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A semantic/syntactic approach to film genre September 3, 2007

Posted by generoscinematograficos in on genre.
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When a corpus of a genre is established two things tend to happen:
1. A list of films is compiled that respond to a simple tautological definition of genre (ie. Western = film that takes place in the west, cowboys, etc)
2. Critics, theoreticians that stick to a cannon that has little do with the tautological – Same films tend to be mentioned over and over – (kind of fanatic approach, leaning towards a classic cannon of films)

Contradiction lies at the heart of which movies belong where – opposed to the simplicity of their definitions.

The uncertainty is also associated with the relative “contradicting” status of theory and history genre studies.
Like everything else, genre theory was also influenced by semiotics, which caused it to run into set of restrictions. Semiotic genre analysis bypassed history in order to follow the “semiotic discipline” ignoring genre theory built before them. Also, by treating genres as the “meaning” they failed to understand the role that audiences play in the insertion of and not the other way round.

On the other hand ideological approaches do stress questions of representation & identification previously left aside.
– Ritual approach does see Hollywood as responding to societal pressure – expressing audiences desires
– The ideological approach claims that Hollywood takes advantage of spectator energy and psychic investment in order to lure audiences into Hollywood’s own positions.

According to Altman, the opposition between these two “positions” embody the most interesting approach to film genre.

A semantic approach is more concerned with the vocabulary of each specific genre – Altman uses the examples of the western to make his point.

Two semantic approaches would be that of:

Jean Mitry : proposes a definition of the western as a “film whose action is situated in the American West, is consistent with the atmosphere, the values, the conditions of existence in the Far West between 1840 – 1900”
o Note that no real cinematic concerns come to play in his definition.

Marc Vernet : general atmosphere “emphasis such as earth, dust, water and leather” stock characters “the tough/soft cowboy, the lonely sheriff, the faithful or treacherous Indian, the strong but tender woman, the good whore” as well as technical elements “use of fast tracking and crane shots”
– Despites the fact that he adds some cinematic concerns his definition is till highly based on the semantic model.

A Syntactic approach is more concerned with the metaphysical aspects- reading the vocabulary (from the semantics) but focusing on the abstract meaning of such “signs”:

Two definitions would be that of:

Jim Kitses: The western grows of a dialectic between the “West as a garden and as a desert, between culture and nature, community and individual, future and past”. The western definition is generated by the syntactic relationship and not viceversa.

John Cawelti: says that the “western is always set on or near a frontier, where man encounters his uncivilized double. The western then takes place on the border between two lands, between two eras and with a hero that remains divided between two value systems (for he combines the towns morals with the skills of the outlaw)

Conclusion: the semantic approach has little explanatory power and is applicable to a larger number of films.

However, the syntactic approach surrenders broad applicability in return for the ability to isolate a genre’s specific meaning.

Altman, realizing the conflict between both currents, proposes that both approaches should be considered when discussing genre theory. Such approach is more inclusive and recognizes that not all films relate to their genre in the same way.

While his approach raises questions of its own – like, where are the exact borders between these genres defined? seems much more sensible, needless to say much more inclusive.
** notes on the last chapter of Rick Altman’s “Film/ Genre

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