The Non-Rules of Post-Modern Film
   The paradox of rules in a world without them
   by Nicholas Rombes

One of the unexpected consequences of postmodernism has been the embracing of rules by the very people who were supposed to have inherited the liberation from rules that postmodernism promised. After decades of deconstruction, it might come as a surprise that today’s avant garde has found that a return to rules provides not only a more radical gesture, but also a more artistically satisfying one, than the sort of liberation promised by postmodernism. It’s as if choice itself has become exhausting; the more tools at your disposal, the more uninspiring the final product can become. Sure, we now have pretty sophisticated video editing programs at our disposal, with sepia tones and fades and wipes and voice-overs and credit sequences, but behind all that you still need a good story to tell. It’s the great secret of punk and dadaism and every new wave that’s ever retained its charm and attraction: less is more.

And so, in our narcissistic age of endless choice, of replicating screens, of options, of second chances, of updates, of do-overs, of gross indulgence, is it any surprise that the best new art rejects the limitless and limitlessly dull aesthetics of freedom and instead embraces the hard strictures of rules? The most obvious example is the Dogme 95 movement, whose manifesto-like “Vow of Chastity” for filmmaking was initially dismissed by many critics as a stunt, as a cheap trick (as if stunts and cheap tricks can’t result in great art, or as if every movie ever made wasn’t, at its very core, a simple illusion, a trick). Here are the last three rules in the list of ten that constitute the Vow of Chastity:
8. Genre movies are not acceptable.
9. The film format must be Academy 35mm.
10. The director must not be credited.

But now, approaching ten years later, the Vow of Chastity drawn up by directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, even as the founders of the movement have moved onto to other styles, remains a signal moment in the rejection of postmodernism’s dismantling of the rules. Like Iggy Pop and the Stooges, who in the late 1960s helped create the conditions for punk’s arrival in 1975, the Dogme 95 movement was the first indication of one of postmodernism’s unintended consequences: a return (with irony) to the very system of rules that postmodern writers and critics had worked so hard to expose and dismantle.

Is it any surprise that those disenchanted with the legacy of the 1970s would return to the more formal strictures? For the anti-heroes of the 1960s and 70s (in Bonnie and Clyde, , Easy Rider, Badlands, Taxi Driver, Straw Dogs) have been replaced with either comic book superheroes or characters whose struggle to regain family or retain their humanity (Minority Report, The Matrix films, Vanilla Sky) create easy patterns of identification for us. In retrospect, it’s easy to see how so many films from the 60s and 70s were social problem films disguised as paranoid thrillers, or crime films—even the early films of Brian DePalma, such as Sisters and Blow Out, worked through thickets of political subtexts. The complex allure of these films was not so much in their rebelliousness, but rather in the way they confounded audience expectations. In Easy Rider, for instance, what at first appears to be a “liberal” hippie, counterculture film that invites audiences to identify with the anti-establishment values of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper turns out to be something else entirely, as hippie life is openly critiqued, and even mocked, in the commune scenes during the middle portions of the film. The same could be said for Taxi Driver, which alternately asks audiences to sympathize with Travis (he is put upon by society, he can be funny, he is disturbed by the corruption of the city) and loathe him (he is a racist, he is obsessive, he is destructive).

If many of today’s films make it easy for us to know from the outset how we are supposed to relate to its characters, leaving little room for surprise in our relationship with them, this conservatism is offset by the radical format of the DVD itself, which foregrounds the material conditions of a film’s production, which are open for all to see on the bonus features of the DVD, in the now familiar behind-the-scenes footage, deleted scenes, director and cast commentaries, making-of vignettes, etc. The destruction of the mystery of the film as object—what, in the 1930s, critic Walter Benjamin called the “aura” of a work of art—is itself a radical gesture, one which culture is still absorbing. For we now live in a time when the avant-garde emerges not from the artistic fringe, but rather from the very mechanisms of commercial culture, which in fact provide the tools, the means, and the distribution technologies. That is, films might not be radical in content; instead, their radicalness lies in their very distribution on the internet and as DVDs, which promote a skeptical, distanced reception that teaches us that even the most powerful narratives are just the products of x, y, and z.

Ours is a curious era, one where it is difficult for a radical idea to remain radical for long, because our jaded habits today teach us to view everything—even radical ideas—as the products of a set of arbitrary rules. There is nothing more dangerous to new ideas than the bored sigh of those who have seen everything before, and who have been taught to see through the mysteries of art. The narratives of the world—in movies, books, and music—have been too vigorously disenchanted through the relentless mechanisms of deconstruction (how a film is made, how a book is written) for us to believe in them anymore. Speed is the ultimate weapon against outsider stances; word travels fast and soon the experimental object, the dangerous thought, becomes exposed to the restless gaze of the culture, whose watching sometimes takes the form of surveillance, and sometimes the form of voyeurism. Blogs, listserves, chatrooms, and the endless, narcissistic replication of personal expression on the internet provides an equality of ideas where the good and the bad, the brilliant and the mediocre, the sharp and the dull, exist in the same undifferentiated realm. It is a culture of the impermanent archive.

And this is precisely why movies remain so vital, for their presence on the DVD (itself a technology whose obsolescence is already being planned) constitutes our best snapshot of a transformation in this country into the practical enactment of what used to be pure theory. For if radical Marxist and postmodernist theory of the 1960s and 70s did anything, it was to teach us to see the world as disenchanted, as a place ruled by those elites who had access to the technologies of storytelling. Today, even if you have never read one single word of postmodern theory, you are in fact engaging with it every time you put the DVD into your player and navigate the menu. For your manipulation of the film is in fact an act of deconstruction allowing you to peer behind the curtain, to see the very tools of narrative making. And when you go to the theater you are doing so as an ironic viewer, one who knows that the story you are about to be told—a story that might genuinely move you—is the product of the very deliberate and conscious strategies that you have seen on DVD. And this ironic posturing is now a part of everyday life: when you adopt a role or a character’s point-of-view in a video game, or when you slip into another role in an email or in a chat room.

And so, in a strange way, the recent invoking of rules in cinema—ranging from the lesson on the rules of the slasher film given to us in Scream, to the Dogme ’95 Manifesto, to Tyler Durden’s exposition of the rules of Fight Club in Fight Club, to Leonard’s list of facts tattooed across his body in Memento, to the cool, connect-the-dots logic of Swimming Pool—turns out to be a radical response to the destruction of rules that was the promise of postmodernism. For if the unintended outgrowth of the radical poetics of previous decades has been a larger public discourse of narcissism and personal expressivism (“I don’t like you; I’m going to vote you off my island”) then this fascination with rules points to our deeper sense that creative freedom is always relative and can only ever be defined in relation to What is Not Allowed. Film directors who are returning to a rule-based process of filmmaking have perhaps realized the thrilling paradox of liberation through constraint.

-- Nicholas Rombes

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Nicholas Rombes is an associate professor of English at the University of Detroit Mercy, where he teaches classes in film and literature, and were he co-founded the Electronic Critique Program (

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