Thursday, January 24, 2013

The weaknesses of post-modern literature and film, and a way out of it

For me, what has been labeled "post-modern" is really just a reshuffling of the referents of modernism. Classically, the problems with modernism have been that it attempts to create a totalizing field of meaning, done with the help in literature and film of references to assumedly shared background material that it draws on, for instance the Greek, Roman, and Renaissance classics in literature. While T.S. Eliot wanted people to be familiar with the western cannon to really understand his poems, the post-modernists do the same thing, only their referents are cultural and obscure, and instead of putting the unified, totalizing, structure out there in front of people it sits implicitly in the background of the apparently structureless chaos, whether it's on the page or on the screen.

A person still has to be very literate in order to understand post-modern creations, indeed they may have to be more literate in order to understand the implied meaning, but the type of literacy is simply different. We haven't gotten away from totalizing meaning, we've just rearranged it. A great example of how this is comes from Dusan Makavejev's truly post-modern "Sweet Movie".

"Sweet Movie" is a masterpiece in its own right, but although very little of the symbolism is overtly explained, a person has to be highly literate within the realms of the history of Eastern Europe during the Soviet era to really understand almost anything that's happening, among other topics. The "ship of socialism", a literal ship staffed by a revolutionary who, sailing down the channels of either Amsterdam or another, similar, city, picks up a sailor from Kronstadt, a city famous for its sailor's working class revolt against the Bolsheviks, then acts out scene after scene that in unspoken symbolism look at the relationship of the professional revolutionaries to the working class. In the middle of all of it you have scenes like documentary footage of the discovery of the Katyn massacre in Poland, briefly identified and then followed by a shot of blood being poured out of a vessel onto a table, with the words 'These things we shall never talk about' (loose paraphrase).

Now, the meaning of those two shots, of the footage of Katyn, the blood, and the phrase, is at least partially this: the Katyn massacre was committed by the Soviet occupation forces in Poland in the wake of the invasion of Poland by the Nazis. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, or the Hitler-Stalin pact, take your pick, had a secret clause that said if the Nazis invaded western Poland the Soviet Union could occupy eastern Poland. They did, and they rounded up a large part of the Polish officers' corp and executed them, the Katyn massacre. Now, the massacre was denied for a long time as being nothing but Nazi propaganda. It was the Nazis who, in declaring war on the Soviet Union and now occupying eastern Poland as well as western Poland, found the bodies and presented it to the world, ironically to show how barbaric the Soviet Union was.

Yet, according to my understanding, as someone who's an American, the massacre during the Communist days in Poland became a symbol of Soviet oppression, a symbol of exactly what Makavejev put in his scene: that which cannot be talked about, but which everyone knows has occurred.

Now, all of that is what's assumed that the viewer knows, for just those two shots, located within the much longer set of "ship of socialism" sequences, that go throughout the whole movie, and make up one of the main strands of it. Quite a lot of background, right? That's why I argue that post-modernism doesn't truly get away from the totalizing tendencies of modernism, and that in certain cases because of the ambiguity put on the viewer through the lack of clear identification of symbols it might be even more totalizing than a modernist experience itself, despite the apparent chaos.

So what's a possible solution, a "true" post-modernism, as the case may be? I think that the strategy of magical realism offers a potential out, in that if totalization is a problem, then leaving the ultimate scope of meaning open is a way to address it....and fantasy, by its very nature, leaves meaning open instead of putting a locked box on it. The magical realists address the problem of referents by creating their own, new, ones, in the process of making their stories, drawing not solely on cultural references themselves but on the basis by which cultural references are formed. Through creating the necessary referents as we go, while of course drawing on some common cultural knowledge, we can break out of the trap of being bound by a series of already given meanings that we take as comprising a total field of meaning as a whole.

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