that their political character becomes pronounced. We might think here of The Seventh Sign (1988), which featured Demi Moore, or of the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle End of Days (1999). Like Left Behind, these last two films work by combining biblical scenarios and disaster-movie conventions, and the results are similarly confusing. To be more precise, they begin by offering luridly Baroque versions of the Christian apocalypse narrative, but then revert back to the secular logic of the disaster movie, as though to say: Catastrophes are destabilizing a merciless world in preparation for Christ’s return—and this must be stopped! In a half-hearted nod to Christian ethics, each of these movies begins by depicting the world of global capitalism as brutal and unjust—the montage of squalor has become something of an apocalypse-movie cliché—before deciding that this world must be preserved at all costs. The characters in these films, in other words, expend their entire allotment of action-movie ingenuity trying to prevent the second coming of Christ, imagined here as the biggest disaster of all.[3]

This is not to say that contemporary American apocalypses dispense with redemptive imagery altogether, at least of some worldly kind. Carceral dystopias, for instance, films that work by trapping their characters in controlled and constricted spaces, tend to posit some utopian outside to their seemingly total systems: the characters in Dark City (1997) dream of Shell Beach, the fictitious seaside resort that supposedly lies just past their nightmarish noir metropolis, the illusory last stop on a bus line that actually runs nowhere; the man-child of Peter Weir’s Truman Show (1998) dreams, in similar ways, of Fiji, which is a rather more conventional vision of oceanic bliss; and the Horatio-Alger hero of the genetics dystopia Gattaca (1997) follows this particular utopian logic to its furthest end by dreaming of the day he will be made an astronaut, the day he will fly to outer space, which of course is no social order at all, let alone a happier one, but merely an anything-but-here, an any-place-but-this-place, the sheerest beyond. As utopias go, then, these three are remarkably impoverished; they cannot help but seem quaint and nostalgic, strangely dated, like the daydreams of some Cold-War eight-year old, all Coney Island and Polynesian hula-girls and John-Glenn, shoot-the-moon fantasies.

But then it is precisely the old-fashioned quality of these utopias that is most instructive; it is precisely their retrograde quality that demands an explanation. For if on the one hand, U.S. pop culture has seemed preoccupied with the apocalypse, on the other hand it has seemed every bit as obsessed with cheery images from a sanitized past. Apocalypse culture has as its companion the many-faceted retro-craze: vintage clothing; Nick at Nite; the ‘70s vogue; the ‘50s vogue; the ‘40s vogue; the ‘30s vogue; the ‘20s vogue (the ‘60s are largely missing from this tally, for reasons too obvious to enumerate; the ‘60s vogue has been stunted, almost nonexistent, at least within a U.S. framework—retro tops out about 1963 and then gets shifted over to Europe and the mods); the return of surf, lounge-music, and Latin jazz; retro-marketing and retro-design, and especially the Volkswagen Beetle and the PT Cruiser.

Retro, then, deserves careful consideration of its own, as an independent phenomenon alongside the apocalypse. Some careful distinctions will be necessary. Retro takes a hundred different forms; it has the appearance of a single and coherent phenomenon only at a very high level of generality. We could begin, then, by examining the heavily marketed ‘60s and ‘70s retro of mainstream, white youth culture. Here we would want to say, at least on first pass, that the muffled camp of Austin Powers (1997), say—or the mid-‘90s Brady Bunch revival, or Beck’s Midnite Vultures—closely approximates Jameson’s notion of postmodern pastiche: this is retro as blank parody, the affectless recycling of alien styles, worn like so many masks. But that said, we would have to counterpose against these examples the retro-culture of a dozen regional scenes, scattered across the U.S., most of which are retro in orientation, but none of which are exercises in pastiche exactly. Take, for instance, the rockabilly and honky-tonk scene in Chapel Hill, North Carolina: It is impeccably retro in its musical choices and impeccably retro in its fashions, full of redneck hipsters sporting bowling shirts and landing-pad flattops and smart-alecky tattoos. Theirs is a form of retro whose reference points are emphatically local, and in its regionalism, the Chapel Hill scene aspires to a subculture’s subversiveness, a kind of Southern-fried defiance, which stakes its ground in contradistinction to some perceived American mainstream and then gives its rebellion local color, as though to say: “We don’t work in your airless (Yankee) offices. We don’t speak your pinched (Yankee) speech. We don’t belong to your emasculated (Yankee) culture. We are hillbillies and punks in equal proportion.”  Retro, in short, can be placed in the service of a kind of spitfire regionalism, and there is little to be gained by simply conflating this form of retro with the retro-culture marketed nationwide.

In fact, even mainstream ‘70s retro can take on different valences in different hands. To cite just one further example: hip-hop sampling, which builds new tracks out of the recycled fragments of existing recordings, might seem upon first inspection to be the very paradigm of the retro-aesthetic. And yet hip-hop, which has mined the ‘70s funk back-catalog with special diligence, typically forgoes the irony that otherwise accompanies such postmodern borrowings. Indeed, hip-hop sampling generally involves something utterly unlike irony; it is often positioned as a claim to authenticity, an homage to the old school, so that when OutKast, say, channels some vintage P-Funk, that sample is meant to function as a genetic link, a reoccurring trait or musical cell-form. The sample is meant to serve as a tangible connection back to some originary moment in the history of soul and R&B (or funk and disco).[4]

So differences abound in retro. And yet one is tempted, all the same, to speak of something like an official retro-culture, which takes as its object the 1940s and ‘50s: diners, martinis, “swing” music (which actually refers, not to ‘30s and ‘40s swing, but to post-war jump blues), industrial-age furniture, late-deco appliances, all chrome and geometry. The most important point to be made about this form of retro is that it is an unabashedly nationalist project; it sets out to create a distinctively U.S. idiom, one redolent of Fordist prosperity, an American aesthetic culled from the American century, a version of Yankee high design able to compete, at last, with its vaunted European counterparts. In general, then, we might want to say that retro is the form that national tradition takes in a capitalist culture: Capitalism, having liquidated all customary forms of culture, will sell them back to you at $16 a pop. But then commodification has ever been the fate of national customs, which are all more or less scripted and inauthentic. What is distinctive about retro, then, is the class of objects that it chooses to burnish with the chamois of tradition. There is a remarkable scene near the beginning of Jeunet and Caro’s great retro-film Delicatessen (1991) that is instructive in this regard: Two brothers sit in a basement workshop, handcrafting moo-boxes—those small, drum-shaped toys that, once upended and then set right again, low like sorrowful cows. The brothers grind the ragged edges from the boxes, blow away the shavings as one might dust from a favorite book, rap the work-table with a tuning fork and sing along with the boxes to ensure the perfect pitch of the heifer’s bellow. And in that image of their care, their workman’s pride, lies one of retro-culture’s great fantasies: Retro distinguishes itself from the more or less folkish quality of most national traditions in that it elevates to the status of custom the commodities of early mass production—old Coke bottles, vintage automobiles—and it does so by imbuing them with artisanal qualities, so that, in a strange historical inversion, the first industrial assembly lines come to seem the very emblem of craftsmanship. Retro is the process by which mass-produced trinkets can be reinvented as “heritage.”[5]

The apocalypse and the retro-craze—such, then, are the twin poles of postmodernism, at least on Jameson’s account. We are all so accustomed to this twosome that it has become hard to appreciate what an odd juxtaposition it really is. Disco inferno, indeed. This is a pairing, at any rate, that finds a rather precise corollary in the writings of Walter Benjamin. Each of the moments of our swinging apocalypse can be traced back to Benjaminian impulses, or opens itself, at least, to Benjaminian description. For in what other thinker are we going to find, in a manner that so oddly approximates the culture of American malls and American multiplexes, this combination of millenarian mournfulness and antiquarian devotion? Benjamin’s Collector seems to preside over postmodernism’s thrift-shop aesthetic, just as surely as its apocalyptic imagination is overseen by Benjamin’s Messiah, or at least by his Catastrophic Angel. It would seem, then, that Benjaminians should be right at home in postmodernism, and if this is palpably untrue—if the culture of global capitalism does not after all seem altogether hospitable to communists and the Kabbalah—then this is something we will now have to account for. Why, despite easily demonstrated affinities, does it seem a little silly to describe U.S. postmodernism as Benjaminian?

Jameson’s work is again clarifying. It is not hard to identify the Benjaminian elements in Jameson’s idiom, and especially in his utopian preoccupations, his determination to make of the future an open and exhilarating question. No living critic has done more than Jameson to preserve the will-be’s and the could-be’s in a language that would just as soon dispense altogether with its future tenses and subjunctive moods. And yet a moment’s reflection will show that Jameson is, for all that, the great anti-Benjaminian. It is Jameson who has taught us to experience pop culture’s Benjaminian qualities, not as utopian pledges, but as threats or calamities. Thus Jameson on apocalypse narratives: “It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations. I have come to think that the word postmodern ought to be reserved for thoughts of this kind.”[6] It is worth calling attention to the obvious point about these sentences—that Jameson here more or less equates postmodernism and apocalypticism—if only because in his earliest work on the subject, it is not the apocalypse but retro-culture that seems to be postmodernism’s distinguishing and debilitating mark. Again Jameson: “there cannot but be much that is deplorable and reprehensible in a cultural form of image addiction which, by transforming the past into visual mirages, stereotypes, or texts, effectively abolishes any practical sense of the future and of the collective project.”[7]  Jameson, in short, is most sour precisely where Benjamin is most expectant. He would have us turn our back on the most conspicuous features of Benjamin’s work; for late capitalism, it would seem, far from keeping faith with Benjamin, actually robs us of our Benjaminian tools, if only by generalizing them, by transforming them into noncommittal habits or static conventions: the Collector, fifty years on, shows himself to be just another fetishist, and even the Angel of History turns out to be a predictable and anti-utopian figure, unable to so much as train its eyes forward, foreclosing, without reprieve, on the time yet to come. U.S. postmodernism may be a culture that loves to “brush history against the grain,” but only in the way that you might brush back your ironic rockabilly pompadour.



But what if we refused to break with Benjamin in this way? Try this, just as an exercise: Ask yourself what these seemingly disparate trends—apocalypticism and the retro-craze—have to do with one another. Consider in particular that remarkable crop of recent films that actually unite these two trends, films that ask us to imagine an unlivable future, but do so in elegant vintage styles. These include: Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), the grand-daddy of the retro-apocalypses; three oddly upbeat dystopias—Starship Troopers and the aforementioned Gattaca and Dark City—all box-office underachievers from 1997; and, again, the cannibal slapstick Delicatessen. All of these films posit, in their very form, some profound correlation between retro and the apocalypse, but it is hard, on a casual viewing, to see what that correlation could be. Jameson, of course, offers a clear and compelling answer to this question, which is that apocalypticism and the retro-craze are the Janus faces of a culture without history, two eyeless countenances, pressed back to back, facing blankly out over the vistas they cannot survey.[8]

