One way of understanding the success of postmodernism is to ask what emotional need it satisfies and one need that always needs to be satisfied is the desire to feel smart. To be on the inside. Postmodern shibboleths such as the death of the author and the abolition of meta-narratives satisfy this desire by making it impossible to satisfy. According to principles of postmodernism, there is no authority or font of knowledge that can be used to settle disputes. Nobody gets to quote authorial intensions. Nobody gets to cite historical precedent. Under postmodernism, there are no outsiders because there are no insiders. All opinions have some validity by virtue of the fact that they are opinions. Nobody is excluded. Everyone is smart.
One way of understanding the success of certain genres is to ask what emotional needs they satisfy and one need that always needs to be satisfied is the desire to feel smart. Consider, for example, the spy novel whose Cold War popularity pandered to a desire to understand how global politics really worked once you stripped away the ideological posturing and the camera-friendly photo opportunities at which dead-eyed leaders whorishly proclaimed their desire to “do business” with each other. The same goes for cyberpunk, a literary movement concerned with the lives of the mechanics who operate beneath the selective attentions of the first world’s pampered business-class bourgeoisie in order to keep the great machine of capitalism grinding ever-onwards. However, while these fantasies of knowledge and agency pervade a great many forms and genres, they find their apotheosis in the twists and turns of the caper picture. Films like Dassin’s Rififi (1955), Melville’s Bob Le Flambeur (1956), De Palma’s Mission: Impossible (2001) and Lee’s Inside Man (2006) enjoy a magnificently complex relationship with the societies they are set in. Embodying a blue-collar vision of the examined life, they allow audiences to engage in vicarious fantasies of intellectual and social agency by following the adventures of characters who exists outside of the system whilst also displaying an insider’s familiarity with the workings of that system. The ‘system’ can be represented by a digital universe, the bureaucracy of Whitehall or the mysteries of human psychology but the caper film is always about the guys who know how to work that system: how to be free of it and how to benefit from it.
Rian Johnson’s second film The Brothers Bloom is an attempt to address both solutions to the need to feel smart. Ostensibly a caper picture featuring a gang of colourful conmen, it is also a fiercely ambitious work of postmodernist cinema that seeks not only to deconstruct the caper picture genre, but also those elements that make up the genre of postmodern cinema itself. With targets ranging from the films of Wes Anderson to those of Michael Haneke, Johnson raises a question that cuts to the heart of postmodernism in the arts: Can a work of postmodern art still produce a genuine emotional response?
Bloom (Adrien Brody) and Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) are orphans. Forever moving from one invariably poor foster family to the next, the brothers bloom spend their childhoods on the outside. Locked out of what young Stephen bitterly calls “playground bourgeoisies”. However, while Stephen draws strength from his alienation, younger brother Bloom feels only sadness. He wishes that he was one of the happy kids he sees playing in the park. One day, Stephen stumbles upon a plan that will allow Bloom to spend time with the happy kids whilst netting the brothers some much-needed cash. The plan is an elaborate con. Fast forward a few decades and the brothers Bloom are still con men. In fact, they are the best con men in the world: Bloom is the front-man and Stephen pulls the strings. Strings he weaves into elaborate narratives full of mystery, exoticism and adventure that draw on the mark’s deepest desires and give everyone what they most want. Everyone, that is, except for Bloom. Bloom wants a real life. A life that is not scripted by his brother. A life in which he can be himself and not a role played for the benefit of others. Exit Bloom, Stage Left, Repair to fisherman’s shack in Montenegro with bottle and stubble.
Johnson draws upon the visuals and sounds of films such as Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie (2001) and Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) and Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) to create the portrait of a group of people that are a little bit too colourful and a little bit too whimsical to be real. Whacky architecture, quirky music and heavily stylised but beautifully composed cinematography serve to project us into a an alternate reality forged by some long-forgotten hipster demiurge. A world designed to be just quirky enough and unreal enough for us to let our guards down. Indeed, while cinephiles speak of the truth and beauty of film, the reality of the modern cinema is a gauntlet of bad faith and protective cynicism. A cynicism born of the fact that, before you even decide what film to see or what screen to go to, you are assailed by empty promises. Promises of new technologies and more comfortable seats. Promises made by aggressive marketing campaigns and trailers designed to raise expectations to the point where no human-made work of art could ever possibly satisfy them. Arrived at the cinema you must then navigate a flood of yet more adverts and yet more trailers for yet more films demanding yet more money and yet more of your time. To face such an onslaught without cynical detachment would surely be to go mad but this protective detachment is also the enemy of art as it seeks to protect us from that which defines a great work of art: emotional transport.
