Department of Theatre and Film
A Brief Note on the Possibilities of Genre, or, Whose Genre Is it, anyway?
There are various ways of discussing film. Timothy Corrigan points out “Six Approaches to Writing about Film” – a film history approach (which in itself can be approached in three different ways: by looking at films in historical relationship to each other, by relating films to their conditions of production, and by analyzing the reception of films by their audiences); a consideration of film within the framework of a national cinema; talking about genres; approaching film from a discussion of its auteur; adopting a formalist perspective; and analyzing film ideologically (79-105). Like the Haussmannization of Paris in the middle of the nineteenth century, all these approaches attempt to order the space of the filmic text into carefully regularized vistas of expression and discourse, seeking to repress the organic anarchy inherent in film, or for that matter any cultural text, be it the winding narrow alleys of pre-Haussmann Paris (so ripe for roadblock and revolution!) or the many paradoxes of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (how static and dynamic at the same time!). It is the goal of this essay to note, therefore, how all of these different approaches to film criticism share the same goal – the imposition of order onto the invariable chaos of the film text – and to point out that, frequently, these different approaches all operate under the central notion of genre in the abstract. Here, genre is conceptualized as a Derridean “structure” that accrues meaning/s from constant reiteration, or what Judith Butler calls a “contingent repetition” (13). The point of this essay is to demonstrate the validity of Ken Gelder’s claim that “popular fiction is, essentially, genre fiction” (1), and to show how, in one particular mode of popular fiction – cinema – the idea of genre needs to be broadened to include all the different modes of analysis the analysis of genre automatically tends towards, implies, or subsumes.1
A genre is a contentious thing, in film and otherwise. In its various uses, it can imply various modes of thought and expression, within one or many discourses. It can operate from a direction of creation outwards, and therefore be disseminating in nature, or it might be a receptive technique, operating in the audience’s discourse rather than the filmmaker’s. It can be descriptive, proscriptive, culture-specific, transcultural, ephemeral, timeless, and various other dialectical categories. Genre, ultimately, is a way to organize different layers of discourse into coherent components. It classifies, organizes, excludes.
Genre is, therefore, anti-anarchic.
Jacques Derrida speaks of genre in terms of spatiality. “As soon as the word ‘genre’ is sounded, as soon as it is heard, as soon as one attempts to conceive it, a limit is drawn” (56). This leads to thinking about a conceptual “map” of genre, with lines of demarcation and, at the risk of “impurity,” oceanic spaces of tentative blurring where genres become indistinct – “As soon as genre announces itself, one must respect a norm, one must not cross a line of demarcation, one must not risk impurity, anomaly, or monstrosity” (57).
With regard to the act of viewing film, genre functions to a great extent on the principle of expectation. In this sense, “a genre is ultimately an abstract conception rather than something that exists empirically in the world,” notes Jane Feuer (108). Perhaps because it is in many ways this “abstract conception,” the fluidity of genre/s is worth considering, especially when writing about film.
Genre in film is usually thought of as a categorizing phenomenon for “classifying films in terms of common patterns of form and content” (Corrigan 84). But it is important here to make a distinction between – or acknowledge the complicated presence of – the existence of different classes of things, and classes of classes of things, and classes of classes of classes of things, like numerous Chinese boxes. What patterns of form and content should be chosen? More importantly, where do we draw the line between different patterns? “Night” might seem to be the defining color of film noir, for instance, but as James Naremore points out, film noir is More Than Night. There is, almost always, something that’s left over, remaindered, after we’ve considered an artifact in its genreness. Some sort of meaning is constantly deferred, often to be reactivated in other contexts. So, for example, The Big Lebowski might be seen as both a noir film and not, because it exists in a sort of deterritorializing relation with noir. The purifying anti-anarchic drive of genre mentioned above impels film noir to attempt to inscribe The Big Lebowski within its schema of encoding and decoding. The film itself, however, attempts to defer/differ meaning eternally. By this, I mean that it plays with the notion of the spatiality of genre by differentiating – it exists in a generic space that is not noir, but is conceivable only in terms of noir – as well as its temporality by deferring (meaning and its imposition) – it keeps becoming noir, but never really becomes noir. In this way, it could perhaps be seen as a deconstructing process that (contradictorily, but obviously) never arrives at an end.2
The Big Lebowski is anomalous, but it is not exceptional, because it is merely a radical example of how all artworks tend towards a surplus of meaning that is not included in the advertised menu. This is why the notion of genre is so ambivalent, with competing theories about what it exactly involves – the semantics of the text? Its syntax? What about its mood? The circumstances of its production? Genres therefore relate not only to the internal dynamics of form and content within a film, but also to external aspects like economics and politics (blockbusters, for example, are defined usually by their big budgets, audience reception, etc.). Extending this perspective to its logical end, one can therefore argue that all categories are subsumed by genre. When it comes to writing about film and the study of genre in cinema, then, can a case be made for the overarching presence of generic valuation regardless of which of Corrigan’s six common approaches to film criticism one takes?
