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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Postmodernism and Pastiche of Army of Darkness

The term, postmodern can mean a whole host of things in relationship to art. It's exact definition is and will continue to be the topic of debate. It will be described by its critics as a cynical and nihilistic mash-up of the previous ideas of creative people. While proponents see it as intellectual deconstruction and homage of the artistic stepping stones that paved the road to the modern age.

There are many ways in which cinema can be postmodern. One theme is common however for the piece to be considered in this category. We are talking about films that are evidently aware of the films that came before them. Sometimes this comes out as a critique of the reality in which we live by warping that world with drug induced hazes, time travel, or other types of alternate or hyper realities that are all consuming to the characters. Other times, we 'flatten the affect' of the world around us by showing an emotional detachment of the characters to each other and their surroundings. Examples range from Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" ('82) to Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation" (03) to pretty much everything Quentin Tarantino has ever done.

I think Sam Raimi's 1992 film fits best in the pastiche category. Pastiche is a term that refers to a piece of visual art that pays tribute and homage to pieces that came before it. Unlike parody, pastiche is a celebration of the works that came before. Like most filmmakers, Raimi was inspired by the other artists in many different genres. He shows that inspiration in his films, especially "Army of Darkness."

There are a lot of smaller, almost throw away instances in this film that reference other films. For example, when all of the mini Ashes tie Ash up to the floor is very reminiscent to a scene in Disney's "Gulliver's Travels" (39). Also, the words Ash is supposed to speak when he retrieves the book: "Klattu, Barada Nikto" are the same words used to control the robot in Robert Wise's 1951 film, "The Day The Earth Stood Still." There are other lines as well that are lifted from other films.

One of the most obvious examples of pastiche and homage in "AoD" is in its special effects and makeup work, much of which was meant to pay tribute to visual effects mastermind Ray Harryhausen.

You can see here, the similarities between Raimi's witch from "AoD" (top) and Harryhausen's Medusa in "Clash of the Titans" (bottom). The facial makeup is very similar.

Now take a look at some of the stop motion skeleton designs. On the top, you see 2 of Harryhausen's from the 1963 film, "Jason and the Argonauts." Then below is one from "AoD". Both are very similar even down to the expressions on their faces.... which skeletons are not supposed to have. Even the shooting process for the interior shots was done on an introvision or front projection stage as a tribute to the way Harryhausen's films were shot.

Part horror, part comedy, "Army of Darkness" at its core, is also very much an epic film. It is a story of a hero's quest. Not unlike Homer's Odyssey or Beowulf, it follows the typical twelve stages of the hero's journey beginning and ending in the ordinary world of S-mart.

It is this reason that I began thinking about it in reference to another epic film that I happened to watch recently. "Army of Darkness" tells the story of a man from a time of enlightenment who finds himself among a more primitive culture. He mentors them, introduces them to gunpowder and eventually trains and leads their army into battle to defeat a common enemy. All the while, struggling with the morality of his own ulterior motives.... This is also the basic plot line of a film that is ranked #80 on "IMDB's Top 250 List", #5 on AFI's "100 Greatest American Movies Of All Time" and #1 on Empire's "100 Best British Films Ever"... This film is so good, AFI and Empire are apparently arguing over which side of the pond it is from...(spoiler alert: it's British) I am referring of course to David Lean's 1962 masterpiece "Lawrence of Arabia".

I can hardly tell the difference

There are more similarities between these two films than the plot however. It was actually a few very specific shots in the opening scene of "AoD" that reminded me of "LoA". The film opens with a shot of feet drudging through the desert sands as Ash is being lead in chains to Arthur's castle. The vast majority of "LoA" takes place in the desert sands and is full of shots like this one. Then, as Ash's chainsaw is being held by Arthur's perplexed wise man, the blade reflects the bright sunlight directly into the camera, we quickly dissolve into a shot of the sun. This immediately reminded me of the sharp cut in "LoA" when Lawrence blows out the match into the beautiful wide sunset shot. Also, both films have the word 'of' right in the middle of the title...

When its all said and done, you would be pretty hard pressed to find a film that isn't a result of the inspirations borrowed from generations past. Postmodernism's greatest achievement is in blurring the lines between what was previously considered "high" & "low" art. Film is as progressive as it is expressive. It constantly changes and evolves. Filmmakers will never stop learning from each other and cinema will never stop serving as the best education for the next filmmakers. 

Come get some...

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