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.