April 03, 2007

Genre the Everyday and Popular Culture

Genre the Everyday and Popular Culture

Introduction

            Genre, popular culture and the everyday have been three concepts historically linked and often made into a hierarchy which is very gender based. The concept of popular culture is itself a troubled one with accusations of elitism from some academics countered by accusations of crass populism by others. The Romantics criticised genre in ways which linked it with the everyday seen as repetitive and mundane, yet the role of romance in a wide range of genres aimed at markets segmented by age and gender can be seen as a desire to escape the everyday mundanities. A wider generic concern can expand Neale’s comment on the ‘women’s film’ genre as one which is strange and contradictory to think about other generic forms.

            Desire is often released by the culturally generic form such as romances. The character can move to higher things through romantic involvement but then the characters are reincorporated back into the everyday by becoming reconciled to it. David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) is a good example of this. Below some of these concerns are examined in more detail. In conclusion, the spectacular and its links with the romantic are seen to perform this role of reconciliation for the audience providing an generically based industry continuously fired by individual fantasies of escape and need for reconciliation.

History of Genre and Popular Culture

            Originally most modern concepts of genre had a hostile attitude to cultural products perceived of as industrialised and necessarily repetitious. This attitude originated in the Romanticist movement of the 19th century. Strongly criticising mass cultural products as routine , repetitive and formulaic these critics were trying to create a clear division between ‘high art’ and ‘low’/popular culture. The work of Neale (2000) through detailed empirical studies of popular films argues that it is better to consider genre as a complex process within the greater complex of cultural industrial strategies. As a result it is more appropriate to consider genre conventions as loose and open-ended rather than as a system which forecloses upon the meaning and quality of a film.

Some theorists of popular culture consider the criticisms of genre as one of a number of critical constructions which devalued the intelligence of the mass audiences who consumed these cultural items. Genre theorists have been keen to revalue ‘popular culture’ by arguing that genre is a much more complex phenomenon than originally argued. Some of the original devaluation of audience intelligence revolves around the notion of repetition. Criticism often turns into a range of metaphors commonly used by those who consider themselves as “cultured” as a marker of social exclusiveness.

            The metaphor of repetition is very strongly associated with industrialism and its processes and it has also been strongly associated with the domestic environment. Industrialism has, for many, been seen as the way forward for humanity as a whole, making repetition positive for some theorists. This has been contrasted by the same theorists to the everyday or quotidian of the domestic environment which has been viewed as very socially conservative as time is seen as cyclical or going nowhere. This construction of time and domestic space is a highly gendered one. Time constructed as masculine linked to an industrialised workspace despite the repetition of the industrial processes is still envisaged as a form of progress. By comparison, domestic time considered as repetitive and circular is considered as feminised time and space without the possibility of progress[1].

            A slightly different variation on repetition has been seen by Romanticist critics as running counter to the “greater” things in life. They have been very much in favour of supporting the concept of “ Art for art’s sake”. Romanticists are associated with anti-industrialism. In the 19th century important critics divided into left and right-wing approaches to Romanticism. William Morris wanted more of a return to crafts conceived of as an organic form of production valuing the best of ‘popular culture’ of the time. This can be contrasted with the approach of Matthew Arnold whose ideas of ‘high culture’ strongly influenced British arts policy until the 1980’s, for his ideas were adapted by T.S. Eliot , F. R. Leavis and Lord Keynes who was responsible for establishing the Arts Council in Britain after World War Two .

            More recently feminist social theorists such as Rita Felski and media theorists such as Roger Silverstone[2] have been examining issues around the concept of the everyday. Both of these theorists are concerned to re-evaluate the everyday which is something we all usually take for granted thinking of it as almost “natural”. Both theorists come to similar conclusions which are that the repetitions of the everyday have a very important set of social, cultural and psychological functions, thus they are more positive about the term. In terms of child development repetition is very important in achieving a well-balanced child. In terms of media output a regular range of programmes helps us to receive and give meaning to our days and provides pleasure as well. These factors are described as ontological security. Ontology is about social being and here the expression means that people feel comfortable in the world and are able to function effectively when they have a strong sense of ontological security.

