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April 09, 2007
Women and British Cinema: Some avenues for research
Many of you will have studied some history of British films in your AS film Studies. The critical research project in Media Studies offers the opportunity to develop that area of study. Below is a list of British films which could be useful in helping you to establish a research project on the topic of Women and Film. This is not intended to be exclusive. It is possible to take almost any film and link it into the topic of women and film from the major perspectives of film analysis and criticism. There are a range of common critical methodologies currently used to analyse films. Methods and methodologies like anything else are subject to change. Below are some common ways of approaching films. Please note there will be overlaps, categories are not usually discrete! The film industry will try and utilise genres and stars to target a specific audience for example. Common critical approaches to film that you will need to consider include:
o Is a film targeted at an audience which is primarily female? (How can we tell? – issues to explore: gender and genre / stars, gender and genre / representation of women).
o Is a film primarily targeted at men? (How can we tell? – issues to explore: gender and genre / stars gender and genre / representation of women)
o Here you need to focus on genre theory. See Blog entries on genre. You could examine several films from a specific genre perspective. You will need to read up on genre theory and identify how films have been targeted at audiences by gender. Examples of genres which have been traditionally ‘women’s films include:
§ Costume dramas / melodramas / romantic comedies
§ Genres such as Biopics (biographical films may (not will) tend to have a target audience gender bias depending upon the historical person being represented. Examples of biopics include: Hilary and Jackie / Iris / The Queen
- See blog entries on stars and theory. Questions you may wish to consider include:
- Does Britain produce actresses whilst Hollywood produces stars?
- Have there been shifts in the representation of female stars in relation to shifts in the position of women in wider society?
- Does cinema encourage or follow social change in society ?
- What has been the relationship of British women stars to Hollywood?
- The recent controversy surrounding Helen Mirren's comments on 'date rape' raise issues about the responsibilites of 'celebrities' and also how audiences react to controversy of that nature.
British women stars you may wish to study can include:
- Julie Christie
- Helen Mirren
- Judi Dench
- Kate Winslett
- Vanessa Redgrave
- Margaret Lockwood
- Elizabeth Taylor
- Keira Knightley
- Tilda Swinton
· Auteur / ‘Art House’ Cinema:
o Stephen Hill has suggested that from the 1970s the typical British genre film, often comedy, was squeezed out of the cinemas as American money went back to America and TV took over the function of being the main environment for the exhibition of British films.
o Hill suggests that this stimulated a new model of ‘Art Cinema’ for British film makers targeted at quite specific but relatively stable and known audiences:
§ Some of the films continued the social realist tradition such as Ken Loach & Mike Leigh
§ Others films were self-consciously ‘arty’ experimenting with new forms and ways of dealing with narrative
§ Other films were representations of what are considered as ‘high art’ texts such as re-workings of Shakespeare plays, the books of Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility) or E. M. Forster (Passage to India, Howards End).
· Useful films to consider for women and film critical research unit
o The films below deal with many of the issues of the representation of women, issues of audience, genre, Stars and performance and art house cinema. All of the films have quite developed critical discourses often from a feminist methodological perspective which will help you to develop your research ideas and give you more of a background feel to your chosen topic area.
§ The Wicked Lady. British star, Use of pirate / highwayman film to allow women different cultural space
§ Brief Encounter. Post war re-establishing of women’s ‘traditional’ position in society
§ Taste of Honey. British ‘New Wave’ realism
§ The L-Shaped Room. British ‘New Wave’ realism
§ Darling. The ‘Swinging Sixties’
§ Bahji on the Beach. Woman director / about changing position of women in relation to changing Britain
§ Orlando. Woman director / challenge to gender/ based upon famous woman writer who had at least a second wave feminist consciousness
§ Sense and Sensibility. Role of women historically / woman stars / can male directors be sensitive to women?
§ Secrets and Lies. Male director and representation of women
§ Elizabeth. Male director and representation of women / representation of great historical woman. Comparisons with Kapur’s “Bandit Queen”
§ Ratcatcher. Woman director
§ Bridget Jones’ Diary. Is this a ‘post-feminist? Representation of women? Is it a progressive or regressive representation of women?
§ Bend it Like Beckham. Representation of changing position of women in society / woman director.
§ Charlotte Gray. Woman director / woman as ‘hero’ non passive
§ Vera Drake. Historical representation of women could be compared to British New Wave realist films. Male director representing issues primarily affecting women. Could a woman do this better?
§ Dirty Pretty Things + Last Resort + Ghosts. Representation of women on the margins. (Could also go non-British and look at Moodysson’s Lilya 4-Ever see separate Blog entry)
April 08, 2007
Lilya 4-ever, 2002, Lucas Moodysson
A moment of genuine pleasure for Lilya
It would be difficult to describe this film as ‘entertaining’ but it is a very powerful film which quickly drags the viewer into the realistic nightmare of post-Soviet Russia. Along with many of the post-Soviet countries which used to make up the other side of the ‘Iron curtain’ Russia became a place where what most of us consider as normal rights of social citizenship such as housing, health, and jobs became hard to come by. As a result this opened up opportunities for the most unscrupulous and ruthless as morals and morale quickly collapsed into a free for all of 'survival of the fittest'. The film is equally realistic about the collusion and conivence of Western countries at the level of the individual to exploit the situation for economic and sexual gain. It is also critical of Western countries at the level of government to fail to stop what some have described as a new slave trade. At the most general level Lilya 4-Ever can be understood as a breakdown in trust.
Being abandoned by her mother &
approaching a moment of total abjection
Relevance to the critical research unit
Lilya 4-Ever is one of several films made by European film makers which came out not long after the turn of the millennium which dealt with the exploitation of the weakest in society who are forced into emigration because conditions have become so bad in their country of origin.
The Last Resort, by Pawlikoski and Dirty Pretty Things by Stephen Frears make up a trio with Lilya 4-Ever. All concern the exploitation of women in some way. Lilya is tricked into the sex trade, in the Last Resort the woman is tricked into arriving in England with her son expecting to be married after a liaison with an English businessman. She ends up in a downmarket seaside resort as an asylum seeker and eventually gets involved in a video pornography to gain some sort of an income. Dirty Pretty Things focuses on how potential immigrants and asylum seekers were tempted into selling some of their body organs in order to gain fake British passports. Of the three films Lilya 4-Ever fits very well with three categories of research – Women and Film, Crime and the Media and Children and the Media. These films are due to be joined by Ghosts a film about Chinese undocumented labour, which leads up to the terrible tragedy waiting to happen on Blackpool Sands. Ghosts is due out on DVD in April 2007.
Lilya with her "saviour"
All three films are mainly social realist films and fit in well with the social realist strand of cinema which you will be covering when you look at contemporary British cinema. Last Resort and Dirty Pretty Things are both British Films. Lilya 4-Ever is Swedish and uses social realism combined with fantasy sequences which function for the viewer as a representation of Lilya’s unconscious.
Social realism tries to represent aspects of life as they really are. Of course they still use cinematic techniques but they see themselves as grounded in social reality and they usually have a strong preferred reading emanating from the makers of the film. It is interesting that the Lilya 4-Ever DVD has appeals from both UNICEF the United Nations children’s section and Amnesty International as well. As a marketed package it clearly has an even stronger preferred reading for combining with these other texts very clearly positions it. In this sense Moodysson is a man with a mission as he explores the contradictions and injustices of this world. It is of course possible to discuss this film from the perspective of whether male directors can create good representations of women.
