Postmodernist Film Techniques by Mark H. Phillips

In my earlier essay I discussed how postmodern writers encourage a more active, collaborative relationship with their audience. Their techniques throw the reader out of the text with jarring anomalies of reality and wild mishmashes of genre, textual, and cultural expectations. In this essay I will discuss how these postmodernist techniques are deployed in film and TV. For those of us eager to expand our repertoire of writing techniques with postmodernist tropes, we must realize that most of our readers are more familiar with these techniques as used in the cinema and are therefore more receptive, more sophisticated at decoding the intent, and more jaded in what will in fact disorient them. An understanding of postmodernist film practices is necessary for text writers intending to exploit and adapt these practices in their own writing.

In my last blog I discussed how Harold Pinter adapted John Fowles’ postmodernist novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Fowles had allowed his readers to pick which of two different endings they wanted. Pinter in his screenplay adaptation used a story within a story (mise en abyme) and characters aware of more than one level of narrative reality (metafiction) to juxtapose a straightforward film adaptation with a parallel film showcasing the actors having their own ill-fated love affair. By shifting back and forth between the two plots we are thrown out of simple cinematic immersion. The viewer is constantly reminded that he is watching a film, but also has the opportunity to see the “same” affair played out in time periods with vastly different sexual customs and gender power structures.

Exploiting the disorientating interplay of different levels of reality and characters who become aware of those levels has been a tradition in theater and film long before postmodernism was a gleam in the modernist’s eye. Often whether a modern film is deploying techniques derived from postmodernism or traditional theater/film or both is largely irrelevant to our purposes here.

The metafictional device of “breaking the fourth wall” is an example of a technique that serves postmodernist goals but has existed in theater and film from their earliest beginnings. A soliloquy may be construed, with small suspension of disbelief, as a verbalization of inner thoughts, but characters who talk directly to the audience must be aware of themselves as theatrical constructs. Both Shakespeare and Aristophanes used the technique. So did most of the comedians who came to film by way of vaudeville, a version of theater where playing directly to the crowd was the norm. George Burns, Oliver Hardy, Groucho Marx, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Lou Costello all made frequent and hilarious contact directly with the audience from within their films. It is a common place on TV now from The Gary Shandling Show to House of Cards. [1]

Metafiction can become the entire basis of the plot. In The Last Action Hero, Arnold Schwarzeneger plays a clichéd police detective in a series of action films pulled into the “real” world by magic, allowing satiric commentary on the bizarre conventions of the genre. Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo has a movie character falling for a lonely audience member, leaving the screen to join her in the primary narrative world, and thereby leaving the other characters within his film in the lurch. To drive the character back to his cinema world, the desperate studio enlists the original actor to seduce the girl away from the character. Allen’s Zelig employs the postmodernist trope of historical metafiction by incorporating his nebbish and pathologically adaptive protagonist into many historical situations, seamlessly integrating him into newsreel footage of Hitler at Nazi rallies, for instance.

Variations of this metafictional move may involve different levels of reality within the film world. The Matrix is an obvious example or any of the films that involve disorienting movements between dream reality and conscious (Dreamscape, The Cell, Inception, etc). Any film written by Charlie Kaufman, especially, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Synecdoche, New York. Adaptation is an extended movie about how impossible it was for Kaufman to write a screenplay based on the non-fiction book The Orchid Thief by Nancy Orleans (a book I highly recommend but which is not in the least postmodernist). A subplot has his fictional, dimwitted brother writing a screenplay which gets sold for millions of dollars despite the fact that it contains a glaring logical flaw that would make it physically impossible to make. By the way, the logical flaw that makes it impossible to film is the twist of the film Fight Club which does exactly what Kaufman claimed made his brother’s screenplay impossible to film in Adaptation. Adaptation also reassembles the actors who made Being John Malkovich, so that they could shoot fake behind-the-scenes footage of that film being made to illustrate what Kaufman was going through while thinking about adapting The Orchid Thief, a perfect example of mise en abyme/metafiction.

Equally disturbing and hilarious are the subtle blurrings of reality and film that occur in most of Henry Jaglom’s films. In Always, But Not Forever Jaglom plays a man virtually identical to himself and has his ex-wife playing his character’s ex-wife in a movie in which his character (and perhaps Henry himself) is trying to win back his ex-wife.

