All entries for Monday 02 April 2007
April 02, 2007
Genre & Contextual Criticism: the Need for a Multi-perspectival Analysis
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
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.
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.
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.’
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  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.
The films produced in occupied France particularly by ‘Continental Films’ were genre based.
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’ 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.
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 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 Also see under ‘Iconography as a defining feature of genre’.
2  (Neale, 2000:228 .
3 See the Boxes under ‘Mapping Genres’.
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.
Genre can be used as a method of examining the history of narrative film and cinema more closely. The genres which have dominated the film market are mapped out below. These are the major genres which have been identified by genre critics. New and different genres can be added, however most of those listed below and are considered as uncontested genres have been around from very early in the history of cinema. These genres have evolved or hybridised, and in some cases, as with the western, have very nearly come to the end of the genre cycle. The social and cultural need for the western as a genre relevant to the United States in the 21st century rather than the early part of the 20th has disappeared.
Firstly the major Hollywood genres are outlined then an important genre to European cinema is briefly examined, following that the notion of sub-genre is defined.
The Main Hollywood Genres
Neale (2000) has reviewed the development of genre theory in relation to Hollywood and provides a mapping of the development of a range of genres which is drawn upon below. Genre critics and theorists have identified about a dozen major genres in Hollywood. Films which are uncontested as genres include:
The war movie
The crime / gangster movie
The horror movie
The detective film
The social problem film
Films which have become very problematic categories and sometimes critically contested categories include: Film Noir and Melodrama.
The range of available genres is not fixed and new genres are frequently in the process of emergence. For example, the 1960s mood of social and cultural liberalisation as well as the growth of widespread car ownership brought forth a new genre the ‘road movie’, with Bonnie and Clyde (1967) usually accepted as the first of these. Other well-known films in the genre include Easy-Rider (1969) and more controversially Thelma and Louise. Initially a masculine genre the road movie can be seen as providing a cultural replacement for the western.
Neale’s work has provided a mapping of Hollywood genres, other areas of the world have developed their own genres. In India ‘Bollywood’ signifies a range of epic style romantic dramas, punctuated by musical fantasy sequences. Hong-Kong has been associated with the development of the ‘martial-arts’ movie made popular in the west through Bruce Lee Kung Fu films. These created a cult following for films starring Jackie Chan. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) signifies a Hollywood industry move into this market by creating a hybrid genre film. Hollywood achieved this by giving the film a much larger budget than the more strongly generic martial arts films. The narrative structure has also been changed to appeal to western audiences used to different narrative structures.
European Historical Costume Dramas: The ‘Heritage’ Film
By comparison with Hollywood the situation in Europe has been variegated but quite different. Genres have been quite weak often gaining only a localised market. There has been a penchant for the historical costume drama in Europe, which has acted in a variety of ways including reinforced a sense of national identity with inter-war examples being seen in Britain with Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry V111 (1933). This film proved to be one of the most successful British films ever made in terms of breaking into the American market, the holy grail for European film industries. On the basis of this film Korda clinched a distribution deal with United Artists, which seemed like a licence to print a small amount of money. Whilst Korda’s heritage film doubled as a marker of national identity and commercial success, the emphasis on national identity in the heritage film was strongly present in a range of feature films made under the Nazis in Germany.
In Nazi Germany both the content and the exhibitionary context worked together. A range of films being commissioned by the state to promote key concepts of Nazi ideology in propaganda form. Hake (2002) argues that because of these conditions of production these films could be seen as ‘a genre to themselves’ based upon Nazi constructions of the spectacular.
It is important to emphasise here that very few feature films produced under the Nazi regime were directly propagandistic. Many of the films were generic variants of standard genres such as comedy and romance. Contextual criticism relating to the conditions of viewing is very important here. All narrative feature films were accompanied by newsreels and documentaries where much of the propaganda work took place. Early in the Nazi period Jews were legally excluded from cinemas. Later nobody was allowed into shows after they had started to stop people avoiding the documentaries and the newsreel footage.
The holy grail of breaking into the American market has always been a feature of European cinema. The occasional success has frequently led to hubristic statements from a senior member of the British film establishment about the need to focus on this market which now lies at the feet of a newly revitalised film industry. The latest in this long line at time of writing being Alan Parker the outgoing chairperson of the British Film Institute in the autumn of 2002.
The greatest successes in the American market have been amongst those European filmmakers who have gone to work in America from Hitchcock to Ridley Scott. This has not stopped the European film industry from trying to invent a formula based upon high-production values (read ‘big budgets’), utilising some higher profile European stars, and a hybrid or multi-genre mix. La Reine Margot ( France, 1994 ) directed by Patrice Chereau. Accessing the Eurimages fund, part of the European Union, is an example of this.
Based upon a historical novel by Alexander Dumas on the role of Catherine de Medici and the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s the film fell into the trap of being over-melodramatic and as a historical film largely uninteresting, although Geoff Andrew offered a reading of La Reine Margot arguing that it was a way of referencing current French anxieties in Bosnia and the break-up of Yugoslavia. Viewed ten years later references to Bosnian break-up seem largely spurious spin which can be seen as cheap opportunism to try and gain audience. This costume melodrama was reversing the trend in France to make more interesting historical films such as The Return of Martin Guerre (1983) These had challenged the way in which history represents the past. Banking upon the heritage genre alone failed to impress American audiences.