Some of these films, it must be noted, seem to invite a Jamesonian account of themselves. This is true of Blade Runner, for instance, or of The Truman Show—films that offer a vision of retro-as-dystopia, a realm of fabricated memory, in which history gets handed over to corporate administration, in which every madeleine is stamped “Made in Malaysia.” Perhaps it is worth pausing here, however, since we need to be wary of running these two films together. The contrast between them is actually quite revealing. Both Blade Runner and The Truman Show present retro-culture as dystopian, and in order to do this, both rely on some of the basic conventions of science fiction. Think about what makes science fiction distinctive as a mode—think, that is, about what distinguishes it from those genres with which it seems otherwise affiliated, such as the horror movie. Horror movies, especially since the 1970s, have typically worked by introducing some terrifying, unpredictable element into apparently safe and ordinary spaces. Monsters are nearly always intruders—slashers in the suburbs, zombies forcing their way past the barricaded door. But dystopian science fiction is, in this respect, nearly the antithesis of horror. It does not depict a familiar setting into which something frightening then gets inserted. What is frightening in dystopian science fiction is rather the setting itself. Now, this point holds for both Blade Runner and The Truman Show, but it holds in rather different ways. The first observation that needs to be made about The Truman Show is that it is more or less a satire, which is to say that, though it takes retro as its object, it is not itself a retro-film. It portrays a world that has handed itself over entirely to retro, a New Urbanist idyll of gleaming clapboard houses on mixed-use streets; but the film itself is not, by and large, retro in its narrative forms or cinematic techniques. Quite the contrary: the film wants to teach its viewers how to read retro in a new way; it wishes, polemically, to loosen the hold of retro upon them. The Truman Show takes a setting that initially seems like some American Eden, and then through the menacing comedy of its mise-en-scène—the falling lights and incomplete sets, the scenery that Truman stumbles upon or that springs disruptively to life—makes this retro-town come slowly to seem ominous. To give the film the cheap Lacanian description it is just begging for: The Truman Show charts the unraveling of the symbolic order. Every klieg light that comes crashing down from the sky is a warning shot fired from the Real. The simpler point, however, is that The Truman Show rests on a deflationary argument about American mass culture—a media-governed retro-culture depicted here as restrictive, counterfeit, and infantilizing—and its form is accordingly rather conventional. It is essentially a cinematic Bildungsroman, which ends once the protagonist steps forward to take full responsibility for his own life, and this, of course, tends to compromise the film’s own Lacanian premise: It suggests that any of us could simply step out of the symbolic order, step boldly out into the Real, if only we could muster sufficient resolve.[9]

Having a compromised and conventional form, however, is not the same thing as having a retro-form. In Blade Runner, by contrast, the setting—a dismal and degenerate Los Angeles—is self-evidently dystopian, but it is itself retro; it is retro as a matter of style or form. The film’s vision of L.A., as has often been observed, is equal parts Metropolis and ‘40s film noir, and the effect of the film is thus rather different from The Truman Show, though it is equally curious: Blade Runner may recycle earlier styles or narrative forms in a manner typical of retro, but the films that it mimics are themselves all more or less dystopian. If Blade Runner is a pastiche, it is a pastiche of other dystopias, and this has the effect of establishing the correlation between retro and the apocalypse in a distinctive way: Blade Runner posits a historical continuum between a bleak past and an equally bleak future, between the corrupt and stratified modernist city (of German expressionism and hardboiled fiction) and the coming reign of corporate capital (envisioned by so much science fiction), between the bad world we’ve survived and the bad world that awaits.

Such, then, are the films that seem ready to make Jameson’s argument for him. But there is good reason, I think, to set Jameson temporarily to one side. For present purposes, it would be more revealing to direct our attention back to Delicatessen, which, of all the retro-apocalypses, is perhaps the most winning and Benjaminian. The question that confronts any viewer of Delicatessen is why this film—which, after all, depicts an utterly dismal world in which men and women are literally butchered for meat—should be so delightful to watch, and not just wry or darkly humorous, but giddy and dithyrambic. I would suggest that the pleasure peculiar to Delicatessen has everything to do with the status of objects in the film—that is, with the extravagant and festive care that Jeunet and Caro bring to the filming of objects, which take on the appearance here of so many found and treasured items. One might call to mind the hand-crank coffee grinder, which doubles as a radio transmitter; or the cherry-red bellboy’s outfit; or simply the splendid opening credits—this slow pan over broken records and torn photographs—in which the picture swings open like a case of curiosities. It is as though the film took as its most pressing task the re-enchantment of the object-world, as though it were going to lift objects to the camera one by one and reattach to them their auras—not their fetishes, now, as happens in most commercial films, with their product placements and designer outfits—but their auras, as though the objects at hand had never passed through a marketplace at all. This is tricky: The objects in Delicatessen are recognizably of the same type as American retro-commodities—an antique wind-up toy, an old gramophone, stand-alone black-and-white television sets. At this point, then, the argumentative alternatives become clear: Either we can dismiss Delicatessen as ideologically barren, as just another pretext for retro-consumption, just another flyer for the flea market of postmodernism. Or we can muster a little more patience, tend to the film a little more closely, in which case we might discover in Delicatessen the secret of all retro-culture: its desire, delusional and utopian in equal proportion, for a relationship to objects as something other than commodities.

To follow the latter course is to raise an obvious question: How does the film direct our attention to objects in a new way? How does it reinvigorate our affection for the object world? This is a question, first of all, of the film’s visual style, although it turns out that nothing all that unusual is going on cinematographically: In a manner characteristic of French art-film since the New Wave, Delicatessen keeps the spectator’s eye on its objects simply by cutting to them at every opportunity and thus giving them more screen time than household artifacts typically claim. By the usual standards of analytical editing, in other words—within the familiar breakdown of a scene into detailed views of faces, gestures, and props—the props get a disproportionate number of shots. The objects, like so many Garbos, hog all the close-ups. “By permitting thought to get, as it were, too close to its object,” Adorno once said of Benjamin’s critical method, “the object becomes as foreign as an everyday, familiar thing under a microscope.”[10] Delicatessen works, in these terms, by taking Adorno’s linguistic figure at face value and returning it back to something like its literal meaning, back to the visual. The film permits the camera to get too close to its object. It forces the spectator to scrutinize objects anew simply by bringing them into sustained proximity.

The camerawork, however, is just the start of it, for in addition to the question of cinematic style, there is the related question of form or genre. Delicatessen, it turns out, is playing a crafty game with genre, and it is through this formal frolic that the film most insistently places itself in the service of its objects. For Delicatessen is retro not only in its choice of props—it is, like Blade Runner, formally or generically retro, as well. This point may not be immediately apparent, however, since Delicatessen resurrects a genre largely shunned by recent U.S. film. One occasionally gets the feeling from American cinema that film noir is the only genre ripe for recycling. The 1990s have delivered a whole paddywagon full of old-fashioned crime stories and heist pics, but where are all the other classic Hollywood genres? Where are the retro-Westerns and the retro war movies? Where are the retro-screwballs?[11] Neo-noir, of course, is relatively easy to pull off—dim the lights and fire a gun and some critic or another will call it noir. Delicatessen, for its part, attempts something altogether more difficult or, at least, sets in motion a less reliable set of cinematic conventions: pratfalls, oversized shoes, madcap chase scenes. Early on, in fact, the film has one of its characters say that, in its post-apocalyptic world, people are so hungry they “would eat their shoes”; and with this one line—an unambiguous reference to the celebrated shoe-eating of Chaplin’s The Gold Rush—it becomes permissible to find references to silent comedy at every turn: in the hero’s suspenders, in the film’s several clownish dances, in the near-demolition of the apartment building in which all the action is set, a demolition that, once read as slapstick, will call to mind Buster Keaton’s wrecking-ball comedy, the crashing houses of Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), say. Delicatessen, in sum, is retro-slapstick, and noting as much will allow us to ask a number of valuable questions.

The most compelling of these questions will return us to the matter at hand. We are trying to figure out how Delicatessen gets the viewer to pay attention to its objects, and so the question now must be: What does slapstick have to do with the status of objects in the film? It is hardly intuitive, after all, that slapstick should bring about the redemption of objects, should reattach objects to their auras. A cursory survey of classic slapstick, in fact, might suggest just the opposite—a world, not of enchanted objects, but of aggressive and adversarial ones. Banana peels and cream pies spring mischievously to mind. And yet we need to approach these icons with caution, lest we take a conceptual pratfall of our own; for Delicatessen draws on slapstick in at least two different ways, or rather, it draws on two distinct trends in early American slapstick, and each of these trends grants a different status to its objects. Everything rides on this distinction:

1) When we think of slapstick, we think first of all of roughhouse comedy, of the pie in the face and the kick in the pants, the endless assault on ass and head. Classic slapstick of this kind is what we might call the comedy of Newtonian physics. It is a farce of gravity and force, and as such, it is based on the premise that the object world is fundamentally intransigent, hostile to the human body. In this Krazy-Kat or Keystone world, every brick, every mop is a tightly wound spring of kinetic energy, always ready to uncoil, violently and without motivation.[12] It is worth remarking, then, that Delicatessen, contains its share of knockabout: the Rube Goldberg suicide machines, the postman always tumbling down the stairs. In its most familiar moments, Delicatessen, in keeping with its comic predecessors, seems to suggest that the human body is irreparably out of joint with its environment.

A first distinction is necessary here, for though Delicatessen may embrace the sadism of slapstick, it does so with a historical specificity of its own. Classic slapstick typically addresses itself to the place of the body under urban and industrial capitalism; one is pretty much obliged at this point to adduce Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), with its scenes of working-class mayhem and man-eating machines. Delicatessen, by contrast, contains man-eaters of its own, but they are not metaphorical man-eaters, as Chaplin’s machines are—they are cannibals true and proper, and their presence adds a certain complexity to the question of the film’s genre, for there have appeared so many films about cannibalism over the last twenty years that they virtually constitute a minor genre of their own.[13] One way to describe Delicatessen’s achievement, then, is to say that it splices together classic slapstick with the cannibal film. There will be no way to appreciate what this means, however, until we have determined the status of the cannibal in contemporary cinema. Broadly speaking, images of the cannibal tend to participate in one of two discourses: Historically, they have played a rather repugnant role in the racist repertoire of colonial clichés. Cannibalism is one of the more extreme versions of the imperial Other, the savage who does not respect even the most basic of civilization’s taboos. Increasingly, however, in films such as Eat the Rich (1987) or Dawn of the Dead (1978), cannibalism has become a conventional (and more or less satirical) image of Europeans and Americans themselves—an image, that is, of consumerism gone awry, of a consumerism that has liquidated all ethical boundaries, that has sunk into raw appetite, without restraint.[14] For present purposes, this point is nowhere clearer than in Delicatessen’s final chase scene, in which the cannibalistic tenants of the film’s apartment house gather to hunt down the film’s hero. The important point here is that, within the conventions of classic Hollywood comedy, the film makes a conspicuous substitution, for our comic hero is not on the run from some exasperated factory foreman or broad-shouldered cop on the beat, as silent slapstick would have it. He is fleeing, rather, from a consumer mob, E.P. Thompson’s worst nightmare, some degraded, latter-day bread riot. It is important that we appreciate the full ideological force of this switchover: By staffing the old comic scenarios with kannibals instead of kops, the film is able to transform slapstick in concrete and specifiable ways. The cannibals mean that when Delicatessen revives Chaplin-era slapstick, it does so without Chaplin’s factories or Chaplin’s city. This is slapstick for some other, later stage of capitalism—modernist comedy from which modernist industry has disappeared, leaving only consumption in its place.

