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The Notion of Film Genre August 13, 2007

Posted by generoscinematograficos in on genre.

What is generally understood by the notion of film genre?

Most theory on film genre is borrowed form literary genre criticism.
Nevertheless in the last two decades it has established itself as a separate field of studies, since more and more scholars are working on the topic.

The term “genre” has been identified by many critics as one which can perform many tasks at the same time, such as:

1. Providing the formulas that derive production.
2. Constituting the structures that define individual texts
3. Programming decisions are based on primarily generic criteria
4. The interpretation of generic films depends directly on the audience’s generic expectations.

Hence: “Genre” serves a precise function in the overall economy of cinema. However, the term “genre” is not your average descriptive term but one that encompasses multiple meanings.

1. Genre as a blueprint, as a formula that precedes, programs and patterns industry production.
2. Genre as a structure, as the formal framework on which individual films are founded.
3. Genre as a label, as the name of a category central to the decisions and communications of distributors and exhibitors
4. Genre as a contract, as the viewing position required by each genre film of its audience.

Film genre has much more impact than literary genre in that it has consistent connections between production-distribution-consumption. (Example Chaos, a French film on women’s rights and abuses that was depicted as an action movie to attract moviegoers to watch it)

Altman gives a brief summary of the tendencies that have shaped genre theory:

Genres are Transhistorical – lifting the production values of the time and setting transhisotrical readings to a genre can strip away differences in which movies/texts can find similarities. The effect is quite interesting when dealing with genre beginnings, which tend to see genres as a development of pre-existing literary traditions / genres.

Genres undergo predictable development – Defining it as transhistorical critics facilitate the identification and description of genres, stressing the way some genres repeat certain strategies or tropes.

Like other commercial products (although Altman says unlike), genres must change, innovate in order to succeed. Yet genres are not free to just go anywhere and most scholars would imply that: “genres are free to move, but only along already laid tracks.”

Genres are located in a particular tropic, structure and corpus – To be recognized as a genre, films must have a common topic and a common structure, – a common way of configuring a topic.

But even when films share a common topic, they will not be perceived as members of a genre unless that topic systematically receives treatment of the same type.

Subject and structure need to coincide for a film to be considered as part of a cannon. “Star Wars” for example, does not belong to the “westerns” cannon although there are western tropes to it, such as:

– The frontier
– Guns and holsters
– A matter of territory
– Bounty hunters and gun fighters
– Desserts
– Battles.

Films are inherently assigned to a corpus and we tend to be able to identify which ones fit that corpus easier than others.

Genre films share certain fundamental characteristics – critics have noted that all Hollywood genre films share certain essential tropes, as opposing cultural values to counter-cultural values, genre films regularly depend on dual protagonists and dualistic structures. Sometimes Manichean forces of good vs. bad in each form according to the genre – western sheriff – outlaw, gangster to FBI or other gangster, etc….

This explains somewhat genres repetitive nature. Some critics say that this diminished audiences’ interest in the film’s end. Other critics’ claim that audiences when drawn to genre movies, more than interested in the end (Spider Man will always win) they are interested in how things unfold.

According to Altman “Pleasure of genre viewing derives more from reaffirmation than from novelty”.

Genres have either a ritual or an ideological function – certain critics have argued that certain genres have a purpose.

Genre critics are distanced from the practice of genre – critics pretended to be a more cultured audience capable of inserting meaning in a film than popular audiences were, distancing themselves from the general public. However mass audiences cannot be excluded since they also play a huge role in what determine genres, since it’s a collective job, that of classifying, regardless of their “cultured” eye.

Other critics give the power to the studios and their production schemes to keep genres alive.

All these theories however are cohesive in agreeing that:

– The film industry, responding to audience desires, initiates clear-cut-genres that endure because of their ability to satisfy basic human needs.
– Genres maintain a fundamental sameness both from decade to decade and from production through exhibition to audience consumption.
– Genres sometimes appear to function ritually and others ideologically.

** notes on the second chapter of Rick Altman’s “Film/ Genre



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