Indie Films, Genre, Structure

How do certain indy films (Little Miss Sunshine, Lost in Translation) achieve Hollywood-style success while others don’t?

I want to return to Little Miss Sunshine, because the film came up in my class today (after class, really). I was speaking with three students who plan to do a group presentation soon. My students are free to come up with their own topics and can structure presentation any way they wish, provided the presentation prompts a class discussion that helps us understand the larger issues of class (this is my American genres class, so the groups should help us advance–in interesting and not-necessarily academic ways–our understanding of genre). The group wants to talk about the indy film as a genre. My first thought was that the indy film is essentially anti-generic. But I didn’t want to dismiss the idea outright (frankly, I don’t know if the indy film can be called a genre or not–it’s an interesting problem), so I asked them to give me some examples.

Naturally, Little Miss Sunshine came up. And since we just read Robert Ray’s stuff on real and disguised westerns, I said “but Little Miss Sunshine is basically Stagecoach.” Then they offered up Lost in Translation, and I responded “and that’s a screwball comedy, a disguised western.” We spent the next several minutes putting together what I think is a provocative set of ideas, and I wanted to see what you all think.

Is it possible that the success of certain “indy” films (and by “success” I mean not just critical success but perhaps, more importantly, box-office success. Oscar success) depends on how much they rely on recognizable (generic) structures of meaning. They may not look like genre films, they may not have the look or the feel of a particular genre, but at the level of syntax, there are certain “family resemblances,” so to speak. So, for those of you know Ray’s argument, do indy films achieve Classic Hollywood-style success if they are disguised westerns? Is Little Miss Sunshine a hit because it is Stagecoach?

59 thoughts on “Indie Films, Genre, Structure”

  1. We had some students take on a similar group project in the fall, attempting to uncover what makes an art film an ART FILM. The students wanted to treat the category as a genre and found some supporting evidence, but I think Mike and I found their argument lacking while wishing they had made a case from a production and reception perspective (what about all those foreign films that don’t make it to the local Landmark Theatre or onto the Weinstien’s Sundance-to-do list).

    John, what exactly do you mean when you say Lost in Translation is a “screwball comedy, a disguised western”?

  2. jeff, as you know there are only six basic genres. one of them is “boy meets girl, girl kills boy and eats his liver”. i forget what the other five are. but basically there are six and all others are just versions of them with sufjan stevens songs on the soundtrack.

  3. would it be more accurate to say that the western uses certain narrative structural elements that people find satisfying–and when these elements are found in films that lack the western characteristics of setting, etc., they still find them satisifying and, hence, the success of the film? I don’t want to put too much faith in deep structures and I also don’t want to deny the various characteristics that have to be ignored when you say something is a disguised western (once it loses the pleasures of the landscape, for example, doesn’t it lose much of what makes a western? Lost in Translation gets a good deal of its appeal from its location in cosmopolitan Japan—that’s not incidental to the film, nor can it be traced back to the disguised elements of an archetypal western?). I’m always a little wary of the overemphasis on structure. after all, even the western, seemingly the touchstone of this structural approach, embraced films as different as Stagecoach, Forty Guns and The Wild Bunch, no?

  4. I was wondering if we could read Lost in Translation as a screwball comedy (maybe, more specifically, a comedy of remarriage) because of the triangle of John/Charlotte/Bob. Charlotte and Bob are displaced, put into what can be called “a place of perspective” or a place (for the principal characters) beyond the normal conditions of things (this is Stanley Cavell’s idea–he suggests that in remarriage comedies, the narrative removes the romantic pair “to a place of perspective in which the complications of the plot will achieve what resolutions they can”). In this case, it’s Tokyo. Here, Charlotte can undergo some sort of transformation that will allow her to begin questioning her marriage to John. She forces herself to be happy with John, though as she spends more and more time with Bob, this happiness begins to look counterfeit. On the one hand, we have a marriage (with John). On the other, we have genuine happiness (with Bob). John and Charlotte may be legally bound to one another, but Bob and Charlotte know how to spend time together. These are Cavell’s words about Peter and Ellie from It Happened One Night: “What this pair does together is less important than the fact that they do whatever it is together, that they know how to spend time together, even that they would rather waste time together than do anything else–except that no time they are together could be wasted. Here is a reason that these relationships strike us as having the quality of friendship, a further factor in their exhilaration for us. Spending time together is not all there is of human life, but it is no less important than the question whether we are to lead this life alone” (88). In the screwball comedy (of the remarriage variety) the promise of a different kind of relationship, of true companionship and genuine happiness, depends on an escape from, or a substantial redefinition of, the idea of marriage.

    Cavell’s reading of It Happened One Night is a lot more optimistic than Robert Ray’s. Interestingly, Ray calls It Happened One Night a disguised western because although (like the western) it reveals contradictory values in our culture, it magically removes the need to choose between them.

    I’ll give my back-of-the-cereal box analysis of Ray’s argument, which is not entirely convincing. But I find it endlessly fun to play around with.

    Classical Hollywood had lasting power due to a thematic paradigm that began to solidify sometime around the early thirties, and reached near-perfection in Westerns (especially Shane). The thematic procedure of Classic Hollywood is to raise, then appear to solve, “problems associated with the troubling incompatibility of traditional American myths.” Through various formal devices (invisible editing, particularly), Classic Hollywood concealed the necessity for choice between two opposing sets of values even as it heightened the necessity to choose. For instance, the narrative Meet Me in St. Louis is based largely on a tension between two different myths of the American family. At the last moment, the Father changes his mind and decides the family will not move to New York, but will remain in St. Louis. In this way, the film “overcame the opposition inherent in the myth of family (encouraging contentment and permanence) and the myth of success (encouraging ambition and mobility).”