2) Slapstick, then, announces a pressing political problem, in Delicatessen as in silent comedy. It sounds an alarm on behalf of the besieged human body. Delicatessen’s project, in this sense, is to imagine that problem’s solution, to mount a counterattack, to ward off the principle of slapstick by shielding the human body from its batterings. The deranged, consumption-mad crowd, in this light, is one, decidedly sinister version of the collective, but it finds its counterimage here in a second collective, a radical collective—the vegetarian insurgency that serves as ethico-political anchor to the film. Or to be more precise: The film is a fantasy about the conditions under which an advanced consumer capitalism could be superceded, and in order to do so, it follows two different tracks: One of the film’s subplots follows the efforts of the anti-consumerist underground, the Trogolodytes, while a second subplot stages a fairly ordinary romance between the clown-hero and a butcher’s daughter. Delicatessen thus divides its utopian energies between the revolutionary collective, depicted here as some lunatic version of La Resistance, and the heterosexual couple, imagined in impeccably Adornian fashion as the last, desperate repository of human solidarity, the faint afterimage of a non-instrumental relationship in a world otherwise given over to instrumentality.[15]

But this pairing does not exhaust the film’s political imagination, if only because knockabout does not exhaust the possibilities of slapstick. Delicatessen, in fact, is more revealing when it refuses roughhouse and shifts instead into one of slapstick’s other modes. Consider the key scene, early in the film, when the clown-hero, who has been hired as a handyman in the cannibal house, hauls out a bucket of soapy water to wash down the stairwell. The bucket, of course, is another slapstick icon, and anyone already cued in to the film’s generic codes might be able to predict how the scene will play out. Classic slapstick would dictate that the hero’s foot get wedged inside the bucket, that he skid helplessly across the ensuing puddle, that the mop pivot into the air and crack him in the forehead, that he somersault finally down the stairs. The important point, of course, is that no such thing happens. The clown does not get his pummeling. On the contrary, he uses his cleaning bucket to fill the hallway of this drear and half-inhabited house with giant, wobbling soap-bubbles, with which he then dances a kind of shimmy. It is in this moment, when the film pointedly repudiates the comedy of abuse, that the film modulates into a different tradition of screen comedy, what Mark Winokur has called “transformative“ or “tramp” comedy.

The hallway scene, in other words, is Chaplin through and through. It is important, then, to specify the basic structure of the typical Chaplin gag—and to specify, in particular, what distinguishes Chaplin from the generalized brutality and bedlam of the Keystone shorts. Chaplin’s bits are so many visual puns: they work by taking an everyday object and finding a new and exotic use for it, turning a roast chicken into a funnel, or a tuba into an umbrella stand, or dinner rolls into two dancing feet.[16] In Delicatessen, such transformative comedy is apparent in the New Year’s Eve noisemaker that the frog-man uses as a tongue, to catch flies; or in the hero’s musical saw, which, in fact, is the very emblem of the film’s many objects—an implement liberated from its pedestrian uses, a tool that yields melody, a dumb commodity suddenly able to speak again, and not just to shill, but to murmur of new possibilities. It is in transformative comedy, then, in the spectacle of objects whose use has been transposed, that slapstick takes on a utopian function. Slapstick becomes, so to speak, its own solution: Knockabout slapstick, in which objects are perpetually in revolt against the human body, finds its redemption in transformative slapstick, in which the human body discovers a new and unexpected affinity with objects. The pleasure that is distinctive of Delicatessen is thus actually some grand comic version of Kant’s aesthetics, of Kant’s Beauty, premised as it is on the dawning and grateful realization that objects are ultimately and against all reasonable expectation suited to human capacities. Delicatessen reimagines the world as a perpetual pas de deux with the inanimate.[17]

Transformative slapstick, this is all to say, functions in Delicatessen as a kind of antidote to cannibalistic forms of consumption. At its most schematic, the film faces its viewers with a choice between two different ways of relating to objects: a cannibalistic relationship, in which the object will be destroyed by the consumer’s unchecked hunger, or a Chaplinesque relationship, in which the object will be kept alive and continually reinvented. And so at a moment when cinematic realism has fallen into a state of utter disrepair, when realism finds it can do nothing but script elegies for the working class—when even fine films like Ken Loach’s Ladybird Ladybird (1994) and Zonca’s Dream Life of Angels (1998) have opted for the funereal, with so much as the protest drubbed out of them—it falls to Delicatessen’s grotesquerie to fulfill realism’s great utopian function, to keep faith, as Bazin said, with mere things, “to allow them first of all to exist for their own sakes, freely, to love them in their singular individuality.”[18]

It is crucial, however, that we not confine this observation to Delicatessen, because in that film’s endeavor lies the buried aspiration of all retro-culture, even (or especially) at its most fetishistic. If you examine the signs that hang next to the objects at Restoration Hardware and other such retro-marts—these small placards that invent elaborate and fictional histories for the objects stacked there for sale—you will discover a culture recoiling from its commodities in the very act of acquiring them, a culture that thinks it can drag objects back into the magic circle if only it can learn to consume them in the right way. Retro-commodities utterly collapse our usual Benjaminian distinctions between the fetish and the aura, and they do so by taking as their fundamental promise what Benjamin calls  “the revolutionary energies that appear in the ‘outmoded,’” the notion that if you know the history of an item or if you can aestheticize even the most ordinary of objects—a well-wrought dustpan, perhaps, or a chrome toaster—then you are never merely buying an object; you are salvaging it from the sphere of circulation, and perhaps even from the tawdriness of use.[19]

This is not yet to say enough, however, because it is the achievement of Delicatessen to demonstrate that this retro-utopia is unthinkable without the apocalypse. For if the objects in Delicatessen achieve a luminosity that is denied even the most exquisite retro-commodities, then this is only because they occupy a ruined landscape, in which they come to seem singular and irreplaceable. Delicatessen is a film whose characters are forever scavenging for objects, scrapping over parcels that have gone astray, rooting through the trash like so many hobos or German Greens. It is the film’s fundamental premise, then, that in a time of shortage, and in a time of shortage alone, objects will slough off their commodity status. They will crawl out from under the patina of mediocrity that the exchange relationship ordinarily imposes on them. If faced with shortage, each object will come to seem unique again, fully deserving of our attention. There is a startling lesson here for anyone interested in the history of utopian forms: that utopia can require suffering, or at least scarcity, and not abundance; that the classical utopias of plenty—those Big Rock Candy mountains with their lemonade springs and cigarette trees and smoked hams raining from the sky—are, under late capital, little more than hideous afterimages of the marketplace itself, spilling over with redundant and misdistributed goods, stripped of their revolutionary energy; that a society of consumption must, however paradoxically, find utopia in its antithesis, which is dearth.[20] And so we come round, finally, to my original point: that we must have, alongside Jameson, a second way of positing the identity of retro-culture and the apocalypse, one that will take us straight back to Benjamin: Underlying retro-culture is a vision of a world in which commodity production has come to a halt, in which objects have been handed down, not for our consumption, but for our care. The apocalypse is retro-culture’s deepest fantasy, its enabling wish.


[1] Jameson’s full comments can be found in the London Review of Books (Volume 23, Number 19, October 4, 2001). See also “Architecture and the Critique of Ideology, in The Ideologies of Theory, Volume 2: The Syntax of History, pp. 35-60, esp. p. 41: “dialectical interpretation is always retrospective, always tells the necessity of an event, why it had to happen the way it did; and to do that, the event must already have happened, the story must already have come to an end.”

[2] This essay is available in multiple versions. The easiest to come by is perhaps “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,”  in The Cultural Turn (London: Verso, 1998), pp. 1-20; and the most densely argued “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” in Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke, 1991), pp. 1-54.

[3] The Seventh Sign, for what it’s worth, draws on at least four different genres: 1) It is, at the most general level, a Christian apocalypse narrative; its nominal subject is the End Time, the series of catastrophes set in motion by God in preparation for His final judgment. 2) But in doing so, it deploys most of the conventions of the occult horror film. Even though the film expressly states that God is responsible for the disasters depicted, it cannot help but stage those disasters as supernatural and scary, in sequences borrowed more or less wholesale from the exorcism and devil-child movies of the 1970s, which is to say that viewers are expected to experience God’s actions as essentially diabolical. The film may adorn itself with Christian trappings, but in a manner typical of the Gothic, it cannot, finally, represent religion as anything but frightening. 3) This last point is clearest in the film’s depiction of Jesus Christ, who actually appears as a character and is almost always filmed in shots lifted from serial-killer films—Jesus stands alone, isolated in ominous medium long-shots, his face half in shadow, lit starkly from the side. Jesus’ menace is also a plot point: Christ, in the film, rents a room from Demi Moore and, in a manner that recalls Pacific Heights (1990) or The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992), becomes the intruder in the suburban home, the malevolent force that the white professional family has mistakenly welcomed under its roof. 4) In its final logic, then, the film reveals itself to be just a disaster movie in disguise: The Apocalypse must be scuttled. Christ must be sent back to heaven (and thus evicted from the suburban home). Justice must be averted.

[4] I owe this point to a conversation with Roger Beebe. Even here, though, matters are more complicated than they at first seem. Hip-hop, after all, hardly dispenses with irony and pastiche altogether: Jay-Z  has sampled “It’s a Hard-knock Life” (from Annie) and Missy Elliot has sampled Mozart’s Requiem, but no-one is likely to suggest that hip-hop is establishing a genetic link back to the Broadway musical or Viennese classicism.

[5] Of course, as a nationalist project, retro will play out differently in different national contexts. Perhaps a related cinematic example will make this clear. Consider Jeneut’s Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain (2001). At the level of diagesis—as a plain matter of plot and dialogue and character—the film has nothing at all to do with nationalism. On the contrary, it dedicates an entire subplot to undermining the provincialism of one of its characters, Amélie’s father, who resolves at movie’s end to become more cosmopolitan. The entire film is directed towards getting him to leave France. But at the level of form, things look rather different. Formally, the film is retro through and through. It won’t take a cinephile to notice the overt references to Jules et Jim (1962) and Zazie dans le Metro (1960), at which point it becomes clear that Amélie is a pastiche of the French New Wave, which is thereby transformed into a historical artifact of its own. Amélie, then, attempts to recreate the nouvelle vague, not with an eye to making it vital again as an aesthetic and political project, but merely to cycle exhaustively through its techniques, its stylistic tics, as though it were compiling some kind of visual compendium. The nationalism that the film’s narrative explicitly rejects thus reappears as a matter of form. Amélie works to draw our attention to the Frenchness of the New Wave, to codify it as a national style, and the presumed occasion for the film is therefore the ongoing battle, in France, over the Americanization of la patrie. Amélie is a bulldozer looking for its MacDonald’s.

[6] See Jameson’s “The Antinomies of Postmodernism,” in The Cultural Turn, pp. 50-72, quotation p. 50.

[7] See “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” in Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke, 1991), pp. 1-54, quotation p. 46.

[8] The second quotation cited here goes on to make this point clear: Retro-culture, Jameson continues, “abandon(s) the thinking of future change to fantasies of sheer catastrophe and inexplicable cataclysm, from visions of ‘terrorism’ on the social level to those of cancer on the personal.”

[9] The Truman Show, to be fair, does hedge the matter somewhat. The film’s numerous cutaways to the show’s viewers show a “real world” that is itself populated by TV-thralls, Truman Burbanks of a lower order. So when Truman steps out of his videodrome, we have a choice: We can either conclude, in proper Lacanian fashion, that Truman has simply traded one media-governed pseudo-reality for another. Or we can conclude that the film is asking us to distinguish between those, like Truman, who are able to shrug off their media masters, and those, like his viewers, who aren’t. I take this to be the film’s constitutive hesitation, its undecideable question.

[10] See Adorno’s “Portrait of Walter Benjamin” in Prisms, translated by Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge: MIT, 1981, pp. 227-241), here p. 240.

[11] Examples of these last can be found, but it takes some looking: Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers is a retro World War II movie, more so than Pearl Harbor (2001) or Saving Private Ryan (1998), which aspire to be historical dramas; and the Coen brothers’ Hudsucker Proxy (1994) is unmistakably a retro-screwball (and such a lovely thing that it’s a wonder others haven’t followed its lead). But they are virtually the lone examples of their kinds, singular members of non-existent sets. Neo-noir, by contrast, has become too extensive a genre to list comprehensively.

[12] Perhaps a rare instance of literary slapstick, manifestly modeled on cinematic examples, will drive this point home. The following is from Martin Amis’s Money (London: Penguin, 198?), p. 289: “What is it with me and the inanimate, the touchable world? Struggling to unscrew the filter, I elbowed the milk carton to the floor. Reaching for the mop, I toppled the trashcan. Swivelling to steady the trashcan, I barked my knee against the open fridge door and copped a pickle-jar on my toe, slid in the milk, and found myself on the deck with the trashcan throwing up in my face … Then I go and good with the grinder. I took the lid off too soon, blinding myself and fine-spraying every kitchen cranny.”

[13] See, for instance, Eating Raoul (1982); Parents (1989); The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989); and, in a different mood, Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Hannibal (2001).

[14] On the cultural uses of cannibalism, see Cannibalism and the Colonial World, edited by Francis Barker, Peter Hulme, Margaret Iversen (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1998), especially Crystal Bartolovich’s “Consumerism, or the cultural logical of late cannibalism” (pp. 204-237).

[15] For a discussion of Delicatessen that pays closer attention to the film’s narrowly French contexts—its nostalgia for wartime, its debt to French comedies—see Naomi’s Greene’s Landscapes of Loss: The National Past in Postwar French Cinema (Princeton: Princeton, 1999).

[16] See, respectively, Modern Times; The Pawnshop (1916); The Gold Rush (1925).

[17] There’s a sense in which this operation is at work even in the most vicious knockabout. Even the most paradigmatically abusive comedies—the Keystone shorts, say—are redemptive in that the staging of abuse itself discloses a joyous physical dexterity. The staging of bodies out of synch with the inanimate world relies on bodies that are secretly very much in synch with that world—and this small paradox characterizes the pleasure peculiar to those films.

[18] Bazin, What is Cinema?, translated by Hugh Gray (Berkeley: UCalifornia, 1967); see also Siegfried Kracauer’s Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (New York: Oxford, 1965).

[19] See Benjamin’s “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia,” translated by Edmund Jephcott in the Selected Writings: Volume 2, 1927-1934, edited by Michael Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith (Cambridge: Belknap, 1999, pp. 207-221), here p. 210.

[20] Compare Langle and Vanderburch’s utopia of abundance, as noted by Benjamin himself, in the 1935 Arcades-Project Exposé (in The Arcades Project, translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin—Cambridge: Belknap, 1999, pp. 3-13), here p. 7:

“Yes, when all the world from Paris to China

Pays heed to your doctrine, O divine Saint-Simon,

The glorious Gold Age will be reborn.

Rivers will flow with chocolate and tea,

Sheep roasted whole will frisk on the plain,

And sautéed pike will swim in the Seine.

Fricaseed spinach will grow on the ground,

Garnished with crushed fried croutons;

The trees will bring forth stewed apples,

And farmers will harvest boots and coats.

It will snow wine, it will rain chickens,

And ducks cooked with turnips will fall from the sky.”

(Translation altered)

Tarantino, Nazis, and Movies That Can Kill You – Part 2


Again, if you want to make sense of Inglourious Basterds, the questions are three: 1) Why take the triumphalist American history of WWII and make it even more triumphalist? 2) Why channel our perceptions of the 1940s via the 1970s? 3) And why commit mass murder upon the audience?

Here are some answers.

Tarantino is on record as saying that Inglourious Basterds is his “bunch-of- guys-on-a-mission film”—which would mean that it’s a version of the Dirty Dozen or The Guns of Navarone. Like almost everything else that Tarantino says in interviews, I think that sentence is a lie or a trick, which should become clear if you pause to consider how uninterested the movie is in the Basterds as Nazi hunters; we see them fighting Nazis almost not all. In fact the Shosanna plot is entirely separate from the Basterds plot and commands our attention every bit as intently. I’d like to say this isn’t really a men-on-a-mission movie; this is first and foremost a revenge movie; and you might say Why can’t it be both?—and yeah, sure, it’s both, but Tarantino has also decided to make nearly all the Basterds Jewish, which means that the revenge framework actually spills over from the Shosanna plot and colonizes the mission plot, too. It’s like the revenge movie is sucking the war movie into its field of gravity. Revenge is the common term that unites the two separate plots. Plus we know that Tarantino is deeply engaged with revenge movies, which were a staple of the ‘70s grindhouse circuit: Last House on the Left, Death Wish, Thriller: En Grym Film, I Spit On Your Grave, movies like that. Tarantino, in fact, has already made an epic revenge movie—that’s Kill Bill—so we can’t be all that surprised to see him returning to the form here.

OK—but if it’s a revenge movie, it’s an unusual one, because it has that oddly doubled narrative—not just one, but two revenge plots, unspooling side by side, and eventually converging, though without either revenge-party ever knowing about the other. And what you think is at stake in the revenge plot will depend in large part on whether you decide to emphasize the Basterds or Shosanna. So ask yourself which agent of revenge your heart favors.

If you emphasize the Basterds, then what really jumps out in the movie is the image of the tough-guy Jew. There’s a word that is common in Hebrew slang—and that Hebrew has bequeathed to Israeli English—and that’s frier, which means something like “pushover” or “sucker”—and it’s become one of the most distinctive Israeli insults. Nobody in Israel wants to be a frier; nobody wants to be pushover. My Israeli friends boast proudly that the country has the world’s highest incidence of fatal car crashes—and I don’t know if that’s true—but I do know that my friends brag about it, which tells me all I need to know—and the explanation they always give is that no Israeli in a car will ever back down, as in: yield the right of way. So all I want to say is that testosterone has become a very big deal in some corners of modern Jewish culture, for reasons that are not hard to reconstruct, and you could think of Inglourious Basterds as playing into this, by projecting an IDF-style masculinity back into the 1940s. And this curious notion obviously goes back to one of the classic, nagging questions in the historiography of the Second World War: Why didn’t European Jews resist the fascists in larger numbers? If Inglourious Basterds generates a compensatory fantasy, it is surely here; it’s not fantasizing about Americans winning the war; it’s fantasizing about Jews winning the war; and this is a fantasy it shares, roughly, with other tough-Jew movies, like Defiance, which features Daniel Craig as the Bärenjude. Those movies ask the question: What if the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising had spread? Or: What if there had already been a Mossad to counteract the SS?

Here’s the thing: If we focus instead on Shosanna, the movie will look rather different. Shosanna of course is also Jewish and also tough, so we can to some extent just fold her into that last point. But only to some extent. Why? Because the image of Eli Roth one handing a baseball bat is obviously an image of Jewish machismo, but the image of a burning movie theater is not.

What I mean is that Shosanna’s method of taking revenge is so different from the Basterds’ that it raises some new issues for us to think about. The blazing screen does not trigger the same set of real-world associations. Shosanna gets her revenge through film: She makes a movie passing judgment on the fascists, whom she then immolates in the flames of burning nitrate reels. So it’s not just that we see a filmmaker killing Nazis; it’s as though film itself were able to strike fascists dead. There are, I think, two different ways of clarifying what Tarantino is up to here.

1) One way to understand the film Shosanna makes and that we eventually see is as Tarantino’s homage to postwar French cinema—and to the kind of anti-fascist film that people like Buñuel were making even before the war. She makes a guerilla film, on the cheap: a technically rough, experimental, low-budget and anti-fascist film. It’s as though Tarantino were trying to engineer a history in which Buñuel never left for Mexico, or trying to backdate Godard by about fifteen years. The movie literally stages a showdown between fascist film and the anti-fascist film of the postwar Left. And this alone licenses us to say that Tarantino is deeply invested in the possibility of anti-fascist film. He has just given us, as hero, an anti-fascist director. Now would be the moment to be point out that he and his associates often seem to think that trash cinema is the continuation of anti-fascist film. If you’ve seen Robert Rodriguez’s Machete—or even just the fake trailer for  the non-existent ‘70s drive-in movie that was the movie’s original incarnation—the point will not be lost on you: An army of illegal immigrants rises up against white bosses and politicians by repurposing as weapons the garden tools of a day laborer.

There’s plenty of precedence for this: One of the key blaxploitation movies is this film from 1976 called Brotherhood of Death, which is about a group of black Vietnam vets who return to the US and start using what the army taught them to fight the Klan. So we know that Tarantino and Rodriguez are fixated on grindhouse, but what they’re too cool to say out loud is that they basically think of grindhouse as a people’s cinema—crude and insurgent—a precious collection of movies about black people taking out the Klan and women turning the knife back against the men who attack them and kung fu masters sticking up for Native Americans.

2) What I’m saying, basically, is that Quentin Tarantino is our Woody Guthrie; he is the Woody Guthrie of mondo and the midnight movie. That is not a joke. The most famous picture of Woody Guthrie gives the viewer a clear look at the folk-singer’s guitar, across which is scrawled: “This machine kills fascists.”

We need to think hard about the fantasy that is communicated by that sentence—because we’re trying to make sense of this image—

—and that sentence provides the second important clarification. Woody Guthrie didn’t just want to sing about justice; he didn’t just want to “inspire his listeners” or get them to raise their voices in the spirit of peace or whatever it is that we usually think folk singers do; he was trying to imagine a music so powerful that it would actually bring justice into the world; he wanted to strum justice into existence; wanted an art that wouldn’t just be in the service of revolution, but that would itself be the completed revolutionary act. And that’s exactly what Tarantino gives us at the end of the movie: “This movie screen kills fascists.” That fantasy—the fantasy of a fully revolutionary art—turns out to be very old. As early in the 1590s, some English poets were trying to write plays that not only depicted revenge, but actually achieved it; they were trying to imagine plays that could actually kill corrupt courtiers and oppressive princes, as though blank verse could actually draw blood. Or if we flash-forward to 1969, we will find Amiri Baraka writing these lines, in a poem called “Black Arts”:


We want ‘poems that kill.’

Assassin poems, Poems that shoot

guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys

and take their weapons leaving them dead.


What we can say now is that Tarantino is paying homage to the history of anti-fascist film; and he is also trying to imagine a movie that could not only describe justice but actually achieve it. And of course, we need to put those points together and say that he is trying to imagine the perfect anti-fascist film—a film so righteously anti-fascist that it literally levels any fascist who wanders into its projected light; a film that fascists cannot watch; a film that turns fascists to dust. So maybe now we can say, or begin to say, explain why Tarantino has rewritten the history of 1944. Inglourious Basterds wants to give credit for the victory in World War II to someone other than the US and Soviet armies; to nominate, as the virtual heroes of some secret history, badass Jews and cinema itself. It’s an extraordinary idea.

…except I think that’s it all wrong. None of what I’ve just written actually works; or rather, the movie does in fact put in play the two fantasies I’ve been describing—the fantasy of a muscular Judaism and the fantasy of the perfect anti-fascist film—but then it takes them back—or at least makes them harder to occupy. First it gets us to share those fantasies and then it starts calling the fantasies into question. There are two good reasons to think this.

The first I will mention only briefly and ask you to think about on your own time. One of the plain ways we have to describe who Shosanna is and what she does in this movie is to say that she is a suicide bomber. If you want to get fancy, you will say that she is a twentieth-century Samson, pulling the roof down on the heads of the Jews’ celebrating enemies, but if you go back and read the Samson story, you’ll be forced to conclude before long that he, too, was a suicide bomber, so it’s really the same point anyway. At that point we will recall that there was a bomb attack on a movie theater in northern India in 2007; another in Mumbai during the wave of coordinated attacks in 2009; an especially bad movie theater bombing in Algeria in 1998; and so on. The movie undoubtedly produces an image of a heroic Judaism, but only at the cost of letting it mutate visibly into one of its putative opposites, which is the Muslim terrorist.

That’s one of the big surprises hidden away in the movie’s fantasies. The second is easiest to communicate through a series of paired images:



“You know something, Utivich? I think this might just be my masterpiece.”


