Film International April 20th
Genre Films and Cultural Myth
By Barry Keith Grant.
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Hollywood’s classic studio system
was the dominant method of American feature film production from the 1920s to
1950s. The system’s ‘genius’ stems from classic Hollywood’s reliance on genres
films, those commercial movies that, through repetition and variation, tell
familiar stories with familiar characters in familiar situations. In the
following discussion I want to explore how film genres and individual genre
films do indeed constitute an ever-vigorous tradition that functions at the
level of cultural myth, while at the same time providing a framework for the
individual expression of the auteur.
In 1950 anthropologist Hortense
Powdermaker dubbed Hollywood “the dream factory,” a term that describes
perfectly the American film industry, for Hollywood manufactures products that
have given shape to our collective values, aspirations and fears (Powdermaker).
In the studio era, the production of movies was organized along Fordist
principles, with an assembly-line model that paralleled modern approaches to
production in other industries such as automobiles. Every phase of the film
making process was undertaken by specialist departments, and everyone from
carpenters to cinematographers, from screenwriters to stars, were employees of
the company and assigned to various projects by the front office.
The staple products of the dream
factory were genre movies—a fact that remains true today, even though the
studio system has been replaced largely by independent production. Genre movies
comprise the bulk of film practice, the iceberg of film history beneath the
visible tip of unique masterpieces that once upon a time were understood to
constitute the sum of film art. Genre movies are like the model T’s or the colt
revolvers of mainstream commercial cinema, products with interchangeable parts
that are convenient for a mass entertainment medium. The efficient narrative
style of classic Hollywood cinema depends in large part on the shorthand of
conventions made possible by established generic traditions that eliminate the
need for a lot of exposition. When, for example, in a Western we see someone
ride into town wearing black gloves, a black vest and pants, and two guns tied
to either hip with string, we know the character is an evil gunfighter. Movies
offering variations of such tested formulae are attractive to producers who are
seeking both to minimize the risk of their investment and maximize acceptance
of their product at the box office.
Genre as zeitgeist (the spirit of the time)
From the particulars of film
advertising in the various mass media to TV Guide listings to the organization
of tapes and DVDs at the local video rental store, the idea of genre informs
every aspect of American popular film culture from production to consumption.
When the US gained wide control of foreign film markets after World War 2, the
influence of American film genres even extended internationally, as is evident
in such national cinema movements as spaghetti Westerns, Australian road movies
and Hong Kong action films. As an indication of the pervasive presence of film
genres in popular culture, consider that the word itself refers simultaneously
to a particular mode of film production, the classic Hollywood studio system;
to a convenient consumer index, providing audiences with a sense of the kind of
pleasures to be expected from a given film; and to a critical concept, a tool
for mapping out a taxonomy of popular film and for understanding the complex
relationship between popular cinema and popular culture.
Genre movies are composed of certain common elements.
To varying degree, films of any genre share such characteristics as themes,
character types, plot motifs, bits of dialogue, musical figures, narrative and
stylistic conventions, settings, and iconography—that is, the particulars of
the mise-en-scène, the various objects, including the actors, in the images,
and their graphic arrangement in the frame. Audiences quickly become familiar
with these elements and expect them. Robert Warshow noted long ago, in his
pioneering essay on the gangster film, that the familiarity of viewers with
generic convention creates “its own field of reference” (Warshow 130). In other
words, there is an appreciation for the form itself, so that the experience of
viewing genre movies becomes a kind of ritual based on an unstated contract
between spectators and movies.
Because of the central place of genres within popular cinema, and within popular culture generally, genre
movies have been commonly understood as particularly good barometers of what we
might call the cultural “temperature.” This is true not only of individual
genre movies, but also of the changing patterns and fortunes of different
genres and of the shifting relationships between them. Whether they are set in
the past or in the future, on the mean streets of contemporary New York or long
ago in a galaxy far away, genre movies are always about the time and place in
which they are made. Inevitably, they are expressions of the cultural zeitgeist,
instances of society engaging in dialogue with itself. Genre movies may
reflect, reinforce, question or subvert accepted ideology, but viewers enjoy
them as genre movies whether they fulfill, violate or thwart conventions
and expectations. Whatever their ideological position, then, genre movies are
intimately imbricated within larger contemporary cultural and political
discourses. They speak to cultural issues both timely and timeless, and attempt
to resolve them as narrative rituals.
