Thoughts On: Genre, Structure & Cinematic Spacetime Part I


Genre, Structure & Cinematic Spacetime Part I

Thoughts On: A Definition of Genre

This post opens a three-part look at genre within our developing objective-subjective theory of cinema.

One of the least important, but nonetheless most fundamental, elements of narrative, in my view, is genre or style. We have represented this so far in our developing theory of what cinema is for thusly:

S, style or genre, sits at the bottom of the hierarchy, yet in doing so forms the base of the cinematic space. The reasoning for this is three-fold. Firstly, the structure of this hierarchy is determined by divisible factions. Drama, or 0, in my estimation, can only be divided into 4 sub-genres: biodrama, tuphlodrama, typhlodrama, melodrama. Modes, ), are more multitudinous. Not only is there the fundamental realist, surrealist, impressionist and expressionist modes of creating a cinematic narrative, but there are narrative centres (character, story, plot, spectacle, etc) that formulate their own modes. Form, or | |, has even greater variety as it concerns every single technical detail that takes a conceptual story and sees it manifest physically and literally. I have not yet determined a satisfactory system of dividing form, but the vastness of sub-forms and formal approaches is clear considering that form equals rules, and the rules of individual stories can vary greatly.

Sitting below form is genre, S. Whilst formal rules can be thought to vary infinitely, genre is the bigger infinite as it transcends medium and encompasses drama, mode and form--which is to say that cinematic genres are linked to genres in music, literature, dance, opera, etc and that genres are built out of action, approach and rules. The best definition of genre that I have come across emerges from structuralist thinking via Northrop Frye and Tzestan Todorov. In speaking on Frye in his book, The Fantastic, Todorov touches on the idea that 'literature is created from literature' and a 'literary text does not enter into a referential relationship with the "world"'. I find fault with the implicit assertion that one work can only ever be made by re-working older works, which is made especially by Frye, and I also disagree with the disregard of worldly mimesis. Alas, in this faulted definition of the function of literature--which is, itself, seemingly a way of isolating and simplifying literature as a medium so that it may be structuralised easier--there lies a definition of genre. It is because Todorov leans on this idea that literature is created from literature that he can assert that 'genres are precisely those relay-points by which the work assumes a relation with the universe of literature'. The assertion here is one of great clarity. All art, whether it is within a given medium or is just art, is connected in some way to other art. Genres mechanise this relationship. We shall zoom in on this concept later. Let us realise now, however, that, because genre and style are a means of relating all works of art to one another, it forms the foundation all of art itself. True, all narratives have drama, mode and form. However, I do not find it necessary to analyse one film's form in relation to another film's form as to understand it. Comparison is certainly possible and a fruitful form of analysis, but it is not imperative. We can judge drama, mode and form individually - indeed, we need to and often must judge drama, mode and form in regards to one individual piece of art if we are to understand it truly. Alas, to understand the basic constructs and paradigms within a singular story, we must begin to relate it to all other works via its genre.

To provide an example, we can see drama in all narratives. We see tuphlodrama specifically in the films of Lanthimos and Bresson. One can readily compare the tuphlodramatic techniques in each filmmaker's films, however, one cannot necessarily understand the essence of drama in the respective films in this way. Bresson, for instance, requires silent impressionism in Au Hasard Balthazar; he requires reality to be perturbed by a lack of human expression and subtly absurd malevolence. This is his method of utilising tuphlodrama. Lanthimos strips away the humanity of his characters, too. He uses malevolence and animals in The Lobster, and this is tuphlodramatic, but the effect is entirely different to that in Au Hasard Balthazar; the tuphlodrama is not silent, nor is is sombre, instead it is darkly comedic and often brutally expressive.