Here’s my gloss on that sequence. 1) We see a Nazi soldier, shot from below, mowing down an improbable number of the gathered enemy. Then we see an American soldier doing the same thing—and in a similar shot. 2) We see an American soldier mutilating an enemy officer and calling it his masterpiece; and we see Hitler telling Goebbels that he has made his masterpiece. 3) We see a fascist turn to the camera in black-and-white and address the audience directly, speaking English for the first time. And then we see the anti-fascist turn to the camera in black-and-white and address the audience directly, speaking English for the first time. We can see what this adds up to. Tarantino has built in unmistakable visual rhymes between the fascist movie and its putatively anti-fascist alternatives. Just to be clear: There are three movies in play here—the movie we are watching, Tarantino’s movie; the fascist movie; and Shosanna’s anti-fascist movie. So two anti-fascist movies and a fascist movie. And the point is that each of the two anti-fascist movies plainly, demonstrably resembles the fascist movie. Everything in the movie starts bleeding into fascism. Two more pairings, to coax over the disbelieving:


An American soldier carves a swastika with a Bowie knife.

A German soldier carves a swastika with a Bowie knife.


“Our battle plan will be that of an Apache resistance.”

But of course what’s true in miniature is also true globally: The fascists are watching a patriotic war movie about the grotesquely exaggerated exploits of a national hero. And you can’t even get that sentence out of your mouth without realizing that, yes, we too have been watching a patriotic war movie about the grotesquely exaggerated exploits of our national heroes. The anti-fascist movie we thought we were watching outs itself as fascism’s secret twin. There’s a lot to say here, but the short version is that I think we are in the presence of a filmmaker losing his confidence in grindhouse as a people’s cinema and trying to find a way to make trash cinema yield a critique of itself instead. This all comes down to the audience: What I find most striking about the shots of the audience in this movie is how attentive they are to the immediate effects of screen violence upon a group of viewers. Let me put it this way: I saw the movie twice in a theater, and each time I saw it, when the movie screen went up in flames, someone in the room clapped—not a full-palmed ovation, just three fingers of one hand in the heel of the other, the quick little rat-a-tat of a person overcome by excitement. But then of course Inglourious Basterds, in four or five different shots, shows a movie audience of fascists whoop-whooping to a blood orgy. Let me come at it from another angle. In the movie, we see one audience member laughing. I’m guessing many people were laughing when you saw the movie; you might have laughed yourself. This gets at something important, because as long as Tarantino has been making movies, high-minded critics have fretted that he makes violence entirely too pleasurable: Michael Madsen slices off a man’s ear, and the audience are bopping in their seats because “Stuck in the Middle With You” is chiming on the soundtrack. You grin as Bruce Willis trades up from hammer to baseball bat to chainsaw to samurai sword. The only movie I have ever walked out on because of the audience was the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple—close cousin to Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction—and I left it because the rest of my row was cracking up while Dan Hedaya was getting buried alive, shrieking keen through mouthfuls of dirt. So how dare anyone make death funny? You have to imagine that Tarantino has always shrugged off that accusation; you can call up YouTube videos of him shrugging it off in interviews—except now he has conceded it. And we know he has conceded it because here’s the one person we see laughing at the violence:

There is only one person laughing, and it is mother-loving Hitler. That is the sight of a filmmaker profoundly alienated from his own fans, wigging out at the ability of the movies he most loves to produce in us a quasi-fascist joy in violence. So why does Tarantino hate us so much? He hates us for liking his movies the way we do; he hates us because he can so easily bring us round to enjoying the sight of people being gathered into a closed space so that they can be exterminated. He hates you for how easily you can be pushed into the Nazi position, as long as the people getting killed are themselves Nazis. He hates you because you are the fascist and you don’t even know it. And he proposes the self-consuming grindhouse solution to this grindhouse dilemma, which is that people like you have to die. You will uphold your death sentence with your applause.



Tarantino, Nazis, and Movies That Can Kill You – Part 1

I think I can show that Inglourious Basterds is not really a revenge movie, which, if you’ve seen the movie — well, you’re not going to believe me. It’s an implausible point, hard to make stick — and I’d rather start easy. So maybe I’ll just ask a few questions about the film, and then try to answer them, though maybe the questions are really the hard part, after all. It will be harder, I think, to get the questions right than to get the answers right; Basterds is so diabolically entertaining that a person could easily overlook how complicated a thing it really is. So I’m thinking that if we can just name the movie’s complications—if we can lift out its puzzles—the answers might start taking care of themselves.

My questions are three.

First question: Is Inglourious Basterds a historical movie? Is it a period piece? …or not? In some sense, yes, plainly, of course it is. It takes place at a specified moment in history—1944; the story unfolds against the backdrop of a major world event—World War II; it transforms real historical personages into minor fictional characters—Hitler, Goebbels, and the like—and it freely intermixes these “real people” with characters of its own invention. Those are the hallmarks of historical fiction in the mode of Walter Scott or Tolstoy. Scott’s Waverley features the real Scottish prince who, in the middle of the C18, tried to seize the throne of England and Scotland. War and Peace, in turn, actually has Napoleon as a character—a fairly central character, even, at least for part of the novel.

But there’s an obvious problem with this comparison, which is that Tarantino’s movie completely rewrites the history it has chosen to recount. And I can already hear the English professors amidst whom I work murmuring: But wait, historical fiction always, in myriad subtle ways, rewrites the history that it recounts. And they’re right. But Inglourious Basterds is not subtle about this; it does not even pretend to historical insight. It gleefully concocts an alternate history, in a manner that is impossible to overlook. In case anyone has forgotten: American Jews did not storm the Nazi high command and gun Hitler down in an act of heroic retribution. This is not a historical fiction in the usual sense, but rather a kind of fantasia or historical reverie—and the movie makes no effort to hide this. Not even in Tolstoy does Napoleon keep hold of Moscow.

But then this is where things really get strange. So the movie is a flight of fancy on a historical subject. OK; I think I can take that on board, because I’ve seen it before. In science-fiction circles, alternate histories have become a genre in their own right: What would England look like in the C20 if it had stayed Catholic—if, that is, there had never been a Protestant Church of England? What would the world look like today if Europeans had been wiped out in the fourteenth century by the Black Death?—a world without white people; I’ve always rather liked that one. Or closest to the day’s concerns: What would the US look like now if Hitler had never been defeated? Those books all exist and lots more like them: Historical novels about histories that never happened. But then we need to think about which event the movie has chosen to rescript: It doctors the end of World War II, and if we’re going to think about that, then let us call to mind another obvious thing: America actually defeated the Germans in World War II; or rather the Allies did. And Americans defeat the Nazis in the movie, too, with some help from French resisters. It’s worth pausing to register how odd that is. I mean, it’s not like the movie has taken a tale of American failure or hesitation and turned it into an American triumph. If you try to imagine Inglourious Basterds as a Vietnam movie, you’ll begin to see what I mean. There was a period in the mid-‘80s when Hollywood started churning out movies—like Delta Force or the second Rambo joint—in which the US Army was granted some kind of magic do-over in South-East Asia. In Rambo, Sylvester Stallone actually speaks the question: “Do we get to win this time?” And his commanding officer responds: “Yes, Rambo. You get to win this time.” What’s going on there isn’t especially hard to grasp. The historical record—or, if you prefer, popular historical pseudo-memory—contains, in reference to Vietnam, all sorts of ambivalence: feelings of failure, complicity, shame, and so on—and those feelings are a breeding ground for compensatory fantasies. But Tarantino has scripted an alternative to D-Day, of all things, which means he has replaced the most heroic moment in twentieth-century US history—a history that is already fully triumphalist, entirely devoid of ambivalence—with something even more triumphalist, but weirdly, ferociously so. He has scripted a fictional way of winning a war that the US won anyway. So what’s going on? That’s  the first question.

I have a second question that also involves the ways this is not a straightforward historical movie. I want to be careful here: Historical fictions are always complicated, because they always require you to think at the same time about two different historical moments; if you’re reading a historical novel, you need to think about when the book was set, but you also need to think about when the book was written. So take Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which is the one recent historical novel you can count on someone having read. That book is set in the 1870s, but it was written in the 1980s. And a person might ask: What’s the difference between a book written in the 1870s, like Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, and one set in the 1870s? That second book, Beloved, has a historical shadow dimension that the first book doesn’t. Historical novels belong, as it were, to two historical moments at once. They are always implicitly putting two historical moments in front of you and asking you what connects them or what they share. So Beloved is a novel about America in the nineteenth century—it’s about the aftermath of slavery—but it is also a novel of the 1980s. The 1870s and the 1980s get held up next to each other. If you want to understand Beloved, you have to understand both what Toni Morrison is saying about the past and what she is saying to her contemporaries. It’s Reconstruction; and it’s the Reagan-era; and they’re side by side. Same deal with Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino was talking about this movie as early as 2001; he wrote different versions of the screenplay across the last decade; two or three times, he announced he was going into production only to change his mind; and then he finally began filming in October 2008—a month before the Obama-McCain election, if you want to think of it that way. So this movie is about 1944, but we can also think of it as pretty much the last movie of the Bush administration. And it’s a war movie—and we mustn’t lose sight of this—which recasts WWII as a settling of scores. And few viewers will have overlooked that it’s also a Western. The opening scene has a French farmer living in what you could mistake for the timber shack of a Montana frontiersman; there’s a shootout in a saloon where desperadoes are drinking whiskey; and so on. So who thinks about war as a Western? Six days after 9/11, George Bush stood up in front of the press corps and said: “I want justice. And there’s an old poster out West, I recall, that said: ‘Wanted, Dead or Alive.’”

We seem to be making headway. But the point I’m after is that Inglourious Basterds is actually more complicated than this. Historical fictions are always complicated, and this movie is more complicated still, not least because it is so obviously stitched together out of parts from other movies. Now we know that this is what Tarantino likes to do; he’s got a mash-up aesthetic. So that opening scene?—it’s borrowed from John Ford; and the scene where the French Jewish beauty and the young Nazi hero kill each other?—that’s ripped from a John Woo movie. Now again, movies and novels are always borrowing from other movies and novels, so maybe you’re thinking Big deal. But most movies and novels take some pains to cover their tracks; they don’t want you to spot their borrowings; they invite you to sink into the story, so that you can trick yourself into thinking that you are watching the past unfold organically before you. And Tarantino simply will not let you sink into the story. He does not hide his sources. The most obvious example is the moment when the movie introduces Hugo Stiglitz for the first time; suddenly the movie has a narrator, and the narrator is Sam Jackson, in voiceover, and with an underlay of boom chicka wawa, and every time you hear those pimped-out cadences, you get airlifted briefly out of 1944 and deposited in the mid-‘70s instead—so Sam Jackson, but Sam Jackson in his incarnation as latter-day soul brother.

That’s the single most intrusive moment in the movie; the visible incursion of another film genre into the World War II movie; but it’s hardly the only one. There’s the spaghetti Western soundtrack, which provides an ongoing temporal counterpoint to the action. Or there’s the title. I dutifully went and watched the 1978 Italian movie from which the title Inglourious Basterds has been filched only to discover that it bears absolutely no resemblance to the movie Tarantino made. The later film is in no way a remake of the earlier one. But then knowing that should help us see how programmatic Tarantino’s retro aesthetic is: He wants you to think his movie is a remake even when it isn’t a remake. In the event, the title is something like an all-purpose footnote; it doesn’t do much more than point you, broadly, to the entire body of late ‘60s and ‘70s-era trash movies that we all know Tarantino loves; and the music does the same thing; and so does Sam Jackson. Someone out there was disappointed to discover that Richard Roundtree wasn’t playing Hitler. So the movie doesn’t just whisk us back to 1944; and it doesn’t even really whisk us back to its alternate-reality 1944. Rather, it forces us to contemplate 1944 through a scrim of other movies, and I want us to think of this as an almost geological act of historical layering. This is how Inglourious Basterds is different from an ordinary historical fiction: There aren’t just two historical moments in play, there are at least three. Hence my second question: Why, in 2009, make a ‘70s-style movie about 1944?

