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April 03, 2007

The Western: Creating and Re–creating the Concept of Genre

The Western: Creating and Re-creating the Concept of Genre

Introduction

         Despite the severe decline in the output of Westerns since the early 1970s this section has been included to emphasise the historical importance of critical work using the Western as a case study through which much genre theory developed. The work on Westerns as a genre has established a research paradigm or set of limits of thinking about genre which arguably needs revising. Neale’s work on the Western challenges this paradigm and argues that instead of being thought of as a ‘closed’ genre, Westerns need to be thought as an open-ended genre which is both hybrid and multi-generic. As Neale (2000) points out Westerns have occupied a pre-eminent position in writing of all kinds on genre in the cinema:

...the Western still features centrally in introductory accounts and in introductory courses on genre in the cinema fed in part by occasional attempts to revive it in Hollywood and by the resurgence of scholarly interest [1]

         Neale’s recent analysis (2000) problematises this early critical work and suggests that overemphasis on particular key westerns amongst critics has biased the critical output so that other issues surrounding genre theory in general and the study of the western specifically have become obscured. Neale further argues that decline of Western production means ‘its role as a generic paradigm, as a model or starting point for the study of Hollywood’s genres, is even more problematic now than it was before’ [2]

The Western and the Construction of American Identity

         It is hard to underestimate the importance of Westerns in American society, helping to play an important role in creating an American identity through a host of representations about the chain of events recreating popular, but not necessarily historically accurate views of the emergence and development of the United States.

The Western has a special relationship to America’s geography, America’s history as well as the construction of an American identity out of the European migrations creating a polyglot ‘nation’ whilst subjugating the earlier inhabitants of the country. As a broad genre the western plays a similar role in American society to the often mythical representations of the past which have formed the basis of what are described as national cinemas in Europe as constructed by ‘heritage’ films.

        

The Western genre and surrounding discourses have blended in various ways to create a ‘mythology’ that has been:

uniquely central to US history, US culture and US identity. This mythology is grounded in the notion (itself as imaginative as it is real ) that there existed a moving western frontier in the US between the seventeenth and the late nineteenth centuries.’[3]

         Neale notes that frontier mythology is the framework for most Westerns but many touch on this minimally. There are many other films which contain elements of the frontier within them. There were hundreds of Indian (Native American) Westerns made in the late 1900s, 1910s and 1920s. Some have argued that they constituted a genre in their own right. These were comprised from a widespread number of themes. Some saw the native American originally described as ‘Indians’ as a ‘noble savage’. Others were about the loyalty and devotion of native Americans to the European settlers.

Problems with the Western and Genre Theory

         The central position of the Western in the development of genre theory has created two linked problems:

  • Work on the Western has strongly influenced theories about genre.
  • Research into the phenomenon of the Western films themselves has often been limited because of the dominant position of genre theory and criticism, which means that other aspects about Westerns such as their role in the construction of an American national identity has been largely ignored within film studies.

         The centrality of the Western in genre theory can be measured by its prominence in both conventional and unorthodox accounts of genre. There are problematic aspects of both the centrality of the western to accounts of genre, and problematic aspects of the western itself.

By using comparative research methods Neale has looked at a wide range of other films distinguished by genre methods of categorisation and comes to the conclusion that many of the characteristics of the Western are unusual rather than typical ways in which genres are constructed: ‘...this is especially true of its visual conventions , of its relationship to US history and US culture, and hence its susceptibility to various methods of formal, cultural, ideological and thematic analysis’ (Neale , 2000 : 66).

        

         Neale draws on Buscombe’s research of 1970 to point out that the visual conventions or iconography of the Western are highly distinctive and highly coded. Neale argues that this strongly marked set of visual codes is the generic exception rather than the rule. These exceptions of Western coding include the combinations of an iconography[4] or set of visual conventions including: clothing; decor; landscape. These conventions also include other aspects of its generic world such as the use of language and modes of transport. Overall Neale concludes that ‘ ... for all these reasons ...it [the Western] is hardly a suitable model for general conceptions and theories of genre (My emphasis)[5].