    Ray doesn’t go so far as to say Meet Me in St. Louis is a disguised western, but he does say that “its resolution depended on the traditional ideological translation of the frontier mythology into promises of unlimited opportunities for economic growth. The movie developed around the inherent contradictions between the family and ambition, confronting the father (and the audience) with an apparently difficult choice” (82-83). I’ll end this quotation here, because Ray could very easily be discussing Little Miss Sunshine. What strikes me as typically Hollywood is the sudden transformation of the father at a pivotal moment. Richard decides success isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. You just need to be yourself, with all your flaws.

    What Little Miss Sunshine and Lost in Translation give us are powerful narratives that debunk one set of values in favor of another (“be yourself” over “be successful” in the former, “friendship & happiness” over “marriage & security” in the latter), but they do so by employing a basic thematic paradigm that is typical of films (Classical Hollywood) that, while pitting one set of values against another, magically preserve both, thus removing the need for choice.

  5. Am I wrong or is Ray taking the Western as the kind of archetypal narrative structure? Is that still possible? What genre would we use now as the template for disguise? I argue (and I just made this up now)that the primary contemporary genre is horror….a shift away from the western that occurred in the 1960s?

  6. I don’t think it’s USC. I’m teaching two sections of American film genres, so it’s hard to avoid genre as I think through new and recently viewed films. Not much talk about genre on this blog, anyway. Not that I can recall.

  7. some interesting points, though Bordwell comes off in a way similar to the cranky conservative who bemoans too many nasty topics in movies (was he critical of Blue Velvet ? of course it’s a Hardy Boys fantasy turned fetid!); his work is fairly formalist and conservative so I wonder…though perhaps it’s true that “indie” is now little more than a sensibility, as (to echo our discussion elsewhere) it rarely seems to address politics directly, instead tending to domesticate larger ideas into small packages?

  8. John..tell us a bit about the course…are you doing a single genre or a survey of various genres. Which do they react most favorably toward?

  9. Reynolds lurves genre! In my discipline (theatre studies) genre is not foregrounded and, in many ways, is often relegated to periods of history that are overly deterministic when it comes to cultural products (French neoclassicism comes to mind). What is so lovely about Shakespeare (most Baroque theatre to be honest) is how polysemous his plays are; how they seem to move in so many directions at once. Contrary to film studies, twentieth century theatre scholarship has tended to avoid generic classification in favor of texts that mix a variety of elements (Waiting for Godot is both tragic and comic; farcical and existential; a road narrative and a study in debilitating stasis). My wife needs the computer. More later.

  10. Manohla on Sundance and the state of “indie” in America now. Her quick rush of history and claims seems a useful challenge to the notion of genre. If “indie” is a marketing force (and used to be a condition of production), does it qualify as a genre?

    I do festishize genre. (A festish: I wear a party hat while masturbating over decorative place settings. I suppose that’s polysemous, too.) But, seriously, there’s a way to do genre which is dully schematic. But there’s a way to do pretty much everything which is dully schematic. Genre serves some useful, interesting purposes; genre is not monosemous, or monolithic, and if you pay attention to John’s uses of genre, they refute such reductive models, too.

    I will throw out some fancy terms and then abscond: genre is performance and performative; genre can serve as a fantastic heuristic for unraveling the web of production, text, and reception; genre is cool.

  11. I don’t disagree with any of that, and working with Reynolds I know how flexible and fluid his definitions are, how engaging it is to watch him stretch and recontextualize generic conventions (and reading John’s posts reinforces that statement). That all being said, I do think it is interesting that I have never seen genre discussed as much and with as much enthusiasm until I a) met Reynolds and b) joined this lovely group of smart people who like to watch. I mean how many substandard action flicks can one watch before they feel anemic? I guess that’s why I wonder what’s going on over at USC. Maybe this is just an English thing. Perhaps theatre people are simply oddballs.

    Gift to you Arnab.

  12. I’ll give up substandard action flicks when you wean yourself off television’s vast fields of pablum. And stop listening to emo. And whistle dixie out your ass.

    And we can/should separate:
    –genre as a critical tool (which is just another way to get at issues of form and production and consumption, eh?)

    –genre as a (dismissive?) term for a certain kind of film (as opposed to–what, indie? art?)

    I’m probably a junkie for both kinds of genre, but let’s not reductively collapse method and object of study. The fact that I love me a good (and quite often a bad) horror film is not necessarily related to the fact that I dig critical interrogations of generic form.

  13. i like excellent examples of noble, high-brow genres. i dislike all of the b-movies this crowd salivates over. i am still licking my wounds from renting district b-13.

  14. I can whistle dixie but somebody has to stuff a horn up there for me to get it right. Don’t get me started.

    Look, I tend to approach a film not so much as if it were generated in a vacuum but, still, as something singular (rhythmically, tonally, atmospherically, formally, narratively, performatively, aesthetically) which invites me to make some meaning out of it. Allusions to other films or to recognizable narrative patterns are helpful (particularly the way a film tends to be “haunted” by the past) and attention to generic conventions are useful but I rarely think about such things when I watch. When Little Miss Sunshine, for all its strengths or faults, is argued to be a western in disguise (does that make The Canterbury Tales a western I wonder) or, even more puzzling, Lost in Translation is a “screwball comedy, a disguised western” . . . well, I just want to return to Coppola’s film cause there really isn’t anything quite like it and I like that. Perhaps it is this issue of narratology. Theatre studies people don’t seem so interested in this academic methodology. Who knows.

