Why Do Movies Feel So Different Now?
June 2, 2023 8:32 AM   Subscribe

Thomas Flight on metamodernism in current media
In this video I dive into what Metamodernism is and what it looks like in film, and chart how the movies have evolved since their modernist origins.

On his Substack, Flight further elaborates:
I genuinely feel like I live and work in a very Metamodern world. I think video essays are a Metamodernist form. Much of the internet content I consume and create feels metamodern. I’ve been wanting a word I could use to describe the strange sense of suspension I often feel between postmodern, modern and traditional thinking. A term that describes the impulse to synthesize the best ideas from each of these broader eras of culture philosophy and art. A word that describes the philosophy that tries to push back against Hypermodernism, the escalating version of Modernism that continues to launch us into a (sometimes terrifying) techno-capitalist future and digital hyperreality. To me metamodernism seems to check all those boxes.

What I think Metamodern films like Babylon, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and The Souvenir, showcase is that we don’t need to “suspend” our disbelief to sincerely engage in a story. We seem to value stories on their own. And maybe the inherent subjectivity of stories, that postmodernism is so eager to point out, isn’t really that big of a problem, at least as long as we understand that it’s there.
Further reading:

- Notes on Metamodernism: https://www.metamodernism.com/
- Misunderstandings and clarifications: https://www.metamodernism.com/2015/06/03/misunderstandings-and-clarifications/

- The Metamodernist Manifesto http://www.metamodernism.org/

- Metamodernism: Oscillation Revisited https://medium.com/what-is-metamodern/metamodernism-oscillation-revisited-b1ae011abf3c

- How 'Everything Everywhere All at Once' is a love letter to moms...and the internet https://mashable.com/article/everything-everywhere-all-at-once-daniels-interview-moms

- What is Metamodern: https://whatismetamodern.com
posted by Pachylad (26 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I saw this last week sometime - those of you who avoid longer-form video content, I'd encourage you to give it a go (but I can totally get that you wouldn't, it's on the long side).

In a nutshell: this does a good job of defining 3 different kinds of media eras (if you've ever wondered what "post-modernism" actually even IS, he gets into it), to the point that you can go from a total newbie "what the fuck is postmodernism" to being able to say things like "I like the optimistic tone that seems inherent in metamodernism" and MEANING it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:37 AM on June 2, 2023 [8 favorites]

I also saw this last week and really appreciated it. I just sent it to someone yesterday, in fact! I like this fellow's channel.
posted by wellifyouinsist at 8:56 AM on June 2, 2023

Audubon murdered thousands of beautiful birds.
posted by Pembquist at 9:20 AM on June 2, 2023 [3 favorites]

....was....that meant for this thread?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:24 AM on June 2, 2023 [21 favorites]

I liked this video, but I think specifically the details of what metamodernism does differently from postmodernism could have been better explained. Like I get the difference in No Country for Old Men's nihilism and EEAAO's nihilist optimism, but as an artistic movement, is the optimism the only difference?
posted by matthorton at 9:32 AM on June 2, 2023 [1 favorite]

I want to like this, and am interesting in everyone's various definitions of metamodernism. This sort of theory-play is really fun. That said, if this is folks' introduction to postmodernism, then that's really not great because this is real mischaracterisation of it.

Postmodernism doesn't mean "deconstructed" and "detached" - it means understanding that there is no singular grand narrative or one true ideology. The aesthetic modes of irony and deconstruction are associated with postmodernism because they are one tactic for attacking grand narratives and singular ideologies. But postmodernism already contains within it the notion of embracing oppositions, it already centres the individual, it allows for sincerity and optimism - no need to reinvent the wheel with something called "metamodernism". And there is no "after" postmodernism, that's rather the point, that there is no actual chronological grand narrative of singular aesthetics / ideologies.
posted by iivix at 9:36 AM on June 2, 2023 [13 favorites]

“ it means understanding that there is no singular grand narrative or one true ideology.”

Though I have a background in both religion and philosophy, both rife with difficult texts, and my favorite book is Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the acme of difficult texts, every time I sit through a discussion of postmodernism, et. al. my mind just sits there muttering huh? over and over. Example is in the quote above. Postmodernism denies absolutism by making an absolute statement of purported fact. Irony? Deconstructing absolutism by being absolutism? Beats me… I blame the French.