Drama is not a genre, thus it does not do well in categorising narratives specifically. If we were to consider The Lobster a sci-fi film, however, we could pick up tropes and archetypes that are embedded in a vast array of other sci-fi pictures and under the film's fundamentals rather well. For instance, there is the tyrannous government, a dystopian vision of the future, a hero figure who means to confront the system, a romantic counter-part, there is a class system defined by violence, etc. We see this in a vast array of other sci-fi films: Blade Runner, Ready Player One, In Time, The Hunger Games, Star Wars, District 9, Children of Men, The Matrix, Metropolis, Avatar, etc, etc, etc. All of these films deal with tyrannous systems, class and hero archetypes and so formulate the same basic narrative structure that we define to be 'sci-fi'. And what sci-fi generally does is use scientific possibility to build a vision of the future through which older, more basic mythic structures can be manipulated. The mentioned sci-fi films are not then very different from stories about fathers who will not let their daughter marry her true love because of class, social structure, etc.  Furthermore, they are not too different from stories about the masses being oppressed and a saviour rising. These are mythic, legendary tales. Sci-fi pushes these narratives into the future so that we can contemplate basic, age-old human conflicts in regards to the new landscapes of the future. Her, for example, is a film about love and the difficulties of connecting to someone. We have seen this story played through countless times in countless different ways. Her varies this, however, with sci-fi, questioning what love would be like in the future with artificial intelligence. Films such as Terminator ask the same of war in the future, and there are a myriad more examples to be given.

What we find here is that, because genre encapsulates trope, archetype and paradigm that it is the most successful means of comparing works to others and of understanding one work through another. This cannot necessarily be done to such a precise and useful degree with drama, mode and form alone. This is highly true in regards to drama; drama is not a great means of understanding other works for it is too specific. Drama concerns what a characters does, when and why. Character actions can be compared, of course, but characters and archetypes can only be understood through others via genre conventions and tropes - which is embodied by genre, not drama. Modes can be used to understand other modes in other works, but this is best limited to the works of a specific artist. For example, one can compare the methods of filmmaking employed by Scorsese and Kubrick. However, you would find much more meaning comparing the modes of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull than you would Paths of Glory and Goodfellas. When it comes to form, comparison can be even more fruitful. One can readily understand the formal rules of one film through another - for example, you can understand the function of certain shot-types. Form also helps to understand contextual details, like when and where a film was made; with what technology, what knowledge, what cultural influences, what economic parameters, what kind of audiences, etc. I would nonetheless be cautious in suggesting that one story can be understood fully through another story's form because context isn't uniformly imperative. This is to suggest that, whilst all films made in the late 40s and early 50s would be impacted by WWII, not all films made in this period can be understood solely through WWII and its effect on form (the kind of cameras used, the locations chosen, the kind of stories mapped out, etc).

Genre is simultaneously simple and complex. In my estimation, there is no set amount of genres. We may think that the core genres are action, adventure, romance, sci-fi, horror, etc. But, in addition to the obvious genres of film, there comes the myth, folktale, poem, epic, saga and more. Are these modes or genres? And what about drama? I strictly suggest that drama is not a genre. However, genres rely heavily on different kinds of drama. Films that rely most emphatically on drama appear to have no genre - which is why drama is (incorrectly) categorised as a genre by so many. We see this in the films of Bresson. What genre does Au Hasard Balthezar belong to? IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes categorise this as a drama and/or art and international film. This is technically nonsense, but it also reveals the fact that narratives can be understood via archetypes and tropes. Archetypes and tropes are characters and plot beats, they therefore account for character and character action; character is an imperative agent of drama and action is drama itself. This is why drama is wrongly used as a genre. We see why when we try to understand Au Hasard Balthezar as a drama through another drama, for example, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. How on earth do we define the genre, 'drama', via these two films, and how can we understand one through another as we did with sci-fi, Lanthimos, Star Wars, etc? It is not possible unless we look to the archetypes utilised. Both Au Hasard Balthezar and Three Billboards utilise the fallen or falling woman archetype. This, in my estimation, is the genre that links both films; a genre of the falling woman. In both Bresson and McDonagh's film, a woman is pushed to the boundaries of a community and must fight to retain an established place. Bresson's film presents a tragedy; a failure of the hero to rise. McDonagh's narrative is a successful hero's tale that sees the community seek greater truth and come together by the end. So, the woman does not fall in Three Billboard; she is not cast into the desert. Thus, this can be said to be an incarnation of the more fundamental adventurous hero myth, which sees a hero cast out of his home and make a triumphant return - we see this in The Lion King, Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. The falling woman narrative recounts a fight to not be pushed out, to confront injustice. Other great narratives of this kind often concern witches and trials that seek to have someone outcast and imprisoned unjustly or justly; The Crucible, Kiki's Delivery Service and Day of Wrath are great examples of (falling) witch films, and then there is the whole genre of the courtroom drama that falls into this broader genre of the (we can replace 'woman' with individual at this point) falling individual who must defend themselves to retain honour and a place in a community.

