A working definition of film genre depends on the purposes toward which it will be applied. The audience approaches genre as it is generally defined as kind, sort, or style. Categorizing films this way has been in use going back to the advent of film production and consumption. For example, the “actuality” (early documentaries), the “comedy” (The Waterer Watered), and the “Western” (The Great Train Robbery) were all references that theaters used to advertise the film that accompanied the vaudeville show of the week. Early filmmakers learned to cinematically code a narrative as early viewers learned how to understand these new codes, and the film company duly noted their response. This relationship has continued to the present day. Genres offer fairly reliable means by which the industry can attempt to repeat and capitalize on previous box-office successes. They also provide audiences with knowledge they can use to organize their own viewing. In this sense, the rationale behind film genres has always been that of production balanced by consumption, and like the study of stars, genre has always transcended the traditional boundaries of film studies.
The study of film adopted a more specific definition inherited from the study of art and literature. This schema categorizes films according to specific structure or thematic content through a consideration of the narrative and stylistic or formal aspects, setting or mise-en-scène, costume, character, and cinematography. “The problem has always been to search for agreement about which elements or characteristics are essential to the category named, whether ‘idyll’ or ‘melodrama,’ ‘epic,’ or ‘tragedy’ ” (Chatman 1999, 52).
Hence, some film genres have their origin in literary genres: comedy, tragedy, and melodrama. Others are based more specifically on cinematic capabilities such as actualities, tableaux, travelogues, animated cartoons (Stam 2000, 14). Genre criticism as an area of film study has historically been concerned with mapping the boundaries of each class, and determining which films belong where, while ignoring larger issues such as to what extent genres are “transcultural,” and whether “genres” exist beyond the critics’ discourse. In the 1990s many critics understood that what was at stake in defining film genres was the ability to organize and control the discourse around film. “The central assumption of genre criticism is that a work of art and communication arises from and is inserted into a specific social context and that its meaning and significance is constrained and limited within this context” (Ryall 1998, 328).
The introduction of genre criticism into the field of film studies represented a “tactical attempt to think beyond auteurism” (Anthony Easthope, cited in Hutchings 1995, 59). During the 1960s film critics, both within and outside academia, were attempting to legitimize the study of film within the university. Those interested in genre criticism argued that all film had far-reaching sociological, cultural, political, and economic implications for society and as such constituted a valuable object of study. Genre study was seen to be more systematic than the auteur approach (Gledhill 2000, 222). It offered a reliable classification system for film that was less subjective and more inclusive than that offered by auteur theory, and it was the advent of a serious consideration of popular film as art within the purview of the academy. In other words, the focal point of film studies shifted, “from film’s aesthetically ‘transformative’ and medium-specific attributes toward a more empirically based sociological interest in relations between style, popular narrative, and myth” (Berry-Flint 2004, 28).
Paul Watson has usefully suggested that the development of genre criticism can be divided into three areas: text, industry, audience. Each of these has been treated as sources of the meaning and significance of genre by researchers who have typically focused on only one at a time (Watson 2003, 152, 154). As in other areas of media and cultural studies, film scholarship has conceived “meaning” as a discursive construction that occurs within a particular historical context and is related to other social, political, and aesthetic formations. In reference to the study of film genres, this has meant an ongoing conceptual broadening of the relations between genre aesthetics, industry, and audience expectations.
Areas Of Genre Criticism
As a theory and method adapted from the study of literature, genre criticism has primarily focused on the Hollywood film text, and specifically on narrative and iconography, themes and motifs. An early model argued that narrative and iconography are structured to communicate cultural myths.
Attributing the popularity of the Western to myth, Bazin argued in the 1950s that myth manifests itself in the Western through the portrayal of Manichaean struggles between the forces of good and evil. The mythic quality stands in a “dialectical” relationship with the Western’s specific historical settings, and because of this it takes on epic and tragic qualities. Thus the Western’s formal attributes are “simply signs or symbols of its profound reality, namely the myth” (Bazin 1971, 142). Other critics also asserted that, through iconography, particular “genres” addressed and attempted to resolve in imaginary terms the needs and contradictions of American society (Warshow 1954). Iconography was identified as predominant in analyzing generic identity.
When genre criticism was taken up in the 1970s, the exceedingly formulaic Western and gangster films were used as exemplars of genre in general for their narrative and iconography. From these categories, genre critics elaborated the tone, purpose, subject, and audience, and the thematic identity that bound them as a text. In other words, genres were what critics said they were. The repetition of genre motifs can only be experienced intertextually. Genre studies set out to define and codify such intertextual fields. In this way, it created its own objects rather than simply discovering them. Early theorists argued that genre conventions are found in the films. Later theorists argued that genre categories are imposed (Tudor 1974, 135; Berry-Flint 2004, 27).
