CHAPTER 7: GENRE
We go to see a movie with certain expectations based on its genre. For example, we expect the formula of a good action film to contain "good guys" and "bad guys". Often in action movies, the villain is portrayed as a foreigner. Often the action hero begins as an outcast or experiences a deep betrayal or conflict that forces him further away from law and order in order to exact vigilante justice, and thereby restore stability to the storyworld. We often expect car chases, explosions, gunfire, beautiful women and choreographed fight sequences. In the Marvel Universe for example, diverse groups of superheroes work outside the rules of humans, following their own moral code of conduct to protect humanity from evil. In The Bourne Identity (2002), The Matrix (1999), and Kill Bill (2003), characters live at the margins of society and, as rogue figures, are able to use violence to resolve the narrative crisis and return order to the world by destroying the "bad guys" and their systems of power.
Genre refers to the way in which films are categorized or marketed by film studios and the expectations that such categories bring to bear on the cinema spectator themselves. Film theorist Rick Altman defines genre in terms of its predictability and repetition of situations, themes and icons. So genre can be examined in terms of its structural conventions (expectations of plot, character, setting or style), thematic codes (for example, the themes of social corruption and infection contained in the zombie flick) or iconography (objects that instantly denote genre such as cowboy hats within the Western). Audience pleasure in genre stems from the familiarity of repetition, but it also stems from the ways in which films deviate from the expected script. We both want to know what to expect from a film and we also want to be surprised, to have our expectations exceeded. While audiences might choose to view a film based on expectations and familiarity with the particular genre, a director can surprise the audience by manipulating these genre expectations. Audience pleasure in genre stems from the familiarity of repetition, but it also stems from the ways in which films deviate from the expected script.
We just have to look at movie posters and advertisements to see the way that the studio wants us to understand a film. Through looking at the staged conventions and iconography in the posters, we have immediate expectations, even before we watch the film, based on our own knowledge of the signaled genre conventions. In The Matrix (1999), for example, the characters represented in the poster all possess various guns and wear leather pants, trench coats, and sunglasses, highlighting their mysterious, rogue nature. The visible weaponry and cyberpunk appearance of the characters in the poster seem to be icons of the action film, but can also signal the science fiction genre, especially through its backdrop of computer-generated code that forces a questioning of reality. Genres are not neat and stable categories despite frequently being categorized as just one thing. Often a film can inhabit several different generic codes that audiences will recognize.
Similarly, when we buy a ticket to see a romantic comedy (rom-com), we already know that a boy and a girl will first hate, then love, then hate each other again as they are forced to reconsider their understandings of modern relationships and their own selves. One member of the couple will succumb to a grand romantic gesture that will result in the couple living happily ever after. Sometimes the couple might love each other right from the start, only to fracture in the face of their own personal insecurities or immaturities. But the rom-com typically ends with the reunion of the couple and the sense that love does indeed conquer all.
While most rom-coms follow this template, some challenge audience expectations. My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), for example, does not end with the female lead (Julia Roberts) marrying her best friend, despite all her comedic machinations throughout the film. Rather, it ends in her helping the union of her best friend to another woman, despite her feelings of love. In this film, the grand romantic gesture becomes a gesture of sacrifice that ends all chances of a romantic union between boy and girl, as the boy marries another.
The Big Sick (2017), on the other hand, begins with the love story of a couple, which falters in the face of the main character’s fear of losing his Pakistani-American family by dating outside the culture and faith, as well as the life threatening illness that suddenly befalls the female lead. Although The Big Sick ultimately follows many of the generic expectations of the rom-com, it departs from the romantic comedy’s typical narrative conventions by having the male lead spend most of the film with the female lead’s parents as she fights for her life in a medically-induced coma. In this way, the boy-meets-girl-boy-and- girl-fall-in-love-only-to separate-and-reunite trope of the rom-com changes to boy-meets-girl-boy-and-girl-fall-in-love-only-to-lose-girl-and-fall-in-love-with-girl’s-parents- then-be-rejected-by-girl-only-to-reunite. Most Hollywood rom-coms feature a white heterosexual couple at its center and focus chiefly on the perspective of the female romantic lead. The Big Sick undermines some of these expectations with its Pakistani-American male lead, the point of view that the film largely follows.
