Genre Theory Projector: Genre Theory Presenter: Tom Ryall described genre as a negotiation between producers, film and audience. The genre of a film is an indication of what the film is like. Genre attracts an audience and makes them feel safe and gives filmmakers guidelines to consider in order to create a product that targets an already identified audience. Genre could also be seen as a kind of classification that is given to the film after it’s made. However you think of it genre is a way of categorising films for the industry and its audiences. Genres have a set of conventions and movies of that genre tend to stick to them, intentionally, or subconsciously. Movies of a particular genre are expected to do certain things, but a genre can develop and change over time and could evolve into different things and new subgenres can be created. A genre can be combined with other genres to create hybrids. Comedy is probably the genre that has experienced the most change, but has also interestingly somehow stayed the same. Projector: Brief history of comedy films. 1895- 1930. Presenter: Comedy has changed many times over the years and continued to develop. Comedy films started in 1895 with the Lumier brother’s first comedy film a 49 second short film. In 1912 silent comedies came to America and in the 1910s and 20s comedians like Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton were silent comedy heroes. Then in 1927 the industry changed as sound came in and the studio era began. Studios operated through a system of vertical integration by owning the production company, the distribution organisations and the movie theatres got more control over the actors, the industry and the products. The effects of this can be seen in Buster Keaton’s work. He signed with MGM and was forced into to talkies which was inappropriate for him and his comedy style and therefore his career was never as big again. In the 1930s the motion picture production code was set up to censors and control the content of movies as seen mass entertainment and low brow and in danger of corrupting the population, this meant things were banned in film like overt sexuality and excessive violence both of which are comedic tools. Projector: 1949 to present. Presenter: In 1949 Howard Hughes split up RKO pictures and this process of divorcement caused a domino effect and by 1955 the studio era was over. And because studios didn’t own movie theatres anymore it meant the production code would be too hard to enforce so by 1968 it was abolished. TV was competing with films and for the 1960s and 70s films didn’t make as much money, so it gave people like Monty Python more freedom to create the kind of film comedy they wanted. Filmmakers were making second cinema style films. Satire was used more and was closely associated with surrealism. By the 1980s cinema became more money orientated again and the big five studios were replaced by the big six conglomerates and horizontal integration took over and all of this obviously had an impact on comedy as a genre. Projector: Iconography Presenter: Iconography is a very important feature of genre because it’s what the audience sees that makes them think what genre the film is and it’s the audience’s
first impression is very important. Iconography can grab an audience’s attention right from the start. In silent comedy films there were lots of dangerous stunts, so commonplace in those films would be ladders, buckets, ledges and things that accidents could occur around. These objects were common because they were usually things that appeared in everyday life and things the audience could relate to. In screwball comedies poor people wearing rags, or dirty cloths and rich wearing expensive suits, or dresses and jewellery were clear indicators of the subgenre. This difference in clothes was to visually straight away show the audience who was rich and who was poor. These films were made during the great depression, so the poorer character would be established as the protagonist. These films were made to relate to the audience and provide escapism from their everyday lives and they were required to empathise and sympathise with the protagonist as well as laugh at his exploits. By the 1950s iconography was much brighter and looked more appealing, because by then films had mastered the use of colour and beautiful imagery was able to complement the highly made up actors and actress. These films were said to be a sly dig at the bourgeoisie as seen in Billy Wilder films like ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’. The colour was used to show the lavishness of the world the characters lived in and the artificiality of such an existence. This same type of iconography is used in teen comedies like ‘I love you Beth cooper’, beautiful girls, swimming pools and big parties were used to show the difference between the cool kids and the uncool kids and put the audience in the envious position of the main character, who is often some one who is uncool. Projector: Camera work Presenter: Camera work is an important feature in genre and each has its stylistic conventions. In the silent comedy era camera work was less complicated as most shots were long shots. Characters walked into shot and the camera often didn’t move. In the 1960s film makers like Blake Edwards used more adventurous cinematography to make films more appealing. By this time films were set in more elaborate locations so establishing shots were used to show this off, like in films such as ’Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ and ‘The Pink Panther’. Tracking shots were also used more frequently to excite the audience and make films seem less stationary, with camera work being wed to take advantage of colour and attract a more impatient audience who were by then likely to have TVs. Projector: Editing. Presenter: Editing is a very important convention for defining genre. Up until the 1950s fades were used to go from one scene to the next, but as the world became faster with more advanced technology, editing became faster and fades were phased out. Events in the films were also spread out over more scenes, which made the film world seem bigger in a way. This may also be because narratives had more detail and were adapted to suit an ever more complicated modern world, and as a result detail was needed in films more. Whereas an event may take place in one scene and then another separate event takes place in another scene in the 1930s or 40s, now action matches were used to link the scenes and montages became standard to convey a longer period of time in the story using a shorter period of screen time. For example in the 1977 film Annie Hall a montage is used to show the progression of the relationship between the two main characters Alvy Singer and Annie Hall.
