What Are Movie Genres?
A genre is a type, or category, and genre films are usually easily recognizable as part of a certain genre. This is because they tend to use familiar story formulas, character types, settings, and iconography (visual imagery with symbolic implications), all of which lead viewers to have certain expectations about what the movie will be like before actually watching it. For various reasons, which we shall note, genre films are prime candidates for analysis to reveal significance far deeper than the surface stories. Many genres also have a variety of related subgenres with more narrowly defined formulas and expectations. For example, any film in the horror genre can be expected to produce fear or anxiety in the viewer; some of the many subgenres of horror films include the vampire film, the zombie film, the monster movie, the mad doctor movie, the insane slasher-killer movie, and the psychological horror film, among others.
In Evil Dead II, a freewheeling horror film directed by Sam Raimi, Ash, the protagonist, played by Bruce Campbell, experiences some genuine terror, including (but not limited to) cutting off his own possessed hand with a chainsaw. Audiences and critics alike found it intense and scary. They also found it hilarious. How can a movie that includes the following exchange not be?
Ash (talking to mirror): I’m fine . . . I’m fine . . . (Mirror Ash jumps out of the mirror and grabs Ash.)
Mirror Ash: I don’t think so. We just cut up our girlfriend with a chainsaw. Does that sound “fine”?
Still from Little Big Man, picturing a standing man pointing a gun at a man on the ground.
Courtesy Everett Collection
Little Big Man is a revisionist western. It takes the genre’s conventions and reverses them. The Indians are the heroes and General Custer is the villain.
With its violence, gore, and shocks, there is no question that Evil Dead II, considered a cult classic, is a horror movie. With lines like the foregoing, there is also no debating that it’s a comedy. So is it a horror film or a comedy? Why can’t it be both? Evil Dead II is an example of a movie that crosses genres. The word “genre” comes from the Latin genus, which refers to birth, family, race, or class, and by extension to any sort of categorization. However, as we will see, there is much debate over just what the term genre implies and encompasses, or whether the definition really exists at all with movies.
There is little debate that American movie studios in particular often make use of the cultural shorthand that accompanies various genres—the western, the action-adventure film, the sex comedy—to market their films, and that audiences use it to decide what movies they want to see. In this chapter, we will examine various types of genres and examples of each—once we nail down that pesky definition. For example, is comedy a genre? Could drama be considered a genre? Is the epic generally thought to be a genre? Some people and video stores like to think so. But such categories as comedy, drama, and epic are broader than what the term genre typically refers to. There are western dramas, western comedies, western epics, western romances, western adventures, western mysteries, western crime melodramas, and more. Comedy and drama might more suitably be termed modes of storytelling that can be applied to any of the more specific genres. An epic is a story that is large in scale and scope (covering many years and numerous characters) and can be found within multiple genres.
What Else Do Genre Labels Mean?
A word first, however, about what a genre is not: It is not a preordained measure of quality, despite the way some film theorists and critics might dismiss a “genre” movie as too formulaic for serious dramatic analysis. If one wished to argue the point, one might include Citizen Kane, according to some critics the greatest movie ever made, in the genre category of newspaper movie. There it would find happy company with All the President’s Men and His Girl Friday. These, too, are considered by most critics among the greatest films in history. Yet they are also genre films, or films that fit neatly into a standard formula, in some regard. It is far too easy to dismiss a genre film out of hand. Certainly, there are enough by-the-numbers knock-offs of Die Hard and Lethal Weapon (including some of their own sequels) to give the action-adventure genre a bad name. Likewise with the horror genre, from the original Frankenstein and Dracula to Halloween, among others, and all their countless sequels and rip-offs. But there are also plenty of other entries in these categories, even many of the sequels and remakes, to prevent them from being looked down upon simply by definition.
