Friday, July 20, 2007

Genre Theory and Criticism by Peter Hutchings

Genre theory and criticism
by Peter Hutchings

Genre first becomes a focus for significant theoretical and critical activity in film studies in the late 1960s and then on into the 1970s. Much of this work dealt with Hollywood cinema and, initially at least, placed itself in relation to the auteurist debates which had been so important in film criticism since the 1950s. For some genre critics, the study of particular genres provided the opportunity to situate the auteur more systematically (and perhaps more credibly) within the Hollywood set-up. For others who wanted to question the notions of creativity embodied by the figure of the auteur, the stress on genre represented, in Anthony Easthope's words, 'a tactical attempt to think beyond auteurism'.1

While this proliferation of critical activity around genre did not mark an unequivocal break with the past, it did enable new ways of thinking about film in general, and Hollywood cinema in particular, to emerge. However, an overall survey of the various articles and books associated with 1970s genre study gives one a sense of unrealized or thwarted potential, of perceptive and insightful work which eventually fades away into nothing. It has been suggested by Paul Willemen that the virtual disappearance of genre from film criticism's agenda was caused by the dominance of Screen theory, with its rather more generalizing concerns, from the mid-1970s onwards.2 Certainly there is some truth to this claim. But it can also be argued that the particular critical questions and issues which genre critics identified as being important proved in the end incapable of being sustained, and perhaps even blocked any sub­stantial and long-lived enquiry into the subject.

This chapter will record the positive achievements of 1970s genre study (which included contributions from, among others, Tom Ryall, Ed Buscombe, Colin McArthur, Douglas Pye, Steve Neale and Will Wright) and also identify some of the reasons why it foundered when it did. Also discussed will be the influential early work on film genres produced by Andre Bazin, Robert Warshow and Lawrence Alloway. It will be shown that while the insights of these pioneers of genre study often anticipated developments in the 1970s, certain other lines of enquiry opened up by their work were largely ignored by these later critics, arguably much to the detriment of their work. Finally, the chap­ter will look briefly at some important studies of specific genres (for example, 1970s and 1980s work on film noir and melodrama). It will be argued that accounts like these, which generally lacked the specific theoretical ambitions of much of the work mentioned above, often have a clearer sense of the historical and/or national specificity of genres, and offer an alternative way of thinking about genre to that offered by the 1970s theorists.

It is worth mentioning at this point that genre as a subject for dis­cussion has always transcended the traditional boundaries of film studies (in much the same way as issues relating to stars have done). While in the history of film studies genre theory comes after auteurism, it is also true to say that as far as the film industry and its audiences are concerned genres preceded any notions of highlighting the direc­tor/author as a meaningful way of ordering and classifying the cine­matic experience. While the auteur seemed to exist in spite of the structures of the industry and his or her presence was only detected (or perhaps constructed) by critics after the event, genres have always existed because of the nature of the industry. They offer a means by which the industry can seek to repeat and capitalize upon previous box-office successes. This connects with the way in which genres also pro­vide audiences with particular sorts of knowledge which they can use to organize their own viewing (although the terms of this relationship are not at all clear). Of course, this is a rather basic way of putting it, but, nevertheless, underpinning much academic writing is the sense that, when it comes to genre, the industry and the audience need to be held together in the same equation. (Compare this with the more clas­sical forms of auteurism where the industry tended to be that which had to be transcended and the audience was usually absent.) In fact, part of the appeal of studying genre is that it offers the opportunity to deal with cinema, and Hollywood cinema in particular, as both an industrial and a popular medium. What needs to be done now is to explore the vari­ous ways in which critics set about this task, beginning with some of the earlier forays into the field. As will become clear, certain problems quickly became apparent which would preoccupy genre studies for years to follow.

Genre's pioneers

The three distinguished critics to be discussed here are Andre Bazin, Robert Warshow and Lawrence Alloway. All shared the belief that genres carried an intrinsic meaning or significance, but each adopted a different way of thinking about this.

Andre Bazin is perhaps the best known of the three. Closely associ­ated with the French journal Cahiers du Cinema and the auteurist school of criticism, his writings on genre - notably 'The Western, or the American Film par excellence' and 'The Evolution of the Western' -need to be located within this context. (Indeed, in the latter piece, Bazin identifies authors/auteurs as a key factor in the evolution of the west­ern genre.)3 For Bazin, one of the key things that needed to be explained about the western, the American film par excellence in his own words, was its international popularity (an appropriate task, perhaps, for a non-American critic).

