ELEMENTS OF GENRE
Fundamental to defining any genre is the question of corpus, of what films in fact constitute its history. In Theories of Film (1974), Andrew Tudor identifies a major problem of genre definition, which he terms "the empiricist dilemma," whereby a group of films are preselected for generic analysis to determine their common elements, although their common elements should be identified only after they have been analyzed. Tudor's pragmatic solution to this problem of definition is to rely on what he calls a "common cultural consensus," that is, to analyze works that almost everyone would agree belong to a particular genre and generalize out from there. This method is acceptable, he concludes, because "Genre is what we collectively believe it to be" (p. 139).
Nevertheless, while various genres have been established by common cultural consensus, a further problem is that different genres are designated according to different criteria. Such genres as the crime film, science fiction, and the western are defined by setting and narrative content. However, horror, pornography, and comedy are defined or conceived around the intended emotional affect of the film upon the viewer. Linda Williams has referred to horror, melodrama, and pornography as "body genres" because of the strong physical response—fear, tears, and sexual arousal, respectively—elicited by each. The extent to which films of these genres produce the intended response in viewers is commonly used as a determining factor in judging how good they are. Ultimately, whatever criteria one uses to establish a genre should allow for a productive discussion of the stylistic and thematic similarities among a group of films, and definitions should be flexible enough to allow for change.
In any art form or medium, conventions are frequently used stylistic techniques or narrative devices typical of (but not necessarily unique to) particular generic traditions. Bits of dialogue, musical figures, or styles and patterns of mise-en-scène are all aspects of movies that, repeated from film to film within a genre, become established as conventions. Conventions function as an implied agreement between makers and consumers to accept certain artificialities in specific contexts. In musicals the narrative halts for the production numbers, wherein characters break into song and dance; often the characters perform for the camera (rather than for an audience within the film) and are accompanied by off-screen music that seems suddenly to materialize from nowhere. Conventions also include aspects of style associated with particular genres. For example, melodrama is characterized by an excessively stylized mise-en-scène , while film noir commonly employs low-key lighting. Mainstream cinema also features numerous aural conventions on the soundtrack involving dialogue, music, and sound effects. Film scoring in all genres typically features Wagnerian leitmotifs associated with particular characters or places and is commonly used to enhance a desired emotional effect in support of the story. Different types of musical accompaniment are conventional in particular genres: sweeping strings are often used in romantic melodramas, for example, while electronic music or the there min is used in science fiction for its futuristic connotations.
The familiarity of conventions allows both for parody and subversive potential. Parody is possible only when conventions are known to audiences. Much of the humor of Mel Brooks's (b. 1926) parodies depends upon viewers being familiar with specific genre films. In Young Frankenstein (1974), for example, when the monster and the little girl he meets have tossed all their flowers in the lake and she innocently asks what to throw in now, the monster looks at the camera, as if to ask the viewer to remember that in the original Frankenstein (1931) he stupidly drowned the girl, thinking she too would float. As well, conventions also can be used by filmmakers for disturbing purposes precisely because viewers expect them. George Romero (b. 1940) undermines numerous conventions of the classic horror film in Night of the Living Dead (1968), which is one of the main reasons the film had such a powerful effect on audiences when first released.
The setting, the space and time when and where a film's story takes place, is more a defining quality of some genres than of others. Musicals, for instance, can take place anywhere, from the actual docks and streets of New York City in On the Town (1949) and West Side Story (1961) to the supernatural village in Brigadoon (1954). Romantic comedies and dramas, like some science fiction, may span different eras, as in Somewhere in Time (1980) and Kate and Leopold (2001). Horror movies often use isolated and rural settings and old dark houses with mysterious basements for psychological effect, but films such as Rosemary's Baby (1968) and Dark Water (2005) work by violating convention and setting their stories in contemporary and familiar locales rather than in exoticized foreign spaces like Transylvania. By contrast, the western by definition is temporally restricted to the period of the Wild West (approximately from 1865 to 1890) and geographically to the American frontier (broadly, between the Mississippi River and the west coast). Movies that change this setting to the present, such as Lonely are the Brave (1962) and Hud (1963) or "easterns" like Drums along the Mohawk (1939) and The Last of the Mohicans (1936, 1992), are considered exceptions to the norm; they are westerns for some viewers but not for others. Yet movies such as Coogan's Bluff (1968) and Crocodile Dundee II (1988), which import elements of the western into the contemporary urban East, are generally not thought of as westerns.