    Barbaro, we hardly knew you. May you have a long and lovely life in that great Western up in the sky.

  15. Since I recommended District B-13 I think I’m going to have to sign up as one of Gio’s Netflix friends so I can see how much our ratings overlap… I like high-brow and low-brow. It’s middle-brow that I can’t stand.

    Speaking of Netflix, has anyone on the blog got access to the streaming movie service from Netflix yet? I gather they are adding their subscribers gradually over the next six months. The New York Times gave the service a very positive review.

  16. My Netflix doesn’t offer it yet. That Times article was very intriguing. I’m sure Netflix is being deluged with phone calls and e-mails from angry consumers who read the New York Times.

  17. It seems to me that Dargis may be the one whose reality is obscured, not those who attend Sundance religiously. By that I mean her definition of “indie” seems out of date, very much out of date. Her argument is that there are fewer and fewer quality indie films, but Year of the Dog is good. Well, yes, Year of the Dog is a studio film, but it’s is also at the same time an indie film–and more so than Dargis is willing to admit (she says it just looks like one). Maybe I’m misreading Dargis, but it seems that clinging to a clear distinction between what is “indie” and what is “studio” has been impossible since the rise of Miramax many years ago (not that long ago, admittedly, but long ago enough for me to suspect that Dargis is behind the times). I think it’s more appropriate to think of Sundance as a major independent film festival, and I’m using the term “major” to suggest explicitly how much the industry has changed in the last twenty years or so. So many people think the biggest changes to the industry have been along the lines of technological innovation (which is true) but even more dramatic are the changes in production, distribution, and exhibition practices. “Sundance has become a very big machine”? No shit, Sherlock.

    The observation that, when Sex, Lies, and Videotape came out, Miramax wasn’t yet part of Disney totally misrepresents the incredible impact Miramax had before it was adopted. It already achieved, at the time of Pulp Fiction the status of “major” independent (a term Justin Wyatt coined, and his essay on the rise of Miramax and New Line in the eighties is one of the best essays written on the subject). But even so (fast forward about five years) is it really possible to determine, ultimately, whether Shakespeare in Love is an indie film or a studio film? I don’t think so. I also don’t think that the film’s status is any easier to determine than Miramax’s own very complicated arrangement with Disney.

    Another point, and I may be greatly overstating it in order to counter Dargis: I doubt there’s any major distributor out there, or any major studio rep who will admit that he or she is not prepared to be on the lookout for the next Blair Witch Project–and I think that’s hugely significant.

    My subtler point, however, is that “indie” and “studio” are not so easily distinguishable, and haven’t been, for longer than Dargis knows.

  18. I wonder if it’s not fairly simple to define “independent” film–any film whose production is not connected back, directly or indirectly to a major entertainment corporation? It would also still be applicable to those films made outside of the system, but nevertheless “picked up” and distributed by major studies or their smaller divisions? It would be useful to keep the distinction but in a way where it is directly and clearly “other” than major corporate.

  19. I think that would be privileging “production” over “distribution” in terms of how one identifies what a film is. I don’t know how a film can be exempt from the economics of its distribution and exhibition–so why would the term “indie” still apply to films “picked up” by major studios? The question I’m asking is this: why is a film produced by an independent wing of a major studio less “indie” than a film whose production is not financed by a major studio, but whose distribution is. This is an important question, I think, because there has been, in the last 40 years or so, a significant power shift away from producers to distributors. If I were to make hard and fast distinctions between indie and studio, I certainly wouldn’t exempt films not financed, but nevertheless distributed, by major studios, from studio status. Studios are in the business of distribution and exhibition, too. And the former is big business.

  20. these points are well-taken, John. Certainly distribution is as much big business as production. I’m suggesting, however, that we can perhaps distinguish among different “levels” of independence from corporate control.It’s possible to distinguish between production and distribution because they are two distinct processes–it’s worth attending to the difference between a film made under the auspices (and pressures) of a major studio and one made entirely away from them. But I’m beginning to think that this category of “independent” is rather incoherent and perhaps needs to be replaced with some finer distinctions.Some way to effectively distinguish among films that actually challenge the corporate procedures of production, distribution and exhibition (all part of a nexus, as you rightly point out) and those that don’t–of course this is highly problematic, since a film that is made/distributed “outside” the system may nevertheless be saturated with an “inside” ideology (for lack of a better term). maybe I give up…anyone else want a try at defining “independent?”

  21. Defining “independent”–well…. I might first step back and think about the ways we define “genre.” Strikes me that we come at genre as:

    1. a quality of form — which might be certain transhistorical structures, or may be elements of tone and style (Schrader’s noir), and so on;

    2. a facet of production — which may lead to a focus on the artist (what is the shape of this thing I’m producing, what are my objectives, how will my “singular” vision channel through to an audience) and to corporate or commodified concerns (“Make it a boxing picture, and get Wallace Beery!”);

    3. a function of reception — and the focus on audience.

    Obviously, it’s all three (discourse theory 101). But the interesting thing, perhaps, about a conversation about “indies” is that their formal qualities are not so visible as to erase or make less visible the influences of production and reception on our notion of the genre.

