Postmodernism and Film
Postmodernist cinema aims to redefine film through its rejection of definite principles and structures. As cinema has evolved, it has adapted to various artistic modes, one of the most recent being a postmodernist approach. Postmodern elements can be seen to an extent in Beyond the Black Rainbow, a 2010 science-fiction horror film directed by Panos Cosmatos, however, this film fails to capture the spirit of postmodern film. On the contrary, postmodern elements are more evident in Sugar & Spice, a 2001 comedy by Francine McDougall. Through a comparison of Beyond the Black Rainbow and Sugar & Spice, one can see how the postmodern to erase the delineations between what is considered high culture and low culture by focusing on self-reflexivity, intertextuality, syntax based on fragmentation, and the creation of subgenres such as pastiche and altered states.
In “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” Frederic Jameson writes that postmodernism seeks to erase boundaries, especially the boundaries between what is considered high culture and mass or popular culture. Jameson believes that this is achieved through self-reflexivity and intertexuality and writes that postmodern texts “no longer “quote” such “texts” as a Joyce might have done, or a Mahler; they incorporate them, to the point where the line between high-art and commercial forms seems increasingly difficult to draw.” It is in these first two elements that Beyond the Black Rainbow fails to adopt postmodernist conventions. Beyond the Black Rainbow seeks to elevate the film’s narrative and cinematography through the incorporation of abstract and highly artistic images. By doing this, the film does not eliminate the boundaries between high and low art, but rather reinforces them by alienating its audience through its highly artistic approach. In doing so, Beyond the Black Rainbow becomes a modernist film. Andras Kovacs writes that has “its narrative forms are based on interactions unknown or rarely apparent in both classical Hollywood and art cinema because they are based not in physical contact but in different forms of mental responses” (Ford 158). Kovacs continues, “[t]he universe of modernist narratives is the single possible world of classical narratives, but it is essentially uncertain, unpredictable, and incalculable,” a narrative approach that is applicable to Beyond the Black Rainbow. Beyond the Black Rainbow aims to create a unique psychological response without obviously referencing other works of art and film, which may be construed as a failure to be a successful postmodern film, or to at least be intertextual. However, it may be argued from a structuralist perspective that the film’s failure to elicit an immediate response from its audience is based on their unfamiliarity with the 1970s and and horror films that Cosmatos references and was inspired by (Nelson).
On the other hand, Sugar & Spice successfully eradicates the boundaries between high and low cultures, is self-reflexive and incorporates intertexual references into its narrative. The film focuses on a group of high school cheerleaders who plan and successfully execute a bank robbery to help their squad captain who unexpectedly becomes pregnant. Sugar & Spice is highly self-reflexive and makes frequent use of obvious and subtle references to other films and works of literature. It is this intertextuality that allows the audience to understand the inspirations behind the film’s narrative. These references include lyrics by Madonna, literary references to O. Henry, and cinematic references to , Point Break, and the Usual Suspects.
Syntax based on fragmentation is another major element of postmodern film that helps to differentiate it from classical Hollywood narratives (“Postmodernism and Film”). Beyond the Black Rainbow successfully is able to create a fragmented and disorienting narrative through its juxtaposition of its basic narrative with more artistic shots that are representative of the altered states of its characters, specifically Elena and Dr. Barry Nyle. Although the film follows a linear narrative, it is able to create disruptions through sudden and disorienting breaks in the visual narrative that is intended to be representative of the psychological states of the doctor and his patient/hostage. Even in references to the past, Beyond the Black Rainbow introduces them in chronological order beginning by explaining who founded the Arboria Institute in the 1960s to the film’s present in 1983, and the purpose of the institute’s foundation. However, the fragmented syntax of the film is not consistent and only serves to enhance the aesthetics of the film.
On the other hand, Sugar & Spice presents its story through a framed narrative that is similar to the narrative device used in 1995’s the Usual Suspects. The film begins and ends with the cheerleaders being subjected to a line-up with one of the witnesses, who is a cheerleader not involved in the heist itself, but who provides a false police report that allows them to be freed and get away with their crime. Furthermore, the narrative is conveyed to the audience by an unreliable narrator, a cheerleader that wishes to manipulate the police for her own benefit. This fragmented narrative also enables the viewer to see how the cheerleading squad was interpreted.
