Hollywood Genre Film – Film Studies Dissertations
The topic of Hollywood and genre is multifaceted, dealing with definitions, characteristics and the social cultural roles genre performs. Steve Neales Genre And Hollywood (2000), and Rick Altman’s Film/Genre (1999) take on board these a genders both offering a different theoretical approach to the topic, which I will analyze then voice my own conclusion on my findings. Both show that genre is an important, productive way of thinking about Hollywood’s film history, and its audience. Each book presents new research, new thinking on genre that will be investigated and applied to its appropriate film style.
Questions are raised from these existing accounts: that definitions of genre are restrictive and narrow, that traditional genres are inaccurate and that cultural theories are often over generalized. The arguments on the subject will be looked into detail, presenting my own opinions on these accounts. As genre is a complex subject, with many contexts, I will be breaking the subject up, firstly looking at definitions of genre, and general concepts applying them into individual genres. I will be looking at theories on genre by a number of people all different in there opinion. With the knowledge and understanding of genre, I will look into film noir, a critical category within the Hollywood film industry.
Genre has occupied an important part in the study of cinema for years. ‘Genre ‘is French word, meaning ‘kind’ or ‘type’. The term sub-genre is also used to refer to specific traditions within a genre ( as in gothic horror, slapstick comedy and so on). When genre is discussed or defined it is usally focused on commercial mainstream films, Hollywood films in particular.
Barry Keith Grant states that genres are exclusively identified with commercial cinema:
Genre movies are those commercial feature films which through repetition and venation, tell familiar stories with familiar characters in familiar situations
Books and articles were being published in the 1940s and 1950s, in Europe and the USA, talking about individual Hollywood genres, establishing its self more, becoming an academic formal discipline in film studies.
Theorists, critics and teachers of film at this time wanted to engage in the appearance of genre and genres inparticular with popular Hollywood cinema, offering a critical approach with a desire to displace or compliment films.
Hollywood films had always been discussed by reviwers and critics, usally hostile to to the films Hollywood produced, arguing they aimed at mass market, conservative,commercially produced films lacking in realism, over loaded in fantasy.
During the early 1970s a generation of critics began to value elements of popluar American culture, re-assesing its value. Here the ‘auteur theory’ began, more simply known as auteurism. Based around three basic premises, firstly that cinema is a personal and individual expression. The second is that individual could be the director, a figure equivalent to an artist in painting. Lastly was that cinematography authorship wasn’t to be found in just Hollywood cinema.
An auteur is a director who’s work is characterized by distinctive elements and traits in there films, stamping each piece of work with there own personality. The criticism is that films are just the personal expression of the director. Interpreting each film in the context of the film makers style makes the director responsible for the major creative descisions. The concept of the auteur theory is a crucial development in film theory, moving away from literary analyses of films narrative content to aspects of art and style specific in film.
Many questions are raised on genre as a term, with little agreement on what it exactly means, if it can be clearly defined.
Genre criticism firstly began from the notion that there are many kinds of literature, with different contexts. Aristotle tried to separate his poetry , from what we call lieterature into categories such as epic, lyric, tradgedy and so on. Distinguieshing each piece of works properties, working out particular properties of each distinctive kind trying to establish their relative importance, applying these into categories. Aristotles ideas were taken up during the Renaissance placed into a set of rules so that each style, were prescribed for each kind.
This codeification evolved in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, literature was being divided more into categories, each with there own subject matter. Such a doctorial approach became frowned upon. In the late 1930s a Chigargo based school of critisicm known as the neo-Aristiteians, spoke out against this new criticism, which repudiated a historical approach to literature, believing literature exists by itself without contemporary or historical refrence.
An attempt was made to rescue literature from isolation, resureting the theory of genres. Now that genre has become much more of a phenomenon, expanding hugly in Hollywood encompassing ‘ the cartoon’, ‘ the B movie’, ‘the gangster’ film and many others. Now that genre has become multi dimensional the building of generic corpuses and audience expectations need to be addressed.
Verisimilitude is a theory addressing the point of what justifies a genre, its systems of plausabilty, motivation, and justifications of belief. It is these systems of expectation which the spectator brings to the cinema, in which to interact with the film its self while viewing, providing the spectator with means of recognition and understanding. Verisimilitude helps render individual films of there generic corpuses, working out the significance of what is taking place on screen, why characters are dressed the way they are, why they are acting in a certain stlye.