The development of other films in this genre such as 1492 (Ridley Scott:1992) about Columbus’ journey ‘discovering’ America went down well in Spain but failed to appeal anywhere else is a good example of cultural policy initiatives prioritising industrial aspirations to increase profitability rather than prioritising the representational needs of citizens and inhabitants of Europe. Thematically La Reine Margot could have said much more about problems of intolerance, fear and identity which has existed through much of its history. The relevance today when the issue of asylum seekers has become so prominent in the latter part of 2002 and early 2003 is far better covered by Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things (2002).
Many of the genres mapped by Neale can be broken down further into a range of sub-genres such as the ‘cavalry western’, ‘slapstick comedy’, ‘police thriller’, ‘teen-horror’. These sub-genres often relate to identified market categories. The likelihood is that the more sub-generic or further down the chain of genre influenced film-making a film is, the more formulaic it is likely to be. This is likely to limit its appeal to certain audiences on grounds of content, and quality in terms of plot and characterisation as well as technical proficiency.
It can be seen from the genre mapping provided by Neale that a category such as ‘teen-pic’ is far more oriented towards a specific market whilst many of the other categories have some elements of openness in their approach.
From this brief mapping of genres it can be seen that a range of influences from different parts of society create, change and render particular genres obsolete or very minor roles.
Investment decisions in what films to produce can be influenced solely by industry perceptions although these are likely to be picking up on social and technological change. The growth of the road movie and the decline of the western being useful examples. Genre such as historical costume dramas can be influenced by government and ruling elites who often have an interest in asserting a particular version of national identity especially if there is a growing feeling of crisis. This influenced both Korda’s film on Henry VIII as well as the output of German cinema under the Nazis.
These sort of films have also been made recently in Europe with the backing of the European Union to try and break into the American market by producing higher value cinema. This largely industrially driven strategy of marketing heritage has not been very successful with the US audience. This shows that creating successful genres needs to have a successful domestic marketplace first. This is an area in which Hollywood has been historically very successful.
1 See firstly ‘Contextual Criticism’ under Methods and Methodology in Film research, secondly ‘the Ritual Approach’ under ‘Genre and Contextual Criticism’ ,
2 See Austen, Guy. 1996. P 168 for details on this.
Repetition or Revelation: Film Genre and Society. 2003
Bibliography, Filmography & Webliography
Adorno, Theodor. 1994. The Stars Down to Earth. London: Routledge
Altman, Rick. 1997 ‘Cinema and Genre’. In Nowell - Smith, Geoffrey. Ed : Oxford History of World Cinema. Oxford : Oxford University Press
Ang, Ien. 1991. Desperately Seeking The Audience. London: Routledge
Austen, Guy. 1996. Contemporary French Cinema. Manchester: Manchester University Press
Bordwell, David. Staiger, Janet and Thompson, Kristin. (1985 ) The Classical Hollywood Cinema. London: Routledge
Branston, Gill. 2000. Cinema and Cultural Modernity. Milton Keynes : Open University Press
Brown, Geoff. 2000. ‘Something for Everyone: British film Culture in the 1990s’. Murphy, Robert. Ed. British Cinema of the 90s. London: BFI
Bukatman, Scott. 1994. Terminal Identity. Durham
Cowie, Elizabeth. 1993 . ‘Film Noir and Women’. In Copjec Joan Ed : 1993 : Shades of Noir . London: Verso
Cook, Pam Ed. 1985 (First edition). The Cinema Book . London: British Film Institute
Corrigan, Timothy.1991. A Cinema Without Walls: Movies and Culture after Vietnam . New Brunswick
Christie, Ian. 2003. Interview with Martin Scorsese. Sight and Sound. January. p22
Elsaesser, Thomas. 1997. ‘Germany the Wiemar Years’ in Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. Ed: Oxford History of World Cinema. Oxford : Oxford University Press
Felski, Rita. 1999-2000. ‘ The Invention of Everyday Life’. New Formations, No 39, pp. 15-31
Hake , Sabine. 2002. German National Cinema. London : Routledge
Hanson, Stuart. 2000. ‘ Spoilt for Choice? Multiplexes in the1990s. Murphy, Robert. Ed. British Cinema of the 90s. London: BFI
Higson, Andrew and Maltby, Richard. 1999. ‘Film Europe’ and ‘Film America’ : An Introduction’. In Higson, Andrew and Maltby Richard. ‘Film Europe’ and ‘Film America’. Exeter: Exeter University Press
<!--[if !supportLists]-->Hofman, Katja. 2002. ‘Does my gun look big in this?’ Sight and Sound March
Katz, Ephraim. 2001 4th Ed . Macmillan International Film Encyclopedia. Basingstoke : Macmillan
<!--[if !supportLists]--> <!--[endif]-->Mark Le Fanu. 2003. ‘The dream life of architects’. <!--[endif]-->Sight and Sound March
Luckett, Moya. 2000. ‘Image and Nation in 1990s British Cinema’. In Murphy, Robert. British Cinema in the 90s. London: British Film Institute
<!--[if !supportLists]--> <!--[endif]-->McNab, Geoffrey. 2002. Review of Charlotte Gray. Sight and Sound . March. p 41.
