Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Postmodernism in Robert Kolker's "CINEMA OF LONELINESS" (3rd edition)

Robert Kolker’s A Cinema of Loneliness (3rd edition) is haunted by three things: Quentin Tarantino, Pulp Fiction, and the ghost of the postmodernist present. Much like the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity, Kolker treats these concepts as three separate entities but really believes they are all manifestations of the same thing. In the introduction to the 3rd edition of his book, Kolker immediately distinguishes the modernist filmmakers he is discussing from the postmodern ones that sprang up in the dozen years between editions. Modernists (like Scorsese, Kubrick, Altman) “cared deeply about film: reacted, alluded, parodied, embraced, and learned from it. Film was a way of articulating the world and their responses to it…” whereas the postmodernist recent filmmakers display an “indiscriminate embrace of pop-cultural images” and “seem to have less a view of the world than simply a view of film” (xiii-xiv). This is, of course, a common complaint about Quentin Tarantino, whose Pulp Fiction is identified here as “the acme of postmodern nineties filmmaking” (249).

Here Kolker is trying to justify why Pulp Fiction was successful while other roughly contemporaneous attempts at bringing postmodern techniques to genre films were not:

“The postmodern insouciance, violence, homophobia, and racism of Pulp Fiction were perfectly acceptable because the film didn’t pretend seriousness and therefore didn’t mock it… But those films that simply mocked or suggested that they were smarter than the audience suffered a postmodern implosion. The audience maintained an independent subjectivity, refused to be shifted into an entirely sarcastic mode, and ignored the films” (281).

The films he cites, Hudson Hawk and Last Action Hero, just weren’t very good, and that is probably the real reason for their failure. However, his comparison of such films to Pulp Fiction reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of postmodernism. Hudson Hawk and Last Action Hero are both merely arch, ironic parodies of the action genre, produced for comedic intent. Pulp Fiction is attempting an altogether more complex proposition.

Pulp Fiction doesn’t ask you to keep your tongue firmly in cheek but rather to give yourself over to its passionate convulsions. As a viewer, we both know that we are in movieland—are able to joke about that fact and allude to the work’s place within film history—and find ourselves lost within the fictional world we are presented. We can know that Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace are recycled archetypes from film noir and yet still be charmed by their not-quite-romance, because it reminds us of ourselves, of situations we’ve been in. Contemporary theorist Steven Shaviro writes in Doom Patrols, “To a postmodern sensibility, there’s no contradiction between cool and hot, irony and passion, playfulness and commitment… or camp distancing and involvement to the point of delirious obsession.” It’s not that postmodernism has overthrown the sincerity of the modernist project for unserious play. The postmodern artist takes modernism at its word and continues the metatextual investigation into the nature of his/her medium, and how fictions interact with each other and the world. The fact that the form these investigations take often become unmoored from the possibility of such designations as ‘realistic’ or ‘believable’ can be scary and threatening to viewers (and critics) who are invested in “the thematics of modernism,” defined by Kolker as “the expression of lost order, a vision of a diminished human subjectivity and agency, a sense of history as loss and melancholia…” (17).

In that same first chapter of Doom Patrols, his “theoretical fiction” about postmodern culture, Shaviro writes, “Postmodernism is distinguished, then, not by any tendency to meditate on ruins and to allegorize its own disappointments; but by a propensity to invent new organs of perception and action.” When Tarantino—as a postmodernist—looks at the past, he doesn’t see a supposed utopia of canonical high art, he sees history for what it is: a series of ruins whose secondhand influence we are still feeling in the present. That’s the real reason why Kolker is so upset with Tarantino, why he continually brings him up in order to criticize him throughout his book. Kolker’s beloved modernists (the subjects of the book) are crying out in loss and trying to make the culture whole again through their films. Tarantino is grabbing things from everywhere and juxtaposing them to show how they are different, how culture is not singular but a multiplicity.

Kolker misinterprets other important elements of postmodern theory when he writes, “The popularity of Pulp Fiction was based on its simulacrum of novelty, and simulacrum, the imitation of something that never existed in the first place, is a beloved quality of the postmodern” (249). The concept of simulacra as it being used here was widely popularized by Jean Baudrillard in his Simulacra and Simulations. As anyone familiar with Baudrillard knows, his work is highly critical of the cultural movements referred to as postmodern, and a simulacrum—which he terms a copy of a copy which “bears no relation to reality whatsoever”—would hardly be “beloved” by him. Baudrillard is filled with the same sort of modernist paranoia that Kolker studies (and is afflicted by), so it’s strange that Kolker would use Baudrillard’s terminology while misinterpreting its intent. Even when he cites a theorist whose work he would do well to absorb, he misinterprets its meaning: he mentions Henry JenkinsTextual Poachers to support his slagging of Tarantino’s whole oeuvre wherein “Pastiche becomes a kind of poaching, and a poaching of surfaces at that” (249). Jenkins’ book is largely about fan fiction and its main thrust is how plagiarism can be an art form.