    I like the clean distinction Michael tried to draw between a certain kind of corporate influence and another. Studios may want the next Blair Witch, and filmmakers now may even be scrambling to make that next no-budget sensation (and a major function of genre is replicability), but the actual conditions for production for that film were, I’d say following Michael’s cue, significantly distinct from other kinds of film production.

    I also like the idea that, taking into account the function of audience/reception, that filmmakers (both studio and “singular” artists) may be seeking to replicate some ambiguous fuzzy formal elements which make a picture a marketable indie. Which gets us back to something like Little Miss S. I don’t really buy the Western argument (using Ray), largely because–and again I steal from Michael–I don’t think that genre has much cultural sway. It isn’t a central genre, in the ways that Ray discussed, and so its impact on production (by artists and by studios) seems far less significant now than it might once have been.

    How about….Indie:
    –produced without definitive sense that it will be distributed

    –yet also, given how indies sell, shaped formally with an eye toward that indie feel: at this point, I’d say emphasizing character/quirk, defying or at least not beholden to the three-act structure. There are probably other things we could toss out (irony?).

    But this would be a start — and using these definitions, I’d say that Little Miss is really not an indie, while a film like Junebug fits far more neatly into the definition….

  22. Maybe I give up too. I think we’ve hit all the finer points. But one last note: Half Nelson is a good example of a typical indie film. Small budget, only a few private financers (I think), it’s the director’s first feature length film. That’s its indie status (as a product). But it is picked up for distribution, at Sundance, by ThinkFilm–a company run by former Lion’s Gate president, Jeff Sackman. And that’s the film everyone will see. There’s no getting around distribution and its industry ties.

    …As I write this, reynolds has added some points. I think the definition, “produced without definitive sense that it will be distributed” seems right.

    reynolds, you don’t think the Western has cultural sway? Even if we agree that it is not a central genre, does a genre have to be central to have cultural sway? And what is cultural sway? Is that like the stroll?

  23. Cultural sway… yeah, not a particularly precise term. How about, a genre would need to have continuing mythological influence? When Ray was writing, the Western was *the* American film genre, the genre most likely to be read as illustrative of a whole host of national values, ideas, ideologies. But while the Western still seems historically relevant it doesn’t seem culturally resonant — even as people refer to Bush as a cowboy, it’s a critique as much about being archaic as about being asininely macho in his policies. And I’ll add, I’m saying this largely as a result of teaching The Searchers last year in a film class, and it was in some ways admired but even among the one idiosyncratic fan of Westerns it was more of a museum piece.

    Is there a genre that is as “American” now? Michael says the horror film, and I’m inclined that way personally, but I’m not sure whether I’m a good representative American — wanna say more, Michael? I still think the gangster film has some oomph; noir seems to be resonant in ways that aren’t just retro anymore. But I also wonder if the fate/coincidence narrative–Crash?–isn’t taking some hold…

    Or maybe centrality is far less possible now? While distribution is still enormously profitable, and studios still mandate/control (or greatly influence) most production, it also seems like there are more channels for distribution, and more niche audiences to be marketed at. (That “long tail” theory of sociology/economy? Central genres may still be profitable, but the big money is in effective diversification to the specific desires of niche markets….)

  24. Probably more like a magnet.

    I remember reading that Little Miss Sunshine was afraid it would hardly see the light of day (they spent like six years trying to get this film going, right). It wasn’t until Carrell’s success in The Forty Year Old Virgin that the film started to generate some post-production, pre-distribution heat. Then Sundance arrived and that’s when Fox Searchlight picked it up and the rest is corporate history, but still there is this independent “labor of love” energy that gave birth to the film, right?

    Yes, yes Mike . . . singular, singular, singular.

  25. My class loved The Searchers, but perhaps because it was just one of many Westerns we watched. It’s a great stand-alone film, but I think students respond to it (the film “resonates”) when it is put in sequence with Stagecoach and another great Ford/Wayne western that came six years later, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

    The horror film is not uniquely American, so I’m inclined to disagree. I guess I’m being very traditional. The NBA has more cultural resonance at this moment (it does for me, anyway), but I still think of baseball is the American sport.

    The gangster film is a good choice, and if you think of Robert Warshow’s work, there’s a case to be made that the gangster film and the Western are two genres that can with some ease be talked about together–though, again, the gangster film isn’t (is no longer) uniquely American. But then again, America isn’t uniquely American anyway.

    In fact, noir, gangster, and western have strong family resemblances (though some say noir isn’t a genre but a style). If I could be allowed to choose three, it would be them. And Screwball. Oh, and the musical.


  26. Can somebody help me understand what a genre is? I would have said, things like horror, western, comedy, or perhaps more specifically, screwball comedy, romantic comedy, etc. In that case, to take up John’s initial question, it would be a kind of category mistake to take “indie” as a genre term.

    In telling me what a genre is, can you make sure to answer the following questions:

    a) must every film be of some genre or other?

    b) can a film belong to more than one genre?

    c) and if so, must its many genres be related as species and genus, or can they be unrelated?

    d) does genre classify by content?