One quick point to make, in passing, because it will be important to some people’s experience of the movie: This might be a trash movie; and it might rewrite history in preposterous ways; but its use of historical detail is nonetheless meticulous. The movie’s evident precision begins with its attention to language. It’s a tri-lingual movie, and the German in the movie is impeccable—entirely unlike the Halt!-und-Schnell! that you get in Schindler’s List and other graduates from the Hogan’s Heroes School of War Cinema. And beyond that, the movie is full of historical references that aren’t in the least offhand—references, I mean, that are knowing and apt. Tarantino works in references to early twentieth-century German children’s literature; he briefly introduces, as a character, a cat named Emil Jannings, who was 1) a real German actor of the period; 2) the first person ever to win an Oscar; 3) and a prominent Nazi. And on and on. Now if you’re in a position to appreciate these details—which basically means if you’re German—the experience of the movie has got to be all the more bewildering. The puzzles I’ve been describing intensify, because in lots of ways the movie seems unusually committed to 1944—the movie’s erudition, I mean, can’t help but convey a certain respect for the movie’s historical materials—and yet at the same time 1944 is constantly slipping from sight.

So … a second question. My third question is easier to explain, though it’s probably also the most important one. It all comes down to this image and to the scene that contains it:

We have to be clear about what’s going on here. I can imagine a person being keyed up enough at the sweet sight of all those Nazis getting killed to overlook the second thing that’s going on in the movies climactic scenes—not a second event—but a second, equally plausible way of describing that one event: The movie is showing a Jewish woman wreaking vengeance upon Germans, but it is also showing a filmmaker killing her own audience. That’s amazing; and serious thinking about the movie has got to start there. We need to think hard about the conditions under which some of us saw this movie. If you were lucky enough to see Inglourious Basterds during its original run—and so not on DVD—then you sat in a movie theater and watched people in a movie theater get wiped out. You might have been rooting for Shosanna or the Basterds—I know I was—but the people getting offed were, at the moment of their death, unmistakably like you. The aspect of the movie that most leaps out, I think, is its extraordinary hostility towards the audience. So my third question is: Why does Quentin Tarantino hate us so much?

So those are my three questions: 1) Why take the triumphalist American history of WWII and make it even more triumphalist? 2) Why channel our perceptions of the 1940s via the 1970s? 3) And why commit mass murder upon the audience? I will next attempt some answers.



Postmodernism Is Maybe After All A Historicism, Part 3



You’re going to understand De Palma’s Body Double better if you understand why Theodor Adorno liked Mahler. Somebody might have told you once that Adorno championed difficult art in general and atonal music in particular: string quartets made to skirl; the mathematically precise caterwaul of that half-stepping dozen, the series chromatic and uncanny. This isn’t exactly wrong, and it is the regular stuff of encyclopedia entries and intro classes, but it’s not exactly right either. For Adorno did not want an art entirely without subjectivity, which is what serial music sometimes suggests, a pure and as it were automatic music that would never suggest to anyone listening a link back to human utterance or expressiveness; that would never once yield a tune that someone, at least, would want to sing; a music, in fine, that was all system. What he was seeking, rather, was an art organized around antitheses, in which the conflict between subject and system would become audible; and he worried there were different ways an artwork could instead obliterate any sense we had of a living person struggling to come to speech within it, and he didn’t like any of these. Traditionalism was the obvious problem: the expert mimicry of older styles, the striking of already petrified poses, the chanting of sentences already spoken. Adorno said of Stravinsky that he was a U2 tribute band. But then a radical aesthetic can beat its own experimental path to the same deadly place, one he identified in the fully developed versions of twelve-tone music, in Webern, that is, and the late modernists of the ‘60s: serial music become oppressive because now wholly itself, without any concession to its historical rivals or predecessors, routinized and ascetic, sealed off inside its own rigors and formulae.

It is this rejection of Webern that should clarify Adorno’s championing of both Alban Berg and Gustav Mahler, which is to say both a composer conventionally classified as atonal and one typically reckoned not, the point being that each of these two absorbed into his music the opposition that musical history tries to construct only between them. Mahler and Berg can be conceptualized together as the Composers of the Break, neither tonal nor atonal, but first-one-and-then-the-other, by turns and in shifting ratios or proportions. If it’s misleading to say that Adorno was one of the great theorists of serial music, then that’s because it was this music-at-the-cusp—and not the purity of The Twelve—that he meant to recommend. At issue were compositions in which the conflict between entire aesthetic periods or modes of cultural production was openly theatricalized, and from this perspective, a composer’s starting point was irrelevant. You could fill your music with tunes, but let them curdle on occasion into noise; or, alternately, you could plunge your listeners into noise, but remind them occasionally of what tunes used to sound like. Either way, you would be staging a face-off between the entire history of human songfulness and some other, radically new aesthetic mode in which art no longer takes our pleasure as its aim and limit. And here, perhaps, is the most curious point: These last are scenarios in which either term, tonality or atonality, can count as subject and either as structure. You can say that the fine old tunes sustain us as subjects and that the mere math of the twelve-tone series recreates for us in the concert hall the experience of structure and rationalization. But you can just as plausibly say that those tunes are sedimented and mindless convention, at which point we might welcome dissonance as the opening out of the composer’s idiom—or simply as the afflicted yowl of anyone who wishes the radio would for once play something different.

We can’t make listeners choose between Mahler and Berg, because it is really easy to find Mahler in Berg. If we want to get back to Body Double, all we need to do, then, is generalize Adorno’s argument in a direction he probably wouldn’t have; to insist that antithesis, far from being the special achievement of these two Austrians, is the inevitable condition of most artworks, nearly all of which absorb into themselves piecewise the styles and conventions of various historical periods, social classes, and political tendencies. You can call this “liminal art” if you want, as long as you are prepared to add that threshold never becomes room. The struggles that a Gramscian reader thinks go on between artworks are usually reproduced one by one within those same works, which, if patiently read, will generate maps of the broader cultural fields of which they are also a part. What we can say now of postmodern art is that it is almost never wholly itself, that in order even to be recognized as postmodern, it will have to announce its own distinctiveness, marking itself off from its modernist counterparts, which it will have to after a fashion name and in naming preserve. The sentences regularly encountered in Jameson in which x artist is declared to be a postmodern revision of y modernist are thus oddly self-defeating. How often do you find yourself wanting to remind Jameson of how the dialectic works?—stammering, in this case, that one cannot name a break between two terms without simultaneously positing their continuity. If you want to lift out what was new in the movie Body Heat, having first spotted that it was, as Jameson has it, a “remake of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity,” then you have yourself already conceded that the one was really, actually, finally a lot like the other. When we designate a work as “postmodern,” the superseded and modernist version thereof will persist, as its not-really negated shadow, and this shadow will, in turn, vitiate our sense of postmodernism as ahistorical. You can say that Body Double is a movie about other movies, but that very reliance on other films—prior films—will be a prompt to historical thinking. Postmodern Body Double preserves within itself the memory of movies that weren’t yet postmodern. But then this or something like it is going to be true of most really existing postmodernism, which we now have to reconceive as the arena of a certain fight—the showdown between the various modernisms and a postmodernism available only as ideal type.

This point is available, first, at the level of genre. There’s a remarkable moment about an hour into Body Double when we witness our hero decide to take matters into his own hands, make his own inquiries about the murder, get to the bottom of things. The spectator-actor prepares himself to assume the detective functions of classic crime narrative. And at just that moment, when the movie seems ready at last to lead us back behind the spectacle—to, you know, strike the set—it instead amplifies by the pageantry by launching into a full-fledged music video—for Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax,” complete with shots of lip-synching lead-singer Holly Johnson. What makes the sequence even more compelling is that the music video stands in for hardcore porn; it’s the point in the movie when the hero is trying to infiltrate a porn set by pretending to be a hired stud, and De Palma is letting FGTH’s lubricious, post-disco electro-march substitute for the obscenities he cannot show. The movie thereby directs our attention neither to porn nor to MTV, but to whatever it is rather that the two share—and thus to an entire set of new or newly prevalent video genres, characteristic of the last few decades and defined by their collective willingness to abandon narrative or at least scale it back to some barely-more-than-sequential minimum. From our own vantage, we would want to add, above and beyond the raunch and the Duran Duran, YouTube shorts, initially capped at ten minutes and now majestically extended to fifteen, and new-model movie trailers, which, following Jameson, deserve to be considered as a form in their own right, with their own conventions and feature-usurping pleasures.

This is what it would mean to talk about Body Double not as postmodern but as a conflict-ridden composite of postmodernism and the pop modernism of the detective story, which still thinks of itself as a device for disclosing hidden truths. The competing genres are entirely visible within the movie. And then the all-important point to be made in this regard is that the detective story more or less wins out, and not only because the movie ends with a literal unmasking, latex pulled from a face. The movie does indeed document the spectator’s inability to act, though even here its procedure is basically satirical, in a manner that depends on our memory of other heroes having once done something, a memory counterposed to which postmodernity will register not as a schizoid intensity but only as a vacuity. Check your Jameson: The movie’s parody isn’t all that blank, because its very genre provides a set of expectations against which its innovations will be judged. But even beyond this, Body Double seems dedicated to the idea that certain forms of agency remain available even in the society of the spectacle. The movie’s hero doubles himself—he is both spectator and actor—and then this pairing is itself in some sense doubled, because spectator and actor both come in a second version that we could call juridical or epistemological, and not just inactive or image-consuming. There has after all always been an affinity between the spectator and the detective, with the latter now understood as the-one-who-watches, the one who arrives on the crime scene like an apparition, pledged to leave no mark, to pollute no object, to minimize the observer effect by leaving the murder bed unmade. To this we need merely append the observation that performer-cops are also a familiar species, called “narcs” or “undercover agents,” and that acting, too, can be a form of information gathering. Body Double does to this extent grant its cipher a certain limited effectivity, within the bounds of acting and spectating, as gumshoe and mole. The once corrosive insight that the detective is like a voyeur is thus replaced by its opposite, a reminder that the detective functions might in fact survive, that epistemological and moral purpose can still be roused from within the position of the spectator.

This last is a point to be made at the level of genre as a whole. But we can make a few similar observations if we start calling out the titles of specific movies, or at least of one specific movie. For Body Double’s relationship back to Rear Window also contains its own historical argument. De Palma updates his Hitchcock in one absolutely crucial way: In the later movie, the spectator-hero is meant to see the murder, which is to say that his spectatorship has been factored in in advance. We can think of the matter this way: Rear Window was still easily explained within the usual Enlightenment paradigm of truth and knowledge, the magical version of which is the usual stuff of crime stories, in which once the solution is announced and the murderer identified, everything automatically sets itself to right: culprits march themselves off to jail, widows and fatherless children return to their business suddenly unbereaved, &c. Hitchcock had some good questions to put to that paradigm, epistemological questions, for one—about whether one really knows what one thinks ones knows—and also psychoanalytic questions—about the relationship between the knower and the peeper and hence about the sneaky way in which desire rides in on knowledge’s back. De Palma, however, radicalizes this scenario by inventing a murderer who wants to be seen, a murderer, in other words, whose plans depends on the existence of a manipulated witness. The shift from Hitchcock to De Palma thus secretes a certain periodization, marking out the difference between a society in which the media exercise independent oversight functions over the government and other major actors, like corporations, and a society in which government and corporations have already reckoned the cameras into all their calculations and so incessantly stage themselves for the public, which means that watchdogs are called upon only to play an already scripted role. Body Double is really and truly a meditation on that condition, but within the narrow parameters of the thriller.