Character types are also important to genre films. Discussing characters in literature, novelist E. M. Forster distinguished two kinds of fictional characters: flat and round. Flat characters, which also may be "types" or "caricatures," are built around one idea or quality; it is only as other attributes (that is, "depth") are added that characters begin "to curve toward the round" ( Aspects of the Novel , p. 67). In genre movies, characters are more often recognizable types rather than psychologically complex characters, as with black hats and white hats in the western, although they can be rounded as well. The femme fatale is a conventional character in film noir, like the comic sidekick, the schoolmarm, and the gunfighter in the western. Ethnic characters are often stereotyped as flat characters in genre movies: the Italian mobster, the black drug dealer, the Arab terrorist, the cross-section of soldiers in the war film's platoon. Flat characters are usually considered a failure in works that aspire to originality, but in genre works, flat characters are not necessarily a flaw because of their shorthand efficiency. In genre movies, character types often provide similar kinds of actions and purposes within the story.
EDWARD G. ROBINSON
b. Emmanuel Goldenberg, Bucharest, Romania, 12 December 1893, d. 26
Of short stature and lacking the conventional handsome look of leading men, Edward G. Robinson nevertheless was one of the great male stars of the studio era. Along with James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, he defined Hollywood's image of the tough guy for Depression-era audiences. Beginning his acting career in the theater, Robinson made his film debut in 1923 at age thirty in The Bright Shawl (1923). He became famous in 1931 in the archetypal gangster film Little Caesar , portraying the criminal Enrico Caesar Bandello, a hoodlum who rises to the top and then makes his inevitable fall.
With the success of Little Caesar , Robinson went on to play a string of criminal characters in a series of Warner Bros. films through the 1930s. Robinson sought to escape genre typecasting and expand his range, playing such roles as the title character in the biopic Dr. Erlich's Magic Bullet (1940), about the nineteenth-century scientist who developed a cure for syphilis, and the steadfast and paternal insurance agent Barton Keyes in the classic film noir, Double Indemnity (1944). However, a number of these subsequent roles clearly depended on Robinson's established gangster persona, such as the gruff ship's captain Larson in the adventure film The Sea Wolf (1941) and the cruel Dathan in The Ten Commandments (1956).
In John Ford's The Whole Town's Talking (1935), Robinson played a dual role as a gangster boss and a meek, law-abiding citizen, at once providing the pleasure of his established image as a criminal and exploiting his star appeal by making him a sympathetic protagonist with whom the audience could comfortably identify. Similarly, in Fritz Lang's masterful film noir Scarlet Street (1945), Robinson plays a mild-mannered clerk and henpecked husband who is driven to robbery, adultery, and finally murder. The film periodically references Robinson's gangster persona, as in the opening dinner party scene, which initially looks like a similar scene in Little Caesar ; but it then reveals his character, Christopher Cross, as a shy and repressed cashier who handles other people's money. Only later does he become a criminal, ironically making the initial mistaken impression, based on genre expectations, in fact true.
In the 1950s Robinson experienced a difficult divorce that forced him to sell much of his prized art collection. He was also called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee but was ultimately exonerated of Communist Party affiliation. Despite these troubles, he continued to make credible crime dramas throughout the decade. His subsequent career was irregular, but his final appearance in the science-fiction film Soylent Green (1973) allowed him to die onscreen in a fitting finale to one of Hollywood's most distinguished careers.
Little Caesar (1931), The Whole Town's Talking (1935), Bullets or Ballots (1936), Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), Brother Orchid (1940), The Sea Wolf (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), The Woman in the Window (1945), Scarlet Street (1945), Key Largo (1948), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), Soylent Green (1973)
Beck, Robert S. The Edward G. Robinson Encyclopedia . Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002.
Gansberg, Alan L. Little Caesar: An Autobiography of Edward G. Robinson . London: New English Library, 1983.
Hirsch, Foster. Edward G. Robinson . New York: Pyramid Books, 1975.
Parish, James Robert, and Alvin H. Marill. The Cinema of Edward G. Robinson . South Brunswick, NJ: A. S. Barnes, 1972.
Robinson, Edward G. All My Yesterdays: An Autobiography . New York: Hawthorn Books, 1973.
Barry Keith Grant
Of course, characters are embodied by actors, all of whom have distinct physical characteristics. The hardboiled detective, Philip Marlowe, is different as played by Dick Powell ( Murder, My Sweet , 1944), Humphrey Bogart ( The Big Sleep , 1946), or Elliott Gould ( The Long Goodbye , 1973). Some actors (for example, Paul Muni [1895–1967], Gary Oldman [b. 1958], and Johnny Depp [b. 1963]) are known for chameleon-like performances, but many, whether they are featured stars or supporting actors, often play variations of a type. For
this reason, they are often cast in similar films within the same genre and become associated with it. Fred Astaire (1899–1987) is always thought of in relation to the musical, Cary Grant (1904–1986) with screwball comedy, and of course John Wayne (1907–1979) with the western, even though all these actors also appeared in other kinds of films. Clint Eastwood's (b. 1930) strong association with the western lent such subsequent non-western roles as the tough detective Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry (1971) and its sequels added mythic depth.