Genres: Categories of story-types that are used by studios for marketing purposes. The predictability and repetition of genre elements is the basis for film-watching choices, audience expectations, and creative surprises.
Structural conventions: Expectations of plot, character, setting, or style.
Thematic codes: Subtext embedded within genres and subgenres, often based in historical context.
Iconography: Objects that instantly identify a genre or subgenre.
Romantic comedy: Genre that follows a simple structural convention: a boy and girl alternate loving and hating each other until they are reunited through a grand romantic gesture.
George Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) is widely considered one of the earliest examples of the science fiction film that set key conventions of the genre – spectacular use of special effects, journey to another world (the moon), and the iconography of aliens and space ships producing themes of space travel, discovery, and the fear of the unknown. The science fiction plots tend towards themes of science, technology, ethical or moral anxieties, and philosophies that shed light on humanity and society. Visual effects and advanced technology props, such as teleportation machines and hovercrafts, characterize science fiction as a speculative film genre imagining future technologies and realities. Characters range from aliens and artificial intelligence to scientists and government officials. Sci-fi heroes often bear the sacrificial weight of trying to save the world.
The prototypical story of the sci-fi genre revolves around the device of the novum, Latin for the "new thing". The novum is a technology or cultural trend pushed into a logical, but often dystopian, endpoint in order to distance it from the audience, making it appear foreign. The punch line of these films is often that the novum is not actually a "new thing" at all. The plot reveals that the future version of the "new thing" was on earth all along or was Earth itself. For example, Planet of the Apes (1968) tells the story of American astronauts who crash onto an unfamiliar planet in the future where intelligent, articulate apes subjugate mute humans. The film ends with the shocking discovery of a buried Statue of Liberty by the lead astronaut (Charlton Heston) as he escapes his enslavement by the apes, and the horrible understanding that this strange future planet, the new thing, is actually Earth.
The Matrix is also set in the future, but one where machines have taken over the world, manufacturing incubated humans as batteries and keeping these humans subdued and unaware in a virtual world (the Matrix). The real world, on the other hand, is a dystopic space where the last remnants of freed humans fight a losing battle against the machines in a long drawn out war. Computer programmer Neo (Keanu Reeves) discovers the deception and becomes ‘The One", a special person able to move freely through the different realities of the Matrix and the real world, and a hero destined to save humanity from their enslavement. The Matrix uses the figure of an everyday worker, a spiritually empty cog in the machine, to reflect a general malaise of contemporary audiences towards a capitalist society. And the film reinvigorates a need for ‘reality’ in the audience through Neo’s virtual body and his experiences in the Matrix. In Neo, we are given a young man desperate to believe that he is special, distinct from all the other copies and illusions as he fights to defeat bureaucratic clones within a hyper-industrialized landscape.
Genre is not static; rather, it is heavily influenced by its current cultural environment. In this way, genre films are time capsules that contain the specific cultural references and mindsets of the time and place in which they were made. Science fiction film would experience a surge in production in the 1950s, a period also known as the Golden Age of Science Fiction Films, due to the famous UFO sightings in the late 1940s into the 1950s near Roswell, New Mexico, and in Washington State. And during this Golden Age, the films’ theme of anxiety about mass destruction is clearly influenced by common 1950s nuclear and communist fears. With images of the massive destruction of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945, Americans were more aware than ever before of the ability of man to destroy himself and others. The rise of Communism and the continued threat of nuclear warfare during the Cold War in the 1950s led to widespread paranoia concerning the infiltration of communists within American lives. This ‘Red Scare’ resulted in witch-hunts, loss of employment, and imprisonment, touching all areas of American society. Numerous sci-fi films such as The Thing from another World (1951) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) tapped into a pervasive fear of communism imagined through themes of infection, the uncertainty of identity, and the notion that the enemy looks just like you. The subgenre of the monster or mutant film would also emerge from these apocalyptic concerns, and lend itself to a reworking of the horror genre.
