Film & Media Studies Theory

Whitman College – FMS 387

A Pastiche World

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The Cancan scene near the beginning of Moulin Rouge provides the same possible interpretations as a postmodern work as Poor Things, discussed in the reading.  The scene is an extravagant, disorienting mash-up of images and songs, from Christina Aguilera to Nirvana, that establishes the atmosphere of the Moulin Rouge in the film.  From one view, it raises “questions about what sort of world is being created at each moment in the text, and who or what in the text [the reader] can believe or rely on” (Malpas, 24).  The world in this scene does not adhere to a single genre or definition; it’s historical in costuming and setting, or so the viewer is supposed to believe.  The film states that it’s 1900, but the inclusion of modern day music and extremely stylized mise-en-scene challenges that, and defies our preconceived notions about what 1900 France looks like.  We assume that even a 1900s version of a strip club (itself an assumption about the Moulin Rouge) wouldn’t look like this, with such modern salaciousness and lechery.  Furthermore, viewer disbelief is fostered by the direct address by Zidler, as he sings his lines from a seeming imaginary, film-specific space straight into the camera.  This breaks conventions, calling the formal and narrative world in the film into question.  

According to Malpas, by questioning the film’s world this way, two further critical perspectives could be adopted.  One is Jameson’s view, and the other Hutcheon, and they both provide a critical framework that this film could exemplify.  According to  Jameson’s defintion, this scene seems to be pastiche, or “concerned only with the superficial appropriation of different modes and genres for the generation of its own performative style” (Malpas, 25).  This scene is certainly stylized, and moves at such a rapid pace that piecing together meaning is difficult.  Instead, what jumps out is popular music, crazily dancing people, and Zidler, which bring modern pop culture to a historical setting.  Because it is unclear what is being mimicked, it does not seem to be a parody of anything, rather it stands alone as a postmodern, unclear mash-up of history and pop culture.  

However, this scene could be criticizing culture when viewed with Hutcheon’s notions of postmodernity, particularly when it’s considered “‘historiographic metafiction’” (Malpas, 26).  It questions our notions of the past by directly contrasting it with the present.  This isn’t a piece of historical fiction, because it is so focused on the music and style the present lends to it.  This calls to question “‘identity and subjectivity…the intertextual nature of the past; and the ideological implications of writing about history’” (Malpas, 26).  Moulin Rouge, especially this mash-up of past of present, makes us wonder about the past, question our notions of this time period and the way people acted then as opposed to today.  What it seems to conclude, particularly with its inclusion of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” is that people weren’t necessarily so different back then as they are today, though we’re seemingly always led to believe so.  

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These films came out at nearly the same time, have the same layout, and an incredibly similar plot; one isn’t copying another, necessarily. But I believe they’re indicative of a more vast simulacra; the romantic comedy.  Could genre be a simulacra..?

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