Character actors contribute to the look of particular genres, populating the worlds of genre movies and becoming part of their iconography. Often they are known to viewers as vaguely familiar faces rather than by name. Richard Jaeckel (1926–1997), Jack Elam (1918–2003), Chill Wills (1903–1978), Paul Fix (1901–1983), and Slim Pickens (1919–1983) all appeared in countless westerns, so when they are in the same cast and many of them die in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah, 1973), the film may be read as being as much about the death of the genre as it is a story about particular characters. Stars and genres reinforce each other, some actors offering definitive performances that forever associate them with a particular role and genre, as was the case with Bela Lugosi's (1882–1956) portrayal of Dracula. Actors who succeed at playing a certain generic type are often trapped by such roles, fated to be typecast as similar characters. On the other hand, while Dick Powell (1904–1963) began as a romantic (juvenile) lead in several Warner Bros. musicals in the early 1930s, he managed to reshape his image entirely in the following decade, playing a tough guy in such noirs as Murder, My Sweet , Cornered (1945) and Pitfall (1948).
Because actors may become typecast, they can be cast in genre movies against type, as in the case of William Holden (1918–1981) playing the leader of The Wild Bunch (1969) or Tom Cruise (b. 1962) as a hit man in Collateral (2004). In the famous opening of C'era una volta il West ( Once Upon a Time in the West , Sergio Leone, 1968), a Mexican family enjoying a pleasant picnic meal in front of its hacienda is suddenly and brutally gunned down by unseen assailants. In a long take, the killers ride in from the distance, and eventually we are able to discern that the leader is a grim-faced, blue-eyed Henry Fonda (1905–1982)—the same soft-spoken face that was Abraham Lincoln in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940). The moment has a greater emotional impact than it would if the actor had been a familiar Hollywood heavy.
Conventions, settings, and characters are part of a genre's iconography. Icons are second-order symbols, in that their symbolic meaning is not necessarily a connection established within the individual text, but is already symbolic because of their use across a number of similar previous texts. Ed Buscombe concentrates on the iconography of the western in drawing a distinction between a film's inner and outer forms. For Buscombe, inner form refers to a film's themes, while outer form refers to the various objects that are to be found repeatedly in genre movies—in the western, for example, horses, wagons, buildings, clothes, and weapons. The cowboy who dresses all in black and wears two guns, holster tied to either thigh, is invariably a villainous gunfighter. Just as religious icons are always already infused with symbolic meaning, so is the iconography of genre films. In a horror film, when the hero wards off the vampire with a crucifix, religious iconography works in support of film iconography: symbolically, such scenes suggest that the traditional values embodied in Christianity (and, by extension, western culture generally) are stronger than and will defeat whatever threatening values are assigned to the monster in any given vampire film.
Of course, while the icons of genre films may have culturally determined meanings, the interpretation or value attached to them is hardly fixed. Rather, the particulars of their representation in each genre film marks the relation of outer form to inner form and are indicators of the film's attitude and theme. Although a crucifix in a horror film is an icon of Christianity and dominant ideology, the film itself may either critique or endorse that ideology. In the western, the town always represents civilization, but every film will have a different view of that civilization. The town in, say, The Gunfighter (1950) has children and domestic spaces, representing the familial stability that the aging gunman can only long for, while in McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), the town springs up around a muddy, makeshift brothel, suggesting that base desire is at the core of civilization.
Finally, spectators are a crucial element of genre movies, for they address viewers in a particular way. Almost from the beginning, movies have been promoted in the media primarily through their generic affiliations. They signal to prospective viewers the type of story as well as the kind of pleasure they are likely to offer and assist them in choosing which movies or which kind of movie to see. Fans of particular genres comprise communities of readers: fans of horror films, for example, form a distinct subculture, with their own fanzines, memorabilia, websites, and discussion lists. Genre films work by engaging viewers through an implicit contract, encouraging certain expectations on the part of spectators, which are in turn based on viewer familiarity with the conventions. As Robert Warshow observes, the familiarity of viewers with generic convention creates "its own field of reference." In other words, familiarity with a generic field of reference allows spectators to enjoy variations, however slight, in a given film. The act of reading genre films implies active readers who bring their generic knowledge to bear in watching movies. A postmodern horror pastiche like Scream (1996) depends upon its viewers being generically literate.