We make sense of genre/s intertextually, in relation to other texts within a genre rather than to lived experience. The mimetic potential of a generic text therefore exists always in dialogue with the similarities and differences of other texts within the genre. Indeed, it is no coincidence that Derrida insists on the universality of genre when he says
[A] text cannot belong to no genre, it cannot be without or less a genre. Every text participates in one or several genres, there is no genreless text; there is always a genre and genres, yet such participation never amounts to belonging. And not because of an abundant overflowing or a free, anarchic, and unclassifiable productivity, but because of the trait of participation itself, because of the effect of the code and of the generic mark. Making genre its mark, a text demarcates itself. (65)
If, indeed, there is no genreless text – and it seems increasingly likely there isn’t – then what are the implications that genre builds up in the analysis of film, even when it is not necessarily an analysis of genre? After all, David Bordwell himself keeps “confusing” genre with thematics, aesthetics, ideology, structure and reception, when he lists an inventory of generic categories,
Grouping by period or country (American films of the 1930s), by director or star or producer or writer or studio, by technical process (CinemaScope films), by cycle (the “fallen women” films), by series (the 007 movies), by style (German Expressionism), by structure (narrative), by ideology (Reaganite cinema), by venue (“drive-in movies”), by purpose (home movies), by audience (“teenpix”), by subject or theme (family film, paranoid-politics movies). (148)
Can we, then, consider any kind of approach to writing on film an approach to writing about genre? If, for instance, auteur theory is analyzed as a way to transform the impulse of genre analysis from a study of the style and content of a film and its relation to the style and content of other, “similar” films, into the study of the aesthetic choices and ideological imperatives governing the film in relation to those present in other films by the same auteur, then can auteur theory be called merely an offshoot of genre theory? (And this creates a classificatory impulse in itself, of course, by the condition of having to choose similarity based on certain arbitrarily-decided grounds). A more specific component of genre is being analyzed, perhaps? An Internet Movie Database reviewer, for instance, condemns Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot for being only somewhat Hitchcockian (MickeyTo). Interestingly, the basis for this condemnation consists of elements that might easily have been included in a review tentatively titled, “Bad suspense, bad dark humor in the collapsed plot of Hitchcock’s Family Plot.” Indeed, most of the reviews of this film analyze it as a bad example of a Hitchcock film, whereas, at the same time, they are actually analyzing it as a bad example of the funny suspense film genre. Which, then, prompts a revaluation of the status of the auteur in film analysis – is the auteur even analyzable on his or her own terms? Is it a valid scheme of study to separate hitherto discrete theoretical approaches from the seemingly overarching presence of genre?
It is certainly valid to use concepts like “national cinema,” “auteur,” and “ideological cinema” when analyzing modes of cinematic discourse. An identifiable roadmap is essential to the fruitful analysis of any sort of text, and it is far easier to engage with a subject on terms of specific nomenclatural familiarity. What, then, is the utility of thinking about genre as anything more than just the style and content of a film?
Often, in film studies, there is a tendency to talk about different analytical methodologies in irreconcilable terms. So, for instance, there is sometimes the privileging of the study of the material history/culture of film – ephemera, legal rulings, technological changes, censorship and film, etc. – over a more in-depth theorizing on film based on, for instance, mise en scène, performance choices, narrative structure, etc., and vice versa. It should be evident, but often, surprisingly, isn’t, that neither a purely theoretical study of film in and of itself, nor a solely historicizing approach, can sufficiently grasp the complexities of any cinema without engaging intertextually with the other. It is here that a broader and more inclusive sense of genre can be applied to film studies so that it creates a visible link among disparate cultural or methodological hierarchizations. Studying genre as an analytical chain to connect various approaches of writing about film may well be a particularly useful way to construct a careful study of all the aspects of cinema, as an art form, as an historical process, a technological continuation, and as possibly the most significant cultural artifact of the long twentieth century.
