Genre

The genre may be considered as a practical device for helping any mass medium to produce consistently and efficiently and to relate its production to the expectations of its customers. Since it is also a practical device for enabling individual media users to plan their choices, it can be considered as a mechanism for ordering the relations between the two main parties to mass communication.

Dennis McQuail 1987, p. 200

Introduction

A key theoretical area that underpins Media Language is the study of GENRE. Genre is a way of thinking about media production (INSTITUTIONS) and media reception (AUDIENCES). Overall, genre study helps students to think about how media texts are classified, organised and understood, essentially around SIMILARITIES and DIFFERENCE. In that media texts hold similar patterns, codes and conventions that are both PREDICTABLE and EXPECTED, but are also INNOVATIVE and UNEXPECTED. The ideas of codes and conventions are the starting point to think about MEDIA LANGUAGE and has been discussed in earlier posts, remember each MEDIA FORM has its’ own language. Please note that although genre is often considered in terms of the Film Industry (as it is here) it is a concept that could be applied to all other media forms – music, radio, TV, newspapers & magazines, on-line/social media etc

Genre as ‘Textual Analysis’

Ed Buscombe notes that the ‘kind’ or ‘type’ of film is usually recognised “and largely determined by the nature of its conventions” (1986 p. 15). In other words, the textual nature of the media production. To understand the way in which textual analysis is used to define the genre of a media product, look at any extract from any film. In the extract provided on this blog post, from the Ballad of Buster Scruggs, you could ask students what they expect just from the title of the film and then by looking at just the first frame of this clip, discuss expectations. Get students to predict particular elements around: characters, setting, lighting, dialogue, music, sounds, mise-en-scene etc. From this excercise you should be able to elicit key characteristics (codes and conventions) that identify this as a Western.

Watch the extract and then talk about how students respond – identity any surprises – differences in expectations. It should show that although this clip follows generic expectations, it also shows how expectations can be altered, adapted, challenged, changed. In this way it might be possible to understand the notion of CREATIVITY. The way in which new ideas (creativity) emerge from the predictable and expected. It is also possible to identify this clip as something more nuanced than simply a Western. In some ways it hold conventions of other genres, as such it could be considered as a SUB-GENRE film (a genre within a genre) or a HYBRID GENRE (a combination of two genres). However, overall, it could be said that “genre is a system of codes, conventions and visual styles which enables an audience to determine rapidly and with some complexity the kind of narrative they are viewing” Turner p.97 ‘Film as Social Practice

Thomas Schatz: Only 2 Genres?

GENRES OF INTEGRATIONGENRES OF ORDER
ExampleWestern, Gangster, Sci-FiMusicals, Comedy, Romance, Melodrama
Lead characterHero – single / male / white /Western / straight / ChristianCouple / Family – focus on family or community – often Female
SettingContested Space / somewhere which is argued over (often an ideological battleground)Civilised space, perhaps recognised community space (often ideologically stable)
ConflictExternalised, against others (expressed through violent action)Internalised – ‘between themselves’ (often expressed tthrough emotion)
ResolutionElimination (death)Embrace (love)
ThemeThe hero takes upon himself the problems,contradictions of his society and saves us from them. Usually through a macho code of behaviour, such as, isolated self reliance, either through his departure or death. The hero does not fit in with the values and lifestyles of the community and retains his individuality.The romantic couple of family are integrated into the wider community their personal antagonims resolved. Follows a maternal and / or familial code of community co-operation

Genre as Institutional Practice

Schatz also presents a four part schema for the way in which genres develop

As Strinati puts forward, ‘genres are commodities shaped by the pressures of capitalism’ (1990, p. 44). Or as Neale puts it, there are ‘financial advantages to the film industry of an aesthetic regime based on regulated difference contained variety, pre-sild expectations adn the re-use of resources in labour and materials (1990, p 64). In other words, to understand genre is really to understand the structures and models that frame the media industry. As an example, Martin Scorcese, in his 1995 documentary A personal Journey through American Cinema talks about the way Hollywood was organised around large corporations who could be defined by recognisable styles. This shows the extent to which institutions can become genres in themselves – think for example, of Disney, Pixar, Working Title, Momentum, etc etc. While Scorcese recognises the innovation and creativity of many of the ‘tudio directors’, for others, it illustrates the extent to which ‘genres are dependent upon profitability and exemplify the standardisation associated with Hollywood cinema’ (Strinati, p. 48) which could equally applied to other media forms.

. . . saddled with conventions and stereotypes, formulas and
clich├ęs and all of these limitations were codified in specific genres. This was the very foundation of the studio system and audiences love genre pictures . . .

Scorcese, A personal Journey through American Cinema (1995)

Genre as Audience Recognition

However, if we only recognise the institutional impact of genre creation and ‘the somewhat dubious assumption that genres shaped by the film industry are communicated completely and uniformly to audiences‘ (Altman 1999, p. 15) we may fail to recognise the impact that individual audiences have in both creating and producing new forms of generic expression and development. The work of Steve Neale is often referred to when discussing genre. One area he looks at, is the relationship between genre and audiences. For example, the idea of genre as an enabling mechanism to attract audiences based around predictable expectations. He argues that definitions and formations of genres are developed by media organisations (he specifically discusses the film industry), which are then reinforced through various agencies and platforms, such as the press, marketing, advertising companies, which amplify generic characteristics and thereby set-up generic expectations. For example, he suggests that genres are structured around a repertoire of elements which creates a corpus or body of similar texts, which could all belong to the same category (ie genre). Expectations are based not only on key textual elements (as highlighted above) but also around overarching generic structures such as the idea of verisimilitude which involves a clear understanding and knowledge of’various systems of plausibility motivation, justification and belief'(1990 p.46) This brings up quite an important point in relation to the way in which cultural production – in this instance, the generic mass production of film – is able to structure our understanding around realism or how we understand andcognise the construction of reality.

However, Neale also promotes the idea that genre is a process, that genres change as society and culture changes. As such, genres are historically specific and reflect / represent changing ideas, attitudes, values and beliefs of society at any particular moment in history. This may explain, why genres are often blurred across different conventions and expectations, creating sub-genres, or hybrid genres, that mix-up, shape, adapt and adopt familiar ideas and expectations, but which essentially create something new (different) which is reconisable (familiar). This again suggests a close link between audience expectations, generic codes and conventions, institutional practice. In other words, as new forms of production become available (digital special effects, platforms that now look to specialise in specific production, for example, long form drama direct across new digital delivery systems, so new types of genres will develop and emerge. Once again creating what Buscombe suggested as ‘familiarity’ and ‘novelty’.

In general, the function of genre is to make films comprehensible and more or less familiar.

Turner p.97 ‘Film as Social Practice’

Sources:

  • Film as Social Practice, Graeme Turner (2000) Routledge
  • An Introduction to Studying Popular Culture, Dominic Strinati (2000) Routledge
  • The idea of genre in American Cinema‘ Ed Buscombe (1986) in Film Genre Reader B. Grant (ed)
  • A personal journey through American Cinema, Martin Scorcese (1995) Miramax/BFI
  • Hollywood Genres, Thomas Schatz (1981) McGraw-Hill
  • Genre, Steve Neale (1980) BFI
  • Film/Genre, Robert Altman (1990) BFI

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