Postmodernism in Film

Films often use aspects of postmodernism; whether they use postmodern film technique (editing, whip pans, camera zooms, nontraditional transitions etc.) or if they reference classic postmodern ideas. Postmodern films have three common elements: 1. they utilize homage and/or pastiche to films that came before. An example of something paying homage would be the television show Stranger Things (2016 – ) paying tribute to classic 80’s films like The Goonies (1984) and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), the Duffer brothers mimicked some iconic shots from those films because they inspired them. Pastiche imitates the style of other films, for example Brian de Palma’s Obsession (1976) is a pastiche of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). 2. They are “self-reflexive.” By saying a film is self-reflexive, you are saying that it draws attention to the fact that it is a film, Sunset Blvd. (1950) is an example of this. Finally, 3. They blend high and low brow activities (Woods, 1999).

In this post I will discuss the use of Jean Baudrillard’s postmodern idea of simulation and simulacra and the hyperreal in films. In the introduction to his 1993 book “Symbolic Exchange and Death,” Baudrillard defines simulation:

“Today, the entire system is fluctuating in indeterminacy, all of reality absorbed by the hyperreality of the code of simulation. It is now a principle of simulation, and not reality, that regulates social life… we are now endangered by models.”

Baudrillard explains that there are three orders of simulation, we are in the third. Every order references the order that came before it – so we, in the third order, have a reference point at the end of the second order. The second order, he says, is the only order that what we deem “real” exists; that is the real of production, signification, and consciousness. Each phase is made more and more into a simulation, and every apparatus of simulation gives itself an anterior reference point for the new simulation to build off of (Baudrillard, 1993).

Hyperreality is when you are in an indeterminate state. You are unable to tell the difference between simulation and the “real.” The point Baudrillard is getting at, is that we don’t see the “real.” We’re so influenced by the signs that mass media tell us are real – we see re-presentation instead of presentation (Baudrillard, 1993).

Baudrillard is a very reputable philosopher and many film makers have taken his ideas and drawn on them in their films. Discussing postmodern ideas in film is an outlet for exposing the audience to ideas they don’t (and may not want) to see. For the purpose of this essay, I will discuss three films: Blade Runner (1982), The Truman Show (1998), and The Matrix (1999). All three of these films use Baudrillard’s ideas of simulation and hyperreality – in very literal ways. All three films stress how technology is becoming so advanced, and with advanced technology comes control and power.

Blade Runner is a dystopian film that takes place in Los Angeles California in 2019. The film is about Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a Blade Runner (hunter of Replicant scum) who is tasked with the job of finding and “retiring” four escaped Replicants. Replicants are artificial humans, the Tyrell Corporation says that they are “more human than human” at one point in the film. Replicants aren’t supposed to feel anything, they’re programmed to do their jobs and die (essentially). The Tyrell Corp. discovered that they begin to feel emotions roughly four years after their creation, so they automatically expire after four years. The four Replicants that escaped are just searching for a way to extend their lives. They want to live – which is in essence one of the deepest human desires we possess.

In the end of the film the final Replicant, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), expires before Deckard can kill him. Before he dies, he saves Deckard from falling to his death. Rewind five minutes before and Batty was chasing him and breaking Deckard’s fingers. Why the sudden change of heart? In the original version of the film, Harrison Ford did a voice over as Deckard, he says after Batty pulls him off the edge:

“I don’t know why he saved me. Perhaps, in those last moments, he loved life more than he ever had. Not just his life, anybody’s life. My life.”

That line gives the impression that Batty found in his search for more life he had destroyed others, he’d already killed Tyrell (Joe Turkel) and he fought in a war where he saw such terrifying things, he was already too late and there was no need for another casualty. This, I think, illustrates Baudrillard’s concept of simulation. In order for the simulation to become fully realized it has to have a reference point in the prior apparatus – so in order for Batty to become more than human it has to be human and the one thing Replicants lacked was empathy.

Or he realized that Deckard was a Replicant too. Not only are the characters in this film suspended in hyperreality, the audience it too. The Replicants are so well made that they are indistinguishable from humans, the only way Blade Runners can tell them apart is from the Voight-Kampff test where they look for the Replicant’s lack of empathy. Most Replicants are aware of their status, but some do not know that they are a Replicant – a simulation. Rachel (Sean Young), for example, did not know she was a replicant until Deckard so rudely told her that her memories were actually the memories of Tyrell’s niece. After she found out she escaped so she could live her life freely. The movie makes us wonder if Deckard is a Replicant too. In the 1992 Directors cut we are shown a dream that Deckard has while he is staring at his “family” photos on his piano. A unicorn is galloping through the forest with its fabulous mane flowing in the wind. At the end of the same version, Gaff (Edward James Olmos) places an origami unicorn on the floor outside Deckard’s apartment, which leads us to believe he knew about the unicorn dream (and I don’t think Deckard is the type of guy who goes around telling people he dreams about unicorns), which could mean that he knows Deckard’s memories are fake (Salim, 2008).