The stylisation of the works of Jeunet and Anderson are a response to this problem. By setting their films in universes that are not quite like ours, Jeunet and Anderson manage to destabilise us enough to pierce the veneer of cynicism engendered by modern society. By altering their visual and musical vocabularies, Jeunet and Anderson manage to make us empathise with their characters. People fell in love with Amelie Poulain. People felt sad when Royal Tenenbaum died. They felt these things because Jeunet and Anderson avoided the genre trappings and traditional cinematics of Sandra Bullock and Meg Ryan films. The first act of The Brothers Bloom is all about engendering this same odd combination of detached amusement and unguarded empathy. Even if we are too jaded to empathise with his characters completely, Johnson is happy for us to be lulled into a sense of being in the presence of a certain kind of film. Then he starts to pull the carpet from beneath our feet…
When Stephen finally tracks Bloom down — thanks to the off-screen machinations of his assistant the mysterious Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi) — he presents him with one final con. A grand conclusion to the narrative arc that was The Brothers Bloom : Conmen Extraordinaire. The mark is an isolated, beautiful and eccentric billionaire named Penelope (Rachel Weisz). Or is it? From the get-go, Bloom suspects that the mark in this particular con is not Penelope but him. The con involves selling Penelope the idea that she could become a smuggler and a conman. This con-within-a-con serves to destabilise the audience. Having been introduced to a bunch of sympathetic conmen, we expect to be on the ‘inside’ of their plans but the layering of reality demanded by Stephen’s baroque narrative makes it difficult to work out where Stephen’s story ends and that of the film begins. This forces the audience into a much more entrenched attitude of emotional detachment. Now we are not only ironically amused, we are also trying to second-guess the script. Johnson gleefully litters the film with all kinds of clues that point us in so many different directions that everything becomes a blur and the line between the ‘real’ and the ‘written’ becomes completely indistinguishable. This demented ontological layering is most brilliantly toyed with when Johnson shockingly departs from the stylistic template laid down by Anderson and Jeunet and faithfully followed in the film’s opening act:
In one scene, Penelope must sneak into a castle to steal a book but a miscalculation leads to the gang accidentally blowing up half the castle. After Johnson cuts to the reactions of the other characters, he allows the camera to pull back. Suddenly, the gang are not colourful individuals in a landscape populated by whimsical odd-balls, they are a bunch of weirdly-dressed freaks standing in a square surrounded by worried tourists. This radical realignment of the film’s ontological register is amazingly powerful as we are dragged from amusement at a cartoonish explosion to 9/11 conditioned anxiety as Penelope is hauled in for questioning by the Czech police.
In another scene, Bloom informs Penelope that she is simply a mark in one of Stephen’s cons. Having fallen in love with Penelope, Bloom decides to confront Stephen. The pair bicker and a gun is drawn. The gun goes off and Stephen slumps to the floor mortally wounded. Suddenly the film’s aesthetic veneer crumbles. From beautifully shot and composed images of attractive people in an evocative setting we are transported to an unflatteringly lit hut on a beach where Penelope is filmed using a swaying and out of focus camera. The contrast with the highly stylised opening section of the film could not be more stark.
Johnson’s refusal to allow the audience in on the scam is reminiscent of Haneke’s refusal to allow his films to resolve in the manner associated with the genres they engage with. In Funny Games (1997) he allows his characters to literally ‘rewind the tape’ and erase a plot twist when it does not suit them while in Hidden (2005) and The White Ribbon (2009) he presents his audience with mysteries that he refuses to solve. However, Funny Games is now nearly twenty years old and while there may once have been something genuinely transgressive about challenging audience complacency the genie is now out of the bottle. The relationship between the author and the audience has been attacked and still bears the scars and it is not quite clear what is to be achieved by repeating this same attack over and over again as Haneke appears intent upon doing. As a result, Johnson seems intent to move the debate on. He does this by turning the tools of cinematic deconstruction against the deconstructive process itself in a final act that appears to have alienated a fair number of film’s most high-minded and perceptive critical thinkers.
