Genre Games: An Explanation.

Film As you'll remember in the mid-noughties I undertook a film studies degree. I'm still waiting to put it into professional practice, but the knowledge is still up here and although it was fairly soon after the degree I was finally able to sit down and watch a movie without my brain kicking into analysis mode, the capability to do that analysis is still there, especially in relation to genre. My dissertation, as I've mentioned before was about defining genre and narrative and in the intervening years, my preoccupation with noticing genre "tropes" and gathering films together hasn't gone and I thought it was about time I did something about that.

The idea with these occasional "Genre Games" posts is to, like my dissertation, see if I can find or at least define what constitutes some kind of potential film genre or cycle. It's an intellectual challenge for me, but hopefully interesting to. In the main I'm going to try to stick to "things I've noticed" though it's entirely possible I'll simply be re-iterating "things other people have noticed". I'm a bit out of touch with the contemporary critical film thought so might just be re-iterating something which is already leading to much head nodding and handing out of photocopied essays in university tutorials.

Which doesn't really matter. This is mostly for my benefit, plus it's not an exact science. As Stanley J. Solomon said in Beyond Formula : American Film Genres (1976), ‘what appears to be a genre to one writer becomes a sub-genre to another, and what is merely a technique or style becomes to another an identifiable manner of grouping films. In practice, the term genre has an almost unlimited number of valid connotations." Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903) is now thought of as an early western but at the time it was part of a cycle of films depicting real life violent crime. It only really became a "western" when its near contemporary setting receded into the past.

As is so often the case when writing something relatively esoteric on a blog, I don't know if it's necessary to offer some definitions of what constitutes a film genre, how much critical theory is really needed for the ensuing posts to be useful. I had hoped to simply link the Wikipedia page but it's mostly pretty thin, lacking examples, despite having a "further reading" list which covers all of the bases. The point above about The Great Train Robbery is based on a passage from Film Reader II. Google "film genre definition" and there are dozens of pages which give the general sense some of which are pretty good.  But I do think I need to bother, if only so I can fix what I think is important in my head and have something to refer back to.

The idea of a "Genre Game" comes from theorist Rick Altman's approach to the subject in his book Film/Genre (1999).  He says that every critic attempting to define a genre will follow four basic rules which he describes as a ‘critic’s game’.  Firstly, that one should ‘from industry or critical sources, glean the existence of a genre’.  Secondly that the characteristics of those films ‘most identified with the genre’ should be analysed ‘establishing a description of the genre’, next a corpus of films would be compiled using these conventions based on film lists and research and finally an analysis of the genre.  I'm going to somewhat follow these rules but the game is most obvious in seeking to find commonalities between them.

The first rule is the process of deciding to write one of these posts and that's through having watched a bunch of films and seeing commonalities and becoming slightly freaked out by that.  Some of these genres will be blatantly obvious and I'm simply writing that down, but a couple have sort of amorphously emerged because the film makers are constructing a particular type of story and end up somehow with a similar solution not necessarily conscious that it's the same solution as their colleagues in the industry, which does tend to be how genres emerge initially, that's part of the life cycle.  It's only when genres are established and crystalised that film production consciously begins to follow its rules, perhaps due to the success of previous films which have followed those same rules.

Plus there's a fluidity between defining the rules and then making a list of films which fit those rules.  Some theorists suggest that you consciously choose a finite "corpus" of works to create the rules and then head off looking for films which hang off them, but in my experience, when writing my dissertation, it was the case that the rules became relatively fluid as I watched more films and also that you'd end up defining some of the tropes based on what didn't seem like it was like the others.  Altman's final three rules merged and smoosh together somewhat which to be fair is something he's conscious of himself so he also proposes a "producers game" in which groups of films can be defined by a producer or film studio, where one film's a hit so the studio decides to make another and then another.  See above.

My eventual point is that although I'm structuring this process I'm sticking to the simplest, bare bones elements, syntactic and semantic elements, the kinds of characters the films have, the kinds of stars they might share, antecedents and advertising.  I'll explain some of that in a moment, but they're what I utilised in the first chapter of my dissertation when I wasn't looking at audience reaction by quoting from an Ask Metafilter thread.  As I discovered then, defining genre by audience reaction is a lot of work and only becomes useful if you're considering the business of marketing or looking at a well established genre and wanting, for example, to examine why some old groups like westerns or musicals have fallen out of favour.


The semantic and syntactic approach to film genre was originally proposed by Rick Altman in his essay, "A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre" for Film Journal in 1984, which the University of Texas has helpfully posted online in the form of a pdf and is well worth a read if you're at all interested in this sort of thing.  Mostly, just as I'm about to, he deals with westerns pulling together previous research and in doing so notes how genres aren't static and that what constituted a western in the 1940s is very different to the cynical material produced in the 1970s.  If he was writing this now, I wonder if he'd note how the genre has become a haven for nostalgics, shifting its tone across the whole of the previous century when it isn't simply trying to produce something that's simply meticulously in period which just happens to arguably be a western too.

The semantic approach to gathering films into a genre is how the film looks, the iconography, and if you could tell which genre a film is in even with the sound off.  In other words you can tell it's a western or gangster picture because of all the hats and guns, point of difference being the former being generally set in backwater desert towns, the latter against the concrete of the city.  Cinematography is also important.  Film Noir's a semantic genre as is neo-noir because it apes the earlier genre with subdued lighting within a colour image.  Science fiction and fantasy are often thought of as semantic too though unless its set in the future and everyone's wearing garish clothing, it's less obvious until a genre element like a monster or a machine wanders into view.  I feel like I'm teaching you to suck eggs.  Am I?  Don't answer that.