In blending genres, Ishiro Honda’s science fiction kaiju (monster movie) Gojira (Godzilla) (Honda, 1954) remains one of the most successful monster-as-allegory films. Gojira emerged both from the trauma of the atomic bomb and the awareness of nuclear warfare as a continuing threat to Japanese lives as evidenced by the Lucky Dragon 5 incident, in which radiation exposure continued well after combat. Six years after the end of World War II, American military tested a hydrogen bomb near a Japanese fishing vessel filled with civilians, exposing them to radiation. As a reference to the Lucky Dragon 5 incident, Gojira begins with an explosion of light that destroys the peaceful routine of men on a fishing vessel. This light configures the monster Gojira as an allegory for an atomic bomb. Later in the film, characters watch the aftermath of Gojira’s rampage through Tokyo on television. The panning camera shows a Tokyo in ruins, deliberately recalling the war torn post-World War II landscape. Honda used singing children to create sentimentality and, in highlighting the true victims of nuclear threat, stressed the importance of peace. The figure of a scientist in a lab coat is a crucial character within the sci-fi film universe because he translates a scientific or rational decision into human terms. It is through his humanity, or lack thereof, that we understand the stakes of the crisis and political response. In the end of Gojira, after using a powerful weapon of mass destruction to destroy the monster, scientist Serizawa sacrifices his own life to take the secret of his weapon to his grave in fear that the inherent weakness of man will lead to his weapon’s use for further global warfare.
Traditionally, science fiction as a genre privileges male leads and, thus, largely male action and concerns. In earlier classical film, women chiefly occupy the role of damsel in distress, object of desire, or subordinate sidekicks who serve little purpose beyond propping up the male lead. Even as late as Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope (1977), arguably the most culturally impactful science fiction film in contemporary cinema, the male robotic drones had more dialogue than the ‘real’ women did in the film. The Second Wave of Feminism in the 1960s-1970s ushered in new representations of women with the agency to act and make decisions on their own in Science Fiction cinema. Ellen Ripley in Alien (1979) provides the quintessential example of a strong female lead at the helm of a historically male-oriented genre. The huge success of the Alien franchise would lead to increased visibility and popularity of female heroes within the sci-fi landscape who escape gender expectations placed upon them. In more contemporary films, like Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), Arrival (2016), Gravity (2013), and Her (2013), female perspectives and storylines have occupied a greater stage. This evolution of the sci-fi genre shows how the film industry has evolved according to audience expectations and has negotiated the complexity of gender politics in the world today.
In the Ex_Machina (2014) poster, the shocking image of a young woman’s interior circuitry clues us in to the thematic tension between human and android that will be central to the film. While the sterility and futuristic feel of the lab setting suggests that the genre belongs to science fiction, the text of the poster warns of the machine’s human desire “to survive” and the low-key lighting of the shot indicates the possible presence of another genre – horror. By highlighting the internal "difference" of the female android from a female human, the poster troubles the common sci-fi message that humanity is essential to "save the world" and poses a monstrosity in the android’s enigmatic quality that is so close to being human. The film refuses to hide the android qualities of this almost-human character, and her obvious android-ness forces the audience to meditate on contemporary fears of scientific excess and gender relations. Ada, as an android, shatters the binaries of gender expectations and refuses narrative confinement within romantic plotlines with her male leads. She defies the trope of the damsel in distress while also manipulating the same trope to escape her enslavement by performing fear and helplessness for the male characters. Androids and cyborgs in sci-fi cinema build upon the themes of what is widely considered the first science fiction text, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), which is about the artificial creation of life and the scientist who is horrified at his creation. In Frankenstein , we explore the idea of playing God and questions of the human, and we also grapple with our own humanity in the face of scientific progress, race, gender and other social concerns.
Science Fiction: Speculative genre that follows themes of science, technology, ethical or moral anxieties, and social philosophy. Includes iconography of futuristic technology, scientists, or a dystopian setting. Often allegorical stories that address historical events and social systems through subtext.