Orson Welles also deliberately blurs multiple levels of reality and fiction in his In F for Fake. The documentary is about the art forger Elmyr de Hory, but runs parallel stories about Clifford Irving who was writing a biography of de Hory (and who had recently been discovered to have faked a biography of Howard Hughes) as well as actress Oja Kodar who apparently used Picasso to further her own elaborate art scam. The film is full of misleading information, faked footage, and creative edits used to deceive. It is also a brilliant master seminar in storytelling and narrative structure. At one point Welles says that for the next hour everything he tells you will be true. But the film is 85 minutes long.

The ontological flicker caused by switching from black and white to color or vice versa is a venerable film trope predating postmodernist uses. Its most famous instance is in The Wizard of Oz. The trope is used as a major plot device in the film Pleasantville which magically inserts modern cynical teens into a naïve and corny 50s-style family sitcom. In the mise en abyme sitcom world all the characters are rendered in black and white, but as the teens begin to tempt the innocent denizens of the sitcom with any acts inciting intense passion the characters are rendered in color. When the sitcom mother masturbates and experiences an orgasm for the first time the tree in front of her house bursts into flame, thoroughly disconcerting the fire department of Pleasantville who up until then were utilized exclusively in rescuing kittens from trees. Characters become liberated to self-expression and independent thinking, often refusing the repressed and restrictive roles assigned to them by the sitcom. Soon the traditionalist town establishment is legislating against “colored” people, reiterating the development of the civil rights movement in a world without a single black character. [4]

Virtually (forgive the pun) any of the holodeck/alternate realities episodes of the various Star Trek franchises are chock full of mise en abyme/metafictional tropes. The two episodes of Star Trek Next Generation dealing with a holodeck version of Sherlock Holmes’ arch enemy Moriarty trying to take over Picard’s starship Enterprise come to mind. Data who likes to play Sherlock Holmes on the holodeck is challenged to create an opponent who could conceivably outwit him. The resulting Moriarty gains awareness of his status as a holographic construct. Also look at the Star Trek Voyager episodes dealing with the holodeck’s quaint Irish village of Haven where multiple vacationing crewmembers have created so many anomalies that the holographic villagers are forced to supernatural explanations, panic, and eventual awareness of their metafictional status. In another excellent Voyager episode the Doctor designs his own holographic rosy-but-superficial family life to teach himself about his fellow crewmembers’ irrational emotional responses to healthcare decisions. Challenged to make the simulation more realistic, he becomes all too exposed to the concept of grief. While not a holodeck episode, involving godlike wormhole aliens who are playing with reality instead, the Deep Space Nine episode “Far Beyond the Stars” is a devastating exploration of racism and its relation to science fiction writing. At the end we are not quite sure whether Sisko is a Starfleet Captain being manipulated by aliens or a science fiction writer of the 50s driven insane by racism, writing stories of DS9 on the padded walls of his cell.

Nearly the exact same trope was used in the episode “Normal Again” of Buffy the Vampire Slayer series where Buffy is poisoned by demon venom into a seemingly real alternate world where she is in an insane asylum for believing that she is a Slayer. Doctors and family members are desperately trying to convince her that if she doesn’t abandon her fixation on the ridiculous world where she fights demons she will slip away into complete madness. What makes this episode particularly poignant is that in the Slayer world Buffy’s mother has died, leaving Buffy emotionally devastated and lost, while in the new world of the psychiatric hospital her mother is very much alive, leaving her with a powerful temptation to abandon herself to what may or may not be hallucination.

We can also use Buffy the Vampire Slayer to illustrate another postmodernist trope—the musical episode. Joss Whedon and his writing team had gone to some considerable trouble to make us care for and suspend our disbelief in the Buffyverse. Whedon more than most writers meticulously weaves internally consistent but Byzantine plot structures over multiple seasons. So what could be more ontologically unsettling than to see his characters suddenly break out into song as per the conventions of the Hollywood musical? “Once More with Feeling” is not a throwaway lark either: it reveals a critical plot twist that had been driving the overall story arc of Season Six from the beginning. Three years earlier the writers of Xena: Warrior Princess pulled off the same strategy in the episode “Bitter Suite,” where the episode partially resolved critical conflicts that had been building throughout the season. It is worth noting that the pre-eminent postmodernist Thomas Pynchon has characters break out into musical numbers in virtually every one of his novels.