         This understanding of the range of visual conventions (iconography) has been seen as a very important aspect of the Western, playing an important role in linking the product with audiences and as well as being an important arena for doing case study work in developing genre theory. Neale’s survey of genres leads him to suggest that other critics who have written on other genres using iconography as a key element of their ideas have not been able to develop their arguments in such a convincing manner as those who have written upon Westerns.

‘Those attempting to write on the iconography of the gangster film, the thriller and the musical have usually been far less detailed, and therefore in my view far less convincing, than those writing on the iconography of the western itself’ (Neale, 2000 : 134).

         If Neale’s suggestion is correct, then visual conventions can be considered as a much weaker aspect of other genres than has frequently been argued.[6] This means that it is dangerous to use one model of genre as a model for all genres as it can close down ways of thinking about other generic categories. The logic of Neale’s argument also means that genres can be seen as both very specific in how they are constructed as well as sharing some common features.

Genre Hybridity in the 1920s Western

         Within the whole cycle of the Western genre hybridity - the sharing of other generic conventions - has been common. Neale draws on the work of Letraut, about 1920s silent Westerns. He points out that the films produced then were very different to later Westerns and therefore there wasn’t a ‘fixed nor substantive entity’ within the genre. There was a shifting array of differently stressed and diverse components and numerous alliances with other ‘genres, cycles and trends and from the specific and plural traditions these alliances call into play.’ [7]    

         These films sought to appeal to a variety of audiences ranging from children to adults and from the rural to the cities. There were a variety of hybrid terms used to describe the films such as :

  • Romantic Western
  • Western comedy drama
  • Western farce
  • Western mystery melodrama.

         It is also possible to discuss these films as a range of alliances utilising a wide range of cinematic conventions all of which are worthy of further research:

  • The alliance between the Western, visual action and acrobatic athleticism ( chases and stunts - rodeos)
  • The alliance between the Western, history and ‘realism’. These appeared in frontier epics with a stress on period detail and consistency, and in traditions of psychological characterisation and moral decision-making
  • Alliance between the Western and comedy [8]- comic sidekicks, comic situations, traditions of parody / satire / deployment of stunt and action regimes of bodily gesture.

         It is possible to see that a variety of themes traversed these hybrid genres - religious conversion, racial prejudice, revenge, land-grabbing villains. The relationship to the frontier myth is either distant or complex.

New Research Methods[9]: Reconstructing Genre Theories

         Some researchers have decided to avoid previously received wisdoms. For example, Stanfield in a partly published thesis in 1999 used different research methods based on archival research to re-explore the Western genre coming up with some quite different ideas to those written about previously which included an emphasis on the industry construction of the market. Stanfield’s research techniques included:

  • Archival Research:
  • Examining contemporary trade and newspaper resources
  • The films themselves
  • Cultural histories of the US of its popular cultures in the 19th and 20th centuries.

        

         As a result Stanfield argues that the role of the market [10] was very important. The B western was aimed at rural and small town audiences in which a variety of changing social and cultural relationships were examined through a variety of forms. ‘The singing Western’ was aimed at attracting female audiences for example. By comparison the A western appealed to metropolitan audiences and their concerns. The marketing ploy of romance through male lead stars to appeal to women was successful. This was a multi-generic approach.

         The market failure of Westerns in the 1930s was a combination of lack of romance, alongside an ill judged investment and deployment of new wide-screen technologies against a backdrop of depression. The subsequent relaunch of the Western included films designed to appeal specifically to women. A variation on this theme was the ‘City Western’ with well known male and female stars and dealing with adult themes such as drinking, gambling and sex.

         There was also a cycle of historical films which sometimes overlapped with the ‘city’ film. These were promoted as Americanised engagements with large-scale political and historical themes. They also helped to counter accusations that the censorship codes were preventing engagement with serious issues. They often managed to integrate romantic story-lines thus providing general appeal. The richness of content enables us to see these films as multi-generic.

Different kinds of research have provided a challenge to earlier models of our knowledge about ‘the western’ and upon our reliance on the use of the word ‘classic’ to imply that something which is pre-existent. As a matter of ‘common-sense’. The point about good research is that the of use different methods to allow for the possibility of opening up rather than foreclosing on generic categorisation. In this way previous knowledge can be refined or redefined dependent upon the research outcomes.