Projector: Sound Presenter: Up until the 1950s most sound that was used was diegetic sound. Although sound effects were used, they were used to emphasize something that was going on in the film like something falling or someone being hit. Dialogue was also used simplistically in that period in the same way as physical comedy was used, to get a quick laugh, to be digested fast, then for the plot to resume. However, by the 1960s filmmakers like Peter Cook and Dudley Moore used word play more and dialogue became wittier. In most films from the 1920s to the 1960s characters who were lower class would have high pitched annoying voices or slow voices, often with a bit of a stutter as seen in the Ealing Studio films like ‘Passport to Pimlico’ and American films like the Jerry Lewis’s and Dean Martin ones. While characters that were middle or upper class would have deep authoritative manly voices, like Carry Grant in ‘Bringing Up Baby’ or sexy smooth seductive voices like Marilyn Monroe in ‘The Seven Year Itch’, who would act as objects of desire, as the unobtainable love interest for the fool hardy comic protagonist. Up until the 1950s or even 60s pre-emptive sound was rarely used, but as time went on it was used more and now it’s the standard, to keep viewers attention and to make the plot flow smoothly. Projector: Subgenres and Hybrid’s: themes and narratives part1 Presenter: Comedy probably has the most sub genres and hybrids. There are loads to choose from. Here are some of the most important subgenres and hybrids with their typical themes and narrative. Slapstick is a comic device as well as a subgenre. There are elements of slapstick in modern gross out comedy films today like ‘Meet the Parents’ for example in the scene where Greg Focker is playing a game of water polo with his in laws and breaks one of their noses as he accidently smashes a volleyball at her but it’s mostly associated with early black and white comedies. Slapstick was used in silent films a lot because there was no sound and it was often the only way to get a laugh. These comedies would often have a similar narrative, some one trying to get or achieve something and running into a series of challenges from everyday simple things that shouldn’t go wrong. These films would often involve the character having some kind of love interest and a happy ending at the end. Though Charlie Chaplin’s endings were more bittersweet, like in ‘The circus’, with him sacrificing his own happiness for someone else’s. Dark comedy films were made mostly in the 1960s and 70s when the youth were rebelling against their parents and people who went before them. Black comedy was a kind of new age cinema. The generations using satire and social commentary and gallows humour to offer an often-critical view of the world around them. Most black comedy deals with death, such as Military comedies, another subgenre that is closely associated with dark comedy. These comedies mock the army and often portray the army officials as idiots whose decisions have tragic circumstances. These were largely made during the Vietnam War and because they couldn’t be about the Vietnam War they set them in World War 1 or 2, or the Korean War. In the 1990s military films came back again, only now they are mostly a critique on wars like The Gulf War or Afghanistan, wars that most people think we shouldn’t have been in. The narrative was often a solider who was feeling patriotic going into war and slowly realising the hellish situation he was in, questioning the notion of war and the awfulness of human kind, for example this is the feeling of Captain
John Yossarian the protagonist in the 1977 film Catch 22. Projector: Sub and Hybrid Genres: themes and narratives part2 Presenter: Caper films showed the brilliant chic and colourful visual style of the 1960s and 1970s. These films would normally involve a group of people getting into a dangerous situation, normally chasing something like money and escaping someone, or something, like the police. A set piece of these films would be some kind of chase. You could say that caper films were based on silent comedies as you can see a lot of similarities; people chasing something and or running away from something and some kind of chase is common. Another important feature of the caper film is the cliff hanger ending, this being literal in ‘The Italian Job’. The 1980s made popular a lot of new comedy sub genres and hybrid such as buddy comedies and road comedies, both had pretty much the same structure and themes. They would be about friends together on some kind of adventure and they would fall out half way through but resolve their problem by the film’s end like Teen comedies at this point were a new art of protest. Often young people from 13- 18 would defy their parents and these films celebrate the humour in this. It was a much watered down version