This brings us to the big point: There was always something unresolved in Jameson’s postmodernism argument, and especially in his claim that postmodern culture tends to jettison historical thinking. It’s not just that narrative forms are never going to be able to revert back to some zero degree of history-less-ness, though that’s also true. The issue is rather that Jameson was making two claims that are finally rather hard to square with one another: that under names like “retro” and “vintage,” postmodernism revived the copycat historicism of the nineteenth-century art academy … and also that it wasn’t a historicism. The best chance you’ve got of making this argument work is by making it accusatory, because you have to be able to say that postmodern historicism isn’t really historical, that it is fake history, history reduced back to image or consumer good, just so many styles for the donning, as when the ‘50s mean Formica and the ‘70s Fiestaware. Sometimes that blow is going to land. But if you’re doing anything other than designing your kitchen—if you’re making a movie or writing a novel or metering out a poem—the citations you introduce will often be, not an aping farrago, but their own path to chronology, an exercise in temporal counterpoint or Ungleichzeitigkeit, a dozen arrows pointing us outside the present, and so a request that we resume the project of historical thinking only just terminated.

Postmodernism Is Maybe After All a Historicism, Part 2


The question I’ve been asking myself is: Can you make a movie about postmodernity? Or rather: Can you make a postmodern movie about postmodernity? Can you make a movie about a historical period in a style that isn’t designed for recording history? And our hunch has got to be no. An artwork that is postmodern should not be able to register its own postmodernity, should not be able to draw attention to what is historically novel about its own condition.

Such, then, is the unexpected interest of Brian De Palma’s Body Double, from 1984—that it might be the movie that invites us to revise this conclusion. Jameson was able to show how historical thinking runs dry even in a novel, Ragtime, that on the face of it seems fully and commitedly historical. The task now is to reverse this procedure by scanning postmodernism’s amnesiac mediascape to see what historical signposts have escaped unflattened within it. If we set out from the idea that postmodernism isn’t just a mistake—if we posit, perhaps just as a thought experiment—that it is on some level a faithful report on lives lived out in the society of the spectacle, then we should be able to discover, amidst its intertextuality and in jokes and obligatory ironies, a descriptive or materialist moment. Once you’ve said that postmodernism elevates meta-fiction to the status of realism, you can, if you choose, read even meta-fiction as realist.

Body Double, I would grant, is not a movie that anyone would spontaneously describe as reportage—a movie, rather, so fully of the early ‘80s that you can’t even summarize its plot without pointing out how goddamn postmodern it all is. You call from the pulpit that postmodernism went in for citations or flaunted its unoriginality … and I’ll respond that Body Double is a Hitchcock vs. Hitchcock mashup of Rear Window and Vertigo. You call that postmodernism erased the line between high art and low … and I’ll say that Body Double has a naked lady where Grace Kelly used to be. It’s the movie, in other words, that cemented De Palma’s reputation as his generation’s trash Hitchcock. And so here’s what Rear Window would look like if its title were a dirty pun: An out-of-work actor is given a place to stay in Los Angeles by a new friend, another actor who’s going to be out on the road doing repertory work. Each night he’s in this new place he watches a woman in a building across the way strip down and put her hand between her legs, and before long he realizes she’s in trouble: a man she knows is pushing her around, plus someone else seems to be watching her, too. The actor, fascinated and feeling responsible towards his masturbating neighbor, starts following the woman around, whereupon he discovers that the other voyeur is also on her tail. He approaches her, reaches out, tries to talk, but can’t get through. The third night in, he is stuck watching as Voyeur #2—an oversized Chicano fella who looks something like Danny Trejo without the moustache—breaks into her apartment and murders her with a jackhammer. He reports this all to the police, who don’t suspect him of the crime, but still denounce him for a pervert. Then comes a chance clue: Stanching his grief with porn, the Tom notices a stripper-starlet doing the same distinctive, clam-happy dance he’d seen out his window and realizes that something isn’t right, that there must have been two women where he’d thought there was only one. So he pretends to be a porn actor in order to gain access to the actress; and then, once close, pretends to be a porn producer in order to get her alone and ask her some questions, whereupon it all falls into place. He’s been set up: His new friend—the other actor—hired the porn star to grind in that lit window, the idea being to keep his gaze fixed on the facing apartment so that he would see “the Indian” kill the woman—the other woman; the real woman—and the police wouldn’t suspect the actual culprit, who is of course the hero’s friend. What our guy doesn’t work out until the last minute, during a brawl over an open grave, is that there is also no Indian, because the murderer was really just the new friend in blame-the-darkie brownface.

One of the things that is most likeable about Body Double is that it is fully pretending to be stupid, which makes it in this one respect not like the Tarantino movies it otherwise resembles, since these always pause to parade their intelligence. De Palma’s movie you could get through convinced only of its tastelessness. There is, however, a spoofiness to the thing—a preoccupation with its own movie-ness—that indicates a secondary program beyond the baring and butchering of flesh. All I mean to say is that Body Double never lets you forget that you are watching a movie, and this more than anything has earned it the tag “postmodern.” It begins and ends on a movie set; its first line is spoken by an unseen director, which might be enough to make newcomers watching it on DVD think they’ve accidentally turned on the commentary track; a grand old deco hotel on Hollywood Boulevard is filmed to look like Dracula’s castle; when characters drive, the movie has them in stationary cars against back projections, such that one begins to hallucinate Doris Day in the passenger’s seat; the early-morning window in one shot, its light still without tint or hue, might be an old black-and-white movie thrown up onto yet another screen; when two characters kiss outdoors, the movie shifts from live background to a washed out rear projection of same; the opening credits are all bucket-of-blood, creature-feature retro-sleaze, like something off the cover of a Cramps album.

So there it is—some of the evidence that this is meta-film. The standard line on this would frame its point in epistemological terms: The movie is giving us a crash course in skepticism, teaching us not to mistake representations of objects for the objects themselves or at least taunting us for our compulsive committing of that error. Characters wander out in front of painted backdrops, gesso-and-canvas mountains with the real San Gabriels still visible in the background, when of course by “real” I mean “filmed,” which is precisely the correction the movie is demanding that I make: Be careful what you call real. The stylistic tricks have an utterly straightforward relationship back to the plot, because the movie’s viewers and its hero are in the same position—just so many watchers. The character has to work out that what he’s watching is just a staging—he’s been duped—and the movie is constantly reminding us of the same point—that we are suckers to what we see—but our version of that point comes in a radicalized form, since the character, at least, is allowed a moment of genuine insight; allowed, that is, to look behind the curtain and encounter there something he can call truth. He has solved a mystery. But if we’ve twigged to the movie’s games, then we will have to conclude that even this insight—this uncovered reality—has been scripted and staged … for us … by a movie. We never get to go back behind or to the bottom of anything.

This, again, is the standard line, and it comes in one major variation, which is ethical, in which case you might conclude that you are fixated on images not because you’re a philosophical realist but because you’re a reprobate. It is, indeed, one of Body Double’s many charms that it silently classes positivists among the debauched. The main character is, of course, caught out as voyeur, and since the movie goes out of its way to establish the correlation between him and us—as people who hang about in dark rooms watching other people go about their business—then we are sooner or later bound to realize that we are his accomplice and co-ogler, just one of the title’s many doubles. “You’re a peeper,” the cop tells him, therefore you. “In my book, that’s a pervert and a sex-offender”—which is one way to make clear to viewers that their sincere concern for the woman at the moment of her killing—their wanting to call out to her, their wanting her to escape the murderer’s clutches—was messily entangled with their delight at having had a good look at her nipples. De Palma, it should be noted, saves the movie’s most salacious softcore shots for the movie’s very end, by which point the viewers can consider themselves thoroughly pre-accused. Either way, though, whether we follow the epistemological line or the ethical one, we get to say that Body Double is a movie about movies and that this vitiates cinema’s usual reality effect … brackets its referentiality … voids the claim, implicitly made by nearly every film, to be about something other than movies.

Now that line works as far as it goes, but it’s not enough. Body Double is about a spectator who gets involved in the events he’s been watching—this is what it most shares with Rear Window. And that meditation on spectators—on what it means to be part of an audience, on the limitations and obligations of that position—is certainly what makes the movie meta-. But it simultaneously introduces into the film a certain unconventional realism, because “the spectator” is not an already established movie type, not a cowboy or a gumshoe or a rogue cop. In the place of these heroes, all of them more or less mythical, the movie has inserted someone pathetically like us, somebody whose first impulse is always to stand and stare and only belatedly to punch someone. Body Double’s project is to take the spectator and make him the hero in a crime thriller, on the understanding that the spectator is a historically novel and rather alienated social position, truncated, passive, precisely not heroic. The movie is to that extent calling out genre film on its basic lie or paradox: Most blockbuster movies present us with a world bustling with dynamic people, mostly men, riding in, rumpusing, getting ‘er done, and yet even this incessant display of intact heroism, far from modeling for us a masculinity we can adopt in turn, will tend to make of us only bystanders. Most movies expect us to lionize the Deed from a position of mass immobility, lined up in inert rows.

Body Double wants to tackle this problem head on. How would a genre film have to change if it took as its raw material the real human stuff of the present? Or more broadly: In the society of the spectacle, in which we are all onlookers, how does anything ever get done? The movie’s spectactor-hero registers to this extent as an intrusion from the real world, such that we might just about conceive of the film as a Purple Rose of Cairo in reverse—or as a sinister Pleasantville—a movie, that is, in which someone from the audience has crawled magically onto the screen and has to shuck-and-jive his way through whatever role John Travolta has just vacated. De Palma’s most inspired move, back in 1983, was simply to cast a bad actor in that part, or if you like, to miscast a bit player in a starring role—an actor more typically associated with one-off appearances on LA Law or Murder, She Wrote, a bonier Bill Maher, we might say now. This is the movie’s most specifiable intrusion, its most overt tampering with your complacent expectations: The schmo is occupying a role that you had thought would go to someone else—Harrison Ford, maybe, or Michael Douglas—not, at any rate, to one Craig Wasson. You could call the character one of Hitchcock’s ordinary men, but then you’d still have to make clear: He’s really ordinary … and not just Cary Grant standing in for average.

The movie’s first order of business, then, is to take its hero and establish him as a schlemihl and human yo-yo. Some of its devices are entirely conventional: He gets fired, discovers his girlfriend cheating on him, is variously dogged and dressed down. The problem with setting a movie in LA is that there are no rain puddles for taxis to splash on a sad sack’s best suit. One of its devices in this regard is moderately interesting: During a guided memory at an acting lesson, he is told to cry out—to wail in what is in some complicated way his own voice—and he can’t do it … can’t find the air … can’t even find a sound inarticulate. It’s the sort of shift Jameson would want us to note: from The Scream to the un-scream, from a world of suffering to a world so stage-managed by spectacle that you can’t even holler if it’s not in the script. And then one device along these lines is really very fine: The movie begins with the hero working on a cheap horror movie, as its monster, except whenever it comes time to crawl from the tomb, he seizes up. Within the inherited vocabulary of the drive-in movie, that’s an ingenious image of castration: a vampire who cannot leave his coffin, the undead about to lose its animating prefix, and also an actor who cannot heed the call to “Action!”

And then this now gets at something deep in the movie: The first thing we see in Body Double is nothing happening, and we will immediately want to generalize the point: What’s missing from the movie is die Tat: feats, exploits, interventions. The only thing the hero is good at doing is watching. The movie itself, meanwhile, is at its best when trying to find ways of signaling its hero’s scopophilia, and this in a way that underscores its resemblance to the movie-going that anyone watching the thing is by definition doing right at that very moment. De Palma is so adept at this particular provocation that it can leave you a little contemptuous of Hitchcock, who, one now realizes, was making things easy for himself in Rear Window when he strapped Jimmie Stewart to a chair, dimmed the lights, and then furnished him with a multiplex of illuminated oblongs across the way. The cinematic likeness in those sequences could hardly be more obvious. But De Palma gets his hero up off the upholstered seat, puts him on the move, sends him out into the city, following the woman, and still manages to call to mind movie-going, for which he has to find an accordingly more elaborate set of visual approximations. One in particular stands out: The hero follows the neighbor woman to Santa Monica; climbs up to a balcony on a beach house; and then watches while she makes her way down the same house’s lower terraces and then out onto the sand, at which point the balcony he’s standing on reclassifies itself, inconspicuously, as a gallery or theater box. The effect would be easy to miss, except at one point he leans in as though to talk to her from afar, his mouth moving silently to form unspoken words, which is recognizably the behavior of somebody stopping himself from talking to a movie: Watch out. There’s somebody behind you.

