There was an interesting article in The Guardian by film critic Jonathan Jones, who suggests that Steven Spielberg’s film Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the first great work of Postmodern art. He writes:

What makes me call this film “postmodernist“? Partly it is the homely suburban world where Spielberg sets his story. American films have a long heritage of adventure. Big films before this tended to be set in big places with big characters – but Richard Dreyfuss plays a nobody who lives in nowhereseville to whom something weird happens.

For those interested in a brief over view of postmodernism, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a brief, but thorough, introduction.

PBS’s Faith and Reason site, also has a good glossary entry that sums up postmodernism succinctly.

A general and wide-ranging term which is applied to literature, art, philosophy, architecture, fiction, and cultural and literary criticism, among others. Postmodernism is largely a reaction to the assumed certainty of scientific, or objective, efforts to explain reality. In essence, it stems from a recognition that reality is not simply mirrored in human understanding of it, but rather, is constructed as the mind tries to understand its own particular and personal reality. For this reason, postmodernism is highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person. In the postmodern understanding, interpretation is everything; reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually. Postmodernism relies on concrete experience over abstract principles, knowing always that the outcome of one’s own experience will necessarily be fallible and relative, rather than certain and universal.

Honestly I am totally confused by the whole article on Close Encounters.  Not confused in the sense that I don’t understand what Jones is saying, but confused that anyone would think that Close Encounters is a postmodern film. It seems to me that it flows directly out of the very modern sci-fi films of the 1950s and 60s. It is a story about being visited by aliens that is very much in the tradition of It Came from Outer Space, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and The Man from Planet X.

When I think of postmodern storytelling there are several characteristics that come to mind: A lack of privileged perspective; avoidance of grand narratives or universalist themes suggesting one truth might apply to all peoples or in all circumstance; a self-awareness of the story teller telling the story; and an overwhelming use of irony that (in my view) tends to create an emotional distance between the audience and the characters.

In contrast, Close Encounters has a strong central character who we follow throughout the film (we see nearly everything from Roy’s perspective). For contrast think of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey where we have a 20 minute intro with no characters, followed by 40 minutes spent with someone we assume will be the main character, but then is never heard from again as the story shifts to a completely new set of characters.

Close Encounters has strong traditional themes of the importance of family, longing for knowledge, and seeking the human place in the universe. True, Roy abandons his family at the end of the film, but to embrace an adventure with the aliens and the answers to the great mysteries of the universe. And the very use of music as a means of communication speaks to the presence of a universal language.

I find Close Encounters to be resolutely modern in the sense that Spielberg never tries to let the audience become aware that they are watching a film. It’s been a while since I’ve watched Alphaville, but Godard is, to my mind, the first real postmodern filmmaker, especially in the way that he tended to make the awareness of watching his films part of the experience of watching them.

Finally, there is no hint of irony or any attempt to create emotional distance between the audience and Roy. In fact, every attempt is made to help the audience identify with Roy, to see the events of the story through his eyes, and to accept them at face value. Imagine Tarantino making Close Encounters and the very thought should make clear the difference.

Maybe, I’m confused about the nature of postmodernism as it relates to art, and film in particular, but I don’t think Close Encounters comes anywhere near being postmodern.

For more reading on postmodernism and sci-fi there a great list here.


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