of 1960s and 70s protest films and often had tainted morals such as the 1986 film ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ in which there was no moral objections to stealing cars or taking a day off school. A popular hybrid genre in the 1980s was action comedies, which are frequently made to this day. These films were a hybrid of comedy and action but mostly combine the buddy comedy and caper films with films like ‘Beverly Hills Cops’ and ‘21 Jump Street’. However, the most popular and most recognised hybrid or sub genre is romantic comedies. These films have been made prolifically from the 1910s to the present day with a slump in 1960s. They would often follow the three-point structure very strictly. In the beginning a male or female would be trying to win someone over, they would get their attention, but eventually come across some kind of dilemma and in the end it would resolve itself with them living happily ever after, or the protagonist realising he or she loves someone else and that would usually resolve in a happy ending. Woody Allen’s ‘Annie Hall’ revolutionised this hybrid with a more melancholy attitude towards love. His use of montage and voice over has now become the standard for Romantic Comedies as can be seen in ‘500 Days of Summer’. Projector: Characters Presenter: Particular types of comedy films often have particular characters in them. Satirical films like military comedies would often have an authority figure, typically some kind of army official whose stupid actions would have serious consequences, or in Teen Comedies a teacher. The antithesis to this would be someone who rebels against them. Who often act as the voice of the people, like Ferries Bueller in the film ‘Ferries Buellers Day Off’, or John Yossarian in the film ‘Catch 22’. This often is to unite the audience behind a figure and put them up against a common enemy. In the silent comedy era actors would often just play one character, like Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp. In the Hollywood golden age actors would also often be trapped into playing the same character by a long term studio contract, like Carry Grant who was often the dream man who would pull females into the cinema, or like Marilyn Monroe who was the sex symbol who would attract a male demographic. Overtime actors have become more versatile and have been allowed to be so with the fall of the studio system and the end of long term studio
contracts. Peter Sellers optimised this in ‘Dr Strangelove’ by playing three characters! But even in this day and age actors and actresses often get type cast and become part of ensemble casts like the set of actors in romantic comedies (such as Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn). Projector: Experimental Presenter: Christian Metz said that genres went in cycles and that cycle had four stages. The first stage was the experimental stage. This is the stage at which the conventions of, a genre are being established and the genre is starting to take shape. For the comedy genre the experimental stage was probably the silent comedy era which ran from the invention of cinema until the 1920s. This was because this era is where all the elements of physical comedy and the typical narrative of a comedy film, that are still used in comedy films today, were established. Films like Buster Keaton’s ‘The Navigator’ excellently showed the development of the conventions that would shape the genre. You can see from this film how the typical narrative in this genre was established. In this film the narrative consists of the protagonist getting himself into an adventure in which a series of unfortunate incidents would take place often caused by no fault of his own while he’s on the quest to his goal which was established at the beginning of the film. The protagonist, as well as chasing a goal, would also often be escaping something or someone, who would by default be the villain, while he was on his quest. In this film you see Buster Keaton’s character Rollo Treadway escaping the natives of the island he has broken down in front of while trying to achieve the goal of winning over the girl he likes, Betsy. The protagonist often achieves the goal in the resolution of the film, except in Charlie Chaplin’s films, which often have a more melancholy ending to them. The villains or antagonists that chase the protagonist are often people the protagonist gets on the wrong side of by accident and who throughout the film aim to seek revenge on the protagonist, which is what by default makes them the villains. For example, you see in this film the protagonist gets on the wrong side of the villagers by no fault of his own but by breaking down in front of the island and is subsequently chased by them because they thought he was coming to the island and saw him as trespasser. However, he only stopped in front of