When we talk about Horror, what we are really talking about is how visualizations of violence, terror, and boundary-crossing taboos shock the viewer into navigating their own fears and anxieties, in terms of both the nation and the body. Similar to the Science Fiction film genre, horror delves into social and political issues that preoccupy the nation, but horror cinema focuses particularly on bodies, especially female bodies, and issues of gender and sexuality. It is little wonder that science fiction and horror genres often cohabitate in their shared concern for exploring social ills and repressions. As horror runs the gamut from psychological and horror-thrillers, to Italian gialli (murder-mysteries) and slasher films, it is easier to discuss horror in terms of its major genre and cultural conventions rather than find one fixed definition that defines all horror. In this way, we will briefly examine the slasher and J-Horror subgenres to point out how their specific concerns shape the aesthetic look and genre conventions of horror.
The Slasher Film surged into massive popularity during the golden period of the 1980s with John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), Sean S. Cunningham's Friday the 13th (1980), and Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). These films are largely credited with launching the numerous imitations, sequels, and franchises that recycled characters and plotlines, giving rise to the genre. A key plot characteristic of the slasher subgenre is the repeated situation of naïve teenagers who journey to an isolated area and, away from easy access to help or means of escape, find themselves the prey of a serial killer who picks them off one by one. The teenagers, falling into the archetypes of the virgin, the slut, the alpha male or dumb jock, the intellectual and/or the slacker, all typically die except for the virtuous one. Film theorist Carol J. Clover coined the slasher film trope “the Final Girl”, named after a common “virtuous” character who usually holds a gender-neutral name and ‘deserves’ to survive because she embodies societal expectations of female virtue and heroism. After being terrorized for most of the film, the Final Girl eventually fights back to be the only survivor at the film’s end. Read Carol Clover's Essay.
The two most important characters in the horror film is the monster, who is coded male, and the suffering female hero-victim. Without the threat of the monster and the vulnerability of his victim, there can be no horror. Unlike the science fiction genre, the horror film often features a female lead with a few notable exceptions such as the Italian giallo, which classically alternates between a male or female amateur detective who stumbles upon the murder of a beautiful woman and seeks out her killer. It is also worth noting that the killer in the Italian giallo often moves between genders too, just like the hero. In Hollywood cinema, the killer in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) infamously embodies both male and female counterparts as he seamless switches between young, charming innkeeper, Norman, and his murderous dead mother. Although not a slasher film, Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) importantly inverts the placement of a young white woman as hero-victim in the horror film with an African American male in order to interrogate liberal biases and race relations in contemporary America. Regardless of the gender and race of the killer-victim dynamic, the slasher film is not horror without the iconography of the bloodcurdling scream, vibrant red blood, and the desperate but fruitless flight of a beautiful victim from the killer.
So incredibly ridiculous is the chase scene in the classic slasher film that many media lampoon the token helpless female victim who repeatedly trips and falls in her heedless race away from the killer who inevitably kills her due to her poor choices. Instead of running towards a well-lit main road filled with pedestrians, for instance, the victim will dart into the darkest alley with a locked and rusted chain-linked fence at its end. Effectively trapped, the female victim becomes easy pickings for the killer with his huge chainsaw, machete, razor or large hunting knife that will dismember and puncture her flesh in a parody of sexual penetration. While the genre of horror often plays with identity and gender fluidity, especially in its classical form, most slasher movies deliver a simple formula for audience pleasure: the killer slashes, pierces, mutilates, tortures, and humiliates female bodies as the viewer occupies and takes pleasure in a violent point of view. As the cult of the killer grew in popularity, inundated by ever-growing franchises, the killer in the slasher film would eventually become the anti-hero, eclipsing the victim’s perspective.
By the end of the 1980s, audiences felt a growing fatigue towards the genre’s predictable plotlines, and it would not be until the late 1990s that films like Wes Craven's Scream (1996) would reinvigorate the horror genre. Scream broke the genre by parodying the clichéd tropes of the slasher film while also challenging established genre expectations by, for example, having a sexually active Final Girl. A genre-breaker wears its violation of traditional expectations of genre on its sleeve. By making visible to audiences the conventions that denote the genre, genre-breakers invite laughter in its self-conscious commentary. Genre-benders, on the other hand, more subtly work on audience anticipations of genre, and they subvert these expectations of convention, thereby misleading the viewer. In A Nightmare on Elm Street, for instance, Wes Craven merged the supernatural with the slasher film by introducing an undead killer and setting the film in a dreamscape. The dream logic of A Nightmare on Elm Street pushed the boundaries of the genre to create a startlingly unique and unpredictable audiovisual landscape that hooked audiences and made Freddy Kruger an instant star.
