Film and Classical Genre. Rules for Interpreting: RULES OF THE GAME

By Snyder, John | Literature/Film Quarterly, July 1, 1982 | Go to article overview

Film and Classical Genre. Rules for Interpreting: RULES OF THE GAME


Snyder, John, Literature/Film Quarterly


Although popular genre designations abound in film theory and criticism, all of them seem vaporous when compared with the "big," historically literary genres of epic, tragedy, lyric, comedy, satire and romance. "Western" tells us little about the meaning of John Huston's The Unforgiven; "epic," however, discloses a world of cultural significance in the sequence during which the mother, pioneer woman incarnate, wistfully plays the family piano painfully safeguarded by her sons as they deliver it to their new sod-house. Nor does "Western" in the loftier sense of "American epic" penetrate the subtler implications in the conclusion to the plot of John Ford's The Searchers. "Romance" does let us see clearly the transmutation of tragedy through grace in the image of John Wayne lifting the white girl who has been an Indian captive with what we first feel to be wrath but which we then perceive is really the joy of deliverance. And how does "Western" explain Robert Aldrich's lean portrayal of an Apache "break-out" in Ulzana's Raid! Only a sense of the traditional genre tragedy can account for this film's objective yet passionate rendering of absolute violence in nature and man. The same critical weakness afflicts the specifically cinematic genres of "spectacle," "gangster movie," "horror movie," "film noir," "screwball comedy," and "poetic film" (in the avant-garde).

It is not that the literary genres are universals, either logical or anthropological. But entire artistic epochs, whatever their special new forms-mural, sonnet, sonata, music drama, film-can be properly understood for what they are in themselves only if they stand as phases of the historical development of the classical genres. For example, not only the typical relationship between soundtrack and visual image, but much of the fundamental structure of narrative film proceeds out of Wagnerian and Verdian music drama, a nineteenth-century form of theatre based on the traditional genre of tragedy that even today sounds and looks more like a movie than the realist novel.1

No film is more liable to distorted interpretation because of inadequate generic conceptions or incomplete application of traditional genre, than Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game (1939). An instance of inadequacy is Andre Bazin's otherwise rich conception of film as moving photography, a theory which culminates in his identifying Renoir as his ideal filmmaker. Bazin believes film to be an art radically different from other arts; its characteristic power is to enable man to extend his comprehension of reality construed as the "Not Me." Film is not an art, though, like music or painting, or we should not be able to respond so immediately to ajl the tricks the cinema has effortlessly absorbed from the "other arts." 2 Even, according to Bazin, the material of film art is not, as in classical sculpture, stone, or in painting, pigments, but external reality itself. But reality is the subject, not the material, of all arts insofar as they possess some mimetic capacity.

A clearer classification of film would take a less ecstatic account of film's technological origins than Bazin's; then film would appear comparable to other art forms also made possible by material innovation. "Film" derives from the name of the medium, like the symphony, which as a form takes its name from the range of instruments-strings, winds, brass, percussion-made possible by developing technology (in part, also, from the baroque instrumental style called "symphonia"). During the late eighteenth century, the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart, assuming as their material the orchestra playing "symphonically," then adopted sonata structure from the keyboard repertoire, creating a new version of a pre-existing form. When the critic tries to define the amplest significance of Mozart's G-minor Symphony, he may, however, distance himself from the purely musicological aspect by choosing to describe the music as "comic" or "tragic" (despite Hanslick), then explain how this music can be defined in terms of these genres. …

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