Genre simply refers to the type or category a film belongs to–and these categories are generally pretty broad. It’s also fairly easy to grasp since the very concept of genre relies on it being something we all mostly agree upon. If we see a film has a space ship in it, we make a quick calculation and determine the film is a science fiction film. That’s how genre works. We notice elements of a film and group that film with other films like it; the category types are helpful because they are directly descriptive of that type of film. If a film features the story of a cowboy on his farm, then it’s a western.
Determining what genre a film belongs to can help to give the audience certain expectations about what the film will be like. If I tell you a movie is a horror movie, you’ll be waiting for the scare, and if I tell you it’s a romantic comedy, you’ll be waiting for the kiss.
That’s genre at its most basic–a way to look at certain qualities in a film that can help us categorize it but also come to a deeper understanding of how it works. Some films fit very naturally into a single genre while others may just as easily fit into more than one genre. Remember, if you make a claim for a movie belonging to a certain genre, be sure to include evidence from the film to support your ideas. This will solidify your position and help others understand your perspective.
Take a look at some of these video clips to see if you can determine what genre each film falls under–and feel free to shoot me an email with your responses and rationale!
Of course, it can get much more complicated than that. Genres can cross over and bleed into each other. A singing cowboy who is on a space ship haunted by ghosts might present us with a delightful mix of tropes and concepts borrowed from different genres: musical, western, science fiction, horror. I think it’s important to remember, though, that it is usually helpful to think of film as inhabiting a primary genre and the category the film most fully aligns with. The other nuances help fill out secondary genre categories.
This week, we’re specifically concerned with genre expectations. We need to think about what it means when something we expect to find is present as well as what it means when something we expect to find is absent. You might want to check out; this handy list;of some of the main genres and their attributes to help clear up any fuzziness you might still have on this topic. It can get pretty detailed, and following a genre over time can lead to even more granular breakdown in genre. You start out thinking you’re in an action movie because of all the fast-paced and dangerous scenarios, but as you start to realize your life is just one natural cataclysm after another, you realize you’re actually in a disaster movie!
In terms of genre, we could make a quick brainstormed list of different elements that make up a particular genre of film. Each new film in that genre offers new additions to the list, while presenting a unique spin on existing items; in short, each new genre film both adheres to and forever changes the list of genre elements. It’s a neat dynamic, but one that requires you stay particularly attentive as a viewer.
Why? Because, again, something of the film’s overall message may be contained within a record of its genre conventions. Consider this example, a possible genre convention rule: Science fiction movies contain aliens that are unknown but also hostile and scary. A movie like Star Wars might seem to bear this out partially; there are many aliens–but while some are evil, some are also good. It fits within the original genre convention even while subtly changing it. Even in something seemingly minor like this, the film is making a statement about the genre itself (maybe all aliens aren’t bad) while also making a broader message clear (don’t fear the other . . . unless the other is trying to kill you!).
Now consider a film like E.T. What does that film offer in terms of commentary on the initial convention?
It’s true that film genres such as war, noir, westerns, and horror have distinct identities, but may also overlap significantly in some films.
A film genre is a recognizable group of films with some set of standard elements or audience expectations. These standard elements are also similar to other films in the same genre. You could think of them as family resemblances, causing two political thrillers or two westerns to share many features (some major and some subtle) the way that a group of blood relatives may share a set of family resemblances. This idea of genre theory as based in family resemblances is not discussed in our textbook, but has a long tradition in Western philosophy—originally from Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), an Austrian-British philosopher known especially for his writings on language and aesthetics. If you’re interested in learning more about Wittgenstein and genre theory, this entry, from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a good place to start.