So, for example, Warner Bros’ musicals in the 1930s may be interpreted as an imaginative response to the
challenges of the Great Depression. The typical plot of musicals such as 42nd Street, Footlight Parade and Golddiggers
of 1933 (all 1933) involves a group of characters, marked by various differences and conflicts such as class and gender, who ultimately must transcend their personal problems and work together to put on the musical show. This narrative structure is on one level a clear metaphor for the selfless cooperation required of all Americans to get the country back on its economic feet. The musical sequences in these movies, usually directed by Busby Berkeley with his distinctive overhead camera style,
emphasized the importance of teamwork for the elaborately choreographed dance routines.
In the past, myths were narratives that helped societies explain religious beliefs and seemingly inexplicable natural phenomena. Similarly, in modern times genre movies are secular stories that seek to resolve the basic problems and dilemmas of contemporary life. As Thomas Sobchack writes, “The Greeks knew the stories of the gods and the Trojan War in the same way we know about hoodlums and gangsters and G-men and the taming of the frontier and the never-ceasing struggle of the light of reason and the cross with the powers of darkness, not through first-hand experience but through the media.” (Sobchack 103) In both cases a set of familiar stories
provide a means for a culture to communicate to itself, and in the process help maintain its self-identity as a culture. The difference is that today in mass-mediated society, instead of huddling around campfires in the silvery dark of night to hear our mythic tales, we converge in darkened cinemas under silver screens.
Now, it is true that in the studio era directors were also employees, like the other members of a film’s cast and crew, and that even those few directors who wielded some degree of clout in Hollywood, like Frank Capra and Alfred Hitchcock, had to work within the parameters of the producing studio’s dominant style or specialty. No less a
major director than John Ford said that for every film like The Informer (1935), he had to make three Wee Willie Winkies with Shirley Temple to keep the studios happy. But, while genre movies tell familiar stories with familiar characters in familiar situations, it is not necessarily the case that they always are told in familiar ways. For while some directors floundered against the pressures of the studio system, many in fact flourished, using the rules of genre as convenience rather than constraint, as guidelines from which to deviate rather than blueprints to follow.
A flexible tradition
While John Ford made different kinds of movies, including war films and social problem films, he was and remains today best known for his Westerns. Ford shot all or part of 9 Westerns, including Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956), two of the greatest works in the genre, in Monument Valley, using its unique combination of rugged desert and magnificent mesas to represent both the danger and glory involved in settling the West. The distinctive landscape of Monument Valley has become so identified with Ford that no subsequent movie can show it without invoking this intertextual reference. Ford’s Westerns were so popular in large part because they offered a romantic, nostalgic evocation of the American Dream and traditional values, often expressed in rituals of social bonding such as dances and meals.
As an example, consider the famous sequence in Ford’s 1946 Western, My Darling Clementine. The sequence, showing Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp
bidding goodbye to Clementine Carter, the schoolmarm to whom he has been attracted, deftly uses the generic material of the Western to celebrate what
John Cawelti calls “the epic moment” of American history—hat pivotal moment when civilization comes to the wilderness (Cawelti 39). Ford represents this
epic moment as beginning when Earp has his unkempt hair shorn, a metaphor of the wild loner being tamed. Earp’s honeysuckle-scented aftershave is further
emblematic of his new commitment to civilization. As church bells solemnly intone, marking the significance of the moment, Earp and Clementine link arms
and walk down the main street. Their linked arms are roughly centered in the frame, graphically expressing the central importance of the gesture. In the
distance behind Earp are mountains, staunch emblems of the wilderness yet to be conquered, and behind Clementine the facade of the town’s buildings,
representing community, commerce, civilization. The pair walks toward the camera, toward us, as we in the audience for a moment embody the future that will be
ensured by the settling of the frontier. The sequence is a lyrical evocation of manifest destiny, a destiny made manifest when Ford cuts to a reverse shot from behind the couple so that they are now walking away from us, heading toward the center of town, toward the construction site of the first church of Tombstone, at present only partially built. Christianity and nationalism provide the literal foundation of Ford’s mythic American society, as twin American flags on one side and the church steeple on the other flank the church floor. With these values the church can be completed and the nation built. At the church site the townsfolk gather together to celebrate with a typical Fordian dance that the director emphasizes in its duration, since the scene’s length is hardly necessary to advance the plot.