In the preceding paragraph, Kolker similarly uses the term “pastiche” to suggest that Tarantino is somewhere between unoriginal and plagiarist: “[In Pulp Fiction] The flourishes, the apparent witty banality of the dialogue, the goofy fracturing of temporality are a patina over a pastiche…essentially made of…Mean Streets and The Killing” (249). Strangely, this quote works beautifully as a critique of Tarantino’s earlier film Reservoir Dogs, which is too much a part of a particular genre (the heist film) to engage in the type of textual play Pulp Fiction does. The characters in Reservoir Dogs are all participating in the creation of a closed fictive world, whereas the ones in Pulp Fiction are drawn from a wide pool of genres. The boxing film, the blaxploitation film, the Vietnam veteran film, the hitman and gangster films—all of these are sources for the characters in Pulp Fiction, and the fun comes in watching them bounce off of each other. In setting archetypal characters from different genres off and against each other, the conventions of those genres are exploded. The characters, free from their usual formulas, are set adrift, and through this accumulation and piling-on of simulacra, begin to once again behave sort of like real people.

When Jules tells Vincent, “Let’s get into character”—ending their foot massage conversation so they can go work—he is acknowledging not only that they are hitmen in a movie and that they must now stop talking like Seinfeld characters and start talking like gangsters, but also going beyond metatextual play to make a point about life: most of us, everyday when we go to work, must play the role we are assigned. We aren’t really ourselves when we’re there, and when we walk into our place of work we must “get into character.” Which is why Kolker is wrong when he writes, “That’s why Pulp Fiction was so popular…because the narrative and spatial structure of the film never threatened to go beyond themselves into signification” (250). And he goes too far when he says that because Tarantino is essentially “doing” Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing throughout his first trilogy as a director, “we learn little about a Tarantino aesthetic…and don’t learn much about his three films” (249). Every frame of every Tarantino film is filtered through his aesthetic, that’s how you can tell he’s the one who made it. Kolker is complaining more about the fact that what is revealed about Tarantino by his films is a certain blankness of character—he is a cynical person with a dark sense of humor who experiences life mostly through films—than that nothing at all is revealed by them. Which brings us back to Kolker’s original complaint about postmodernists, that they “seem to have less a view of the world than simply a view of film.”

Throughout Cinema of Loneliness, Kolker has invoked Oliver Stone as a proper and good postmodernist alternative to Tarantino. I believe this assertion is incorrect. Stone is not “[Arthur] Penn’s postmodern double,” (63) which is essentially the premise of the first chapter. Stone is a modernist—he’s just younger than the other ones studied here. In his discussion of Stone’s film of Tarantino’s script Natural Born Killers, Kolker incorrectly credits Stone with “going in directions that leave his sources behind” (65) when he uses a pastiche of film stocks and employs a shot from the point-of-view of a bullet that is very cartoon-like. This is all in Tarantino’s script. The difference is that in his script it is only a celebration of different film stocks and of cartoony camera angles: a riff on form for its own sake, indulging in the propensity for “poaching of surfaces” bemoaned by Kolker. Stone, however, takes the technique back to its roots in modernism, “anchoring it to the body of cinema of which it is a part and by so doing foregrounding its existence as a film, an artifact with a history” (32).

The only other Stone film to consistently use pastiche as a visual technique is JFK, a film whose premise owes a massive debt to postmodern novelist extraordinaire Don Delillo’s Libra. In David Foster Wallace’s essay “E Unibus Pluram,” he writes about a movement in postmodern fiction which “uses the transient received myths of popular culture as a world in which to imagine fictions about ‘real,’ albeit pop-mediated, characters.” Wallace lists Libra, which is a fantasy-version biography of Lee Harvey Oswald, among the chief examples of this form. By taking the concept of Libra—a refraction of the JFK assassination into, in Kolker’s words “an interrogation of the images and narratives of politics… It invites us to imagine alternative fictions” (69)—and then grafting it onto the real world story of Jim Garrison, a man whose head was filled with “alternative fictions,” Stone again takes a postmodern text and drags it back into a modernist sensibility. The point of Libra was that the Warren Report, the Zapruder film, and any other account of JFK’s assassination are just as fictional as a novel. Either Stone missed the point, or Kolker’s interpretation of it does.

Kolker’s complaint about a certain “premise of postmodernism, that the images and narratives of popular culture gather meaning only within the contexts and the reception of popular culture, without the need to test them against any other reality” (69) is moot in this context. The idea is that in a world where a President’s death is experienced as television, there is no reality, only popular culture. This theme is expressed intrinsically in Tarantino’s work. Stone, maybe despite himself, expressed it in Natural Born Killers and in JFK. Kolker does understand it, but that doesn’t mean he has to like it, or let go of his modernist worldview and accept it as a valid artistic statement.

Works cited.

Baudrillard, Jean. Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988): pg. 166.
Kolker, Robert. A Cinema of Loneliness, 3rd edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
Shaviro, Steven. Doom Patrols: A Theoretical Fiction About Postmodernism (Serpent’s Tail High Risk Books, 1997).
Wallace, David Foster. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments (Boston: Little, Brown, 1997): pg. 50

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