         Neale suggests that the models and terms devised at the beginning of the post-war period to discuss Westerns in which the hero’s troubled relationship with society undergoes modification are more straightforwardly applied to Westerns of this post-war period and the late 30’s such as Stagecoach (1939) which received its canonical status at this time.

         It seems doubtful whether these models of the Western genre can be usefully applied to films of the earlier period. This means that within what can be classed as a genre there can be huge shifts in the way these films are made, viewed and criticised. This is all part of contextual criticism [11]. In the post-war context some westerns were able to articulate contemporary post-war and cold war concerns such as:

  • Racism
  • The return of the veteran and their rehabilitation into civil society
  • The issue of national allegiance, especially in relation to the Vietnam war
  • The re-marketing and industry reconstruction of the genre using Elvis Presley and other rising pop stars to capture the growing teen market.

         Neale also raises the issue of whether critical preference for films such as The Searchers (1956) and The Wild Bunch (1969) has tended to obscure the existence of other socio-cultural and aesthetic trends and other film titles resulting in a closing down of research and discussion about westerns in recent years.

Conclusion

         Overall it can be seen from this section that the critical work around the Western has been foundational in the study of genre. At the same time this work has been rather one-sided in its approach to genre ignoring many features that are now increasingly recognised as important to genre studies. These include the notion of genre as process of negotiation between audiences and the industry. Westerns can be seen as both hybrid and multi-generic, as part of a widely differing marketplace and as forming an arena for public debate when socio-political events such as the Vietnam war became an important part of the popular consciousness. Soldier Blue, based on the story of a cavalry massacre of a native American village, is a good example of this. The film functioned to demythologise both the ‘history’ of the American nation established through the Western as well as relate to a current oppressive war through this exposure of the past.



1 [1]Neale, 2000 : 133.

2 [2]Neale , 2000 : 142.

3 [3] Neale, 2000 : 134.

4 [4]See also section on ‘visual conventions and genre’.

5 [5]Neale, 2000 : 134

6 [6]However the issue of mise-en-scene including fashion and stylisation in the section of popular culture shows that more complex research relating genre to visuality could usefuly be done.

7 [7]Neale, 2000 : 137

8 [8]See the section on Comedy and Genre for more on the workings of comic conventions in cinema.

9 [9]See also the section on ‘Methods and Methodology in Film Research’

10[10]See also the section on ‘Genres and Multiple Marketing Strategies’.

11[11]For more on contextual criticism see under ‘Methods and Methodology in Film Research’.


Has Traditional Genre Theory Misrepresented Hollywood?

Has Traditional Genre Theory Misrepresented Hollywood?

Introduction

   Steve Neale (2000) is concerned to examine and critique some of the critical ‘givens’ which have arisen amongst commentators and theorists regarding the relationship between Hollywood and genre. Neale has investigated a wider range of films from the perspective of genre theory than has been done previously and has compared these with some of the business models in use at various time in Hollywood. On the basis of these findings he argues for a serious revision of the dominant theoretical position held by critics of both the ‘Old’ Hollywood studio system as well as post-studio ‘New Hollywood’. Neale highlights the central importance of the way the Hollywood production system has been commonly considered as central to the creation and maintenance of generic output as a foundational aspect of its industrial strategy.

‘As we have seen, the commercial and industrial nature of Hollywood has been viewed as responsible not just for the formulaic nature of its genres, but also for the existence of genre as such’ (Neale, 2000: 231).

   Below the key aspects of critical genre analysis to Hollywood are summarised then Neale’s commentary is reported upon in a critical fashion. This section concludes that Neale is correct to argue for deepening the analysis of the role and importance of genre within the marketing strategy of cinema. Neale’s comments upon aspects of horizontal integration within the wider media matrix such as radio are also important. It is argued here that the implications of his positions are not seen as a radical revision of the dominant positions held by critics on the role of genre within cinema. Rather it can be seen that it is impossible to consider cinema as an isolated aspect of the generic system of media production across mass media as a whole.