Lucas Moodysson as 'neo-Bazinian Realist'
In his article New Directions in European Cinema (2004) John Orr argues that moodysson is one of the powerful european necomers along with dirctors like Lynne Ramsey who have taken on the mqantle donned by directors such as Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Bertrand Tavernier. Bazin Orr notes saw cinema as a form of exploration in both documentary and fiction:
It would reveal to us ... more of the everyday world in which human beings lived at all levels of society, many of them previously excluded by the commercial dictates of cinema as a cultural industry. Many of the practical means he saw as facilitating this new kind of cinema still thrive, more so now than ever. There is still low-to medium-budget cinema, location-based, often using non-professionals, but focusing now on social malaise - exclusion, violence and poverty - in a more consumerist age ... where the excluded still miss out. The neo-Bazinian aesthetic usually stresses ensemble acting (with improvisation and comic diversion) and obviates star quality. (Orr John, 1990 pp 301-302)
Powerfully Orr links in the work of the Neo-Bazinians to that of the theorist Julia Kristeva through the development of the Bazinian aesthetic to what he describes as a "new unbalancing of perspective". Orr describes it as an anti-aesthetic style in which mise en scene becomes a site of prime deformation thus transgressing the classical style of realism. There is also what Orr describes as a traductive realism which through various camera techniques, differently used amongst directors. The net outcome of these techniques amounts to a 'going down.'
It is here that Orr draws upon the work of Kristeva to discuss the meaning of "abjection". He describes abjection as being:
... the suspension of identity in a world devoid of meaning where abjection is a safeguard, a choice for the liminal in the instance of the void. It is the choice to be stranded as protection against the void. The downward flight is a conscious exposure by the abject being to the very dangers from which it seeks to protect itself, and ultimately from death. (Ibid p 306).
So near and yet so far, Lilya looks
out on a World of apparent freedom
that she can never know. Is the spectator
in the role of the reflection gazing on Lilya
in her Swedish "prison"?
Crticism of the Western States
Moodysson’s story takes male domination in contemporary Western society onto another political level for he explicitly criticises the role of the state at two crucial points. Firstly when the pimp tells Lilya that the police would only send her back to her own country and secondly this point is visually consolidated when Lilya feels she can’t take the opportunity to go up to the policewoman in the garage after she has escaped because she is so scared. As a result she ends up killing herself. The film provides some respite from this potential ending because we are given a scenario of choice. At the end of the day she is a human agent and can work it out, as the section on neo-Bazinian realism below discusses choosing the route of 'abjection' is sometimes a conscious but perverse one. We never know which choice she or others like her in real life make or made but we clearly see the results of the wrong choice.
The mise en scene
The mise en scene of Lilya affects me every time I see it. My first visit to a post-Soviet country was in 1997 and the housing blocks that Lilya lives are absolutely typical. What I found interesting about housing in the Soviet Union was that unlike here it wasn’t based upon class and income although that is rapidly changing now. It used to be the case that doctors and other professionals would be living in blocks like these alongside labourers, mechanics etc.
The areas outside these blocks are called yards and they all seem to have a basketball net in them. It really is a big game certainly in Lithuania (one of the world’s best teams) the country with which I’m familiar. The paintwork the gloomy stairs, because electricity is so expensive relative to incomes ,and the extraordinary poverty of those who were most weakly positioned in society are all true. Many older people lost the value of their life savings as the Rouble lost much of its value. There were also many banking scandals with people depositing their savings and directors of banks running off with the money and lodging it in Swiss bank accounts.
The collapse of the Soviet Union also saw the rise of many small time criminals as well as the large scale ones. The bigger the criminal the more they can get away with things of course. The way in which the current owner of Chelsea football club made his way up is not paved with petals! The petty criminals and smaller gangs took to ruthlessly exploiting young women and young girls. Many young women are tricked into the sex trade in Western Europe by promises of jobs in modelling or even just – as was the case with Lilya – working picking flowers and vegetables.
When these women arrive on false passports - which are usually issued because they are under 18 – they are relieved of their passports and they are trapped. As in the case with Lilya even if they escape from the flats they are usually kept in the police used to send them back to their country of origin and the perpetrators usually get away with everything or else face only small fines or other minor punishment. When you consider the amounts of money that can be made there is little or no risk for the perpetrators. It is thus a very tempting business to the unscrupulous.
It was important in Lilya that the range of men she was farmed out to cut across class boundaries. She was even farmed out for group sex in men’s sporting clubs. This is a very important point, as this represents just how much a wide range of men collude with this illegal trade. Clearly Moodysson (a male director) is representing men as seeing women as vehicles for their own pleasures rather than as people. By doing this he is criticising the dominant ideology which encourages men to treat women in this way. Moodysson's representation of women is not in any sense idealised. Lilya is let down by mother, aunt and "best friend".
From the perspective of using this film as a text in your research project there are many different avenues which can be explored. Not least there is the issue of whether women directors can represent the position of women better than men. There is the link to social reality about the ideological frameworks which create women as victims of what feminists would describe as a patriarchal system.
There are of course a number of potential extracts that could be used in your focus group work. Whilst the film seems unremittingly grim in terms of its preferred reading there is much in there which desires and demands your attention! There are a range of charities and some MPs who are very concerned to deal with some of these isues. Just as the work of Ken Loach in the sixties managed sometimes parts of the media can help to bring about. Indeed Moodysson is asking for people to choose life and to reject the abject.
Here is a useful blog address (provided by visitor Colin). It is a useful MySpace blog with a video download and useful interviews with the director Lucas Moodysson and some information about the exploitation and eventual suicide of a young Lithuanian woman which helped inspire the story:
Here is a live Amnesty International Campaign operating in Greece (June 2007):
There is an excellent list of international organisations and a bibliography at this page.
Trafficking in Birmingham 2004:
Its still a problem in 2006:
April 03, 2007
The Relationship of the Director in 'New Hollywood' to Genre: Birth of the American 'Auteur'?
The concept of genre has been examined from a number of angles. It has become apparent that what appeared to be a relatively simple critical category is a lot more complex. Many examples of genre hybridity and a multi-generic industrial strategy have been noted. It has also been stressed that genres are live cultures. Genres develop and change under the direct influence of the full range institutional factors which comprise cinema – Producers/ Exhibitors / Audiences – as well as having to respond to wider changes in the media environment. The case presented here argues that the higher profile the film the less it is reliant upon genre as a part of its marketing strategy and the more important the role of the director.
The Changing Industrial Environment
‘New Hollywood’ remains the dominant cinema on a global basis. Historically there are a number of institutional changes which have reshaped Hollywood. The production base of films, the relationships between the various companies which make up the film industry as well as the systems of exhibition have also evolved. Classical Hollywood cinema underwent restructuring during the 1950s. Antimonopoly legislation, the rapid growth of TV and the growth of higher levels of disposable income amongst the working classes were the major contributing factors to the need for restructuring.