The Matrix is a story about how artificial intelligence enslaves the human race and the human’s attempts to take back their lives. This is similar to Blade Runner because the A.I. in both films become equal to humans, while the A.I. in The Matrix aren’t human like – but they are super intelligent. Neo (Keanu Reeves) is a computer hacker who wants to know what the matrix is. He ends up meeting Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and she takes him to Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) where he gives Neo the opportunity to see what is actually going on. Morpheus explains to him that the technology that humans created became too powerful, as a last effort to defeat the A.I. the humans caused a nuclear winter and basically killed the sun so they wouldn’t have solar power. The A.I. just used the humans for fuel instead.

They created a simulation called the matrix. The matrix is the third order of simulation and its reference point was before the war – before the artificial intelligences creation even – in 1999. The computer simulation had everyone hooked up to it thinking they were living in the year 1999, and no one knew any better. That places the matrix in hyperreality, the humans who were in it couldn’t tell that they were. The last human civilization on Earth is a place called Zion, there live the people who have either never been hooked into the matrix or were born in Zion. Many of them are freedom fighters and want to destroy the matrix and free the humans from their entrapment.

The Matrix is a good film to look at when discussing Baudrillard because it obviously uses his ideas, which oddly enough Baudrillard himself disliked. This film took the idea of simulation and used it in its literal and philosophical meaning. It places the characters in a two different orders, one of simulation and one of the real. After the war people were either enslaved or they were not and they were left to form Zion. The humans who were incubated and hooked into the matrix were put into the simulation order – what they believed to be real was actually not. The other order was the “real,” where the people who were not in the matrix, or they chose to leave it, can see what is actually happening. Two conflicting orders stemmed out of one reference point.

The Truman Show is different from the previous movies I’ve mentioned because everybody but Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) is in on the simulation. Truman was suspended in a hyperreal simulation for his entire life. He grew up in it, he didn’t know any better. He was constantly in a controlled environment. There were paid actors surrounding him every day, his “mother,” “father,” and even his “wife” were all fake. He has never known real. Truman’s life is a perfect allegory for the life of an everyday individual.

There is one scene where Truman is picking up a newspaper and a fashion magazine “for the wife” and we see the headline of a newspaper. It says “Who Needs Europe!” Truman wanted to be an adventurer, but the producer of the show kept him from doing that. In an earlier scene the headline on the paper read “Seaside: Best Place on Earth!”

The simulation in The Truman Show is particularly interesting to me. The takes place in present day, the show has been running Truman’s whole life so it probably began in the 60’s. The entire town has a 50’s atmosphere, we see clips of the viewers and we see the technology the producers have to make the show so we know that the world has evolved since the 50’s, but Seaside has not. Truman watches I Love Lucy on TV still. This simulation began based off of 50s culture and didn’t evolve with the rest of the world. I think that has to do with the audience, not Truman. The show was created in the 60’s, when Truman was born, which was a time of social and political turmoil – Vietnam War, civil rights activism, Kennedy assassination etc. The Truman Show distracted American citizens from what was actually happening. It comforted them when the world around them couldn’t. Which means that the show was part of the “real” world’s simulation as well.

The Truman Show is self-referential. We know from the very first sequence that it’s a set, the people are actors and this is a television show. The film uses several different camera angles and shots to remind us, we often see Truman through his bathroom mirror camera, or sometimes the camera has a vignette on it telling us that we are looking through a camera and not a characters POV.

On top of that it blends high and low brow entertainment well. Generally reality TV is seen as low brow. When we think of reality TV we think of Jersey Shore or some show about “real” housewives where all they do is fight. The Truman Show depicts an incredibly sophisticated reality show. It takes place in the world’s largest set, it’s an entire city in a bubble basically. The technology being used is very high tech, as well. They can control the weather and the tides just by pressing a few buttons. We see shots of the viewers all watching the show, they all come from different walks of life and everyone likes the show.

Baudrillard’s idea of simulation is that we, humans in a mass media based society, are stuck in an indeterminate state of what is real and what isn’t. He says “we are endangered by models.” We look up to celebrity icons and we emulate what we see – but what we see is fake – we are manipulated by corporations, and technology has become a large part of our daily lives and we rely on it too much. Blade Runner demonstrates the idea that corporations manipulate us, they created the Replicants, they made them look and act human only to use them as slaves – some Replicants don’t even realize they aren’t human. The Matrix shows us what it would be like if we continue to rely on technology as much as we do (hyperbolic, of course, but so is Baudrillard’s work), technology will inevitably be human’s downfall. And The Truman Show shows us one real person, who is influenced by people around him who he thinks are real but are actually not. They’re paid actors and his entire life is made to emulate the people around him.

Bibliography

Baudrillard, Jean. Symbolic Exchange and Death (Theory, Culture & Society). Sage Publications: 1993.

Salim, Majid, a Study of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Dissertation. Manchester University, 2008.

Woods, Tim. Beginning Postmodernism. Book. Manchester University Press: 1999.

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