Traditional Accounts of the Relationship Between Hollywood and Genre

   Neale has summarised traditional accounts of genre and its role within the film industry stressing the following features:

  • Artistic products unlike mass products such as cars are ‘one of a kind’. Movies had to be different or nobody would return to the cinema
  • Mass products usually are accompanied by a range within the product. New lines and fashions are generated to create and develop the market
  • Hollywood genres offer a cost-effective equivalent to the lines and ranges marketed by other industries by producing a demand for similarities within the variety of product on offer thus degrees of difference are minimised
  • Hollywood’s products are always different and diverse and genres differ from one another but within the range/genre, the films are always similar
  • Genres thus perform a number of economic functions thus enabling :
                1. The industry to fulfil the obligations of variety and difference in the product:
                2. The product to be manufactured in a very cost-effective way
                3. The nature of the output and the demand for this output to be closely regulated to minimise financial risk and maximise profit.

                  ‘Old’ Hollywood Studio System

                  Originally generic film output has been linked to what has become known as the ‘studio system’, and the output of what is seen by many as ‘classical’ cinema. Key features of the studio system were:

                  • It describes the period of hollywood domination by the 'majors' between mid to late 1920s up to the end of the 1940s with a little overspill into the early 1950s
                  • There was an oligopoly of 8 major companies. Three produced and distributed films including independent ones. The remaining 5 were vertically integrated’. In other words they produced and distributed films but they also owned first-run cinemas and cinema chains
                  • The system of ‘block-booking’ meant that independent cinemas and cinema chains were forced to show most of their films or none at all
                  • This combination of industrial organisation meant that there was a relatively secure and stable marketplace. As a result the industry was able to sustain itself by making long-term employment contracts with stars, directors and technicians. The industry could plan investment on in-house facilities. This allowed for ‘factory-system’ features within the industry
                  • It is argued, by some, that studios tended to engage in genre specialisation which led to variation but also generic consistency and generic fixity over 30 years.

                  Neale’s Critique

                  Neale doesn’t want to entirely reverse these established theories on the role of genre; Neale is concerned to use other research methodologies and research results to argue that these features have been overemphasised and that the model needs revision. Overall he ends up by suggesting that much greater research into different aspects of Hollywood cinema will generate different sorts of knowledge about the relationships between Hollywood as a centre of cultural production and wider socio-cultural features of America itself. Neale divides Hollywood output into the studio and post-studio periods and comments upon the different content strategies and business models prevalent at these times.

                  ‘Old’ Hollywood Output as Hybrid and Cross-generic

                     Neale takes the output of Hollywood films in 1934 as an example. This came to over 95 feature films altogether. Neale notes that both the variety of films and the terms used to describe them were very varied: ‘Immediately striking also is the relative paucity of canonic genres and “genre films’’’ (Neale, 2000: 234). Neale suggests that, whilst terms such as ‘western’ existed, there are many broader categories such as ‘costume picture’ and ‘drama’ which rarely or never feature in genre theory. Nevertheless, these terms were among the top three categories of box-office hits according to Variety magazine (1950, 5: 18).

                  Neale’s comments are useful to identify gaps in genre theory. These comments in themselves don’t destabilise the key arguments of dominant critical genre theory. Neale’s evidence points to the importance of genre as a descriptor of various film products. The generic descriptors he has isolated points to the industry need to ensure that a broad audience appeal was maintained. Neale’s evidence supports the argument that even in 1950 audience was treated as a singular mass market rather than as a plural audience. At this time TV hadn’t gained a big hold on mass audience and the need to create a wider choice of content wasn’t necessary for the industry at this point.

                  Neale draws on the work of film historians who have examined the Hollywood studio practices and films differently to the genre-based theories. Genre was just one important part of a much wider range of strategic industrial initiatives. Multiple marketing strategies included the importance of maintaining a variable relationship between genre, star-systems, named directors, and script sources. These were usually adaptations of successful books, stories or topical events which had captured the popular imagination. How the relationship between these variables was constructed was dependent upon the individual product alongside the state of the market and the current availability of stars, directors and staff. A fundamental aspect of any marketing strategy was to ensure that the relationship decided upon in any one film would be designed to minimise financial risk in the view of the studio management.

