Monday, November 7, 2011

Genre, Familiarity and Originality

Ever since its early days, the American cinema has been a place for movie genres.  What is a genre?  The New Oxford American dictionary states that a genre is:
a category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.
Film theorist Rick Altman proposes a semantic/syntactic approach to genre in film.  The semantic approach involves looking at the technical, obvious, surface signifiers while the syntactic approach deals with themes, character types, aesthetics, etc.  What is the purpose of genres?  Is there any value in the unoriginality inherent in the genre idea?  Does it lead to great movies?  The notion and value of genre is deserving of critical evaluation.

Film theorist Rick Altman has taken the ideas of genre that we hold unconsciously and defined what genre is on two bases.  He looks first at the semantics of genre.  These are the blatant outward signifiers, things like a movie where people break into song or a movie that takes place in the American west during the frontier era.  He also looks at the syntactic structure of a movie.  This would include themes, stock characters and stories, aesthetic approaches and more.  Approaches to genre should apply both angles.  It would seem that in most cases, if not every case, the genre is named after its semantic structure, upon which a syntactic structure develops and later that syntactic structure moves to a different semantic structure. 


Why do genres exist?  Ultimately, to gain audiences and their money.  Genres are a marketing tool.  You bring a prepackaged movie to a prepackaged audience.  People spend good money and want to have a strong feel of what they are getting and that it is something that they like.  Working within genres provides a comfort zone for a niche audience.

Is there any value of the unoriginality of genres?  Yes.  All art and storytelling involves a dichotomy of familiarity and originality.  Even in this blog, I try to work with familiarity and originality.  As the website TV Tropes notes:
Enjoyment comes from a balance of Recognition and Surprise... Total recognition is cliché; total surprise is alienating.
The best movies manage to find the perfect balance of familiarity and originality.  There are so many conventions, narrative and formal that we take for granted that we underestimate how alienating a truly original movie could be and what it means to be truly original.  What value is a movie if it is so esoteric that it has no audience?  True art needs at least some audience.


Another strong point to genres is that they are able to build off of the past rather than constantly reinvent the wheel.  The history of Western art and culture is one of slow, gradual change.  Genres come with a certain level of presumption of background knowledge that allow them to explore nuances in a way that they could not otherwise do.  They build off of that background knowledge as well as play against it.  Without it, the movie would either be harder to understand or have to be dumbed down.  Many of the best Westerns were during its classic era when the genre was thriving because it had room to play due to a well-versed audience. 


There are reasons that some genres flourish while others fail.  I believe that some ideas, themes, settings and scenarios are worth revisiting more than once.  Some are worth revisiting more than a few times.  Some are worth revisiting endlessly.  In Christianity, despite having an infinite God, we are drawn to return to the same themes and stories over and over again.  A Christian constantly returns to Scriptures and the life of Christ trying to engage them in new ways.  Devotions and rituals are repeated because they have a value that deserves this.  Genres, often with deep and resonant themes, could be seen as playing off of this idea of a worthy ritual.


Even if one is against genres on a theoretical level, they would be hard-pressed in practice not to find numerous examples of great genre movies, even in genres with hundreds or thousands of examples.  American genres have very concretely given the world many great movies.  The proof is in the pudding.


The idea of genre can also entail negatives. As I already noted, genres are a marketing tool.  Genres can truly pander to an audience.  Some genres are just inherently evil, but are spurred on by money nonetheless.  Others are at the very least quite tasteless.  Heavy consumption in an area can lead to the two opposing attitudes of connoisseurship or addiction.  People can acquire good taste and appreciation for nuance in an area or just automatically like everything in that area.  Genres too often come with a prepackaged audience who will like anything within that genre.  This can lead to genre artists "phoning it in," soullessly copying a few signifiers of the genre.  Genres can so often be removed from reality because they are only operating within the framework of movies and other movies.  This can be entertaining at times, but this geeky movie love feels shallow compared to the realities outside of the cinema that movies could address.  The movies feel as they though are about nothing at all but shallow familiarity.  Also, the delicate balance of familiarity and originality can be tilted way too far towards familiarity.

Genres in American and world cinema have proven to be a mixed bag.  The ultimate question is whether they attend to some deep yearning of humanity or whether they pander to the lowest common denominator.  The other question is how to use familiarity and originality in an aesthetic way.

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