Genre offers a enormous range of approaches in critical studies, so much so that once one begins to study this area, one can begin to question whether genre itself is indeed relevant any longer. One thing is clear, audiences believe a films generic location is one of the key determining factors in whether they’ll pay the admission price at the cinema or stream the movie to their equipment.
Genre as a concept is certainly of historical importance, as film production in the Hollywood studio system was organised along generic lines (particularly at Warner Brothers) with production units working in the same genre over periods of years, and stars, often against their own wishes, typecast in generic role, an example would be James Cagney, the ubiquitous rising gangster in Warner’s gangster movies of the 1930’s. But genre movies change over time, why might this be so, certainly there was pressure from the management of the studios to repeat successful formulae, but the film units comprised of highly creative individuals, from writers, unit producers to DP’s and directors. So why do genre films change over time?
A name worth looking up in regard to this is Christian Metz (a summary of whose work I found in Graeme Turner’s Excellent book ‘Film as social Practice’). Metz outlines the phases that genres so through. This is based on the reasonably assumption that the Hollywood film industry was highly organised in terms of production imitative as an economic phenomenon, and is staffed by highly creative individuals.
- The classic phase, where many elements are established and remain consistent but a little innovation of some elements is apparent – this was certainly true of the musical in the HSS, but also of the Biopic, see this link to my own web site for some slightly more advanced material
- The experimental phase, where films made in the genre feature innovation in the main repertoires of elements, so much so that they can seem to challenge the main conventions of the genre
- The parody – which pokes gently fun at the genre
- Deconstruction – Often explore the nature of the genre by using signifiers from other films in the genre make strong references to signifiers in films from other genres and challenge the forms and intended representations.
The western is a particularly interesting case for the study of genre evolution – this combines the use of Claude Levi-Strauss’s ideas about popular narrative having a social function (so film genres substitute for Myth in classical societies), and his notions of structuring oppositions int he representations particular social groups, thus one can trace the relationship of the hero/anti-hero to the binary oppositions of wilderness and civilisation – Jim Kitses’ excellent book ‘Horizons West: The Western from John Ford to Clint Eastwood (BFI Film Classics) details this in one chapter.
If you are interested in Genre studies you could do worse than to pursue a line of enquiry into these issues. Either way, you should begin to develop your interest in at least one area of Film theory to be ready for the independent study