All 12 entries tagged Genre
April 03, 2007
Comedy Part 1: Comedy Conventions
Initially comedy seems to be a very easy genre to deal with, most people like ‘amusing’ films, however, one person’s sense of humour is another person’s misery. From the perspective of genre the ability to appeal to a wide range of people to gain financial success means that it is a very difficult genre to do well, either as a genre in itself or as an aspect of a multi-generic or hybrid generic film. What constitutes comedy and the comic is complex. Film comedy is frequently a genre hybrid. Comedy can be made as; ‘black comedy’ with a bleak sense of humour; it can be reliant upon slapstick, gags or sharp-edged satire; it may be parodic of other cinematic conventions.
Comedies frequently rely far less than most other genres upon standardised narrative devices. A study of how the comedy genre operates throws the issue of narrative into sharp relief. The diversity of these comic forms is covered in part one of this three part section on comedy.
Part two examines narrative and its functioning within comedy. Part three looks at how comedy can act as a release of social tensions through well-managed social transgression, and also considers how comedy can function as a critique of social reality in a way which other genres can find difficult to do.
The diversity of comic forms means that a single definition of comedy is insufficient. The criterion of laughter isn’t enough to define a film as a comedy. This is because comedy is widely used in other genres for momentary effects. Think of the rather deadpan comic aspects of the Terminator films for example. These effects are a feature of the films rather than the central purpose. The Terminator films can’t be defined as SF-comedy. The term ‘comic’ means the ability to cause laughter. Even a real event can be comic. ‘Comedy’ is an aesthetic term with two distinct meanings:
The Oxford Concise Dictionary definition is : ‘Comedy, n. Stage-play of light, amusing and often satirical character, chiefly representing everyday life, & with happy ending (cf. TRAGEDY);’ The key meanings here are: ‘Amusing’ and ‘A happy ending’.
Notably the word laughter isn’t mentioned in this definition although the expression ‘amusing’ can be seen as a partial synonym for laughter but it expresses far more than this.
Social Class , Comedy and Comic Conventions
Historically both the content and the structure of comedy have tended to have a class bias. As far as content is concerned, where the upper classes are represented it is in their more private or trivial aspects of life. The enormous political power of these elites allied to the control of land, industry and the effects of this power on most people’s lives is ignored. Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2002) can be considered as comic from this point of view.
In comedy note the importance of creating a happy ending and also the representation of everyday life which was normally concerned with the middle and lower orders of society.
A happy ending is a convention usually coexistent with other conventions, such as the constant generation of laughter through funny lines and situations. Where films have only brief funny moments but with a happy end both the film’s concerns and the structure can be close to the genre ‘we tend to think of as melodrama’ (Neale & Krutnik,199: 13). Under this criterion we can consider Thelma and Louise and Muriel’s Wedding (1994) as melodrama crossing -over with screwball comedies which are comedies about the 'battle of the sexes'.
The majority of comedy films can be seen as being genre hybrids. About a Boy ( 2002 ), The Full Monty, Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Trainspotting, Shallow Grave (1995) range through a number of genre hybrid combinations from romantic comedies, to ‘black’ comedies. They have strong narratives as a vehicle for comic aspects. The stronger the narrative the more the film takes on either multi-generic or hybrid generic aspects.
Historical Aspects of Comedy
Originating in high bourgeois theatre from the late 18th century there has been a link between comedy and melodrama creating a tradition of ‘sentimental’ comedy. It was a hybrid genre which emerged in several European countries featuring characters of a lower rank than those suitable for tragedy. A major aim was to encourage the audiences to identify with the characters and to weep on their behalf rather than to laugh at them. In France this was called comedie larmoyante or tearful comedy. Neo-classical theory made a distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ comedy thus denigrating non-narrative forms of comedy. There are two fundamental divisions in the field of comedy as a whole. These are the criterion of the happy ending and the criterion of laughter. Narrative forms of comedy must have a happy ending and can have laughter. Non-narrative forms of comedy are only comedy through the criterion of laughter. Stand-up comics such as Ali-G and Paul Merton use non-narrative techniques of comedy.
Narrative comedy has a clear beginning, middle and end revolving around a definite plot. Non-narrative types of comedy just aim to create laughter with the plot a feeble device to act as a vehicle for a continuous stream of gags and slapstick such as Borat.
Comedy was very popular in early cinema which was a media form which appealed primarily to the working class mass audience. This situation changed as film technology and film-making techniques became more sophisticated. The use of narrative as a standard vehicle for comedy developed. Frequently the less sophisticated the audience the weaker the plot, and the narrative structure. Films such as Monty Python and Blazing Saddles (1971) break down this class based comedy by operating at a range of levels from slapstick to parody which depends upon a good level of cultural knowledge so that the audiences can understand the references.
Comedy and Comic Conventions in Cinema
‘Comedy’ as an aesthetic term has two distinct kinds of meaning. It can refer to the genre as a whole. Alternatively it can refer to particular works - Some Like it Hot. (1959).
The use of the indefinite article ‘a’ tends to imply a narrative form; The TV sitcom the Royale Family is comedy rather than a comedy, because it is non-narrative being based upon a continuous invariant location - the front room in front of the TV. This is a comedic form specific to broadcast media which can concentrate on series production.
The generation of laughter can mark all forms as comedy. It can also mark all genres which leads to a considerable amount of genre hybridity. Hitchcock’s North by North West (1959) can be seen as a comedy-thriller for example.
Generic hybridization should be distinguished from parody. In contrast to generic hybrids, which combine generic conventions, parodies work by drawing upon other conventions to make us laugh.
Parody need not necessarily be comic. When it is comic and occurs within the context of a comedy, laughter is consistently produced by gags and funny lines which specifically use as their raw material the conventions of the genre involved. Blazing Saddles for example isn’t a Western with comic elements or a comedy-western but a comedy which relies upon a knowledge of the Western amongst the audience to work effectively.
Parody is a mode or way of doing comedy, not a form. Parody has its own techniques and methods but no particular form or structure. It can occur within a narrative feature film, a comedy sketch, a quasi-documentary. Parody is one of a number of modes available to comedy. Slapstick and satire are other modes.
Satire works to mock and attack. Sometimes prevailing norms are attacked in the name of other non-dominant social values. For example M*A*S*H uses democratic and humanitarian values to measure the undemocratic and inhumane practices used in the war being fought in Korea. The Korean war was long over but M*A*S*H had strong contextual relevance  as an analogy to the Vietnam war which was going on at the time. It stood against the self-professed norms of the US military and governmental establishment and also of war itself.
Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) attacked the inhuman values of modern industrial society ‘in the name of disappearing values it associates with pre-industrial life especially rural life.
Examples of films reliant upon satirisation are Muriel’s Wedding which can be described as a satire of small-town life and as a satire upon the social institution of marriage. One reason why parody can be confused with satire is that parody can be used for satirical purposes. The actual process of Muriel’s ‘white wedding’ can be seen as a parody of the aesthetics of a typical white wedding. The audience, Muriel along with her Bridegroom and the Groom’s coach all recognise that the arrangement is not a real wedding. It is purely a business arrangement which is convenient for different reasons for both parties. The aestheticisation of the wedding, which could have been done quickly in a registry office, is a parodic form which serves to satirise the stifling small-town ritual of white weddings prized by Muriel’s peer group.
Thelma and Louise satirises men and masculinity and the role they play in women’s lives. In analyses of audience response the film was popular amongst male viewer’s who didn’t associate themselves with the absurdity of the stereotyped male characters. Thelma’s husband is satirised as being generally incompetent using a gag comic convention of literally putting his foot in it as he steps on a pizza answering the police. The truck-driver is successfully satirised as his masculine fantasies literally go up in smoke. Both are made to look stupid. The police officer who stops Thelma and Louise for speeding is on the other hand parodic, stretching back to the policeman in dark Oakley’s striding ominously up to the victim in a long line of films from Psycho (1960) to Terminator 2. The policeman’s unceremonious bundling into the boot satirises through parody this version of institutionalised masculinity.
Slapstick is another mode of comedy that can be found in a very diverse range of forms. The origins of the term stem from a type of prop which were a pair of paddles to create a lot of noise with minimum danger. This marked violent comic action of the kind to be found in pantomime, circus and ‘low’ forms of farce. The physical plus visual qualities of slapstick were crucial in the early comedy of the silent period. Slapstick is valued for the populist foundation of its aesthetic. Slapstick is inappropriate and inadequate as a vehicle for romance or its fulfilment. It lacks a plot structure that is capable of taking romance seriously. Narrative comedy can accommodate slapstick but the reverse isn’t the case.
The term can apply to any kind of visual comic effect. They can involve a comic effect like a ‘pratfall’ where somebody falls over. In Life is Beautiful (1998), perhaps the darkest of ‘black comedies’, Guido falls off his bike into Dora for example. At the beginning of the film there are a variety of gags which lead the viewer to think that this is comedy which is pure farce as the brakes fail leading the car past a reception for royalty. Gags can be a part of the narrative or else entirely incidental to it. Thelma’s husband putting his feet in the pizza in Thelma and Louise for example.
It is important to differentiate between comic and comedy and it is also important to note the differing forms of comedy which in more sophisticated products might all be present, which lends appeal to a wide range of audiences. It is usually the case that stronger narratives are less reliant upon slapstick styles of comedy and also that these comedic forms are more likely to be marketed as a genre hybrid. In the next section there is a more detailed account of the ways in which narrative works to increase comic effects.
