Traditionally, the word "myth" refers to a society's shared stories, usually involving Gods and mythic heroes, that explain the nature of the universe and the relation of the individual to it. Such mythic narratives embody and express a society's rituals, institutions, and values. In the twentieth century, genre films, with their repetitions and variations of a few basic plots, were our mass-mediated mythic tales. Comparable to myths, genre movies may be understood as secular stories that seek to address and sometimes seemingly resolve our problems and dilemmas, some specifically historical and others more deeply rooted in our collective psyches. Structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908) claimed that all cultural myths are structured according to binary pairs of opposite terms. This approach is inviting for the analysis of genre films, which tend to work by reducing complex conflicts to the equivalent of black hats versus white hats. In his influential 1970 study of the western, Horizons West , Jim Kitses maps out a series of clear binary oppositions that are all variations of the conflict between wilderness and civilization.
Genre movies are always about the time in which they are made, not set, for entertainment inevitably contains, reflects, and promulgates ideology. It is in this sense of entertainment as ideology that Roland Barthes (1915–1980) conceives of myth. For Barthes, cultural myths endorse the dominant values of the society that produces them as right and natural, while marginalizing and delegitimizing others. In genre movies, as Barthes says of cultural myth generally, the Other becomes monstrous, as in horror films, or exoticized, as in adventure films. In westerns, for example, Indians are either demonized as heathen savages or romanticized as noble savages, but they are rarely treated as rounded characters with their own culture.
From this perspective, genre movies tend to be read as ritualized endorsements of dominant ideology. So the western is not really about a specific period in American history, but the story of Manifest Destiny and the "winning" of the West. The genre thus offers a series of mythic endorsements of American individualism, colonialism, and racism, as well as a justification of westward expansion. The civilization that is advancing into the "wilderness" (itself a mythic term suggesting that no culture existed there until Anglo-American society) is always bourgeois white American society. Similarly, the monstrous Other in horror films tends to be anything that threatens the status quo, while the musical and romantic comedy celebrate heteronormative values through their valorization of the romantic couple.
Still, the complex relation of genre movies to ideology is a matter of debate. On the one hand, genre films are mass-produced fantasies of a culture industry that manipulate us into a false consciousness. From this perspective, their reliance on convention and simplistic plots distract us from awareness of the actual social problems in the real world. Yet it is also true that the existence of highly conventional forms allows for the subtle play of irony, parody, and appropriation. Popular culture does tend to adhere to dominant ideology, although this is not always the case. Many horror films, melodramas, and film noirs, among others, have been shown to question if not subvert accepted values. Pam Cook takes a similar view of B movies and exploitation films, arguing that their production values, less sophisticated than those of mainstream Hollywood movies, are more readily perceived by viewers as representations.
Genre movies take such social debates and tensions and cast them into formulaic narratives, condensing them into dramatic conflicts between individual characters and society or heroes and villains. Thomas Schatz observes that "All film genres treat some form of threat—violent or otherwise—to the social order" (Schatz, p. 26). The gangster, the monster, the heroine of screwball comedy all threaten normative society in different ways. Some genre theorists argue that the overriding theme of genre films is some version of the individual in conflict with society, and that this tension represents the ongoing negotiation we all make between desire and restraint (what Freud called "civilization and its discontents"). The extent to which a genre film achieves narrative closure is an important factor in reading its political implications. Closure, usually in the form of an upbeat or happy ending, is—like all conventions—artificial, since life, unlike such stories, continues. For this reason, a lack of closure, suggesting that the lives of the characters carry on after the film ends, is associated more with realist films like La Grande illusion ( Grand Illusion , 1937) and Ladri di biciclette ( Bicycle Thieves , 1948) than with genre movies. Because films with closure leave the viewer with no unanswered questions about the fate of the major characters or the consequences of their actions, they are viewed as providing tidy but unrealistic solutions to real problems. Yet while closure may be provided by a film, it can be ironic, thus undercutting its own pretense at resolution, as some have argued about the psychiatrist's explanation for Norman as an aberrant "case" at the end of Psycho (1960).
Genres are neither static nor fixed; they undergo change over time, each new film and cycle adding to the tradition and modifying it. Some critics describe these changes as evolution, others as development, but both terms carry evaluative connotations. Some genre critics accept a general pattern of change that moves from some early formative stage through a classical period of archetypal expression to a more intellectual phase in which conventions are examined and questioned rather than merely presented, and finally to an ironic, self-conscious mode typically expressed by parody. However, generic phases do not fall into convenient chronological and progressive periods, but often overlap significantly. For some, the western evolved from the supposed classicism of Stagecoach to the end of the intellectual trail with The Wild Bunch just thirty years later and then to Brooks's Blazing Saddles (1974), marking the end of the classic western and the beginning of the parody or baroque phase. But the western was already parodied even before this intellectual period in such films as Buster Keaton's Go West (1925), Destry Rides Again (1932, 1939), and the Marx Brothers's Go West (1940). Tag Gallagher argues that there is no evidence that film genres evolve toward greater embellishment and elaboration; he cites, for example, the scene in Rio Bravo where a wounded villain's hiding place on the upper floor of the saloon is revealed by blood dripping down, but he points out that the same device was used by John Ford in The Scarlet Drop (1918) decades earlier and even then dismissed by critics as "old hat." Gallagher insists instead that even "a superficial glance at film history suggests cyclicism rather than evolution" (Gallagher in Grant, Film Genre Reader III , pp. 266–268).
In the 1970s, as Cawelti notes, there were particularly profound changes in American genre movies. Aware of themselves as myth, genre movies of the period responded in four ways: humorous burlesque, nostalgia, demythologization, and reaffirmation. This development was the result in part of the demise of the Hays Office in 1967 and the continuing breakup of the traditional studio system, allowing directors greater freedom in a more disillusioned and cynical era. Films like Francis Ford Coppola's (b. 1939) The Godfather (1972) and Apocalypse Now (1979); Martin Scorsese's (b. 1942) Mean Streets (1973) and New York, New York (1977); Robert Altman's (b. 1925) McCabe and Mrs. Miller , The Long Goodbye (1973), and Nashville (1975); and Brian de Palma's (b. 1940) Sisters (1973), Phantom of the Paradise (1974), and Obsession (1976) were genre movies by directors who had grown up watching genre movies on television and studying them in academic film programs. With a more contemporary sensibility, these filmmakers inevitably made genre films that were burdened by an awareness of generic myth. For Cawelti, the changes in the period's genre films were so profound that he wondered whether the traditional film genres had exhausted themselves and hypothesized that "the cultural myths they once embodied are no longer fully adequate to the imaginative needs of our time" (Cawelti in Grant, Film Genre Reader III , p. 260).