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Cinema and Genre

Borrowed from the French word meaning ’kind’ or ’type’ (and derived from the Latin word genus), the notion of genre has played an important role in the categorization and evaluation of movies. Though different classifications were present from the beginning, it was after the First World War, as cinema production became standardized, that genre terminology became increasingly specialized, and genre practice stabilized.

Genres are important to the understanding of all national cinema industries, although the Hollywood studio system has exercised worldwide hegemony over genre film production ever since the 1930s. Growth in genre film production is usually accompanied by a shift from content-based notions of genre-to-genre definitions based on repeated plot motifs, recurrent image patterns, standardized narrative configurations, and predictable reception conventions.

The notion of genre acquires different roles, but three of them must be recognized in particular: 1. Production: the generic concept provides a template for production decisions facilitating rapid delivery of quality film products; 2. Distribution: the generic concept offers a fundamental method of product differentiation and promotion — generic identification devices serve an important publicity function, a sort of mating call to the committed genre viewer; 3. Consumption: the generic concept describes standard patterns of spectator involvement — spectators take quite specific expectations to genre film viewing.

In the process of generic spectatorship, we can recognize the following elements: (a) Generic audience that is sufficiently familiar with the genre to participate in a fully genre-based viewing; (b) Generic rules and conventions, methods of film construction and interpretation consistent with generic norms; (c) Generic contract, i.e. implicit agreement between genre producers and genre consumers; (d) Generic tension, built into genre films, between the actualisation of generic norms and failure to respect those norms, often in favour of an alternative set of socially sanctioned norms; (e) Generic frustration, the emotion generated by film’s failure to fulfil generic norms.

All these features and their application are subject to historical change. It is useful to perceive genre as involving two separable types of coherence, semantic (sharing of common semantic features) and syntactic (regular deployment of similar method of making various semantic components cohere) that develop and dissipate at different rates and different times, but always in close coordination, and according to a standardized pattern.

Two general societal genre functions are suggested: ritual purpose, i.e. providing a repeated imaginary solution to the questions raised by society’s constitutive contradictions, and economic purpose, i.e. delivery of ideology in an especially economic form. Thus, a process of establishing a stable generic syntax involves a discovery of a common ground between the audience’s ritual values and the industry’s ideological commitments. Since genres do not pop out defined and formed, but rather undergo a slow process of semantic and syntactic coordination and standardization, they fade away according to recognizable historical patterns.

Typically, genres expose established syntactic solution to a questioning process that eventually dissolves syntactic bond, while often leaving semantic patterns in place. They eventually reduce film industry to a new kind of post-generic production, where syntactic genre films give way almost entirely to generic parodies, mixed-genre films, or attempts to forge a new syntax out of familiar semantic material.

Rick Altman

When Is a Film Generic? — A »Worldmaking« Theory of Genre

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