The break-up of the old studio system saw film companies being taken over by industrial conglomerates. At the same time a new mode of exhibition started to develop in America – The Multiplex. This was necessary to try and halt declining audiences attracted by TV and other leaisure pursuits. The first was a 4 screen version opened by American Multi-Cinema in Kansas City in 1966. It took until the 1980s for the multiplex to consolidate its hold over the American exhibition system, it then started to export the model with the first in Britain opening in Milton Keynes in 1985. It had a restaurant brasserie and social club. Guaranteeing at least one U certificate film it was an important marketing strategy for cinema. Conditions of exhibition have often been underestimated by critics however the fact that in the 1930s many American cinemas were air conditioned was a major summer attraction for audiences. These market factors need to be added to concerns such as genre and stardom.
Television offered another way of distributing films and so the opportunities for joint production arrangements became possible. This could reduce financial risk for the film companies by sharing costs on lower level productions ensuring a good stream of finance and funding the administrative and marketing forces necessary to its core activity of making premium feature films.
From the perspective of the development of genre the growth of the ‘made for TV’ market gradually replaced the low budget studio output. An important feature of these films was that they were shot with a TV audience in mind thus action had to remain central to the screen. This was because the aspect ratios of the original TV screens were different to those of cinema screens. The rapid growth of the installed base of wide-screen television able to screen films in their original aspect ratios will gradually erode the technological limitations of the ‘made for TV movie’.
Economic crisis in the 1970s followed the changes in the institutional arrangements of cinema. The 1980s saw the flourishing of new technologies such as satellite and cable accompanying the deregulation of media markets in many countries. Film companies became less interested in production as such but more concerned with distribution which was a lucrative but lower risk aspect of the market.
More changes in the regulatory and economic relationships of the industry meant that the way became open for higher profile independent producers, and filmmakers who could play with higher budget movies which allowed them to expand their vision. Film companies by this time had become horizontally integrated into media empires which included TV, Radio, and music strands within the corporate conglomeration. This meant that a range of synergies between companies could be utilised to market films. This included: TV and cable distribution arrangements; the production and distribution of soundtracks; the production of DVD’s and videos; the sale of rights on associated computer games and toys,T-shirts and other marketing materials. Overseas distribution provided another income stream. Multi-media corporations like this include Time-Warner-AOL, and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox TV in America along with his extensive global media interests. Other sources of production income now include charging companies large amounts of money to feature their branded products within a high profile movie.
Role of the Director
This has meant that films hoping to be financially successful are increasingly reliant upon a range of strategies to reduce their risk . Film directors with a good profile are more able to make films that they want to make in the way they want to make them. This compares with the ‘Classical’ Hollywood period of production when the directors were largely at the mercy of producers who enforced tight shooting schedules and eliminated cost overruns. Several European émigré directors used to less industrialised ways of making films such as Fritz Lang who at the German company UFA regularly went well over the original budgets and schedules to get a film to his satisfaction. Many like Lang found it hard to adapt to Hollywood systems of production.
These European directors were considered as auteurs or authors who were putting their vision onto screen. Many of these directors created stars rather than depended upon stars. Josef von Sternberg was instrumental in bringing Marlene Dietrich to a wider audience. By comparison, Hollywood has always been dependent upon the star system as another marketing tool. Often there has been a symbiosis of stars with particular genres, John Wayne and the western and some war films, Clint Eastwood with westerns and more recently action-thrillers, Sylvester Stallone, Steven Siegel and Arnold Schwarzenegger with action-adventure.
Murray Smith (2002) teases out a useful distinction between the American concept of the auteur and a more European based conception of the auteur. For the latter the high-cultural traditions are seen as the most important aim of the film whilst in America these aims are attenuated by a desire to reach a much wider audience as well. Orson Welles as well as Martin Scorsese are examples of this type of director.
The role of the semi-independent filmmaker who has some power to negotiate their conditions is recently exemplified by Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2003) a film which he has apparently been longing to make for many years. There have been a series of high profile interviews with Scorsese in broadsheet newspapers, specialist film journals and TV review programmes.
In interview with Ian Christie, Scorsese responding to a question on how the film taps into 19th century revenge narrative like ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ commented that the film echoes genre forms, but also includes social, historical and personal issues.
We complicated it because I was interested in the emotions. It evolved from a story about a boy who needs a father and a father who needs a son, against a backdrop of the frontier meets the city, or a western meets a gangster film, topped off with a ‘soupcon’ of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery – all of that in one Movie! (Martin Scorcese).
Described by some critics as an 'epic', Gangs of New York is strongly dependent upon being a multi-genre film. It combined with Scorsese’s own reputation, and featuring stars such as the highly bankable Leonardo di Caprio, and co-starring Daniel Day Lewis. It also stars Liam Neeson appealing to Irish audiences. Both the latter actors have played leading roles in historical films such as Last of the Mohicans ( 1992) and Michael Collins (1996), a fact that will broaden the appeal of the film.
Thelma and Louise is strongly associated with director Ridley Scott who was able to exert quite a high degree of control over the production process rather than being entirely controlled by the financiers because of his previous success with films like Bladerunner (1982). As a British director Scott has an outsider’s eye for weighing up aspects of society considered as everyday to indigenous directors. In this way a key element of American identity, its landscape, became a key part of the film’s aesthetic appeal. Scott also had a particularly dynamic way of making cinema relying on direct takes with the actors unrehearsed to gain spontaneity. Much of the film’s success can be attributed to Scott’s directing skills.
In an entirely different context Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1929-30) was the result of an attempt to place German national cinema in a prestigious position as the new sound map of cinema unfurled in the 1930s. The film copied the variegated production strategy which was by then the Hollywood norm. Sternberg was a well known American director of German descent. Sternberg was not the production company’s first choice but the best they could afford.
The Blue Angel starred Emil Jannings Germany’s most successful internationally known actor with an academy award in Hollywood. The comng of sound had cut short Jannings' Hollywood career because of his very thick German accent. Sternberg had been directing Jannings in one of the films cited which won him the Oscar. Alongside him the experienced but hitherto unrecognised Marlene Dietrich. The film was based upon a modern literary adaptation from the novel Professor Unrat by the well known author Heinrich Mann. As a genre piece it was a typical tragedy in a wider generic sense as well as belonging to the genre of literary adaptations The film involving the tragic fall of a professional also featured the sleazy side of life with a mise-en-scene of night-clubs and jazz and thus could be expected to have a wide audience appeal. UFA, the largest German film company, was strongly concerned with establishing a core of generic production this film can be considered as an attempt to launch a ‘blockbuster’ to break into the American marketplace.
As the strategy for The Blue Angel makes clear the blockbuster film can be seen as strongly hinging upon the reputation and skills of the director part of whose range of skills will include working effectively with stars, to a budget, operating in a multi-generic environment, which means being familiar with, but going beyond, straightforward genre formulas. On the basis of this example it can be seen that the more high profile a film is for the studio the more it is weighted towards the influence of the director and away from a simple generic base.
On the basis of the examples used here it is possible to see that the directors in ‘New Hollywood’ blockbusters are playing a more independent role than their counterparts from the days of ‘Classical Hollywood’. Nevertheless, this role is quite distinctive from that of the auteur in the European conception. In the latter conception auteur either has an extremely strong vision of the film, and can frequently be linked with conceptions of artistic ‘genius’ or at least an 'art' film. alternatively the European Auteur will have developed team-style working relationships with actors and crew. Examples of the latter are the German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the contemporary British directors Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. Leigh is well known for having an improvisational style of working with his actors. The European auteur is far less dependent upon the star system and the other multi-marketing strategies on which the more industrialised approach of Hollywood depends.