Genre-bending is a favorite postmodernist trope that has a long history in cinema’s own independent development. In addition to mixing musical genre conventions into series with seemingly incompatible conventions of their own, postmodernist filmmakers have mixed live action and cartoon in order to disorient or amuse their viewers. Of course live action and cartoon have been mixed from the beginning of the cinema with no postmodernist intent. [2] But in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World cartoon sequences illustrating Ramona’s past love affairs both shift the ontological status in postmodernist ways as well as acknowledging the style of the graphic novels that inspired the film. Note also that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World also plays the musical trope: when Scott battles Patel, Patel breaks into Bollywood style song and dance, complete with flying demoness chorus. The postmodernist twist jars the viewer awake to the film’s filminess while parodying Bollywood musical tropes. Both tropes, as well as the pervasive portrayal of characters as videogame avatars, serve to create an ironic distancing of characters from their emotional pain at the same time as we are invited to share the ironic attitude and thus sympathize with the characters. [3]

Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 has a long cartoon sequence directed by Kazuto Nakazawa. Why do a cartoon sequence—because Tarantino wanted to and who doesn’t like anime? Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City films transfer to live action the highly stylized cartoon images of Frank Miller’s graphic novels, mostly black and white with no gray tones, with sharp accents of blood red and bile yellow for shock effect. Also check out the Grindhouse films by Tarantino and Rodriguez: Planet Terror by Robert Rodriguez and Death Proof by Quentin Tarantino, originally shown as a double feature designed to evoke the mood of low-budget drive-in zombie and slasher films of the 70s. The films look scratched up and abused as if the prints were on the last legs of a disreputable distribution. Rob Zombie, invited to create one of the fake trailers shown in between the two features, actually dragged film footage behind his car to scratch it up. Rodriguez’s half of the bill even intentionally “loses” a reel of the film. I mentioned in my previous blog another of the fake trailers, this one featuring the character Machete. Machete started out as a character in Rodriguez’s Spy Kids movies. Then he appears in the fake trailer in between the Grindhouse double feature, but then the fake trailer was turned into a series of outrageous films, and then the character appears in Snickers commercial mixing Danny Trejo’s Machete character into the Brady Bunch universe as Marsha in the Brady Bunch eating a Snickers bar. A more perfect postmodernist example of metafiction is hard to imagine.

Cartoon elements, musical interludes, metafiction, breaking the fourth wall, wildly anachronistic metahistorical juxtapositions, etc. are all deployed in the series and films of the Monty Python’s Flying Circus group. Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian, and The Meaning of Life use pretty much every postmodernist trope they can imagine for parodic effect. At the end of Holy Grail modern police arrest the surviving protagonists for the various heinous murders they have committed throughout the movie. Ex-Python Terry Gilliam used the confusion of dream and real world trope in Brazil (1975). Brazil is also an example of films that merge visual styles from a variety of seemingly unrelated time periods, a technique used in Blade Runner and other cyberpunk films, a typical postmodernist trope. Mel Brooks is another example of a filmmaker who throws an indiscriminate barrage of postmodernist tropes into his parodies. Blazing Saddles even features a clichéd Western barroom brawl that spills over into movie sets of wildly different genres. Eventually the cast end up in a movie theater to see how their own film will end.

Whether the techniques described in this essay are derived from postmodernism or from vaudeville, burlesque, and independently developed film traditions, they all demand more from the viewer than mere passive immersion. By making the audience work at interpreting seemingly anomalous images, styles, and narrative structures the audience feels a sense of accomplishment as well as the pride of belonging to a select group who “gets it.” Modern audiences are quite skilled at such interpretive decodings and have come to crave them, a fact we as text writers should keep in mind.