Postmodern films often make use of specific subgenres to help present their narratives. In the case of Beyond the Black Rainbow, Cosmatos uses the subgenre of altered states to create his narrative. This subgenre uses “drugs, mental illness and technology to provide a dark, often psychedelic, gateway to new internal realities” (“Overview of Postmodern Movies”). Beyond the Black Rainbow uses this theme to drive the narrative and to explain Dr. Nyle’s obsession with Elena and his quest to uncover the source of her telekinetic and telepathic abilities. Furthermore, the film demonstrates how Dr. Nyle was irrevocably psychologically and physically changed after he was immersed in a mysterious black liquid that changed his behavior and led him to murder Elena’s mother shortly before she was born (Beyond the Black Rainbow). One of the only redeeming qualities of this film are its psychedelic sequences that are visually stunning and allow the audience to contemplate the characters’ state of mind.
The most common and most recognizable subgenre of postmodern cinema is pastiche. According to Jameson, “[Pastiche] is the imitation of a peculiar or unique style, the wearing of a stylistic mask, speech in a dead language, but it is a neutral practice of such mimicry.” Pastiche is “self-referential, tongue-in-cheek” and rehashes popular culture (“Overview of Postmodern Movies”). Sugar & Spice uses pastiche to not only engage its target audience but also to bring attention to the hyperviolence and sexuality prevalent in popular films. For instance, Sugar & Spice references Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs through the characters themselves and assigns specific colors to each cheerleader, however, the film takes a light-hearted approach to the assignation of these qualities. For example, instead of Mr. Pink, Mr. Orange, Mr. White, Mr. Brown, Mr. Blonde, and Mr. Blue, the cheerleaders are assigned names such as Mood Swing Betty, White Trash Betty, Stalker Betty, Virgin Betty, and Terminator Betty, each nickname being representative of a quality the character has. The film also references Point Break and uses it as an example of how to carry out a successful bank robbery. The cheerleaders later incorporate the theme of uniform disguise into their heist plans, with the exception of Lucy, a cheerleader who backs out before the heist but joins the group at the last minute disguised as Richard Nixon, the same character that is shown in the Point Break clip in the film. The narrative is structured to resemble the narrative structure of the Usual Suspects. Each of these references functions to propel the narrative forward. Simultaneously, Sugar & Spice is able to provide commentary on the influence of popular culture to the masses. Not only are the characters in the film driven by circumstance in their life, but also they are inspired by the fictional successes of criminals in the films they have seen. In terms of sexuality, the film explores the different avenues by which teenagers are exposed to sexual content, which includes musical lyrics as demonstrated through the recitation of lyrics to “Papa Don’t Preach” by Madonna, a pop culture music icon who has continuously infused her music with sexual themes. The film also makes reference to “The Gift of the Magi,” a short story by O. Henry, which throws a major obstacle into the cheerleaders’ heist plans, which serves to demonstrate that the cheerleaders are not planning a heist out of greed, but because they believe that it will serve a greater purpose, to help provide for an unborn child and help them realize their educational, political, and philanthropic goals in the future.
Postmodernism attempts to bring together different schools of cinema and erase the boundaries that separate them. While Beyond the Black Rainbow attempts to redefine science fiction horror films, its reliance on the visual representations of its characters’ psyches and its art film approach prevents the film to be considered a postmodern film, but rather causes it to fall into the category of modernism. On the other hand, Sugar & Spice successfully captures the spirit of postmodernism through its pastiche, apparent intertextuality, and its commentary on popular culture and themes of hyperviolence and sexuality.
Beyond the Black Rainbow. Directed by Panos Cosmatos. Canada: Magnet Releasing, 2010.
Netflix Streaming. 5 May 2013.
Ford, Hamish. “The Return of 1960s Modernist Cinema.” Studies in Australaisan Cinema. Vol.
5, No. 2., pp. 155-170. Web. 5 May 2013.
Jameson, Frederic. “Postmodernism and Consumer Society.” The Antiaesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Ed. Hal Foster. Port Townsend: Bay, 1983. 111-34. Print.
Nelson, Noah J. “Journey ‘Beyond the Black Rainbow’ with Director Panos Cosmatos.”
Turnstyle. 15 November 2011. Web. 5 May 2013.
“Overview of Postmodern Movies.” OnPostmodernism. Web. 5 May 2013.
“Postmodernism and Film.” iSites. Harvard University. Web. 5 May 2013.
Sugar & Spice. Directed by Francine McDougall. United States: New Line Cinema, 2001. DVD.