10 September 2008

some thoughts on genre...

In the opening chapter of Film/Genre (a fundamental texts on genre films), Rick Altman tracks the history of genre theory from Aristotle through to contemporary accounts. Fundamental to this history for Altman is the distinction between historical genres (genre established by tradition) and genre theory (development of genres through criticism). In large part, this distinction turns on who defines genre, the producer, the viewer, or the critic.

Deciding how to define genre (or a genre) hinges upon what genre is for, what its purpose is, or what function it serves. If defined by (or for) the viewer, we might thing of genre as a sorting system, a way to categorize films in terms of content. For critics, genres might be thought of as a way to organize meaning and providing a system for talking about film. What Altman (as well as Linda Williams & Thomas Schatz) seem to ignore (at least early in their books) is the idea of defining genre in terms of the production of the films.

Looking at genre from this perspective makes the idea of genre primarily about profit, about money. Generic conventions provide a basic structure for filmmakers to construct a film off of. For filmmakers, genre provides market predictability, an established audience to consume the films. Of course, discriminating fans want variation and reinvention in their genres of choice, but genres make for a quick, easy formula for profitable movies.

Another aspect of genre theory that goes mostly unremarked in Williams and Altman is the assumption that determining or defining genre relies mostly on content. When Williams proposes pornography as a genre her early attempts to define all focus on the content of the films in searching for a definition.

I’m not entirely sure what these slight oversights amount to as of yet and am interested in seeing Williams and Altman hopefully explore them, these strike me as possibly underexplored lines of inquiry in genre theory.

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