Has Traditional Genre Theory Misrepresented Hollywood?
Steve Neale (2000) is concerned to examine and critique some of the critical ‘givens’ which have arisen amongst commentators and theorists regarding the relationship between Hollywood and genre. Neale has investigated a wider range of films from the perspective of genre theory than has been done previously and has compared these with some of the business models in use at various time in Hollywood. On the basis of these findings he argues for a serious revision of the dominant theoretical position held by critics of both the ‘Old’ Hollywood studio system as well as post-studio ‘New Hollywood’. Neale highlights the central importance of the way the Hollywood production system has been commonly considered as central to the creation and maintenance of generic output as a foundational aspect of its industrial strategy.
Below the key aspects of critical genre analysis to Hollywood are summarised then Neale’s commentary is reported upon in a critical fashion. This section concludes that Neale is correct to argue for deepening the analysis of the role and importance of genre within the marketing strategy of cinema. Neale’s comments upon aspects of horizontal integration within the wider media matrix such as radio are also important. It is argued here that the implications of his positions are not seen as a radical revision of the dominant positions held by critics on the role of genre within cinema. Rather it can be seen that it is impossible to consider cinema as an isolated aspect of the generic system of media production across mass media as a whole.
Traditional Accounts of the Relationship Between Hollywood and Genre
Neale has summarised traditional accounts of genre and its role within the film industry stressing the following features:
- Artistic products unlike mass products such as cars are ‘one of a kind’. Movies had to be different or nobody would return to the cinema
- Mass products usually are accompanied by a range within the product. New lines and fashions are generated to create and develop the market
- Hollywood genres offer a cost-effective equivalent to the lines and ranges marketed by other industries by producing a demand for similarities within the variety of product on offer thus degrees of difference are minimised
- Hollywood’s products are always different and diverse and genres differ from one another but within the range/genre, the films are always similar
- Genres thus perform a number of economic functions thus enabling :
- The industry to fulfil the obligations of variety and difference in the product:
- The product to be manufactured in a very cost-effective way
- The nature of the output and the demand for this output to be closely regulated to minimise financial risk and maximise profit.
‘Old’ Hollywood Studio System
Originally generic film output has been linked to what has become known as the ‘studio system’, and the output of what is seen by many as ‘classical’ cinema. Key features of the studio system were:
- It describes the period of hollywood domination by the 'majors' between mid to late 1920s up to the end of the 1940s with a little overspill into the early 1950s
- There was an oligopoly of 8 major companies. Three produced and distributed films including independent ones. The remaining 5 were ‘vertically integrated’. In other words they produced and distributed films but they also owned first-run cinemas and cinema chains
- The system of ‘block-booking’ meant that independent cinemas and cinema chains were forced to show most of their films or none at all
- This combination of industrial organisation meant that there was a relatively secure and stable marketplace. As a result the industry was able to sustain itself by making long-term employment contracts with stars, directors and technicians. The industry could plan investment on in-house facilities. This allowed for ‘factory-system’ features within the industry
- It is argued, by some, that studios tended to engage in genre specialisation which led to variation but also generic consistency and generic fixity over 30 years.
Neale doesn’t want to entirely reverse these established theories on the role of genre; Neale is concerned to use other research methodologies and research results to argue that these features have been overemphasised and that the model needs revision. Overall he ends up by suggesting that much greater research into different aspects of Hollywood cinema will generate different sorts of knowledge about the relationships between Hollywood as a centre of cultural production and wider socio-cultural features of America itself. Neale divides Hollywood output into the studio and post-studio periods and comments upon the different content strategies and business models prevalent at these times.
‘Old’ Hollywood Output as Hybrid and Cross-generic
Neale takes the output of Hollywood films in 1934 as an example. This came to over 95 feature films altogether. Neale notes that both the variety of films and the terms used to describe them were very varied: ‘Immediately striking also is the relative paucity of canonic genres and “genre films’’’ (Neale, 2000: 234). Neale suggests that, whilst terms such as ‘western’ existed, there are many broader categories such as ‘costume picture’ and ‘drama’ which rarely or never feature in genre theory. Nevertheless, these terms were among the top three categories of box-office hits according to Variety magazine (1950, 5: 18).
Neale’s comments are useful to identify gaps in genre theory. These comments in themselves don’t destabilise the key arguments of dominant critical genre theory. Neale’s evidence points to the importance of genre as a descriptor of various film products. The generic descriptors he has isolated points to the industry need to ensure that a broad audience appeal was maintained. Neale’s evidence supports the argument that even in 1950 audience was treated as a singular mass market rather than as a plural audience. At this time TV hadn’t gained a big hold on mass audience and the need to create a wider choice of content wasn’t necessary for the industry at this point.
Based upon the work of film historians Neale isolates the following points :
- Hollywood’s output was done on an annual seasonal basis
- This meant that cycles of films were emphasised. Cycles were used as units of calculation and on cyclical formulas as templates for films. (Long distance bus films are an example of these)
- Cycles were often linked to topical events such as prison breakouts
- The regular production of genre hybrids was a risk reduction strategy. These would not only appeal to fans of different picture types thus broadening the potential market
- The use of stars as a marketing tool leads Schatz to talk of ‘star-genre formulations’ and star-formula combinations’ rather than talking directly in terms of genre 
- Some stars were associated largely with specific genres such as Boris Karloff and horror. Other stars such as Katherine Hepburn weren’t associated with any particular story type
The fundamental planning and output were budgetary which overlapped with categories of distribution and exhibition. There was class A and class B output. Class A output was subdivided further:
- Superspecials: prestige pictures & big budget musicals. Often road-shown. Often produced by independents such as Selnick and Goldwyn’s Gone with the Wind (1939)
- Specials: bulk of these were class A films. Used pre-sold properties such as popular stars but lower production budgets. These usually opened on a first-run  basis in the metropolitan theatres owned by the big 5
- Programmers: These films had the lowest budgets. Typically based on original stories and minor stars often with short running times even as low as 50 minutes. Described as programmers they could fit the top or bottom of the double bills. They functioned as B films if at the bottom of a bill
- Another form of risk reduction was the creation of a series such as the Charlie Chan films.
The Post-studio Era
The vertical integration which dominated Hollywood had been declared illegal in 1948 and the big 5 production companies were forced to sell off their cinema chains. The industry as a whole underwent major restructuring adopting a different range of business strategies to remain in business. To ensure good levels of profitability, they concentrated even more on risk reduction. These strategies included:
- Making fewer more expensively produced films
- Abandoning B movies, shorts and newsreels. These migrated to become the ‘made for TV movie’
- Introduction of new technologies such as wide-screen and big-screen
- Making blockbusters to be road-shown at premium prices
- International market development
- Audience reconstruction through differentiation ( teenagers for example)
- Diversifying income streams through distribution and / or screening films on television.
These changing structures in the 1950s and 1960s led to the development of what is now described as ’New Hollywood’ which has slightly modified these fundamental approaches. ‘New Hollywood’ creates the seasonal blockbusters which are now ‘blanket released’ rather than having a staggered release. These are the ‘economic cornerstone’ (Neale: 2000) of today’s Hollywood and are produced or co-produced by the majors.