My Darling Clementine was made and released in 1946, only one year after the end of World War 2, so Ford’s optimistic vision of American society at the time
also reflected the country’s postwar buoyancy. Andrew Sarris, the critic who introduced auteurism to North America, claimed that the work of film auteurs
revealed what he called “interior meaning.” For Sarris, such moments, which he called “the ultimate glory of the cinema as an art” (Sarris 513), occur when
the director’s personality shines through the film. The sequence in My Darling Clementine is surely such a moment.
Sarris never got around to revealing just what interior meaning actually is, but he hinted that we could find it by, in his words, extrapolating “from the tension between a director’s personality and his material” (Sarris 513). I want to suggest that we might interpret Sarris’s cryptic claim to refer to the distinctly individual ways in which
filmmakers work with or animate their films’ generic intertexts. Virtually all genre movies except those driven entirely by formula inevitably reveal
something of their maker. The only ones that don’t are those Robin Wood calls “purist” genre movies, ones that exist in the “simplest, most archetypal, most
aesthetically deprived and intellectually contemptible form” (Wood 62). As the sequence from My Darling Clementine illustrates, it is through the filter of the individual artist that genre movies become interesting not only for sociological reasons but aesthetically as well.
Ford’s vision changed over time, becoming increasingly dark and disillusioned, but it continued to reflect the cultural sensibility. In his celebrated comparison of Ford and Hawks, Peter Wollen declared his preference for the former, because while Hawks’s vision remained consistent throughout his very long career, Ford’s evolved over time. The changes in Ford’s vision of the American myth not only give his films a greater richness of theme, as Wollen argues, but also anticipate the dramatic
changes in American society itself.
In 1960, Ford made Sergeant Rutledge, about a black cavalry officer being court-martialed for rape and murder. The film shows racism dividing the military, in contrast to Ford’s earlier cavalry Westerns from the ‘40s such as Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), which depicted the cavalry as a metaphor for a
unified community. Two years later, Ford produced his elegant elegy for the Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). In this film John
Wayne, made a star by Ford in Stagecoach in 1939 and featured in numerous of the director’s films since, plays Western hero Tom Doniphon, the eponymous man who shoots Liberty Valance. But after ridding the territory of evil, Doniphon then must step aside, literally into the shadows, giving way to the rule of law as represented by attorney Rance Stoddard, who has taken the credit for killing the notorious outlaw. Returning to the town years later, the now Senator Stoddard finds an unknown Doniphon about to be buried in a plain pine coffin without his boots, an ignominious end for the mythic cowboy hero. The film’s main story is told in flashback, suffusing the action with a sense of time irretrievably past, and in the back room of the railway station an old stagecoach rests on blocks, gathering cobwebs, a relic from a bygone era. Ford’s next and last Western, Cheyenne Autumn in 1964, presents the Indians as victims rather than villains, neglected by government bureaucracy
and policed by an ineffective cavalry.