So are genres important? Yes, they are extremely important, because they are, in varying degrees, how studios categorize the films they make—and how audiences categorize the films they want to see. Labeling a film with any given genre immediately creates certain expectations in viewers, making them more or less likely to want to see that film. This is behavior ingrained over more than a century of filmmaking. Genres also offer a convenient way to examine films—what makes them good, what makes them great (and what makes them fall short). Not only that, many genre films can be analyzed far beyond their surface formulas and stereotypes. As noted in Chapter 3’s section on “Metaphor and Allegory,” genre films can be the vehicle for contemporary social-political commentary disguised within the context of a popular plot formula. These may often be set in the distant past or future (such as westerns, historical war films, or science fiction) or may be present-day stories with familiar generic elements (like horror, action-adventure, disaster films, or romantic comedies). Even when intended primarily as escapist entertainment, genre films tend to treat any number of themes and issues that are topical, and whatever the genre, the films’ attitudes reflect common public sentiment and concerns at the time they’re created. Genres, in some respects, tell the story of movies and of the audiences that watch them.
The Impact of Genres on Audiences
Even though some films cross genres, and may even fit into three or four different genres, most can be filed into categories that are easily recognizable to audiences. This is important because, in addition to their artistic side, movies are a business as well. There is a segment of the audience that is, for instance, interested in any romantic comedy that is released. This type of interest extends to individual actors and actresses as well; for some, just knowing that Adam Sandler is starring in a movie is enough to justify the cost of a ticket. Sandler and other “personality actors” such as Charlie Chaplin, Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, or Sylvester Stallone have such a consistently recognizable screen character in similar plots that their names alone might almost be considered film genres, or at least subgenres.
Breaking films down into genres is far more than an academic exercise. It is a way of looking at movies—and a way that movies look at us, their audience. John Truby, founder of a studio that offers information and tools to screenwriters, is blunt when describing the importance of genre. He claims that the entire Hollywood entertainment industry is based upon the concepts of genre and formula, as it finds formulaic films more reliably profitable than the less predictable artistic visions, which tend to be valued more highly in other countries. He says:
Hollywood realized a long time ago that it is not in the business of selling original artistic vision (though it sometimes happens anyway). It is in the business of buying and selling story forms. Genres tell the audience up front what to expect from the product they are buying. If they like a particular kind of story, chances are they will like this particular film, especially if the writer and director give the expectations a little twist. (Truby, 2010)
Films like Evil Dead II and other films that combine two or more genres such as, say, Westworld or Cowboys and Aliens, provide that twist. And a film such as Snow White and the Huntsman expands its traditional fairy tale genre into a more elaborate medieval action-adventure. What’s interesting about this cross-pollination of genres is that it assumes knowledge on the part of the audience, who must recognize what is expected of the horror film and the comedy, the western and the science fiction, or the romantic fantasy and historical-action film, so that when such combinations are presented, there is no confusion. No shortcuts are needed. The audience, trained in genre over decades of immersing itself in it (knowingly or not), is comfortable with the mix.
However, some theorists debate even the existence of genres, believing the pool of categories is too muddied to the point that the definitions are fluid at best, meaningless at worst. New York University film professor and author Robert Stam writes,
While some genres are based on story content (the war film), others are borrowed from literature (comedy, melodrama) or from other media (the musical). Some are performer-based (the Astaire-Rogers films) or budget-based (blockbusters), while others are based on artistic status (the art film), racial identity (Black cinema), location (the Western) or sexual orientation (Queer cinema). (Stam, 2000)
Stam makes a good point, but his designations could also easily fall into the category of subgenres, or genres within genres. One could break things down even further, but eventually such division becomes distracting and pointless. The fact remains that people tend to like convenient categories for things, and that’s exactly what genres are, even if the criteria for defining different genres may be unrelated and many films blend several genres.
Instead of focusing on theoretical debates that may surround the categorization of genres in film, it is far easier, and also more instructive, to simply divide genres into more traditional categories. While doing this, it is important to recognize that there is plenty of crossover between them, and many of them may contain subcategories within them. A look at some of the major genres (see Table 4.1) will also reveal much about how the making of movies has evolved over the last century, even as the genres have stayed largely the same. Entire books could be (and have been) devoted to film genre in general and to individual genres themselves, examining specific visual tropes or iconography, character types, and plot conventions, as well as variations and subversions of genre expectations explored by certain films. We can’t possibly go into the same detailed analysis here, but in the next three sections, we will briefly discuss the most popular and lasting film genres. Students intrigued by the topic of genres (or who may be fans of specific genres) are certainly encouraged to seek out any number of more thorough genre studies for deeper analysis and insight into the wealth of information and meaning communicated by “genre films.”
