Cinema and GenreRICK ALTMAN
GENRE BEFORE FILMBorrowed from the French word meaning 'kind' or 'type'
(and derived from the Latin word genus), the notion of
genre has played an important role in the categorization
and evaluation of literature, especially since the Italian-
French Aristotelian revival of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In literary studies, the term 'genre' is
used in a variety of ways, to refer to distinctions of different orders between categories of text: type of presentation (epic/lyrici/dramatic), relation to reality (fiction/nonfiction), level of style (epic/novel), kind of plot (comedy/
tragedy), nature of content (sentimental novel/historical
novel/adventure novel), and so forth.In an attempt to lend order to this confusing situation, nineteenth-century positivism spawned scientistic
attempts to model the study of literary genres first on Linnaeus' binomial classification of animals and plants
(where each separate type is identified by two Latin words
indicating genus and species), followed by even more
insistent schemes to base the study of genre history on
Darwinian notions of the evolution of genus and species.
Culminating around the turn of the century, at the very
time when cinema was being transformed from a newfangled curiosity into a lucrative world-wide industry,
these appeals to scientific models failed to lend precision
to the notion of 'genre', even though generic designators
continued to be widely used as broad categories for the
sorting and classification of large numbers of texts.
EARLY FILM GENREDuring the earliest years of film production, individual
films were most often identified by length and topic, with
genre terms applied to films in only the loosest of fashions
('fight pictures' in the late 1890s or 'story films' after 1904).
When around 1910 film production finally outstripped
demand, genre terms were used increasingly to identify
and differentiate films. Whereas literary genre was
primarily a response to theoretical questions or to practical large-scale classification needs (such as library
organization), early film genre terminology served as
shorthand communication between film distributors and
exhibitors.The earliest film genre terminology was commonly borrowed from pre-existing literary or theatrical language
('comedy' and 'romance') or simply described subjectmatter ('war pictures'). Subsequent film genre vocabulary
was often derived from specifically filmic production practices ('trick film', 'animated picture', 'chase film', 'newsreel', or 'film d'art'). As cinema production became
standardized during and after the First World War,
however, genre terminology became increasingly specialized, designating not the broad genres of the literary
or theatrical tradition, but diverse subgenres of cinema's
two major strains, melodrama and comedy. Before 1910,
in the United States, distributors and exhibitors regularly
used both a particularizing adjective and a generalizing
noun to describe genres ('chase comedy' or 'western
melodrama'). During the later silent period, the noun was
often dropped, while the adjective took on a substantive
role. Thus 'slapstick', 'farce', and 'burlesque' became separate genres rather than simply types of comedy. Similarly,
cinema's debt to melodrama was disguised by the use of
generic terms like 'Western', 'suspense', 'horror', 'serial',
or 'swashbuckler' in the United States, ' Kammerspiel' in Germany, 'boulevard film' in France, and 'jidaigeki' (period
film) or 'gendaigeki' (film of modern life) in Japan.
GENRE FILM IN THE STUDIO PERIODIn dealing with genre terminology, it is important to distinguish among the different functions that the notion of
genre may play for the various participants in the cinema
process. Three roles in particular must be recognized:
|1. ||Production: the generic concept provides a template
for production decisions. As a form of tacit knowledge, it presents a privileged mode of communication among members of the production team.|
|2. ||Distribution: the generic concept offers a fundamental method of product differentiation, thus constituting a shorthand mode of communication
between producer and distributor or between distributor and exhibitor.|
|3. ||Consumption: the generic concept describes standard patterns of spectator involvement. As such, it
facilitates communication between the exhibitor and
the audience, or among audience members.|
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Book title: The Oxford History of World Cinema.
Contributors: Geoffrey Nowell-Smith - Editor.
Publisher: Oxford University Press.
Place of publication: Oxford.
Publication year: 1997.
Page number: 276.
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