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Culture Warrior: The Postmodern Dialectics of ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’

By  · Published on April 6th, 2010

You might think Steve Pink’s Hot Tub Time Machine is just another silly, raunchy studio comedy, and you’re probably right, but that isn’t going to keep me from reading a whole lot more into it than is probably there.

I – Postmodernism

In his Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Marxist cultural and literary critic Frederic Jameson defines postmodernism, in part, as…

“a different kind of objection to periodisation, a concern about its possible obliteration of heterogeneity, one most often expressed by the Left…a new depthlessness, which finds its prolongation both in contemporary ‘theory’ and in a whole new culture of the image or the simulacrum; a consequent weakening of historicity, both in our relationship to public History and in the new forms of our private temporality, whose “schizophrenic” structure (following Lacan) will determine new types of syntax or syntagmatic relationships in the more temporal arts…”

Postmodernism, according to Jameson, is, in its simplest form, a loss of grounding, a landscape of competing realities in which no one interpretation of reality reigns dominant. All interpretations are subjective, authoritative, and relative – and therefore, equally meaningful and meaningless. Inherent to the crisis of postmodernity is a loss of historicity and, specifically to film, an embrace of pastiche over parody – a collage of cultural references without meaning or critique (think: the entire world being one big Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg movie).

II – Simulacra and Simulation

Marshall McLuhan is famous for saying, “the medium is the message,” an idea that informed subsequent postmodernist thought about man’s physiological and sociocultural connections with technology. In his Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard extends this idea to its logical conclusion: that subjectivity is the only source of meaning, and the only semblance of “reality,” that exists. Unlike Michel Foucault’s idea that all subjectivity is controlled by invisible structures of power, Baudrillard posits that postmodernism has replaced the impression of reality with simulation, the simulacra being signs and objects of culture and media that accentuate and affirm peoples’ impression of their perceived realities:

“The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth – it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.”

Both Jameson’s idea of postmodernism and Baudrillard’s concept of simulacra and simulation are present throughout Hot Tub Time Machine.

III – Hot Tub Time Machine

Essential to understanding a postmodern reading of Pink’s Hot Tub Time Machine is the idea of radical changes in our impression of history. As the four protagonists of the film travel back to 1987, they experience the decade based within a thoroughly revisionist approach to pop culture history, one in which the entirety of the decade is determined by a collage of media-centric cultural references. Not only is their re-visitation of their decade previously lived permeated with an array of movie posters, music cues, fashion statements, and technological signifiers (think of the cafeteria scene where the characters finally realize they’ve traveled back in time: the television set switches liberally from iconic sign and event in a way impossible to one consistent program (Reagan to Alf, for instance) and the fact that the cassette player and Michael Jackson’s racial status is what cements the 80s as “reality”), but their entire acceptance of that reality is experienced through the clichés of 80s movies, as exercised by the Red Dawn-inspired Hughesian bad guy and the setting of the film as a ski resort.

That the reality is experienced with the benefit of hindsight automatically alters that reality, just as new experiences can alter memory, which provides a setting for the characters that is more 1986 than 1986. These characters are permitted to reference and experience incidents of pop culture that didn’t happen until after that year (a character citing 21 Jump Street or another character channeling Blossom with her attire, for instance), not out of a writer’s unthinking anachronism, but because the vague, undefined idea of the 80s replaces any fact-based assumptions of objective reality within the 80s itself. In the world of music, this process is analogous to recent UK pop hit La Roux’s channeling of the decade – one realizes it’s pastiche rather than homage once you learn that La Roux lead singer Eleanor Jackson, born in 1988, in no way experienced the decade she is emulating. After all, mediated emulation of the 80s stopped being ironic some time ago.

In the cultural logic of Hot Tub Time Machine, memory and reality become one in the same. The postmodern pop cultural haze with which we remember decades conflates into the memory, the reality, itself – thus, the clichés of culture as lived through media lose any delineation from personal experience of the reality in which those media objects were originally manifested within. This media-imbued subjective acceptance of false reality is the central tenet of the postmodernist concept of simulacra and simulation, but we see the simulated experience of simulacra operate more literally in the film.

Subjectivity is central to the narrative operation of the film. Inherent to the functionality of the film’s concept is that the characters perceive themselves differently than those around them perceive them to be. They know that they are of their age in 2010, but everybody around them sees them as twenty-four years younger. So the entire movie is composed of two distinctly different subjectivities interacting with one another, and both are accepted as equally, mutually, authoritatively real. That these characters first realize the existence of these respective subjectivities through a mirror literalizes the mediating means for simulacra to be manifested.

This conceit is most explicitly realized with the presence of John Cusack, who is allowed to relive – through the convincing reanimation of his younger self – his 1980s career, complete with references to Sixteen Candles and the ski-resort-set Better Off Dead. Not only is the characters’ experience of those around themselves determined by 80s movie, music, and television history, but so is the entire existence of one of the major characters.

But Hot Tub Time Machine cements its existence as a complete manifestation of the theories of Jameson and Baudrillard with its ending. The idea of reality is never cemented, even as the characters endorse it, as their memories of 1986 are continually manipulated and changed. But Rob Corrdry’s character takes advantage of this malleability of subjective reality for personal benefit, making money off betting on events as he remembers them or inventing technologies ahead of their remembered evolution and success (Lougle), while somehow succeeding in this venture despite the obvious contradiction that his new decisions within this alternative reality can potentially change the outcomes of this reality in his disfavor (i.e., the football game that ends differently than he anticipated). But when he bestows the characters their new realities when they return to the present day, the characters accept their lives not through actually living through and making decisions in the twenty-four years in between, but by symbols and signifiers determining their new reality (like the new pictures on John Cusack’s wall). Thus, the hot tub itself is the ultimate simulacrum, a medium manifesting subjective realities determined by a confusing mix popular culture and subjective memory.

So there you have it. Hot Tub Time Machine is one of the most profound mirrors of our postmodern culture to be realized on mainstream cinema screens in quite some time. Discuss.

Culture Warrior is our weekly walk on the wild side with actual film school graduate Landon Palmer. To read more from Landon, you can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/landon_speak

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