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?