Sorry to Bother You: Born and Raised in a Postmodern Age
I think one of the most wonderful parts about film of the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s was the abundance and mainstreaming of postmodern films. These were decades where directors, writers, composers and artists were able to take the whole canon of film, music, literature, art, etc. and make movies that looked and sounded closer to what the late 20th century turned out to be: a pastiche of rapidly changing styles and zeitgeist fueled by generational divides and simultaneous cohabitation. To put it less pretentiously: postmodern cinema of this time felt like an untouched sandbox for Boomers and Gen X artists to dig in and reconcile decades of influence they had increasingly unprecedented access to as the century kept marching forward.
The 21st century could almost be defined by the fact that postmodernism in media has become the default to such a degree that classifying movies that come out on a week-to-week basis as such has almost become meaningless. To put it in perspective: in the late ’70s Taxi Driver was heralded as a postmodern masterpiece for combining noir and western elements (among other signifiers in the classification) in the contemporary urban decay of modern-day New York City. In 2010 the film Drive would do something similar but it set its story in L.A. and even threw a stylized ’80s patina on top of all that and people barely flinched.
This doesn’t even get into how audiences once were hesitant to accept big meta hyperactive works that became cult films such as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Detention less than a decade ago, which became blueprints for a billion-dollar franchise like Deadpool. (You see, it’s clever and funny that Deadpool knows he’s in a movie. Hell, he may even know I’m writing this article right now.) Audiences have kind of been conditioned by filmmakers like Edgar Wright, Quentin Tarantino, Charlie Kaufman and the Coen Brothers to accept remixing, amalgamation, and metatexualism as a part of the process of modern filmmaking. Yet, there’s one element of postmodernism that occasionally gets lost in the conversation when we talk about what kind of effect these movies are trying to have on their audience.
As someone who spends many ill-advised hours hours a day on Twitter dot com, I got to see so many reactions and takes (hot, cold and every degree between) occur in real time as Boots Riley’s much anticipated and lauded film Sorry to Bother You started making its slow roll-out across the country. I saw everything you expect to see when a movie like this comes out. Sometimes accurate but mostly head-scratching comparisons to Spike Lee and Jordan Peele (I guess black filmmakers are a monolith?). People (including me, after having only seen the trailer!) throwing down Robert Downey, Sr.’s Putney Swope as direct influence even though Boots has stated multiple times that he has yet to see Putney Swope. And most importantly, people proudly shouting that this was a movie made in reaction to the political and economic climate under Trump, even though the screenplay for the film was written during the Obama administration and published in McSweeney’s in 2014. Yet in this whirlwind of thought, the reaction I was pleasantly surprised to see were comparisons to cult and Criterion classics of the ’80s like Brazil, They Live, and Repo Man, movies that are very postmodern and exciting in their approach but really dig into what’s so great about that same approach. Movies that illustrate in no uncertain terms the world we currently live in.
If there’s a common thread among the films I mentioned above it’s how blunt they are about their subject matter. Sure, Brazil is whimsical and incredibly funny but there are no two ways about its critique on bureaucracy and the dystopian state of consumerism and capitalism. The same themes (sans bureaucracy) could be applied to They Live and Repo Man but if you thought Brazil was blunt, the bold typeface on billboards and products in both of those films make Brazil look like a Yasujirō Ozu joint. This is all in service of saying that these were films that eschewed many forms of traditionalism to get their message across as clearly and thought-provokingly as possible. To me, Sorry to Bother You fits snuggly right alongside those films. It’s a story about the positive power and struggle of unionization in an increasingly technocratic environment, but how easy it is to devalue the individual while simultaneously exploiting and deifying them to hoodwink as many individuals as needed to keep the wheels of industry turning and the progress of class, race and art at a standstill.
Sorry to Bother You brings that blustery and welcome loose voice back to postmodern movies. Most (not all) postmodern film of the ’90s, ’00s, and ‘10s tended to focus on the tribulations of the individual and art itself. The holy trinity of Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman exemplify this best for me. They were making films that were existential mediations on human relationships and psyche. Tarantino makes pastiches that are more odes to film history than dissatisfaction with the status quo (although the revisionist history kick he’s on right now touches on that a bit). Boots Riley and everyone else who worked on the film incorporate all of the above and incorporate that urgency that been missing for a whole generation of cinephiles and moviegoers.
Millennials and this yet-to-be-arbitrarily-named-generation-after don’t look at postmodernism as a divergence and subversion of traditional filmmaking, but a cinematic language they’ve grown up speaking their whole lives due to all of the above-mentioned filmmakers, networks like Adult Swim, the Golden Age of Television/Peak TV, and absurdist fourth-wall breaking advertisements aimed to try and catch you off-guard. Sorry to Bother You is the first film in a long time that speaks that same language and talks about things that directly impact their lives on a day-to-day basis.
And a hell of entertaining one at that.
Sorry to Bother You screens Thursday, October 27th at 7 pm as part of this semester’s Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker series Boots Riley: Radical Instigator, a series about and featuring poet, rapper, songwriter, producer, screenwriter, director, community organizer, and public speaker Boots Riley.
David Yoder has two degrees in drawing comics, but he probably spends more time watching movies than drawing comics. He’s watched the 5-hour TV edit of Fanny and Alexander and also every Planet of the Apes movie (including the Tim Burton one).
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racer to The Holy Mountain and everything in between.