Horror cinema depends heavily on the historical archetype of the damsel-in-distress, found in gothic literature and early cinema, and the anxiety she produces. Sound effects and music play an especially significant role in deepening suspense and audience tension. German Expressionism (see Film History Chapter), with its use of shadows and disorienting mise-en-scène to reflect character subjectivity, influence the look and feel of the horror genre today. The horror genre also borrows its low-key lighting, which creates tone and tension through the production of mysterious and menacing spaces from which monsters can leap upon the unsuspecting victim, from early film movements. The damsel-in-distress works in tangent with the common gothic trope of the ‘beast in the boudoir’. From The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) to King Kong (1933) and Frankenstein (1994), monsters in Classical Horror cinema constantly breach the bedroom of the nightgowned damsel in distress, who is unable to save herself, and, unfortunately for her, who cannot be saved by the male hero either. The gaze of the audience is important to the horror aesthetic. As our eyesight is repeatedly aligned with the monster through point-of-view shots and high-angle shots on the victim, we adopt the monster’s subject position as he secretly gazes upon women. We thus become the monster who breaches the bedroom. In modern horror, with the arrival of the Final Girl, we see a clear shift from the girl of Classical Horror who needs to be saved to the girl who saves herself and has an ultimate accounting with the monster she will kill.
J-Horror (Japanese Horror)
Psychological horror is a subgenre of horror that embodies the spectator within the growing fear and mental instability of its characters. While the slasher film typically follows the linear structure of a Classical Hollywood narrative, psychological horror tends more towards elliptical or surreal storylines. One of the key differences between the slasher film and psychological horror lies in the figure of the monster/killer. Even when the mysterious killer in the slasher film demonstrates seemingly mystical properties such as returning repeatedly from the dead, his monstrosity is grounded in a very human body and an explainable backstory, unlike the ghosts, ghouls, evil entities, dreamscapes, and unexplainable phenomenon of psychological horror. Film theorist Robin Wood (1986) famously argued that:
“[the] true subject of the horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses..” (3)
(3) ““An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” in American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film. (Toronto: Festival of Festivals, 1979), p.10.
An investigation of J-Horror reveals how psychological horror delves into the repressed of society through an exploration of mental states and primal fears.
Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Cure (1997), Miike Takeshi’s Audition (1999), and Nakata Hideo’s The Ring (1998) exploded audiences’ perceptions of the horror film in the 1990s, with their supernatural elements and social criticism of modern life. J-Horror emerged within the historical moment of millennial Y2K paranoia as the 20th century drew to a close, and it addressed how celluloid, now an antiquated technology, began to be replaced by digital technology. These films explore the cinematic medium and find cultural "ghosts" within the technology. J-horror meditates on Japan’s meteoritic economic rise after their defeat in World War II and the cost of this rise on the Japanese individual. Concerned with the spiritual emptiness of the modern individual, their alienation, and loss of identity and tradition, these films provide a commentary on Japan and the modern self. The J-Horror genre features urban and suburban settings, using apartment complexes as sites of social and familial estrangement. The everyday is turned strange through inventive and eerie sound designs. The main editing technique of the horror genre, the jump scare, is eclipsed by the creation of unique soundscapes that create psychological spaces of madness and terror. Although composed of various narratives, in J-horror the supernatural narrative tends to dominate. It is the vengeful, wet female ghosts (onryou), stemming from Japanese folklore and literature, with their long black hair, corpse-pale skin and inhuman movements that are the principal trope of J-Horror. Like many psychological ghost stories, the point of view or story of the tragic ghost wronged by society is important to the narrative arc of J-Horror. Solving the mystery of the ghost’s haunting allows a deeply critical insight into alienating modern life and the fractured family. Mothers and (ghost) children haunt the cinematic frame and the figure of the father is an especially distant or absent one.