                     Based upon the work of film historians Neale isolates the following points :

                  • Hollywood’s output was done on an annual seasonal basis
                  • This meant that cycles of films were emphasised. Cycles were used as units of calculation and on cyclical formulas as templates for films. (Long distance bus films are an example of these)
                  • Cycles were often linked to topical events such as prison breakouts
                  • The regular production of genre hybrids was a risk reduction strategy. These would not only appeal to fans of different picture types thus broadening the potential market[1]
                  • The use of stars as a marketing tool leads Schatz to talk of ‘star-genre formulations’ and star-formula combinations’ rather than talking directly in terms of genre [2]
                  • Some stars were associated largely with specific genres such as Boris Karloff and horror. Other stars such as Katherine Hepburn weren’t associated with any particular story type

                  The fundamental planning and output were budgetary which overlapped with categories of distribution and exhibition. There was class A and class B output. Class A output was subdivided further:

                  • Superspecials: prestige pictures & big budget musicals. Often road-shown[3]. Often produced by independents such as Selnick and Goldwyn’s Gone with the Wind (1939)
                  • Specials: bulk of these were class A films. Used pre-sold properties such as popular stars but lower production budgets. These usually opened on a first-run [4] basis in the metropolitan theatres owned by the big 5
                  • Programmers: These films had the lowest budgets. Typically based on original stories and minor stars often with short running times even as low as 50 minutes. Described as programmers they could fit the top or bottom of the double bills. They functioned as B films if at the bottom of a bill
                  • Another form of risk reduction was the creation of a series such as the Charlie Chan films.

                  The Post-studio Era

                     The vertical integration which dominated Hollywood had been declared illegal in 1948 and the big 5 production companies were forced to sell off their cinema chains. The industry as a whole underwent major restructuring adopting a different range of business strategies to remain in business. To ensure good levels of profitability, they concentrated even more on risk reduction. These strategies included:

                  • Making fewer more expensively produced films
                  • Abandoning B movies, shorts and newsreels. These migrated to become the ‘made for TV movie’
                  • Introduction of new technologies such as wide-screen and big-screen
                  • Making blockbusters to be road-shown at premium prices
                  • Co-productions
                  • International market development
                  • Audience reconstruction through differentiation ( teenagers for example)
                  • Diversifying income streams through distribution and / or screening films on television.

                     These changing structures in the 1950s and 1960s led to the development of what is now described as ’New Hollywood’ which has slightly modified these fundamental approaches. ‘New Hollywood’ creates the seasonal blockbusters which are now ‘blanket released’ rather than having a staggered release. These are the ‘economic cornerstone’ (Neale: 2000) of today’s Hollywood and are produced or co-produced by the majors.

                  Most of the recent blockbusters have been targeted at the teen and early twenties audiences. Therefore they differ significantly from the content of the output of the 1950s & 1960s. Technologically, special effects ( FX ) and surround sound have been significant. Income generation has been from spin offs - videos, computer games T shirts etc. Distribution through cable satellite etc. has expanded the media environment and given wider marketing opportunities.

                  Neale is keen to point out that there are no cast-iron formulas for success because film still remains one-of -a-kind and that consumers must be ready to take a risk before consuming a film. Films are previewed by test audiences who are surveyed for their responses. Unfavourable responses mean parts of the film may be re-shot [5]. Alternative endings are quite frequent. This has now led to a subsidiary market of ‘the director’s cut’.

                  Neale emphasises that the overall strategic approach of the industry is about risk reduction. With numerous differences between the generic output of ‘new’ and ‘old’ Hollywood.

                  The differences between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Hollywood ‘are differences in generic fashion, and in the nature of the series, cycles trends and target exhibition sites and audiences involved rather than in the strategies used to minimise risk’ ( Neale, 2000 : 245 ).