Most of the recent blockbusters have been targeted at the teen and early twenties audiences. Therefore they differ significantly from the content of the output of the 1950s & 1960s. Technologically, special effects ( FX ) and surround sound have been significant. Income generation has been from spin offs - videos, computer games T shirts etc. Distribution through cable satellite etc. has expanded the media environment and given wider marketing opportunities.
Neale is keen to point out that there are no cast-iron formulas for success because film still remains one-of -a-kind and that consumers must be ready to take a risk before consuming a film. Films are previewed by test audiences who are surveyed for their responses. Unfavourable responses mean parts of the film may be re-shot . Alternative endings are quite frequent. This has now led to a subsidiary market of ‘the director’s cut’.
Neale emphasises that the overall strategic approach of the industry is about risk reduction. With numerous differences between the generic output of ‘new’ and ‘old’ Hollywood.
Commentators have remarked that Hollywood has been marked by ‘sequelitis’ and ‘prequels’. By comparison, Neale cites evidence that there were approximately 6 times as many recycled scripts in the 1940s as in the 1970s. Critics and theorists have also suggested that ‘new’ Hollywood has been more concerned with hybridity, pastiche and illusion than the ‘old’ Hollywood often linking this with the ‘multimedia synergies’ of the present. However, Neale points to many older films which make allusions to others, which are ‘… often invisible to contemporary scholars’. He also points out that the ‘old’ Hollywood was itself marked by a plethora of media output much of which was very new such as radio and comics thus providing: ‘an extensive field of multimedia consciousness, institutional crossover, and inter-textual cross-reference...’ 
‘New’ Hollywood has often been considered as the driving force behind the reconstruction of the generic film using hybridity. Neale argues that early blockbusters such as Phantom Engine (1935) about a singing cowboy in space were more genre-hybrid than current blockbusters and suggests genre hybridity has always been present in Hollywood. Furthermore, Neale emphasises that genre as an industrial strategy is just one important element of a more complex and variegated industrial system than has previously been recognised.
Neale’s position partially corroborates the argument that blockbuster marketing strategy is less reliant upon genre and follows a multiple marketing strategy. A note of caution is needed here. Neale’s example of the Phantom Engine is not analysed in detail. Drawing conclusions without greater information about the marketing strategy of that film could lead to a wrong impression.
Much of the traditional genre theory still holds. It can be seen as a risk reduction strategy for an industry which must keep churning out product the industrially influenced analysis still seems convincing. Perhaps the critics of genre have overplayed their hands. The more sophisticated an audience the more likely they are to be dissatisfied with purely generic output. Marketing now has more complex ways to try and ensure commercial success.
1 Neale makes much of this genre hybridity. ‘They also exemplified Hollywood and its products in ways which have barely begun to be explored ( and which genre criticism and ‘post-modern theory’ alike have served to obscure rather than illuminate’ ( Neale : 2000 : 238 ).
2 For more on this see under ‘Genre and Multiple Marketing strategies’.
3 This expression refers to the practice of releasing major films in cities and allowing them to run until the audiences started to fall away. Then the film was booked out to the next city. This helped to create a pre-existing market, reduced distribution costs, and helped maximise the market in any one place.
4 First-run cinemas were the premium film theatres located in the biggest cities and the more affluent areas. They could keep films until the audiences began to decline. Then second run minor cinemas could take the films.
5 Sassoon, Donald. 2002 points out that alternative endings have been used since the mass production of culture. Books were given different endings for the Russian market. Sassoon suggests Hollywood based itself upon this model. The onset of digital cinema will make this much cheaper, easier and give the potential for greater differences within the ‘same’ film.
6  Neale, 2000 : 249 .
April 02, 2007
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.
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.
January 21, 2007
January 04, 2007
Glossary of Terms for European Cinema
Please note that this glossary will be on more than one page as the server limit appears to be about 5,000 words for each ‘post’.
*A glossary of this nature will always be a “work in progress”. The adavntage of it being based on the internet is that it can be continually updated as new terms, techniques and methods emerge. Terms sometimes gather alternative meanings as well. So this glossary will, in the spirit of Web 2, be a dynamic one. It is intended to serve a wide target audience of anyone interested in cinema in general but especially European cinema.
Visitors are of course welcome to contribute by asking for terms and or words to be included. I will do my best to accomodate them however there are many other tasks to develop, which is also why it will be a work in progress as I’m developing glossaries relating to other areas of the media simultaneously.
If I find any useful online freely available references which can develop terms in greater depth they will be hyperlinked.
Please note that bold and italic words are cross-referenced
Aberrant decoding. This is term used to describe a reading by part of an audience which is entirely different from that intended by the producers of the media text. More often known as reading against the grain this usually happens when the readers of the text have quite different values and beliefs to the producers of the text. See also cultural effects theory and codes and conventions.
Adorno and the Frankfurt School. Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School of Social Research were amongst the earliest social scientists to closely critique and analyse and critique the growth of the culture industries which are now in effect ‘lifestyle’ industries. Adorno argues amongst other things that the apparent ‘diversity’ of market segmentation and the cultivation of ‘lifestyle ‘ is entirely bogus. Lifestyle can be describe in his terms as a death mask of individuality covering the bland features of the ‘consumer clone’. See also Passive Audience and Mass Culture.
Advertising. (TAM). The advertising content of media forms such as Newspapers, magazines and TV and commercial radio often takes up as much space as the editorial content. It is often advertising rather than the actual number of sales which creates the large profits of a media product. (Count for example the number of pages which are adverts in GQ). Increasingly there is a growth of advertorial content. Media institutions which have a totally public service broadcasting function (BBC) are not allowed to advertise commercial products. They usually advertise their own programmes and products. Advertising is a discourse where frequently all normal physical and social arrangements are held in abeyance. We regard the claims made in adverts as a joke, but we buy the products often in spite of , or because of the jokes.
Aestheticisation of Everyday Life. This is the claim that the division between art and everyday life is being eroded in two ways. Firstly artists are taking objects of everyday life and making them into art objects. Secondly people are making their everyday lives into aesthetic projects in terms of style, appearance and household furnishings. This may reach a point where people see themselves and their surroundings as art objects. Consumers have now broken down the hierarchy between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. See Culture Industries
Against the grain. See Reading against the grain.
Ambient sound. This refers to the ‘natural’ background sound present in a scene in film, TV or radio
Anti-classical. See Art film
Art film. Art film is often described as a European phenomenon and is considered as a genre by critics such as Neale. Often Art cinema is associated with auteurs. European art cinema often uses different modes of storytelling such as long takes combined with great depth of field (Visconti in Ossessione for example). The narratives are less likely to be concerned with the’ classical’ Hollywood structure of a central character moving in a linear fashion through trials and tribulations to a comfortable resolution. Endings may reject neat narrative closure, and there may be multiple points of view. There is likely to be little emphasis on identification with the characters compared to the Hollywood style institutional mode of representation. Typically those films designated as ‘art films’ require more work from the spectator.
Audience. Audience has always seen as important by film distributors and exhibitors. Many commentators understand media audiences to be a construction of the media companies rather than a a social reality based upon conceptions of individual viewers or citizens. As such it is a marketing term which needs to be treated with suspicion. There has been a lot of work by film theorists about how the individual spectator is positioned by the film text. Often this has been without reference to actual audiences. Those interested in a more sociological approach to responses by audiences have done some research on this. The research of Jackie Stacey is very useful in this regard. The qualitative research methods employed show that there are pluralistic readings of a text and that many women read filmic texts against the grain of the preferred reading offered by the construction of the film or the reinforcement of this by the critical establishment. This shows that the social reality and lived experiences of an audience can have a very different effect. (See the monograph by Marita Sturken on Thelma and Louise for comment on the enthusiastic reception by women audiences in the cinema).