the island because his boat broke down. (play clip). Also in this stage the main actors always reprised the same character for most if not every film they made, maybe sometimes changing the name, though even if they did they would act the same, dress the same and behave the same way in situations in all their films. For example, Chaplin would reprise his persona of The Little Tramp in most of his films and Buster Keaton would reprise the character ‘The Great Stone Face’. The typical recurring costume of comedians of this era was a suit, or some kind of smart attire which can be seen in both of my selected clips from this film. This maybe done so audiences would feel a close affinity with the film’s character and actors playing those characters as at this time actors weren’t as connected with their audiences as they are now. Films from this stage create comedy out of everyday situations that would otherwise probably be boring in real life. I think the reason they chose to do this is because everyday life was something everyone could relate to as it’s essential to understand something to see the comedy in it, and the means of sharing information on different ways of life weren’t as developed as they are now, so producers and writers would have more confidence that audiences could relate to
this everyday activies. The comedy was also very visual at this stage which was probably because sound hadn’t come into cinema yet, so this was the main, if not only way to convey comedy. Often in these films little incidents would happen that create visual comedy but aren’t essential to the narrative of the film. This is because it’s hard to progress a narrative while at the same time having characters fall through windows, or hit a policeman by mistake, but they have to be included because these accidents are the set pieces that are essential to comedy and as such to the genre. For it to be comedy you have to try and make audiences laugh. Furthermore at this time cinema was still being seen as novelty and wasn’t challenging audiences like cinema and comedy films are today, so they simply wanted to make something funny on appearance, not something that challenges the audience to think about the punch line like comedy films do today. Silent comedians of this era were always trying to use their environment around them to create visual comedy that was accessible and relatable to the audience. Whether that be Charlie Chaplin fixing windows in ‘The Kid’ or Harold Lloyd dancing in ‘An Eastern Western’. You can see Buster Keaton do this in ‘The Navigator’ in the sequence where Rollo Treadway is making dinner for him and Betsy O’Brien. For example the protagonist Rollo tries to open a tin can with a can opening device by puting a tin can in between his feet and sitting on a table in the store cupboard of the ship in a butterfly position. He tries to open it with a tin opener and ends up drilling a hole through the tin can and spilling the contents all over the floor as it seeps through the whole on his walk to the kitchen. He then attempts to get boiled eggs out of a large boiling pot in the kitchen with a ladle and fails miserably, as he ends up dropping the eggs on the table which splatter as a result. This is an everyday situation that audiences would be likely to relate to as they have experienced the same thing. It’s very visual and this sequence is never referenced again in the rest of the film. If it was taken out of the film the plot would still be exactly the same, it’s simply funny on appearance and audiences don’t have to think about it too much. (Play clip). This is the experimental stage as film comics are just starting to learn what makes audiences laugh and establishing types of characters and narrative audiences would like. Projector: Classic Presenter: Then Metz argues a classic stage follows. This stage is where the films from this genre all tend to be very similar and stick to the same conventions. It’s at this stage you can most easily define a film as being part of its genre. This stage is of course influenced by all that has been developed during the experimental stage. I think the classic stage in the comedy genre was from the 1930s to the 1960s. A good example of a film from this stage is Laurel and Hardy’s ‘Sons of the Desert’. You can see how it’s been influenced by films like The Navigator in the terms of the narrative and it’s use of visual comedy; the characters are chasing after a goal, which in this case is going to the convention and are also avoiding something which in this case is their wives. They end up getting into an adventure in which a series of unfortunate events take place and there are unfortunate incidents that take place by no fault of their own. Like films from the experimental stage they also feature sequences of visual comedy that are also completely isolated from the plot and stem from everyday situations. For example Ollie falling into a water bath in his living room that was meant for his feet. The main actors would still play the same or similar roles in most, if not all other films as Oliver Hardy always played the
