A Place for Things
Postmodernism has long since acquired its own history, sloughed off several different skins and assimilated competing aesthetics while never being replaced by another paradigm. As much as you can see this in architecture, in the decline of the Michael Graves/Terry Farrell aesthetic of 1980s super-pomo, you can see it in film. There was a brilliant post about a year ago at boredom is always counter-revolutionary about what we could call the early postmodernist metropolis, as seen in a variety of special effects-laden blockbusters. These films - he lists Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Batman, The Crow, Ghostbusters - are examples of 'prototype cyberpunk environments (which) root themselves too firmly to the past and to material humanity to really embrace the digitalised dystopia suggested by that label.' This is an era where Jim Henson's Creature Workshop represents the last gasp of the Harryhausen uncanny before the dominance of CGI, and its ability to make the impossible boring. The city is always (a version of) New York, and it is probably the formative idea of the city for those of us (like myself and I presume, Sam of Boredom is always) who were born in the 1980s and watched these films in the multiplexes or nagged our parents to buy the extensive merchandise. A city of shadows, Gothic skyscrapers, Koolhaasian congestion, megalomaniac bosses (business and criminal) and animatronic creatures rising up from the urban id. If there is any worth whatsoever in the decade's mainstream architecture then it's in the occasional ability of the likes of Broadgate to evoke these places' pre-web physicality and air of doom and excess; and if it survives anywhere in London, it is in the derangement of the senses found in the Trocadero.
Gremlins 2 is arguably the finest of these films. Here, Joe Dante's monsters emerge again from their cutesy chrysalis, except this time they get a New York skyscraper to destroy rather than a mere suburban town. This place, the Clamp Centre, is an amalgam of the Trump tower and the technofetishism of prime-era High Tech. Outside there is 'slick-tech' mirrorglass, inside bared machinery that seems to evoke the revived, shoulderpadded art deco of Helmut Jahn as much as it does Rogers and Foster. Announcing itself as 'the world's most fully automated office building', it is workplace, television station, mall and secret experimental laboratory (helmed, of course, by Christopher Lee). Our protagonist is a draughtsman in the tower's architectural department, and, doubtless alienated by all this post-industrial chaos, sketches images of his suburban hometown when the boss isn't looking. Although the film is, aside from the monsters themselves, little more than the sum of its references (as many as a particularly dense episode of The Simpsons), at the heart of it is an architectural parable. We know, of course, that all this fully automated skyscraper is going to be taken over by the Gremlins, and even before it is, we have an exploration of its mixed uses that suggests Dante had a very well-thumbed copy of Delirious New York. We also see its unofficial spaces, its ducts and service areas, the inside and outside of its lift shafts, all of which the Gremlins and the Mogwai can traverse as they wish. The laboratory creates all manner of enhanced Gremlins - especially memorably, an intellectual Gremlin who claims that what the Gremlins eventually want is 'civilisation...chamber music, Susan Sontag'.
High tech's engineering fetish is mirrored by the early postmodernist film. Something like Aliens is essentially a work of engineering rather than a work of cinema in the traditional sense, in its use of a huge disused oil refinery as a playground for highly-engineered creatures and their human prey. With appropriate self-referentiality, Gremlins 2 turns this into a comment on engineering and architecture itself. As the delirious skyscraper is turned into a space for the destructive use of the creatures, it is abandoned by its boss, the Trump stand-in Daniel Clamp. After the Gremlins have been vanquished, Clamp is pleased to see the destruction of his edifice. 'It wasn't really a place for people. It was a place for things. And if you make a place for things, things come.' Then, he finds our protagonist's suburban sketches. Delighted, he declares that this will be the basis of the next Clamp project, far from the tower's demonic urbanism. 'This is what people want now! The traditional community thing!' He imagines what an adaptation of this drawing of idyllic suburbia into a new town would become under his watch: 'Clamp Corners, where life slows down to a crawl'. Right - and what happens next in postmodernism is an abandonment of these fantastic mechanistic spaces, all too easily commandeered by the monstrous urban id represented by the Gremlins, in favour of the retrogressive, sleepy, conformist fantasies of the New Urbanism.