Do genre films function to exploit and contain the diversity of mainstream cinema?
Either way, to what extent?
Genre films are films which use repetitions to tell a familiar story line using familiar types of character and situations, with some variation. Genre is not just a connotation of cinema. It began way before cinema, in literature, back in the 18th century as an absolute classification system. Genres that were once ‘clear cut’, and supposedly easier to define (compared to modern day genre), have changed and progressed due to a number of factors; changes in narrative, audience and in technology. Providing it a fertile ground for discussion.
Are genres needed to make meaning? With marketing and advertising, does the style of the film set up expectations? I say yes. If one expects an action movie, for example, and it ends up being a love story the audience won’t necessarily be please with the ending, therefore essentially feeling dubiously tricked. It’s like having a cup of Earl Grey, and getting a taste of Coca Cola. The idea of living up to expectation for the audience is beneficial for a genre film, when the particular genre in question has been faithfully executed it leads to a content audience. Genre certainly enriches meaning. On the other hand, genre delimits meaning, and can become repetitive and formulaic. Genre, in a sense, limits the scope of the film for the viewer. They’re essentially boxes which dictates what you say. This can be viewed as helpful, but also limiting. In the 1940s if you were to see an advertisement for a John Ford film you would instantly associate it with the western genre and it would be correct to do so. However he worked in the Hollywood studio system of the time and included distinctive stylistic trademarks and themes of that genre, which more often that not were limiting for the directors. The producers and distributers produced a consistent body of a uniformed type of film, which rarely differed significantly in terms of genre. Studios used genre as a marketing tool. A way of which to promote a film. To me it seems that genre is used mostly importantly in marketing as it makes it easier to promote to a particular audience. One might have a preference towards an action film over a romantic film or might enjoy the fear created by a horror film instead of laughing at a comedy.
In 1950s Hollywood, due to the competitive, profit-motivated context, the producers and studio heads dictated. Directors were simply given scripts to direct, whether they chose to direct them or not. Which all contributed to an output of one unified body of one category. However, there were a smaller group of auteurs working inside the Hollywood system in the 50s, who created films of a personal vision. Almost all of these films were made under the noses of studio executives who probably had no idea what the filmmakers were releasing to an unsuspecting public. Most made by high-profile directors such as Nicholas Ray, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, with films like Strangers on a Train (1951) and Vertigo (1958).
On the other hand, to see an advertisement by Tarantino nowadays one could say, his films are derived from the western genre however they contain much more than the general view of the ‘western’ genre. In creating his Django Unchained, Tarantino was drawn to what he’s called “the most violent, surreal, and pitiless landscape of any director in the history of the genre”—the spaghetti Westerns made by Italian director Sergio Corbucci and in particular Django, starring Franco Nero. Tarantino’s inspirations are not hard to trace, Django Unchained features a similar tale of vengeance, the same great theme song (performed by Roberto Fia), and even a cameo by Nero himself. Tarantino takes this film as inspiration for his own Django Unchained, which has obvious western connotations attached, the good guy versus the bad guy, and a distinct mise-en-scène; perhaps the horses, men in Stetson hats and vast dry landscapes, the underlying themes of the Western genre; perhaps disputes over land, money and so on. However it’s set in the south as opposed to the west, adopting the spaghetti western as opposed to the Hollywood western. Tarantino Tarantino has also never pushed himself, as he does here, to understand what it would mean to harness his cinematic promiscuity, to merge the properties of the spaghetti western, the blaxploitation movie, the Hollywood prestige picture, broad satire, and high romance into a movie whose result is simply Tarantino. Which begs the question, does genre enrich the director? or, does the director enrich the genre? In this case it is clear that Tarantino is pushing the limits of the western genre. In my eyes, he’s the most influential auteur living today.
However, in romance’s the narrative structure has remained fairly consistent, involving the love interests who meet and love blossoms, until a conflict where the couple are apart, until it is resolved and the films ends with a happily ever after style. Although, while the majority of romance films keep to the general structure, with contentions like; a love triangle, which is normally part of the main conflict, an interfering authoritative character, such as a mother or other opinionated family member, an accidental meeting between the love interest on the first or second meeting, and so on. There are other narrative conventions and twists writers add to make their film unique from others of the same genre. Taking P.S I Love You (2007, Richard LaGravenese) as an example which challenges the conventions, where the male half of the love interests dies within the first twenty minutes, and is replaced by a second male character. Holly, the main character does not however secure a happily ever after in her love either.
Science fiction films is a genre that is interesting. It tackles problems in today’s society through the subtext of the film, however because they’re futuristic they’re not as ‘in your face’, as opposed to for example a realist modern day film, if it was to tackle a problem like environment, would it be as successful? Take an example like Wall-E an animated futuristic movie about a little robot named ‘Wall-E’ (short for “Waste Allocation Load Lifter — Earth Class”) which has acted as a thought provoking eye-opening tool for many. It goes way further than just the Robot-meets-Robot Romance to show us a glimpse of the future that awaits our future community, inspiring many to shift towards a sustainable way of living. In the film, WALL-E discovers a lonely plant growing in a trash heap. The plant becomes a symbol of humanity’s return to Earth and a chance to reject their lazy ways. From this example it’s clear that genre empowers the director to tackle themes in a context that isn’t blatant. It’s intelligent in the way it’s unconsciously brings our attention to the problem, to a problem that wouldn’t otherwise be tackled.
Sometimes writers shun genre. What if a writer of a film believes that their story is more complex or too unique to be branded or limited to a specific genre? Wright, in an article about what writers need to know about genre, once said; “Your movie might combine two genres (a romantic-thriller or comedy-horror); but if you need three or more genres to describe the script you’re writing, you need to rethink your story.” I don’t agree with Wright here as this, to me, is an old fashioned way of looking at writing for the screen. I recognise that knowing genres is important, in order to exploit them, to engage and surprise the audience. Therefore adding elements of other sub genres, advances the elemental genre, and in turn adds an alternative element to the film.
Which brings me onto genre hybrids. Genre hybrids refers to the postmodern combination of two or more stylistic, themed categories or, genres. Which came from producers having to target niche audiences, due to the segregation of audiences and broadcasting. The polar opposite to the business model of the Hollywood studio system of the mid 1900s. Taking the genre hybrid, comedy horror as an example. The horror genre being one aiming to create a sense of fear, dread and panic, which, in some ways is opposite to what the comedy genre where humour is the driving force. Horror-Comedy films aim to frighten the viewer, but also provide comical outlets, which allow the audience to laugh at their fears. The film Shaun of the Dead (2004, Edgar Wright) is a post modern horror comedy. It possesses horror qualities such as, constituting a violent disruption of the everyday world, horror transgressing and violating boundaries, and producing a bounded experience of fear. The film also has elements comedy and pastiche.
Genre films are well developed constructions that have become so due to their survival over time. They are then able to exist within their own cinematic worlds, with their own personal set of characteristics. If a side effect of being so effective is, over time, becoming thought of by filmgoers as mere boxes for stereotypes, then so be it. That does not reduce the truth of the genre’s effectiveness.