            To assume, as so many critics of generic output have done, that repetition is necessarily bad, creates a tendency to misread the complex processes and continuously shifting relationship of production and audience construction within the media world. In that sense nothing is ever quite the same. Critical positions which are totally anti-generic tend to assume a largely passive audience and as such is driven by an elitist view of the capabilities of the audience. Those popular films which can be said to be genre-based articulate a process which in an indirect way through the box-office relates to, informs and is informed by the desires, fears, needs of vast numbers of people.

The Spectacular and the Everyday

            The ways in which film as a form of ‘popular’ culture is consumed changed between the 1950s-1970s. The role of cinema as the primary form of mass media was eclipsed by television. The contextual [3] aspects of exhibition have changed beyond all recognition since the days of the classical Hollywood studio system. Consumption of films is still very popular. Frequently cinema release acts more as a form of promotion for the film. Shorter runs and the complex licensing arrangements, releasing the film through rental chains often owned by multi-media corporations, followed by satellite and cable release then retail shops and then terrestrial TV shows that a sophisticated hierarchical marketing system is in place to maximise profitability upon each film.

            Generic films aimed at a youth market tend to do well at the cinema. The audience are less tied to the domestic environment and have a relatively high disposable income. The youth audience is the largest group of regular cinema-goers. Audience analysis shows that the ways in which film interacts with the everyday is complex. More family oriented crowds at rental outlets such as ‘Blockbusters’ at weekends shows that cinema exhibition within the domestic environment at a time when the week is less structured by institutional requirements such as work and school means that longer films can be watched without breaking up weekday routines.

The changing market conditions mean that more people can get to see the same films. However, there is a price premium paid for watching in theatres where special FX can be best experienced. Spectacle is still a major attraction for Hollywood cinema. Visual spectacle and style can be thought of as a generic feature. Action movies are likely to be designed around an over-reliance upon special FX. The most successful films such as Titanic (1997) combine a multiple range of marketing strategies [4] including a multi-genre approach, high profile stars, high profile director, real-life disaster combined with special FX to attract a highly variegated audience keen to enjoy a high quality spectacular.

Conclusion

            The ‘Blockbuster’ is now major factor in the survival of the mainstream cinema as a distinctive media form with a major industrial base. The space of the cinema and the spectacular is an important industry feature which in helping fantasy breakout of the quotidian marked by repetition constructed as mundanity indicates that generally audiences are by no means strongly attracted by generic features of film alone. The blockbuster can be seen as working upon a widely differing range of socially constructed desires of romantic longing to escape the everyday.

            The marking of the everyday as unromantic by generically-based media industries provides the psychological space in which to develop products which are designed to construct a range of cultural and social practices constructed as ‘romantic’, whilst being careful not to overfeed those dreams. The social researcher Adorno can be seen to have made an important argument when he argued that there was a ‘fundamental symmetry’ between mass-culture and fascism: ‘both feed-off and reproduce immature character structures with high, almost childlike, dependency needs.’ [5]

            Use of special FX to create ‘magical’ aspects of narrative which have no relationship to reality of verisimilitude (narrative logic) are only viable because of the desire to escape yet this escapism must be resolved by the narrative closure into some sort of verisimilitude. In Charlotte Gray there is a classical romantic ending with an open but contented future ahead, in Titanic the irreconcilable differences of class must end in a heroic and tragic death made real by linking to historical events. In Minority Report reconciliation and a new stable family future beckon. Thelma and Louise have a slightly more difficult ending which can be read in a number of different ways. Verisimilitude says that they will die however breaking through the genre conventions by a non-specific ending allows for the possibility of a new form of the everyday and the possibilities for social change by breaching the conventions between rationality and irrationality as the space where generically based cultural products manipulate the imaginaries of their audiences.



1 [1]See Felski, Rita. 1999-2000.

2 [2] Silverstone, R. 1994.

3 [3]Also see under ‘Methods and Methodology in Film Research’.

4 [4]See also ‘Multiple Marketing Strategies’ section.

5 [5]Adorno quoted Crook, Stephen in Adorno 1994. P 10-11.


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