Pulp Fiction posters are out. Telling your friends you love them is in.
I think somewhere along the line, it became cool to be detached and self-aware. Film theorists call this phase of metatextual art postmodernism. This type of cinema breaks down typical narrative structure and conventional characterization. It plays off of the audience’s suspension of disbelief, meaning it does not revel in a world that is defined by war, revolution, economy, but rather in media culture. According to The Atlantic, Postmodernist film is interested in contradiction, fragmentation, and instability.
Okay so, what does this mean for—as the kids say—the culture?
Well, without postmodernism in comedy, we wouldn’t have dank memes, which are by nature postmodern: ironic and self-conscious.
What are dank memes for the parents in the back?
Dank memes are memes that make fun of other memes. It’s a postmodernist approach to comedy, liking something for how awfully unlikable it is. Really, your grandpa invented dank memes decades ago with the “why did the chicken cross the road” joke, but we’ll give it to Twitter for the sake of consistency.
Is something so awful it’s actually funny what we still want, or dare we try to actually be funny? The New Sincerity film movement might be trying to answer that. And so, begins, post-postmodernism.
For all those folks as confused as I was when I first learned about new sincerity in film, let me try to break it down for you.
What the hell is post-postmodernism? Post-postmodernism is heavy, film-buff talk for bringing a little sweet purity back to the screen and leaving some teenage angst irony at the door.
A simple example of post-postmodern media that might be easier to digest is Glee. To sum it all up, an article titled “Sincerely Ours” in Wired mentions Rachel Berry, our favorite diva, proclaiming, “there is nothing ironic about show choir” in the pilot episode. So Rachel Berry birthed New Sincerity? Not exactly. But as the article explains, sincerity is in, and irony is out.
Post-postmodernism is a laissez-faire type of “anything goes” when it comes to what we see on screen, so long as it is “pure” or “real.” Sure, throw a handful of 20-somethings playing high school kids in a classroom and let them sing. Sure, make a human fall in love with a vampire and a werewolf, then give it a franchise. So long as it just is. Not could be this or should be that, but just is. Like Angela Watercutter for Wired points out, “It seems a generation of ironists is finally running out of steam.” The days of sneaking off on Monday nights to guilty-binge The Bachelor are long gone. Guilty pleasures are totally normalized and mainstream — or in Twilight’s case — $300-million-dollar franchises (nothing about that number is ironic.)
Why the change?
Who knows. Some point to the geeky-but-cool fad of even the popular kids liking comic books and wearing knee-high socks with flooded jeans as the culprit. Others like Jesse Hawthorne Ficks, a film professor at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, are just plain exhausted of outsmarting the movies. She writes for Wired that “There was this very strong sense in the ’90s of irony, of everyone being in the theater and being really ironically funny, and [thinking] that they were smarter than the movie…. It just seems played out to me.”
To be fair, without postmodernist film, we wouldn’t have a culture of media that hangs its hat on subjective perspective and signs and means. And maybe without this unapologetically aware lens for film, we wouldn’t be able to move toward this new sincerity of saying what we mean and meaning what we say in our mediums.
David Foster Wallace, the man cited for coining the term “New Sincerity” and breaking down his definitions of what it means for film and other media, says that the new “rebels” will be ones “who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction.” He even goes so far as to say these rebels will be outdated before they even begin, and maybe this is what makes them the “real rebels.” I’m not sure how much The Bachelor upholds this rebellious nature, but there is definitely something to be said for a changing landscape that dares to just put content on the screen, not wiggle around and hide it in the subtext.
Not everything is so black and white. Ironic or sweet. Some films fall in between, a lot like most people do, which in my opinion makes them even more post-postmodern and closer to truth. Take for example the film Lady Bird. The main character embodies angst: a suburban white girl with big dreams centered in the big city. She is bumbling and charming and repulsive and naïve. She embodies postmodernist film with detached yet ironically invested persona. She is smarter than her parents. Her classmates. All of Sacramento and everyone in the movie theatre. And at points this gets as nauseating as what Fick describes as 90s irony. Except, where Lady Bird crosses an interesting intersection is poking fun at postmodernism and its detached irony while presenting us with this character and this movie that in its presentation is postmodern.
No spoilers, but Lady Bird makes a transition that I think marks the same transition that film is taking. Drowning in her angst and last night’s alcohol poisoning, she comes to terms with this obstacle that makes new sincerity in film possible: feelings. She calls her family. Standing alone in America’s biggest city, she leaves a voicemail. She realizes that it is okay to care and have these feelings about what her life is and who she is without falling victim to melodrama. Lady Bird’s monologue on her parents’ answering machine, to me, sits cozily on the corner of sweet moments and ironic imagery — an intersection I think we will all be seeing more of in film and can already see from filmmakers like Wes Anderson and Sophia Coppola.
I guess now it’s cool to drop the cynicism and pick up on the sweet. I hope we continue. Because frankly, we should stop being ironic and thinking that makes everything edgy. Let’s try genuineness?Lady Bird did and scored a nomination for Best Picture.
Try telling a joke and getting a laugh because it’s funny, not because it’s so horribly unfunny. Self-aware anti-comedy is so 90s, and not cute Jennifer Aniston 90s. It’s robotic and stagnant.
Film isn’t about being ironically detached and above it all. Film is about humanity, and it’s okay for humanity (preferred, even) to be genuine.
One last question, then class is dismissed: why does any of this matter?
Being angsty is kind of lame. Especially in film where we’re working toward better understanding ourselves through this universal experience called life. Life is film. And film is about storytelling, and storytelling is necessary for humans to make sense of their world. So let’s try being straightforward with our storytelling and stop making people so uncomfortably distant from humanity. There’s something innately human about sincerity, and there is something human about stories on screen. And I think it’s okay to have both together. Maybe it even makes us rebels! Yawn.
Jordan Szymanski is a first-year Writing for Film, TV, and Emerging Media major who unironically loves white-text Facebook mom memes. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.