1 See under Genre as ‘Hybrid and Multi-generic’.
2 See under Methods and Methodologies in Film Research / contextual Criticism’.
The Western: Creating and Re-creating the Concept of Genre
Despite the severe decline in the output of Westerns since the early 1970s this section has been included to emphasise the historical importance of critical work using the Western as a case study through which much genre theory developed. The work on Westerns as a genre has established a research paradigm or set of limits of thinking about genre which arguably needs revising. Neale’s work on the Western challenges this paradigm and argues that instead of being thought of as a ‘closed’ genre, Westerns need to be thought as an open-ended genre which is both hybrid and multi-generic. As Neale (2000) points out Westerns have occupied a pre-eminent position in writing of all kinds on genre in the cinema:
...the Western still features centrally in introductory accounts and in introductory courses on genre in the cinema fed in part by occasional attempts to revive it in Hollywood and by the resurgence of scholarly interest 
Neale’s recent analysis (2000) problematises this early critical work and suggests that overemphasis on particular key westerns amongst critics has biased the critical output so that other issues surrounding genre theory in general and the study of the western specifically have become obscured. Neale further argues that decline of Western production means ‘its role as a generic paradigm, as a model or starting point for the study of Hollywood’s genres, is even more problematic now than it was before’ 
The Western and the Construction of American Identity
It is hard to underestimate the importance of Westerns in American society, helping to play an important role in creating an American identity through a host of representations about the chain of events recreating popular, but not necessarily historically accurate views of the emergence and development of the United States.
The Western genre and surrounding discourses have blended in various ways to create a ‘mythology’ that has been:
uniquely central to US history, US culture and US identity. This mythology is grounded in the notion (itself as imaginative as it is real ) that there existed a moving western frontier in the US between the seventeenth and the late nineteenth centuries.’
Neale notes that frontier mythology is the framework for most Westerns but many touch on this minimally. There are many other films which contain elements of the frontier within them. There were hundreds of Indian (Native American) Westerns made in the late 1900s, 1910s and 1920s. Some have argued that they constituted a genre in their own right. These were comprised from a widespread number of themes. Some saw the native American originally described as ‘Indians’ as a ‘noble savage’. Others were about the loyalty and devotion of native Americans to the European settlers.
Problems with the Western and Genre Theory
The central position of the Western in the development of genre theory has created two linked problems:
- Work on the Western has strongly influenced theories about genre.
- Research into the phenomenon of the Western films themselves has often been limited because of the dominant position of genre theory and criticism, which means that other aspects about Westerns such as their role in the construction of an American national identity has been largely ignored within film studies.
The centrality of the Western in genre theory can be measured by its prominence in both conventional and unorthodox accounts of genre. There are problematic aspects of both the centrality of the western to accounts of genre, and problematic aspects of the western itself.
Neale draws on Buscombe’s research of 1970 to point out that the visual conventions or iconography of the Western are highly distinctive and highly coded. Neale argues that this strongly marked set of visual codes is the generic exception rather than the rule. These exceptions of Western coding include the combinations of an iconography or set of visual conventions including: clothing; decor; landscape. These conventions also include other aspects of its generic world such as the use of language and modes of transport. Overall Neale concludes that ‘ ... for all these reasons ...it [the Western] is hardly a suitable model for general conceptions and theories of genre’ (My emphasis).
This understanding of the range of visual conventions (iconography) has been seen as a very important aspect of the Western, playing an important role in linking the product with audiences and as well as being an important arena for doing case study work in developing genre theory. Neale’s survey of genres leads him to suggest that other critics who have written on other genres using iconography as a key element of their ideas have not been able to develop their arguments in such a convincing manner as those who have written upon Westerns.
If Neale’s suggestion is correct, then visual conventions can be considered as a much weaker aspect of other genres than has frequently been argued. This means that it is dangerous to use one model of genre as a model for all genres as it can close down ways of thinking about other generic categories. The logic of Neale’s argument also means that genres can be seen as both very specific in how they are constructed as well as sharing some common features.
Genre Hybridity in the 1920s Western
Within the whole cycle of the Western genre hybridity - the sharing of other generic conventions - has been common. Neale draws on the work of Letraut, about 1920s silent Westerns. He points out that the films produced then were very different to later Westerns and therefore there wasn’t a ‘fixed nor substantive entity’ within the genre. There was a shifting array of differently stressed and diverse components and numerous alliances with other ‘genres, cycles and trends and from the specific and plural traditions these alliances call into play.’ 
These films sought to appeal to a variety of audiences ranging from children to adults and from the rural to the cities. There were a variety of hybrid terms used to describe the films such as :
- Romantic Western
- Western comedy drama
- Western farce
- Western mystery melodrama.
It is also possible to discuss these films as a range of alliances utilising a wide range of cinematic conventions all of which are worthy of further research:
- The alliance between the Western, visual action and acrobatic athleticism ( chases and stunts - rodeos)
- The alliance between the Western, history and ‘realism’. These appeared in frontier epics with a stress on period detail and consistency, and in traditions of psychological characterisation and moral decision-making
- Alliance between the Western and comedy - comic sidekicks, comic situations, traditions of parody / satire / deployment of stunt and action regimes of bodily gesture.
It is possible to see that a variety of themes traversed these hybrid genres - religious conversion, racial prejudice, revenge, land-grabbing villains. The relationship to the frontier myth is either distant or complex.
New Research Methods: Reconstructing Genre Theories
Some researchers have decided to avoid previously received wisdoms. For example, Stanfield in a partly published thesis in 1999 used different research methods based on archival research to re-explore the Western genre coming up with some quite different ideas to those written about previously which included an emphasis on the industry construction of the market. Stanfield’s research techniques included:
- Archival Research:
- Examining contemporary trade and newspaper resources
- The films themselves
- Cultural histories of the US of its popular cultures in the 19th and 20th centuries.
As a result Stanfield argues that the role of the market  was very important. The B western was aimed at rural and small town audiences in which a variety of changing social and cultural relationships were examined through a variety of forms. ‘The singing Western’ was aimed at attracting female audiences for example. By comparison the A western appealed to metropolitan audiences and their concerns. The marketing ploy of romance through male lead stars to appeal to women was successful. This was a multi-generic approach.
The market failure of Westerns in the 1930s was a combination of lack of romance, alongside an ill judged investment and deployment of new wide-screen technologies against a backdrop of depression. The subsequent relaunch of the Western included films designed to appeal specifically to women. A variation on this theme was the ‘City Western’ with well known male and female stars and dealing with adult themes such as drinking, gambling and sex.
There was also a cycle of historical films which sometimes overlapped with the ‘city’ film. These were promoted as Americanised engagements with large-scale political and historical themes. They also helped to counter accusations that the censorship codes were preventing engagement with serious issues. They often managed to integrate romantic story-lines thus providing general appeal. The richness of content enables us to see these films as multi-generic.
Neale suggests that the models and terms devised at the beginning of the post-war period to discuss Westerns in which the hero’s troubled relationship with society undergoes modification are more straightforwardly applied to Westerns of this post-war period and the late 30’s such as Stagecoach (1939) which received its canonical status at this time.
It seems doubtful whether these models of the Western genre can be usefully applied to films of the earlier period. This means that within what can be classed as a genre there can be huge shifts in the way these films are made, viewed and criticised. This is all part of contextual criticism . In the post-war context some westerns were able to articulate contemporary post-war and cold war concerns such as:
- The return of the veteran and their rehabilitation into civil society
- The issue of national allegiance, especially in relation to the Vietnam war
- The re-marketing and industry reconstruction of the genre using Elvis Presley and other rising pop stars to capture the growing teen market.
Neale also raises the issue of whether critical preference for films such as The Searchers (1956) and The Wild Bunch (1969) has tended to obscure the existence of other socio-cultural and aesthetic trends and other film titles resulting in a closing down of research and discussion about westerns in recent years.
Overall it can be seen from this section that the critical work around the Western has been foundational in the study of genre. At the same time this work has been rather one-sided in its approach to genre ignoring many features that are now increasingly recognised as important to genre studies. These include the notion of genre as process of negotiation between audiences and the industry. Westerns can be seen as both hybrid and multi-generic, as part of a widely differing marketplace and as forming an arena for public debate when socio-political events such as the Vietnam war became an important part of the popular consciousness. Soldier Blue, based on the story of a cavalry massacre of a native American village, is a good example of this. The film functioned to demythologise both the ‘history’ of the American nation established through the Western as well as relate to a current oppressive war through this exposure of the past.
1 Neale, 2000 : 133.
2 Neale , 2000 : 142.
3  Neale, 2000 : 134.
4 See also section on ‘visual conventions and genre’.
5 Neale, 2000 : 134
6 However the issue of mise-en-scene including fashion and stylisation in the section of popular culture shows that more complex research relating genre to visuality could usefuly be done.
7 Neale, 2000 : 137
8 See the section on Comedy and Genre for more on the workings of comic conventions in cinema.
9 See also the section on ‘Methods and Methodology in Film Research’
10See also the section on ‘Genres and Multiple Marketing Strategies’.
11For more on contextual criticism see under ‘Methods and Methodology in Film Research’.
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 .
