Postmodernism Through Film

It is generally agreed upon that postmodernism has no single or easily-identified definition. It is more of an idea or concept rather than a specific term. As a result it has become easier to define ‘postmodernism’ through examples rather than words. Considering this fact, between class discussions, personal observations and opinion, I have come to the conclusion that something (technology, books, architecture, etc.) can be placed in the category of ‘postmodern’ if it has one or more of the following characteristics: a critical reflection on the society in which it was created; a creation of something new from one or more things that already exist; and an abstract or concrete presentation of what could be, which usually presents itself as the future. A comparison of the two films, Brazil and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind will give an illustration of what it means to be postmodern through their use of the aforementioned characteristics.

The 1985 movie Brazil follows an average white-collar worker who is deeply entrenched and devoted to his excessively bureaucratic job and way-of-life when he realizes there’s been a fatal mistake committed by his department. In his attempt to correct the error and find the woman of his fantastic dreams, literally, his eyes are opened to the reality of what’s going on around him. On the other hand, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which was released in 2004, dives in to the memories of an average guy who, after breaking up with the love-of-his-life, discovers that she’s had him erased from her memory and decides to do the same. In the middle of the procedure, he realizes that he really doesn’t want to go through with it and tries his best to keep his memories. Although he is unsuccessful in saving his memories, in a curious twist of fate they do end up meeting again and falling for each other.

Both movies are presented in a very unusual manner which helps draw attention to their substance and the different messages the creators may be trying to convey. Both Brazil and Eternal Sunshine give their own commentary on the respective societies and times in which they were released. Brazil very obviously reflects on the ideas of terrorism and bureaucracy. The first scenes in which the audience is given a glimpse into where Sam Lowry, the main character, works show a very gray, depressing, monotonous environment full of drones who live for the seconds when their boss isn’t paying attention and they are able to all crowd around one television. When Lowry accepts a promotion, he is sent to a different department where he is given a dreary office smaller than the size of most bedroom closets in which he is forced to share a desk through a wall with the man next to him occupying the same type of office space. It is hard not to appreciate the idea being presented here that most 9-to-5 jobs offer nothing but gloom and despair to the many men and women forced to fill the positions unless you are one of the lucky ones who resign themselves to their situation and allow their minds to leave their bodies for eight hours out of each day. This probably hit home for a lot of people during the eighties because that decade saw a huge increase in the number of cubicle workers with the onslaught of female workers and the recent technological revolution.

Another comment on bureaucracy is made when Jill Layton, Lowry’s love interest, is forced to fill out an unnecessary amount of forms when trying to retrieve information about the same mistake Lowry has become aware of and is later required to go through the same unnecessary paperwork. This is an experience that I can safely say most Americans can identify with. It’s pretty much goes without saying that any progress is quickly brought to an excruciatingly slow pace when trying to accomplish anything that involves the government or corporate endeavors. The need to be organized combined with the fanatical need to document has resulted in a lot of wasted trees and time.

Brazil also comments on an issue that may have seemed a little comical and out-of-place in 1985 but has become much more prevalent in the twenty years since the release of the movie. Many of the wealthy older women in the movie were experimenting with a new kind of plastic surgery. Because this is a postmodern film, the plastic surgery that was presented in the movie would have purposefully seemed a little extreme at the time, but looking at it now doesn’t seem so. When the audience meets Lowry’s mother she had just undergone a procedure that removes a layer of the skin after being wrapped in cellophane. Another one of her wealthy friends undergoes another type of plastic surgery on her face that involves acid. Throughout the movie, it is evident that the procedures are gradually deteriorating the woman’s face as a result of “complications,” but her doctor always has a reason and she keeps accepting them in the desperate goal to achieve “beauty” again. We can now see how important it was to heed the warning this film provided. With the staggering amounts of operations and increasing amounts of silicon or Botox complications ending in death or permanent disfiguring, it is hard to ignore the message that was sent twenty years ago.

Interestingly enough, Brazil also focuses on the very relevant issue of terrorism. Throughout the majority of the movie, the audience is led to believe that the main enemy of the people of this ambiguously located society is terrorists. Towards the end of the movie, it is evident that the ‘terrorists’ may in fact be the government cleaning up behind themselves or getting rid of people or problems that they do not or cannot handle. Layton, Tuttle, Lowry’s renegade electrician, and eventually Lowry himself are all labeled as terrorists because they refuse to comply with the government in one way or another, although none of them have anything to do with the random bombings that occur throughout the movie. This is an ingenious way of stating the obvious- governments use scare tactics, lies and sometimes illegal means to accomplish their goal which is to stay innocent in the eyes of the public, no matter what.

On a slightly lighter note, Eternal Sunshine deals with the more personal matter of using technology to manipulate mental or emotional activity. The relative ease with which Joel Barish and Clementine Kruczynski, the couple around whom the story revolves, find Lacuna, the company that erases memories, and decide to undergo the procedure is nothing short of alarming. It speaks of a society that has placed personality, nature and that which makes us human way below technology in the hierarchy of deference. The relatively recent increase in the use of mood-altering drugs like Prozac, Zoloft or Dexedrine definitely takes a step across the boundary of science/technology and the psychological. According to the movie, this development does not constitute positive progress and will ultimately be useless because nature/psychology will overcome as exemplified in the fact that Clementine and Joel were drawn to each other even after the procedure and Kirsten Dunst’s character, Mary, was drawn to her married boss even after she had had their previous affair erased from her memory.