My favorite expression of this way of thinking is: Nothing is perfect. Which is in itself a perfection.
posted by njohnson23 at 10:04 AM on June 2, 2023 [3 favorites]

Postmodernism denies absolutism by making an absolute statement of purported fact. Irony? Deconstructing absolutism by being absolutism?

Maybe don't draw absolute conclusions from a short post on Metafilter?
posted by Pyrogenesis at 10:25 AM on June 2, 2023

Though I have a background in both religion and philosophy...

Should be easy to spot the false dichotomy, then: mere skepticism and "absolute" rejection are two different things. And one can interpret facts through a philosophical lens without being fully committed to the underlying principles (though my experience with religious scholars on that point has been... spotty).
posted by klanawa at 10:30 AM on June 2, 2023 [1 favorite]

> Postmodernism denies absolutism by making an absolute statement of purported fact.

Yes, it makes an ontological claim that says there is no singular grand narrative and there is no one true ideology. This ontological claim is not itself a grand narrative or singular ideology. Hence there is no contradiction. Hopefully with a background in philosophy you can see this without me needing to unpack further.
posted by iivix at 10:52 AM on June 2, 2023 [6 favorites]

I don’t want to continue this argument but “there is no one true ideology” is both a singular ideology and a statement that implies it is true “that there is no one true ideology” so we are in that land of liars from Crete.
posted by njohnson23 at 11:47 AM on June 2, 2023 [2 favorites]

I blame the Modernists, or whoever the hell coined the term, capitalized the "M". Kinda foolish in the long run by which I mean, what could modern mean anymore now that it had been pinned to a particular moment, a particular mode, way of thinking-seeing-creating ... ? Whereas previously it had simply meant the fresh and percolating here-and-now, ever changing, ever evolving.

So post-modern just felt like a quick workaround, a way of saying, "hey, we're no longer stuck with that particular locked in Modernity. We can think-feel-argue-create beyond it ..."

But then, of course, somebody went and capitalized Post-Modernism, too. Which becomes something akin to holding a mirror up to a mirror ... culturally speaking. Good luck grabbing onto anything that's going to have enough buoyancy to keep yrrr head above the waves.
posted by philip-random at 11:50 AM on June 2, 2023 [1 favorite]

Seems like kind of a straw-manny extension of what people were calling "post-ironic" in the early 2000s around the fiction of George Saunders and David Foster Wallace, but too vague to be of much critical use. The clearest articulation I find in the materials describes "metamodernism" as "the mercurial condition between and beyond irony and sincerity, naivety and knowingness, relativism and truth, optimism and doubt, in pursuit of a plurality of disparate and elusive horizons. We must go forth and oscillate!" I don't see much to distinguish that from postmodernism, which in my simplified version for undergraduates has 3 basic tenets:

1. Economy and culture are increasingly merging (Fredric Jameson).
2. Simulacra and copies are increasingly prevalent and indistinguishable from the "real" (Jean Baudrillard).
3. Grand explanatory narratives are increasingly fragmenting and unsupportable (Jean-François Lyotard).

I teach these as observations of what was happening at the time, not as arguments for what should happen, as seems to be a frequent mistake of those on the political right.

As observers of what's happened to our culture, I think the postmodernists have been largely proven correct in the three above observations—and I don't see "metamodernism" offering much of value beyond its focus on the non-ironic presumed "authenticity" of individual lived experience. That on its own is a good thing, though—certainly I'm plenty tired of the postmodernist subject passively thrown around by the vicissitudes of language.
posted by vitia at 11:54 AM on June 2, 2023 [11 favorites]

IMO he cast far too wide a net, trying to explain all films in the scope of current films or past films, which IMO it's difficult to do because films have different goals, set plot pieces and action flows get boring, and even that different genres exist, and IMO it's not really accurate to compare them against one another. Of course everyone in a horror movie is dumb and brash, it's necessary because otherwise they wouldn't be in the situation to begin with!

He actually sort of makes that critique in the middle (that repetition gets boring), but limits his critique to irony for some reason.