  27. Genre is defined a number of different ways by film critics. But I think all or most would agree that a genre is a set of conventions (both visual and structural) that, through repetition, crystallize into a stable, durable, and coherent system. But a genre survives by the repetition and variation of its visual and structure conventions, because audiences do not want to see the same film over and over again (just the same form). What’s more, a genre, once stable and durable, can, paradoxically, withstand (and even thrive upon) considerable impurity.

    a) no
    b) yes
    c) can be, and often are, unrelated (Westworld, for instance, mixes the Western with Sci-Fi, as does Back to the Future III)
    d) as opposed to form? I think yes, though not everyone would agree. Film noir, for instance, is often considered a genre. But similarities between noir films are often merely formal. For this reason, some consider noir a style, not a genre.

    All of the following statements have been made about genre. All are, to a certain degree, useful and instructive. But they contradict and overlap with each other:


  28. John’s answers are thorough and clear. I might differ a bit with his response to Simon’s a (that is not meant as a coy euphemism): the distinction between genre and medium sometimes blur for me, even considering the definition (“set of conventions” etc.) John provides. Narrative is a genre, many (most? all?) films are narrative. Some might say film is a genre, distinct from other visual media, Poetry is a genre, and poems may be narrative… but then what are the intersections of the genre “narrative” across distinct genres/forms like poetry and film? So I might say every text is generic. (Again–this seems crucial in theories of rhetoric/discourse; in both production and consumption, one depends on situating the text in a category. And I know–I’m collapsing category and genre. Why not? See below for vague, long-winded justification.)

    I like my definitions pliable. What, if anything, is a zebra? A white horse with black stripes, or a black horse with white stripes? I follow Stephen Jay Gould and might argue that species, too, can resemble a genre using the above definition–formal conventions across organisms–but that there are two quite useful, equally ‘true’ ways to define a ‘horse’ which make zebras either horses [of many colors] or not horses at all. The utility of such a flexible tool for categorizing is that it demands constant, discourse-referential definition-building: you almost can’t argue genre without stopping to define “genre”….

  29. Yeah, I was babbling. I like to smoke a lot of pot and talk genre. Which is true, except for the smoking pot part. I don’t even know what pot is. I just heard about it on the news.

    Don’t do drugs, y’all!

  30. I don’t use drugs, because I am high on this wonderful thing we call….LIFE! (cue Liza)

    Genre is what it isn’t. It operates at both an immediate conrete level (horses for westerns, cities for noir, spaceships for sf) and at a deeper level (the same themes, the worrying of the same concepts, a continuity of mood, etc.)–but the distinction between surface and depth is just a necessary fiction, as it’s not possible to separate the two (which is why I don’t like the idea of “disguised westerns” and the like–as if the “surface” elements of a genre are inconsequential. Not to say that there can’t be similarities of structure or whatever, but that, since genre is a matter of fine distinctions and slight (or great) variations, everything counts, including distinctive objects (the gun rather than the laser, the horse rather than the car).

    I offer horror as the current genre of most historical significance/resonance because it foregrounds elements that help to characterize or otherwise reveal our historical moment (and when I use “historical moment” I know I am doing a rather crude and sweeping analysis….but that’s just the way I am after the meth): preoccupation with the self and the body; intertextuality that is ‘impure’; lack of social/historical context; a focus on youth and sexuality and at the same time a puritanical disdain and fear of them; decline/corruption/perversion of authority; scorn for a rural past–revenge of said past; class difference and resentment “concealed” but present generically; ideological suspicion of conventional relationships, the home, the family, etc.; hysterical conservatism; along with an obsession with the body, an obsession with health and disease; vulnerabilities of the middle classes, esp. its youth; boobies.

    I offer these tentatively–some may or may not work, make sense or not, etc. of course, these are connected to specific narrative gestures, story forms, characterizations, etc.–we could even talk about subgenres within the main genre (the family in danger; the zombies; the medical crisis; the revenge fantasy….). I could be wrong on a lot of this–after all it’s mostly the Cabernet and ‘ludes talking now.

  31. i just want to clarify, since children are reading, and mike’s intelligent design seminar obviously didn’t get to it, that zebras are not horses, and that while some zebras are black with white stripes, and some white with black stripes, each is one or the other.

    next i will explain why hyenas and dogs are not related, and how we know the earth to be banana shaped.

  32. John and Mike,

    Thanks for your helpful answers.

    Re John’s definition. I like the ontological clarity of “sets of conventions”. That takes care of what kind of thing a genre is. The bite of the definition comes in which sets of conventions will count: those that “crystallize into a stable, durable, and coherent system.” This will, among other things, determine how broadly genres apply. After all, any conventions will make a set of conventions; but not any will form a stable, durable and coherent system. I understand “stable” and “durable” well enough. And I sort of get the idea behind “coherent system,” though in practice I’m not sure how well I could apply it.

    Anyway, given the provision of stability, durability and coherence, I agree that not any film will have a genre. And I agree that a film could have more than one genre, though of course not all genres would be compatible. (Their conventions may be at odds with each other.) So there may be limits to genre mixing.

    Will it not also be true that not all westerns, say, are of the Western genre? Not all heist films will be of the Heist genre? Etc. A classification like “Sci Fi”, on the other hand, seems not to suggest any particular set of conventions (perhaps I’m just ignorant here, though). So, is there a genre Sci-Fi at all?

    Your list of claims, helpful but contested, raises a number of issues:

    “Genres are products…” Of course, conventions may be produced by various sources; and various sources may shape how they are grouped and gathered into sets that are stable, etc..

    “Genres are pure.” Don’t understand this.

