Genre Theory in the Context of the Noir and Post-Noir Film

By Orr, Christopher | Film Criticism, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Genre Theory in the Context of the Noir and Post-Noir Film


Orr, Christopher, Film Criticism


This essay explores the problems encountered in attempting to apply a generic category or categories to a body of American films made in the 1940's and 1950's that became known as film noir as well as to a body of later films influenced by the noir tradition. By way of illustrating these problems, I will focus on two noir films with remarkably similar narrative structures- -Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur 1947), Angel Face (Otto Preminger 1952)--and on Taylor Hackford's 1984 remake of Out of the Past--Against All Odds.

In Outside Literature, Tony Bennett describes what he considers the two primary approaches to genre theory. The first of these, which Bennett labels the sociology of genres, holds that one can define genres by identifying a trait that is present in a given body of texts and that performs the function of the dominant around which other traits are organized. This generic dominant is then seen as a reflection of the social conditions in place at the time of the production of the text.

The second approach holds that genres cannot be defined in terms of a dominant formal property but are instead institutions which organize a framework of expectations. Hence generic belongingness is determined by cultural reading (and viewing) practices. Clearly the key distinction between these two approaches is that the former is text based whereas the latter is audience based. In this respect the sociology of genres approach is indebted to or contaminated by the Aristotlelian notion that a specific set of formal properties will produce a specific structure of affects in the audience; e.g., the imitation of a tragic plot brings about the catharsis of pity and fear. Thus when critics discuss film noir texts in terms of the theme of male masochism or, to use Frank Krutnik's phrase, a "crisis in masculinity," there is an implicit suggestion that these texts are effecting a catharsis of specific anxieties in the audience. The argument that noir films during the forties reflected male fears about women and attempted to produce a catharsis of those fears seems legitimate. A potential problem is that this analysis is grounded in feminist film theory of the seventies and eighties. Consequently one of the dangers of a text based approach is that it might be ahistorical in the sense that the critic is imposing his or her contemporary ideological bias upon the original audience for these films.

A second problem with the text based approach is the difficulty of establishing viable boundaries among genres. As Jacques Derrida reminds us, "the law of the law of genre . . . is precisely a principle of contamination, a law of impurity" (59). Yet as Fredric Jameson suggests in his comments on After the Thin Man (1936), the importing of elements from other genres does not constitute contamination because these elements are subordinated to the film's generic dominant (Signature 137). Thus in many instances one can use the theory of the dominant to deal with generic impurities. Yet the frequency with which the term hybrid appears in genre studies suggests how difficult it is to police the boundaries among generic categories using this theory. To call a text a hybrid is seemingly to admit one's failure to organize the properties of that text around a generic dominant.

In theory an audience or reception based approach could solve the kinds of problems regarding historicism and boundaries one encounters in text based criticism. Janet Staiger, for example, analyzes the media discourse surrounding film exhibition and in particular film reviews as a way of determining how a film was experienced by its original audience. Yet as Rick Altman points out, the "industrial/journalistic term thus founds a hypothesis about the presence of meaningful activity, but does not necessarily contribute a definition or delimitation of the genre in question" (qt. in Neale, "Questions," 164). Nevertheless, research into what Altman labels the industrial/journalistic term can be particularly valuable and worth taking into account in dealing with hybrid texts or texts on the margins of a generic field. …

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