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

Genre is a category that is applied to a set of feature films. The task of a general theory of genre is to find conditions that have to be fulfilled for a feature film to be sorted into a particular category. Traditional approach to these conditions was to look for the common features that connect films that were felt to belong to the same genre, be it iconographic features, common events, or the same sequential formula. Though treated as a kind of stereotypes, firm and obligatory, these features proved to be empirically too varied, changeable, non-necessary in a particular genre film. However, variations in iconographic features, motives and formulas were felt as non-accidental.

They were mostly just different (»normal«, or just »probable«) aspects of the particular world presented (»imagined«) in the film. E.g. empty landscape with a lonely rider, mainly horse transportation, small and improvised towns, particular means of survival (farming, cattle breading, prospecting, hunting, trading, plundering...), lack of »law« over the vast regions of country, high probability of firearm conflict, etc. — these are all just different aspects of the same historical region — North American West (of the »same world«). Each individual Western film can thematize different aspects of the same world, using a different set of »iconographic« elements, different set of »typical actions« and different »sequences«, though still quite characteristic of this world. There is something deeply convincing in the idea that films of particular genre are presenting us with a specific type of (imagined) world, and that each individual film within genre is actually exploring different facets of the world, or different kinds of world. Thus, when we start watching a particular genre film, we are observationally »entering« into its world, trying to see what kind of a world it is, what aspects of that world are made prominent, and what are the specific life requirements in the presented aspects of the world etc. Each film in a genre is »elaborating« somewhat different facets of the world (e.g. Western), or elaborating somewhat different variety of world (e.g. SF, historical films) — and that gives to genre films a Chomskian-like feature of generativity.

Since we can imagine an immense number of world-varieties, the nontrivial question for this »worldmaking theory of genre« is: which worlds out of an immense number of imaginable worlds have a chance to become genre-generative? A possible answer is: those worlds that are more intriguing. More intriguing are, first and foremost, those imagined worlds that are more distanced (different) from our routine (default) beliefs about our »life-world« (such are, e.g., historical and fantastic worlds).

Secondly, more intriguing are those films that present an opposition (a clash) between a »normal« world and a deviant, alternative one. Such a clash is typically introduced by a story pattern (fabula): an assumed background world of normative »normality« is critically disturbed, and the disturbance points to a more general possibility of an alternatively ordered world, which threatens the »normal« one. The disturbance has a two-way thematization effect: it focuses the attention on the general alternative possibilities, and at the same time it foregrounds those background norms that were violated. This intensifies not only the informational value of both worlds, but it intensifies problem-solving orientation of viewers, together with their emotionally coloured viewing motivation.

The type of disturbance, judged by the nature of violated norm, is a powerful criterion for genre differentiation. E.g. narrative concentration on violation of »anti-criminal« norms of civil life is consequential in articulating crime films (these systematically present conflicts between a »normal world of civil security« and a »world of crime« which globally threatens the former).

Concentration on the appearance of biologically impossible creatures in horror films brings out the possibility of the two worlds in fatal clash: the world of common biological laws routinely validated in everyday life, and the »other world« where such laws are not valid any more, this other world governed by unknown, but human life threatening laws, etc. Since all this »world-production« and »world-multiplication« is taking place on the imaginative level, on a »world-representation« level (world modelling level), what is challenged are at the same time our routine »typification« procedures (Schutz) in dealing with our common world. Now, in some genres not only scenic events but also their visual/aural presentations (vistas) do the »violating job«: that is often the case with comedies (so called »sight gags« in distinction with »situational gags«; cf. the starting gag in Chaplin’s Immigrant, which is described by Arnheim in Film as Art). The manipulation of »visual perspective« on scenic events (diegetic world) through framing and editing is mostly such that it intensifies the intrigue of events themselves, and though not necessarily »specific« to particular genre, they are nevertheless justifiably taken as genre-constitutive because they contribute to the generically essential attitude-forming aspect of narrative world-making.

Of course, this account of imaginative generative basis for genre differentiation is not sufficient to explain existing genres: genres are social institutions, they are built not only through imaginative »power« of world-making film representations, but also by social-communicative life that surrounds them and factor them into a social phenomena. This aspect of »world-making theory of genre« has yet to be developed. However, one thing can be asserted with a conviction: there would be no social elaboration of »genre patterns« if they did not posses an initial imaginative power over the minds of film-viewers, regardless of whether this imaginative power was socially »utilized« (»generified«) or not.

Hrvoje Turkoviæ

Cinema and Genre

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