Thursday, March 3, 2011

On Genre Theory

My last film review was a partnering with a friend to cover [Rec] and [Rec] 2, two in-your-face, over-the-top zombie films with tons of scares, gore and excitement. Now, feeling that I have to balance my geek side who wets himself over crazy fright-fests with my intelligent, sophisticated film connoisseur and aficionado side, here's a brief treatise on film genre theory.

Back when I was a student at NIU, I founded the NIU Horror Club, a campus group meant for watching and discussing horror films. Stuck within the paradigm of "horror" club, our members would often debate whether a given film that we showed fell within the horror genre. Each member had their own idea, usually based on their tastes and preferences, about what the horror genre was about. In this essay I will attempt to describe what horror, and all the other popular film genres, are "about."

It should come as no surprise that all the films grouped into one genre must have something in common, specifically something at their core that is absolutely vital to the nature of those films. Given the most commonly referred-to genres, and the ways in which they are discussed, I have concluded that there are two major principles that make up a genre: what is seen in the film, and what is felt by the viewer.

Horror is a very diverse genre that has taken many different forms. Films described as horror can portray serial killers; demons and monsters, both terrestrial and otherwise; viruses; murderers; haunted houses; and many other scary things. The scary thing can be clear and obvious, like Jason Voorhees, or more subtle or even unseen, like in The Blair Witch Project. These film are so diverse that they have little in common as far as what is actually seen on the screen. What they do have in common is the feeling of fear that is evoked in the viewer.

Comedy is another film genre along these same lines. Comedy can come from so many distinct places that iconography cannot be used to classify this genre. Instead the experience of laughter and the overall lightheartedness that comes from laughter is what defines a comedy.

Other modern genres of film that are of this type include romance, thriller, and drama films. The feelings of true love are what define a romance film. The excitement and suspense felt by the audience make a thriller. Drama sometimes acts as a left-over bin, meaning a film that doesn't clearly fit into the other groups falls here, but dramas are characterized by strong emotional attachments to a character that may not be specifically related to fear, humor, love or excitement.

All the genres that are defined by what is felt are defined as so because the iconography in those films are so varied. On the other side of the coin, there are film genres that have very similar iconography but varied moods and tones that accompany them.

Science fiction is a genre defined by its iconography of aliens, outer space, spacecrafts, computers, robots, and other things related to modern-day technological advances. These films can take very different tones and evoke very different emotions. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a sci-fi film that's very artistically crafted and awe-inspiring, with subtle themes of humans being replaced by something more intelligent. Alien is a sci-fi film that's very suspenseful, frightening and claustrophobic. This year's Paul has the images of sci-fi but is very much a comedy. This films listed have disparate emotions that they create in viewers, but are similar in the images shown on the screen, which is why they can be grouped into the same genre.

Western is another genre categorized by imagery: The Wild West, revolvers, cowboy hats, horses, tumbleweeds. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; True Grit and Blazing Saddles are disparate in the reactions to them, but are similar in the imagery depicted.

Other film genres of this type are action, fantasy, war, crime and musicals. All these genres have lists of imagery and events depicted that allow movie theorists to group them together, whether it be explosions and gunfights, fanciful creatures, battle scenes, bank heists or song and dance numbers. Each film can use its genres imagery to tell different stories with different themes, but they're still part of the same genre.

One thing to keep in mind about genres is that they're almost always approximations. The Matrix, for example, has imagery from sci-fi, action and neo-noir films, making it a difficult film to place into a visual genre. Most DVD stores divide their selection by genre, and store owners and employees have to use their best judgment when placing films like The Matrix and other genre-bending films.

Which brings me to my next reminder that film genres are never mutually exclusive. In fact, to really get an accurate description of what to expect with a film, it really should come with at least one visual and one emotional genre: a "sci-fi/horror" or an "action/thriller." The Matrix does not have to be permanently lumped into one genre when it can so easily be described as several others.

Hopefully this little blurb has provided some of you with a new way of looking at film genres. Possibly I've supplied an interesting rambling about movie stuff. At the very least I feel I've done something intellectual with this little blog of mine. So there.

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