I think that's why it's a bit unfair to compare No County for Old Men, and declare it 'nhilistic' while saying 'Everything Everywhere All At Once' is optimistic. No Country for Old Men has a horror villain (indestructible, always endlessly prescient) and you have to accept the movie on horror terms whereas Everywhere All At Once is not a horror movie. It could have been - would have been a completely different movie.

I also disagree that most people (especially filmmakers & actors in Hollywood) think that deeply about their 'place' in the world re: the 3rd part in the video. Some people do - they don't become big name actors and directors.

I actually think it would have been way stronger if he only contrasted meta-modern movies in the same genres, and not tried to tie it to 'throwback movies' like Top Gun: Maverick, which most assuredly do still exist and sell lots of tickets, but have become a smaller part of the box office because most people have made them before, and IMO they are probably really boring to work on. I think it only worked because the original was like 30 years ago, so any more than that and it would get seriously panned.

I actually disagree also that "No Country for Old Men" deconstructs the 'western genre', as the 'folksy dipshit' role (Tommy Lee Jones) played is completely ancillary to the story, always 3 steps behind, which is actually one of it's weaknesses. If you completely removed it, the movie would be the same.
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:28 PM on June 2, 2023 [3 favorites]

MetaFilter: Was that meant for this thread?
posted by New Frontier at 2:33 PM on June 2, 2023 [6 favorites]

12 1/2 minutes into the video and I'm sitting here practically vibrating because this guy is using "modernism" to mean traditional storytelling structures, a belief in objectivity, and a sincere commitment to moral values derived from reason and deliberation rather than tradition, and I think that definition of modernism couldn't possibly be more wrong! Like, if anything is characteristic of modernism it's an embrace of perspectivism and an adoption of synthetic new forms. Rejection of tradition, okay sure, but not in the name of reason -- modernists were very specifically intrigued by the irrational (myth, the Freudian unconscious, the whole fascism thing) and decidedly hostile to democratic deliberation. And the "straightforwardness" of a movie like High Noon is itself incredibly artificial: if it feels formally natural to us, that's because pretty much everything we watch uses the same fundamental techniques (classical continuity editing and so on) .. but more importantly, that linear real-time structure was a conscious and deliberate gimmick -- one that came after a decade or more of Hollywood experiments with elaborate flashbacks and other formal innovations. Doesn't mean he's wrong about self-reflexive/genre-wise form and sincerity vs. irony in movies today (or whatever) but I would be really leery about any overarching historical frame here.
posted by Gerald Bostock at 2:38 PM on June 2, 2023 [14 favorites]

I’m just goi g to assume metamodernism is when every movie has someone saying “well that happened” or “he’s behind me, isn’t he?”.
posted by Artw at 12:55 AM on June 3, 2023

Crazy there is a link in the post called misunderstandings and clarifications, yet so many of them persist in the thread. haha.
posted by wellifyouinsist at 6:40 AM on June 5, 2023

I'm curious now - and I sincerely don't mean this as a "gotcha" and I'm hoping to God I don't sound like it. But for those of you with a better understanding of what post-modernism actually is - it sounds kind of like the video is defining it wrong.

But that has me wondering - is his mistake semantic, or more conceptual? Because I kind of saw what he was getting at with the video, and if he was just using the wrong words to describe what he was getting at, then fair enough. But if he was more totally wrong about what post-modernism is and the stuff he's discussing is also technically included under the post-modernism umbrella, then....can someone clarify why?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:11 AM on June 5, 2023

For me, most answers to "Why is X so different now?" land in variants of "you got old."
posted by k3ninho at 3:47 AM on June 7, 2023

But that has me wondering - is his mistake semantic, or more conceptual?

I think it's conceptual. To me, what he's describing as "metamodern" -- using deconstructive and self-reflexive techniques in the service of sincerity and affirmation of values -- is better understood as the recuperation of those techniques by the culture industry. Audiences today are more genre-savvy, but they still want their movies to be basically comforting or consolatory. You can turn that into a broader cultural truth about How We Live Now or whatever, but to me it's not so much a new sensibility or a broad cultural turn, it's just Hollywood using "postmodern" techniques to do the same old thing, i.e. produce consolatory fantasies. You could even argue that those techniques were never really deconstructive in the first place, never truly about waking you up to the fact that what you're watching isn't real; if anything, they're a way of prolonging the fantasy, of capturing your doubts within the fantasy itself so that you can avoid ever having to wake up/question your values/confront reality. That's as true of postmodern movies like Pulp Fiction or Blue Velvet or Total Recall or Barton Fink as it is of Everything Everywhere All at Once. Come to think of it, it's also true of "modern" movies like The Wizard of Oz. So I start to wonder what the difference is.