Moretti, Franco. 2001. ‘Planet Hollywood’. New Left Review, Volume 2 No 9 May / June. pp 90-101
Neale, Steve. 2000. Genre and Hollywood. London: Routledge
Neale, Steve and Krutnik Frank : 1990 : Popular Film and Television Comedy: Routledge : London
Nichols, Bill . 1976. ‘Introduction’. In Nichols Bill Ed: Movies and Methods . California University Press : Berkley
Nichols, Bill. 1985. ‘Introduction’. In Nichols Bill Ed : Movies and Methods: Volume Two . California University Press : Berkley
Nowell - Smith, Geoffrey. Ed: 1997 : Oxford History of World Cinema. Oxford : Oxford University Press
Pendakur, Manjunath and Subramanyam, Radha. 2002. ‘Indian Cinema Beyond National Borders’. In Jordan, Tim and Pile, Steve eds. 2002. Social Change. Oxford: Blackwell
Prawer, S.S. 2002. The Blue Angel. London: BFI
<!--[if !supportLists]-->Silverstone, R. 1994. Television and Everyday Life. London: Routledge
Smith, Murray. 2002. Trainspotting. London. British Film Institute.
Sobchack, Vivian. 1997. ‘The Fantastic’. In Nowell - Smith, Geoffrey. Ed : Oxford History of World Cinema. Oxford : Oxford University Press
Street, Sarah. 1997. British National Cinema. London : Routledge
Sturken, Marita. 2000. Thelma and Louise. London: British Film Institute
Tasker, Yvonne. ‘Authorship and contemporary film culture’. Tasker, Yvonne. Fifty Contemporary Filmmakers . Routledge : London
Todd, Peter. 2000. ‘The British Film Industry in the 1990s’. Murphy, Robert. Ed. British Cinema of the 90s. London: BFI
Tudor, Andrew. 1976. ‘Genre and Critical Methodology’. Nichols Bill Ed: Movies and Methods : California University Press : Berkley
Williams, Alan. 1992. Republic of Images: A History of French Film-making. Cambridge Mass: Harvard
Bibliographical Links to books not used but clearly important for Genre Theory
For teachers / FE Lecturers. The BFI Education and Resources on Genre:
Link to the Wallflower Press' useful 'Short Cuts' Series Number 33 | FILM GENRE From Iconography to IdeologyBarry Keith Grant
Refiguring American Genres:
International Journal of Communication 1 2007. Online review of Daniel Biltereyst & Philippe Meers, (eds.), Film/TV/Genre, Ghent Academia Press, 2004, 209 pp, €22,00
Moving Pictures: A New Theory of Film Genres, Feelings, and Cognition
Films mentioned in the text by title and year of release.
About a Boy (2002)
American Beauty (2001)
Billy Elliot (2000)
Black Widow (1987)
Blazing Saddles (1971)
Body Heat (1981)
Bonnie & Clyde (1967)
Brassed Off (1996)
Brief Encounter (1945)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Calamity Jane (1953)
Charlotte Gray (2002)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Dirty Pretty Things (2002
Double Indemnity (1944)
East is East (1999)
Easy Rider (1969)
Fatal Attraction (1987)
Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
Gone with the Wind (1939)
Gosford Park (2002)
It Happened One Night (1934)
La Reine Margot (1994)
Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Life is Beautiful (1998)
Michael Collins (1996)
Minority Report (2002)
Modern Times (1936)
Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1978)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Mulholland Drive ( 2001)
Muriel’s Wedding (1994)
Night at the Opera (1935)
Phantom Engine (1935)
Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Saviour ( 1997)
Secrets and Lies (1996)
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)
Shakespeare in Love (1998)
Shallow Grave (1995)
Soldier Blue (1970)
Some Like it Hot (1959)
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Terminator the Last Judgement (1991)
The Blue Angel (1929-1930)
The Full Monty (1997)
The Pelican Brief (1993)
The Producers (1968)
The Return of Martin Guerre (1983)
The Searchers (1956)
The Thin Red Line (1998)
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Thelma and Louise (1991)
Preface: At time of writing I didn't use the web for research purposes however this section will be developed as it is now a crucial part of everyday research with JISC backed organisations such as Intute organising along the lines of genre.
Link to Intute
Links to New Left Review Article by Franco Moretti who as a literary professor considers the role of genre in literature. This article is a later one than the one on NLR Series 2 Volume 5 'Markets of the Mind.