authoritative clever sneaky conniving meddler and Stan Laurel played the less intelligent innocent minded easily influenced sidekick. And as seen in both clips from this film they still seem to be predominately wearing suits. But this stage has developed from films in the experimental stage, as films from this stage have more complex narratives, the characters had more depth, there was more of a complex character dynamic between the characters and the jokes were subtler. This is because this stage benefited from the invention of sound in cinema, so word play could be used and characters dialogue could express how characters reacted differently to each other. You can see in this clip here the use of word play to disguise a joke and not make it too obvious when Oliver says to Stan ‘why did you get a veterinarian’ and Stan says ‘I didn’t think his religion would make a difference’ when Stan orders a doctor round to the house and Stan and Ollie wait at the door for him to arrive while Ollie is dressed in a bathrobe. Audiences now have to think about what a jokes punch line is rather than simply just seeing a joke in pure simplistic form. (play clip) And you can also see how characters react differently to each other, as Oliver acts like a big brave authoritative man around Stan, but acts like a mouse around his wife, which can be seen in this clip as Ollie berates Stan in the back of a moving taxi cab about the fact he has to stand up to his wife, when Stan says he was scared to take an oath in case he wife doesn’t let him go to the convention, while talking confidently legs and arms apart leaning back in his seat in a strong authoritative posture. While when he’s with his wife explaining how he wants to go the convention you can see him moving around more rubbing his hands together nervously and more importantly you hear his voice lose it’s confident authoritative base tone and he speaks faster stutters, as he says the word three times. [Play clip] Projector: Parody Presenter: The parody stage is the stage in which the films of the genre start to play around with their genre conventions. This is because by this time the genre is so well established as it’s been around for such a long time and films of that genre have become so similar, filmmakers start to get bored and therefore make fun of the genre and experiment with new ways to breath new life into the genre in order to entertain audiences. For the comedy genre I would argue that this stage was from the 1960s to the mid 1970s. This was because films didn’t have that same pressure to make money as they would have in the classic stage which was around the time of the studio system, or in the 80s during the era of the blockbuster. Hollywood wasn’t as profitable as it had been and censorship was relaxed at this stage so filmmakers got more freedom to make the films they wanted to make. Film studios didn’t have the same tight grip on their talent anymore also. I think a prime example of this would have to be Monty Python’s ‘Holy Grail’. This film still follows a similar plot to the films from the other stages, which the main character chasing a goal, in this case the Holy Grail and therefore going on an adventure in which unfortunate incidents occur while escaping a villain who is chasing them, which in this case comes from several sources. There were still isolated incidents that weren’t related to the plot, but were just there as a means to inject a burst of comedy into the film and which were also still very visual. For example when Arthur chops the Black Knight’s limbs off in the forest and the Knight still wants to fight him saying the famously quoted lines
‘merely a flesh wound’. These films also made use of sound by using word play and subtle jokes like that which were used in the classic stage. However, the word play by then had got even sharper and even subtler as you can see in this clip where, after Cleese’s character Sir Lancelot marches into Swamp Castle and slaughters a wedding party under the impression they are all holding a woman hostage, the father of the prince who Sir Lancelot mistakes for the damsel in distress tells Sir Lancelot ‘the groom has been slaughtered’ and Sir Lancelot quickly responds ‘is he alright’. (Play clip) Films from this stage also started to mock conventions established in the classic and the experimental stage. For example this film played with the text in the opening credits and as you see in this clip mocked the typical Hollywood three stage plot structure established in the previous two stages by having a modern day policemen appear at the end and stop the rampage on the