What makes the films of David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch postmodern?

Seminar Paper, 1998

11 Pages, Grade: 1



The term ‘postmodern’ has been used in different areas of study to describe similar phenomena. However, one must differentiate between postmodernism as a historical period, a cultural theory and an aesthetic category. The latter two uses will be the most important ones for my essay. It is essential for my discussion to include theories on postmodern culture, because the relationship between the real and its representation, and the zeitgeist as presented in film, is of vital importance for postmodern film.

I will not define the term postmodernism here, on the one hand because the brevity of this essay does not allow my entering this ongoing debate, and, on the other hand, because the term itself escapes any fixed definition - it is rather a set of different tendencies.

The terms ‘postmodernism’ or ‘the postmodern’ are less precise categories than different versions of an all-embracing gesture which sums up a spirit of the times, an atmosphere.[1]

However, to be able to discuss whether or not Jim Jarmusch’s and David Lynch’s films are postmodern, I must first find a definition for ‘postmodern film’. One would expect a postmodern film to tackle the postmodern condition, life in postmodernity, as its subject matter. Since the differences in class, gender and ethnicity are central to the discussion of postmodernism,[2] one can assume that these categories are equally important for the plot of a postmodern film. However, Down and Out in Beverly Hills is a film about life in the postmodern city and deals with questions of class and gender, but it is conventional in its style and structure, and obviously far from being a postmodern film. Thus not only the subject matter, but also the audio-visual style and narrative structure of a film should display postmodern characteristics.

One of those characteristics would be the film’s awareness of its own part in a visual culture, expressing ‘an intense preoccupation with the real and its representations’ (Denzin, p. vii). In other words, a postmodern film is aware of its being a film, of the history of films, film genres and conventions, and of the fact that films and television produce, rather than represent, reality.[3] This idea usually interacts with another tendency of postmodern film; the fact that it tends to incorporate earlier film styles or references to television programs, rock songs and other forms of popular culture in an eclectic manner, eclecticism being ‘the degree zero of contemporary general culture’.[4] The result is often referred to as ‘pastiche’.

Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique style, the wearing of a stylistic mask, speech in a dead language: but it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without parody’s ulterior motive, without the satiric impulse, without laughter, without that still latent feeling that there exists something normal compared to which what is being imitated is rather comic.[5]

The effect of this technique is a loss of depth; the different references and other signifiers of the film text interact with each other and popular culture on the surface level of the text rather than referring to signifieds in some deep structure. Another central issue of postmodernism is the critique of master-narratives, or unified, totalizing discourses (cf. Lyotard). The structure of a postmodern film, therefore, can be expected to be fragmented rather than unified.

The above does not amount to a clear definition of postmodern film, but my discussion is about tendencies rather than fixed notions of how things have to be. The latter approach would not possibly cover all the different films and directors who have been called postmodern. In my opinion, it is because of the fact that different postmodern tendencies can be discovered in different aspects of a film (style, narrative structure, subject matter) that ‘postmodern film’ is such a protean phenomenon. It does make sense, then, to discuss two filmmakers as different as Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch in the same context of postmodernism. Yet my discussion will tackle one after the other, rather than generalizing about both from the start.

Jim Jarmusch

One main postmodern characteristic of Jim Jarmusch’s films is their fragmentation. Jarmusch’s narrative structures and visual style are directed against Hollywood’s master-narrative, the ideal of the unified, perfectly coherent plot and visual illusion of reality through continuity cutting. Jarmusch, most radically in his second feature Stranger Than Paradise, believes in the long take. He creates single take sequences, often consisting of a full or long shot.

My vignettes are tableaus [sic] or proscenia, although we tried to avoid theatricality in terms of choreographing. [...] The viewer is allowed to choose what he wants to look at in the shot, just as he would pick out and concentrate on a character or a situation in a staged play. There are no reaction shots, over-the-shoulder shots, or dramatic close-ups. There is none of the image language that tells you exactly what is an important moment and what is not. You choose yourself.[6]

These sequences are separated from each other through fades to black. There is no coherence between these sequences in the sense of classical Hollywood plotting. Jarmusch rather confronts the viewers with bits and pieces of his characters’ lives. The effect is that the viewer must judge the importance and relevance of each sequence for him or herself, just like he or she is free to look at different parts of the tableau. This anti-hierarchical tendency is also mirrored in the larger structures of the stories in Jarmusch’s film. Almost all of his features consist of different episodes, which are united into a whole by some parallels: The stories of Mystery Train happen at the same place at the same time; simultaneity and thematic as well as structural parallels[7] unite the episodes of Night on Earth. Furthermore, along with the main episodes, Jarmusch insinuates parts of other, equally interesting stories that are never fully told in the film: How did the Italian lady’s husband die in Mystery Train ? What does the man with his Elvis ghost story really want? How did the newsagents’ clerk learn his extraordinary skill of selling useless magazines? All these stories are not subplots in a conventional sense; rather, they are on the same level like the main episodes, which are not fully told, either.


[1] Elizabeth Wilson, Hallucinations: Life in the Postmodern City (London: Radius, 1988), p. 191.

[2] cf. Norman K. Denzin, Images of Postmodern Society: Social Theory and Contemporary Cinema (London and Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1992), p.1.

[3] cf. Jean Baudrillard’s concept of the hyperreal in: Jean Baudrillard, Simulations, transl. Paul Foss, Paul Patton and Philip Beitchman (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983).

[4] cf. Jean François Lyotard, ‘Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?’ in: Patricia Waugh (ed.), Postmodernism: A Reader (London etc.: Edward Arnold, 1992), p. 120.

[5] Frederic Jameson, ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society.’ in: Hal Foster (ed.), Postmodern Culture (London: Pluto Press, 1983), p. 114.

[6] Jim Jarmusch, quoted in Richard Linnett, ‘As American as You Are: Jim Jarmusch and ‘Stranger Than Paradise’ in: Cineaste 14.1 (1985), p.26.

[7] For instance, in all the episodes of Night on Earth, the taxi drivers and their costumers share something: chainsmoking in Los Angeles, stupid hats in New York, blindness in Paris (‘Ivoirien - y voit rien’), Catholicism in Rome and sadness in Helsinki.

Excerpt out of 11 pages


What makes the films of David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch postmodern?
University of Aberdeen  (English Department)
American Film Renaissance
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Studie zweier sehr unterschiedlicher Ausformungen des postmodernen Films, jene von Jim Jarmusch und jene von David Lynch Studie zweier sehr unterschiedlicher Ausformungen des postmodernen Films, jene von Jim Jarmusch und jene von David Lynch
What, David, Lynch, Jarmusch, American, Film, Renaissance
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Mag. Markus Widmer (Author), 1998, What makes the films of David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch postmodern?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/14783


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