'Markets of the Mind' link http://newleftreview.org/?page=article&view=2273
Another link to a Moretti article this time considering cultural geography and film genres. (Very interesting to me anyway :-) )
Link to Article by Tom O'Regan on the Crocodile Dundee phenomenon
Link to Carol Laseur's honours dissertation Chapter 1 of The Field of Genre & Australian filmic Texts. several other chapters are also available online making an excellent open access resource!
Link to: Favorite Films and Film Genres As A Function of
Race, Age, and Gender from the Journal of Media Psychology:
An Introduction to Genre Theory by Daniel Cahndler from Aberystwyth University:
Link to the Goethe Institute on documentary films:
Introduction to Genre
Preface. Please note that biblographic and film references can be found under the bibliography research tag in the sidebar "Repetition or Revelation....".
Genre has become a key way of thinking about film from both industrial and critical perspectives. Superficially the concept of genre seems straightforward, however, this introduction seeks to show that it is a rather more complex but also more fascinating concept than simple groupings of similar films. Genre can be used as a research methodology it can also be used as a marketing and production strategy by cultural industries. Below is a comment from cultural critic Franco Moretti who is trying to map out the extent of the penetration of the global film market by Hollywood. Moretti stresses that his methodology includes the use of genres.
...if you look at a newspaper, or walk into a video-store, the reality of film genres literally leaps at you, as each film is being sold as something: a comedy, a film noir, science fiction, whatever. Taxonomy is not a scholastic pastime, it’s a product of the film industry itself, which makes it easier to recognise the film, and to buy the ticket ’ (My emphasis on second emphasis. Moretti, 2001 : 92-93).
Moretti understands genre as the construction of a range of mainstream media industry products which function to safeguard the future of the industry, by maximising and controlling the marketplace. These cultural products encourage potential consumers to enter into a pact with the industry. The industry effectively offers pre-packaged products which are familiar enough to ensure the likelihood of being pleasurable. These products are also instantly recognisable as representing a particular type of pleasure. The products are sophisticated enough to ensure to be distinct from other similar media products, by giving an impression of difference.
Reducing Business Risks
Business is about maximising profits and reducing commercial risk. The ability to create and package a film which is likely to have a reasonably predictable market is part of the skills-base of that industry. Both the potential audience and exhibitors recognise a media product by its generic likeness. Cinema chains aim to maximise audiences. They can tell from past box-office records how well particular types of film have done. Films seen as ‘difficult’ by not being easy to categorise into a genre, will be hard to distribute. If they seem too demanding of audiences they will be left to the small independent cinema outlets and be branded as ‘art cinema’ which for some commentators acts as a sort of miscellaneous genre category for ‘difficult subject matter’. ‘World Cinema’ is another rather strange category found in the video shops. The sections are usually comprised of a few martial arts movies alongside one or two films considered as canonical or fundamental to film conceived of as art.
This is not meant to imply that films classified within genres are necessarily bad. Some will be fairly low budget but clever enough to play with genre categories to escape from the prison of genre and take its audience with it. Ridley Scott’s controversial Thelma and Louise (1991) often described as a ‘road movie’ broke through a genre mould for example. In the case study later in the book it is argued Thelma and Louise can be considered as having a ‘hybrid’ generic form. The section also suggests the possibility that considering Thelma and Louise in relation to Hollywood-style genres is itself a limiting category. The possibility that it should be considered as simply within the traditional literary generic category of tragedy is put forward.
Describing a film from the perspective of genre can be limiting but it can also serve to subvert the distribution system with a more radical product that might otherwise have failed to make headway. For example, war films can end up being critical or supportive of war and as media products they can be made better or worse than other movies in terms of engaging the audience as a piece of drama. Robert Altman’s excellent M*A*S*H (1970) was a well-made and well timed antiwar film which when produced went straight to the heart of the major political crisis facing the USA in the late 1960s, the war in Vietnam. As a typical war movie it doesn’t rate. No heroic battle scenes, rather it was comprised from satirical social commentary about war and wartime culture.
Origins of the Term Genre
It is useful at this stage to get an idea of the origins of the term genre for it is a critical category taken from other art forms and it has developed its own meanings within cinema.
- The term ‘genre’ comes from the French meaning kind or type.
- The notion of genre has played an important role in the categorisation and evaluation of literature.
- During the 1890’s films were usually classified by length and topic. Terms such as ‘fight pictures’ or ‘story film’ were used.
- After about 1910 the number of films made finally outstripped the demand for them. The growth of this competition meant that genre started to be used by the industry to identify and differentiate the films: ‘early film genre terminology served as shorthand communication between film distributors and exhibitors’ (Altman, 1996 : 276).
- At first the genre language of film borrowed heavily from literary and theatrical language before developing its own path. Prior to the 1st World War terms which related to the production practices such as ‘trick film’, ‘animated film’, ‘chase film’ were used.
- After the First World War genre terminology became much more specialised. The two major genres of film were melodramas and comedies and a range of sub-genres appeared which related to these thus : ‘ ‘slapstick’, ‘ farce’, and burlesque’ became separate genres rather than simply types of comedy’ (Altman, 1996 : 276).