The Ring, for example, follows a news reporter and single mother, Reiko Asakawa, as she attempts to solve the mystery of an anonymous video tape before it kills her and her son, Yoichi. Seven days after viewing the video, an onryou, called Sadako, emerges from a well to wreak her vengeance on the spectator. A young child murdered by her parent, Sadako ultimately seeks a mother figure in Reiko, whose own family unit is broken. Through the figure of the abandoned child embodied by Sadako, both Reiko and her estranged ex-husband come together to save their own child and fleetingly reunite the family. Nakata continues this theme of modern alienation and broken households through his film Dark Water (2002) and its young, lonely ghost, Mitsuko. Dark Water positions the single working mother, Yoshimi, in the midst of an ugly divorce and custody battle with her husband over their young daughter Ikuko. With little money, Yoshimi moves with her daughter into an old apartment with a small leak on its ceiling that over the course of the film grows like a pregnant belly until it finally bursts in a torrent of dark water and black hair of the onryou. The spreading stain on the ceiling and constant dripping water becomes a metaphor for the growing anxiety felt towards the tarnished Japanese household that the professional woman fails to maintain. Herself a child traumatized by parental neglect, Yoshimi must embrace her role as a mother and form a family with Mitsuko, her new uncanny child, in order to save her real child. There is a concern with mothers in these films, and Nakata, in particular, points to the professional woman in both The Ring and Dark Water as the problem in modern Japan. Both Reiko and Yoshimi ultimately have to adopt traditional roles of caretaker and nurturer to lay their respective ghosts to rest.
Mothers proliferate in the slasher film genre, but where these mothers are just "bad" mothers, mothers in J-horror can also be the films’ heroes and are given opportunities to achieve redemption through great suffering and sacrifice. The onryou and other ghosts in J-Horror return us to Wood’s concept of “the return of the repressed” in the horror film. Ghosts within Japanese horror point to a sense of something lost or repressed within the culture of Japan that forces itself into sight and examination through the genre of horror. Subtext, what lies behind the literal, is essential to understanding Horror.
Horror genre: Broadly covers themes of violence, terror, taboos, fears, and anxieties. Sometimes allegorical, focusing on issues of female bodies, gender, and sexuality. Stylistically built on low-key lighting, sound effects, and jump scares.
Slasher Film: Horror sub-genre popularized in the 1980s that typically features naive teenagers who become the prey of a serial killer.
Final Girl: A slasher film trope coined by Carol J. Clover. Describes a female character who survives the serial killer’s attacks and becomes the film’s hero.
J-Horror: Horror sub-genre from Japan that critiques alienating modern life through figures of ghosts (onryu) and familial relations.
Film Noir, literally translated as "black film," was a term coined in French journals in 1946 to initially describe a similarity of content and style in five Hollywood films: The Maltese Falcon (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), Laura (1944), Murder, My Sweet (1944), and The Lost Weekend (1945). Considered the quintessential American film genre, film noir must be situated historically and culturally to explain what lies behind the growth of these dark films during the 1940s. Film noir bridges World War II America— a time when the nation was still struggling out from under the Great Depression and President Roosevelt had instituted the New Deal in an attempt to stave off the massive unemployment rocking the nation. Many men felt impotent and humiliated in their inability to support their families during the Depression, and these feelings were exacerbated with the entry of women into the workforce during the war. The very real presence of the working woman would give rise to the femme fatale or deadly woman in film noir, a villainous love interest who inevitably dies, but not before leading (or attempting to lead) the male protagonist to his doom. The femme fatale is often balanced out by the “good”, but bland, woman who acts as a safety net for the male protagonist.
