Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Course File for "Film Genres and the Image of Youth"

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Course File for "Film Genres and the Image of Youth"

Article excerpt

THIS COURSE EXAMINES FILM GENRES, particularly the American youth film, a genre that is easily recognizable and yet usually given little respect. We begin with the assumption that the youth film is a genre because its concerns and styles are distinct from most films about adults; furthermore, we assume that this genre contains images of its intended audience (i.e., teenagers) that are indicative both of cultural attitudes toward teenagers and of teenagers' fantasies about themselves. In some cases these images are stereotypical or extreme, misrepresenting the diverse range of teens who see these films, but in many instances these films validate teenagers' ambitions, offering empowering and sympathetic portraits of growing up. The course explores the ways a particular media industry, in this case Hollywood cinema, represents a certain population through developing, refining, and upholding generic conventions in products about that population.

As Janet Staiger argues in "Hybrid or Inbred: The Purity Hypothesis and Hollywood Genre History," there has been a noble attempt by genre scholars to place films into particular categories, even though films have never been so "pure" as to allow for easy classification. Indeed, as soon as we begin to classify films according to types and styles, we run into prob[ems and questions: what defines a genre, how is it sustained, how does it change overtime, and what does it tell us about films, their viewers, and their contexts? Staiger argues further that films, especially Hollywood films, evince significant patterns over time that are often "mixed" across genres, and this mixing tells us much about their production and reception. This is especially true of the youth film and its various subgenres.

We can define the youth genre in relatively simple terms-films in which characters aged twelve to twenty play a significant role is the frame I use-yet we need to consider the patterns, motifs, and developments of the genre both thematically and ideologically if we are to understand how it has represented its subjects. The thematic approach is the most familiar, because certain film narratives share conspicuous traits and are thus easily linked (such as people breaking into song-and-dance numbers in musicals); sometimes the commonalities are more subtle (such as the theme of "family values" in many gangster films). These traits help the film industry to sell a movie, guide viewers on their expectations, and influence filmmakers in future movies. As genre critics, our first job is to identify clear and consistent themes in movies overtime. Then we must argue for what those themes tell us.

This second task-understanding the implications of genre-leads us to more ideological concerns. While labeling genres is an efficient means of identifying a wide range of movies, there are political stakes in those labels, and more so, in how the genres are developed and sustained. For instance, westerns generally tell stories about the unsettled American west in the late nineteenth century, yet those stories reveal a great deal about the time in which they are told; thus, High Noon (1952) can be read as an allegory of the postwar "red scare," and Dances With Wolves (1990) as a statement on "white guilt" in the politically correct 19905. The success of certain genres at certain times points to various social concerns-say, the prominence of disaster movies in the cold war 19705-and the changing styles of genres are informative as well, such as the greater violence and gore in late 19605 action and horror films as America was becoming more involved in Vietnam. Genres can thus be viewed as metaphorical ways of addressing prevailing social issues.

An even more detailed understanding of film genres (and of the film industry) can be gained by examining subgenres. The melodrama, for instance, has existed since the days of silent cinema, but certain melodramatic traditions have come and gone or fluctuated in popularity: the interracial romance, the mother-daughter tragedy, the May-September romance, the divorce drama. …

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