We have descended very far into a dialogue on genre, but, what we shall extract at this point is that genre is vast; it links works to other works deliberately and cohesively so that we may understand a macroscopic picture of a medium or even art in general. Let us now then remember that we are exploring why genre is at the bottom of this hierarchy:

Our first reason for this is that there are more modes than there are kinds of drama, more forms than there are modes and more genres than there are forms. In addition to this, drama is at the bottom of the hierarchy as it is not as important as drama, mode and form.

Drama is the epicentre of a narrative; drama is that which makes space and time move: it is action. Without drama, a narrative cannot be in the most basic of ways, therefore, it is most important. Mode sees drama given direction and without this direction there could not be a process of construction - which is form. We describe now a process of a story existing (drama), a story shaping in a filmmaker's mind (mode) and then a film actually being made (form). Genre finalises the process of telling a story as it essentially makes a work art by relating it to all other works of art. Genre is then a result of telling a story more so than it is a means of telling a story. In my estimation it is inevitable that a story becomes art because it is equally inevitable that any work can be given a genre; can be seen and understood in relation and through other works of art. This final process does not seem imperative to the creation of a narrative as drama, mode and form to me as a result. Genre can certainly be thought of as a narrative centre, and so bears a strong relationship with mode, but we find this to be true with drama and form too; because genre is made up of drama, mode and form, it merges into and appears, sometimes, to be each of these more crucial imperatives. So, it is because genre is not as imperative to the creation of narrative and the cinematic space as that which is above it that it is at the bottom of the hierarchy.

The final reason for genre's lowly position concerns its visibility. Genre is the most readily perceived element of the cinematic space because it takes up such a large potential volume. When we watch a film, its drama is going to be complex and will sprawl across the whole run-time, but its variety is limited. Drama has the potential to manifest as tuphlodrama, typhlodrama, melodrama and biodrama. Because there is such limited potential, drama is harder to recognise and harder to intuit. Mode is easier to recognise as it is simpler to sense that 'I have seen a film like this before' or a film has 'felt like this' before. Because there is greater potential in mode, because there are more modal possibilities, it seems that our brains are better at picking out patterns. This continues to be true as we go down the hierarchy. Because there are more formal possibilities, and because there are more stylistic (genre) possibilities, viewers seem to be more keen on recognising and identifying patterns. A casual viewer may not be able to recognise certain shot-types and elements of cinematic language and relate this to a broader set of films, but this is one of the basic skills anyone who studies film must develop. A casual viewer, on the other hand, will readily be able to recognise the genre of a film, to tell you its genre and other films like it. This is because there is the most potential, there are the most elements and factions, within genre and style. It is easy to see a pattern in this sea of potential. Because genre has the most potential, it takes up the largest volume in a cinematic space and so is easiest to identify. (Remember, that which is dramatic, modal and formal is also stylistic and bound to genre, so, even if drama pervades every scene, mode sits over everything and form is always present, genre is the skin that envelopes all of these details).

We now have three reasons why genre sits at the bottom of this triangle. One reason is connected to importance; genre is not as important as drama, mode and form. The other reasons are related to the proportions of the triangle. There are more genres than there are forms, modes and drama, and there is more volume taken up genre n the cinematic space because it has more potential and is most clear to the viewer/audience (who partly constructs the cinematic space).

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Genre, Structure & Cinematic Spacetime Part II

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