castle and arrest the villagers and knights. This film’s mockery of the classic Hollywood narrative employed by the genre and traditional time constrained characterisation for period comedy tamper with the whole film’s diegesis, which is a brilliant display of parody. [Play clip] Another convention that was established in the experimental and classical stages is that the actors in comedy films largely play the same characters across their films and this is completely mocked here by the fact that in this film most of the main characters multi role several times in the course of one film, playing completely different characters with completely different costumes. Here John Cleese plays a total of six characters, which are the Second Soldier in opening scene / Man in plague scene with body / Black Knight / Third Villager / French Taunter and Tim the Enchanter. This again may also be due to writer’s disillusionment and boredom of the typical conventions of the genre. Projector: Deconstructive Presenter: In the deconstructive stage the films from that genre lose a lot of the genre conventions that were consolidated in the classic and experimental stages. The genre will build on its development in the parody stage and subsequently change into something else. I believe this is inevitable as artists will get bored just making the same films over and over again they need to progress and audiences tire of things they become over familiar with. For the comedy genre I believe the deconstructive stage took place in the late 1970s and early 80s and I believe the cycle kicked off again with the experimental stage in the latter part of the 80s and the 90s while the classic stage was in the first decade of the 21 st century and maybe we’re moving into another parody stage at the moment. But I think a good film to illustrate this deconstructive stage is 1977’s ‘Annie Hall’. This film still retains some similarities to the previous stages as it still uses word play and subtle jokes like when Woody’s character Alvy says ‘don’t knock masturbation. It’s the only way to have sex with someone you truly love’. It still features bursts of visual comedy that aren’t integral to the plot, such as when Alvy is struggling to boil lobsters in his kitchen and it’s used the parody stage’s playing with onscreen text in the scene when Alvy and Annie talk and subtitles appear across the bottom of the screen that say what they are actually thinking. Woody Allen in the spirit of the classic and experimental stages, inspired by comic inspiration Groucho Marx, also plays similar characters, if not the same character with a name change in each of his films. However, it’s lost it’s linear narrative as Alvy narrates the story in the past tense as
you can see from this opening clip where Alvy stands in front of a plain yellow background wearing a grey jacket and checked shirt doing a piece direct to camera talking in the past tense about how he doesn’t know how his relationship went wrong with Annie, recalling the film’s narrative before the film’s narrative has even started. (Play clip) As well as breaking the 4 th wall with direct address to camera, this film also uses devices like montages to tell a story set over a long period of time in a short amount of screen time. The narratives of films from the deconstructive stage stretch beyond the simple purpose of making audiences laugh and now dealt with serious more depressing themes that may relate to the audience, such as in ‘Annie Hall’ which deals with the break up of relationships. By this stage comedy films no longer simply featured the same narrative of a protagonist chasing a goal while being chased by an opposition and this change has now lead the way for films in the comedy genre now to be dealing with existential themes, such as are we wishing our life away and jumping back and fourth in the narrative, such as in Adam Sandler’s film ‘Click’. Projector: Strengths and weaknesses to Genre theory Presenter: I believe there are strengths and weaknesses to genre theory. There are common conventions present in films that allow us to tie them together into categories of films called a genre. However, not all films fit into a genre as not all films specifically share conventions with anyone specific genre. However, I also believe genre theory applies to a majority of films because there is very limited to room to create completely new ideas and at some stage everyone is influenced by something. As someone famously said, there are only five different kinds of story and therefore is it very unlikely for a filmmaker to make something entirely original that cannot fit into any genre, or any hybrid. I do believe the theory may end up being less relevant, given that most movies are now hybrids often based on a concept that can be exploited via synergy and the industry’s horizontal integration structure.