Summary-Review The Film Experience, Chapter 9, Movie Genres: Conventions, Formulas, and Audience Expectations
VIEWING CUE: The Searchers
In John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) searches for years for his niece, who was kidnapped as a child by Comanche. In this scene, he and his nephew Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) finally find Debbie (Natalie Wood), but she sends them away, fearful of the response of Chief Scar (Henry Brandon).
After watching the clip from The Searchers, consider the questions below.
1. What iconographic elements identify this film by genre? How does this sequence use these generic elements in its own way?
 2. How are central themes of the western enacted in the struggle between Ethan and Martin? Between Ethan and Scar?
Film in Focus: Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) is a contemporary crime film set in 1930s Los Angeles.
After watching the clip from Chinatown [I realize you’ve seen this before, earlier in the course!], consider the questions below.
1. In this early sequence from the film, private-eye Jake Gittes interviews a potential client. Examine the scene carefully and identify the signs, conventions, and formulas that are part of a specific subgenre of the crime film.
 [text of video essay]: Reshaping Genre in Chinatown
            Narrator:  Although it appears two decades after the heyday of film noir in crime films, Roman Polanski's 1974 Chinatown appropriates and reshapes many of these genre's conventions. In fact, the opening of Chinatown harkens back to earlier film noir in crime films. In this scene, we're introduced to Private Investigator, Jake Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson, in his office. From the Venetian blinds to the cramped space, the scene uses shading and an air of shabbiness to suggest a world full of moral shadows and gray areas. More than a little ironic, Gittes’s white suit doesn't identify him as a force of goodness. Instead, he's the tough and cool investigator exposing the sordid details of private lives.
            Narrator:  Gittes is tasked with the seemingly classic film noir assignment: trailing Hollis Mulwray, the Los Angeles Water Commissioner, whose wife suspects him of having an affair. But Gittes discovers quite quickly that he was duped by a fake Mrs. Mulwray, and that this crime is about much more than infidelity. And as Gittes investigates further, it becomes clear that he's being manipulated, and has little knowledge of what is really happening. In fact, if traditional crime films are about murder, sex, and money, in Chinatown those tropes are more magnified, and the crimes are larger and more grotesque.
            Narrator:  The crime in Chinatown turns out to be a massive political conspiracy to steal the water supply of Los Angeles. And in this twisted world, the private eye isn't just beaten up, he's disfigured. Gittes is in far deeper than he realizes, readily admitting later in the film that "You can't always tell what's going on." But the diabolic patriarch Noah Cross is more emphatic, stating, "You may think you know what you're dealing with, but you don't."
            Narrator:  One way that Chinatown reimagines the traditional crime film is in its setting. Unlike earlier film noir movies with their dark lighting, Chinatown happens in a largely sunny California world with wide open spaces—world that belies its dark underbelly. Still, the addition of rich yellows, reds and browns to the Los Angeles urban-scape in the film creates a sickly, rather than a sunny and natural climate.
            Narrator:  The femme fatale is a staple of the film noir movie, and in Chinatown that role is filled by Evelyn Mulwray, played by Faye Dunaway. But while Evelyn does seduce Gittes, the hard-boiled detective, the power of her sexuality poses little threat compared to the reality he uncovers behind it.
            Narrator:  When Gittes suspects Evelyn of murdering Mulwray and confronts her about it, Evelyn tearfully reveals that she was raped by her own father, Noah Cross, and that Katherine, the mysterious "other woman" initially seen with Hollis Mulwray, is both Evelyn's sister and daughter.
            Narrator:  The climactic sequence of Chinatown occurs in the LA neighborhood of the title, suggesting in a manner that appears rather racist today, that the corruption and violence of the film reflects a mysterious society in which traditional laws and ethics don't matter. Gittes's plan to help Evelyn and Katherine escape is foiled when the police show up and arrest him for withholding evidence and extortion. Noah Cross approaches Katherine and tells her that he's her grandfather, but Evelyn intervenes, pulls out her pistol, and fires at Cross. As Evelyn and Katherine try to escape in their car, the police open fire. Gittes watches helplessly as Evelyn dies behind the wheel of her car, and as Cross walks away unscathed with Katherine, who will no doubt become another victim of Cross's sexual abuse. In the end, Walsh, one of the policemen, can only comment, "Forget it, Jake, this is Chinatown," summing up how in this modern film noir, crimes go unpunished and there are no happy endings.

In these climactic clips from the two versions of True Grit, Rooster Cogburn races to find help for the severely injured Matte.
After watching the clip from True Grit (1969), directed by Henry Hathaway, consider the question below.
1. What in the first clip identifies this as a classic western?
2. Compare the lighting, cinematography, and sound in the two versions. In which ways does the Coens' version transform the original? How and to what effect does it displace the original western formulas?