For example if a character bursts into song, the viwer will recognize that this particular film is a musical. Its plot is liable to follow certain directions rather then others, so these systems of expectation involve a knowledge of Verisimilitude which the viewer takes with them to the cinema.
Todrov explains different regimes of Verisimilitude, with notions of propriety, of what is ‘probable’ in a film ‘therefore appropriate’. In a musical bursting into song is appropriate therefore probable, there for believable in a musical, but not in a sci-fi or horror film. Murder is possible in westerns, gangster, and thrillers but unlikely in romantic comedy. Singing is obligatory in a musical, likely to be seen within its narrative, the spectator interacts with this being able to acknowledge its genre.
Todrov explains how there are two types of Verisimilitude. Generic Verisimilitude and cultural Verisimilitude. Work is said to have Verisimilitude in relation to two chief kinds of norms. The first we call the rules of genre: for a work to be said to have Verisimilitude, it must conform to these rules. These rules Todrov refers to stem back to the idea of regimes within genres, with notions of probability. Todrovs second type of Verisimilitude has a more social context.
But there exisits another Verisimilitude…that the Verisimilar is not a relation between discourse and its referent, but between discourse and what readers believe is true.
Defined Hollywood genres arguably involve transgressions of social cultural Verisimilitude, for the entertainment and aesthetic pleasure. Individual genres have a balance between both social cultural and generic Verisimilitude, some genres appealing more to the generic context. War films mark this appeal by using discourses, maps, memories, and so on.
Horror films operate much less to this authenticity, for example the discourses they cite, like the book of revelations in the Omen, is obviously fictional. Inbetween these two cases lie science fiction, films such as Them, draw an authentic status of science and technology to motivate an otherwise non-Verisimilitude event. A relevnt theory is that of Todrovs work on ‘The Fantastic’ existing of different regimes of Verisimilitude.
Two categories lie in the fantastic, ‘The Marvelous’ and ‘The Uncanny’. Events are understood in the marvelous as supernatural, where the uncanny is understood in terms of laws of the natural world, involving a hesitation between the two for the viewer
In a world that which is indeed our world, a world without devils or vampires, there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world. The person who experiences the event must opt for two possible solutions:
Either he is the victim of an illustion of the senses, of a product of the imagination
Or else the event has indeed taken place, an integeral part of reality, controlled by
Laws unknown to us.
The Fantastic is the uncertainty between the two, the hesitation experienced by the viewer who can only relate to the laws of nature confronting the uncanny, an apparently supernatural event.
Noel Carroll applies a similar theory, in two plot structures characteristic in horror films. The first he calls the ‘ Discovery plot’, consisting of four stages, ‘onset’, ‘discovery’, ‘confirmation’ and ‘confrontation’. Discovery involves the failure of responsibility and capacity for belief of those in authority, while confirmation is the realignment of their event. This structure articulates a play across themes and positions of responsibility, a play between knowing and not knowing.
This plot is ‘the most serviceable narrative armature in the horror film’. For example in The Exorcist, the demons presence is established by the girl’s abnormal behavior, which is then discovered by an individual or group, in this case the poseesed girl’s mother. For some reason this discovery of this threat is not acknowledged by the police, an authorertive power, as they would not believe in such a erratic tale.
Its plot moves away from discovery into confirmation, where the discoverers must convince some one else of the existence and danger of this demon, becoming an elaborate part of the film creating the suspense. While the girls possessed state worsens the mother has to seek other means of help to a higher authority, the time lost during this the demon becomes for powerful.
After the hesitation stage of confirmation, it converts to confrontation. The demon is in contact with mankind, as the vicar finally meets the possesed girl.
It is this tension between the discoveries (mother noticing abnormal changes in daughter) and the confirmation to convince someone who will believe in the monster or demon (mother seeking help for her possesed daughter) that creates a tension, leaving the audience knowing and not knowing.
A second plot is the Overreacher plot, which involves superstition and scientific knowledge. Carrol says this plays an ‘important role to the plot structure’ 37 .
Frankenstein is an example to this approach…where the discovery plots often sightedness of science, the overreacher plot critizies sciences will to knowledge. The over reachers plot has four basic movements, the first comprises the preparation for the experiament, including philisophacal approach, or a debate about the experiaments motivation. The overreacher himself can become quite megalomaniacal.