Functions of Genre within the Cinematic Process
Genre has been seen as an important concept for each of the levels of the structure of cinema which the sections of this ebook elaborate upon in more detail:
- Production. The concept of genre provided a template for production decisions. It was a form of tacit knowledge among members of the production team which laid out the general parameters of style and content.
- Distribution and Marketing. The notion of genre was an important way of differentiating products. It became a mode of communication between producer and distributor, and between distributor and exhibitor. It also helped film reviewers, often non-specialists, place the product and measure it against other similar products. Reviewing is an essential part of the marketing of a film. In terms of distribution categories all films belong to some genre. It could be loose, such as ‘art-house movie’, or quite ‘tight’ such as ‘teen-pic’ movie. It immediately tells the exhibitor whether they are likely to be interested.
- Consumption. Describes standard patterns of spectator involvement. The idea of genre facilitates communication between exhibitor and audience. Importantly this works between members of the audience and potential audience. Generic ideas create a ready-made vocabulary of concepts to describe the nature and style of the film at a relatively simple level. This can attract larger audiences.
Those critics who have worked upon genre in depth argue that some films are: ‘Self-consciously produced and consumed according to (or against ) a specific generic model’ (Altman, 1997 : 277). This book doesn’t disagree with that approach however it does consider that films along with any other cultural products which have been developed with a commercial formula in mind frequently do this to cover up for lack of skills, imagination, finance or a combination of these elements.
The argument is developed particularly in relation to Hollywood that there is an auteur-genre continuum along which the budget and personnel of a film are chosen to meet an industry created audience ‘need’. Higher budget films are less formulaic and appeal to wider audiences many of which are culturally and intellectually sophisticated and who are not interested in low quality films. In these films stars and high production values are as important as any genre assignations.
In terms of national cinemas, film industries which are just starting out are weak on establishing genre films. Once an industry is more mature it will have established a generic output such as comedies for example. Hollywood has become hegemonic or dominant at producing strong genres imposing them on world-wide audiences. Genres from other national industries have generated fewer films with a more limited audience and are often strongly influenced by Hollywood genres.
Growth of Genres
As a more generically-based production system grows so there is often a shift from defining genre mainly by content to: ‘genre definitions based on repeated plot motifs, recurrent image patterns, standardised narrative configurations and predictable reception conventions’ ( Altman, 1997 : 277).
The use of genre films combined with more industrialised methods of production became very important in the rescue of the one-time largest European film-making company UFA in Germany. Originally the directors were allowed a great deal of artistic freedom which produced fine films now considered canonical. The artistic freedom meant that there were huge budget and time overruns which meant in Germany that UFA was threatened with bankruptcy by Deutsche Bank unless it changed its methods of production. New management methods based upon Hollywood industrial practices were introduced. Finance was separate from and in control of production. New filmmakers were introduced who concentrated upon genre development.
Efficient genre directors such as Karl Hartl, Gustav Ucicky and above all Hans Schwarz put UFA back in the black, the latter with six films, among them some of the biggest box-office successes until then’. (My emphasis :Thomas Elsaesser, 1997 : 150)
This German example shows how important the development and maintenance of the concept of genre is, to mainstream film production. The example also supports the argument that the quality of these films was instantly forgettable. Few, other than professional researchers, now have an interest in this type of film. In a world overdosing from ‘informational output’ the criteria of quality seems increasingly important given the limited consumption time available.
Elsaesser’s position highlights how the institution of cinema is an industrial process which requires investment and profits to operate within a capitalist oriented ‘free-market’ system of production. Developing an understanding of the various aspects of genre takes on a particularly important role in helping us to understand the range of film choice and the type of content which is regularly available.
Other institutional factors creating and controlling genres
Content of course is not entirely limited to genre demands. Censorship and other governmental priorities regarding cultural policy can effect what genres are produced and how they are produced. This is particularly the case in countries which take a stance in their cultural policy which is concerned to rise above the market in some way. This can be the case in authoritarian regimes, or else in countries such as France which have prioritised a defence of a well established national cinema . As a consequence it tends to make more individualised films.
Genre also exists as a critical construction which can invent genres by identifying content and cultural linkages. It also exists as an industry practice. As such the concept of genre is a double-edged weapon which can be turned to the advantage of the film industry or against the film industry.
The complexity of film noir is a case in point. Film Noir was not an industry invented category but a critical category emerging from French critics in the aftermath of war when they saw some of the US thrillers which had been produced during the war but banned in France. Since that time many books and articles have been generated debating whether the genre exists at all and what the limits of this ‘genre’ might be. Critics suggested that the ’genre’ proffered a critique of urban American modern society and the ‘American Dream’.
Film noir has been considered as too complex to deal with in depth in an introductory work. It is worth noting that the trajectory of what started as a critical category into a commercial category is unusual. In the late 1980s and into the 1990s a range of ‘knowing’ films were deliberately produced as neo-noirs. Deliberately copying the visual style and frequently violent content of the original films and frequently having intensely pessimistic endings these films were targeted at a ‘knowing’ critical market. This shows that even the critical thought can be drawn into the marketplace.
