Frequently, people choose to go to the movies to see a certain type of film. Popular genres include: action; comedy; western; science-fiction; horror, and; musical. Genres are used by industry officials in deciding what kinds of films to make and as a simple way to characterize film by type. It is usual for there to be a link between popular national cinemas and genre.
Defining a Genre
It is rather difficult to define a particular genre. Some genres are determined by their subject or theme, for example: Westerns involve frontier conflict; science-fiction films involve technology beyond our current means; gangster films involve depictions of large-scale urban crime. Other genres are determined by their manner of presentation: for example, musicals are presented by way of singing and dancing. Still other genres depend upon a particular plot pattern, such as the investigation of a murder (detective genre), while some are determined by the emotion they evoke: fear (horror); laughter (comedy); Tension (thriller). Moreover, many films do not fit into just one genre category because they contain elements of many different genres (e.g. Alien – sci-fi/ horror).
Analysing a Genre
Genre can be analyzed in terms of the genre conventions – some type of common identity which reappears in film after film. Genre conventions include: plot elements (investigation – detective); specific types of characters (hardball sergeant major – war); themes (love will conquer all – romance); techniques (rapid editing – action). Different genres also involve their own specific iconography, for example: tommy gun (gangster); Samurai sword (martial arts); John Wayne (Westerns). As well as following conventions, films can revise or reject genre conventions. Although audiences expect something familiar from genre films they also demand fresh variations.
Genre conventions can change over time; by mixing conventions from different genres, filmmakers create new possibilities from time to time. The mixing of genre conventions makes it possible for genres to borrow elements from one another. Though each genre is formulaic to a certain extent, they must constantly be evolving, as they generally don’t remain successful for very long. Rather, they experience periods of popularity called cycles: such cycles usually begin with the purest examples of the genre and end with self-referential films.
The Social functions of Genres
Often, genres provide a basis for social analysis. By exploiting social values and attitudes, genre harmonizes with public attitudes. Thus they may uphold values, such as: heroism should be rewarded; romantic love is desirable; evil will be punished, etc. This may actually serve to distract us from real social issues. Genres often reflect the attitudes and values of the society in which they are produced (e.g. 1950s sci-fi). However, reflectionist approaches are sometimes rejected as oversimplistic. Sometimes, they also rely on their conventions to make larger social commentary and challenge prevalent beliefs and assumptions (e.g. Brokeback Mountain).
The Western is categorized by the conflict between civilized order and the lawless frontier. Complete with stock characters and stock scenarios, Westerns emerged early in the history of cinema. The change in attitudes towards the ‘civilised settlers’ and ‘savage natives’ shows how genre conventions can change. Contemporary Westerns often deal more with emotional turmoil than with external conflict.
Horror films are usually determined by the response they look to evoke. Because a horror film can create its emotional impact with make-up and other low-technology effects, the horror genre has long been favored by low-budget filmmakers. Horror films usually evoke their desired emotional action by providing an agent of fear that somehow perverts or defies the laws of nature. The changing elements of the horror genre reflect prevalent social attitudes and cultural fears and concerns.
Starting out as musical revues, the musical is categorized by its use of song and dance. Two early typical plot patterns were the backstage musical plot and the “let’s put on a show!” plot, although straight musicals where people may sing and dance in everyday situations were also popular. The musical has often been associated with children’s stories, such as The Wizard of Oz. The range of subject matter in musicals is so broad that is it hard to pin down specific iconography associated with its genre. Along with children’s stories, musicals have also dealt with more serious, tragic stories.