Such a theory can only be applied to a horror film, as Carroll states the specifics that the plot must have ‘shortsightedness’ of science, where the overreacher becomes melodramatic. Frankenstein, and Jekyll and Hyde embody the overreacher, bringing an experiment to life comprehends a ‘debate’ and ‘motivation’ Carroll mentions, with this melodramatic behavior from the scientist performing the act.
The experiment itself goes wrong, resulting in devastation, only now does the overreacher realize the error in justifying there experiment. It is the death and destruction the monster brings to innocent people, which brings the overreacher to his senses repeling him to destroy his creation. Both theories lean heavily on suspense, which is a key ingreediant in the narrative of a horror genre
Narrative suspense can occur in most, if not all, of the plot movements…an incident in the onset movement might involve an innocent victim being suspense fully stalked, or our discoverers purseued by the monster.
These theories are emboidied in the Horror genre, this repetition of narrative links in with each film, sets the genre away from others. With similar narrative and structure the viewer can relate and then categorize this, knowing that the film they are viewing is a horror film. It is these aesthetic theories that make a genre, the expressionism and communication that define it.
As the idea of repetition is inherited in genres, these were thought of as clichés, that the structures are one dimensional, becoming stereo typed. Most critics shared this idea. Shazts contests that Hollywood films involve ‘similar one-dimesional characters acting out a predictable story pattern’ 208 gh.
This pattern becomes familiar with an audience, as each genre contains its own narrative traits such as setting, characters, and plots. A theory by Cawelti called ‘stereotype vitalization’ shows how characters traits can add to audienes recognition to a genre. Stereotyped characters are commonly found for example in westerns, the audience can expect to see brawls, crooked villains and the cowboy heroine. With such sterotypes within characters it heightens the audience’s acknowledgment, as they recognize previous examples with these characters. It is argued however that these stereotypes must be regenerated
But a good writer must renew these sterotypes by adding new elements, by showing us some new unexpected facet, or by relating them to other stereotypes in a particular fashion…maintaining an interest for later generations and other cultures.
Without adding to a stereotype, films would become too familiar and predictable.
Stereotyped vitalization contains two elements. The first is that of a stereotyped character which embodies another contradict cal stereotypical trait. For example Sherlock Holmes stereotyped traits are of a rational, logical, man of reason. On the other hand he is also a romantic poet, drug taker, and a musician. Such opposite sterotyped traits is what makes Holmes a ‘ striking literary character’, this renewal on a character adds a new element referring back to Catweitis idea of adapting on just one stereotype, bringing more to a film. Another example is that of Gary Cooper, a great western star recognized for his violence , and skill to be quick on the draw, despite being a shy man.
A second form of stereotyped vitalization is the stereotyped figure becoming complex and frail, such complexity in a character can however damage a narrative.
This is a very delicate matter, for if a character becomes too complex it may cast a shattering and disruptive light on the other elements of the formula.
This predictability and pattern within the film allows the viwer to distinguish traits between different genres. Neale argues that we must first understand what is meant by a story pattern, and predictability. In a ‘broad’ sense Neale states that the story pattern refers to the main shape of a story, that ‘violent climaxes of war films are generically requisite therefore predictable’, all common plots recognized by a viwer.
However Neale states that climaxes to films in there own genre can vary considerably. War films and western films ‘permit death or defeat as well as victory and survival’ 211 gh. The same can be said for romantic films, where it could end happily or unhappily, so the narrative is not completely predictable.
Each genre can then follow its own narrative which contains its own stereotypes so the viwer can comprehend the genre, yet at the same time as Cawelti stated, by adding elements to the sterotype (character,narrative) the viwer can still relate to the film. This makes each film within its own genre more interesting and diverse.
All genre films are distinguished by sharing the same subject matter, a samurai film for example involves swords, science fiction embraces technology, or a gangster film with violence and corruption.These films are defined by similar plots and patterns. For example the plot pattern of an investergation that concludes the early mistery, solved at the climax of the film is common in detective films.
Neale however points out that although we can separate each genre, it is only by its basic terms ( a detective story is about an investergation). Hybrid films combine two elements of the same genre into one. For example a combination of horror and science fiction in Alien, or a detective tale with science fiction in Bladerunner.
Neale states that classification means genres share ‘multiple relations’, not all defined by the traits. If traits can be combined in a genre, what classifies a genre? This combination or ‘cross breeding’ all relates back to repetition and difference in a films genre, hybrid films however become complex, unable to be pinned down to one single defined genre.
