by Lucas Fink
Sincerity scares me. When the music cuts out in a movie, and I’m to observe the quietly sobbing face of the protagonist, marred by countless rivulets of tears, I get antsy. I get uncomfortable. When the music comes in, and the camera zooms out on the protagonist and their love interest embracing, as the screen fades to black, I get antsy. I get uncomfortable. But when the protagonist cracks a little “wink-to-the-audience” joke to undercut the emotional potency of scene, I feel relieved. Why is that?
Metamodernism is a really cool word that refers to the convergence of a modernist sincerity and a postmodernist cynicism in movies, television shows, books, and video games today. The term metamodernism was first used by Mas'ud Zavarzadeh in the 1970s and was substantiated further by Robin van den Akker and Timotheus Vermeulen in their 2010 essay on the subject. The crux of their argument is essentially that the modulation between elements of modernism and postmodernism in contemporary art is suggestive of a departure from postmodernism, and as a result, we need a new term to more aptly describe the current cultural scene. Let’s take, for example, the first Bryan Singer X-Men and the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, both of which are unapologetically sentimental and at no point engage in some meta-commentary on such sentimentality. Then we have the Marvel Cinematic Universe of the late 2000s and 2010s, which is, to an extent, predicated on rejecting and undercutting that overt sincerity with Robert Downey Jr.’s signature sarcasm. And, finally, we now have films like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, which rediscover an infectious earnestness while retaining that postmodern maturity of their Marvel predecessors.
This return to sincerity, mostly unadulterated by a tongue-in-cheek attitude, has not gone unchallenged; a vocal minority of angry man-children on 4Chan have made it their mission to deride every aspect of the new Star Wars films as a response to this tonal shift in their treasured franchise. Many of my peers share sentiments unsettlingly similar to those of the internet trolls, which to me indicates that sincerity is, in the current zeitgeist, no longer the default mode of communication. I notice this phenomenon in myself: in many discussions with friends, the literal meaning of what I say is the exact opposite of the actual meaning; I often use sarcastic inflections to vocalize thoughts or suggestions that I want to preemptively ensure won’t be taken seriously regardless of if I want them to be taken seriously. Sincerity scares me. I want to change that.
Postmodernism, I must be careful to point out, is in no way an innately bad thing; it, as a broad philosophical and cultural movement, does not endorse the substitution of Toby Maguire’s Spidey-Sentimentality with Ryan Reynold’s deadpan delivery of fourth wall-breaking witticisms. But the more we see this shift in our art, the more we’ll adopt irony as a primary means of communication. Or it could be that our art is merely responding to an increase in irony in the social scene. Does life imitate art, or vice versa? I have no idea. It does appear, though, that a metamodern shift is our only hope at eradicating this aversion to earnest expressions of emotion, as it may allow us to have the best of both worlds: in metamodern art, like Rick and Morty, a relentless, vitriolic, misanthropic pessimism is balanced by disarmingly sentimental reminders of its characters’ humanity. But, again, I don’t know the solution, or even if a solution to this phenomenon is needed.
What I do know, though, is that I miss when moments of collective catharsis, of emotional intimacy with others, weren’t something to be warded off by means of a snarky, self-aware remark. I long to see in the next Marvel movie a scene like Maguire’s Peter Parker suiting up for the first time: the score crescendoing euphorically as the image of Parker admiring himself in the mirror swells with unapologetic and unembarrassed pathos. I’ll end with a quote from the late David Foster Wallace, who says everything I’ve been trying to articulate in the last 690 words or so in just two sentences:
“Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving. There’s some great essay somewhere that has a line about irony being the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.”