Table 4.1 Film genres
Westerns Films set in the American West, usually between 1850 and 1900, and typically depicting the settling of the frontier, with its conflicts between the freedoms of a lawless adventurism and the safer restrictions of encroaching civilization; often allegories for modern issues Hell’s Hinges, The Covered Wagon, The Big Trail, Stagecoach, Jesse James, Dodge City, High Noon, The Searchers, Rio Bravo, The Magnificent Seven, A Fistful of Dollars, The Wild Bunch, Little Big Man, The Shootist, Blazing Saddles, Dances With Wolves, Unforgiven, Brokeback Mountain, Terribly Happy, Appaloosa, 3:10 to Yuma, Django Unchained
Gangster Films that deal with organized crime, often with mob families; originally timely topical crime dramas inspired by recent headlines, now almost as often nostalgic recreations of past eras The Racket, The Lights of New York, The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, Scarface, The Godfather trilogy, Goodfellas, Miller’s Crossing, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Gomorrah, A History of Violence
Mysteries Films in which characters must solve a mystery (typically a murder); may overlap with crime, horror, noir, or various other genres The Cat and the Canary, The Maltese Falcon, Philo Vance series, The Thin Man series, Charlie Chan series, Mr. Moto series, The Lady Vanishes, The Trouble With Harry, North by Northwest
Film noir Crime drama marked by dark themes, a cynical outlook, anti-heroes, often with a scheming femme fatale, nighttime actions, expressionistic visual style, and voice-over narration Double Indemnity, The Killers, The Big Sleep, Murder My Sweet, Lady in the Lake, Affair in Trinidad, Out of the Past, The Big Heat, Touch of Evil, Chinatown, Body Heat, Last Man Standing, Red Rock West, U-Turn, Payback, Sin City
Horror Films designed to elicit fear and shock in a cathartically entertaining manner; often the next step beyond a suspense-thriller, fantasy, or science-fiction film with horror elements Dracula, Mystery of the Wax Museum, Doctor X, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, The Seventh Victim, Psycho, Paranoiac, Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining, Halloween, The Evil Dead, The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, Saw, Deadline, Let Me In, Insidious, The Woman in Black
Fantasy Any film with obviously unreal, magical, or impossible situations, characters, or settings, often overlapping with various other genres, especially science fiction, but sometimes historical dramas The Lost World, King Kong, The Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, Jason and the Argonauts, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, What Dreams May Come, Night at the Museum, Enchanted, Stranger Than Fiction, Inkheart, Up, Iron Man, Inglourious Basterds, Watchmen, the Harry Potter series
Science fiction Films dealing with realistically reasoned speculation about future events or scientific theories, often set in outer space or alternative realities or dealing with time travel Metropolis, Woman in the Moon, Just Imagine, Frankenstein, Things to Come, The Thing From Another World, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Godzilla, Mothra, Forbidden Planet, Them!, The Time Machine, First Men in the Moon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, Star Wars, Alien, Back to the Future, The Matrix, Moon, District 9, Avatar, Super 8, Prometheus
Romantic comedy Light-hearted, humorous story involving people in love, sometimes overlapping with subgenres such as screwball comedy, teen comedy, or gross-out comedy Young Romance, City Lights, Bringing Up Baby, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally, While You Were Sleeping, Knocked Up, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, The 40-Year-Old-Virgin, Juno, To Rome With Love, Much Ado About Nothing
Musicals Films that focus on songs as a major element, whether sung by characters in a realistic context such as a nightclub, or sung in lieu of dialogue to further the plot and express emotions; there are also musical documentaries and concert films The Jazz Singer, Broadway Melody, The King of Jazz, 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, Top Hat, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Meet Me in St. Louis, Easter Parade, An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, South Pacific, Gigi, West Side Story, Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, Woodstock, Cabaret, The Little Mermaid, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Chicago, Sweeney Todd, Across the Universe, Hairspray, Dreamgirls, Mamma Mia!, Les Miserables
4.2 Westerns, Gangster Films, Mysteries, and Film Noir
The popularity of westerns and crime dramas—which include gangster and mystery films—dates back to the early days of film. While arguably formulaic, their often-traditional presentations of the world as a conflict between good and evil continue to resonate with silver-screen audiences.