Audience work. Far from being ‘couch potatoes’ or passive audiences who merely absorb what is on screen in an unthinking way. Audiences are required to do a certain amount of work to derive pleasure from a film. This work will include: processing information; directing attention to; interpreting in relation to some agenda; evaluating. (This is a point strongly made by Adorno and Horkeimer clearly showing that they have nothing to do with the ‘Hypodermic Syringe’ model of Ideology.
Auteur. Originally this expression was used in the 1920’s . The term was centred around a debate concerning the artistic quality of films. Films where there was very strong directorial input were compared with films where scripts were commissioned from separate scriptwriters and directors were under the thumb of studio producers. This fed into a major debate about cinema and its relations to ‘high art’ / ‘low art’ (popular culture). By the 1950s a group of French critics (again) reinvented the use of the term auteur. They were very keen on American / Hollywood cinema and argued that just because a director had little control over the production process apart from the staging of shots it could still be seen that individual directors had very distinctive styles which could be seen in the mise-en -scene. As a result of this debate the idea of auteur can mean either a directors style through mise-en-scene (Hitchcock, John Ford), or else as a ‘total author’ of both the script and the film itself. ( Orson Welles , David Lynch in the US or Bergman and Godard in Europe).
Blum-Byrnes Agreement. Agreements in 1946 and 1948 were established between the French and US governments which guaranteed a quota of exhibition time to French films as part of a wider trade agreement.
Buddy movie. A basic aspect of the ‘buddy movie’ is that men understand each other better than they understand their women. ( Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ) The primary relationship in Thelma and Louise film is between the women who understand each other’s ways of being in the world. better than their men do thus reversing the conventions of the Buddy movie.
Camera Movement. (TAF). Camera movements include very important techniques in gained specific visual effects and are fundamental to how a film is made and the visual style which it uses. The main techniques are currently:
- Pan. This is when a camera moves either to the left or the right. Usually there is a moving object on screen but this is not necessary. Empty space can create meaning. If there isa moving object the camera tends to lead rather than follow the object. Whether the pan is a slow or fast one also contributes to the mood and dynamics of that part of the film.
- Handheld camera / cinema verite. Originally this was quite usual in documentary style filming or news reporting. A wobbling image as the cameraperson follows a subject gave a feeling of being present and ‘reality’ to the viewer. This can often be used to make a moent more tense. A good example of this being used as a technique is in thebatle scenes near the beginning of Saving Private Ryan when the americans are invading the beach. The wobbly images give an excellent feeling of being present on the beach.
- Steadicam. The steadicam is special camera which is handheld by the cameraperson. The camera uses gyroscopes to ensure that it remains level and thus remves the feel of a handheld camera (see above).
- Zoom. Stricly speaking a zoom shot isn’t a camera movement but an adjustment of the lens which gives the feel of movement. A zoom lens is a special kind of lens which was originally developed in the 1950s. It was a technological develpment which helped to attract audiences. It is possible either to zoom-in or zoom forward on a person or object. The shot can also create the illusion of displacement of time and space. A zoom-out or zoom backwards places a person or object in a wider context. Zooming in can be strongly linked with voyeurism. Hitchcock’s Rear Window provides an excellent example of voyeurism and zooming.
Cinema verite. See Camera movements.
Character. In the standard Hollywood realist text : ‘Action typically pivots on central characters who are rendered in psychological depth and tend to become objects of identification for readers. These characters are fictional persons whose fate is tied up with the progress of the narrative, indeed on whom may be centred the very disruption that sets the narrative in motion’ (Kuhn Annette. 1982. Women’s Pictures : 31). See also Institutional mode of representation and eye-line match.
Citizenship. This concept builds on earlier ideas of citizenship which focused upon economic, political and social concerns. Economic citizenship gave people the right to trade, political citizenship gave people the rights to vote and have representative electable governments with powers limited by law. Social citizenship gave people the right to health care, education and pensions. See also cultural citizenship.
Close Reading. Making a close reading can get down to the level of individual shot construction, in which subtleties of coding can be carefully analysed. See also preferred reading and reading against the grain.
Close up. Usually a shot of the head from the neck up. Could also be a wringing of hands. See performance and shot.
Closure. See narrative closure.
Codes and Conventions (General). Cinema uses a number of methods to organise meaning production. Some are general to narrative forms and others are specific to cinema. Cinematic conventions work to make the product appear to be seamlessly produced which means that it appears as though meaning had already existed prior to the construction of the film. In fact the cinematic codes and conventions of production produce an axis of meaning which will interact with both the reactions of audiences and the exhibitionary context.
- Photographic conventions. Framing, long-shots, medium shots, and close-ups all generate particular forms of meaning: To the extent that close-ups are most commonly of central characters in film narratives, they may function to constitute that psychological realism of character which is a mark of the classic narrative. ( My ephasis: Kuhn Annette. 1982. Women’s Pictures: 37).
- Mise en Scene*. See also lighting.
- * Mobile framing*. This effect can be produced by different camera movements and can produce a narrative meaning in several ways. A zoom-in can emphasise detail which can be read as bearing a particular significance within the narrative. Camera movements can also move the plot along through panning and tracking.
- Editing. Mainstream cinema has institutionalised a set of rules for editing. The normal Hollywood system of editing is called ‘continuity editing’ which ensures through making careful cuts that the production is as seamless as possible thus making the system of production invisible and creating a coherent fictional world into which the spectator is drawn. Various ellipses of space and time achieved by fades or cuts will move the plot along. Not all film-making follows this convention see Jump cut.
- * Narrative conventions*. All narrative genres have conventions by which the narrative is governed. A road movie for example implies discovery, the obtaining of some self-knowledge. Usually the main protagonist / s are male. Usually the movie follows an ordered sequence of events which inexorably lead to a bad end (Easy Rider: Dennis Hopper : 1969) or a reasonable outcome ( Paris Texas: Wim Wenders: 1984). Thelma and Louise ( Ridley Scott : 1991) controversially undermined the male aspects of the road movie genre. It achieved this by having the main protagonists being women escaping from differing, but oppressive, backgrounds. It also showed that a variety of all those things conventionally conceived of as ‘liberating’ from male perspective were male constructions and coded as such. This film reverses the dominant genre conventions of coding outside space as nature / feminine. By comparison men in the film are sometimes coded in domestic / feminine space. The ending of Thelma and Louise was controversial, but by neither showing death, prison nor some-kind of compromise return to their respective roles in life, nor by escaping to another country the film showed the current impossibility of escaping from gender relations which privilege men in this society.
- Evolving conventions. Genre isn’t static. A genre and the conventions which govern it evolve over time and are transformed through a complex interaction of economic, technological, political, social and cultural factors . Part of the work of genre analysis is to establish these factors. Think of what conventions have changed in the genres you have chosen to study. (See also Genre cycle).