    “Individual genre films belong wholly and permanently to a single genre.” This depends on what it is to have, or exemplify, a genre. If it means to be produced so as to conform with the relevant conventions, then the claim of permanence will be true (no reason to think, though, that a given genre film must have been produced so as to conform wholly to any one given set of conventions). However, if to have a genre is merely to conform to the conventions, then a film may gain genres, as it were. As new sets of conventions became stable, etc., the film may find itself conforming to them. (I don’t see how a filmd could lose genres, in this sense, though it could conform to a set of conventions that were no longer, as it were, actively in use).

    I could go on with the other claims, but it’s late and I want to say something about Mike’s reply.

    Mike, If we are going to say all of the following:

    a) the Western is a genre;
    b) Narrative is a genre;
    c) Film is a genre;

    then I’m not sure if the concept of genre has any use. What will it exclude? Almost nothing.

    Are the above all true according to John’s definition? a) surely is, though as I noted above, not every cowboy and indian film will be of the Western genre. As for b), I’m tempted to ask “what is narrative?” (but I won’t). I suppose narrative can be identified with a certain stable, durable, coherent set of conventions, though I don’t think I could say what the hell they were. But they would have to be conventions that applied to all narrative as such. So they’d have to be pretty general.

    As for c), are there any stable, durable, coherent sets of conventions associated with film, as such? We cannot include, say, visuality since this belongs to all film not by convention, but by the material properties of the medium. So what would the relevant set of conventions include? I find it hard to suppose that there would be any, but maybe you can show me what they are.

    “What, if anything, is a zebra? A white horse with black stripes, or a black horse with white stripes?” I didn’t think zebras were horses at all. But if they are a sub-species of the horse, then it won’t be their color that determines them, but something genetic. And species could not be genres at all, according to John’s definition, since their stable and durable features (coherence could hardly apply in such cases) are not the result of convention but of nature. (I’m sure you’ll want to quesiton the distinction of nature and convention, you post-modernist you.)

    “The utility of such a flexible tool for categorizing is that it demands constant, discourse-referential definition-building: you almost can’t argue genre without stopping to define “genre”….” If definitions are built and rebuilt, with reference to particular modes or episodes of discourse, what will be preserved by the constant use of the term “genre”? If there is nothing in common across its various uses, then we will simply have a case of multiple ambiguity. And any discussion of “genre” would be like a discussion of “bank” that tried to be sensitive to the fact that sometimes it means “edge of a river” and sometimes “financial institution.”

  33. Couple quick responses:

    –two for Simon:
    a) S said, “And species could not be genres at all, according to John’s definition, since their stable and durable features (coherence could hardly apply in such cases) are not the result of convention but of nature. (I’m sure you’ll want to quesiton the distinction of nature and convention, you post-modernist you.)” — I actually stole this from Stephen Jay Gould, no lie–even the stuff about coloring is his. And his argument is that a zebra is a horse following one set of conventions which DO conform to nature and is NOT a horse following another set of conventions that conform to nature. His point: what we call a species is, at least in part, a set of discursive conventions. And I don’t think SJG would take too kindly, even in the grave, to being called a postmodernist. But this gets me to …

    b) What I find troubling about some of the discussion of what’s “in” the text is that audiences do indeed play a large role in the definition of genre, and yet sets of durable conventions seen only as formal qualities (whether deep or surface-level) misses the way audiences may, in fact, consume and enjoy and relish Little Miss because it bears such a family resemblance (to try to muddy up the definitional waters even more, he cites Wittgenstein) to Westerns. Or, good old Stanley Fish: if an audience reads a list of names as a poem, is it not a poem? If an audience reads a film as noir, isn’t it noir?

    c) The only thing preserved by genre is the notion of sets of conventions. But, as Michael and John both noted, sometimes the sets of conventions are themselves subject to radical impure revisions–the “revisionist” Western is in the genre but challenges the genre’s assumptions. Agatha Christie has a murderer narrate _Roger Ackroyd_. Etc. So my open definition gets at something interesting about “sets of conventions” that is actually fundamental to our experience of genre–that it is and is not bound to a set of conventions, and in fact demands open-ended reading.

    Bank–that’s a great counter-example. But I think “family” might be a far closer analogy. Or gender. (And with more time I’d play around with performativity…)

  34. I think the conjunction but in reynolds’s statement, “the ‘revisionist’ Western is in the genre but challenges the genre’s assumptions,” needs some attention here. My point is that a genre needs the revision–there’s no difference. So I’d put “because it challenges” instead of “but challenges.” Make sense? A genre film and its audience actually share a tradition, and any challenge to a set of conventions assumes a priori that there is a shared tradition–this shared tradition is called upon, is essential, for the challenge to make sense–a famous example is from the opening sequence from Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country when Joel McCrey rides into town on his horse, thinking he’s getting a hero’s welcome, only to be knocked aside by a camel and an automobile. This challenge to the visual conventions of the genre is enabled by the conventions themselves (a camel instead of a horse, an automobile instead of a horse). The horse is still there, but its meaning changes: “horse” now means “a soon to be outdated mode of transportation”–and so the meaning of this particular genre film is enriched. Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country is about men who have outlived their time, and thus a new, very powerful theme or variation emerges within the genre. So genre thrives on its conventions being challenged.

  35. I buy John’s last argument completely. Well-defined and convincing. I was after something like that, and he nails it.

    Performance: every iteration requires both a sense of tradition (conventions, expectations, etc.) and the possibility that reiteration will transform to revision. This notion of performativity has been bandied about for gender in ways that raise some folks’ hackles, but it can also be tied to anthropologist Victor Turner’s readings of ritual, and I think to Austin’s argument about speech acts. Genre is both a grounding IN tradition and, always, a reconstruction which may reinforce or revise such tradition. I think genre is a performance dependent on a certain self-reflexivity (in production, in reception).