What can there possibly be to interest Arabs, Hindus, Latins, Germans, or Anglo-Saxons, among whom the western has had an uninterrupted success, about evocations of the birth of the United States of America, the struggle between Buffalo Bill and the Indians, the laying down of the railroad, or the Civil War!4

For Bazin, the answer to this question did not lie in the western's formal qualities, which Bazin identifies as specific settings, objects and scenarios: 'the western must be something else again than its form. Gal­loping horses, fights, strong and brave men in a wildly austere land­scape could not add up to a definition of the genre nor encompass its charms.'5 Rather, the western's formal attributes 'are simply signs or symbols of its profound reality, namely the myth.'6 Myth, as Bazin understands it, is universal and timeless, and manifests itself in the western through the portrayal of Manichaean struggles between the forces of evil and 'the knights of the true cause'. This mythic quality, according to Bazin, stands in a dialectical relationship with the west­ern's very specific historical settings, and because of this conjunction the genre takes on further epic and tragic qualities (both of which Bazin defines vaguely).

In 'The Western', the article in which these ideas are featured, Bazin is obviously painting in rather broad strokes and many of his general ideas about the western are, to say the least, questionable (although his recognition of the international dispersal of the genre is important). In 'The Evolution of the Western', however, he is much more specific about what he sees as the historical development of the western form. He argues that the western had attained a 'classical' perfection in the late 1930s, and that subsequent westerns, while not necessarily inferior, were, variously, 'baroque', 'novelistic' or 'superwesterns', 'a western that would be ashamed to be just itself, and looks for some additional interest to justify its existence'.7

For our purposes, two particular points of interest can be isolated in Bazin's writing on genre. First, there is the focus on the western (also apparent in the near-contemporaneous work of Warshow), a genre which would also preoccupy 1970s genre critics. In Bazin's case, his remarks refer to the western only; there is no attempt to relate these films back either to the conditions of their production or to a more gen­eral theory of genre. However, in the case of the 1970s work, the west­ern (and, to a lesser extent, the gangster film) was often used as an exemplar of genres in general. As will be shown, this caused rather more problems than it solved, as did the concentration on identifying the formal components of the western, a task dismissed by Bazin as an unsatisfactory way of defining the genre.

Second, there is a clear awareness running beneath Bazin's periodiz-ing 'classical' and 'baroque' terminology of the fact that specific genres do actually change as time passes, with these changes most apparent in the formal organization of the genre in question. A rather banal point perhaps, but later accounts of genre often shied away from a historical awareness of generic forms.

As Tom Ryall has noted, Robert Warshow's writings on the western and the gangster film offer a more ideological analysis than that offered by Bazin.8 What one takes from Warshow's work is a sense of the cul­tural and historical specificity of these groups of films (which immedi­ately sets his approach apart from Bazin's universalizing tendency), the way in which they provide answers to, and seek to resolve in imaginary terms, particular needs and contradictions within American society. For example, Warshow argues that the fascination with the film gangster entails an ambivalence about certain dominant American values: 'the gangster is the "no" to that great American "yes" which is stamped so big over our official culture and yet has so little to do with the way we really feel about our lives'.9

At the same time, Warshow does not see genres merely as mirroring a pre-existing social reality. Again and again, he stresses, like Bazin, the aesthetic significance of genres but, unlike Bazin, links this with the organization of the film industry and with audience expectations:

the gangster film is simply one example of the movies' constant tendency to create fixed dramatic patterns that can be repeated indefinitely with a reasonable expectation of profit ... One goes to any individual example of the type with very definite expectations, and originality is to be wel­comed only in the degree that it intensifies the expected experience with­out fundamentally altering it ... It is only in an ultimate sense that the type appeals to its audience's experience of reality; much more immedi­ately, it appeals to previous experience of the type itself: it creates its own field of reference.10

Finally, Lawrence Alloway, writing in the 1960s and early 1970s (and thereby overlapping with but considerably different in his approach from other 1970s genre critics), placed far more emphasis than either Bazin or Warshow on an understanding of the audience's experience of movies. 'The proper point of departure for a film critic who is going to write about the movies is membership in the large audience for whom they are intended."1 Importantly, Alloway was also one of the first crit­ics to use the term 'iconography' as a means of analysing generic iden­tity. Borrowing the term, and the critical practice it suggests, from art history (in particular, the work of Erwin Panofsky), Alloway sought to apply this concept to movies by identifying recurrent character types and situations which would become familiar to the audience through repetition and could be used by film-makers as a kind of shorthand.12 For Alloway, genres could be considered as preliminary iconographical groupings:

In this way we can indicate typical patterns of recurrence and change in popular films which can be traced better in terms of iconography than in terms of individual creativity. Indeed, the personal contribution of many directors can only be seen fully after typical iconographical elements have been identified.13

As with Bazin and Warshow, there is a reliance here on traditional notions of authorship, but elsewhere Alloway is far more interested in notions of collective authorship within the Hollywood studio set-up. For this reason, he does not try to identify any genre as a coherent whole but instead prefers to present a more fragmented picture of 'sets' and 'cycles' of films. One might argue here that Warshow's ideas about the 1930s gangster cycle of films could be framed within such an approach, as indeed could Bazin's periodization of the western when shorn of its evaluative rhetoric.

What one takes generally from these three critics is a sense of some of the possibilities of looking at American film in terms of genre. (The notable absence of European cinema from these and many later discus­sions of genre arguably derives from the highly questionable approach which associates Europe with art and America with commerce.)14 In particular, these early genre critics provide us with ideas about how genres might be dealt with critically, and with discussions of icono-graphy and generic themes which were especially pertinent to what was to follow in the field. Equally important, although it is rather more difficult to pin down, is an awareness in all three writers of what might be termed here the 'liveliness' and changeability of genres, with this awareness taking the form of a sense of genres' historical mutability, their geographical dispersion or their cultural specificity. As will become apparent, these latter insights were not always taken up in sub­sequent work.

Looking for Factor X: genre studies in the 1970s

'To say a film is a Western is immediately to say that it shares some indefinable 'X' with other films we call 'Westerns'

Andrew Tudor, Theories of Film15

One of the more striking things about 1970s work on genre is how much of it is British in origin. It is likely that the development of genre theory and criticism throughout this period was influenced by concurrent attempts to establish film studies as a recognizable discipline within the British educational establishment (not least because of the fact that much of this work was published by Screen and Screen Education and/or generated within the British Film Institute, all of which had a clear edu­cational brief). Hence there were numerous methodological discussions of the problems involved in defining and analysing film genres, with these surely functioning in part to locate the insights of Bazin and Warshow within the particular academic institutions and discourses of the period. At the same time, however, one also finds the now familiar belief that auteurism is a critical imposition on Hollywood in a way that genre studies is not, and that the turn to genre was a means of engag­ing with cinema as a popular medium. For example, Ed Buscombe, writing in 1970, notes that 'anyone who is at all concerned with educa­tion must be worried at the distance between much of the criticism now written and the way the average audience reacts to a film. For them it is not a new Hawks or Ford or a new Peckinpah; it is a new western."6

In the 1975 article entitled 'Teaching through Genre', Tom Ryall sets out what he sees as the parameters of genre study.

When we suggest that a certain film is a Western we are really positing that a particular range of meanings will be available in the film, and not others. We are defining the limits of its significance. The master image for genre criticism is a triangle composed of artist/film/audience. Genres may be defined as patterns/forms/styles/structures which transcend individual films, and which supervise both their construction by the film maker, and their reading by an audience."

Ryall's article was later to be criticised by Steve Neale for, among other things, the vagueness of its notion of a supervisory relationship between genres, film-makers and audiences." But the point I want to address derives from Ryall's insistence that genre studies takes the form, in his words, of 'defining the limits' of a genre's significance. The identifica­tion of a genre (or genres generally) as a legitimate object of study here involves authorizing particular readings of the genre and, as a necessary by-product of this, marginalizing or ignoring others. What this meant in effect at this time, not only in Ryall's article but in most of the other 1970s genre work, was that the 'meaning' of a genre tended to be read out from the films which comprised that genre - this was where the 'truth' of the genre was seen to lie. This was often accompanied by an acknowledgement of the active role of the film-maker in relation to this, but rarely by any clear sense of what audiences - the third element of Ryall's triangle - were supposed to be doing in this generic relationship. Clearly audiences were important - their presence in part served to legitimize genre studies, and distinguished it from an elitist auteurism - but did they bring anything to genres other than a particular knowl­edge and competence (to do with familiarity with generic conventions) which enabled them to interpret genre films 'correctly'? (This is cer­tainly how the audience is figured in Ryall's article, which concludes with an authoritative analysis of The Searchers, an analysis punctuated by references which imply that this reading is available to an audience if they have the appropriate knowledge.) One consequence of this film-centred approach is that the role of the audience within these critical discourses is often to serve as a rhetorical guarantor of the 'rightness' of the analysis offered by the critic. Real audiences (rather than Ed Bus-combe's 'average audience') sometimes seem a million miles away.

