Why Movies Don’t Feel Like Movies Anymore: The Rise of Metamodernist Films, and How They Grew Out of Modernism & Postmodernism

Say what you will about Jok­er; it did, at least, feel like a real movie, which is hard­ly true of many, if not most, of the influ­en­tial fea­ture films that have come out since. Yes, they run between 80 and 180 min­utes, and yes, they were screened in the­aters (though increas­ing­ly many view­ers have opt­ed to stream them at home), but despite their often con­sid­er­able enter­tain­ment val­ue, they some­how nev­er quite sat­is­fy. If they feel weight­less to us, even triv­ial — shot through with not just irony and self-ref­er­ence, but also jar­ring laps­es into emo­tion­al kitsch — that must owe in large part to the impres­sion that their cre­ators don’t quite take their own art form seri­ous­ly. Film­mak­ers sure­ly still want to believe in film, but can’t be seen believ­ing in it too strong­ly: this is the dilem­ma of our meta-mod­ern age.

“Just in the year 2022, we saw Nope, which crit­i­cizes spec­ta­cle even as it tries to be one; The Ban­shees of Insh­erin, which is in dia­logue with itself about the val­ue of art; we saw Steven Spiel­berg look­ing back at his own life in The Fabel­mans, and exam­in­ing the role cin­e­ma has played in it for both good and bad — through cin­e­ma.” Thomas Flight names these pic­tures as exam­ples in his new video essay on meta-moder­ni­ty, a term of recent enough coinage to require def­i­n­i­tion from a vari­ety of angles. “It seems like there’s very lit­tle straight­for­ward sto­ry­telling in film any­more,” he says. “Movies are either part of a mul­ti­di­men­sion­al fran­chise or are satir­i­cal, sur­re­al, or absurd. They might con­tain a mul­ti­verse or twists on a clas­sic trope, break sto­ry­telling con­ven­tion, or some com­bi­na­tion of all these things.”

No sin­gle pro­duc­tion pulls as many of these tricks as last year’s Acad­e­my Awards-dom­i­nat­ing Every­thing Every­where All at Once (the sub­ject of a pre­vi­ous Thomas Flight video essay). As much a zeit­geist pic­ture of the ear­ly twen­ty-twen­ties as Jok­er was of the late twen­ty-tens, it shows us where cin­e­ma has arrived — for bet­ter or for worse — after its near­ly cen­tu­ry-and-a-half long jour­ney through mod­ernism, post-mod­ernism, and now meta-mod­ernism. Mod­ernism, as Flight defines it, pro­motes “an objec­tive view of real­i­ty” and “dis­plays spe­cif­ic val­ues, and then unapolo­get­i­cal­ly seems to argue for those val­ues as good and ben­e­fi­cial.” When those val­ues were even­tu­al­ly called into ques­tion, post-mod­ernism arose “to ques­tion the val­ue of nar­ra­tive itself.” Here Flight quotes films like Apoc­a­lypse Now, F For Fake, Blade Run­ner, Blue Vel­vet, Bar­ton Fink, Pulp Fic­tion, sug­gest­ing that post-mod­ernism was very good indeed for cin­e­ma, at least at first.

But “irony, pas­tiche, sur­re­al­ism, and self-reflex­iv­i­ty” inevitably hit the sat­u­ra­tion point; “you can only sub­vert expec­ta­tions so many times before the new expec­ta­tion becomes that expec­ta­tions will be sub­vert­ed, and it all starts to get a lit­tle bit old.” As post-mod­ernism respond­ed to mod­ernism, so meta-mod­ernism responds to post-mod­ernism, attempt­ing to lay claim to the pow­er of both cul­tur­al peri­ods at once. We see this in Quentin Taran­ti­no’s Once Upon a Time… in Hol­ly­wood, as well as most of the oeu­vre of Wes Ander­son — but also in a lot of “swing­ing wild­ly back and forth between mod­ernist sin­cer­i­ty and post­mod­ern decon­struc­tion,” lit­tle of it more con­vinc­ing than the lat­est CGI extrav­a­gan­za extrud­ed by any giv­en super­hero fran­chise. Still, it’s ear­ly day in our era of meta-moder­ni­ty; when its arts reach matu­ri­ty, per­haps we’ll won­der how we ever saw the world before them.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Fos­ter Wal­lace on What’s Wrong with Post­mod­ernism: A Video Essay

Steal Like Wes Ander­son: A New Video Essay Explores How Wes Ander­son Pays Art­ful Trib­ute to Alfred Hitch­cock, Ing­mar Bergman & Oth­er Direc­tors in His Films

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hol­ly­wood Exam­ined on Pret­ty Much Pop #12

How Rid­ley Scott’s Blade Run­ner Illu­mi­nates the Cen­tral Prob­lem of Moder­ni­ty

Niet­zsche and the Post­mod­ern Con­di­tion: A Free Phi­los­o­phy Course by Rick Rod­er­ick

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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