Cinematic Discourse Notes 7:
Cinematic Genres & Generic Connections

A) Genre and discourse analysis

Before we embark on the study of genre in cinematic discourse, one or two questions are in order.

Firstly, what are the characteristics of genre, and how is it examined in discourse analysis?

Secondly, is the approach to cinematic genres different from the approach to genres in discourse analysis?

The two questions above should lead to further discussion outside of these short notes, but in the main, we can say that genre in the analysis of cinema should be viewed as a translinguistic concept – as in Bakhtin's use of the term – and not something merely confined to language, as in more orthodox, language-based approaches to discourse. We can also say here that one difference from some approaches in discourse analysis is that our approach here will dispense with the need to look for obligatory and optional elements in a particular cinematic genre (refer to Ruqaiya Hasan's approach, as summarised in the quotation (p. 51) of Tan Xiaofeng's article “Semantic Attributes and Lexicogrammatical Patterns”). It does not mean that obligatory and optional constituents do not exist in cinematic genres, but that these may be confined to specific spatio-temporal contexts, and finding obligatory and optional constituents that are more generally applicable, apart from those that are trivial or negligible, would be exceptionally difficult. However, an approach in discourse analysis that is relevant, which is also a prevalent approach in the semiotic analysis of texts, is the division of the cross-textual relationships into paradigmatic and syntagmatic features. You will find that many of the points mentioned in the discussion on cinematic genre here pertain to the paradigmatic plane of discourse.

B) Genre and film

One complication that may arise in the analysis of film genres is that film itself is sometimes considered as a genre in its own right. It is usually considered a genre itself in order to distinguish film as a whole from other types of texts. This usage is unproblematic if there are no genres contained within film, as film itself has already been considered a genre. But the problem is, there are genres within film.

Another problem has to do with the word medium, which might be confused with genre. Medium concerns the material or equipment used to produce something and/or its mode of communication. It is easier to consider cinema as a whole as a medium, as the camera plays an important part in its production, but there are refinements or complications to this, such as animation versus live action cinematography etc.: some recent examples of animation, for example, do not involve the use of a physical camera.

A further problem with the study of cinematic genres is that, in spite of their importance in the study, appreciation and promotion of film, the idea of genre is sometimes viewed negatively. The term genre film, for example, quite often refers to films that are low-budget and unsuccessful. The negative attitude towards genre is undoubtedly promulgated by the commercial attempt to exploit a particular genre without expanding the required resources, whether financial or aesthetic, in order for a film to reach a certain standard. But this negative attitude towards genre appears to be restricted to this, and the study of genre is accorded some respect in film studies.

C) Generic divisions

As stated in the chapter on “Cinematic Narratives” in NT, a four-fold division of cinematic genres, along the following lines, is quite common:

  1. narrative films,
  2. documentaries,
  3. experimental films, and
  4. animated cartoons.

One problem with the above classification, as stated in the chapter, is the ubiquity of narrative. Narrative is not confined to just narrative films, but is a feature of the other genres indicated above as well. Indeed, generic classifications of film, even if they are broad, such as the above, are not discrete. Generic mixtures are frequently encountered.

Other broad or broader generic classifications, or further sub-classifications, are of course possible. Films that are classified according to the presence of another source or lack thereof is another possible broad generic classification (eg. the classification of screenplays according to whether they are original or adapted). This broader classification permeates the boundaries of the above classification. Narrative films and animated cartoons can be original or adapted. Documentaries are usually original in their central perspectives. Experimental films, by their very nature, are usually original, or if they are adapted, strikingly different versions of the earlier works.

It is clear that a number of cinematic genres are based on content. For example, only animated cartoons in the list above are based on the medium being used, and not their content. The feature film, if it is considered a genre, is also a non-content classification of genre, as it refers to the main film shown in a theatre that it is 100 minutes ± 20 minutes in length (sometimes longer or shorter times are given: usually not below 60 minutes or above 210 minutes).

D) Transformation of generic media: prose fiction to film

With regard to film with adapted screenplays, one major source for making a film is the novel. There are various ways that a novel can be made into a film, but at the onset, we can say that an obvious difference or similarity between a novel and a film based on it, revolves around the language used. When compared to a feature film of normal length, the novel is noticeably lengthier and usually takes a longer time to respond to, when read at a normal or leisurely pace. An obvious corollary of this is that not all the language used in a novel can be transferred over to a film, and a selection has to be made. Sometimes, only part of the lengthier novel is used in the film, and the selection of the language will of course only (or largely) include that part of the novel that has been selected for the movie. But selection does not mean that the language has to be completely changed. So one possible outcome is the partial retention of the language from the novel: for example, part of the dialogue in the novel is retained in the film.

Another aspect of the conversion from the novel to film is the fact there is a visual transformation from written media. This is another factor that will result in the reduction of the language of the original. The visual transformation is obvious in the setting, where what is described in the novel using language has to be presented visually. Apart from the language itself, there are changes in the content. Among the changes is the beginning, which may not be at the same point as the beginning of the novel: this could be clearly seen in Jane Campion's adaptation of Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady, for example. In the transformation from novel to film, the characters may also be introduced at different points from the novel, which is also evident in the Campion adaptation of James' novel. It should also be mentioned that some characters are taken out in the transformation from novel to film, either because of the shorter length of the film's narrative, or because some characters are more difficult to portray on film and can be safely taken out, as they are not integral to the film.