In his souring vision Ford anticipated—perhaps we might even say initiated—the tsunami of cynical genre films that appeared shortly thereafter. These new genre movies were made by a generation of directors known as the “movie brats,” a group of young cineliterate filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma and Francis Coppola, all of whom brought something of a counter-cultural sensibility to traditional genre forms. Movies such as The Godfather (1972), for
example, radically revised the conventions of gangster and crime films, while Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970), following the trail blazed by Cheyenne Autumn, contrasted a brutal, ignoble cavalry, led by a megalomaniac General George Armstrong Custer, with the peaceful Indians they massacre. The powerful
scene of the Washita massacre, in which the cavalry rides in and lays waste to an Indian village, including women and children, could not help but invoke
images of the Vietnam War for contemporary viewers in 1970, the year of the film’s release. So dramatically did these movies rewrite generic convention
that John Cawelti perceived them as constituting a “generic transformation” of seismic proportion, a rewriting of generic myth to suit the less naive, more politicized temper of the time (Cawelti 244). Now the more brutal and unsentimental Westerns of Sam Peckinpah came to embody the contemporary sensibility. Whereas Ford’s later Westerns bemoan the unfulfilled promise of a great new society, Peckinpah’s Westerns take as given that corruption, incompetence and immorality are pervasive, and so they focus instead on his heroes’ attempts to escape it rather than join it.
In the 1970s critics noted that cowboys had stopped kissing their horses and that they didn’t ride quite as tall in their saddles as they once did. The animals themselves seemed to move more wearily than in the past. In the 1975 Bite the Bullet, the horses sweat profusely as they attempt in vain to keep pace with an indefatigable Iron
Horse in a widely publicized race. But the ultimate equestrian indignity in the Western has to be that moment in Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles (1974) when a horse is knocked unconscious by ex-football and literal cowpuncher Alex Karras. Ed Buscombe writes that “a horse in a Western is not just an animal but
a symbol of dignity, grace, and power” (Buscombe 22), but in Peckinpah’s Ridethe High Country (1962), a horse races not against an inevitable locomotive
but an improbable camel—and loses!
After Peckinpah, the Western experienced a serious decline in popularity and production, no longer the “American genre par excellence,” in the words of André Bazin, that it had been for decades (Bazin 141). Perhaps in the post-Vietnam era Westerns no longer offered the kind of appeal they once did because their relatively simplistic
moral vision and attitude of cultural superiority has not fit well with more recent notions of political correctness. Also, given the compromised wars and
operations that have characterized the American military since Korea, viewers in recent years have found it difficult to accept without irony conventions such as the cavalry coming decisively to the rescue—as it does in Stagecoach when the platoon appears in the nick of time as if in answers to a genteel lady’s prayers.
Today viewers tend to laugh at this scene in Stagecoach, yet contemporary audiences were thrilled when Han Solo came back for the final showdown with the Death Star in Star Wars (1977). Perhaps the pristine potential of a new society as envisioned by the Western seems too remote, too much of an impossibility, to too many viewers, while a space opera like Star Wars is able to provide the satisfactions of classic Westerns in a more updated way. Although President Bush has been
able to invoke the genre’s rhetoric in his war on terrorism, the Western, at least until September 11th, had seemed somehow less relevant to the complex global politics of the emerging new world order.
Instead, science fiction has usurped the place of the Western in the popular imagination. Many science fiction movies are like Westerns, with space becoming, in the famous words of Star Trek, the “final frontier.” In the lawless expanse of space, heroes and villains wield laser guns instead of six-guns, space cowboys jockey customized rockets instead of riding horses, and aliens serve as the swarthy Other in the place of Indians. In the climax of Star Wars Luke Skywalker can turn off
his computer and “let the Force be with him,” just as in the Star Trek franchise the buddy pairing of Kirk and Spock suggests that we can successfully balance rugged individualism and scientific rationalism—just the kind of resolution with society that the Westerner as tragic hero could never achieve.
Thus the Western myth of a redeemer hero with a superior moral code and a quick draw, a Natty Bumppo with a Jedi light saber, survives within a different
genre, a genre with a technological iconography rather than a pastoral one.
Producer Gene Roddenberry described his Star Trek show as “a wagon train to the stars,” suggesting the many affinities between the two genres. But when George Lucas took the scene from The Searchers where Ethan Edwards discovers the bodies of his brother’s family after an Indian attack and reworked it as Luke Skywalker finding his aunt and uncle’s homestead destroyed by storm troopers, he began a series of science fiction adaptations of Westerns. Enemy Mine (1985) was a remake of the old 1950s liberal western, Broken Arrow (1950); Outland (1981) is a version of High Noon (1952) set on a space mining station instead of a
frontier town; and Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) was a remake of The Magnificent Seven (1960), itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai
(1954). Because today we are more likely to be familiar with computers than horses, and more likely to visit the new frontier of cyberspace than what remains of the wilderness, the classic Western has been largely replaced by the science fiction film in the current generic landscape.