                  Commentators have remarked that Hollywood has been marked by ‘sequelitis’ and ‘prequels’. By comparison, Neale cites evidence that there were approximately 6 times as many recycled scripts in the 1940s as in the 1970s. Critics and theorists have also suggested that ‘new’ Hollywood has been more concerned with hybridity, pastiche and illusion than the ‘old’ Hollywood often linking this with the ‘multimedia synergies’ of the present. However, Neale points to many older films which make allusions to others, which are ‘… often invisible to contemporary scholars’. He also points out that the ‘old’ Hollywood was itself marked by a plethora of media output much of which was very new such as radio and comics thus providing: ‘an extensive field of multimedia consciousness, institutional crossover, and inter-textual cross-reference...’ [6]

                  Conclusion

                     ‘New’ Hollywood has often been considered as the driving force behind the reconstruction of the generic film using hybridity. Neale argues that early blockbusters such as Phantom Engine (1935) about a singing cowboy in space were more genre-hybrid than current blockbusters and suggests genre hybridity has always been present in Hollywood. Furthermore, Neale emphasises that genre as an industrial strategy is just one important element of a more complex and variegated industrial system than has previously been recognised.

                     Neale’s position partially corroborates the argument that blockbuster marketing strategy is less reliant upon genre and follows a multiple marketing strategy. A note of caution is needed here. Neale’s example of the Phantom Engine is not analysed in detail. Drawing conclusions without greater information about the marketing strategy of that film could lead to a wrong impression.

                     Much of the traditional genre theory still holds. It can be seen as a risk reduction strategy for an industry which must keep churning out product the industrially influenced analysis still seems convincing. Perhaps the critics of genre have overplayed their hands. The more sophisticated an audience the more likely they are to be dissatisfied with purely generic output. Marketing now has more complex ways to try and ensure commercial success.



                  1 [1]Neale makes much of this genre hybridity. ‘They also exemplified Hollywood and its products in ways which have barely begun to be explored ( and which genre criticism and ‘post-modern theory’ alike have served to obscure rather than illuminate’ ( Neale : 2000 : 238 ).

                  2 [2]For more on this see under ‘Genre and Multiple Marketing strategies’.

                  3 [3]This expression refers to the practice of releasing major films in cities and allowing them to run until the audiences started to fall away. Then the film was booked out to the next city. This helped to create a pre-existing market, reduced distribution costs, and helped maximise the market in any one place.

                  4 [4]First-run cinemas were the premium film theatres located in the biggest cities and the more affluent areas. They could keep films until the audiences began to decline. Then second run minor cinemas could take the films.

                  5 [5]Sassoon, Donald. 2002 points out that alternative endings have been used since the mass production of culture. Books were given different endings for the Russian market. Sassoon suggests Hollywood based itself upon this model. The onset of digital cinema will make this much cheaper, easier and give the potential for greater differences within the ‘same’ film.

                  6 [6] Neale, 2000 : 249 .


                  April 02, 2007

                  Genre & Contextual Criticism: The Need for a Multi–perspectival analysis

                  Genre & Contextual Criticism: the Need for a Multi-perspectival Analysis

                  Introduction

                             Genre criticism within film studies has frequently been concerned with its socio-cultural or contextual significance. Neale (2000) suggests that this is partly because Hollywood’s genres have been considered as aesthetically impoverished. This has led to two broad approaches to genre criticism within the tradition of socio-cultural criticism: the ‘ritual approach’ and the ‘ideological approach’. Below these two approaches are contrasted with the less well-known but increasingly important ‘production of culture’ perspective.

                  The Ritual Approach

                             Thomas Schatz has argued that genres can be seen as a form of ‘collective cultural expression’ and as a vehicle for exploring ideals, cultural values and ideas within American society. This has led critics including Schatz to postulate that some genres take place in different social spaces as a ‘symbolic arena of action’ such as the cowboy or gangster film. In these films specific social conflicts are acted out.

                             Where these social conflicts are acted out is described as determinate space. In contrast there are other genres such as the musical or social melodrama which take place in indeterminate space. In other words, the settings do not have to be repeated and the social conflicts are less concerned with control of territory but about a range of social conflicts and their reconciliation and or resolution.

                             An important aesthetic flaw in Schatz’s case can be discerned in relation to the western. Musical-westerns such as Oklahoma (1955), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Calamity Jane (1953) are hybrid generic films. Schatz’s theory of genre and its relationship to space don’t hold up hold up well against these examples which suggest that the struggle for physical space is superseded by the ability to reconcile differences and attitudes. On this basis these genre hybrids can be considered as predominantly musicals rather than westerns although the settings remain a part of western genre.[1]

                             Another critique of ritual theory shows that textual analysis alone can lead to very misleading conclusions. This shows that within film studies a number of different research methods need to be used to gain a more accurate picture about the social context of reception and production. If a number of research methods are used together this is called triangulation.