At its simplest, a western is a man and his horse, taking on the struggles of nature and his fellow man. The American Film Institute (AFI) defines it more fully as “a genre of films set in the American West that embodies the spirit, the struggle, and the demise of the new frontier” (AFI, 2008). Usually, westerns are set in a time period between the mid-1800s and the early 1900s, but there are a few westerns set in modern times. Film writer Tim Dirks goes so far as to call the western “the major defining genre of the American film industry, a nostalgic eulogy to the early days of the expansive, untamed American frontier (the borderline between civilization and the wilderness). They are one of the oldest, most enduring and flexible genres and one of the most characteristically American genres in their mythic origins” (Dirks, 2010b).
Still from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, showing two men in the street at night, after a gun duel.
Courtesy Everett Collection
Scene from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In this late John Ford western (1962), the director telegraphs his awareness of the way in which westerns have shaped our views. “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”—Journalist speaking to the man who shot Liberty Valance.
Studios have been making westerns since the inception of filmmaking, when oaters, or cheap, quick westerns, were churned out in large numbers. An immensely popular genre ever since The Great Train Robbery in 1903, westerns have nevertheless risen and fallen in popularity, especially major studio efforts at the genre. Low-budget formula westerns always had their audience. However, “prestige” westerns with major stars became popular with The Covered Wagon, a 1923 epic of pioneer settlers, and disappeared after the failure of the similar 1930 sound film The Big Trail. In 1939, the success of Stagecoach, Jesse James, Dodge City, and others once more revived serious westerns for the next few decades.
Another factor that likely affected the popularity of westerns was public sentiment about the treatment of Native Americans in films. In numerous sound-era westerns, Native Americans were typically depicted as evil savages. Because of this, traditional “cowboy and Indian” westerns had largely faded by the late 1960s, as society’s thoughts on this topic matured. By the time of Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves (1990), Native Americans would be depicted as enlightened and wise; the U.S. military was instead shown as savage in its behavior and treatment of native people. This characterization continues in westerns today, although in 2013 there was some controversy over having non-Native American actor Johnny Depp play the character of Tonto in Gore Verbinski’s revisionist version of The Lone Ranger. It is important to note that although westerns (and other films) may be set in the distant past (or future), the films themselves often closely reflect social attitudes, issues, and concerns dominating public thought at the time they were created instead of the time period they depict.
Typical westerns deal with maintaining law and order on the frontier, and their conflict derives from easily defined opposites of good vs. evil. Remember our discussion in the last chapter of white and black symbolism used to tell the audience which side is good and which side is evil? That is very common in westerns. There are lawmen vs. bandits and gunslingers, settlers vs. Native Americans, legal procedure vs. vigilantism, upstanding law-abiding settlers vs. saloon prostitutes and gamblers, refined and civilized Easterners vs. crude and wild Westerners, and many more. In westerns, as in many films, the hero and the villain may often be parallel opposites, two sides of the same coin, so to speak, and representative of the conflicting tendencies within any individual. It may well be the usually clear depiction of good and evil that caused this distinctly American genre to become very popular overseas, resulting in numerous westerns being produced in Italy, Spain, and Germany at the same time the genre was fading from American screens during the 1960s–70s. Some of these, such as A Fistful of Dollars and Once Upon a Time in the West, even found popularity in the United States. The western formula has become so ingrained in moviegoers that it is frequently used for non-westerns, especially modern crime stories (with a detective replacing the sheriff or marshal), and genres from the samurai film to science fiction. The following films are a few examples of the genre.
Golden Saddles, Silver Spurs: The Western Movie
Western movies were based on dime novels, such as those by Zane Grey. Thomas Edison was the first to use his new motion picture technology to channel the Western myth.
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Critical Thinking Questions
1.What was seen as the literary origin of Western films?
2.How do Western films capitalize on what this textbook has described as a “black and white symbolism” formula?