Nevertheless, there do remain frontiers for the Western, and for other genres as well, still to explore. In the last decade some genre movies have begun to examine the representational strategies of race and gender that have informed generic traditions, a concern that had been largely ignored, even in those revisionist genre movies of the 1970s. The various genres traditionally have been the cultural property of a white male consciousness, a perspective that informed the very conception of
the genre system itself, a system that was built on certain gendered assumptions. Generally, the action genres—adventure, war, gangster, detective,
horror, science fiction and, of course, the Western—were addressed to a male audience, while musicals and romantic melodramas, which were also known in the
industry as “weepies” and “women’s films,” were marketed to women.
This gendered division of genres bespeaks the general patriarchal alignment of women with emotion rather than action. In the action genres, typically it has been white men who must get the job done, whether driving the cattle, outsmarting the spies or defeating the aliens. Women generally have functioned as hindrances to, rewards for, or at best, aids in, this doing, while people of color have been either token helpers or figures of comic relief. In short, most genre movies addressed an assumed viewer who was, like the filmmakers themselves, white, male and heterosexual.
But the interrogation of identity politics has infiltrated popular cinema across the range of genres, reflecting developments in contemporary society at large.
Several Westerns have sought to explore the genre from previously marginalized perspectives. Mario Van Peebles’ Posse (1993), for example, reinserts blacks into Western history, from which they have been largely written out in popular film. Posse opens with a black man speaking directly to the camera, presenting the entire story in flashback. This framing device refers to the earlier and similarly subversive Little Big Man, in which the aged Jack Crabbe in the present reveals the
“truth” about, and so demythifies, famous Western figures whom he claims to have known first-hand. Significantly, the interviewed witness in Posse is played by Woody Strode, himself an icon that had appeared in several of Ford’s Westerns. In Ford’s films, Strode always embodied a respectful, subordinate presence, even in Sgt. Rutledge. But in Posse, Strode expresses a more militant point of view, confronting the camera and directly criticizing white people—that is, “us,” the normative spectators of the classic genre film—for having taken the land from native Americans. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the newspaper editor speaks for Ford when he says,“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Posse, by contrast,prefers to reclaim fact from the myth.
Similarly, Maggie Greenwald’s TheBallad of Little Jo (1993) foregrounds the postmodern idea of gender as performance. The film is based on the true story of Josephine Monaghan, a woman who in the 1880s dropped out of New York society when she had a child out of wedlock, went west, and for the rest of her life passed as a man, making a successful career for herself as a sheep rancher in Idaho. Little Jo begins by showing a woman in Eastern dress incongruously walking down a road in the West rather than the traditional cowboy hero riding into town. Men pass Josephine on horses, and one of them calls her a “pretty filly.” A wagon loaded with goods appears in the foreground of the frame, momentarily blocking her from our view. At last she is offered a ride by a passing peddler, whom we subsequently discover has secretly sold her to some soldiers for their sexual pleasure. The Ballad of Little Jo begins, then, by using the imagery of the Western to express the feminist insight that capitalism and patriarchy are intertwined, and that women are positioned as objects of exchange within that economy. And consistent with this awareness, director Maggie Greenwald refuses to allow Jo, played by former model Suzy Amis, to become an object of the camera’s traditionally male gaze.
After escaping from her captors, Josephine obtains some men’s clothes at a general store, and then, to the sudden shock of the viewer, slashes her face with a knife from cheek to chin. Her scar becomes a badge of masculinity to the other men in the film, and it prevents viewers of the film from comfortably regarding her as an object of visual pleasure. In The Ballad of Little Jo, the frontier comes to mean a new, unknown frontier of gender equality in visual representation.
