Post-Pop Cinema: The Search for Meaning in New American Film
Jesse Fox Mayshark
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Starting in the early 1990s, artists such as Quentin Tarantino, David Foster Wallace, and Kurt Cobain contributed to a swelling cultural tide of pop postmodernism that swept through music, film, literature, and fashion. In cinema in particular, some of the arts most fundamental aspects―stories, characters, and genres, for instance―assumed such a trite and trivialized appearance that only rarely could they take their places on the screen without provoking an inward smirk or a wink from the audience. Out of this highly self-conscious and world-weary environment, however, a new group of filmmakers began to develop as the decade wore on, with a new set of styles and sensibilities to match. In Post-Pop Cinema author Jesse Fox Mayshark takes us on a film-by-film tour of the works of these filmmakers-including Wes and P. T. Anderson, Sofia Coppola, Richard Linklater, Alexander Payne, and David O. Russell-and seeks to reveal how a common pool of styles, collaborators, and personal connections helps them to confront the unifying problem of meaning in American film.
Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket (1996) and Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights (1997) were ultimately about their characters' lives-even though their characters often dealt with highly contrived environments and situations. And soon after Wes Anderson scored his first success, others like David O. Russell (Flirting With Disaster, Three Kings), the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (who collaborated with Spike Jonze on such projects as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation), Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways), Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko), and Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation) began to tread their own paths over this same ground. Although these men and women represent a wide range of styles and subject matter, all their films revolve in different ways around the difficulty of establishing and maintaining connections. This theme of connection also runs deeper than the films made: the directors share actors (Mark Wahlberg, Bill Murray, Ben Stiller, Jason Schwartzman), collaborators (the musician Jon Brion) and sometimes even personal connections (Spike Jonze starred in Russell's Three Kings, and was married to Coppola). Together these filmmakers form a loose and distinctly American school of filmmaking, one informed by postmodernism but not in thrall to it, and one that every year becomes more important to the world of cinema both within and beyond the United States.
always our decision who we are.” Crucial to making that decision, the film suggests, is how we relate and connect to the rest of the world. Kim Krizan, who cowrote Before Sunrise with Linklater, appears in one scene to discuss the difficulty of communicating abstract ideas to other people, but also the importance of trying. “When we communicate with one another and we feel that we have connected and we think that we’re understood,” she says, “I think we have a feeling of almost spiritual
Tarantino and Kevin Smith—a love of pop culture, an immersion in film history, a freewheeling approach to plot structure—but their films were for the most part free of chic cynicism and glib self-mockery. For all of their hip references and technological and narrative trickery, their movies were deeply concerned with ethics and morality, the obligations of the individual, the effects of family breakdown, and social alienation. Where Pulp Fiction was ultimately a movie about movies (and about TV
scene—a long, smooth glide down darkening suburban streets, seen through the windshield of the Whites’ Mercedes Benz—there is an air of gathering menace. The scene is accompanied by sustained minor-key synthesizer chords (the score is by Ed Tomney, but is reminiscent of Angelo Badalamenti’s spooky work with David Lynch). The Whites’ car pauses at a driveway gate, which rumbles open automatically, and then rolls into a garage. The door closes electronically behind them. This is safety: inside a
Heart Huckabees. But here, Russell is going for laughs first. Flirting with Disaster is his purest piece of comic filmmaking, even if, as before, his comedy springs from anxiety, alienation, and domestic dysfunction. Russell signals all of this in the opening scene, in which the manic Mel returns home to find his newborn baby son asleep and his wife Nancy lolling in bed, hoping to begin the kindling of their post-pregnancy sex life. Even when the baby wakes up, Nancy is determined to continue,
significant evolution in the portrayal of mental health treatment. Hollywood had a long history of depicting madhouses and asylums in mostly horrific terms, in movies like Shock Corridor, Suddenly Last Summer and, of course, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Those portrayals, grotesque though they may have been, reflected the unpleasantness of mental health care in America during most of the twentieth century, as well as societal attitudes toward those who required it. But Bottle Rocket is a