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Film/Genre - Rick Altman
Film/Genre - Rick Altman [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]
Illustrated Film/Genre radically revises our notions. It is the first book to fully connect the roles played by industry critics and audiences in making and re-making genre. In a critiques of major voices in the history of genre theory from Aristotle to Wittgenstein, Rick Altman reveals the conflicting stakes for which the genre game has been played. Recognizing that the very term "genre" has different meanings for different groups, he bases his new genre theory on the uneasy competitive yet complimentary relationship among genre users and discusses a huge range of films from The Great Train Robbery to Star Wars and from The Jazz Singer to The Player. --Book Description via Amazon.com
Rick Altman's discussion of intra- and intergeneric processes of genre in his book The American Film Musical (1989) attempts to correct oversights in previous genre theory. Altman is highly critical of the fact that genre theorists have tended to talk about the history of genres in a very compartmentalised manner. When outlining the history of a genre and looking at the way it evolves, traditional theorists such as Thomas Schatz (1981) and William Wright (1975) have tended to look at genres as being entirely separate from each other. Hence, when looking at generic evolution, later genre films are assumed to build on earlier films of the same genre and no others. In fact, Altman's examination of the problem of "defining the corpus" makes it clear that many approaches have been even more deficient, concentrating on only a small range of texts within the genre. Schatz's examination of Westerns in Hollywood Genres (1981), which focusses almost exclusively on the work of John Ford, is a good example of this problem.
Altman argues that such a single-minded approach ignores the considerable cross-pollination that occurs across genres. Hybrid genres, as Altman points out, have been around a long time: he cites various examples, including western/musicals dating as far back as the singing cowboys of the thirties and gangster/musicals such as Guys and Dolls. To suggest that the evolution of a genre is not going to be effected significantly by a hybridisation with other genres' forms and conventions is to bury ones head in the sand. After all, almost all classical Hollywood studio directors almost worked in more than one genre: Howard Hawks directed westerns, screwball comedies, and science fiction films; and even John Ford found time for the occaisional non-western project. Therefore, anyone arguing that thematic and plot motifs do not cross from genre to genre must abandon all notions of auteurism and work on the assumption that even the most gifted of directors will succumb completely to generic forms.
To look in more detail at the way in which these intergeneric influences affaect generic evolution it is necessary to pause for a moment to look in more detail at the main thrust of Altman's argument. Traditional genre theory, Altman argues, has tripped up not only through uncertain definitions of generic content (the "corpus" referred to before), but through a fundamental confusion about generic definitions. Altman points out that genres are usually defined in terms of either certain signs (taking the western as an example, the guns, horses, wagons, towns, landscapes, or even the western stars such as John Wayne or Clint Eastwood) or certain plots and themes (such as Wright's notions of the western's classic stories). Altman labels the former group the semantic elements and the latter the syntactic, and argues that genre theory needs to keep the distinction clearly in mind if it is to come to terms with issues such as generic evolution, and cross-genre pollination in particular.
Altman suggests a basic model of genre creation using these terms. He argues that genres start out with a set of semantic elements, and only achieve true genre status when they complete a process of evolving an accompanying syntax. Altman is intelligent enough to point out the limited scope of this interpretation. After all, the syntactic and semantic elements both continue to shift after this process is completed. Nevertheless, the idea makes sense. Syntactic likenesses between films are subtle, especially considering that the classical Hollywood paradigm limits the range of syntactic options. Semantic similarities, meanwhile, are unmistakable, and therefore porvide a stronger basis for notions of a genre to begin to appear. Westerns must, of necessity, grow out of the setting (and hence associated semantics) of the old west. Musicals, likewise, must first and foremost involve music.
Why, when developing a model of such usefullness in defining genres and explaining their evolution, does Altman worry at all about intergeneric influences? The answer is that this semantic / syntactic apporach requires intergeneric processes to make sense, even as it provides a framework in which such processes can be better understood. After all, if Altman's approach were looked at strictly intragenerically, genres would require a long, slow, formation period as they evolved a syntax to accompany their semantics. Thinking intergenerically, however, we can see that another approach is available. A set of promising semantics simply hijack existing an existing syntactic framework from another genre.
This is a crucial concept, if only because it might finally allow genre theorists to finally come to terms with science fiction films (a subject upon which Schatz is notably silent). After all, science fiction is perhaps one of the most easily recognised of genres (there is surely much more public awareness of science fiction as a discrete genre than there is of screwball comedy), yet older theorists have never quite come to terms with it. A large part of the reason is that science fiction has resisted any attempt at definition based on syntax: science fiction exists almost entirely as a set of semantics (and a loose one at that). There is, simply, no syntactic framework existent in science fiction. It is a parasitical genre, relying on hybrids between its semantics and the syntactic frameworks taken from elsewhere. --Stephen Rowley via http://home.mira.net/~satadaca/genre1.htm [Dec 2005]
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