Such progressive genre movies were likely greenlighted in Hollywood because of the surprising success of Ridley
Scott’s Thelma and Louise in 1991. One of the most popular movies of that year, Thelma and Louise was a generic hybrid of the Western, the buddy film, and the road movie—all three genres among those traditionally regarded as male. But Thelma and Louise reversed Hollywood’s conventional definition of woman’s place as the
domestic sphere and reimagined the buddy movie as female adventure. The pair’s acts of resistance, like blowing up the tanker truck of a driver who makes
obscene gestures at them, come to seem nothing less than imaginative acts of retribution for all women, transcending their personal plight.
In the film’s controversial ending, Thelma and Louise drive over the edge of the Grand Canyon rather than capitulate to the police. The last image is a freeze frame of the car in midair, at the apogee of its arching flight, followed by a fade to white. This ending is, as many have remarked, a direct reference to George Roy Hill’s
quintessential buddy movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). It sparked considerable debate regarding its political value: did the ending
signify suicidal defeatism or triumphant transcendence? In Time magazine Richard Schickel wrote that it is “hard to find anyone who detects a note of
triumph in their suicide” (Schickel 56), but obviously he hadn’t consulted academics such as Peter Chumo, who reads the women’s final gesture as a noble refusal to allow themselves the ignominious ending of being gunned down like Bonnie and Clyde. As he rapturously enthuses, “Thelma and Louise. . .is a road film that finally denies the need for a physical road. Its heroines create their own road…” (Chumo 12).
But whatever one thinks of the film’s ending, the debate it engendered was itself significant for, as Rebecca Bell-Metereau noted, “Critics did not concern themselves with the outcome of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid [or] Easy Rider , because a male death in the conclusion is sacrificial, symbolic, and Christ-like. A female death at the end of the story rarely receives such a heroic interpretation, from feminists or non-feminists.” (Bell-Metereau 248) The controversy over Thelma
and Louise’s ending suggests how thoroughly novel the film was at the time; and however one interprets this ending, it does show that the fate of women could also be represented as mythic—that they too could remain true to their values and achieve glory in death, like any macho Wild Bunch.
Contemporary genre legacy: Kathryn Bigelow
Since Thelma and Louise, several contemporary directors have established themselves as auteurs by playing on the racial and gendered implications of genre, the two most important being Spike Lee and Kathryn Bigelow. Lee’s films tend to challenge viewers in overtly confrontational ways, while Bigelow is more subtly
subversive. While Lee has ranged across different genres from musicals (School Daze, 1988) to biopics (Malcolm X, 1992) to road movies (Get on the Bus, 1996), inflecting each from a black cultural perspective, Bigelow has stayed within the various action genres, providing their traditional pleasures but questioning their gendered assumptions. Her films Near Dark (1987), Blue Steel (1990), Point Break (1991) and Strange Days
(1996) all play with generic convention while at the same time offering rapid narrative pacing, and viscerally exciting scenes of physical action.
Blue Steel, for example, is a noirish police thriller that exploits to the fullest the action film’s conventional representation of the gun as totem of masculine power. From the opening credit sequence in which Bigelow’s camera penetrates the interior of a Smith and Wesson handgun, a woman rather than the man wielding the phallic camera, Blue Steel deconstructs the cop film’s fetishisation of the pistol. The plot involves a rookie female cop, Meaghan Turner, whose gender troubles all the men in the film once she dons her uniform. In the chaos of a supermarket shootout between Turner and a thief, his gun is pocketed by a male bystander who becomes obsessed with her gender-bending image and becomes a serial killer, shooting people with bullets on which he has carved her name. In the final violent confrontation,
Turner manages to triumph over the psychotic killer, who seems at first an unstoppable monster, like Michael Meyers in Halloween (1978) or Freddie
Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street series. The casting of Jaime Lee Curtis, star of Halloween, as Meagan in Blue Steel invokes her iconographical reputation as the conventional “final girl” of the slasher film.
Barry Keith Grant has published more than twenty books on film.
This article was originally
published in Film International 1, vol. 1, no.
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