 [text of video essay]: The Western and Genre Revisionism: Comparing True Grit (1969) and True Grit (2010)
            Narrator:  Revisionist genres act as a map of the history of film, as they show how filmmakers rethink and recreate generic formulas and conventions to reflect changing times and cultures. A comparison of the two True Grits—Henry Hathaway's 1969 original film and the Cohen Brother's 2010 remake—illustrates how remakes can be seen as an intensified version of genre revisionism, since many remakes stay fairly faithful to the original in content, while still revising and altering certain generic icons and formulas to create a new film.
            Narrator:  Both versions of True Grit, like so many other Western movies, are set in the open plains of the US frontier. However, there are some small notable differences between the two films. The original film often appears to tightly frame and focus the sets and setting around objects and concentrated actions, such as the hanging of three men that takes place at the beginning of the film. The remake opens the spaces of the Western in ways that seem to exaggerate the extreme isolation of the characters. Even in the same hanging scene, the space feels more open and less crowded than in the original film.
            Narrator:  The remake clearly takes advantage of a contemporary widescreen ratio of 2.35:1, which extends significantly the original film's 1.85:1 ratio.
            Narrator:  Central to both True Grits is the tough and independent cowboy Rooster Cogburn, played in the 1969 film by John Wayne, and in the 2010 film by Jeff Bridges. As is typical of the Western cowboy icon, John Wayne's Rooster has the hat, the guns, and a somewhat battered and gruff exterior.
            Narrator:  While the 2010 film creates an equally iconic version of that Western hero, Jeff Bridges as the remade Rooster appears as a considerably more dissolute, lost, and troubled character. If a loner cowboy is the central figure in many Westerns, a cluster of other generic types complement and contrast that central character. In both films, the menacing outlaw, Tom Chaney, is the nasty villain. While the straight-laced and somewhat inept Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf, acts as a foil for Rooster's unconventional but efficient rough-and-tumble ways. Mattie Ross, the young woman who hires Cogburn to hunt down her father's killer, is the real distinguishing character in True Grit. In both films, she is depicted as a highly articulate, feisty, and charming girl, who through sheer determination wins over Rooster.
            Narrator:  The climactic sequence in many Westerns is the showdown, usually a gunfight, between the hero and the outlaws. In True Grit, Rooster faces not one antagonist, but three, as he races headlong towards them on the open plain.
            Narrator:  The grand setting, the charging horses, and Rooster's bravado make him, as with many Western heroes, into an almost mythic image.
            Narrator:  As you can see, the look and feel of the gunfight sequence is quite similar in the two films. However, there's a significant difference in how the two films portray another key sequence, the one in which Rooster races to find help for the injured Mattie. Both films use this sequence to illustrate how the bond between Mattie and Rooster trumps the traditional Western gunfight. However, the original film presents this sequence in the bright light of day. Focusing primarily on the frantically clipped action of Rooster and Mattie racing to get help, first on horseback, then on foot, and finally ending with Rooster driving a wagon, pulled by horses.
            Narrator:  In the 2010 remake, this sequence presents a powerful revision of this generic formula. The Cohen Brothers choose to show this race occurring during a long and surreal night in which Mattie's features become the focus as she fights against time and death. In comparison to the 1969 original, the action of the Western in the 2010 remake occupies a strangely meditative space.

Agnès Varda’s Vagabond (1985) might be considered a contemporary road movie that follows its female protagonist as she hitchhikes around the French countryside—with no apparent direction.
After watching the clip from Vagabond, consider the questions below. Then submit your response.
1. In this clip, how does Mona’s movement and attitude suggest that she is both part of a tradition and a variation on the road movie protagonists?
 2. Unlike more traditional road movies, here the main character is a woman and a hitchhiker. How do these two facts seem to confront and subvert some of the common expectations and themes of the road movie genre? In this regard, how and why is her encounter with a truck driver and his truck both thematically and visually important?

Chapter 9 Summary

A film genre (“kind”) is a set of conventions and formulas that organize and categorize films according to repeated subjects, icons, and styles. Grounded in audience expectations about characters, narrative, and visual style, film genres are not merely formulaic, but also connected to the human need for archetypes, rituals, and communication. Film genres function as cultural rituals, the repetition of formulas that help coordinate our needs and desires.

