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to space don’t hold up hold up well against these examples which suggest that the struggle for physical space is superseded by the ability to reconcile differences and attitudes.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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