The final act of The Brothers Bloom deals with the emotional fallout of postmodernity. Where the film’s first act lulls the audience into a feeling of amused detachment and the second act alienates them by destroying what trust they may have in the director, the third act seeks to rebuild that trust by attempting an ending that tugs at the heart-strings. This final sequence finds Bloom as lost as the film’s audience. Lured out of retirement by one last scam that promises to set him up with Penelope for an unwritten life, Bloom finds himself trying to rescue Stephen from a gang of Russian criminals who could just as easily be Stephen’s pawns as his assassins. The scene takes place in an abandoned theatre and Bloom symbolically passes through the proscenium arch in order to have it out with Stephen the writer/director of his life up to that point. Is this a con? Is this real? The film suggests one solution but is crucially ambiguous on the question of Bloom’s internal state. The character faces a dilemma: Does he ignore his doubts and accept that Stephen is dead in order to live a happy life, or does he retain the right to feel ‘smart’ by forever living under the shadow of the doubt that Penelope may well be an actress or someone who has been tricked into falling in love with him? However, because we are not privy to Bloom’s internal state as he drives off into the sunset, the answer to his — and indeed the film’s — central question remains unclear.
The question of finding emotional closure in a postmodern landscape is very similar to the question of finding meaning in an apparently meaningless universe. Indeed, Haneke’s attitude towards the role of the author mirror the anger and giddy sense of freedom that pervades some of Sartre’s writings. Haneke attacks the traditional narrative forms of the genres he adopts in order to deny his audience a sense of vicarious closure and so force them to search for their own meanings in the maelstrom of existence. Haneke’s anger at the audience’s expectations mirror Sartre’s anger at people’s desire to seek answers in religion. Works such as The Brothers Bloom and Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008) undeniably move the debate on from the death of meaning but Kaufman and Johnson’s films radiate not anger but a sense of pervasive sadness and spiritual exhaustion.
Consider the ending of Synecdoche, New York. The directorial Caden nears the end of his life and stands amidst the ruins of his life’s work, a vast and ever-growing theatrical set where he intended to construct a life that made sense. A life with dramatic arcs. A life with notes from the director. Having constructed this elaborate cultural artifact, Caden has surrendered his role as writer/director and he moves through the ruins of his set listening to beautifully phrased stage directions that inform him not only where to go but how to feel. The poignancy of Synecdoche, New York’s ending is entirely due to the poignancy of this moment. What emotional charge Kaufman passes on to his audience comes not from the medium of film but from that of poetry. A different form. One that is all about conveying meaning and emotion. Both Synecdoche, New York and The Brothers Bloom represent a moment of existential horror. Their characters stand in the ruins of a life deconstructed and, faced with the meaninglessness that only comes from true freedom, they seek to retreat into the embrace of emotional closure offered by a narrative authorial voice. It is telling that in both cases, the authorial voice is female. I suppose that if you kill your father then your mother’s skirts would be a good place to seek comfort. It is this desire to seek comfort in the certainties of the past that ultimately undermines The Brothers Bloom. Johnson asks his questions with vaulting intellectual ambition and majestic style but when the time comes for him to provide an answer of his own, his nerve and his imagination seem to fail him.
The problem facing Johnson and Kaufman is a profound one as the search for emotional closure and meaning in art is similar to the search for meaning in life. We have gutted our lives of meaning just as we have picked apart the mechanics that once allowed art to transport us. We now exist in a state of permanently detached cynicism. Techniques pioneered by artists in order to move us are now used to sell us things we do not need and we strive to remain unaffected. We stand in a graveyard of meta-narratives. We have been standing here for quite some time.
In his lecture “Science as a Vocation” (1918) the sociologist Max Weber states that :
“The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world'”
His use of the word “Disenchantment” is quite deliberate as it places an emphasis not upon the secularisation of human social institutions, or the rationalisation of the Western intellect, but upon Humanity’s subjective experience of the world in which they live. For Weber, writing as he was in the early decades of the 20th Century, science had not merely changed the way that we thought about the world, it had fundamentally changed the world by stripping it of meaning or, as Weber himself put it so eloquently :
“The bearing of man has been disenchanted and denuded of its mystical but inwardly genuine plasticity”
Western culture has been dealing with the death of meta-narratives since the 19th Century. Postmodern attacks upon the literary and cinematic form are but the latest front in a war that has been raging, arguably, since the Renaissance. So, given that postmodern cinema appears to have reached something of a generational impasse, it seems not unreasonable to look to the past and find out how previous generations dealt with their own semantic collapses.