A Short History of Film Genre

Genres have long been used to classify works of literature, theater, painting, music, and other arts. Primary functions of genre include providing models for producing other work, directing audience expectations, and creating categories for evaluating a work.
Since the beginning of film history, the importance of genre and the popularity of specific genres have waxed and waned depending on the historical period and culture.
In the 1920s and 1930s genre became a primary method of organization for the Hollywood studio system to efficiently produce, distribute, and market films for a mass audience. Although the Hollywood studios differed in size, strategies, and styles, each used a production system based on the efficient recycling of formulas and conventions, stars, and sets.
The Paramount Supreme Court decision of 1948 helped bring an end to the classical era of the Hollywood studio system and its industrial practices. Without control of a distribution network of theaters to ensure the profitability of its production decisions, the studio system gradually began its decline and with it waned the golden years of American film genres.
The 1970s brought forth the era known as New Hollywood, with film-school-educated directors drawing on established genres, special effects, and large advertising budgets to create blockbusters. Video and foreign sales helped such movies generate worldwide popularity, and the new corporate entities that owned the studios relied heavily on sequels and franchises.
The Elements of Film Genre
Genres identify group, social, or community activity and seem opposed to the individual creativity we associate with many art forms, including the art film. Our recognition of genre formulas and conventions allows us to understand genres as part of a historical evolution and a cultural community.
Generic conventions identify a genre through such features as character types, settings, props, or events that are repeated from film to film. For example, we expect a western genre film to take place in the American Southwest, have cowboys and sheriffs as characters, and be filled with plenty of guns and horses.
Reoccurring images and image patterns such as the dark alleys and smoky bars of film noir are referred to as iconography – images or image patterns with specific connotations or meanings. Certain conventions and icons can acquire larger meanings and become archetypes—spiritual, psychological, or cultural models expressing certain virtues, values, or timeless realities.
Generic formulas determine how generic conventions are organized throughout a plot. In some cases, these generic formulas can also become associated with myths—spiritual and cultural stories that describe a defining action or event for a group of people or an entire community.
Audience expectations describe a viewer’s experience and knowledge while watching a film that help to anticipate the meaning of particular conventions or the direction of certain narrative formulas. These expectations are guided by promotional practices, prior experience with film genres, and by the details of the film itself.
Genres are a product of a perspective that groups movies together, but these groupings can be constructed in many ways. Hybrid genres and subgenres help us better understand the multiple combinations and subdivisions of genres. Hybrid genres are those created through the interaction and fusion of different genres, such as romantic comedies or musical horror films. Subgenres are specific versions of a genre denoted by an adjective, for example, the spaghetti western (produced in Italy) or the slapstick comedy.
The six central film genres include:

  1. Comedies, which celebrate the harmony and resiliency of social life.
  2. Westerns, which feature lone protagonists (usually men) on some sort of quest into the natural world.
  3. Melodramas, which develop a conflict between the interior emotions of a character and his or her external restrictions.
  4. Musicals, where song and dance are the vehicles for expressing emotions.
  5. Horror films, which are about fear – physical fear, psychological fear, sexual fear, or social fear.
  6. Crime films, where deviance is the barometer of the state of society.

Making Sense of Film Genres

Although film genres have changed and spread considerably since the 1930s, they remain a critical measure of audience expectations as well as of a film’s ability to satisfy or disappoint, and surprise or bore, the movie viewer.
Film genres classify viewers’ experience and understanding of a movie. A generic perspective on a movie can be either prescriptive or descriptive. Both prescriptive and descriptive approaches can point viewers to particular ways of understanding a film.
Prescriptive approaches assume that 1) a model for a genre preexists any particular films in that genre; 2) a successful genre film deviates as little as possible from that model; and 3) a viewer can and should be objective in determining a genre.
Descriptive approaches assume that 1) a genre develops and changes over time; 2) a successful genre film builds on older films and develops in new ways; 3) a viewer can and should acknowledge that his or her subjectivity helps determine a genre.
The significance of a particular film’s engagement with genre conventions and histories is also shaped by its situation within classical or revisionist traditions. Related to prescriptive values, classical generic traditions establish relatively fixed sets of formulas and conventions associated with certain films or with specific places in history. Stemming from descriptive approaches, revisionist genre traditions see films as functions of changing historical and cultural contexts that modify the conventions and formulas of specific genres.
Additionally, classical genres can be viewed as both historical and structural paradigms. A historical paradigm presumes that a genre evolved to a point of perfection at some point in history and that one or more films at that point describe the generic ideal. A structural paradigm relies less on historical precedent than on a formal or structural ideal that may or may not be actually seen, in a complete or pure form, in any specific film.
In contrast, generic revisionism assumes genres continually change; films within a genre adapt their conventions and formulas to reflect different times and places. Some modern films exhibit generic reflexivity, that is, they are self-conscious about their generic identity and visibly comment on generic paradigms.
Although major Hollywood genres may be the most recognizable, we also notice generic patterns in films connected to more specific times, places, events, and cultures—what we might call “local” genres. These include such culturally specific genres such as Japanese jidai-geki films and the Austrian and German heimat films.
Some concluding review questions to consider:
1. How do genres function as cultural rituals?
2. What is the relationship between the classical era Hollywood studio system and film genres?
3. What is the difference between classical genre traditions and revisionist genre traditions?
4. What does the idea of “genres as constellations” refer to?
5. What are the three fundamental features of the contemporary film melodrama?