Syntactic elements are about the structure of the film, generally the narrative.  The dictionary definition of syntax is "the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in a language".  A syntactic genre is the arrangement of narrative elements to create recognisable and predictable storytelling and most often the visual elements of the film have little to do with defining that genre.  The most obvious example is the romantic comedy in which a boy meets girl and after a series of obstacles, jobs, class, finance, rival suitors or their own personality differences, the screwball elements, they fall madly passionately in love and the film tends to end in a kissing scene.  It Happened One Night pretty much nailed this down and it's been successfully followed ever since.

But like The Great Train Robbery, the producers of It Happened One Night didn't know it was a romantic comedy whilst in production.  At the time it was described critically as a "bus film" though in truth I could never run down any other contemporary examples.  Now it could also be defined as a road movie, I suppose, all of which tend to follow the same structure of the protagonist being given a reason that they need to be on the other side of the country before an obstacle is introduced at the end of the first act, which then leads to some waywardness in the middle act before the final chase to the destination at the end.  As Thomas Sobchack says of film genre "the plot is fixed, the characters defined and the ending satisfyingly predictable’".  In other words, try all the innovations you want but ...

But syntactic elements don't necessarily always have to be about plot, especially in art cinema where its the absence of definitive structure which can be the defining element.  In critical circles the "art film" tended to be dumped into its own genre as though Last Year at Marienbad and The 400 Blows are doing exactly the same thing, but as I don't really have time to extrapolate on, genres in general can be massive and nebulous.  Pre-Netflix which actually sits around defining genre on the fly ("thought provoking 80s thriller") Blockbuster would dump everything into "comedy" or "action" or "world cinema" (which was essentially anything not English even though there were plenty of comedies and action films there too).  Lovefilm still does this.  It's simultaneously extremely useful and annoying because of the way they reduce the artform.


What are the films about?  This is also a syntactic element, but it is important but unlike the video above which is generally very good, I don't know that you can say all detective films are about how "world is corrupt" or at least define detective films in that way.  Most dramas are about how the "world is corrupt" and even some comedies.  That's too broad.  But in truth all of these sections work in tandem.  What's the thematic connection in romcoms?  That there is such a thing as love at first sight?  Not all of them says that, indeed many of the classics definitely don't say that, they're about getting used a person and then falling in love.


Some of these genre definitions are from the time when the studio system was still important or at least when film theory was considering films created under the studio system when actors and actresses found themselves ghettoised into particular roles.  John Wayne's the stick which is usually waved when defining westerns or James Cagney for gangster films.  Such typecasting still goes on.  Adam Sandler only makes comedies.  If Adam Sandler is in the film, it's a comedy.  Arnold's an action hero.  But the rules are less definitive and actors tend to work based on all kinds of factors like the script, wanting to work with a particular director or actors or the size of the pay packet.


Courtroom dramas have lawyers.  Medical dramas have doctors.  Westerns have cowboys and sheriffs and native Americans.  I don't know if its possible to define an entire genre based just on the characters that appear in them, but there is an argument about how those characters are utilised but that strays into syntactic definitions again I suppose.  This became important in my dissertation which I'll talk about when I'm writing the blog post which regurgitates the contents of my dissertation but I'm keeping it in here for the purposes of this intellectual exercise. Characters also come into play in relation to casting because some actors tend to play similar characters if not the same character a lot. Matthew McConaughey likes playing lawyers.


One of the reasons semantics and syntactics are used in relation to genre is because genres are often compared to language development.  So the vocabulary of how the story is told in The Great Train Robbery develops and changes and perhaps develops until it become the verbage for Django Unchained.  Sometimes finding these antecedents helps to define what came later and its influences and like language sometimes the elements and tropes of other genres become part of the common usage.  It's worth noting that due to the inclusivity required from audience in modern cinema, genres are rarely fixed anyway.  Action films often have romantic elements, even the "meet cute" scene of romcoms and genre hybrids abound.


I can't tell yet whether I'll be giving this its own title or simply talking about it elsewhere if it's relevant though having already worked on the first entry, it's interesting how even in genres with a very small number of defining films, sub-genres begin to present themselves, though you do have to be careful that you're not simply suggesting that a few films are within a sub-genre simply because they don't quite follow the rules as they're being defined.


Film posters and movie trailers because they're about letting the audience know what they're getting themselves often enunciate the tropes of their given genres and in doing so create rules of their own or similar cliches as this famous page demonstrates.  A romantic comedy isn't going to do the mood silhouette from the back thing.  Similarly trailers can be thuddingly formulaic.  Watch how many times trailers for courtroom dramas begin with the facts of the case and feature the a shot of protagonist giving his closing argument near the end (and the interesting thing about John Grisham adaptations is how often, contrary to their reputation, they're not pure courtroom dramas in the strictest sense).


Then each post will end with a conclusion where I decide if this is a genre and if it has the potential to become as potent as the big ones.  Thinking on, it's worth noting just how fixed genres have become in general and how new films so often seem to fall in line so as not to shock their audience.  I'd argue it's the very best films, the Gravitys or Inceptions, which pretend to be and are doing one thing, clearly fit into one genre, but somehow manage to subvert those genre elements or bring in influences from outside the whole basis of what constitutes a genre.  Which might be a genre in and of itself.  Ooh, I'll add that to the list.

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