The case of film noir highlights the shifting relationship between the industry and the critics in which the boundaries between industry, critic and audience rather than being fixed are being continuously redefined and contested. Originally genre meant films which produced by a cultural industry primarily to make money rather than to open up new ways of knowing and thinking about the world. The concept of genre can be used critically to bring into existence challenges to these ways of thinking by making different links between films to the industry. The idea of "Heritage Cinema" from British critics in the late 1980s and early to mid 1990s saw costume dramas and literary adaptations as a conservative 'genre' which served the aims of the then current Conservative government well. It then also shows that the original criticism of society can itself be turned into a commercial product perhaps based upon irony.
The relationship between the industry, the critics and the audience is an asymmetrical one. The industry holds most of the powerful cards. It can always control and even take advantage of criticism. Whilst the industry must create audiences by seducing viewers it is always on the industry terms rather than the viewers'.
Thinking of genre-based films as an asymmetrical arena of cultural negotiation can be useful. The multiple experiences of viewing publics who are differently positioned in terms of class, ethnicity, gender and territorial location. Because this cultural arena is subject to negotiation, the parameters of genre are constantly shifting as the industry tries to retain and recreate its audiences. This book has concentrated upon the dual aspects of genre as a tool of the film industry and as methodological way of researching the importance of film as a whole
The original book was set out in three main sections. Firstly it mapped out key genres and examined general aspects of genre theory touched upon above. It then proceeded to examine the wider cultural and industrial context in which genre operates. The final main section dealt with more specific genre areas, offering a few readings and possibilities for the reader to develop. This blog will by the nature of the way it is built differ slightly. A contents page with links will be added after the other sections have been posted.
Genres themselves are always in a state of flux, emerging and dying away as wider social conditions change. There is a mutual performativity, operating through the asymmetrical communications system, between industry and consumer. The asymmetric weighting by the very nature of genre is in favour of the industry. This in itself can be seen as a part of the greater hegemonic process by which liberal democracies function.
Cinema organised and funded in ways which represent the global complexity of our social, cultural and economic lives in different ways has been possible to only a very limited extent. The study of genre necessarily needs to consider the contextual aspects of society and its relationship to cultural production rather than be limited to pure textual analysis. These kind of issues are raised in the second part.
Many cultural critics defend cinematic genres, but more critical cinema could, and should be available. When no alternative is offered it is difficult to see beyond the horizons of what is culturally possible when these horizons are policed by genre norms. Genre can be a beneficial critical category up to a point. All films can be described by highly generalised generic categories such as comedy or tragedy. Genre boundaries instituted by the industry frequently act to limit the cultural imaginations of audiences. This attitude discourages risk-taking as producers and consumers. This is because genre is by its very nature intimately bound up with the construction of a sophisticated marketplace organised to promote certain cultural products at the expense of others.
Issues of what is now being understood as cultural citizenship are not often raised within film and cinema studies. A useful critical perspective to be constantly thinking of is the question of whether cinema alongside other cultural products produced primarily for profit is in the best interests of society as a whole and offers a wide diversity of representations of the society in which the viewers are based. Perhaps a cultural production system which is less market-oriented and more citizen oriented is what is required for advanced democracies?
Making a Genre Reading of Thelma and Louise
This posting is a section of my book on genre Repetition or Revelation: Film Genre and Society 2003. Coventry: Kino-eye. This is primarily aimed at year 1 undergraduates and A2 students as well as interested general readers. Other sections will be posted onto the blog in due course. This is all fully copyrighted material please ensure that any references are properly acknowledged.
Preface. Please note that biblographic and film references can be found under the bibliography research tag in the sidebar "Repetition or Revelation....".
This section examines how a methodology (in this case a feminist methodology analysing the film from the perspective of feminism) can be applied to make a genre based reading of a film. The case study here is based upon Thelma and Louise, directed by Ridley Scott.The article also reviews and compares Thelma & Louise with a range of typical Hollywood genres. The conclusion to the article questions whether even placing Thelma and Louise within a complex of Hollywood films is adequate to the task of explaining why it works so effectively and appeals to a wide range of audiences.
It is argued here that the film is a tragicomedy hybrid genre with the emphasis being ultimately placed upon the tragic. While it can be meaningful to relate the film to other Hollywood output it seems more appropriate to view it in the pantheon of tragedy in a cross media and trans-historical way.
That the film can be read as a tragicomedy isn’t the only possible reading and in my piece on Thelma & Louise I question whether the film is possibly best understood as a feminist dream or fantasy.
Thelma and Louise
Marita Sturken in a short monograph on Thelma and Louise in the British Film Institute Modern Classics series uses a feminist methodology, applying this through the lens of genre based analysis to provide a reading which differs from the readings which many reviewers, audiences and scholars have made. As the methodology section points out, to use particular methods to inform critical analysis is to examine a cultural object from a particular perspective to enhance our ways of looking at the world and to thus increase our knowledge about social reality.
To talk in terms of providing readings is not to say that something is necessarily “true” or “false”. It functions to open out different perspectives and possibilities concerning the object of our enquiry. The first question to be asked when considering Sturken’s views is to consider whether she has used the combination of genre and feminist methodologies effectively to provide a ‘strong reading’ or a ‘weak reading’ of the film.