Bearing all this in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that so much of 1970s genre work was concerned with defining particular genres, and the methodological problems involved in this process. One of the key problems was identified by, among others, Andrew Tudor:

To take a genre such as a 'Western', analyse it and list its principle [sic] characteristics, is to beg the question that we must first isolate the body of films which are 'Westerns'. But they can only be isolated on the basis of the 'principal characteristics' which can only be discovered from the films themselves after they have been isolated. That is, we are caught in a circle which first requires that the films are isolated, for which purpose a criterion is necessary, but the criterion is, in turn, meant to emerge from the empirically established common characteristics of the films."

There seems to be a consensus at this time that Bazin and Warshow's tactic of using 'classic' genre films to provide a baseline for genre definition was impressionistic and generally unsatisfactory (although I have already suggested that Bazin and Warshow's writings do involve an awareness of the historical development of genres, an aspect of their work largely ignored in the 1970s). Tudor himself proposed two solu­tions to what he called the 'empiricist dilemma'. The first, rather arbi­trary option was to classify films 'according to a priori chosen criteria'. The second option was 'to lean on a common cultural consensus as to what constitutes a "Western" and then go on to analyse it in detail.'20 In other words, ''Genre is what we collectively believe it to be.'21 In a sense, the latter dissolves the empiricist dilemma by pointing out that the western (or other genres) is defined already via a shared set of beliefs and expectations, and, to a certain extent, places the critic in an Allowayesque position amid the audience (although, significantly, later in his argument Tudor insists that such an approach in itself is an unsatisfactory basis for a genre theory). At the same time, however, it merely replaces one problem with another, namely how does one iden­tify the 'common cultural consensus' which 'defines' a genre?

Douglas Pye offers a rather more sceptical account of the whole busi­ness of genre definition in his 1975 article, 'Genre and Movies':

In fact terms like 'definition' and 'classification', which seem almost unavoidable in genre criticism, are probably misleading: they suggest a greater precision of method than is in fact possible, and also tend to imply that genre criticism exists to establish territorial boundaries. It seems more likely that the outlines of any genre will remain indistinct and impossible to chart and that genre criticism should concern itself with identifying tendencies within generic traditions and placing indivi­dual works in relation to these.22

Like Alloway, Pye sees genres as offering resistance to any unitary or essentialist definition of their nature. However, unlike Alloway, his remarks are made within the context of a revisionary auteurism where an understanding of genre enables the critic to place the film-maker more successfully in relation to (in Pye's words) 'the immense fertility of convention in the American cinema',23 and which also bestows upon the audience, rather less excitingly, 'the necessary experience to enter into the conventional relationship'.24

In general, and despite widespread discussion of the problem of 'definition', most critics accepted - for pragmatic reasons if no other -that there were readily identifiable entities such as 'the western' and 'the gangster film' and proceeded to elaborate on those elements which they saw as binding together the respective genres. An important influence on this activity was the work of literary theorists Rene Wellek and Austin Warren who in their book Theory of Literature argued that lit­erary genres 'should be conceived ... as a grouping of literary works based, theoretically, upon both outer form (specific metre or structure) and also upon inner form (attitude, tone, purpose - more crudely, sub­ject and audience)'.25 Clearly literary genres are not the same as film genres, but Wellek and Warren's distinction between outer and inner form was quickly translated by critics into filmic terms so that a film genre's outer form was its iconography and its inner form its thematic identity.