    Audience is part of the game. Generic conventions are both formal elements and habits of reading, and it is the interplay between that strikes me as performative (and most interesting).

  36. This is great stuff. Helpful, useful, accessible. Steve Neale wrote a pretty good book on genre a couple of years ago which I read this past summer. I’m sure he would appreciate a thing or two from this thread.

  37. Hey Michael, I dig your reading of horror films (#37) but I came across this on Boxofficeguru written by Gitesh Pandya: Also opening on Friday is The Messengers, the fourth horror film in as many weeks to hit multiplexes. Audiences have rejected every fright flick Hollywood has offered since October and The Messengers does not seem to bring anything new and exciting to the table to change things. Teens and young adults seem to be the core audience and with the big game in Miami commanding a lot of attention from the boys, Sony is hoping that teenage girls will be up for a scare. Marketing has been textbook and identical to every other horror pic.” Do you think horror films are losing their mojo or is the market oversaturated or are these things just so cheap to produce and distribute that everybody wins no matter what, and how might such production and distribution issues reshape your argument on horror? And what does your reading of horror say about the cultural groups who flock to these films (mainly teens and twentysomethings and Reynolds . . . mostly boys and their dates and/or a kid named Max)?

  38. Jeff,

    I have to give those ideas some serious thought…I think there may be a distinction between mainstream horror and the horror (genre) sensibility as something running through various kinds of films (thereby making our discussion of genre even more ‘impure’) but let me stew over it this weekend.

  39. I heard that The Messengers was the top film this weekend, which somewhat helps to validate my claim for horror as the ‘primary’ genre right now; I think it provides a solid stream of income from a solid audience–yes, mostly teens and young adults (who, after all, is making something like Epic Movie #1, to take another “genre” for consideration?). Taken as a whole, rather than film by film, I think horror might be regarded as the primary genre–in terms of number of films produced, size of audience, number of films distributed, including the reliable straight-to-DVD (look at the low budget horror films on the shelves of Blockbuster). Now we have a canon of “great Westerns” but in its heyday “the western” was mainly a stream of forgettable B-movies and then later fodder for TV productions that varied considerably in quality. I think horror works in the same way now. Perhaps I am just afraid that the real genre now is “lame comedy.”

    what genre do you believe is dominant, if any–and if you accept the idea of genre as a useful one? why did we move away from the Western…and into what?

  40. I apologize for the narcissistic gestalt-y quality of this post but I’ve been pondering some of this stuff for the last few days. As I read and reread this thread I continually find myself challenged and enlightened but I also feel as if I’ve missed some important theoretical boat. As a child I watched Abbott and Costello and Shirley Temple and Vincent Price creature features and Tony Curtis channeling Houdini, and The Sound of Music and Oliver! and The Unsinkable Molly Brown certainly made big impressions on me; but if I were to look at the films that have shaped my own love for the movies–that constructed the foundation whereupon I discover myself returning once again into those dark rooms on sunny Friday afternoons or even to this website two or three times a day–my likes and dislikes seem to be completely undefined by genres and categories and the like. Sure, I watched, over and over again, Halloween and Grease and Jaws like everybody else, but the films that genuinely mean the most to me don’t seem to fall into such easy containers. I mean Bergman’s Wild Strawberries and Fanny and Alexander probably spoke to me more than anything else I saw in college. And before and directly after my college years I was wowed by Coppola’s Godfather II and The Conversation, Lumet’s Network and Dog Day Afternoon, Altman’s Nashville, Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, Michael Ritchie’s Bad News Bears and The Candidate, Allen’s Manhattan and Crimes and Misdemeanors and The Purple Rose of Cairo, Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Goodfellas, Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show and, yes, What’s Up Doc?. I revered Spielberg’s E.T. and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Tarantino’s Resovior Dogs. And in recent years, the films that resonate most loudly for me have been Jane Campion’s Sweetie, Jonathan Glazer’s Birth, Lukas Moodysson’s Together, Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf, the Dardenne Brothers’ The Son, Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, Bresson’s L’argent, Phil Morrison’s Junebug and Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings and Queen. I know, I know . . . so fucking what!?! But I can’t help but believe that there is something singular about (most of) these films; that what draws me to them is their unwillingness to be categorized. And sure I suppose that becomes a great challenge for critics and scholars whose work is informed and shaped by genre studies and narratology, and I truly believe that many of you on this site would happily rip into this list to show me how each and every one of the films I’ve named are grounded in specific traditions and specific sets of conventions, but when I try to look at them from such a perspective I feel as if I’m draining away every last ounce of what makes these films special.

  41. I dunno, lots of genre films in there. Even the films that aren’t necessarily or obviously generic are by directors who do genre films and, like you, are cinephiles. There’s a scene in Mean Streets, which is a little bit gangster film (like Angels with Dirty Faces) and a little bit not, that illustrates what I think is so important about genre (and individual genre films). I know Mean Streets isn’t up on your list, but it’s on mine. This is the scene where Tony and Michael rip off those kids (who have come to their neighborhood in search of “firecrackers”). After they get the kids’ money, they go and pick up Charlie. “Twelve bucks?” Charlie says, delighted, “hey, let’s go to the movies!” The movie they go to see is Ford’s The Searchers. They aren’t watching the film the way one watches, say, Wild Strawberries, they’re sharing the experience, becoming a tight group, a group held together as much by short cons–stolen cigarettes, lousy lenses from Japan, etc.–as by ritual. No doubt The Searchers moved Scorsese deeply, as Barry Lyndon moved you. But my point I guess (and Scorsese’s too, I think) is to call attention to how genre films function ritualistically, as well as aesthetically. It’s no coincidence, I think, that the scene Scorsese shows from The Searchers is a ritual–the silly, very formal “fight” between Martin and Charlie over who gets Laurie.