Genre and Multiple Marketing Strategies
It has been seen elsewhere that it is possible to create a generic category by ‘reading against the grain’ that is interpreting the content of the output of the mainstream film industry differently. It is argued here that genre is best viewed as an important marketing tool of the full range of media industries. All these specific generic forms are appropriate for the media format being used. Genre can thus be seen as part of the institutional framework of any media system. The different generic approaches from the different media formats ensure as far as possible that the specific media product sells well. It achieves this by fitting in with established and emergent conventions of the specific media industry  being considered.
Horses for Courses
It is always important to bear in mind the wider institutional context of particular media formats. In the case of film the A films with a big budget and high production values which were produced at the time of classical Hollywood cinema in the 1930s and 1940s have a strong similarity to the ‘Blockbuster’ movies currently being produced.
The sort of films produced in the heyday of Hollywood classed as B or C films involving low production values based mainly upon formulaic genre conventions as a key marketing device were aimed at less sophisticated audiences, and more working-class audiences habitually went to the cinema as their major weekly night out. These sort of films could also provide screen content at low points in the season and functioned as training spaces for newcomers to the industry. Middle-class audiences were usually more discriminating and tended to go and view specific films which might have been genre based such as literary adaptions. The ‘made for TV’ movie has taken over the role of B and C movies.
Minority Report: A Case Study of Multiple Marketing Strategy
The recently released Minority Report provides some evidence of how a multiple marketing strategy is conducted using the following tactics:
- The use and promotion of a well known semi-independent director in this case Steven Spielberg. Spielberg is associated with a long string of well made films which have a wide popular appeal and contain a generally liberal ethos, and in most circumstances are a ‘safe’ film to see and utilises the spectacular to generate excitement.
- The use of a very well-known leading Hollywood star Tom Cruise who also runs a production company, and also in the use of Max von Sydow who would have appeal to older audiences and European audiences as well as showing that there is in depth commitment to quality actors.
- The use of genre hybridity in the construction of the narrative. The film is a detective-thriller/ science-fiction/political-thriller/melodrama family tragedy. Sight and Sound has even described it as a ‘future-noir’.
- The use of special FX - Hollywood film history has always been concerned with being at the cutting edge of cinematic technology. This links both the circus and the spectacle, powerful contributors to cinema.
- The film has been constructed as a ‘12’ in terms of the censorship and regulatory structures, to maximise family viewing. The spectacular has always been an important element of film marketing and appeal.
- These structural features of the film link into the reviews system which is an integral part of the marketing of films. Reviewers are in league with the film industry and enter into agreements not to reveal crucial elements of any twists in the plot especially the ending. This encourages the common cultural practice of ‘non-revealment’ embedded within the audience itself. People frequently say ‘don’t tell me the ending’, or somebody reporting on their experience of a film says I won’t spoilt the ending for you’. Mystique is an important aspect of marketing and plays cleverly upon audience desire.
The content has a very wide appeal and it is important to a big multi-generic/hybrid genre film that a general idea of the content quickly becomes widely known. Minority Report has a particular contextual appeal  because of the post September 11 World Trade Centre attack, the subsequent build-up of anand execution of ‘regime-change’ in Iraq. The content is all about arresting and incarcerating people before they commit a crime. The film can currently be read by audiences as an allegory for major political crisis in the world 2002/ 2003 - the excuse for building up massive military presence on the borders of Iraq despite any clear evidence of even ownership, let alone intention to use weapons of mass destruction. This will appeal to more politically astute and sophisticated audiences.
The ‘human interest’ aspect of the film comes through the family and personal break-up of the Tom Cruise character through the loss of their son perhaps through a paedophile kidnapping. This strong subplot linking into current fears of paedophilia and child pornography especially on the internet. The possibility of revenge, redemption and the re-establishment of family runs through the film linking it to revenge tragedies long established in literature. Here unlike the traditional tragedy redemption and a certain feel-good factor ‘Hollywoodise’ the ending.
The representation of women is more troubled and ambiguous. Women are represented as being intelligent: it was a woman who invented the ‘precognitive system’. The wife of the leading character John Anderson - played by Tom Cruise - is also presented as being smart and determined, not only picking up on who the real criminal is but also having the ‘nouse’ to break into the high security police system and release her husband -the unlikely failure to remove John’s eyeball-identity seems a crucial flaw in the plot but that is not the point here.
There is an unfortunate linkage of a gendered construction of femininity and instability of both woman and technology as being likely to go out of control . This is a common feature of SF genre films. Maria, in Metropolis (1925), the T1000 robot in Terminator 2 (1991) are just two other examples of the linkage of the ambiguity and danger to the masculine status quo of feminised technology seen as ‘other’. In Minority Report the key ‘pre-cog’ is a woman without whom the other two males are unable to function. The ‘pre-cog’ only ever acts ethically and the emphasis she makes upon human choice reinforces a key ideological prop of humanist liberalism against the strong cultural fears of technological take-over. This is a key element of cross-media science fiction genre. Nevertheless, the ‘pre-cogs’ are placed on the margins of society apparently for ‘their own good’.
The police-thriller aspect is obvious by being set in a police station, with tension maintained by an ever present time-factor. The ending supports the liberal ethos that the system in combination with ethical individuals will be capable of identifying and removing those who try to manipulate it unethically along the lines of films such as The Pelican Brief (1993).
The political-thriller aspects of Minority Report are highlighted in the title itself. The title is a crucial part of marketing strategy. This title has a particular resonance in the United States because there is in general greater freedom of access to information than in the UK. In th UK censorship through the Official Secrets Act ensures that formal state control has a much stronger profile. The possible mechanisms for the suppression of information which can be reviewed through the judicial system immediately gives the film a wider impact. This occurs particularly amongst the American middle classes and the more politically aware minorities who are always concerned with issues of civil liberties and freedom of information. This links to the constitutional construction which has developed a system of ‘checks and balances’ to ensure that an over-mighty subject abusing power, or corporate abuse of power is apparently always controllable.
The ‘romantic melodrama’ subplot ensures that there is a happy feel-good ending appropriate for the pluralistic target audience. This ending also gives some depth to a future which can come to terms with tragedy and deliver a future through reconciliation and human choice. Human choice to do what is ethically right is an important component of this type of film. It adds a greater intellectual and critical dimension to a format designed to have wide appeal. Audiences are effectively engaged with some of the ethical and moral dilemmas of the imaginary situation. In this sense the best cinematic output is capable of stimulating audiences to engage in situations which encourage an engagement with issues of citizenship. Frequently the best cinematic output follows a variegated production and marketing strategy and to reduce this purely to genre specificity can fail to reveal the more complex organisational approaches at work.
Cross-Media, Cross-Genre Marketing
Outside the notion of a closed world of film genres media industries have engaged with other media genres to gain marketing leverage. This has been done by identifying the key market for a product and targeting it.
A highly successful example of this was the marketing of Trainspotting (1995) by its distributors Polygram who spent approximately 50% of the production costs on marketing. Polygram employed a design agency with a client-base in pop and rock music. Polygram also entered a business partnership with EMI to launch the soundtrack.
The film was adapted to appeal to trends identified within youth culture such as ‘laddism’ which was a reaction to feminism in the early 1990s still current in puerile and sexist ‘lads mags’. ‘Laddism’ itself is often read as response to the loss of traditional male jobs in smokestack industries. This links Trainspotting with films such as Brassed Off (1996), Billy Elliot (2000), and The Full Monty (1997). However, the take on work as a form of lost dignity is not a position taken in Trainspotting.
Another cross-media linkage into youth culture was through associations with the growth of ‘Brit-Art’ and ‘Brit-Pop’. Knowing links with 60s culture a youth culture ‘golden-age’ were self-consciously echoed by groups such as Oasis and Blur. As well as linkages with punk in the anti-heroes style.
Despite the relatively low budget the successful multi-marketing approach of Trainspotting played on generic plays across media formats to ensure an appealing commercial package that went far beyond simple genre formulations, by recognising the increasing sophistication and multiple audiences now found even in what was previously erroneously and simply dubbed as ‘the youth market.’
The production and marketing tendencies coming from Hollywood blockbuster globalised marketing is tending to downplay specific generic aspects of the films. Stardom, the spectacular and a multi-generic framework is the current marketing formula. Specific aspects of a film can be niche marketed to fragmented media audiences as a way of trying to unify audiences in sufficient numbers to visit the cinemas and ensure healthy after-sales from TV licensing, rental and DVD markets. It has been noted by a number of writers  that theatre release through the multiplex system is not just simultaneous but often takes several screens at once, with audience choice paradoxically becoming more limited despite the growing number of screens in the UK. Just as the shape of the film market has changed so has the role of genre from an industry perspective.
1 Please note well the linkage here with analysis of the News as a generic form of both TV and Radio.
2 See under ‘The Western’ section on role of the market for typical audiences of the B movie western.
3 See under ‘ Methods and Methodology in Film Research / Contextual Criticism’
4 For in depth analysis of this argument see Bukatman 1994.
5 Smith , Murray 2000.
6  Brown, Geoff, 2000; Hanson, Stuart 2000; Todd, Peter 2000.
April 02, 2007
Genre & Contextual Criticism: the Need for a Multi-perspectival Analysis
Genre criticism within film studies has frequently been concerned with its socio-cultural or contextual significance. Neale (2000) suggests that this is partly because Hollywood’s genres have been considered as aesthetically impoverished. This has led to two broad approaches to genre criticism within the tradition of socio-cultural criticism: the ‘ritual approach’ and the ‘ideological approach’. Below these two approaches are contrasted with the less well-known but increasingly important ‘production of culture’ perspective.
