A branch of film studies looks at genre.
What is a genre?
Coming from the word genus, genre refers to a type or category. In biology, we classify species of animals according to genus. In cinema, genres are similar – groups of films which share the same characteristics. We can then refer to those characteristics as generic – common to the genre.
Netflix, video stores, and other film services categorize films in order for consumers to find things that they will like: Romance, Action, Comedy, Films Based on Real Life, etc. These are not necessarily real genres.
According to film theorist Thomas Schatz, a genre is a defined “world,” with familiar characters acting out particular and predictable stories within a familiar environment. Films within the genre repeat the familiar tropes along with interesting variations. THUS, CATEGORIES LIKE “ROMANCE,” “COMEDY,” “DRAMA,” AND SO FORTH, ARE NOT GENRES – THEY ARE TOO BROAD.
In countries with large film industries, which by necessity must produce many films each year, genres are likely to develop. That is one way that companies can create film after film. For studios, genres help spread the cost of movie-making, since the props, sets, and other details can be re-used on film after film. Imagine for example what would be needed to make a western! Once a film studio had purchased horses, designed cowboy costumes, built the necessary sets (frontier town, ranch, etc), hired actors with the appropriate skills (riding horses, for example) and the right look, it made sense to use these things again and again, by writing new stories that were similar to the first. This is one reason why so many westerns were made in Hollywood during its heyday, and actors like John Wayne became synonymous with the genre.
GENRES AND VALUES
No matter what time period they are set in, genre films always carry within them conflicts and values that audiences recognize. And even bad, “b-movie” genre films contribute to a discussion of those values.
For example, the “heist” genre, in which we follow a gang of thieves as they carry out a complex robbery, embodies within it a discourse about our ideas of justice. Why do we sympathize with the robbers of Ocean’s Eleven? Besides the casting of glamorous actors like George Clooney and Brad Pitt, the narrative also gives them “Robin Hood” motivations, an admirable cleverness, and typically a strong sense of loyalty – all qualities which we see as good ones. Meanwhile, their victims – cruel and corrupt casinos – don’t seem deserving of our concern. Thus the film helps us to see that the laws of our legal system don’t necessary match our moral laws – and that some things are more just even if technically they are seen as crimes.
Some genres, like musicals, are fantasies of “social integration.” They often resolve within their stories dilemmas which in real life might be impossible to resolve.
The musical genre is broad, since musicals’ main characteristic is the inclusion of full-scale song and dance numbers, and not their physical settings. Musicals can therefore be placed in nearly every time period or location.
Above, images from classic 1930’s Hollywood musicals. On the left, one of the fanciful scenes choreographed by Busby Berkeley. At right, the musical’s most popular team – the glamorous Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Below, watch a scene from a musical set in Oregon during the 1850’s, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954).
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) is a musical that mixes horror and science fiction elements, trans characters, and rock and roll!
Film scholars argue about whether film noir is a genre or not. But it certainly has a look we all know, and the cynical private eye and the “femme fatale” are familiar characters. Even if you haven’t seen any film noirs, you’ll recognize the lighting, the costumes, and much more, in this spoof starring Steve Martin called Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982). Warning: SOME POLITICALLY INCORRECT HUMOUR.
See how many horror movie tropes you can recognize in this silly scene from Scary Movie (2000).
Hollywood’s classic “combat movies” – war stories – were usually about a platoon or small unit of soldiers on a dangerous mission. They are individuals with strengths and weaknesses, and they don’t always get along. If they pull together, the mission will succeed… but there will be some sacrifices.
James Cameron, who wrote and directed the sequel to 1979’s hit Alien, chose to incorporate that essential element from combat films into the science-fiction premise of Aliens (1986).
Director Lawrence Kasdan obviously had fun with this “homage” western, Silverado (1985). The final gunfight in the street is about as iconic as it gets.
The final confrontation from Back to the Future Part 3 (1990).
From the 1930’s onward, the melodrama genre told stories of fractured families, women trapped by their societal circumstances, and parents trying to cope with rebellious teens. They were films with an overblown visual style but content taken directly from real-life.
At MGM in the 1950’s, expatriate German director Douglas Sirk did a whole series of lush widescreen melodramas, also called “women’s pictures” or “weepies.” Dismissed as trash when they were first released, the films were rediscovered by feminist critics in the 1970’s, and are now hailed as cinematic masterworks.
The so-called Screwball Comedy genre was named after a baseball pitch which goes off in unpredictable directions. Typically the films were romantic comedies following couples who appear to dislike each other at first, but will ultimately end up together. But the story will be a battle all the way. Below are some of the funny moments from 1940’s His Girl Friday, sometimes called “the best script ever written in Hollywood.”