One particularly interesting historical vignette is the rise of the aesthetic movement in the late 19th Century. The Aesthetic movement, stressed the importance of art for art’s sake as opposed to art for the sake of moral, spiritual or intellectual education. Early figures in the history of the Aesthetic movement include the likes of John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley but the most prominent figure in the movement whose social downfall is said to have killed the movement stone dead, was Oscar Wilde. Wilde’s only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) is very much what we would think of today as a work of Fantasy. Rather than being realistic in its content, the novel features magical forces that people — even in the Victorian era — knew to be untrue. The fact that the events in works such as Dorian Gray are not and could not be real posed a real challenge to 19th Century intellectuals, who were still very much wedded to the image of a universe dominated by a Christian metanarrative. Earlier thinkers such as the poet Samuel Taylor Colleridge suggested that these types of fantastical works could only be engaged in as a result of a quid pro quo between the author and the audience whereby the audience willingly suspends its disbelief in order to engage with the story.
This is the challenge that Thompson lays at the feet of Bloom: Bloom’s world has been turned inside out. He no longer knows what is real and what is pre-scripted but he has doubts. Crippling doubts. Doubts that threaten to ruin his life. In order to overcome these doubts, Johnson suggests, Bloom must suspend any disbelief he has in the meta-narrative offered him by Penelope and the apparent death of Stephen. He must exercise his will. The same is true for Kaufman’s Caden who decides to accept the instructions of the unseen female director.
But is this how people really think?
One of the most influential thinkers when it comes to the question of accepting fictional narratives is J.R.R. Tolkien. In his essay “On Fairy Stories” (1939), Tolkien lays out a method of narrative surrender baseed not upon some bargain struck between the author and his audience but upon an attitude to truth adopted by the reader. Tolkien argued that we do not perform a Kierkegaardian leap of faith into fictional narrative, we immerse ourselves in it. We know full well that there are no elves or wizards or orcs but by engaging with a work of fantastical fiction, we are putting aside our doubts and our understanding of what is and is not real. To use Weber’s language, we are engaging in an act of disenchanted re-enchantment. A much more salient example of this type of relationship to the fictional is the huge popularity of Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle’s fiction not only attracted a devoted following and its own form of scholarship, it also saw the birth of a form of adult play whereby people would act as though Holmes was a real person despite knowing full well that he was not. Indeed, bodies such as the Baker Street Irregulars continue to this day to publish carefully researched articles forging possible links between Holmes and other fictional characters. It was once suggested that Rex Stout’s corpulent detective Nero Wolfe may have been the illegitimate son of Holmes despite the fact that neither character is real and they were created by people who never met, let alone spoke.
A similar strategy might well serve to help Bloom and Caden and provide a way forward for postmodern cinema. If the problem is that it appears impossible for art to be emotionally powerful without the guiding hand of an author then the solution would be to allow the audience to serve as its own author and to immerse itself in the metafictional ruins of the deconstructive process. Johnson’s ultimate failure is that, having lead the dance by deconstructing his own meta-narrative, he then decides to attempt — as author — to impose some new narrative. But after nearly two hours of cinematic deconstruction, the director’s authority no longer has the power to impose narrative constraints and emotional responses upon the audience. However, as the popularity of Sherlock Holmes and secondary world fantasy such as that created by Tolkien suggest, audiences are perfectly at home with the a form of bounded ontological realism that accepts characters and narratives into the imagination as things with enough ‘truth’ about them to be argued about and discussed but not actually believed in. Ironic detachment is not an impediment to art, it is the cognitive basis for artistic experience.
Postmodern fiction can be re-enchanted and filled with meaning and significance but not by a single author and certainly not by the creator of the original artwork. A postmodern re-enchantment would be democratic and non-hierarchical. It would welcome all comers and all interpretations. It would be editorially pluralistic. It would rely upon the audience finding their own meanings. It would, in short, be a form of massively multi-player online roleplaying game or a fan fiction community where audience members would be free to create and recreate their own fictions and narratives using their own understandings of the original characters.
Bloom’s problem is that he is facing a false dichotomy. Stephen is not some version of metanarrative Schroedinger’s cat who can imbue life with meaning or cast it into the existential void by virtue of being alive or dead. The truth is that a version of Bloom and Stephen exist in the imaginations of everyone who has seen Johnson’s film. The challenge facing Bloom would be solved in a roleplaying game played out a thousand times or hundreds of stories exploring all the possible interpretations of the film and its final scene.
The postmodern reaction to postmodernity itself is not a retreat into religion or a cult of the author but an explosion of every possible metanarrative. All of them true and all of them real and coherent and there to be argued about. Postmodernism killed the author but detached postmodernity makes us all authors.