The next step in the development of genre analysis was the incorporation of Lévi-Strauss’s work on myth. Jim Kitses in Horizons west (1970) laid out a series of oppositions such as individual/community, nature/culture, law/gun, that structured the Western. Will Wright’s Sixguns and society (1975) sought to identify structural formats within the historical progression of the Western and relate these to broader shifts in American society. Both models maintained that genres signified myths “crystallizing our fears and desires, tensions and utopias” (Stam 2000, 126). A further development of this divided Hollywood genres into films that re-establish social order, such as the Western and the detective film, and those that work to establish social integration, such as the melodrama, comedy, and musical. This “gendered” model argued that genres function as “cultural ritual,” either integrating fractured communities or restoring order, often through mediation, to conflictual groups (Schatz 1981). Problematic in this approach was the application of thematic analysis to genre definition because of its overinvestment in the Western. For example, melodramas lacked the visual and iconographic unity of the Western and were largely left unanalyzed. In the acceptance of form/content distinction most of these avenues reverted to a form of auteurism. Other sources of meaning, most notably the audiences’ relation to themes or iconography as sites of meaning were not considered.
In the late 1970s, genre criticism was influenced by ideological and psychoanalytical theories applied to classical Hollywood film (Willemen 1994). In an effort to move beyond use of myth and ritual as primary operations of genre, critics argued that identity of genres depends on the specific relations established between a range of elements rather than on the selective representation of particular motifs (Gledhill 2000, 224). Popular genres represent patterns of repetition and difference, in which difference is crucial to the continuing industrial and semiotic existence of the genre. Proposing a model based on the balance between generic verisimilitude (ensuring audience recognition) and cultural verisimilitude (ensuring a film’s relevance to the audience), Stephen Neale argued that genre studies consider the changing historical context within which genres are produced. (Neale 1981). The attention to history in genre criticism raised the question of the impact of contemporary theoretical frameworks on genre analysis, such as postmodernism and postcolonialism. Is there a distinctly “postmodern” genre or is it more accurate to refer to the impact of postmodernism on film as a style? The postmodern genre was characterized by irony, parody, hybridity, bricolage, and pastiche (Collins 1993). Blade Runner was referred to as the classic postmodern film. But since most films contain these elements to a greater or lesser degree, genre criticism was yet unable to demarcate different classes of film.
In light of the insights of postcolonialism and transnational identity, Janet Staiger has suggested that the term “hybridity” is a misnomer for the kind of genre mixing that goes on within American film. She proposed substituting the term “inbreeding” in recognition of the dominant role Hollywood has played in globally exporting cinematic style and form through genres. Applying the term “hybridity” to postcolonial and transnational films that are a mélange of global influence organized around the “cultural dominant,” Staiger acknowledges their creative force and ingenuity. She reserves “inbreeding” as a descriptor of the American film industry’s lack of cinematic creativity as production becomes increasingly cannibalistic through seemingly endless sequels, prequels, and remakes (Staiger 1997).
The advent of audience studies in the early 1990s defined genres as “socio-discursive frameworks” brought to the viewing experience. Genres are provisional and malleable conceptual environments, in which viewers participate in construction of meaning and modify frameworks. They refer to cognitive repositories of images, sounds, characters, events, stories, scenarios, expectations, etc. (Berry-Flint 2004, 27). Genre definition is part of a larger question concerning cultural perception and structures of visual communication. Approaching genre from an audience perspective is to study how cinematic artistic value and use value is constructed by the audience. It is an implicit communication between producers and consumers, allowing the audience to approach any given film from a “horizon of expectations” within which the film is comprehensible (Neale 1990; Watson 2003, 160).
The concept of genre helps explain the use of conventions and stereotypes and their function in the social world of the audience, without assuming a fixed set of codes for representing reality (Gledhill 1997, 351). Acts of communication are intelligible only within the context of shared conventional frameworks of expression, a contract between viewer and producer so that particular expectations occur, which then allow the acceptance or deviation from previous modes of intelligibility (Culler 1975, 147). It is a “conceptual space,” in which issues of texts and aesthetic overlap with those of “industry and institution, history and society, culture and audiences” (Gledhill 2000, 221). Reframing Robert Altman’s argument that filmic excess is an organized system of meaning, Linda Williams argued for “body genres” as made up of those films whose success is measured by “the degree to which the audience sensation mimics what is seen on the screen (Williams 1998).