The Ritual Approach
Thomas Schatz has argued that genres can be seen as a form of ‘collective cultural expression’ and as a vehicle for exploring ideals, cultural values and ideas within American society. This has led critics including Schatz to postulate that some genres take place in different social spaces as a ‘symbolic arena of action’ such as the cowboy or gangster film. In these films specific social conflicts are acted out.
Where these social conflicts are acted out is described as determinate space. In contrast there are other genres such as the musical or social melodrama which take place in indeterminate space. In other words, the settings do not have to be repeated and the social conflicts are less concerned with control of territory but about a range of social conflicts and their reconciliation and or resolution.
An important aesthetic flaw in Schatz’s case can be discerned in relation to the western. Musical-westerns such as
Another critique of ritual theory shows that textual analysis alone can lead to very misleading conclusions. This shows that within film studies a number of different research methods need to be used to gain a more accurate picture about the social context of reception and production. If a number of research methods are used together this is called triangulation.
A criticism of ritual theory suggests that many people go to see a very wide range of films and that genre and formulas are no guarantee of success but at best provide limited profits. For example western films were cheap to produce and made small but regular profits from a relatively stable audience and thus provided a low risk bread and butter income stream. The ‘B’ and ‘C’ westerns can be considered as highly genre specific and as having low production values and narrow appeal. Perhaps they are better viewed as an early form of niche marketing.
Another major flaw within the ritual theory is its dependence upon the assumption that audiences are representative of the American population as a whole and that this population as a whole is always preoccupied with the same cultural issues and problems. For example, there has been a considerable amount of research into black and ethnic minority representation Hollywood films to show that they were initially addressed to a white only audience.
Another important point is that most genre theory assumes that all the audiences consume genre output in exactly the same way and also that they consume nothing else. In fact there are a number of what has been termed reader-to-genre relationships. Every reader or consumer of a text comes with a different range of preferences and interests which are unique.
Ritual theory plays down the idea that Hollywood genres are in some way coercive through the filmic texts. By comparison ideological theory argues that audiences are manipulated by the business interests of Hollywood. Neale argues that there is a danger that these theories will close themselves off by becoming self-confirming. Neale describes theories of this nature as ‘Functionalist, reductive and profoundly pessimistic.’
Neale’s tone here seems overly dismissive and accords with many other theorists and commentators on ‘popular’ culture who allow their own personal tastes to subvert their critical faculties. Strangely these criticisms can be applied to both the left and right of the political spectrum.
The term reductive describes a straw figure who imagines that a cultural product contains an ideology which immediately contaminates whoever consumes this product so that they are entirely unable to be uncritical. This is often described as the ‘hypodermic’ theory of ideology. Undoubtedly there are a few people who hold to this simplistic notion, particularly on the right of the political spectrum, but few educated people hold to this concept.
Of more interest is the concept of ‘pessimism’. Many theorists and supporters of cultural populism are concerned to criticise the left-wing members of the Frankfurt School of Social Research which started in Germany between the first and second world wars. The Frankfurt School supporters, especially Theodor Adorno, have been described as ‘pessimists’.
Adorno was particularly scathing about the forms of popular culture he discovered in the United States after fleeing from Nazi Germany. For Adorno the cultural output in the United States was nearly as totalitarian in its approach as in Nazi Germany. Adorno has been written off by many commentators suggesting he was exaggerating the conditions of ‘popular culture’ based upon his dreadful experiences. However, many of those critics are unfamiliar with, have ignored or not researched crucial aspects about culture under the Nazis.
Much of the film culture under the Nazis was genre-based cinema. Many of the films shown in Nazi Germany until 1939 were American ones. As has been pointed out elsewhere by Hake  a combination of genre construction and exhibitionary restrictions helped to oil the Nazi cultural machine. There is considerable evidence that the overall Nazi strategy regarding cinema was to be able to offer serious competition to the United States. Remodelling their industry and that of Occupied France was part of the strategy. There is evidence that Germany wanted to develop the French film industry into a sort of Trojan horse to penetrate the cinema markets globally.
The films produced in occupied France particularly by ‘Continental Films’ were genre based.
It can be seen from these examples that genre production as a strategy was relevant to Nazi thinking. Evidence such as this throws some empirical doubt upon the dismissal of Adorno as a pessimist. Rather it emphasises the importance of analysing ideology and the role it plays for media institutions and their products.
Some see ideology as ‘hegemonic’, which is a form of social control created through generating a a broadly-based consensus of what counts as ‘common-sense’. A controlling role does not entirely stop other cultural products from emerging rather it subverts and controls these through the mechanisms of the market. In the light of this sort of evidence the role and importance of sophisticated theories of ideology in relation to genre and its important role in cultural populism should not be lightly dismissed.
The ‘Production of Culture Perspective’
Neale uses work by Kapsis to take into account much wider industry factors which are largely ignored by the ideological and ritual theories. The industrial process for films is best seen as variegated and multiple. Which genres finally get made depends on the assessment of the various gatekeepers within the production system itself and their views of audiences future tastes. The higher echelons of management are acutely aware of the dangers of overproduction. Too many of one type of film could mean audience saturation and a fall off at the box office.
Kapsis’ study shows that there are complex market research analyses continuously conducted on the market. These are cross-referenced to other institutional factors such as competition from Television - think of the success of Buffy the Vampire Slayer - or a shift in international markets. Other factors not mentioned in the analysis of Kapsis’ work are whether other external factors in the market affected this decision. One thing is certain, any withdrawal from the marketplace shows that senior management have decided that future profitability measured against risk was not acceptable. It also indicates that highly genre specific production is not seen as a premium profit-making part of the enterprise.
All these different forms of contextual criticism have strengths and weaknesses. The ritual approach can be seen to be of relevance in more masculinised genres and it would be interesting to research Schatz’s ideas in relation to the war film genre. The musical and the melodrama which seemingly contradict Schatz’s theory are ‘feminised’ genres and emotional and psychic space is more important for women in these films. It has been suggested that there is an ideological issue of property and ownership at the root of these differently gendered genres. This doesn’t fully account for the different types of socially constructed space which are privileged. Recent sociological work has argued that much of a masculinised approach to what is described as modernity deals with time and space in a way that is gendered by considering non-domestic space as a male dominated space in which women are allowed as sexualised bodies rather than more fully developed individual people. Domestic space - including arenas such as shopping space and care space such as schools - is set against non-domestic space. The social theorist Rita Felski has noted that there is a fear and loathing of domestic space amongst modernist masculinity of the twentieth century. There is a mistaken concept that the rhythms of daily life are inherently conservative compared to the progressive more linear and apparently less repetitive world inhabited by men.
The production of culture approach highlights the industrial aspects of the film industry. The relative popularity of a few horror films in video-stores measured against the reduction in output of horror movies by the larger films companies indicates that these companies think that the levels of profitability are insufficient and are reducing the numbers of products on the market. The current trends in the market or how the industry wish to reconstruct the audience/ market will be much clearer to them than to the critic. Usually the least successful products are removed which means that within each genre and sub-genre there is a tendency to create a cultic canon of the best films. At the heart of this is a combination of ‘quality’ in negotiation with economics. Constructing markets is about creating premium products as far as Hollywood is concerned.
1 Also see under ‘Iconography as a defining feature of genre’.
2  (Neale, 2000:228 .
3 See the Boxes under ‘Mapping Genres’.
4 Felski, Rita. (1999-2000). As yet there has been little analysis of the representation of the everyday in films studies although there is rather more on issues of domestic space. See the commentary later on Thelma and Louise to note the spatial realignment of the film in gender terms.
Genre can be used as a method of examining the history of narrative film and cinema more closely. The genres which have dominated the film market are mapped out below. These are the major genres which have been identified by genre critics. New and different genres can be added, however most of those listed below and are considered as uncontested genres have been around from very early in the history of cinema. These genres have evolved or hybridised, and in some cases, as with the western, have very nearly come to the end of the genre cycle. The social and cultural need for the western as a genre relevant to the United States in the 21st century rather than the early part of the 20th has disappeared.
Firstly the major Hollywood genres are outlined then an important genre to European cinema is briefly examined, following that the notion of sub-genre is defined.
The Main Hollywood Genres
Neale (2000) has reviewed the development of genre theory in relation to Hollywood and provides a mapping of the development of a range of genres which is drawn upon below. Genre critics and theorists have identified about a dozen major genres in Hollywood. Films which are uncontested as genres include:
The war movie
The crime / gangster movie
The horror movie
The detective film
The social problem film
Films which have become very problematic categories and sometimes critically contested categories include: Film Noir and Melodrama.
The range of available genres is not fixed and new genres are frequently in the process of emergence. For example, the 1960s mood of social and cultural liberalisation as well as the growth of widespread car ownership brought forth a new genre the ‘road movie’, with Bonnie and Clyde (1967) usually accepted as the first of these. Other well-known films in the genre include Easy-Rider (1969) and more controversially Thelma and Louise. Initially a masculine genre the road movie can be seen as providing a cultural replacement for the western.
Neale’s work has provided a mapping of Hollywood genres, other areas of the world have developed their own genres. In India ‘Bollywood’ signifies a range of epic style romantic dramas, punctuated by musical fantasy sequences. Hong-Kong has been associated with the development of the ‘martial-arts’ movie made popular in the west through Bruce Lee Kung Fu films. These created a cult following for films starring Jackie Chan. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) signifies a Hollywood industry move into this market by creating a hybrid genre film. Hollywood achieved this by giving the film a much larger budget than the more strongly generic martial arts films. The narrative structure has also been changed to appeal to western audiences used to different narrative structures.
