"Will you be doing your usual `Decline of the West' piece?" a Compass colleague asked innocently as we discussed my article occasioned by the 1996 Cannes Film Festival. For a number of years now, I've been using the Cannes event as a cultural barometer for world cinema. Not a bad idea, really: for even though not all the best films make it to the festival--not by a long shot--Cannes nevertheless serves as an unparalleled reflector of the world's artistically, culturally most ambitious film undertakings. Well, I have to admit that indeed I have, most of the time, been singing the same sad song, something about the profound cultural malaise permeating the films from the West: loss of hope, commitment, spirit, call it a postmodern whirl of meaninglessness in which film, along with "everything else," becomes merely a game riddled with cynicism and frustration.
Hollywood can certainly take its superpower share of the blame for the sad state of affairs. But there is another, deeper reason, one as broad and complex as western cultural history itself. In fact, world cinema, in its relatively short one hundred years of existence, has reflected two and a half millennia of the western world's cultural evolution. Film history, like the broader cultural history, can be understood as a progression--or regression--from the classical worldview, through modernism, and into contemporary postmodernism.
Scholarly works elucidating this are almost limitless, to be sure. But for the specific purposes of this piece, let's limit ourselves to one thread of the overall tapestry. A certain critical approach has always been part of the western consciousness, even from the first days of the classical phase. By the time the modernist spirit emerged (say the sixteenth century), critical awareness had mushroomed into nothing less than a kind of systematic doubt. Marked by that doubt, modernism's own beliefs were always relatively shaky, unable to match the security of the earlier mindset. And the modernist sensibility reflected this. Flash forward to the contemporary era: by the end of the Second World War, the doubt, become almost all-encompassing, engendered its own Frankenstein monster, becoming well nigh an end in itself, enshrining a radical reduction of all credos, myths, thought systems.
And so the age of deconstruction, that method or attitude which, with the 1970s, began to assume tremendous proportions. Eventually, deconstruction invalidated belief in our ability to reach reality-out-there, reducing signs and language itself strictly to the status of mental constructs and attacking the very notions of freedom, creativity, art, artist, the human subject. Postmodernism is the name given to the contemporary sensibility insofar as it incorporates this spirit.
Film reflected this process, though in abbreviated fashion. So the cinema, too, enjoyed its classical period, however briefly (some fifty years), a period that produced monuments to artistic creativity and, indeed, to the human spirit. Then came, after the Second World War, the great modernist period in which my generation acquired its "mature" film consciousness. Now, we felt, film was really daring to explore humanity's encounter with reality. Self-conscious, free, these movies broke the classic mold, invading cultural terrain hitherto reserved to literature, high art, high culture. "The cinema is the art form of the twentieth century," remember?
But this was a modernism already in its death throes, and by the 1970s it was sapped by postmodernism. Deconstruction was razing the overall cultural terrain, leaving its inheritance of sterility and emptiness. Forget the preceding pretensions of meaningfulness, however anguished they might be. All that was left was cinema as spectacle, mega-effects, and titillation steeped in violence and sex, informed by contempt and frustration. It's as if film had imploded into an at times ever-so-clever self-referential game. Since nothing means anything, let's at least dance and have fun--and let's use our marketing savvy, while we're at it, to make lots of money.
Cannes as well, true to its nature, was reflecting it all in its presentation of "quality" cinema. In 1994, Nikita Mikhalkov presented what some of us consider possibly the finest film of the last ten years, a masterpiece in the classical and modernist traditions, Burnt by the Sun. In its wisdom, the Clint-Eastwood-presided jury could give it only second prize, the top honour going to Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. Postmodernism triumphant?
WHAT I HAVE BEEN WRITING so far is terribly oversimplified and one-sided. In recent decades, there have been a good number of movies far removed from postmodernism's esthetics of impotence. Every year, Hollywood is still quite capable of producing, as it did this year, a Dead Man Walking or a How to Make an American Quilt.
And what about this year's Cannes Festival? Well, by general consensus, the big news at Cannes this past spring is that it was the best festival in ten or fifteen years. Nothing approaching masterpiece standards, I would hasten to add, but good, solid, quality cinema. And the news gets even better: one had the feeling that quality cinema from the West was at long last breathing again, breaking out of the deconstructionist closure, the postmodern suffocation.
Not totally, of course: David Cronenberg's Canadian entry in the official competition, Crash, was as cold, sterile and boring a deconstruction piece of work as you can find, a futuristic (?), no-exit parable on human beings finding their ultimate (and only) meaning in sex combined with car crashes (no kidding): crude, exploitative, maybe a kind of nihilistic joke waving the flag of despair while laughing at the audience and humanity at large.
The difference with other years, however, is a significant one: Crash was the exception, not the rule. Take this postmodern treatment of sex and human behaviour, and compare it to Bernardo Bertolucci's flawed but beautiful Stealing Beauty or the Taviani brothers' rendition of Goethe's Elective Affinities in all its romantic idealism, or Cannes's two major winners, Mike Leigh's delightful Secrets and Lies (confirming England once again as the maker of the world's best films) and Danish director Lars von Trier's wild and mystical Breaking the Waves--all of them studies of the complexity, beauty and suffering of love, ironic in their contemporary awareness, truly exploring life and expressing human aspiration while celebrating the art of film-making.
The French excelled with two Voltairian essays, Ridicule and A Discreet Hero, balancing comic irony with a sense of moral concern and human vulnerability. American cinema joined in the celebration: Robert Altman, Old Master and rascal that he is, communicated his usual dark vision of life in Kansas City, transforming it with dazzling beauty of form and the heartbeat of jazz. Michael Cimino returned to cinematic grace with Sunchaser, a movie that starts out in the usual ghetto-is-hell shocker mode only to evolve into a sort of New Age parable of redemption--in John Ford's Monument Valley, no less.
I could go on at length in this benign tour of western cinema, celebrating some dozen films presenting so many aspects of life, so many intelligent and heartfelt journeys into world culture, uninhibited by the postmodern posture and its habitual withering awareness that all is futility. Instead, let me mention Al Pacino with his little gem of a first film as director, Looking for Richard, a story about real-life theatre director Al undertaking Shakespeare's Richard III, starring of course Al Pacino--and communicating to all of us the joy and vitality of creativity, the beauty of art and culture, in an art form totally aware of itself.
As I muse over what I saw at Cannes this year, I keep thinking about the way I (and many others) refer to "postmodernism," about how in fact I am really referring to what some would insist is only the negative aspect of this cultural movement--the side, if you will, represented by a deconstruction run wild, laying waste any vestige of belief, conviction, freedom to act meaningfully, all that is best in the long tradition of western culture. They insist that there is also a positive side: that the ossified classical mold had to be shattered by modernism to allow culture (and life) to breathe, as it were--and that modernism's materialistic, life-choking constrictions, too, had to be exposed. The true postmodern attitude, they would claim, permits us to begin anew, to discern as we return to the extraordinary cultural achievements of the past (of both those approaches, classical and modernist), to embrace what in each is life-nurturing, truly enriching to the human spirit, but in a new ongoing synthesis that permits us to understand and experience in ways that are meaningful in the context of contemporary awareness. In other words, postmodernism not as death, but as new life.
What a task! And it is very difficult to write such words today, that's for sure. But after Cannes 1996, in the highly limited--yet highly privileged and symptomatic--area we call the cinema, the words come more easily and hopefully.
© 1996 Compass, A Jesuit Journal and Gail van Varseveld