One of the first to develop this idea (after Alloway of course) was Colin McArthur who in an unpublished article, 'Genre and Iconogra­phy', suggested that an iconographic study of genre would aid a semi-ological understanding of cinema. Focusing on the gangster film, he offered the following as a means of grasping the iconographic identity of that genre:

The recurrent patterns of imagery can be usefully divided into three cat­egories: those surrounding the physical presence, attributes and dress of the actors and the characters they play; those emanating from the milieux within which the characters operate; and those connected with the tech­nology at the characters' disposal.26

Ed Buscombe was also influenced by Wellek and Warren's ideas. In 'The Idea of Genre in The American Cinema' he stresses the impor­tance of an iconographic approach, and argues: 'Since we are dealing with a visual medium we ought surely to look for our defining criteria at what we actually see on the screen.'27 However, he is less concerned than McArthur to schematize the distribution of iconographic elements across films. Instead he lists what he sees as the constitutive iconic ele­ments of the western (which include settings, props, costumes, etc.) and suggests that 'these things operate as formal elements. That is to say, the films are not "about" them any more than a sonnet is about four­teen lines in a certain metre.'28 He then goes on to argue that these formal elements will predispose a genre towards certain themes: 'a start can be made by saying that because of the physical setting a Western is likely to deal successfully with stories about the opposition between man and nature, and the establishment of civilisation'.29

Much of this iconographic work can and has been criticized for its unquestioning acceptance of a form/content distinction (something that is clearly apparent in the quotations above). However, inasmuch as it focuses on the ways in which films can be meaningful without the pres­ence of an auteur figure, there are many useful insights to be gleaned from this material. That most of these accounts eventually turn back to a form of auteurism and away from some of the other avenues they have opened up - most notably, the ways in which audiences might relate to this site of meaning - should not detract unduly from their significance.

If for 1970s critics iconography provided the outer form of a genre, the underlying thematic preoccupations constituted its inner form. One important example of thematic genre analysis is provided in Horizons West, Jim Kitses's book on the western. Kitses argues that the idea of the West within American culture is 'an ambiguous, mercurial concept' which held together a number of ambivalent feelings and ideas about the progress of white American civilization. In order to illustrate this 'philosophical dialectic', Kitses sets out in tabular form a series of opposed values and ideas which, for him, identify the essential focus of thematic concerns for the western.30


The Individual The Community

Freedom restriction

honour institutions

self-knowledge illusion

integrity compromise

self-interest social responsibility

solipsism democracy

Nature Culture

Purity corruption

experience knowledge

empiricism legalism

pragmatism idealism

brutalization refinement

savagery humanity

The West The East

America Europe

the frontier America

equality class

agrarianism industrialism

tradition change

the past the future

The deliberate looseness of Kitses's defining thematic parameters enables him to describe the western as 'a loose, shifting and variegated genre with many roots and branches' and to chastise those critics who 'have ever tried to freeze the genre once and for all in a definitive model of the "classical" Western' (although in Kitses's reading of the genre, most of this variety and vitality is seen to be provided by auteurs such as John Ford, Anthony Mann and Sam Peckinpah).31 Of course, whether a comparable table of polarities could be drawn up for other genres is another matter entirely, and this problem in turn raises the question of the applicability of Kitses's approach to genre definition in general.

Unlike Kitses, Will Wright's Sixguns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western will have no truck with auteurs, but, as with Kitses, one is left wondering about the effectiveness of the proposed methodology outside the relatively limited confines of the western. In his account, and in a manner strikingly reminiscent of Andre Bazin's account of dif­ferent types of western, Wright seeks to identify particular structural formats and types within the historical progression of the western form and then attempts to relate these to broader shifts in American society. Wright argues that the western is a myth (although his notion of myth, which draws heavily upon the work of anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, is very different from that proposed by Bazin) or rather a set of myths which bind the viewer/audience to a particular social order: 'the structure of the myth corresponds to the conceptual needs of social and self-understanding required by the dominant social institutions of that period; the historical changes in the structure of the myth corres­pond to the changes in the structure of those dominant institutions'.32 Wright's four principal western types - the classical plot, the vengeance variation, the transition theme and the professional plot - are identified through a listing of narrative functions which, according to Wright, each film of a particular type must by definition share.

Wright's book is certainly detailed (and, in parts, dense to the point of laboriousness) and probably represents the most ambitious attempt to define once and for all a particular genre. Despite its exhaustiveness, however, this account of the western often feels rather sketchy, as if, even with all the details given here, further variants and more functions are required. In many ways, Wright's approach lives up to Tom Ryall's claim, discussed above, that genre studies should be about the defining of limits. However, it seems that in reality such an ambitious project finds it very difficult, if not impossible, to incorporate all the variations available within a particular genre into anything more than a provisional critical model. It is the combination of this approach with his mecha­nistic notion of how cultural production relates to dominant social insti­tutions that finally makes Will Wright's Sixguns and Society an intriguing, but decidedly problematic, intervention in the field of genre criticism.