If we call that example #1, we can promptly add two more.

2) During that same acting lesson, the hero is telling a story about playing hide-and-seek as a child—or rather he’s re-experiencing the ordeal of a game gone wrong: He’d gotten wedged behind a refrigerator, pinned into his hidey-hole, and was frozen with fear. So yes, hide-and-seek … a discovery game, which is thematically relevant … the movie is what you might call “highly designed.” But more important, the hero is reliving this childhood paralysis and has gone to stone on the classroom stage, and the teacher, trying to snap him out of it, shouts: “You have to act!” What this means is, of course, entirely unclear. The entire scene has been arranged to bring out the everyday paradox of that word in English—“to act”—which means both “to really do something” and “to not really do something.” The voyeur-hero in Rear Window was a photographer by trade, a professional watcher. It is another of De Palma’s small innovations over Hitchcock to make his voyeur an entertainer, somebody who works in front of the camera, and so to allow him to encapsulate the only two social positions that are left to us in the society of the spectacle: the spectator and the performer in one. The epigrams start writing themselves: Acting swallows up the category of the Act. The actor is the one who will never act. In postmodernity, “action” is a type of movie, and an “act” is one third of a play.

3) The movie’s final showdown is an elaborately dry gag. The hero has been tossed into a freshly dug grave, and again his claustrophobia sets in. From this moment on, two things will stand out. First, we get the hero’s POV from underground; he’s looking up at the rectangle of the pit’s opening, which, for no diegetic reason, has been floodlit—lit to white—such that it resembles a blank movie screen, with our guy again in darkness and the killer’s figure looming out from the sky’s fabric. The image has to be understood as a taunt or a warning or a buzzer attached to your theater seat. The cinema is a grave; if you remain a spectator you are going to die. Second, the movie carries its contrivance so far that the hero doesn’t actually contribute to his own survival. At just the moment when you think he is going to absorb the imperative to act and so model for you what it might mean to leap for once from your living room sofa, you and he learning together to shed the passivity of the spectator—a dog appears nearly out of nowhere; jumps the murderer; and pulls him to his death over the face of a dam. The Act puts in one final non-appearance. That sequence condenses into three short shots one of the things about this movie that is hardest to get at, which is its rather bracing willingness to disappoint. For Body Double is, by most of the usual standards, a pretty lousy crime thriller: a collection of set pieces variously abridged and aborted, resolved to perform upon itself and at the level of genre the castration that it laments in what for structural reasons alone I persist in calling its hero. Try to imagine a Dirty Harry movie in which Clint Eastwood had been replaced by an inanimate object, a box elder, say, or a chaise lounge.

And yet it is this very badness that is the movie’s best thing—its carrier of history—its invitation to memory …


Postmodernism is Maybe After All a Historicism, Part 1

Can you make a movie about postmodernity?

That probably sounds like a pretty stupid question. The scholars who first proposed the term “postmodernity” wanted it to mean something like the Age of Developed Capitalism, the global and all-consuming version, driven by its own distinctive and world-transforming technologies—long-distance communication, the media, computers, the Internet—and facing no obvious competitors. One clarification is immediately required: These scholars—Frederic Jameson, mostly—thought of postmodernity not as breaking with capitalism’s basic and long-term trends but precisely as intensifying them, which intensification we will begin to register if we simply list some of the things that have gone missing over the last half century: socialism, organized anti-imperialism, nature, the Left—capitalism’s historical rivals, in other words—the various attempted counter-modernities. This means that the term “postmodernity” was always something of a mess and bound to spread confusion, because on most accounts capitalism is one of modernity’s chief features—in lots of contexts, the word “modern” is a near-synonym or even euphemism for “capitalist”—in which case “postmodern” actually means something like “fully modern” or “hyper-modern.” Postmodernity comes after lots of things, but modernity isn’t one of them.

Now if you accept that periodization, the question, again, is going to seem pretty pointless. The word “postmodernity” is a way of naming our present and of marking out some of its more salient features. And since most movies are unselfconsciously set in the present—and since all of them engage with the present even when set in the past or the future or in unreal worlds with made-up histories—they are all to that extent “about postmodernity.” Maybe you take the word “postmodern” to mean something more bounded; maybe it inevitably calls up for you memories of 1982 and the first time you heard Cabaret Voltaire; but then there are movies for you, too, movies about the years when people started describing themselves as postmodern, movies that work to produce “the Eighties” as an object of historical scrutiny or puzzlement: The Squid and The Whale, say, and especially Donnie Darko.

I still think the question is a viable one, but it is up to me to explain why. One of postmodernity’s most pronounced features has been what Jameson calls “the cultural turn.” The argument here follows on from Debord and Baudrillard. Commercial media and the new technologies have created a world that is, to a historically unprecedented degree, saturated with “culture”—completely soaked with images and stories and music. This suggests an unusual process of de-differentiation, in which “culture” is no longer a special realm unto itself, governed by its own institutions, with its own rules and idioms (museums, libraries, philosophical aesthetics, &c.), but has become the universal medium for all other spheres—the economy, the law, the state, religion, &c—all of which must now learn to stage themselves, again to a historically unprecedented degree, at the level of image and story.

This “rise of culture” has in some sense meant the end of art—its apotheosis, yes, but also its termination—the end of art, that is, as something to be pursued in redemptive isolation, away from the state and the marketplace. Postmodernism—and we can now, at last, swap out suffixes—arrived as the liquidation of certain valuable aesthetic projects. It had once been the project of realist literature to help us cognize the composite and dispersed social systems of capitalism; realism broke with the experience of everyday life, allowing readers to hold in their heads the complexity of a capitalist city in a way that no person could do spontaneously. Modernism, meanwhile, which is usually thought of as having been consecrated to the New, is perhaps better conceived as a series of failed rescue projects, so many bids to preserve a realm of experience outside of the workplace and the shopping arcade; to get back to the objects so that they might be boosted by the doting armful from the market stalls and boutique vitrines; to give back to choking people their swallowed tongues; to salvage language … and sound … and paint … by reinventing them; to use each Adamically and as though for the first time; to model for us all an expanded realm of freedom, in which persons and objects would exist without function or fixed purpose. Postmodernism marked the collapse of all that—the end of a certain hard-won intelligibility, the end of search-and-rescue—and so the triumph of a generalized market culture.

We can say now that when Jameson started talking about “postmodern art,” what he meant was something like “fully capitalist art”—though he was more cunning than that and would never have put it that baldly. And “fully capitalist art” isn’t quite right anyway, because even postmodern art retained a complex and transitional character, cultivating some minimal allegiance to art’s inherited forms and institutions—paintings hung in galleries, long novels published by prestige presses—while nonetheless opening these latter up to Hollywood and rock & roll and comic books and advertising. What we witnessed in postmodernism was not, in this sense, the final abandonment of art—not the old avant garde’s rather more liberating fantasy of actually burning down the museums, thereby forcing artists to paint the streets—but a process still visibly underway and captured in freeze-frame—commercial culture’s ongoing expansion into the regions of its former quarantine. Marilyn vanquishes the naiads.

Another quick way to get a handle on what was going on in postmodern art is to imagine that it all began with a realist operation. Even impeccably realist novelists would, if trying to itemize the everyday life of contemporary North Americans, have to register the massive presence of the media in the lives of such people and so introduce into their realism the shadow world of television and the Internet, codes and whispers and images and memes, all taken now as social facts in their own right, at which point the accustomed distinction between realism and meta-fiction would become untenable, because postmodernity promotes meta-fiction to the status of realism. The least realistic thing about most horror movies is that, when the beasties attack, no-one shouts: “This is just like a horror movie”—which is, of course, the very first thing you or I would say. There is no getting around the Realm of Appearance; everything travels through it. The hallmark of High Postmodernism, then, at the level of style, was its commitment to the Code or to Seeming, not to seeming this way or that way, but to seeming as such; its wholly deliberate and upfront play with media images; its bracketing of the world’s objects; its bracketing, too, of what in other circumstances we might have called self-expression; its sense that we are all living in an enclosed videodrome where the signs will ever chatter.

What Jameson wanted to do, back in 1983, was lay out a certain trade off. It’s not that postmodernism didn’t have its pleasures. Postmodern art offered its admirers a sequence of free-floating and discontinuous intensities—this was its delight and its achievement—though we’ll want to note right away that such an achievement basically repeated the experience of channel surfing or listening to FM radio. The problem as Jameson saw it was this: Anyone wanting to pursue these joyous shavings or shards of vividness would have to give up on some of our older ways of trying to make sense of the world—entire vast and intricate modes of historical or structural understanding. For a while there, Jameson was especially drawn to aesthetic artifacts where you could actively experience the swapping of intelligibility for schizoid intensity, where you could sense some inherited expectation of understanding being violated and then feel that ticklish vertigo or camp sublimity creep in behind: great big buildings that make no effort to orient their visitors, that cheerfully allow guests to get lost in them, the luxury hotel as corn maze; historical novels in which the past is never properly retrieved, never allowed to march in review, in which distant events keep slipping away from readers until they realize finally that they are stuck in the present.

It’s that last we’ll want to hang on to: Postmodernism gave up on historical thinking and sometimes seemed to give up on narrative as such. Of course Marx was making the point as early as the 1860s that capitalism made it hard to think historically, simply by introducing into our daily lives an unprecedented degree of social complexity and so blocking our customary understanding of where objects come from. Factory production and long-distance trade fill our lives with mysterious things. And Lukács, similarly, was trying as early as the 1920s to describe an order in which commodities were entirely “constitutive of … society,” in which “the commodity structure [penetrated] society in all its aspects and [remolded] it in its own image”—a society, that is, in which capitalism had completed its historical mission to rob us of our bearings. That’s Jameson’s postmodernism, and there is a certain tone you need to hear in his argument, as though spoken back to Lukács: You thought you had it bad… Surely the sharpest bit of literary criticism that Jameson has ever written are those three pages on Doctorow’s Ragtime in the landmark postmodernism essay: “This historical novel can no longer set out to represent the historical past; it can only ‘represent’ our ideas and stereotypes about that past (which thereby at once becomes ‘pop history’).” There is high drama in that sentence—postmodern ahistoricism comes crashing in to historical thinking’s last literary redoubt—though Jameson could have made matters easier on himself, since there was a whole string of straightforwardly anti-historical novels published between the late ‘60s and the early ‘90s, novels about professional historians and history teachers who abandon the practice of history, who conclude that historical knowledge has decisively eluded them: Grass’s Local Anaesthetic (1969), Swift’s Waterland (1983), Updike’s Memories of the Ford Administration (1992), Gass’s Tunnel (1995). There’s no mistaking what’s going on in those novels. Doctorow, on the other hand, you could misread as Walter Scott with an oddly clipped prose style.

So the question I really want to ask is: Can you make a postmodern movie about postmodernity? And that isn’t a stupid question because the term postmodernity is fully historical in a manner that is inimical to postmodernism itself. What we’ve been asking is: Can you make a movie about a historical period in a style that isn’t designed for recording history? And our hunch has got to be no. An artwork that is postmodern should not be able to register its own postmodernity, should not be able to draw attention to what is historically novel about its own condition.

More soon, because I think I’ve found the movie that fits the bill….