Gary Aylesworth observed that “postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning” (Aylesworh). The application of the elements of difference, hyperreality and simlulacrum have been used effectively in the post war cinema by the combination of realities, including the then current environment with an animated environment. Although this hybrid approach was leveraged in early popular films such as The Wizard of Oz and King Kong, it was only with the improvement in film technology and special effects in the late 1980s and the 1990s that these movie genres could be deeply combined into complex and hybrid genres including cartoons. Two movies in particular exemplify of how movie genres could be merged because of these improvements in and the postmodern desire to question modern narratives and to combine several types of art to create a remixed and hyperreal work of art. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) and Space Jam (1996) take modern narratives and dramatically present them in an otherworldly context.
The Who Framed Roger Rabbit narrative focuses on a common lead character, a private detective, Eddie Valiant, who investigates a murder whose leading suspect is the famous cartoon character, Roger Rabbit. Throughout the film, the sets are equally distributed between the human, or “real”, world and “Toontown.” Because of its technological ability to almost seamlessly integrate the “toon” world with the “human” world, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is able to venture into a new type of film hybrid – one that blends the genres of cartoon comedy, romance, and film noir. The 1988 film, according to the work of Frederic Jameson, could be an example of the pastiche that is tied into the definition of postmodernism (Jameson). Who Framed Roger Rabbit imitates cartoon comedy without making a parody of the integration of animation. The hybridity and the hyper-reality of the “real” world, the “Hollywood world” and the “cartoon world” is relatively seamless and destroys any “sense of clear generic boundaries” that defines modernism (Irvine chart).
Joe Pytka’s 1996 Space Jam follows its predecessor by integrating several film genres to create the ultimate popular culture film. Space Jam is a also hybrid film that mixes the genres of cartoon comedy, “family live-action”, sports, and alien invasion. The alien invasion film narrative of the 1950s is insinuated in the plot of Space Jam, but instead of repeating the nationalistic metanarrative where the Western society defeats the exterior threat and obliterates them in a demonstration of national strength and power (Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)), the cartoon aliens are welcomed into American society. This acceptance also leads to the question of individual identity and whether there still exists a national identity in a postmodern world.
In both Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Space Jam there is a similar loss of generic boundaries, but in the postmodern society, the integration of the “real” and the cartoon was the next ultimate step. This blurring of both generic lines and the representation of the real is something that has evolved since both of these movies were released as special effects technology has improved. The digital age has created the ultimate hybrid film, one where there is an expectation of the “real” and the “simulacra.” Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Space Jam reflect the post-modern film for two reasons, one of which was hinted to earlier. First, both films distribute the power equally between the human and cartoon worlds and give more “value” to the “surface” or the visual of the film rather than the narrative. This is best exampled in the character of Jessica Rabbit whose cartoon character was derived from the “va-voom” actresses of the fifties and earlier such as Veronica Lake. The director chose to represent the real, Veronica Lake, through media. The culture of postmodern society is adapting “to simulation, visual media becoming undifferentiated equivalent forms, …[and]…simulation and real-time media substituting for the real” (Irvine).
Postmodernism is also embraced by both of these films because of the manner in which they raise popular culture up on a pedestal. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit, we see Toontown and leading character Roger Rabbit united with a hardboiled fiction narrative reminiscent of late 1940s and early 1950s detective fiction and film noir. In Space Jam we see a clearer attempt to merge elements of popular culture with the collaboration of popular children’s culture with the Looney Toons, the American underdog sports film (a genre that boomed in the 1990s), Michael Jordon (the leading international sports star of the time) and popular music. These last elements completely create this post-modern genre. Where the music in Who Framed Roger Rabbit was derivative of genres that are united, the soundtrack from Space Jam was a clear reflection of the popular music of the mid-1990s using artists such as R-Kelly, Busta Rhymes, LL Cool J, B-Real, Coolio, and Quad City DJ. The artists were asked to specifically write songs for the family-comedy film, a request that forced the artists to venture far from their usual genre and audience. Even within their music videos, as seen in “Hit Em-High”, they integrated cartoon animation blurring lines between genres once again.
Although postmodernism may be undefinable, its elements may be seen in our cultural expressions. The combination of characters, media, story lines, different realities and narratives introduced by films such as Space Jam and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, provide a view of some of these elements.
Pytka, Joe. Space Jam. 1996.
Zemeckis, Robert. Who Framed Roger Rabbit. 1988.
Martin Irvine, “Approaches to Po-Mo”
Frederic Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”
Aylesworth, Gary, “Postmodernism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition),