The Oxford History of World Cinema

By Geoffrey Nowell-Smith | Go to book overview
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GENRE CINEMA

Cinema and Genre
RICK ALTMAN
GENRE BEFORE FILM
Borrowed 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 GENRE
During 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 PERIOD
In 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.

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