The Semantic/Syntactic Approach and Genre Development

(a summary of Rick Altman’s approach)

Tri Nguyen

In the field of genre theory, film critics and experts are constantly engaging in an age-old debate of how to properly classify genres. Many different approaches to defining a genre have come about as a result of this discussion. Rick Altman, a professor at the University of Iowa, gives his two cents on the topic in his article titled, “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre.”

He begins his argument by highlighting some of the problems he sees with previous and current methods of establishing genre. First comes the issue of inclusive lists versus exclusive ones. The Oliver Stone biopic The Doors shows this problem in a similar way to his given example of Elvis Presley movies. The film contains many musical sequences which provide an atmosphere for the scenes in which they take place, yet, would you call it a musical? The argument can really go either way depending on whether you choose to find similarities with it and other agreed-upon musicals or focus on the ways it differs from those other films. Some elements of the film may fit right into the vein of a certain genre while others do not. Often one film may display visual elements such as the setting, certain props, or character archetypes of one genre while at the same time containing themes and underlying subject matter that traditionally belong in another. Obviously this causes debate between critics about what genre a film fits into with either side having equally valid arguments.


Altman solves this problem by devising a new approach to defining genre. He refers to this as the semantic/syntactic approach and as the name would suggest it is a hybrid of two ideas. He defines the semantic side in a similar way to Buscombe’s outer form. In the case of the western film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, this would include things like: the saloon, John Wayne’s hyper-masculine gunslinger character, the horses and carriages, etc. The syntactic part of this idea encapsulates the inner form with the concepts of the new technology of the iron horse versus the actual animal, the law and education against the law of the gun, for example. When both ideas are brought together to define a genre it allows for a certain inclusiveness of the semantics while at the same time having the power to examine the meaning behind the syntactic side.

Another mistake genre theorists make involves the relationship between the audience and the film industry as a whole. Often critics cite what is known as the “ritual approach” to describe the reasons why film genres come about in the first place. This type of thinking is characterized by the idea that movie goers see a certain type of film such as your typical John Wayne western (Stagecoach for example). The film does well, spawning more films in the same vein. These very same movie goers spend more of their money seeing the new films because they enjoy the ritual of seeing a familiar story in a familiar setting. The idea is very democratic giving almost all of the power to the public will. The flip side to this argument is a much more cynical so-called “ideological approach.” Here, critics claim that genres come about because they are simply manifestations of Hollywood’s desired rhetoric and messages. Each genre and more specifically each underlying theme in said genre is seen as a lie invented and propagated by the film industry.

In actuality, there is probably some give and take on both sides. Hollywood, of course wants to make films the audience can relate to and at the same time they, consciously or not, put forth a degree of message or myth into their films. Altman concludes his article by stating that successful genres allow for input from the audience while simultaneously injecting Hollywood’s desired message in a seamless fashion.