                             A criticism of ritual theory suggests that many people go to see a very wide range of films and that genre and formulas are no guarantee of success but at best provide limited profits. For example western films were cheap to produce and made small but regular profits from a relatively stable audience and thus provided a low risk bread and butter income stream. The ‘B’ and ‘C’ westerns can be considered as highly genre specific and as having low production values and narrow appeal. Perhaps they are better viewed as an early form of niche marketing.

                  ‘...evidence from contemporary audience surveys suggests that westerns were produced in large numbers during the studio era despite the fact that they were popular only with rural audiences and adolescent boys and despite the fact that they were actively disliked by a majority of the viewing population as a whole’ ( My emphasis: Neale: 2000 :225 ) .

                             Another major flaw within the ritual theory is its dependence upon the assumption that audiences are representative of the American population as a whole and that this population as a whole is always preoccupied with the same cultural issues and problems. For example, there has been a considerable amount of research into black and ethnic minority representation Hollywood films to show that they were initially addressed to a white only audience.

                             Another important point is that most genre theory assumes that all the audiences consume genre output in exactly the same way and also that they consume nothing else. In fact there are a number of what has been termed reader-to-genre relationships. Every reader or consumer of a text comes with a different range of preferences and interests which are unique.

                  Ideological Theory

                             Ritual theory plays down the idea that Hollywood genres are in some way coercive through the filmic texts. By comparison ideological theory argues that audiences are manipulated by the business interests of Hollywood. Neale argues that there is a danger that these theories will close themselves off by becoming self-confirming. Neale describes theories of this nature as ‘Functionalist, reductive and profoundly pessimistic.’[2]

                             Neale’s tone here seems overly dismissive and accords with many other theorists and commentators on ‘popular’ culture who allow their own personal tastes to subvert their critical faculties. Strangely these criticisms can be applied to both the left and right of the political spectrum.

                             The term reductive describes a straw figure who imagines that a cultural product contains an ideology which immediately contaminates whoever consumes this product so that they are entirely unable to be uncritical. This is often described as the ‘hypodermic’ theory of ideology. Undoubtedly there are a few people who hold to this simplistic notion, particularly on the right of the political spectrum, but few educated people hold to this concept.

                             Of more interest is the concept of ‘pessimism’. Many theorists and supporters of cultural populism are concerned to criticise the left-wing members of the Frankfurt School of Social Research which started in Germany between the first and second world wars. The Frankfurt School supporters, especially Theodor Adorno, have been described as ‘pessimists’.

                             Adorno was particularly scathing about the forms of popular culture he discovered in the United States after fleeing from Nazi Germany. For Adorno the cultural output in the United States was nearly as totalitarian in its approach as in Nazi Germany. Adorno has been written off by many commentators suggesting he was exaggerating the conditions of ‘popular culture’ based upon his dreadful experiences. However, many of those critics are unfamiliar with, have ignored or not researched crucial aspects about culture under the Nazis.

                             Much of the film culture under the Nazis was genre-based cinema. Many of the films shown in Nazi Germany until 1939 were American ones. As has been pointed out elsewhere by Hake [3] a combination of genre construction and exhibitionary restrictions helped to oil the Nazi cultural machine. There is considerable evidence that the overall Nazi strategy regarding cinema was to be able to offer serious competition to the United States. Remodelling their industry and that of Occupied France was part of the strategy. There is evidence that Germany wanted to develop the French film industry into a sort of Trojan horse to penetrate the cinema markets globally.

                  Evelyn Erlich argues that ‘...the French would supply the commercially appealing films that were necessary for the Germans to compete successfully with the Americans on the international market ...The Germans thus saw that by encouraging French film production, they could use French films as an economic wedge to force the purchase of German films’ (Erlich quoted Williams, 1992 : 271).

                             The films produced in occupied France particularly by ‘Continental Films’ were genre based.

                  Speaking of ‘Continental Films’ Alan Williams notes ‘Although most of the Studio’s productions were relatively conventional exercises in established film genres, they were all carefully constructed and technically proficient’         ( Williams, 1992 : 257 ).