As stated earlier, the creators of both films chose new and different ways of conveying their stories. Brazil director, Terry Gilliam, chose to create a bureaucratic, retro-futuristic terrorized world by showing extreme and almost comical situations instead of using the realistic straightforward sequence approach. Scenes in which Lowry’s new boss is perpetually being followed by a gang of eager employees up and down hallways that appear out of nowhere and in and out of rooms that don’t seem to exist illustrate this new style of directing. Gilliam also latched on to the relatively new trend that has become a calling card of a lot of postmodern films, which involves adding a retro element to what are supposed to be futuristic worlds. The not-so-far-off future of Brazil contained extreme high rises with more advanced forms of transportation while its inhabitants donned ‘50s style clothing. Lowry has an automatic wake-up system which turns on his shower, offers his outfit for the day, makes his breakfast and turns on the television (although it did malfunction at the beginning of the movie), but they still use typewriters and suction ducts to transport mail. It creates a world that can’t be placed. Although it was not a new method, his unusual use of dream sequences adds a nice postmodern touch.

Eternal Sunshine definitely cut out a new path in its directorial style. Director Michel Gondry created the feeling of actually being inside someone’s memory by using the idea of a dream sequence and tweaking it to the point where it most closely resembled what we think of when recalling our own memories. Memories do not have a smooth flow about them in real life, therefore Gondry made Joel’s dreams very choppy as seen in his recollection of Clementine and himself sitting in front of the television eating Chinese food. Parts of the conversation were missing and Joel’s location in the room kept changing while certain items would disappear and reappear. In other memories, the direction in which Joel or Clementine were walking would suddenly change, objects would change color or chunks of a memory would be cut out because it had simply been forgotten. In an attempt to stay true to real life, Gondry also did not allow Joel to remember things he had not seen or experienced in real life which caused certain things or people to be disfigured or ambiguous in the actual memory. For example, Joel could not see the face of Clementine’s new boyfriend after believing he’d only seen the back and side of him once, no matter how hard he tried to see him in his memory. By following these rules, Gondry had to come up with the creation of certain scenes and their transitions like no other director before him. Portraying dreams while fading in and out of them in the most realistic way possible is not an easy feat to accomplish on film, which is part of what makes Gondry’s way of tackling it very postmodern.

With all the critical analysis and new creations contained in both films, it would be hard for the creators to not make some kind of statement about what they think the ultimate result will be. Brazil very cleverly makes the audience believe that there will be a happy ending more than once, but it is made very clear at the end that there is no happy ending and that bureaucracy has won the battle. None of the “good guys” have won and the government is still on top without having been exposed. This is not a fairy tale ending and neither should it be. The movie is depicting a society much like the one we live in today where the government is either heading or are involved in shady dealings while dissenters who are telling the truth are silenced under different labels while the public is given excuse after excuse after excuse. The recent battle between Cynthia McKinney and the Bush administration concerning the 9/11 attacks is a perfect example of this. The point is that this has probably been happening since 1776 with the signing of the Declaration of Independence and it won’t end until there is a serious change in society. If the main character in a movie could not overcome the evil powers of a government just imagine how difficult it would be in real life!

Brazil gives a very clear idea of what could be. Bureaucracy could take over the world, inundating it with paperwork until everyone is confused, lied to and frustrated to the point where they couldn’t even think of having a voice. It tells of a world in which violence and corruption is so rampant that people become desensitizes and are no longer concerned with it. Extreme plastic surgery and poverty become a way of life.

Eternal Sunshine’s happing ending gives the impression that even with all the new science and technology we are coming up with, there will never be anything stronger than human will. No matter how complex or sophisticated we think we have become, it will never be enough to truly delve into the human mind and completely understand or control it. Even with something as “basic” as anxiety pills, the never-ending list of side effects that goes along with the drug is the tell tale sign that we really don’t have a strong grip on the psychological/biological activities of the human brain.

The idea of what could be is not as clear in Eternal Sunshine as it is in Brazil. It is clear that there is a sense of hope and strength in human will but at the same time it raises the question of “how far will we take it in trying to overcome that human will?” It is this question that makes Eternal Sunshine’s ending not so happy or so clear anymore. The fact that Lacuna was doing such good business, granted such easy access to the public and serviced all types of people trying to rid themselves of all types of memories created the feeling that having the procedure done was just like going to get a haircut. If it had become such a common or accepted thing to do, that only means that people were ready to be presented with the next more advanced procedure that could have more permanent altering effects. Of course, according to the movie, the human will would still prevail but at what cost and why make ourselves work so unnecessarily hard.

It should now be obvious to see how these two films represent postmodernism. Brazil analyses bureaucracy and government propaganda while Eternal Sunshine analyses how far we will take science and technology in the pursuit of personal modification. Gilliam’s different ways of portraying the 9-to-5 grind in a retro-futuristic world along with Gondry’s innovative manipulation of dream sequences to portray realistic memories offer new ways to perceive the stories being presented. When it’s all put together, both films offer their own views of what the future might hold, whether it be about bureaucratic conspiracies or the dangers of mixing technology and psychology, they provide cautionary tales of what could be, which is almost a must for something to be considered postmodern.


Brazil. Dir. Terry Gilliam. Perf. Jonathan Pryce, Robert DeNiro and Kim Greist. Universal, 1985.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Dir. Michel Gondrey. Perf. Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet and Elijah Wood. Focus Features, 2004.

The Internet Movie Database. 29 July 2005. 20 July 2005.

Thacker, Eugene. What is Postmodernism? Georgia Institute of Technology, Georgia. 17 May 2005.

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