This synoptic nature of genre can, however, be paradoxical. To talk of textuality for a moment: Pierre Macherey speaks of the ambiguities of “the literary thing,” pointing out how the use of the word “thing” calls literature into question – the literary thing is “a profanation,” because it reduces literature to the material status of a mere thing; but it is also an acknowledgement of the depths of literature, of the secrets it hides, because we so often use “thing” when we have no other, more descriptive word (21-30). Macherey equates the word “thing” with an “impossible what-do-you-call-it,” and this, I think, is the function genre, being a contentious thing, performs as an analytic concept – it allows one to grasp the text as a thing, but it also renders the text a what-do-you-call-it. It is thus a constant reminder of its own status as method and of the impossibility of achieving any one “right” or “most valid” approach to writing about film, a reminder that all kinds of approaches need to be incorporated because there is always something left over, with each different approach, as well as ultimately, in the filmic text itself, even after analyzing it through different methods. It is probably a good thing, this contentiousness of genre, because it avoids the reassurance of a fixed center. The epistemic violence arising out of certain forms of knowledge is bypassed – the conceptual tool of genre being so filled with doubt, this doubt is invariably extended to the object of study, which can then be acknowledged as a perpetually open text with some sort of excess always remaining to be analyzed (note, for instance, the almost always existing exceptions to the so-called rules of film noir – the bleak snowbound country that provides the setting for Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground is a far cry from the nighttime cityscape usually identified with noir; Hitchcock’s Rope, undeniably noir in sentiment, takes place entirely in a warmly lit room; etc.). To acknowledge genre in all its doubts, and to use this as a method of analysis, is to acknowledge our inability to provide a complete reading of any text, to be aware that all structures rely on constant reiteration in an attempt to efface the historical and appear natural.
This brings us (finally) to what has been the poorly articulated concern of this piece all along. Contemporary textual theory from the sixties onwards has attempted to be especially sensitive to the polysemous nature of the text, as well as to the role of the “reader” – the interactions between reader and polysemous text, therefore. Genre, functioning both as a set of conventions, stylistics, thematics, etc. internal to the filmic text and as an analytic concept imposed from without by the “reader” of this text, provides an effective field of play for the establishment of such correspondences. The genre text thus exemplifies the spirit of a (post)modern age (this explains the rise of genre fiction, for example, as a distinctly twentieth century development), negating the Crocean ideal of art as communicated directly from the artist’s mind to the audience’s.3 “The apparently radical difference in character between modern and traditional art,” as David Robey calls it in his introduction to Umberto Eco’s The Open Work, is uniquely encoded in film, a purely modern technology/art form (ix). For Eco, modern forms of art call for a previously unrecognized degree of collaboration between artist and public, and so the use of genre as an analytic category is perhaps what he might call a more “honest” or ideologically sound mode of analysis, in that it allows the critic to acknowledge the complex and problematic nature of the text (and, by extension, of the historical conditions the text is born of). Since this essay has dealt with genre primarily as a conceptual tool for analysis that interacts with some so-called “essential characteristics” of texts, we might extend Eco’s notion of the open work to the practice of analysis – just as the “open work” leaves open certain configurations and constituents of itself to the public and to chance, so too does genre, which can be called an “open approach,” perhaps, allowing one to leave space open for all that exceeds the interpretative act. This room for ambiguity that genre leaves behind often enables us to recognize the essential incompleteness of interpretation, perhaps more so than any of the other approaches to writing about film mentioned above – as Brother William of Baskerville mentions in The Name of the Rose, it may be that “the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth” (491).
1 It should be noted that the word “fiction” is used here metaphysically, as the creation, sustenance and unraveling of the narratives we employ in our everyday lives as a way of “making sense of it all.”
2 For this notion of meaning being differing/deferred/dispersed, see Derrida, Jacques. ‘“Differance’.” Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs Trans. David Allison. Evanston: North Western University Press, 1973. 129-60.
3 See Benedetto Croce’s The Essence of Aesthetic.
Bordwell, David. Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989. Print.
Butler, Judith. “Further Reflections on Conversations of our Times.” diacritics 27.1 (1997): 13-15. Print.
Corrigan, Timothy. A Short Guide to Writing about Film. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004. Print.
Derrida, Jacques. “The Law of Genre.” Trans. Avital Ronell. Critical Inquiry, Vol. 7, No. 1, ‘On Narrative’ (Autumn, 1980). 55-82. Print.
Eco, Umberto. The Open Work. Trans. Anna Cancogni. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989. Print.
- The Name of the Rose. Trans. William Weaver. London and New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983. Print.
Feuer, Jane. “Genre Study and Television.” Channels of Discourse, Reassembled: Television and Contemporary Criticism. Ed. Robert C Allen. London: Routledge, 1992. 104-120. Print.
Gelder, Ken. Popular Fiction: The Logics and Practices of a Literary Field. London and New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.
Macherey, Pierre. “The Literary Thing.” diacritics 37.4 (winter 2007): 21-30. Print.
MickeyTo. “Historically relevant only by association!” The Internet Movie Database, 26 December 1999. Web. 17 October 2010. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074512/usercomments?start=60>