Some of the difficulties that dogged 1970s genre studies in its attempts to pin down the identity and meaning of genres can also be seen to have derived from an overinvestment in the western, which to a certain extent was figured at this time as the 'typical' genre, an under­standing of which would eventually lead to an understanding of all genres. With its very specific historical and geographical setting (which in turn delimited the iconographic and thematic resources available to film-makers), the western offered an apparently hospitable terrain for 1970s genre critics to start their work. However, as it turned out, even with the western the whole business of definition was not at all straight­forward; and this was even more the case with genres which did not figure prominently in this debate. For example, both horror and melo­drama lacked the visual and iconographic unity of the western. It might be argued that many of the ideas and models developed within genre criticism at this time really only worked for the western (and then only to a limited extent), and when it came to constructing a broader under­standing of other genres and genre in general, genre studies as it stood was relatively ill-equipped for the task.

Linked with these problems, and implicit in the very notion that genre studies was or should be about defining and analysing particular individual genres, was a tendency to see genres as being more or less discrete entities. There was little awareness of how they might relate either to each other or to the structures and conventions of Hollywood cinema generally. Douglas Pye (along with Kitses) was one of the few critics of this period to point out that 'What is needed is a sense that all these films belong to the traditions of the American narrative film, a fact that is on the whole treated as unproblematical.'33 Unfortunately, this question did not occupy critics to any great extent throughout the first part of the 1970s and genre studies itself, when it came to the moment when it needed to move away from the western and address some of the broader issues, more or less faded away.

In 1980 Steve Neale reassessed the subject of genre, although he did so from a very different perspective to that adopted by earlier critics. Instead of beginning with and lingering over discussions of individual genres, Neale's book, Genre, outlined a much more wide-ranging theory of genre in terms of its particular function within classical narrative cinema. Influenced by Screen theory (to which Neale himself had been a contributor), Neale's approach involved seeing genres not 'as forms of textual codifications, but as systems of orientations, expectations and conventions that circulate between industry, text and subject'.34 For Neale, Hollywood cinema demanded the production of films which were, to a limited extent, different from each other, and genres provided a means of regulating this: 'they [genres] can function to provide, simul­taneously, both regulation and variety'.35 Neale also relates these ideas to an understanding of Hollywood as an institution which seeks to posi­tion the spectator in such a way that his or her experience of cinema will be characterized by feelings of mastery and fullness. This is never achieved once and for all but is rather a process, one which involves a constant moving back and forth between moments of equilibrium and control and moments of flux and instability. For Neale, genre provides one of the means by which this process can be managed: 'genres func­tion to move the subject from text to text and from text to narrative system, binding these instances together into a constant coherence, the coherence of the cinematic institution'.36

This is not the place to consider the theoretical issues raised by this model of cinema. As far as genre theory and criticism is concerned, Neale's account successfully identifies the need to think about genres in terms of the role they play within Hollywood cinema. At the same time, however, this account operates on a very abstract level, and generally seems incapable of incorporating any sense of the ways in which indi­vidual genres - or even the genre system itself - might change and develop through time. This is arguably because of the inherent ideal­ism of the theory of cinema upon which the book depends for many of its founding assumptions. As a result, while some of the inadequacies of previous accounts of genre are usefully addressed by Neale, some of the strengths of earlier work - in particular, the close attention paid to the ways in which particular films are meaningful - are also lost.

One area of Neale's work which perpetuates one of the difficulties of 1970s genre theory is its conceptualization of the audience. Character­istically for an approach deriving from 1970s Screen theory - which, in Jim McGuigan's words, left 'virtually no conceptual space for the audi­ence as a social rather than textual construct'37 - Neale's account tended to see the genre audience(s) as, to all intents and purposes, an effect of textual and institutional processes. As already noted, earlier critics had constantly acknowledged the importance of the audience but had gen­erally seemed unwilling to think about that audience (or audiences) in any systematic way, preferring as they did to focus on the relationship between film-maker and genre. This omission was all the more striking inasmuch as one of the key issues in 1970s genre studies - namely, the problem of definition - was mainly an issue for critics alone, not for the audiences for whom the genre films were intended. It could have fol­lowed from this - but did not in the period under discussion here - that audiences, and what Ed Buscombe referred to rather grudgingly as 'the aesthetic criteria of the man in the street', were rather more important in the 'meaningfulness' of genres than critics had supposed. Indeed, the problem of genre criticism was, at least in part, that the search for the identity and meaning of genre - the elusive Factor X - was being con­ducted in the wrong place.