I'm also just fundamentally skeptical about detecting trends in "how we tell stories" and then turning that into a historical argument. All genres go through a natural cycle from classical to revisionist to parody and back again, as each generation of artists responds to what came before. I'm sure certain styles are more appealing at certain times, but it's very easy to cherry-pick examples to fit whatever argument you want to make about broader cultural shifts. Were revisionist Westerns popular in the 60s and 70s because the culture was questioning its own values, or did the end of the Hays Code and the rise of European art films expand the range of stories Hollywood was willing to tell? For that matter, is No Country for Old Men (ultimately a film about white hats vs. black hats) really more deconstructive than a John Ford-John Wayne movie like Fort Apache (1948), which argues that the myth of the American West is founded on lies? I think the deeper you look, the more incoherent the grand historical metanarrative becomes.
posted by Gerald Bostock at 9:34 AM on June 8, 2023 [1 favorite]

EmpressCallipygos, this is a little late, but to answer your question: in the video, Thomas Flight (who seems to be an acquaintance of the other folks linked) gets both "postmodernism" and "modernism" badly wrong. As to the why, I think it's a group of junior scholars or grad students trying to carve out something new and hot to make a name for themselves without actually having done the research. One won't find their stuff in film journals because of howlers like asserting modernism's inherent optimism: even those even only marginally familiar with English literature will recognize that the ur-text most often associated with literary modernism, Eliot's The Waste Land, isn't exactly a heartwarming laff-riot cheerer-upper.
posted by vitia at 12:53 PM on June 13, 2023

...Gerald - could you say that all again but pretend I'm only 12?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:23 AM on June 14, 2023

lol sorry.

(1) For this guy, "postmodern" means something like non-traditional storytelling and movies that remind you you're watching a movie. By that definition, metamodernism isn't anything new, it's just Hollywood incorporating "postmodern" techniques into the same kinds of movies it was making before -- that is, fantasies that let you forget your troubles instead of waking you up to reality. Hollywood has always done that.

(2) Most postmodern movies were doing the same thing. A movie that reminds you it's a movie -- by being blatantly artificial, or playing with conventions, or whatever -- isn't really trying to wake you up, it's using your doubts ("But this is blatantly artificial!") to prolong the fantasy ("Oh, it's supposed to be artificial, how clever!"). So, again, how is metamodernism actually different?

(3) The argument that there was a broad cultural vibe shift from modernism to postmodernism to metamodernism gets more incoherent the closer you look, because you have to cherry-pick examples and ignore all kinds of stuff that doesn't fit the pattern.

Also, what vitia said. :)
posted by Gerald Bostock at 10:11 AM on June 16, 2023 [1 favorite]

Thanks for that. Can I also ask a clarifying question about postmodernism; is he wrong about what post-modernism is, and if so, how?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:16 AM on June 16, 2023

It's more like he's using a really incomplete and oversimplified cartoon version of postmodernism and then defining both modernism and metamodernism in opposition to it (and totally misunderstanding modernism in the process). Like, it's true that postmodernism uses techniques like pastiche and deconstruction and irony, but he's basically saying "people used to be happy with traditional narratives and values, and then there was some social upheaval so they started questioning the value of narrative" and that's just silly. People were questioning both traditional values and traditional forms long before postmodernism.

Also I think he applies his idea of postmodernism in weird ways. I wouldn't say there's anything "postmodern" about No Country for Old Men, for example -- the Western elements aren't pastiche, and its vision of unstoppable evil is very different from postmodern relativism. Like vitia says, it feels like someone with a really surface-level understanding trying to use the concepts and doing a clumsy job of it.
posted by Gerald Bostock at 1:31 PM on June 16, 2023

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