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Film as Literature: Genre

Genre refers to a style of movie making that is typified by stereotypical and easily identified themes and motifs. Depending on the genre, the setting, the characters and plot line are often predictable. Some films may be assigned to more than one genre. Genre films have their fans and detractors, but new cinematic attempts that are successful will inevitable spawn a new genre over time. After all, it's called show business.

Most genres have very identifiable aspects. For fans, these are important elements if the film is to be successful to that group. For example, in the romantic comedy genre, we have the typical girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy back. If there is no happy ending, the movie will not be as popular for the audience to which the movie is marketed, who go to those movies for the predictably happy conclusion. For the horror genre, we generally have a group of attractive young people, inexplicably underdressed, being chased by a maniacal mysterious killer, and in most cases the killer is vanquished... temporarily at least... by one of the most attractive female characters. Filling the house with less attractive old people might change the audience's desire as to who prevails. The western genre traditionally, prior to the 1960s, was a story about Anglo-American western expansion by heroic Western Europeans battling the native savage Indian. The values presented reflected a society dominated by White, Anglo-Saxon, Western European, Protestant male values, as did much of culture at the time. As sensibilities have changed, the western has broadened its scope in terms of protagonist... the introduction of the Black cowboy and the introduction of the sympathetic Native American came about during the 1970s... as well as the antagonist. While the western is still about untamed land and the perils that exist, one is just as likely to see the antagonist or villain embodied in the greedy Anglo-American capitalist as much as the scalp-hunting Indian.

Another genre that has been developed as of late is the so-called rockumentary, a documentary about a rock 'n roll band. Such bloated and beloved documentaries and concert films as The Kids are Alright by The Who and The Song Remains the Same by Led Zeppelin present in full quadraphonic sound the lives and attitudes of the band under scrutiny. Generally, these pieces are interviews connected by concert footage and other archival material. While rarely are these documentaries objective, they often do shed insight into the lives of often complicated artists. This is different from the biopic, which is usually a fictionalized biographical analysis, dramatized to feel more like a movie. Works such as Coal Miner's Daughter and Ghandi were not real biographies of their famous subjects, but fictionalized stories based largeley on real events.

Some genres pass by the wayside as time and values change. The big-budget musical, so popular in the 1940s, has been tried lately with poor results. Conversely, the western has been updated with contemporary language and even against-type themes and characters, such as homosexuality in the cowboy world. Other genres keep reinventing themselves, such as the crime drama and the slapstick comedy, reinvigorated with new cultural limits and expectations.

One aspect of a genre's lifespan is the tendency for new directors to then modify that genre in order to go against type and create a new genre. For example, many of the older genres relied on male white protagonists typically as the main character. By turning other types into these protagonists, specifically women and minorities, the genre then gets a new feel and a new life. Certainly the Western has gone through many revisions, and there is a distinct difference between a John Wayne movie like Stagecoach, a later work by John Wayne called The Cowboys, and later works such as Dead Man. Other new gneres are created by the infusion of new culture. The Japanese Samurai movies like those of Kurosawa spawned not only a new style of westerns like the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns (Clint Eastwood's man with no name), but also opened up the door for the Kung Fu genre made popular first by Bruce Li (Lee). Burgeoning African American inner city culture in the United States brought us what became known as Blaxploitation, a genre of Black culture, music and style that quickly became broadly popular and spawned controversy within African American communities.

The spoof relies on the audience's understanding of genre in order to get the joke. For example, during the 1970's there was a series of disaster films created by producer Irwin Allen. These included the famous Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure and the Airport series, the latter of which was a series of movies about airplanes in peril, with everything from midair collisions to hijackings to airplanes being stuck under water. Spoofs of these genre pieces rely on the audience's familiarity with the original work. The wide appeal of the movie Airplane! has a lot to do with the audience's recognition of the motifs, characters and stereotypes from the original movies being parodied within the story. Likewise, the rockumentaries and concert films from such bands as The Who, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones set the stage for genre spoofs such as This is Spinal Tap, again pleasing its audience through its irreverent, accurate and well-made parody of the original genre.

The genre is an important money maker for studios and pleaser for audiences. As times change, so will what is popular, as well as what is going out of style.

Common genres with examples:

  • the action flick (Star Wars series, Indiana Jones series)
  • the adaptation (Stand by Me {Stephen King's The Body}, The Color Purple {Alice Walker's The Color Purple})
  • the adult (NC-17 or X) film (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Henry and June)
  • animation (Aeon Flux, The Last Unicorn)
  • the biography/biopic (Brian's Song {Brian Piccolo}, Walk the Line {Johnny Cash})
  • the black comedy (The House of Yes, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb)
  • blaxploitation (Shaft, Superfly)
  • the buddy movie (Shanghai Noon, Beverly Hills Cop series)
  • the city detective (Columbo series, The French Connection)
  • the children's film (All Dogs Go to Heaven, Goonies)
  • the documentary (Supersize Me, The Smartest Guys in the Room )
  • the family film (Lassie series, The Santa Clause series)
  • the female buddy movie (Fried Green Tomatoes, Thelma and Louise)
  • film noir (The Big Sleep, Chinatown
  • the historical drama (Glory, Braveheart)
  • the horror flick (The Shining, The Birds )
  • the murder mystery (Murder on the Orient Express, Clue)
  • the musical (Oklahoma!, High School Musical)
  • the quest (Lord of the Rings series, Harry Potter series)
  • the period piece (Emma, Jane Eyre)
  • rockumentary (The Kids are Alright {The Who}, The Filth and the Fury {The Sex Pistols})
  • rock concert (Stop Making Sense {Talking Heads}, The Song Remains the Same {Led-Zeppelin})
  • the romance (Pretty Woman, When Harry Met Sally)
  • the romantic comedy (Fever Pitch, Four Weddings and a Funeral )
  • science fiction (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, War of the Worlds)
  • slapstick (Laurel and Hardy series, Naked Gun series)
  • the slasher flick (Friday the 13th series, Halloween series)
  • the spoof (Airplane!, Scary Movie series)
  • the spy film (James Bond: 007 series, The Bourne series)
  • the surf documentary (Endless Summer series, Into the Liquid)
  • suspense (Duel, Misery)
  • the teen surf/beach movie (Beach Blanket Bingo, Gidget series)
  • the 'tween movie (Princess Diaries, Lizzie McGuire)
  • the war movie (All Quiet on the Western Front, Das Boot {The Boat})
  • the western (True Grit, High Noon)

    Works Cited

    Giannetti, Louis. Understanding Movies. 11th ed. Pearson/Prentice hall, 2008.

    © T. T. Eiland, August, 2006
    Last modified: January 19, 2008