  42. Well, singular is not a term I’d ever toss around–and it is never what I look for, nor desire from, any text. Texts speak to, and with, one another; relationality seems crucial to our engagement with any film. Genre is one way to address that all texts speak within and out of traditions; the auteur theory emerged precisely to see how ‘greatness’ emerged in/through/out of studio conventions and constraints, right? It’s hard to imagine, say, the two Ritchie films on your list working *unless* the viewer had a clear sense of how an American sports or politics narrative worked–those two films work as thorny recreations of assumptions. How on earth could one watch Purple Rose without an awareness of other films?

    I’m not trying to drain the films of their import to you. But I don’t think the only positions in the debate are between a singular appreciation of unique films or a crass consumption of the merely repetitive. I like John’s citation of Streets; film as a ritual, as ‘moving’ in ways that connect us to moments and to behaviors and to others, as well as to our own most “ineffable” sense of self.

    And texts may be unwilling to be categorized. Certainly, maybe stealing from the point about “indies”, we could imagine those films whose production history/context emerge out of specific generic assumptions differ significantly from those whose creations were not aimed at boilerplate reproduction. Still, we make sense in and through conventions–without references and conventions, I do not think a film would work. And even that Platonic a-generic singular film would be interpreted by audiences who’d rely upon their histories as viewers to make sense. Not to merely pigeonhole the work they’re seeing in a digital fashion (the film is genre X or genre Y) but in an analog fashion–I can see how heist films inform Dog Day and Reservoir Dogs, but also how the films’ divergent other influences and styles open up whole fascinating menus for interpretation….

    I guess, I’m merely stating a perhaps-obvious point: to be fascinated by genre is not to seek to reduce every film to some set of conventions.

  43. I watched Mean Streets for the first time about a month ago, it is so innocent, romantic even. I think I was expecting soemthing darker and uglier. Anyway, in no way do I think anyone here is reducing every film to a set of stale conventions. In fact, I think this great thread disproves that notion wholeheartedly. Still, one has to admit that the genre studies angle is, more often than not, privileged on this site and sometimes that is frustrating for me. Admittedly, I was up early this morning and ruminating. But I also think that this conversation suggest that films are kind of like sponges; they soak things up and reflect and refract social and cultural discourses as well recognizable narrative patterns. They perform us and we perform them. They appropriate and steal and recontextualize and reinvent. Films are open texts but when the genre lens starts to embrace the multiple layers of generic impurity it is easy to get lost.

  44. Really? The genre studies angle is privileged on this site? I’m not sure I agree…where have we talked about genre studies except on this particular thread (as I say in comment #9, I think there’s very little talk about genre on this blog)? Perhaps I’m just blind to it all (which would be evidence of how pervasive our talk of genre is). Or maybe there should be distinction made between talk about films that fall into certain genres (we do talk a lot about horror films, for instance) and the “genre studies angle” which, honestly, I think is neglected on this site.

  45. Many films I love precisely because they are genre films. Just to provide one example, I love Anthony Mann’s series of westerns with Jimmy Stewart because they provide a serious meditation on their own conventions–they are rich from what Mike calls ‘relationality’ but each film nevertheless remains unique because of the specific way it addresses and makes use of genre conventions. Nevertheless, I am sympathetic to your point of view, Jeff. I remember a critic remarking that the great work of art wishes to annihilate all other works of art–I think that’s a compelling idea that (paradoxically) is not necessarily at odds with thinking of films in generic terms. To take a couple of your titles– Goodfellas and Godfather Part II –there is something in both of them that wishes to be the final word in ‘gangster’ films, Coppola’s as the final word on the dynamics of family betrayal and power lust, Scorsese’s the complete portrait of the seduction by corruption. The films seek singularity, seek to escape genre by absorbing it and transcending it entirely—but, of course, the effort necessarily fails because this absorption and transcendance becomes part of the genre dynamic. I like Mike’s discussion of the way texts relate to each other, but I would differ somewhat and say that I think any text seeks some kind of singularity, a “hope” that it escapes the fate of mere reproduction–a doomed hope but one that nevertheless marks that text and puts it into an irresolvable tension with its “genre.”

  46. Did Reynolds really write this: “Too many of the alt-film critics from the various Weekly or Pages rags never lose that sense of hauteur, of being just above and outside the experience of any film–so even a rave can end up seeming like a discourse on something watched years ago.” I think he did. See bullet point #4.

    Can I also say I have learned about as much from Mike in four and a half years as I did in three years of grad school. I heart him.

  47. I take it from your second paragraph, which was nice, that the first paragraph was intended to be a dig.

    Perhaps this fills back in the hole created by the dig: I don’t think being analytical, or addressing how a film works in relation to all my other viewing experiences, is the same as being superior to the film, or being above it. I guess I don’t see a contradiction; analysis does not equal detachment, at least not done well.

    But perhaps you were digging at my writing more directly. In which case I heart you, too, fucker.

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