In the first decade of its incarnation, film noir reflected the anxiety and pessimism of the times. Influenced by popular detective novels and German Expressionist cinema, these noir films dealt with essentially fragile and disillusioned men despite their appearance of tough machoism. Humphrey Bogart epitomized the noir anti-hero, who was typically an investigator or detective, spoke in fast-paced dialogue, was cynical towards women, and lacked moral scruples despite having a code of his own. In The Maltese Falcon, when Sam Spade explains why he must turn in his femme fatale lover to the cops, it is not solely because she confesses to killing his partner for her own gain, but largely because he fears being made to look the fool over her. Perhaps it might be better to call film noir a cinema of fear or a crisis of masculinity as the stock characters all work to shore up the masculine confidence of the male lead. In contrast to the anti-hero, the villains of film noir are habitually foreigners and are often coded queer through their style of dress or mannerisms. Against the excessive masculinity of the American noir lead, foreigners are shown to be less masculine and, sometimes, feminized. Noir cinema reflected a changing America filled with uncertainty and perversity both through its generic characters, and through its use of low-key lighting and cinematic angles.
The 1930 Hays Production Code was a form of self-censoring in Hollywood that, among other things, limited sexuality and violence in the cinema. Queerness, adultery, perversion and lustful kissing were also prohibited under the auspices of the Production Code. Directors had to find clever ways of visually representing the decadence of the film noir world. Through lighting, symbolism, and the use of ellipses, these dark films would suggest sexual interactions between couples without explicitly showing them. In The Maltese Falcon, for example, Spade bends over to kiss Brigid, who is lying seductively on the couch. The camera frustrates any completion of the action, moving past Sam and towards an open window. When next we see the couple, they call each other “sweetheart”, suggesting the changed status of their relationship. The cinematography of film noir functions to deepen the tension and sense of anxiety that suffuses the frame. From a deep focus camera emphasizing foreground and background, extreme close-ups and low angles that bring ceilings into view, film noir undermines Classical Hollywood’s mode of invisibility and realism. Cinematic space becomes dynamic and psychological, unsettling the audience and revealing new aspects in characters and objects.
Many consider the year 1947 as the death of film noir in its original form. It is not that noir films stopped being made, in fact, film noir continues to be one of the more recognizable film styles in cinema today, but film noir changed with the coming of the Red Purge to Hollywood. The men and women who had used the film genre for social critique found themselves largely silenced and encouraged by the President of the Motion Picture Association of America to create films that glorified American life. There continues to be much argument over whether film noir constitutes a genre. Some argue that film noir is a director’s style rather than a typified collection of films. For our purposes, it is clear that the distinct look and feel of film noir immediately creates generic expectations within the viewer. While today’s film noir no longer looks like the films of the 1940s, it has evolved to cross numerous genres and to meet the needs of the times.
Film Noir: Genre of the 1940s that features low angles, close-ups, harsh shadows, and deep space to represent psychological turmoil and anxiety. Associated with several historical moments: post-Depression threatened masculinity, the Hays Code, and the Red Scare.
Femme fatale: A seductive yet dangerous female villain in the film noir genre.
It is important to understand that genre is heterogeneous; despite its marketability or surface appearance as one fixed category, most contemporary films are composed of multiple genres. Genres bleed across barriers like amoeba to touch other genres and produce unpredictable texts, often in the midst of narrative predictability. Even when a film is dominated by one clear genre, it will often test the boundaries of its form, leading to continued argument over what determines one genre from another. Illustratively, A Nightmare on Elm Street provides a point of argument between those who label it a slasher film, for its obvious slashing of young teenagers and presence of a Final Girl, and those who claim the film for psychological horror with its supernatural killer. Despite its imitative character, and thus often predictable outcomes, film genre does not close off the possibility of different readings. In the end, these categories depend on how audience desires drive the popularity of certain types of films and how successfully individual films change the form of their genres to surprise and titilate audiences.
Questions for Consideration: Genre
- Exploring genre in terms of its conventions, themes and iconography makes clear our own preexisting knowledge. For example, examine a poster of a movie that you have seen. What is the genre? How do you know based solely on what is represented in the poster? Then make your own poster of the same movie, but one in which you change the genre to another of your choice. What are the conventions, themes and icons that now best suit this poster in light of its new genre?
- If we can argue that all film today is composed of multiple genres, is the very idea of genre antiquated and no longer useful for categorizing films? Can you think of other ways in which we organize our viewing pleasure and expectations of a film, for example, by a star (Will Smith films), a studio (A24 films), or director (Tarantino films)?