                             It can be seen from these examples that genre production as a strategy was relevant to Nazi thinking. Evidence such as this throws some empirical doubt upon the dismissal of Adorno as a pessimist. Rather it emphasises the importance of analysing ideology and the role it plays for media institutions and their products.

                             Some see ideology as ‘hegemonic’, which is a form of social control created through generating a a broadly-based consensus of what counts as ‘common-sense’. A controlling role does not entirely stop other cultural products from emerging rather it subverts and controls these through the mechanisms of the market. In the light of this sort of evidence the role and importance of sophisticated theories of ideology in relation to genre and its important role in cultural populism should not be lightly dismissed.

                  The ‘Production of Culture Perspective’

                             Neale uses work by Kapsis to take into account much wider industry factors which are largely ignored by the ideological and ritual theories. The industrial process for films is best seen as variegated and multiple. Which genres finally get made depends on the assessment of the various gatekeepers within the production system itself and their views of audiences future tastes. The higher echelons of management are acutely aware of the dangers of overproduction. Too many of one type of film could mean audience saturation and a fall off at the box office.

                  Kapsis did a case study of horror film production in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He discovered that during the earliest phase of production there were favourable reviews and viewing figures which shifted by the late 1980s to adverse criticism. Production was cut although there was still very high demand in video rental outlets. Neither the end of the cycle nor the long-term decline in production:‘ ....were due to any observable decline in the popularity of horror films among audiences in America, or to any identifiable change in the basic nature of the films themselves’ (Neale, 2000 :229) .

                             Kapsis’ study shows that there are complex market research analyses continuously conducted on the market. These are cross-referenced to other institutional factors such as competition from Television - think of the success of Buffy the Vampire Slayer - or a shift in international markets. Other factors not mentioned in the analysis of Kapsis’ work are whether other external factors in the market affected this decision. One thing is certain, any withdrawal from the marketplace shows that senior management have decided that future profitability measured against risk was not acceptable. It also indicates that highly genre specific production is not seen as a premium profit-making part of the enterprise.

                  Conclusion

                             All these different forms of contextual criticism have strengths and weaknesses. The ritual approach can be seen to be of relevance in more masculinised genres and it would be interesting to research Schatz’s ideas in relation to the war film genre. The musical and the melodrama which seemingly contradict Schatz’s theory are ‘feminised’ genres and emotional and psychic space is more important for women in these films. It has been suggested that there is an ideological issue of property and ownership at the root of these differently gendered genres. This doesn’t fully account for the different types of socially constructed space which are privileged. Recent sociological work has argued that much of a masculinised approach to what is described as modernity deals with time and space in a way that is gendered by considering non-domestic space as a male dominated space in which women are allowed as sexualised bodies rather than more fully developed individual people. Domestic space - including arenas such as shopping space and care space such as schools - is set against non-domestic space. The social theorist Rita Felski[4] has noted that there is a fear and loathing of domestic space amongst modernist masculinity of the twentieth century. There is a mistaken concept that the rhythms of daily life are inherently conservative compared to the progressive more linear and apparently less repetitive world inhabited by men.

                             The production of culture approach highlights the industrial aspects of the film industry. The relative popularity of a few horror films in video-stores measured against the reduction in output of horror movies by the larger films companies indicates that these companies think that the levels of profitability are insufficient and are reducing the numbers of products on the market. The current trends in the market or how the industry wish to reconstruct the audience/ market will be much clearer to them than to the critic. Usually the least successful products are removed which means that within each genre and sub-genre there is a tendency to create a cultic canon of the best films. At the heart of this is a combination of ‘quality’ in negotiation with economics. Constructing markets is about creating premium products as far as Hollywood is concerned.



                  1 [1]Also see under ‘Iconography as a defining feature of genre’.

                  2 [2] (Neale, 2000:228 .

                  3 [3]See the Boxes under ‘Mapping Genres’.

                  4 [4]Felski, Rita. (1999-2000). As yet there has been little analysis of the representation of the everyday in films studies although there is rather more on issues of domestic space. See the commentary later on Thelma and Louise to note the spatial realignment of the film in gender terms.


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