Other accounts

In contrast to these approaches to genre, there are numerous studies of particular genres which largely take the existence of the genre in ques­tion (and genres in general) for granted and proceed to analyse them in terms of their relation to a socio-historical context, their ideological and political significance, or their development from their origins to the present day. Examples include work on the American horror film and feminist-orientated studies of film noir and melodrama.38 These accounts usually incorporate discussions of what horror/film noir/melodrama as genres actually do and are about, but there is little or no discussion of the issues which so preoccupied the critics and the­orists discussed elsewhere in this chapter, issues such as definition and other theoretical and methodological problems associated with thinking about film in terms of genre.

In her article '"Cinema/Ideology/Criticism" Revisited: The Pro­gressive Genre', Barbara Klinger points out some of the dangers courted by such approaches, particularly those which seek to identify any genre as being in itself 'progressive', that is to say disruptive of Hollywood's norms.39 As both Neale and Klinger have argued, disrup­tion is in a sense built into the Hollywood system (with genre a means of regulating this), and any account which misses this point risks over­valuing or misreading the genre with which it is dealing (although some of the accounts criticized by Klinger are - very explicitly - rereadings of genres which seek to place the genre in relation to a particular poli­tical or cultural agenda rather than attempts simply to identify what the films are 'really' about).

Despite these dangers, however, this work has been very beneficial to an understanding of particular genres. In part, this contribution is to do with the ways in which empirical material has been amassed which has clarified the historical development of genres.40 In part, it has taken the form of very detailed analyses of how genre films have addressed issues deriving from the context within which they were produced. Generally, we have a clearer view of the contours of genres and what goes on in them than we would have had without this work.

In a 1990 article entitled 'Questions of Genre' Steve Neale was rather more sympathetic to the notion of genres having particular histories and, importantly, also addressed the need to think about the often fluid boundaries between genres and the generic regime in which they are located.41 He was also willing to pay far more attention to elements which had been seen as extraneous to the business of genre study in the past, namely the journalistic and trade discourses which surrounded the films in question.

This move away from an exclusive focus on the films is helpful, but it could be taken further. As Neale himself acknowledges, genres exist not only in American cinema but also in other national cinemas and for non-American audiences. The more one considers this geographical dis­persal, the more genres seem to become rather fragmented entities. For example, as far as the horror genre is concerned, it arguably makes more sense to interpret British/Italian/Spanish horror films in relation to those institutions and practices which characterize the local cinematic regime rather than to lump them all together into a unified whole (with much the same to be said for other 'international' genres - melodramas, thrillers and, to a certain extent, even the western).42 Similarly, it is unlikely that the response of American audiences to, say, the western is going to be identical with the response of European audiences, and any study of the western should take this into account. This is particularly so given that recent work both on fan culture and on European popu­lar cinema has alerted us to some of the ways in which specific audi­ences can produce readings and interpretations that are not immediately available through a traditionally academic textual analysis.43 At the very least, it is worth considering what role such readings might have in the constitution of genres.

What this would mean for genre studies in effect is a certain amount of disruption. In particular, the triangular (and in retrospect rather her­metic) relationship between film-maker, film and audience drawn by 1970s genre theory would have to be pulled apart so that other issues -to do with national cinemas and the role of audiences - could be addressed. This does not mean that broader patterns or relationships could not be drawn, but they would need to be built upon a sense of the proliferation of genres across different contexts and institutions. It is arguably only through an awareness of the 'liveliness' of genres - or their resistance to the fixed and exclusive definitions which proved so troublesome for 1970s writing on genre - that an understanding of this important area of film can be further developed.


1 Antony Easthope, 'Notes on Genre', Screen Education, 32/33, autumn-winter, (1979-80), p. 39.

2 Paul Willemen, 'Presentation' in Steve Neale, Genre, London: British Film Institute, 1980, pp. 1-4.

3 Andre Bazin's What is Cinema: Volume 2 (Berkeley: University of Califor­nia Press, 1971) includes both 'The Western, or the American Film par excellence" and 'The Evolution of the Western' (both of which were origi­nally published in the 1950s).

4 'The Western, or the American Film par excellence', p. 141.

5 Ibid., p. 142.

6 Ibid.

1 'The Evolution of the Western', pp. 150-1.