Genre is also analyzed as an economic method of producing, marketing, and distributing film and thereby attempting to control the ongoing uncertainties of the business. For some critics, the appeal of studying genre is that it offers the opportunity to deal with cinema, and Hollywood cinema in particular as both an industrial and a popular medium (Hutchings, cited in Watson 2003, 151).
From the audience’s point of view, there are so many films available today on the web and in the form of DVDs that, in the absence of a title, generic categorization is the primary means of accessing the medium whether the location be a library, archive, catalog, or the web. Thus, while the critic might start with an individual film in seeking to understand its place in the generic regime, the audience learns to identify and thereby choose films through an industry-defined classification system that then becomes the frame through which both significance and value are determined.
Critics who analyze genre through the industry look at how global cultural flow has impacted film production. The increased production of genre films specifically for export to a global audience is one way the industry has attempted to deal with diminishing domestic ticket sales. Action films are so expensive to make that producers will not expect to recoup the cost from the domestic audience. They will create the film intending to export it, and these become identifiable in part by their lack of dependence on dialogue for narrative progression.
Hollywood genres perform two interrelated functions: to provide pleasure and meaning for viewers and to minimize risks of industrial production. There need to be innovation and difference within a generic regime in order to continue to appeal and be relevant to an audience. Genre provides for an atmosphere of reduced risk (Neale 1990). However, since digital technology brings less expensive equipment and the ability to bypass the major distributors by uploading and distributing film over the Internet, the American film industry faces sharply heightened risk as pressure to innovate the Hollywood product is directly proportional to dwindling box office.
New Directions In Film Studies
An example of the effect of new technology on definition of genre is an argument that in the virtual online game, The Sims, players rely on the conventions learned in “real life” (Nutt & Railton 2003, 589). It is applied here as a set of codes and practices by which game creators write and game players understand the game play. Genre is not only the categorization of a film but enters into an analysis of the practices of film viewing and film production.
The previous nomenclature used to refer to film types may not be such useful delimiters when it comes to specifically digital production. Much genre criticism emerges from analysis of Hollywood classical period and cannot easily be transposed to the contemporary situation. Genre criticism has to do with understanding precisely the “rule”-governed practices of cinema as a mass entertainment medium (Watson 2003, 152 –153). If the “cinematic” technology changes those rulegoverned practices and if the “cinematic” technology is no longer a mass entertainment medium, is “genre” a term useful to criticism? Contemporary film resembles less the standard texts of the classical Hollywood system and more “multipurpose machines” that initiate “an endless chain of other cultural products” (Schatz 1993, 9 –10). In that case, genre becomes an almost meaningless term as there is little that would not be included.
Digital media scholars are considering the usefulness of “genre” within the intensified mode of visual digital culture where genre becomes merely nominal, and the notion of seriality is “coming to replace or subsume genre in more recent manifestations of mass visual culture (Darley 2000, 126). “Serial mode” is seen as a useful term because of Hollywood’s tendency toward sequels, prequels, series, follow-ups, and franchises. Not intended to reference the industry’s aesthetic deficiencies, mode is a more adequate reference to contemporary production trends. It indicates the “most potent distillation of the economic imperatives” having to do with innovation and difference. “Blockbuster,” “event cinema,” “summer movies,” and “special effects movies” describe a mode of filmmaking and a mode of viewing. These production trends fall outside the traditional generic method of organization. The term “intermedia” is offered as more appropriate to the “bidirectional system of aesthetic commodification exchange” involving merchandising, product tie-ins, product placement, branding, TV spin-offs, video games, and novelizations (Watson 2003).
Films of the last 20 years exhibit an array of technological, formal, thematic, and stylistic affinities with other media forms (Watson 2003, 153). The term “intertextuality” has also been suggested by several critics as a replacement, though “genre” itself remains a useful conceptual tool both for audiences and those studying the relationship between American film, international film, and global culture (Stam 2000, 129; Berry-Flint 2004). In at least one case, the uses of technology define categories of genre as well as narrative, character, setting, etc. Machinima (machine+cinema) is the term given to film production in a virtual world and it is often referred to as a new “genre” of film. As machinima is neither animation nor live-action filmmaking, it falls outside current understandings of genre. If we make machinima of a class held by a Harvard law professor in the virtual world, Second Life, is that a documentary? Andrew Darley argues that in a postmodern culture of intertextuality and radical eclecticism brought about by new technological developments “genre has a far more limited structural role to play,” referring to nothing more than “the general level of a form itself – narrative cinema” (Darley 2000, 144).
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