[2] (Note a moment of personal technological growth for a man in his sixth decade who does not own a cell phone and doesn’t know how to text. For the first time I actually edited a Wikipedia page, adding Hedwig and the Angry Inch to the list of films for 2001 that mixed live action with a cartoon sequence. I know that for most of my readers this will seem like me bragging about just learning to crawl to marathon runners, but I am nevertheless proud of the accomplishment.)

[3] Wayne Booth’s A Rhetoric of Irony details how irony can make a reader work to reinterpret originally anomalous text in ways that make him step above the action to occupy a critical space beside the implied author, an often powerful technique to get people to identify with characters and positions that they might not be willing to do if presented with the same material in straight, un-ironic text. It’s as if the working out of the interpretive puzzle of irony predisposes the reader favorably to the author’s deeper position.



Adaptation, directed by Spike Jonze, screenplay by Charlie and Donald Kaufman. Columbia Pictures, 2002.

Always, But Not Forever, written and directed by Henry Jaglom. Samuel Goldwyn Co., 1985.

“The Bitter Suite”, Xena: Warrior Princess, Season 3, Episode 12, written by Chris Manheim and Steven L. Sears, directed by Oley Sassone. Renaissance Pictures, 1998.

Blazing Saddles, directed by Mel Brooks, screenplay by Andrew Bergman, Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor, Norman Steinberg, and Al Uger, story by Andrew Bergman. Warner Brothers, 1974.

Booth, Wayne C.. A Rhetoric of Irony, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975.

Brazil, directed by Terry Gilliam, written by Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, and Charles McKeown. Python (Monty) Pictures, 1985.

“Elementary, Dear Data”, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 2, Episode 3, written by Brian Lane, directed by Rob Bowman. Paramount Domestic Television, 1988.

F is for Fake written and directed by Orson Welles. Specialty Films, 1974.

“Fair Haven”, Star Trek: Voyager, Season 6, Episode 11, written by Robin Burger, directed by Allan Kroeker. Paramount Network Television, 2000.

“Far Beyond the Stars”, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Season 6, Episode 13, written by Ira Steven Behr and Hans Beimler, story by Marc Zicree, directed by Avery Brooks, Paramount DomesticTelevision, 1998.

Fight Club, directed by David Fincher, written by Jim Uhls from the novel by Chuck Palahniuk. 20th Century Fox, 1999.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman, directed by Karel Reisz, screenplay by Harold Pinter. United Artists, 1981.

Grindhouse, a double feature with fake trailers consisting of Planet Terror, written and directed by Robert Rodrigues, and Death Proof, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, the trailer Werewolf Women of the SS, written and directed by Rob Zombie, the trailer Machete, written and directed by Robert Rodriguez. Dimension Films, 2007.

Kill Bill Vol. 1, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Miramax Films, 2003.

The Last Action Hero, directed by John McTiernan, screenplay by Shane Black, David Arnott, and William Goldman. Columbia Pictures, 1993.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail, directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, written by Monty Python. 20th Century Fox, 1975.

“Normal Again”, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 17, written by Diego Gutierrez, directed by Rick Rosenthal. Mutant Enemy Productions, 2002.

“Once More, with Feeling”, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 7, written and directed by Joss Whedon. Mutant Enemy Productions, 2001.

Pleasantville, written and directed by Gary Ross. New Line Cinema, 1998.

The Purple Rose of Cairo, written and directed by Woody Allen. Orion Pictures, 1985.

“Real Life”, Star Trek: Voyager, Season 3, Episode 22, written by Jeri Taylor, story by Harry “Doc” Kloor,  directed by Anson Williams. Paramount Network Television, 1997.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, directed by Edgar Wright, screenplay by Edgar Wright and Michael Bacall, based on the graphic novel Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O’Malley. Universal Pictures, 2010.

“Ship in a Bottle”, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 6, Episode 12, written by René Echevarria, directed by Alexander Singer. Paramount Domestic Television, 1993.

Sin City, written and directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller. Dimension Films, 2005 Snickers Machete/Brady Bunch commercial (2015) at

“Spirit Folk”, Star Trek: Voyager, Season 6, Episode 17, written by Bryan Fuller, directed by David Livingston. Paramount Network Television, 2000.

Zelig, written and directed by Woody Allen. Warner Brothers, 1983.


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