What is Genre? (Part I)

In my The Screenplay as Literature I employed the term genre very sparingly; regrettably I never defined it.  Because this term is often inappropriately used as it refers to film, I will endeavor to define it now.  But before I do so, I would like to provide some background as to how the term originated.

From my perspective, the term is most relevant to the American film industry.  Loosely defined, genre is “a type or category” of film.  Obviously there can be a multitude of types or categories of films, but as the American film industry has always been pre-occupied with financial gain, the types or categories of films that most interested it were those that were “guaranteed” to make money.  This begs the question: is there actually any category of film that is guaranteed to make money, regardless of its quality or merit?  My answer is that I really don’t know, but much of the “business model” of Hollywood is based on the assumption that there is such a thing.  And that is the primary reason that so many films imitate other films that were successful at the box office.

So what are some of these categories that the American film industry believes or has believed to make money?  Terms such as melodrama and comedy are much too broad; but with a category such as “action-adventure” you may be getting warm.  “Romantic comedy” is a pleasant sounding word—though sometimes derisively referred to as “a chick flick”—but a proposed romantic comedy starring Kate Hudson or Anne Hathaway would certainly warrant the attention of the studio bosses.  But it is much further down the film industry “food chain”—the realm of independent production and distribution—where the quest for this “fool’s gold” takes on an even greater significance.  In this “jungle” there is no margin for error: if you don’t deliver what the theater owners and audiences want, you are out of business.  And because films from the independents have had to be marketed on other than their merit—assuming that they had any—they were often referred to as exploitation films.

What are some of the film types that the independents believed to be profitable?  Well, kung fu or martial arts films are a good place to start: in the early 1970’s every independent distributor had to have its own kung fu film.  And in New York City, there was a least one theater on Forty-Second Street that exhibited martial arts films twenty-four hours a day!   But the most lucrative type of film for independents has to be the “slasher” film.  This is a very violent and gruesome horror film: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Halloween and Friday the Thirteenth film franchises are prime examples.

So how would I thus define genre?  I would define it as a type of film made for purely monetary reasons yet transcending its commercial underpinnings. And how is this accomplished? Usually by having a very powerful theme.   So what are some examples of genre?  Unfortunately, it is easier to define genre than give examples.  Obviously, whether a film transcends its commercial purpose is a purely subjective observation; but whether a film was primarily intended to make money is not always clear, even in Hollywood.  For example, so-called “road” films have often been considered genre and indeed have long been a Hollywood staple.  What characterized these films is their depiction of a long journey across the United States (usually by car) where those embarking on this journey meet bizarre people along the way.  And if much of the film takes place in the American Southwest, so much the better, as it reveals wide expanses of beautiful but empty landscape, conveying a feeling of alienation (an important theme frequently found in these films).

While many “road” films were recognized for their artistic aspirations, it is not a certainty that they were made in order to make a lot of money, even though they were primarily financed by the big Hollywood studios.  The seminal film in this category is Easy Rider (1969), which was both a box-office and critical success; yet the filmmakers responsible for it appeared to be more interested in making an anti-establishment statement than in getting rich.   Owing to the success of Easy Rider, a number of other “road” films were financed by Hollywood in the 1970’s; to my knowledge, few of them performed well at the box office.

So is there really a true film genre according to my definition?  Well, for the 1970’s you might want to consider “spaghetti” Westerns.  These are Westerns in which there is an inordinate amount of violence and where there is no clear differentiation between good and evil.  Most of them were made in Spain, and not by Americans—although they masqueraded as American films.  These films were immensely popular throughout the world; and if they happened to be directed by Sergio Leone and starred Clint Eastwood (“The Man with No Name”), even more so.  Of course, in order to be truly genre, you would have to find that these films transcended their purely commercial genesis.  Many, including critics, did think so.

Now that we have defined genre, we need to examine what is its significance for contemporary filmmakers and critics.  This I will do in my next post.

 

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