Connotations. Connotations are associations with words or concepts have for a reader of a text. High production values such as glossy paper can connote sophistication and glamour. This is why expensive shops and products have very sophisticated types of packaging. Hollywood cinema has made its reputations on high production values such as seamless editing and very expensive sets etc. The way in which Hollywood products are promoted are also dependent upon high production values to make audiences think they are getting more than they probably are. This is why anything up to half the cost of the actual film can be devoted to marketing, promotion and advertising. This helps Hollywood dominate the film market and makes it hard for independent companies to compete.
Conventions. See also Codes and Conventions. Conventions are established procedures within a particular form of media ( painting, film , novel etc) which are identifiable by both the producer of the artefact and their audiences. Conventions are thus conventions can be understood as agreements between the producer and audience. These will sometimes remain fairly static and at other times there will be moments of strong challenge to these conventions. The French nouvelle vague can be understood as challenging a range of cinematic conventions.
Convergence. This is the current process whereby new media and communications technologies are changing not only our media equipment but changing the ways old media institutions have worked. It is also globalising and changing our systems of gaining knowledge. The process is still in transition with new developments rapidly emerging. In a few years these processes will have matured and will be less dynamic.
Costume. While it is a variety of prop it is specifically linked with specific characters as well as contributing to the general setting. Changes in costume can be used as indicators of changes of attitude, status, time and place.
CNC. Centre Nationale de la Cinematographie. The French state organisation that oversees film policy issues including subsidy ones.
Critical Realism. In East German cinema critical realism was a popular aesthetic amongst the filmmakers. ‘Inspired by the films of Italian directors, the approach may be described as an East German variant of neorealism. It observes rather than leads, offers a realistic depiction of controversial issues and opens them up for debate’ (Claus, Horst. 2002 p 140).
Cultural Citizenship. Cultural citizenship is about access to systems of representation within the arts and media to ensure that all have the knowledge and capabilities to represent themselves. Also see citizenship.
Culture Industry. The term is used to designate organisations that produce ‘popular’ culture such as TV, Radio, books magazines, newspapers and popular music. It is now extended to beauty salons and hairdressing salons as well as museums and galleries and sports organisations and events. They are of growing importance in Western society. Contemporary everyday life is filled with images as part of the output of the cultural industries. The first people to properly identify the Culture Industry were the Frankfurt School social scientists Adorno and Horkheimer. They were very critical of these industries seeing them as being ideologically controlling particularly of the poorest people offering false hopes and imaginaries. Adorno was extremely critical of social scientists who were colluding in this growing ideological industry. He had originally had a post in New York when he was forced to emigrate from Germany by the Nazis. The post was concerned with developing social scientific methods for identifying and creating audiences for media industries. See also Media and Culture Industries.
Cultural effects theory. This suggests that how the audience or audiences of a text are positioned will have a significant impact upon how they interpret that text.
Cut. TAF). This is used in film and TV to change a shot from one place or viewpoint to another. See film editing and shot, It is achieved by splicing two pieces of film together. There are a range of different cuts which can achieve quite different visual effects. Cuts give a film its rhythm. Getting the tempo right is essential. The editor often works with the director to make a rough cut or director’s cut. Further adjustments are then made often after audience research has been carried out on the endings of Hollywood films before the final cut is made.
- Continuity Cut. These cuts take the viewer seamlessly and logically from one sequence to another moving along the narrative.
- Cross cuts. These cuts are used to alternate between two sequences or scenesthat are occurring in different spaces but at the same time. Normally these are used to create a feeling of suspense. As such they are frequently used in genres such as action adventure, the western, thrillers and gangster films.
- Cutaways. These shots take the viewer away from the main scene of the action. They are often used as a transition before cutting into the next sequence or scene. For example: in a court scene the day’s proceeedings are coming to an end, there is a cutaway shot to the outside of the courthouse, then a cut to the next day nside a lawyer’s office.
- Jump cut. This cut demonstrates a jump in time and disrupts the ‘normal’ continuity editing. It was used as a device by several internationally famous directors during the 1920s and then dropped out of fashion. The development of sound played a major contribution in overwhelming a more diverse range of styles. French directors in the 1960s such as Louis Malle, Fraoncois Truffaut and most famously Jean-Luc Godard used this editing style. Godard’s first feature film a bout de souffle / Breathless is best known for this. The jump cut calls attention to the constructed reality of the filmic text, to the spectator’s ongoing labour of generating a fictional world out of often contradictory stylistic cues, and to Godard’s own expressive, auteur presence. (Editor emphasis, Neupert, 2002 p 216).
- Match cuts. These are the exact opposite of the jump cut. These cuts make sure there is a spatial-visual logic between the differently positioned shots within a scene. Where the camera moves to and the angle of the camera make visual sense to the spectator. See also eye-line matching.
DEFA. Deutsche Film AG. The state controlled film production, distribution and exhibition company in East Germany (GDR) from 1946 – 1993. See also UFA
Denotation. This is a straightforward relationship between a sign and its referent. The word cat and the photograph of a cat both denote a particular type of animal.
Deterritorialised. This expression is often related to genres which are feminised. They tend not to concentrate on territory in the same way that war films, westerns and other more masculinised genres have.
Dialectical. This is fundamental to Eisenstein’s theory of montage Originating in Hegel’s philosophy the idea centres around the point that an original thesis exists. This is in collision with an antithesis. The outcome of this collision of opposite ideas results in the creation of something entirely new. This is known as the synthesis.
Diegesis / Diagetic. This refers to the content of the narrative which is happening on the screen. This includes the sound , actions of the characters etc. All of these occur naturally within the fictional world of the film. Frequently films use non- diegetic devices for dramatic effects or to inform the audience about something which the characters themselves don’t know:
- Intra-diegetic sound. This is a sound from a person the audience doesn’t see but whose presence we know exists in the story. There is a disembodied voice. Mildred Pierce 1945 has many examples of this through flashback. Often the character’s voice goes intra-diegetic announcing a flashback acconpanied by a visual dissolve ‘it was yesterday when…’. Flash backs are also intra-diegetic in the sense that they interrupt the narrative flow of the present.
- Non-diegetic sound by comparison is where there is voice-over or else a soundtrack which heightens the emotional effects on the audience but isn’t present in the on-screen world at all.
Digital Distribution. The opportunities for the makers of short films to be distributed via internet streaming are improving all the time. The most recent deal to allow streaming of independent shorts was made between the Sundance film Festival Organisers and iTunes the Content Management software system owned by Apple as this BBC report of 12 / 01 / 07 notes.
Digital divide. A very important social and cultural concept of the ‘information age’. This term refers to those who have access to a wide range of digital communications systems in terms of cost and knowledge and those who are excluded from this. It is becoming a serious problem of citizenship.
Digital Versatile Disc / DVD. A disc which although the same size as a CD can hold many times the amount of data due to a combination of more sophisticated data compression systems, the ability to store and retrieve data from different levels of the disc. This means that moving images can be stored in a way which is more permanent than tape and maintains its quality over time, whereas tape particles lose their magnetism and lose details. Research is going on to more than double the storage capacity of the current DVD’s by using different laser technologies. The ‘versatility’ referred to in the name means that the equipment incorporates technical standards which means that digital information relating to images – static or moving sounds or text can be stored and retrieved. New standards of quality have been developed and consumers are faced with both Blu-Ray from a consortium led by Sony and HD-DVD (High definition DVD), led by Toshiba. Already third party players are bringing out players which can playback both. (Beginning of 2007)
Discourse. Textual analysis often uses the term discourse to deconstruct or look at the way a text works. This means that the analyst identifies the various discourses present in a text and makes that clear for the reader. A discourse provides a framework of language to construct a particular kind of knowledge on a topic. Discourses organise our thoughts and try to make a closure that is to close off other ways of thinking about a topic. For example, cinematography which continuously sexualises women through voyeuristic techniques is a visual discourse. This can be seen as part of a wider discursive field in which the institution of cinema discriminates against women. A discourse is not a description of reality but a way of ‘fixing’ the topic or constructing a form of social reality in a biased way. Different discourses can therefore change our views of the nature of social reality.