European Historical Costume Dramas: The ‘Heritage’ Film
By comparison with Hollywood the situation in Europe has been variegated but quite different. Genres have been quite weak often gaining only a localised market. There has been a penchant for the historical costume drama in Europe, which has acted in a variety of ways including reinforced a sense of national identity with inter-war examples being seen in Britain with Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry V111 (1933). This film proved to be one of the most successful British films ever made in terms of breaking into the American market, the holy grail for European film industries. On the basis of this film Korda clinched a distribution deal with United Artists, which seemed like a licence to print a small amount of money. Whilst Korda’s heritage film doubled as a marker of national identity and commercial success, the emphasis on national identity in the heritage film was strongly present in a range of feature films made under the Nazis in Germany.
In Nazi Germany both the content and the exhibitionary context worked together. A range of films being commissioned by the state to promote key concepts of Nazi ideology in propaganda form. Hake (2002) argues that because of these conditions of production these films could be seen as ‘a genre to themselves’ based upon Nazi constructions of the spectacular.
It is important to emphasise here that very few feature films produced under the Nazi regime were directly propagandistic. Many of the films were generic variants of standard genres such as comedy and romance. Contextual criticism relating to the conditions of viewing is very important here. All narrative feature films were accompanied by newsreels and documentaries where much of the propaganda work took place. Early in the Nazi period Jews were legally excluded from cinemas. Later nobody was allowed into shows after they had started to stop people avoiding the documentaries and the newsreel footage.
The holy grail of breaking into the American market has always been a feature of European cinema. The occasional success has frequently led to hubristic statements from a senior member of the British film establishment about the need to focus on this market which now lies at the feet of a newly revitalised film industry. The latest in this long line at time of writing being Alan Parker the outgoing chairperson of the British Film Institute in the autumn of 2002.
The greatest successes in the American market have been amongst those European filmmakers who have gone to work in America from Hitchcock to Ridley Scott. This has not stopped the European film industry from trying to invent a formula based upon high-production values (read ‘big budgets’), utilising some higher profile European stars, and a hybrid or multi-genre mix. La Reine Margot ( France, 1994 ) directed by Patrice Chereau. Accessing the Eurimages fund, part of the European Union, is an example of this.
Based upon a historical novel by Alexander Dumas on the role of Catherine de Medici and the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s the film fell into the trap of being over-melodramatic and as a historical film largely uninteresting, although Geoff Andrew offered a reading of La Reine Margot arguing that it was a way of referencing current French anxieties in Bosnia and the break-up of Yugoslavia. Viewed ten years later references to Bosnian break-up seem largely spurious spin which can be seen as cheap opportunism to try and gain audience. This costume melodrama was reversing the trend in France to make more interesting historical films such as The Return of Martin Guerre (1983) These had challenged the way in which history represents the past. Banking upon the heritage genre alone failed to impress American audiences.
The development of other films in this genre such as 1492 (Ridley Scott:1992) about Columbus’ journey ‘discovering’ America went down well in Spain but failed to appeal anywhere else is a good example of cultural policy initiatives prioritising industrial aspirations to increase profitability rather than prioritising the representational needs of citizens and inhabitants of Europe. Thematically La Reine Margot could have said much more about problems of intolerance, fear and identity which has existed through much of its history. The relevance today when the issue of asylum seekers has become so prominent in the latter part of 2002 and early 2003 is far better covered by Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things (2002).
Many of the genres mapped by Neale can be broken down further into a range of sub-genres such as the ‘cavalry western’, ‘slapstick comedy’, ‘police thriller’, ‘teen-horror’. These sub-genres often relate to identified market categories. The likelihood is that the more sub-generic or further down the chain of genre influenced film-making a film is, the more formulaic it is likely to be. This is likely to limit its appeal to certain audiences on grounds of content, and quality in terms of plot and characterisation as well as technical proficiency.
It can be seen from the genre mapping provided by Neale that a category such as ‘teen-pic’ is far more oriented towards a specific market whilst many of the other categories have some elements of openness in their approach.
From this brief mapping of genres it can be seen that a range of influences from different parts of society create, change and render particular genres obsolete or very minor roles.
Investment decisions in what films to produce can be influenced solely by industry perceptions although these are likely to be picking up on social and technological change. The growth of the road movie and the decline of the western being useful examples. Genre such as historical costume dramas can be influenced by government and ruling elites who often have an interest in asserting a particular version of national identity especially if there is a growing feeling of crisis. This influenced both Korda’s film on Henry VIII as well as the output of German cinema under the Nazis.
These sort of films have also been made recently in Europe with the backing of the European Union to try and break into the American market by producing higher value cinema. This largely industrially driven strategy of marketing heritage has not been very successful with the US audience. This shows that creating successful genres needs to have a successful domestic marketplace first. This is an area in which Hollywood has been historically very successful.
1 See firstly ‘Contextual Criticism’ under Methods and Methodology in Film research, secondly ‘the Ritual Approach’ under ‘Genre and Contextual Criticism’ ,
2 See Austen, Guy. 1996. P 168 for details on this.
Repetition or Revelation: Film Genre and Society. 2003
Bibliography, Filmography & Webliography
Adorno, Theodor. 1994. The Stars Down to Earth. London: Routledge
Altman, Rick. 1997 ‘Cinema and Genre’. In Nowell - Smith, Geoffrey. Ed : Oxford History of World Cinema. Oxford : Oxford University Press
Ang, Ien. 1991. Desperately Seeking The Audience. London: Routledge
Austen, Guy. 1996. Contemporary French Cinema. Manchester: Manchester University Press
Bordwell, David. Staiger, Janet and Thompson, Kristin. (1985 ) The Classical Hollywood Cinema. London: Routledge
Branston, Gill. 2000. Cinema and Cultural Modernity. Milton Keynes : Open University Press
Brown, Geoff. 2000. ‘Something for Everyone: British film Culture in the 1990s’. Murphy, Robert. Ed. British Cinema of the 90s. London: BFI
Bukatman, Scott. 1994. Terminal Identity. Durham
Cowie, Elizabeth. 1993 . ‘Film Noir and Women’. In Copjec Joan Ed : 1993 : Shades of Noir . London: Verso
Cook, Pam Ed. 1985 (First edition). The Cinema Book . London: British Film Institute
Corrigan, Timothy.1991. A Cinema Without Walls: Movies and Culture after Vietnam . New Brunswick
Christie, Ian. 2003. Interview with Martin Scorsese. Sight and Sound. January. p22
Elsaesser, Thomas. 1997. ‘Germany the Wiemar Years’ in Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. Ed: Oxford History of World Cinema. Oxford : Oxford University Press
Felski, Rita. 1999-2000. ‘ The Invention of Everyday Life’. New Formations, No 39, pp. 15-31
Hake , Sabine. 2002. German National Cinema. London : Routledge
Hanson, Stuart. 2000. ‘ Spoilt for Choice? Multiplexes in the1990s. Murphy, Robert. Ed. British Cinema of the 90s. London: BFI
Higson, Andrew and Maltby, Richard. 1999. ‘Film Europe’ and ‘Film America’ : An Introduction’. In Higson, Andrew and Maltby Richard. ‘Film Europe’ and ‘Film America’. Exeter: Exeter University Press
<!--[if !supportLists]-->Hofman, Katja. 2002. ‘Does my gun look big in this?’ Sight and Sound March
Katz, Ephraim. 2001 4th Ed . Macmillan International Film Encyclopedia. Basingstoke : Macmillan
<!--[if !supportLists]--> <!--[endif]-->Mark Le Fanu. 2003. ‘The dream life of architects’. <!--[endif]-->Sight and Sound March
Luckett, Moya. 2000. ‘Image and Nation in 1990s British Cinema’. In Murphy, Robert. British Cinema in the 90s. London: British Film Institute
<!--[if !supportLists]--> <!--[endif]-->McNab, Geoffrey. 2002. Review of Charlotte Gray. Sight and Sound . March. p 41.
Moretti, Franco. 2001. ‘Planet Hollywood’. New Left Review, Volume 2 No 9 May / June. pp 90-101
Neale, Steve. 2000. Genre and Hollywood. London: Routledge
Neale, Steve and Krutnik Frank : 1990 : Popular Film and Television Comedy: Routledge : London
Nichols, Bill . 1976. ‘Introduction’. In Nichols Bill Ed: Movies and Methods . California University Press : Berkley
Nichols, Bill. 1985. ‘Introduction’. In Nichols Bill Ed : Movies and Methods: Volume Two . California University Press : Berkley
Nowell - Smith, Geoffrey. Ed: 1997 : Oxford History of World Cinema. Oxford : Oxford University Press
Pendakur, Manjunath and Subramanyam, Radha. 2002. ‘Indian Cinema Beyond National Borders’. In Jordan, Tim and Pile, Steve eds. 2002. Social Change. Oxford: Blackwell
Prawer, S.S. 2002. The Blue Angel. London: BFI
<!--[if !supportLists]-->Silverstone, R. 1994. Television and Everyday Life. London: Routledge
Smith, Murray. 2002. Trainspotting. London. British Film Institute.
