• Owen R. Horton


Below, we will discuss how genre shapes and constricts films.

Narrative. What is narrative? A narrative is a story, but it goes beyond film and fiction. Science, medicine, and politics all rely on the creation of a narrative. Film narratives can have different styles: linear, causal, or minimalist.

Genre. How we break films down into categories and styles. Genre is sometimes about narrative (as is the case with Noir films or Westerns), sometimes about form and style (as is the case with animation or documentary), or sometimes about theme (as is the case with science fiction or fantasy). When we talk about genre, we are really focusing on some sort of commonality between different movies.

Genres are also problematic. Think about what makes a science fiction film "science fiction." Is it the plot? The form? The themes? How many of those things are singular to science fiction? Can you imagine some traditional Horror tropes occurring outside of horror films?

Genres are not just created, they are the result of copycat behavior for a film that strikes a particular cultural chord (think: the rise of superhero films after 2002).

Genre Conventions

1. Story Formula. Films of the same genre typically use similar narrative structures.

2. Theme. Films of the genre typically tackle the same sorts of issues, or structure themselves around similar themes. Infection in horror films; independence in Westerns; brotherhood in War Films.

3. Character types. Genre films typically employ similar character archetypes: the lone wolf action hero, the career-focused businesswoman of romantic comedies, or the mustache-twirling villain of cartoons.

4. Setting. Sometimes genre films are bound by setting. Horror films typically take place in an isolated area, but sometimes break convention and take place in a busy metropolis.

5. Form. Often, genre films look the same. Similar lighting, effects, editing, etc.

6. Stars. Certain stars are known for certain genres. When you heard Schwarzenegger in the 1980s, you knew what type of film to expect.

Adherence to, or deviation from, these commonalities often signals a shift in the zeitgeist of a time.

Major American Genres

1. Gangster. Rooted in the idea of the American dream: hard work pays off.

2. Film Noir. More defined by tone and mood than setting or narrative. "Black film."

3. Science Fiction. Explore the dread of technology and change. Often have very little actual "science" in them. Massive change in zeigeist after Star Wars (1977): visions of the future turned from sterile and serene to dusty and grimy. We now more frequently focus on dystopic futures.

4. Horror. About fear, usually of an Other. Who that Other is shifts through eras, but is often a good insight into what Americans worried about at the time.

5. Western. American mythology. Manifest destiny, rugged individualism, moral clarity. The West is more of a time than a place.

6. Musical. Emerge only after sound becomes integrated into films. Escapist fantasy.

Outside of Hollywood

Experimental films are not a genre, but instead work to deconstruct and destabilize notions of what film is and what it should be doing. Conventional films attempt to disguise the fact that the audience is watching a movie. Experimental films draw attention to that very fact.

1. Experimental films are not commercial. No production companies; independently produced.

2. Experimental films are personal. Singularly controlled by the "artist" (auteur).

3. Experimental films ignore story and narrative conventions (and sometimes eschew story or narrative altogether).

4. Experimental films explore the possibilities of cinema. Hence, experimental: they work discover new ways of making or thinking about movies. They embrace the freedom from audience expectations, since these movies are never for an audience.

5. Experimental films critique media and culture. Viewers should feel frustrated as expectations are resisted. They attempt to distance themselves from mainstream film.

6. Experimental films embrace interpretation. Rather than present a clear idea, they often exist in order to invite multiple valid audience readings.

The first experimental film: A Trip to the Moon (1902)

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