Dissolve: see Editing
Dollying / Tracking Shot (TAF) see camera movements.
DVD. See Digital Versatile Disc.
DVD Recordable. A new breed of domestic machines has now appeared which can record TV or films in DVD format. Whilst currently still very expensive it is probable that they will replace the Video Cassette Recorder in most households in 5 years time. (In fact first written 3 years ago the price has dropped dramatically and video-recorders are fast-disappearing) They can record digital radio signals as well. There is not currently a standardised format which makes things difficult for consumers.
December 31, 2006
Crime, Vulnerable Citizens and the State
Crime films are not all ‘who dunnits’ or macho gangster films such as Guy Ritchie’s efforts. Many films that represent crime are examining how states can either specifically criminalise a class of people – women in the case of The Circle and Vera Drake (see below), or else the state can fail its citizens through negligence and allowing crime to exist against those in a weker position in society.
There are some films which include crime issues (primarily against children) as a part of the messages and values which the preferred readings of the films are intending to convey. An aspect which is worthy of discussion is in regard to how much crime might be ‘glamorized’ in parts of the media. Below I summarise ways in which the representation of crime can be understood as a critique of states or political systems going beyond the often harrowing circumstances of the individuals actually being represented.
Monsoon Wedding is by a woman director (Mira Nair) and is dealing with crime against children at the level where those who a child should be able to trust most are, either perpetrating the abuse, or are thinking about sweeping it under the carpet.
It is worth remembering that the father of the family is actually a Judge! As part of a preferred reading the father as a representative of the legal system the Judge’s role functions as an allegory (standing in for) the state of India as a whole. What Mira Nair the director seems to be suggesting is that the state of India is not doing enough to protect its children within the family.
This film differs from the one’s below as the narrative clearly brings things back to a state of equilibrium (remember your Todorov here). There are of course other issues concerning women in the film such as power and women in society and the concept of the arranged marriage which challenges western notions of romantic love. Here you could compare the film with notions of romance as represented by Bridget Jones’ Diary especially if you are studying women in film. (More on the social construction of romance another time).
When we come to look at Lilya 4-ever by the male director Lukas Moodysson we see not only neglect and then abandonment of Lilya which leaves her exposed and vulnerable to the flourishing people trafficking trade. A trade which has been very profitable for ruthless criminals since the collapse of the Soviet Union (now Russia) and those countries which were allied to it. (Please also note there is a video interview with Moodysson on this BBC page).
Moodysson is clearly going beyond the crisis of the indvididual Liya and is criticising the Russian state for being unable to look after its most vulnerable citizens. But this criticism goes beyond Russia to Western countries themselves, for it is as though they have been turning a blind eye to – and even profiting by – the exploitation especially of children and women in these countries.
The collapse of the Soviet Union meant that there was a collapse in most of the key benchmarks of citizenship. People who were used to high levels of social citizenship (health, housing, employment, education and pensions) now found that they had to survive on their own. Many turned to criminal activities of which people trafficking and the sex trade has been an important one.
The representation of children within the media often functions as an allegory (stands in for) of innocence and vulnerability. In Moodysson’s film there is an indirect critique of the West (which Sweden stands for). Although Western citizens in general were pleased that the Soviet Union which had been seen as a military threat and as a repressive regime because its citizens had few political rights there was little attention paid to the social rights of these same citizens once the political regime (communism) had gone.
People’s life savings became worthless as the old Rouble collapsed against international currencies so Western companies moved into the old Soviet Union and brought up companies on the cheap. The ending of the film here is deliberately ambiguous. We have been shown the full alternative which Lilya would face if she didn’t recognise the danger. The audience is given hope at the end because she recognises that geographically fruit picking in Sweden in the middle of winter is impossible.
The short UNICEF appeal which was shown with Lilya forever shows just how prevalent in real life this kind of people trafficking is. It is something which also existed in an organised way in Victorian Britain. Both films show how far social reality is away from the concept of ‘not kicking people when they are down’ instead people are kicked a lot when they are vulnerable.
Thelma and Louise
Thelma and Louise is also by a male director Ridley Scott. There is a separate article about how this film subverts the typically male sub-genre of the ‘Road Movie’. Here I wish to link it to the theme of the State and the way in which it treats its most vulnerable citizens.
The narrative event which upsets the equilibrium and drives the film is the attempted rape scene at the drive by bar and the subsequent shooting of the perpetrator who would only stop when a gun was literally held to his head. As it is usually the state and its representatives the police who have the power of lawmaking the fact that some citizens are forced to protect themselves by extreme means shows that in terms of sexual violence against women the state isn’t taking its responsibilities seriously. As an audience we are given the point of view of the women to elicit our sympathy. This initial critique becomes explained indirectly throughout the film for one of the women has had such dreadful experiences in one state that she refused to drive into it despite the fact that it is the quickest means of escape.
The role of Harvey Keitel as a policeman is to try and convince them that they will be able to get justice. The women refuse to believe that this is possible. Eventually they are trapped by the police and the film ends with them driving into space off the edge of the Grand Canyon. They are not allowed to escape over the border (apparently a production decision influenced by testing out different endings on sample audiences).
Whilst for many the ending was unsatisfactory as the women are seen to be punished many sexist attitudes are parodied (think of the lorry-driver). Cinematically the gloomy domestic interiors – compared with the free space of the road – also stand in for the repression of women within southern American society and it seems to be the Deep South that is being criticised here for its regressive attitudes towards women which in the past have been supported by the law.
Keitel represents ‘new man’, more understanding in his attitudes to women’s rights. The fact that the original rapist and characters like the lorry driver can view women only as sex objects is a critique of the real power structures present within those states for they can be seen to legitimate the grossly sexist attitudes. In this film the Todorov standard narrative structure isn’t used. The ending isn’t a return to equilibrium as far as those women were concerned although we could argue that as far as sexist southern society was concerned it did bring equilibrium and served to reinforce the status quo.
Crime doesn’t have to be a case of glamorization. Its representation can act as a critique of the state through the actions and events which happen to an individual. Other films to see which can develop your views on this can include City of God set in the Favelas of Brazil. The Circle shows how the theocratic state contrives to make criminals out of women in a very specific way.
Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake shows how working class women broke the law by arranging and carrying out illegal abortions whilst those women who were better off managed to manipulate the system although they were of course exploited. Again the state here is contriving to oppress its women citizens. There are of course many different crime genres and this article is only dealing with some aspects. Gangster and Heist (caper films) may represent entirely different aspects of life. Remember too, what counts as a crime depends to a great extent on where you are and how you are positioned in life. Democracy and politics are about renegotiating these boundaries. Media output is able to help or hinder this process.