Sobchack, Vivian. 1997. ‘The Fantastic’. In Nowell - Smith, Geoffrey. Ed : Oxford History of World Cinema. Oxford : Oxford University Press
Street, Sarah. 1997. British National Cinema. London : Routledge
Sturken, Marita. 2000. Thelma and Louise. London: British Film Institute
Tasker, Yvonne. ‘Authorship and contemporary film culture’. Tasker, Yvonne. Fifty Contemporary Filmmakers . Routledge : London
Todd, Peter. 2000. ‘The British Film Industry in the 1990s’. Murphy, Robert. Ed. British Cinema of the 90s. London: BFI
Tudor, Andrew. 1976. ‘Genre and Critical Methodology’. Nichols Bill Ed: Movies and Methods : California University Press : Berkley
Williams, Alan. 1992. Republic of Images: A History of French Film-making. Cambridge Mass: Harvard
Bibliographical Links to books not used but clearly important for Genre Theory
For teachers / FE Lecturers. The BFI Education and Resources on Genre:
Link to the Wallflower Press' useful 'Short Cuts' Series Number 33 | FILM GENRE From Iconography to IdeologyBarry Keith Grant
Refiguring American Genres:
International Journal of Communication 1 2007. Online review of Daniel Biltereyst & Philippe Meers, (eds.), Film/TV/Genre, Ghent Academia Press, 2004, 209 pp, €22,00
Moving Pictures: A New Theory of Film Genres, Feelings, and Cognition
Films mentioned in the text by title and year of release.
About a Boy (2002)
American Beauty (2001)
Billy Elliot (2000)
Black Widow (1987)
Blazing Saddles (1971)
Body Heat (1981)
Bonnie & Clyde (1967)
Brassed Off (1996)
Brief Encounter (1945)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Calamity Jane (1953)
Charlotte Gray (2002)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Dirty Pretty Things (2002
Double Indemnity (1944)
East is East (1999)
Easy Rider (1969)
Fatal Attraction (1987)
Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
Gone with the Wind (1939)
Gosford Park (2002)
It Happened One Night (1934)
La Reine Margot (1994)
Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Life is Beautiful (1998)
Michael Collins (1996)
Minority Report (2002)
Modern Times (1936)
Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1978)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Mulholland Drive ( 2001)
Muriel’s Wedding (1994)
Night at the Opera (1935)
Phantom Engine (1935)
Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Saviour ( 1997)
Secrets and Lies (1996)
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)
Shakespeare in Love (1998)
Shallow Grave (1995)
Soldier Blue (1970)
Some Like it Hot (1959)
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Terminator the Last Judgement (1991)
The Blue Angel (1929-1930)
The Full Monty (1997)
The Pelican Brief (1993)
The Producers (1968)
The Return of Martin Guerre (1983)
The Searchers (1956)
The Thin Red Line (1998)
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Thelma and Louise (1991)
Preface: At time of writing I didn't use the web for research purposes however this section will be developed as it is now a crucial part of everyday research with JISC backed organisations such as Intute organising along the lines of genre.
Link to Intute
Links to New Left Review Article by Franco Moretti who as a literary professor considers the role of genre in literature. This article is a later one than the one on NLR Series 2 Volume 5 'Markets of the Mind.
'Markets of the Mind' link http://newleftreview.org/?page=article&view=2273
Another link to a Moretti article this time considering cultural geography and film genres. (Very interesting to me anyway :-) )
Link to Article by Tom O'Regan on the Crocodile Dundee phenomenon
Link to Carol Laseur's honours dissertation Chapter 1 of The Field of Genre & Australian filmic Texts. several other chapters are also available online making an excellent open access resource!
Link to: Favorite Films and Film Genres As A Function of
Race, Age, and Gender from the Journal of Media Psychology:
An Introduction to Genre Theory by Daniel Cahndler from Aberystwyth University:
Link to the Goethe Institute on documentary films:
Introduction to Genre
Preface. Please note that biblographic and film references can be found under the bibliography research tag in the sidebar "Repetition or Revelation....".
Genre has become a key way of thinking about film from both industrial and critical perspectives. Superficially the concept of genre seems straightforward, however, this introduction seeks to show that it is a rather more complex but also more fascinating concept than simple groupings of similar films. Genre can be used as a research methodology it can also be used as a marketing and production strategy by cultural industries. Below is a comment from cultural critic Franco Moretti who is trying to map out the extent of the penetration of the global film market by Hollywood. Moretti stresses that his methodology includes the use of genres.
...if you look at a newspaper, or walk into a video-store, the reality of film genres literally leaps at you, as each film is being sold as something: a comedy, a film noir, science fiction, whatever. Taxonomy is not a scholastic pastime, it’s a product of the film industry itself, which makes it easier to recognise the film, and to buy the ticket ’ (My emphasis on second emphasis. Moretti, 2001 : 92-93).
Moretti understands genre as the construction of a range of mainstream media industry products which function to safeguard the future of the industry, by maximising and controlling the marketplace. These cultural products encourage potential consumers to enter into a pact with the industry. The industry effectively offers pre-packaged products which are familiar enough to ensure the likelihood of being pleasurable. These products are also instantly recognisable as representing a particular type of pleasure. The products are sophisticated enough to ensure to be distinct from other similar media products, by giving an impression of difference.
Reducing Business Risks
Business is about maximising profits and reducing commercial risk. The ability to create and package a film which is likely to have a reasonably predictable market is part of the skills-base of that industry. Both the potential audience and exhibitors recognise a media product by its generic likeness. Cinema chains aim to maximise audiences. They can tell from past box-office records how well particular types of film have done. Films seen as ‘difficult’ by not being easy to categorise into a genre, will be hard to distribute. If they seem too demanding of audiences they will be left to the small independent cinema outlets and be branded as ‘art cinema’ which for some commentators acts as a sort of miscellaneous genre category for ‘difficult subject matter’. ‘World Cinema’ is another rather strange category found in the video shops. The sections are usually comprised of a few martial arts movies alongside one or two films considered as canonical or fundamental to film conceived of as art.
This is not meant to imply that films classified within genres are necessarily bad. Some will be fairly low budget but clever enough to play with genre categories to escape from the prison of genre and take its audience with it. Ridley Scott’s controversial Thelma and Louise (1991) often described as a ‘road movie’ broke through a genre mould for example. In the case study later in the book it is argued Thelma and Louise can be considered as having a ‘hybrid’ generic form. The section also suggests the possibility that considering Thelma and Louise in relation to Hollywood-style genres is itself a limiting category. The possibility that it should be considered as simply within the traditional literary generic category of tragedy is put forward.
Describing a film from the perspective of genre can be limiting but it can also serve to subvert the distribution system with a more radical product that might otherwise have failed to make headway. For example, war films can end up being critical or supportive of war and as media products they can be made better or worse than other movies in terms of engaging the audience as a piece of drama. Robert Altman’s excellent M*A*S*H (1970) was a well-made and well timed antiwar film which when produced went straight to the heart of the major political crisis facing the USA in the late 1960s, the war in Vietnam. As a typical war movie it doesn’t rate. No heroic battle scenes, rather it was comprised from satirical social commentary about war and wartime culture.
Origins of the Term Genre
It is useful at this stage to get an idea of the origins of the term genre for it is a critical category taken from other art forms and it has developed its own meanings within cinema.
- The term ‘genre’ comes from the French meaning kind or type.
- The notion of genre has played an important role in the categorisation and evaluation of literature.
- During the 1890’s films were usually classified by length and topic. Terms such as ‘fight pictures’ or ‘story film’ were used.
- After about 1910 the number of films made finally outstripped the demand for them. The growth of this competition meant that genre started to be used by the industry to identify and differentiate the films: ‘early film genre terminology served as shorthand communication between film distributors and exhibitors’ (Altman, 1996 : 276).
- At first the genre language of film borrowed heavily from literary and theatrical language before developing its own path. Prior to the 1st World War terms which related to the production practices such as ‘trick film’, ‘animated film’, ‘chase film’ were used.
- After the First World War genre terminology became much more specialised. The two major genres of film were melodramas and comedies and a range of sub-genres appeared which related to these thus : ‘ ‘slapstick’, ‘ farce’, and burlesque’ became separate genres rather than simply types of comedy’ (Altman, 1996 : 276).
Functions of Genre within the Cinematic Process
Genre has been seen as an important concept for each of the levels of the structure of cinema which the sections of this ebook elaborate upon in more detail:
- Production. The concept of genre provided a template for production decisions. It was a form of tacit knowledge among members of the production team which laid out the general parameters of style and content.
- Distribution and Marketing. The notion of genre was an important way of differentiating products. It became a mode of communication between producer and distributor, and between distributor and exhibitor. It also helped film reviewers, often non-specialists, place the product and measure it against other similar products. Reviewing is an essential part of the marketing of a film. In terms of distribution categories all films belong to some genre. It could be loose, such as ‘art-house movie’, or quite ‘tight’ such as ‘teen-pic’ movie. It immediately tells the exhibitor whether they are likely to be interested.
- Consumption. Describes standard patterns of spectator involvement. The idea of genre facilitates communication between exhibitor and audience. Importantly this works between members of the audience and potential audience. Generic ideas create a ready-made vocabulary of concepts to describe the nature and style of the film at a relatively simple level. This can attract larger audiences.
Those critics who have worked upon genre in depth argue that some films are: ‘Self-consciously produced and consumed according to (or against ) a specific generic model’ (Altman, 1997 : 277). This book doesn’t disagree with that approach however it does consider that films along with any other cultural products which have been developed with a commercial formula in mind frequently do this to cover up for lack of skills, imagination, finance or a combination of these elements.