Below there is a synopsis of Sturken’s reading of Thelma and Louise concentrating on the points where she has analysed the film through both genre and feminist methods. To gain a thorough understanding of her points it would be helpful to see some of the following films:
- Thelma & Louise : Used as a core film for analysis this should be seen at least twice.
- Bonnie and Clyde
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).
- It Happened One Night (1934)
- Easy Rider
- Fatal Attraction (1987)
- Body Heat (1981).
Sturken (2000) has argued that Thelma and Louise is strongly reliant upon ‘bending’ traditional genres. She argues that the film is established as setting the viewer up for a light-hearted ‘screwball comedy’ of two women away for a weekend free from unsatisfactory lives and relationships.
It is crucial to the film’s relationship to genre that ‘Thelma and Louise’ do not set out to become criminals, they become them unintentionally ...It is this shift from screwball comedy to buddy movie to road movie to outlaw movie, that gives this film its hybrid genre status, but also , importantly makes it a rereading of several classic film genres’. (Sturken , 2000 : 23
Sturken points out that many critics have tried to make a reading of Thelma and Louise using genre based methods. She proceeds to argue that part of the films cleverness is the playing upon these codes.
Thelma and Louise’ has been situated by numerous film scholars in a wide range of genres, from the fairy-tale and the screwball comedy to the rape-revenge film and the buddy movie. In deploying many of the conventions of a variety of genres, the film can be seen as both naively and shrewdly playing off these codes and formulas. Primary among its references is the outlaw film, which has a long tradition in American cinema as both westerns and road movies ( Sturken , 2000 : 23 ).
Sturken notes that the outlaw has been both an icon and a mythology of a person who defied the system and brought vicarious pleasure to the law-abiding citizen. Thelma and Louise plays off outlaw conventions established in the 1960s through the star vehicles of Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid These films affirmed a sixties version of the genre reiterating the conventions within a sixties ideology of liberation which can be seen as being aimed at the youth market of the time?
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a mixture of crime, screwball humour and a buddy movie. In Thelma and Louise there is a gradual switch in the film between the characters with Thelma becoming the more confident and determined one of the pair. In outlaw films other characters appear but must be relatively peripheral in order to affirm the primary relationship. Another feature of outlaw films is that the characters are understood to be on the way to their fate and get stripped of their possessions along the way. The fact that they are accidental criminals is essential to the reworking of the genre. They are crimes of impulse which become crimes of necessity.
Thelma and Louise lose the accoutrements of traditional femininity and take on several signifiers of masculinity and the road during the film. Their dress code changes with frilly items being replaced by jeans and an engagement ring is exchanged for a hat. Compared with the male characters of the sixties who are on a journey of nostalgia, their journey is ‘inexorably away from the past’ (Sturken, 2000 : 31).
The Use of Space and Place
There is an iconic use of space within the film carefully avoiding ‘the road’ constructed in the image of MacDonald’s for an older style of America. Ridley Scott has commented on his deliberate choice to do this:
I felt it was better to lean to the vanishing face of America, which is Route 66 rather than the new face of America , which is malls and concrete strips(Ridley Scott quoted Sturken , 2000 : 36 ).
The romantic even nostalgic atmosphere is also enhanced by the soundtrack of steel guitar from German composer Hans Zimmer. It is thus worth considering whether this is a European take on America. This is a generic landscape which moves to a culminating romantic icon of the canyon in Moab,
A Shifting Multi-generic Film
There is little doubt that Thelma and Louise is a complex film and reading it through the lens of a genre throws up interesting questions. Whilst Sturken has categorised the film as a genre hybrid, it is worth considering whether it can be considered as more of a multi-generic film. The reason for suggesting this is that the complex shifts which are made throughout the film moving through a range of genres is a little different to being a combination of two or three genres. The film has its comic parts, but it is not considered as a comedy or even a comedy-thriller. Below the generic complexity of the genres the film has been associated with are explained and examined.
The classic road movies are about male privilege, the right to hit the road without worrying about children or destination. Women weren’t the protagonists of road movies, rather women were often what men were running away from. Corrigan (1991) describes the classic road movie as having 4 defining features:
- Breakdown of the family unit
- The context in which events are acted upon characters and obstacles being constantly put in the way
- Protagonist who is readily identified with their means of transportation
- A focus upon men in the absence of women.
Many critics have credited Thelma and Louise with reviving the road movie genre and opening it up to new identities. Thelma & Louise follows the tradition of road movies where the protagonists are most happy when they are actually on the road. As soon as they stop they get into trouble. The film continually reiterates the duality of space contrasting the open road with a claustrophobic domestic environment. This is a reversal of the traditional theme of men riding through a landscape which is usually coded as woman/ nature.
The men in the film are forced to participate in female codes of behaviour. The men are forced to wait for them whilst previously the women were forced to wait on them. This sense of movement versus stasis is achieved through the technique of crosscutting from the car racing through the landscape making whistle-stops, to the unchanging domestic interior for example. This functions to reinforce the stereotype of domesticity and interiors as female non-progressive space.
