What does genre mean for cinema today?

So called ‘genre films’ are referred to as such because they typify their specific genre, without dragging in elements of other genres, and as a result they’re often labelled as over simplistic. It is often proclaimed that the days of the genre film are dead and buried. However, that’s a lot less simple, and a lot less true, than you might think…

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With the assumed intelligence of cinematic audiences, most studios have at least attempted to present some more complex pieces of work to cinemagoers. Those audiences are perceived as desiring something more than the standard run-of-the-mill blockbusters that seem to fill our local listings.

Recent films for example, like John Wick and Mad Max: Fury Road, have been praised for their plot simplicity, not complexity. Indeed given both their critical, but more importantly for our terms commercial success, this might suggest that film consumers are not wanting to see complex films at all times or at the cost of more ‘rudimentary’ tales.

Equally, to say that because a film’s plot seems basic or familiar to an audience means that the film itself isn’t complex is an insult to the cinematic art.

Cinematic complexity can come from much more than just narrative threads, though it’s often presumed otherwise. The ingenious moments of direction, the criminally under-appreciated skills of editing and sound design, the countless members of the orchestra involved in sound-tracking the film, all of these mean that even a great ‘simple’ film is packed with complex cinematic cogs.

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Mad Max: Fury Road is a brilliant example of this; try adapting the same screenplay as a no-budget feature without the trimmings and the result wouldn’t be anywhere near as interesting as the Miller version.

Nonetheless, a ‘stripped back’ film does not instantly result in audience appreciation. Danny Dyer has certainly had his fair share of these, and no one’s going to see him opposite Dame Judi Dench anytime soon. Admittedly, half of this comes from public perceptions of certain actors and certain films…

For example, Steven Seagal occupies his very own genre – Steven Seagal films. Adding to this is the growing complexity of celebrity culture, and how ‘meta’ cinema has become – films that “know what they are” starring someone who “always does those types of roles”, and making jokes about things that only people outside the film’s specific universe would understand. The Force Awakens did this on numerous occasions, but was, in the end, a triumphantly meta film – but why?

What distinguishes their use of (its own) past tropes with films that do exactly the same? Do franchises have a leniency with audiences if they were originally groundbreaking, as Star Wars (1977) was? Or is it because the franchise has set up its Chekov’s guns successfully, as in the case of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Or is it easier to see past these beats if the film has shown to have moved on in other areas; women and minority representation, for example?

A combination of these aspects, as well as countless other factors, all play a part. Film, after all, is subjectively enjoyed, however objectively it is made.

The strength of contemporary cinema is not therefore what genre is but what filmmakers can do with genre; now that the art has been developed to the point where most audience members are consciously watching the workings of filmmakers (certainly, critics and avid film fans are and have been for some time), these audience members are increasingly aware of the tricks of the trade; the genre themes and typical narratives et cetera. Therefore, success lies in those who chose to do new and interesting things with these tropes – the Edgar Wrights, Tarantinos, Nolans and Bigelows of the world.

Reservoir Dogs was an early example of this – irrefutably a crime film, and one that has the hallmarks of several others before it, but also irrefutably one of the most unique and innovative crime films ever made.

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Nolan has certainly done this with the Hollywood blockbuster, and looks to have done it again with Dunkirk, and Wright’s latest, a crime film that’s also a musical, has bowled over many audiences, despite the gender politics of the film that still seem to be in the era of the films it references.

The cinematic trick is then to allow genre to evolve alongside cinema. In short, it is lunacy to assume that the cinematic concept of genre is one fixed in time somewhere between the 1960s and 1970s, whilst the art of filmmaking itself has been and will continue to evolve since its invention.

Of course every now and again films come along that really don’t fit any genre patterns, and good or bad these often yield interesting results. Personally, much as I love and admire the simplicity of things like the Dollars trilogy, I admire those who dare to challenge cinematic convention even more. Better than being objectively or subjectively good or bad, I would rather rate films on how interesting they were to me, and that’s the direction the concept of genre thankfully seems to be heading in. The evolution of cinema hasn’t killed genre – genre has just evolved alongside it. “They don’t make ‘em like they used to”. Of course they don’t.

By Oliver Rowe

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