It seems most genres are hallmarked by this idea of repetition, films sharing similar attributes. Hans Robert Jauss believes genres are best under stood as process. Repetition does dominate this process , but is also marked by’ difference, variation, and change’.
There are three levels in which a genre manifests itself. A level of expectation, level of generic corpus, and the ‘rules’ and ‘norm’ that administer both. A new film adds an existing generic corpus to a genre, as in Dracula where the character has to be characterized supernaturally or psychologically as is the case in the film Psycho. These are extended in a new genre film by adding new elements or transgressing an old one.
John Carpenters Halloween played between psychological and supernatural elements both displayed within the monster. With this a genre is not simply being ‘replayed’ but its generic corpus is expanded. It is films with the same generic corpus that base around expectation. Generic elements can be found in advertising. Where this develops so to does a films image, where a genre can ‘expand and change as well’.
An original text is the viewer’s expectation familiar to him or her from earlier texts; these can be as shown, extended and varied. With each genre expanding on an original narrative it is as Neale states ‘difficult to fully list the characteristics of each individual genre’. Only can we define them in a broad sense, for example a war film that represents its wages in warfare, its main familiar trait, yet with each war film with its own separate narrative.
Aesthectic characterictics are found in mass produced genres, Neale states that the term ‘genre’ is not only used in film but in art and entertainment. Williams relates back to the roots of genre as a term, how it has evolved fistly
Borrowed as a critical tool from literary studies…a concept in film studies raises some fairly tough questions. Genre films referring to a genre category substitute film narrative.
Williams believes this to be the real genre, considering genres more as narrative film, documentary, or avant garde. It is these sub-genres that Williams believes to have more significant differences that we can distinguish.
Ralph Cohen also relates heavily to the roots of the term genre, as it evolved in the nineteenth century, where popular mass produced fiction was making its first appearance. Hollywood’s industry has played a huge role partly responsible for creating genres.
Hollywood sets out to make profitable films to a mass market, where directors create different films each time as the audience would get bored seeing the same similar films, resulting in viewers not turning up to cinemas, leaving companies bust. Neale uses a nice analogy to illustrate this idea.
A car company creates models to keep up with current trends, to keep there products in demand, yet each car has an idenity with one an other. Its principles apply to the film industry. Hollywood genres have the same ranges, producing films with similariteies but each with its own unique touch to keep its audience entertained
They enable the industry to meet obligations of variety and difference inherent in this product…to regulate demand
Hollywoods studios focus on this idea of adding to a genre to keep up demand, to maximize there profit. Studios developed in the 1920s, where groups of studios began such as Universal Pictures, United Artists, and Columbia Pictures, all producing films. These were the main high profit studios, only later did smaller studios develop creating indepentant films.
Backed with money the major studios were creating films for the spectible, with higher budgets to draw in there audience. Smaller companies however were not able to show there films, until 1948 where government legislation meant that the smaller studios could release there films into the cinema. With this, studios could market there films in a predictable way with expert staff, directors, producers, and starts.
All this meant studios could create there own ‘generic enterprise’. With changing ideas and narrative to engage an audience, a genre keeps to its generic form aswel as incorpaerating new plots and style for the audience to enjoy.
John Ellis agrees with the importance of the institutional aspects of genre. Ellis mentions the ‘narrative image’ for each film is a strong hint to its genre, but also stronger when applied in advertising
Television and radio often plays a huge part in the construction of such images…but also a key role is played by the industry its self.
Films advertising to the public, in posters, or television show a clear image of its narrative. Reviews on films state its generic framework, even on posters, statements are shown ‘the comedy of the year’ clearly telling the viewer the films genre. It is this that raises the publics expectations through means of media, a method Ellis calls ‘inter-textual relay’.
As any business, it wants to draw its target audience in; the film industry is no different. By advertising a narrative and in some cases even telling us the genre it sells the film instantly. Without advertising the public would simply have to go on a film by word of mouth. Without advertising its audience would be confused, not knowing the films genre, there for unlikely to go to the cinema and pay to watch the film.
Inter-textual relay circulates ‘a number of generic labels, terms, and names’. It is there existence that makes a genre, although Altman argues Hollywood has a limited role to play when mentioning categories and terms.
The industrial/journalistic term thus finds a hypothesis about presence of meaningful activity, but does not necessarily contribute a definition or delimitation of the genre in question
Agreeably advertising does not fully explain the narrative, but does tell us the fundamental framework, the basic premises that the audience analyses and can make there own assumption of its genre.
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