The Buddy Movie
The film embraces a basic aspect of the buddy movie which is that men understand each other better than they understand their women. The primary relationship in this film is between the women who understand each other’s ways of being in the world better than their men do.
The Screwball Comedy
Screwball comedy is a genre which was very popular in the 1930s. It is usually based upon the clever sexual banter of a couple who don’t know that they are supposed to be together, but who eventually find their way to each other through a set of foibles, mistaken identities and other plot ploys. Classic example Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night.
In Thelma & Louise screwball humour is apparent in the scene when the motorcycle cop pulls them over. There is a panic mode akin to that used in screwball comedy. The film plays with the audience using suspense when the cop is put into the boot Thelma tells him to ‘be sweet to em’ (his wife and kids) in a screwball mode. Thelma’s relentless optimism ‘is central to providing the film’s screwball tone’ ( Sturken, 2000: 60 ).
Female Revenge Film
Thelma & Louise is often interpreted as a “female revenge film”. This is a genre construction which could be seen as misogynistic (misogyny is hatred of women). ‘Female revenge’ films feature female characters in which the potential of women for violence is contained within plot scenarios that either demonise them or destroy them in some way (Fatal Attraction, Body Heat, Black Widow (1987). They are films in which femme fatales wreak havoc on the lives of innocent men. The films above are often considered by some critics as neo-noirs.
However, this isn’t a revenge movie for past acts committed against them, rather Thelma and Louise are on a search for liberation from oppressive patriarchal structures (patriarchy is where everything is ruled by norms established by men).
Revenge is not the motivating factor in their decisions - escape to better social conditions is. Despite the obvious histories of forms of sexual abuse the attempted rape on Thelma and the unspeakable past of Louise there is no talk of revenge. There were plenty of opportunities for a range of violent acts on men. They could have blown away the lorry driver after all as well as the policeman. The hitchhiking lover who stole their money could have been murdered. Those critics and reviewers following that line of thinking were clearly motivated by something other than clear analysis.
For this writer at least there is something unsatisfactory about trying to slot Thelma and Louise into various complexes of Hollywood genres. My initial view was that the film is based upon classical tragic drama and even after reading Sturken’s analysis my view is unchanged. Fate dealt Thelma and Louise a cruel hand and ethically they had decided that they would take a certain course in which the options continually narrowed until death was the only option.
Where this film differs from the tragic classic genre of theatre is that the heroes of the film are everyday characters who had started out on an everyday weekend outing which was pretty much the highlight of lives which were very narrow. This is very different from the Greek tragedies or those of Shakespeare which were based on powerful people making and taking important decisions.
Thelma and Louise appears more like a popular version of this very old generic form and in that sense it can be a useful description of the film. Whether that would have proved attractive to the potential audiences in terms of marketing is impossible to say.
Sturken’s analysis of genre hybridity seems to relate strongly to the comments Neale has made concerning ‘New Hollywood’ critics who, inspired by ‘post-modern’ thinking, are seeking ‘hybridity’ under every stone. Neale points out that it is important to distinguish between hybridity and allusion to other films often achieved through a sort of pastiche. Arguably Thelma and Louise remains a classic tragedy rich in allusions to well known Hollywood films. Thinking of the film in these terms seems more likely to open up questions among the audience about the nature of the human condition at the time the film was mad
The genre readings of the film don’t appear to open out any useful insights about the relationship of the film to the film industry of the time in terms of marketing or reasons for the film in the first place.
The film is taken as a classical tragedy transposed from the standard conventions of this wider genre from the character in high society to the background of two ordinary women somewhere in rural America. The plot hinges on an ordinary weekend trip featuring a dramatic turning point where a brutal prior experience combined with the arrest of a brutal act which temporarily prompts an act of transgression born of uncontrollable emotions.
From that point on the tragedy unfolds. The breakthrough of the film that two ordinary women can become the subject of tragedy signifies that Hollywood can play a progressive role in raising deeper questions about social reality. Arguably, it is the fact that the film is very weak in Hollywood genre terms which allowed it to have such an effect on a wide range of audiences.
The film’s form makes it more than just a tragedy however. Starting in a light-hearted vein and having recourse to a range of comic moments which serve to alleviate what would be a dour fatalistic narrative. The blowing up of a petrol tanker, the near slapstick of the incompetent husband stepping in pizza, the turning of the tables upon the traffic-cop, and the insertion of a Rasta cyclist serve as comic high-points, which also function to highlight the underlying implications of the story which is a strong critique of individual violence against omen and a critique of institutionalised sexism which fails to deal with this.
To engage in arcane debates about Hollywood generic affiliations risks either scholasticism or critics who find the implications of the film too challenging trying to close down the deeper questions which the film is trying to raise. This means that the major points the film is raising for discussion can be obscured. Seen as a tragicomedy this film justifiably can be described as a modern classic because it is modern in its content and classic in the way that it is modelled on a traditional literary genre.