The argument is developed particularly in relation to Hollywood that there is an auteur-genre continuum along which the budget and personnel of a film are chosen to meet an industry created audience ‘need’. Higher budget films are less formulaic and appeal to wider audiences many of which are culturally and intellectually sophisticated and who are not interested in low quality films. In these films stars and high production values are as important as any genre assignations.
In terms of national cinemas, film industries which are just starting out are weak on establishing genre films. Once an industry is more mature it will have established a generic output such as comedies for example. Hollywood has become hegemonic or dominant at producing strong genres imposing them on world-wide audiences. Genres from other national industries have generated fewer films with a more limited audience and are often strongly influenced by Hollywood genres.
Growth of Genres
As a more generically-based production system grows so there is often a shift from defining genre mainly by content to: ‘genre definitions based on repeated plot motifs, recurrent image patterns, standardised narrative configurations and predictable reception conventions’ ( Altman, 1997 : 277).
The use of genre films combined with more industrialised methods of production became very important in the rescue of the one-time largest European film-making company UFA in Germany. Originally the directors were allowed a great deal of artistic freedom which produced fine films now considered canonical. The artistic freedom meant that there were huge budget and time overruns which meant in Germany that UFA was threatened with bankruptcy by Deutsche Bank unless it changed its methods of production. New management methods based upon Hollywood industrial practices were introduced. Finance was separate from and in control of production. New filmmakers were introduced who concentrated upon genre development.
Efficient genre directors such as Karl Hartl, Gustav Ucicky and above all Hans Schwarz put UFA back in the black, the latter with six films, among them some of the biggest box-office successes until then’. (My emphasis :Thomas Elsaesser, 1997 : 150)
This German example shows how important the development and maintenance of the concept of genre is, to mainstream film production. The example also supports the argument that the quality of these films was instantly forgettable. Few, other than professional researchers, now have an interest in this type of film. In a world overdosing from ‘informational output’ the criteria of quality seems increasingly important given the limited consumption time available.
Elsaesser’s position highlights how the institution of cinema is an industrial process which requires investment and profits to operate within a capitalist oriented ‘free-market’ system of production. Developing an understanding of the various aspects of genre takes on a particularly important role in helping us to understand the range of film choice and the type of content which is regularly available.
Other institutional factors creating and controlling genres
Content of course is not entirely limited to genre demands. Censorship and other governmental priorities regarding cultural policy can effect what genres are produced and how they are produced. This is particularly the case in countries which take a stance in their cultural policy which is concerned to rise above the market in some way. This can be the case in authoritarian regimes, or else in countries such as France which have prioritised a defence of a well established national cinema . As a consequence it tends to make more individualised films.
Genre also exists as a critical construction which can invent genres by identifying content and cultural linkages. It also exists as an industry practice. As such the concept of genre is a double-edged weapon which can be turned to the advantage of the film industry or against the film industry.
The complexity of film noir is a case in point. Film Noir was not an industry invented category but a critical category emerging from French critics in the aftermath of war when they saw some of the US thrillers which had been produced during the war but banned in France. Since that time many books and articles have been generated debating whether the genre exists at all and what the limits of this ‘genre’ might be. Critics suggested that the ’genre’ proffered a critique of urban American modern society and the ‘American Dream’.
Film noir has been considered as too complex to deal with in depth in an introductory work. It is worth noting that the trajectory of what started as a critical category into a commercial category is unusual. In the late 1980s and into the 1990s a range of ‘knowing’ films were deliberately produced as neo-noirs. Deliberately copying the visual style and frequently violent content of the original films and frequently having intensely pessimistic endings these films were targeted at a ‘knowing’ critical market. This shows that even the critical thought can be drawn into the marketplace.
The case of film noir highlights the shifting relationship between the industry and the critics in which the boundaries between industry, critic and audience rather than being fixed are being continuously redefined and contested. Originally genre meant films which produced by a cultural industry primarily to make money rather than to open up new ways of knowing and thinking about the world. The concept of genre can be used critically to bring into existence challenges to these ways of thinking by making different links between films to the industry. The idea of "Heritage Cinema" from British critics in the late 1980s and early to mid 1990s saw costume dramas and literary adaptations as a conservative 'genre' which served the aims of the then current Conservative government well. It then also shows that the original criticism of society can itself be turned into a commercial product perhaps based upon irony.
The relationship between the industry, the critics and the audience is an asymmetrical one. The industry holds most of the powerful cards. It can always control and even take advantage of criticism. Whilst the industry must create audiences by seducing viewers it is always on the industry terms rather than the viewers'.
Thinking of genre-based films as an asymmetrical arena of cultural negotiation can be useful. The multiple experiences of viewing publics who are differently positioned in terms of class, ethnicity, gender and territorial location. Because this cultural arena is subject to negotiation, the parameters of genre are constantly shifting as the industry tries to retain and recreate its audiences. This book has concentrated upon the dual aspects of genre as a tool of the film industry and as methodological way of researching the importance of film as a whole
The original book was set out in three main sections. Firstly it mapped out key genres and examined general aspects of genre theory touched upon above. It then proceeded to examine the wider cultural and industrial context in which genre operates. The final main section dealt with more specific genre areas, offering a few readings and possibilities for the reader to develop. This blog will by the nature of the way it is built differ slightly. A contents page with links will be added after the other sections have been posted.
Genres themselves are always in a state of flux, emerging and dying away as wider social conditions change. There is a mutual performativity, operating through the asymmetrical communications system, between industry and consumer. The asymmetric weighting by the very nature of genre is in favour of the industry. This in itself can be seen as a part of the greater hegemonic process by which liberal democracies function.
Cinema organised and funded in ways which represent the global complexity of our social, cultural and economic lives in different ways has been possible to only a very limited extent. The study of genre necessarily needs to consider the contextual aspects of society and its relationship to cultural production rather than be limited to pure textual analysis. These kind of issues are raised in the second part.
Many cultural critics defend cinematic genres, but more critical cinema could, and should be available. When no alternative is offered it is difficult to see beyond the horizons of what is culturally possible when these horizons are policed by genre norms. Genre can be a beneficial critical category up to a point. All films can be described by highly generalised generic categories such as comedy or tragedy. Genre boundaries instituted by the industry frequently act to limit the cultural imaginations of audiences. This attitude discourages risk-taking as producers and consumers. This is because genre is by its very nature intimately bound up with the construction of a sophisticated marketplace organised to promote certain cultural products at the expense of others.
Issues of what is now being understood as cultural citizenship are not often raised within film and cinema studies. A useful critical perspective to be constantly thinking of is the question of whether cinema alongside other cultural products produced primarily for profit is in the best interests of society as a whole and offers a wide diversity of representations of the society in which the viewers are based. Perhaps a cultural production system which is less market-oriented and more citizen oriented is what is required for advanced democracies?
Making a Genre Reading of Thelma and Louise
This posting is a section of my book on genre Repetition or Revelation: Film Genre and Society 2003. Coventry: Kino-eye. This is primarily aimed at year 1 undergraduates and A2 students as well as interested general readers. Other sections will be posted onto the blog in due course. This is all fully copyrighted material please ensure that any references are properly acknowledged.
Preface. Please note that biblographic and film references can be found under the bibliography research tag in the sidebar "Repetition or Revelation....".
This section examines how a methodology (in this case a feminist methodology analysing the film from the perspective of feminism) can be applied to make a genre based reading of a film. The case study here is based upon Thelma and Louise, directed by Ridley Scott.The article also reviews and compares Thelma & Louise with a range of typical Hollywood genres. The conclusion to the article questions whether even placing Thelma and Louise within a complex of Hollywood films is adequate to the task of explaining why it works so effectively and appeals to a wide range of audiences.
It is argued here that the film is a tragicomedy hybrid genre with the emphasis being ultimately placed upon the tragic. While it can be meaningful to relate the film to other Hollywood output it seems more appropriate to view it in the pantheon of tragedy in a cross media and trans-historical way.
That the film can be read as a tragicomedy isn’t the only possible reading and in my piece on Thelma & Louise I question whether the film is possibly best understood as a feminist dream or fantasy.
Thelma and Louise
Marita Sturken in a short monograph on Thelma and Louise in the British Film Institute Modern Classics series uses a feminist methodology, applying this through the lens of genre based analysis to provide a reading which differs from the readings which many reviewers, audiences and scholars have made. As the methodology section points out, to use particular methods to inform critical analysis is to examine a cultural object from a particular perspective to enhance our ways of looking at the world and to thus increase our knowledge about social reality.
To talk in terms of providing readings is not to say that something is necessarily “true” or “false”. It functions to open out different perspectives and possibilities concerning the object of our enquiry. The first question to be asked when considering Sturken’s views is to consider whether she has used the combination of genre and feminist methodologies effectively to provide a ‘strong reading’ or a ‘weak reading’ of the film.
Below there is a synopsis of Sturken’s reading of Thelma and Louise concentrating on the points where she has analysed the film through both genre and feminist methods. To gain a thorough understanding of her points it would be helpful to see some of the following films:
- Thelma & Louise : Used as a core film for analysis this should be seen at least twice.
- Bonnie and Clyde
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).
- It Happened One Night (1934)
- Easy Rider
- Fatal Attraction (1987)
- Body Heat (1981).
