Sep 5, 2011

Is Close Encounters post-modern? (Are you?)

"Is Close Encounters of the Third Kind the first and greatest work of postmodern art?" asks Jonathan Jones, on his Guardian blog:—
What makes me call this film "postmodernist"? Partly it is the homely suburban world where Spielberg sets his story. American films have a long heritage of adventure. Big films before this tended to be set in big places with big characters – but Richard Dreyfuss plays a nobody who lives in nowhereseville to whom something weird happens. In high art, postmodernism was the moment when the idea of the avant garde as a radical movement – rejecting conventional society and pushing perception forward into an ever more ambitious vision of the new – collapsed. The lofty idealism of a Rothko was suddenly unconvincing to advanced artists. The idea of artists as prophets or priests was abandoned. Artists were not special and neither was art. This was above all an American moment, for it was in America in the 1950s and 60s that modernism attained its loftiest heights and shaped a national culture, from skyscrapers to the space race.
Wow. Who knew? If merely setting your film in suburbia gets you all this, then a lot more things are postmodern than I had hitherto suspected. Most of Spielberg's early movies — not just Close Encounters but E.T. and Poltergeist — as well as the stories of John Cheever, the novels of Richard Yates and John Updike, the paintings of Edward Hopper, Charles Schulz's Peanuts... I always thought you had to do a whole lot more work to qualify as a postmodernist — feature your insides on the outside, like the Pompidou centre, or else make a really, really big mess in which the randomness of existence can be discerned, like Jackson Pollock — but I have been unnecessarily strict, denying postmodernity to thousands who could otherwise have enjoyed this benighted state. (And who, frankly, doesn't like to feel self-conscious most if not all of the time, or at least let one's innards out for a walk at weekends?).
Close Encounters marks this same moment in popular culture. Science fiction is a form of modernism. It shares modern art's belief in progress and meaningful change: it proposes a history of the future. 2001, the great modernist science fiction film, actually creates a model of history in which we evolve as a species under alien guidance. By contrast, Close Encounters does not offer any sense of history or progress or any theory as to what the alien encounter means. It is rooted in everyday suburbia and the revelation that unfurls is beyond understanding. In fact, it does not feel right to call it "science fiction" at all, for it refuses the genre's rationality.
If I am following Jones correctly, Close Encounters is postmodern because it is to science fiction, what post-modernity was to modernity: a refusal of its efforts toward rational understanding. Now, I repudiate my wife's efforts toward understanding all the time, but had no idea that made me post-modern. What are the perks that come with my new status?
Postmodernism anticipated the fall of the Berlin Wall, the fall of communism, and a world with a single superpower: a global, American, suburban culture. But as soon as those things came to pass at the end of the 1980s, art moved on again, imaginations railed at the supposed complacency of postmodernism and turned once more to grand themes of death, history and mourning.
It's great, that "anticipate". And there you were thinking that all I did was predate the fall of the Berlin Wall, or co-exist contemporaneously with American global supremacy. No. I anticipated both of those big boys. Both having now passed, I moved on again, railing at the supposed complacency of postmodernism — supposed, a-holes! — and allowed the grand themes of death, history and mourning to find their ugly mugs reflected in my impassive Koonsian chrome surfaces. Deal with it, non pomo mofos!

No comments:

Post a Comment