8 See Robert Warshow, The Immediate Experience, New York: Atheneum, 1971, which contains both 'The Gangster as Tragic Hero' (originally pub­lished in 1948) and 'Movie Chronicle: The Westerner' (originally published in 1954).

9 'Movie Chronicle: The Westerner', p. 136.

10 'The Gangster as Tragic Hero', pp. 129-30.

11 Lawrence Alloway, Violent America: The Movies 1946-1964, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1971, p. 19.

12 Lawrence Alloway, 'Iconography and the Movies', Movie, no. 7, (Feb—March 1963), pp. 4—6. Also see Erwin Panofsky's essay, 'Iconography and Iconology: An Introduction to the Study of Renaissance Art', in his book, Meaning in the Visual Arts, New York: Overlook Press, 1974 (origi­nally published in 1955), pp. 26-54.

13 Alloway, Violent America, p. 41.

14 Andrew Tudor discusses European art cinema as a genre in Theories of Film, London: Seeker and Warburg, 1973, pp. 145-7: also see Steve Neale, 'Art Cinema as Institution', Screen, vol. 22, no. 1 (1981), pp. ll^tO.

15 Tudor, Theories of Film, p. 132.

16 Ed Buscombe, 'The Idea of Genre in the American Cinema', Screen, vol. 11, no. 2 (March-April 1970), p. 43.

17 Tom Ryall, 'Teaching Through Genre', Screen Education, no. 17 (1975), pp. 27-28.

18 See Steve Neale, Genre, pp. 7-17 for a discussion of 1970s genre theory.

19 Tudor, Theories of Film, p. 135-8.

20 Ibid., p. 138.

21 Ibid., p. 139.

22 Douglas Pye, 'Genre and Movies', Movie, no. 20 (1975), p. 29.

23 Ibid., p. 30.

24 Ibid.

25 Quoted in Buscombe, p. 36.

26 Colin McArthur, 'Genre and Iconography', British Film Institute seminar paper, p. 2. Some of the ideas included here were incorporated into McArthur's book, Underworld USA, London: Seeker and Warburg/British Film Institute, 1972. For a critique of McArthur, see Neale, pp. 11-13.

27 Buscombe, p. 36.

28 Ibid., p. 38.

29 Ibid.

30 Jim Kitses, Horizons West, London: Thames and Hudson/British Film Institute, 1969, p. 11.

31 Ibid., p. 17.

32 Will Wright, Sixguns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western, Berke­ley: University of California Press, 1975, p. 14.

33 Pye, p. 31.

34 Neale, Genre p. 19.

35 Ibid., p. 51.

36 Ibid., p. 49.

37 Jim McGuigan, Cultural Populism, London: Routledge, 1992, p. 62.

38 Andrew Britton, et a/., eds., The American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film, Toronto: Festival of Festivals, 1979; E. Ann Kaplan, ed., Women and Film Noir, London: British Film Institute, 1978; Christine Gledhill, ed., Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman's Film, London: British Film Institute, 1987.

39 Barbara Klinger, '"Cinema/Ideology/Criticism" Revisited: The Progressive Genre' in Barry K. Grant, ed., Film Genre Reader, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986, pp. 74-90.

40 For example, see David J. Skal, Hollywood Gothic, London: Andre Deutsch, 1992, for an invaluable historical account of the passage of Dracula from novel to screen.

41 Stephen Neale, 'Questions of Genre', Screen, vol. 31, no. 1, (spring 1990), pp. 45-66.

42 On European horror - still an under-researched area - see Peter Hutchings, Hammer and Beyond: The British Horror Film, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993; Leon Hunt, 'A (Sadistic) Night at the Opera: Notes on the Italian Horror Film', Velvet Light Trap, no. 30 (fall 1992), pp. 65-75; Kirn Newman, 'Thirty Years in Another Town: The History of Italian Exploitation Part I', Monthly Film Bulletin, no. 624 (January 1986), pp. 20-4; David Pirie, A Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema 1946-72, London: Gordon Fraser, 1973; on Italian westerns see Christo­pher Frayling, Spaghetti Westerns, London: Routledge, 1981.

43 For a discussion of fans, see Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers, London: Routledge, 1992; and Lisa Lewis, ed., The Adoring Audience, London: Rout-ledge, 1992. For discussions of European genre cinema, see Richard Dyer and Ginette Vincendeau, eds, Popular European Cinema, London: Rout-ledge, 1992.