Sturken (2000) has argued that Thelma and Louise is strongly reliant upon ‘bending’ traditional genres. She argues that the film is established as setting the viewer up for a light-hearted ‘screwball comedy’ of two women away for a weekend free from unsatisfactory lives and relationships.
It is crucial to the film’s relationship to genre that ‘Thelma and Louise’ do not set out to become criminals, they become them unintentionally ...It is this shift from screwball comedy to buddy movie to road movie to outlaw movie, that gives this film its hybrid genre status, but also , importantly makes it a rereading of several classic film genres’. (Sturken , 2000 : 23
Sturken points out that many critics have tried to make a reading of Thelma and Louise using genre based methods. She proceeds to argue that part of the films cleverness is the playing upon these codes.
Thelma and Louise’ has been situated by numerous film scholars in a wide range of genres, from the fairy-tale and the screwball comedy to the rape-revenge film and the buddy movie. In deploying many of the conventions of a variety of genres, the film can be seen as both naively and shrewdly playing off these codes and formulas. Primary among its references is the outlaw film, which has a long tradition in American cinema as both westerns and road movies ( Sturken , 2000 : 23 ).
Sturken notes that the outlaw has been both an icon and a mythology of a person who defied the system and brought vicarious pleasure to the law-abiding citizen. Thelma and Louise plays off outlaw conventions established in the 1960s through the star vehicles of Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid These films affirmed a sixties version of the genre reiterating the conventions within a sixties ideology of liberation which can be seen as being aimed at the youth market of the time?
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a mixture of crime, screwball humour and a buddy movie. In Thelma and Louise there is a gradual switch in the film between the characters with Thelma becoming the more confident and determined one of the pair. In outlaw films other characters appear but must be relatively peripheral in order to affirm the primary relationship. Another feature of outlaw films is that the characters are understood to be on the way to their fate and get stripped of their possessions along the way. The fact that they are accidental criminals is essential to the reworking of the genre. They are crimes of impulse which become crimes of necessity.
Thelma and Louise lose the accoutrements of traditional femininity and take on several signifiers of masculinity and the road during the film. Their dress code changes with frilly items being replaced by jeans and an engagement ring is exchanged for a hat. Compared with the male characters of the sixties who are on a journey of nostalgia, their journey is ‘inexorably away from the past’ (Sturken, 2000 : 31).
The Use of Space and Place
There is an iconic use of space within the film carefully avoiding ‘the road’ constructed in the image of MacDonald’s for an older style of America. Ridley Scott has commented on his deliberate choice to do this:
I felt it was better to lean to the vanishing face of America, which is Route 66 rather than the new face of America , which is malls and concrete strips(Ridley Scott quoted Sturken , 2000 : 36 ).
The romantic even nostalgic atmosphere is also enhanced by the soundtrack of steel guitar from German composer Hans Zimmer. It is thus worth considering whether this is a European take on America. This is a generic landscape which moves to a culminating romantic icon of the canyon in Moab,
A Shifting Multi-generic Film
There is little doubt that Thelma and Louise is a complex film and reading it through the lens of a genre throws up interesting questions. Whilst Sturken has categorised the film as a genre hybrid, it is worth considering whether it can be considered as more of a multi-generic film. The reason for suggesting this is that the complex shifts which are made throughout the film moving through a range of genres is a little different to being a combination of two or three genres. The film has its comic parts, but it is not considered as a comedy or even a comedy-thriller. Below the generic complexity of the genres the film has been associated with are explained and examined.
The classic road movies are about male privilege, the right to hit the road without worrying about children or destination. Women weren’t the protagonists of road movies, rather women were often what men were running away from. Corrigan (1991) describes the classic road movie as having 4 defining features:
- Breakdown of the family unit
- The context in which events are acted upon characters and obstacles being constantly put in the way
- Protagonist who is readily identified with their means of transportation
- A focus upon men in the absence of women.
Many critics have credited Thelma and Louise with reviving the road movie genre and opening it up to new identities. Thelma & Louise follows the tradition of road movies where the protagonists are most happy when they are actually on the road. As soon as they stop they get into trouble. The film continually reiterates the duality of space contrasting the open road with a claustrophobic domestic environment. This is a reversal of the traditional theme of men riding through a landscape which is usually coded as woman/ nature.
The men in the film are forced to participate in female codes of behaviour. The men are forced to wait for them whilst previously the women were forced to wait on them. This sense of movement versus stasis is achieved through the technique of crosscutting from the car racing through the landscape making whistle-stops, to the unchanging domestic interior for example. This functions to reinforce the stereotype of domesticity and interiors as female non-progressive space.
The Buddy Movie
The film embraces a basic aspect of the buddy movie which is that men understand each other better than they understand their women. The primary relationship in this film is between the women who understand each other’s ways of being in the world better than their men do.
The Screwball Comedy
Screwball comedy is a genre which was very popular in the 1930s. It is usually based upon the clever sexual banter of a couple who don’t know that they are supposed to be together, but who eventually find their way to each other through a set of foibles, mistaken identities and other plot ploys. Classic example Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night.
In Thelma & Louise screwball humour is apparent in the scene when the motorcycle cop pulls them over. There is a panic mode akin to that used in screwball comedy. The film plays with the audience using suspense when the cop is put into the boot Thelma tells him to ‘be sweet to em’ (his wife and kids) in a screwball mode. Thelma’s relentless optimism ‘is central to providing the film’s screwball tone’ ( Sturken, 2000: 60 ).
Female Revenge Film
Thelma & Louise is often interpreted as a “female revenge film”. This is a genre construction which could be seen as misogynistic (misogyny is hatred of women). ‘Female revenge’ films feature female characters in which the potential of women for violence is contained within plot scenarios that either demonise them or destroy them in some way (Fatal Attraction, Body Heat, Black Widow (1987). They are films in which femme fatales wreak havoc on the lives of innocent men. The films above are often considered by some critics as neo-noirs.
However, this isn’t a revenge movie for past acts committed against them, rather Thelma and Louise are on a search for liberation from oppressive patriarchal structures (patriarchy is where everything is ruled by norms established by men).
Revenge is not the motivating factor in their decisions - escape to better social conditions is. Despite the obvious histories of forms of sexual abuse the attempted rape on Thelma and the unspeakable past of Louise there is no talk of revenge. There were plenty of opportunities for a range of violent acts on men. They could have blown away the lorry driver after all as well as the policeman. The hitchhiking lover who stole their money could have been murdered. Those critics and reviewers following that line of thinking were clearly motivated by something other than clear analysis.
For this writer at least there is something unsatisfactory about trying to slot Thelma and Louise into various complexes of Hollywood genres. My initial view was that the film is based upon classical tragic drama and even after reading Sturken’s analysis my view is unchanged. Fate dealt Thelma and Louise a cruel hand and ethically they had decided that they would take a certain course in which the options continually narrowed until death was the only option.
Where this film differs from the tragic classic genre of theatre is that the heroes of the film are everyday characters who had started out on an everyday weekend outing which was pretty much the highlight of lives which were very narrow. This is very different from the Greek tragedies or those of Shakespeare which were based on powerful people making and taking important decisions.
Thelma and Louise appears more like a popular version of this very old generic form and in that sense it can be a useful description of the film. Whether that would have proved attractive to the potential audiences in terms of marketing is impossible to say.
Sturken’s analysis of genre hybridity seems to relate strongly to the comments Neale has made concerning ‘New Hollywood’ critics who, inspired by ‘post-modern’ thinking, are seeking ‘hybridity’ under every stone. Neale points out that it is important to distinguish between hybridity and allusion to other films often achieved through a sort of pastiche. Arguably Thelma and Louise remains a classic tragedy rich in allusions to well known Hollywood films. Thinking of the film in these terms seems more likely to open up questions among the audience about the nature of the human condition at the time the film was mad
The genre readings of the film don’t appear to open out any useful insights about the relationship of the film to the film industry of the time in terms of marketing or reasons for the film in the first place.
The film is taken as a classical tragedy transposed from the standard conventions of this wider genre from the character in high society to the background of two ordinary women somewhere in rural America. The plot hinges on an ordinary weekend trip featuring a dramatic turning point where a brutal prior experience combined with the arrest of a brutal act which temporarily prompts an act of transgression born of uncontrollable emotions.
From that point on the tragedy unfolds. The breakthrough of the film that two ordinary women can become the subject of tragedy signifies that Hollywood can play a progressive role in raising deeper questions about social reality. Arguably, it is the fact that the film is very weak in Hollywood genre terms which allowed it to have such an effect on a wide range of audiences.
The film’s form makes it more than just a tragedy however. Starting in a light-hearted vein and having recourse to a range of comic moments which serve to alleviate what would be a dour fatalistic narrative. The blowing up of a petrol tanker, the near slapstick of the incompetent husband stepping in pizza, the turning of the tables upon the traffic-cop, and the insertion of a Rasta cyclist serve as comic high-points, which also function to highlight the underlying implications of the story which is a strong critique of individual violence against omen and a critique of institutionalised sexism which fails to deal with this.
To engage in arcane debates about Hollywood generic affiliations risks either scholasticism or critics who find the implications of the film too challenging trying to close down the deeper questions which the film is trying to raise. This means that the major points the film is raising for discussion can be obscured. Seen as a tragicomedy this film justifiably can be described as a modern classic because it is modern in its content and classic in the way that it is modelled on a traditional literary genre.