My Darling Clementine (1946)
Director John Ford’s iconic westerns include Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande, and The Searchers, in addition to this classic retelling of the shootout at the OK Corral. Obviously, My Darling Clementine contains many of the classic elements of the western—good vs. evil, taming the wild western town, standing bravely against danger and despair. What makes the film something more than just another genre film is what all this represents, and how Ford brings it to bear. The Earps represent the coming civilization that would eventually overtake the lawless frontier. The Clantons are the last, ugly end of an era. Their livelihood depends on absolute control, so that nothing stands in the way of their evil plans. This theme plays out in countless other westerns, and in television series such as Deadwood, which was even more specific in its representation of the coming law, order, and civilization. But Ford’s film, aided by the performances of Henry Fonda and Walter Brennan, is the definitive expression of the change that occurred in the United States by the early 20th century, when what was once a wilderness in the United States started to turn into the civilization we know today.
The Shootist (1976)
The western has produced many stars, from William S. Hart and Tom Mix in the silent days to Henry Fonda, James Stewart, and Clint Eastwood. But no actor is identified with the genre as strongly as John Wayne. Though hardly a cowboy in real life, Wayne played one in numerous films, notably Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956). The Shootist is a film that depends heavily on the audience’s familiarity with Wayne’s career—so much so that it begins with scenes from his earlier westerns.
In this film, Wayne plays J. B. Books, a legendary gunfighter—a “shootist”—dying of cancer. The West is changing, as well; it is becoming more civilized. The shootist is something of a throwback, especially to the widow who rents him a room, but her son idolizes him. Enemies arrive in town with scores to settle with the famous gunman. Knowing that he is dying, Books arranges for one final shootout, which will end in violence, death, and betrayal. What places The Shootist beyond routine genre pictures is how Wayne and director Don Siegel so eagerly play upon the audience’s knowledge of and love for Wayne’s career. In this respect, it could be considered a meta-western, in that it is self-referential (actor Jimmy Stewart also shows up as the grumpy doctor who gives the fatal diagnosis, providing another link to westerns from days gone by, particularly The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which starred both actors and had similar themes). We enjoy it more because we know that Wayne—in his last role—is playing a sort of compilation of many of his previous characters, a sort of actor’s greatest hits. It is indeed a western, but it’s more than that—it’s a statement on stardom, as well.
A History of Violence (2005) and Terribly Happy (2008)
Still from Terribly Happy, showing two men engaged in a drinking duel.
©Oscilloscope Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection
Terribly Happy, a story set in peaceful Denmark, replaces the western shoot-out with a drinking bout. In genre terms, the dramatic question is identical: “Who is the first to go down?”
These films, at first glance, are not westerns at all. They’re set in modern small towns, the second in Denmark. The characters don’t ride horses; they drive cars. The former film might better fall into the gangster genre, the latter into the crime thriller genre. However, the ways in which directors David Cronenberg and Henrik Ruben Genz construct the films conform very much to the western genre. In A History of Violence, a former mob hit man has settled in a small town to start a new life and raise a family. Viggo Mortensen stars as Tom, who has become a peaceful, respected citizen running a café with no one suspecting his past. When he instinctively intervenes in a robbery and kills the criminals, media coverage of his heroic deed alerts the mob he’s abandoned, which eventually leads to a showdown. The plot has similarities to the classic western Shane (1953), which has a weary former gunfighter trying to live peacefully among some settlers until a ruthless cattle baron hires a gunslinger to drive them off their land. In Terribly Happy, Jakob Cedergren stars as Robert, the new town marshal of a dismal little place lorded over by the town bully, Jorgen (Kim Bodnia). The townspeople know that Jorgen is a vile person, but they cower in his presence and do nothing to stop him. Robert alone is willing to stand up to Jorgen, though instead of a gunfight, the two stage an epic drinking competition.
If we step back, we see all of the elements of the classic western here—the lone ex-gunfighter or lawman arrives in a remote place controlled by an evil, powerful character. No one else will stand up against him, so the brave symbol of righteousness will have to handle things himself. It shows just how flexible the form can be, for the western, like any genre film, can branch out beyond its traditional trappings while remaining true to the spirit of the genre. With several notable exceptions, the once-ubiquitous movie western may have virtually disappeared from modern cinema, but most of its formulas have simply been transferred to other, more contemporary genres, especially the gangster and crime thriller.