Finally, it is more difficult to convey thoughts and mental attitudes in film when compared to the novel. Thought presentations in the novel are sometimes deleted in the film, or converted into speech, as can be seen in some examples from Campion's version of The Portrait of a Lady.

E) Transformation of media: drama to film

With reference to the last observation in the previous section, the difficulty in the representation of thought in drama has some resemblances to that in cinema. However, the soliloquies that are found in Shakespeare's plays are thoughts that are presented in the form of speech. Cinematic technology ensures that the content of the soliloquies need not be linguistically presented as language that is visibly spoken by a character. There is also the belief that dramatic soliloquies, especially the lengthier ones, do not work well for film, and hence are rarely found in the cinematic medium.

Cinema is certainly closer to drama than the novel. Obviously, there is both sight and sound in cinema and in a theatrical performance, whereas these are missing in the novel as a medium. Some films made from drama certainly try to remain close to their source, but these films are described as canned theatre, although the complaint about canned theatre also applies to films that are like photographed plays, even if they were not actually derived from dramatic works.

However, there are significant differences too. Firstly, there are differences in the decor for the cinematic set and the theatrical set, and making a film from the written dramatic text must take this into consideration (Kenneth MacKinnon, Greek Tragedy into Film, 1986: 6–12). Sets in the cinema may be on location (as noted in the sub-section Cinematic performance spaces in Notes 6), but this is not really possible for drama.

The final production of the cinematic text results in its fixity, unlike theatrical production, which varies from performance to performance. This means that cinematic performance, unlike theatrical performance, is also fixed, and that ‘film's fixity’, for example, ‘rendered a bad performance irreversible’ (Ralf Remshardt “The Actor as Intermedialist: Remediation, Appropriation, Adaptation” 2006: p. 47). In theatre, the quality of the acting may vary from performance to performance.

F) Realistic and fantastic

A broad generic classification for feature films is sometimes made between realistic and fantastic films. But it can be argued that realism itself – and arguably, the fantastic in cinema – should not be regarded as generic, as it is too broad, and there must be more specifications before it could be regarded as generic (see below for a discussion on the fantastic).

Another, perhaps more acceptable categorisation, instead of the direct, virtually absolute generic classification into realistic or fantastic, is to look at some cinematic genres, and determine whether they are realistic or fantastic in relative terms. For example, a cinematic genre is described as ‘realistic’ (rather than e.g. ‘fantastic’/‘grotesque’...). Or, it is claimed that a genre declines because of competition from another, more realistic genre, such as the claim that the dying of the western in the seventies was due to the rise of a more ‘realistic genre of film’.

As noted above, realism itself may be too broad to be regarded as generic. One needs to zero in on certain aspects of realism and contextualise them within the history of film in a specific national context, before this more specific form of realism could be regarded as generic: for example, Italian neo-realism, French cinéma verité, and British social realism, all of which are uncontroversially regarded as generic. When we look at these realistic traditions within their specific national contexts, it is clear that we are not dealing with naked-eye realism, but the films share certain conventions that are replicated in several films.

Fantastic cinema, like realistic cinema, is too broad to be regarded as generic, although it is occasionally regarded as generic by some (see, for example, the description of these films in two film festivals: fantastic cinema from Pakistan and the Fantastic Film Festival at the University of Málaga). Like realism, there need to be specifications before the fantastic could be regarded as generic. For example, the cinematic fairy tale, medieval fantasy and space opera are all examples of fantasy, but more impotantly, there are specific recurring features that define them as genres in their own right.

 Although often viewed as opposite concepts that are placed in distinct categories, realism and fantasy are not always opposed to each other and they are, quite often, not mutually exclusive. Realism and fantasy, for example, are combined in magical realism, which arguably, is a genre in its own right. Magical realism finds expression in some highly regarded recent films, such as Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth (2006) and  Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010). It has also been argued that David Fincher's The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (2009) is an example of magical realism, even though the work that it is based on, a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, (text) is not regarded as an example of this genre.

Perhaps cinema itself as a generic medium is, in essence, magically real, a combination of fantasy and realism? This is argued by the reviewer who describes Benjamin Button as a work of magical realism:

Magical realism has been defined as “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something “too strange to believe”. Popular cinema is in essence a ‘magically real’ medium. It offers us a respite from our mortality. It comforts us with the illusion of narrative - that our lives are a story that unfolds in the ways it is supposed to - that it has a meaning in itself not just the meaning we give it. Human beings have for millennia found the same solace before their mortality in religion. Personally I prefer the cinema - I know that’s not real.

Indeed, throughout its history, cinema is recognised as both ‘real’ – in the sense that it presents the world as it is, or what Bazin calls its ontological realism – and magical – in the sense that it is not an exact replica of the world ‘out there’, but there is something supra-natural about the medium. The supra-natural possibilities in the medium were exploited in some early films, such as J. Stuart Blackton's “The Enchanted Drawing,” and have remained today in such phrases as ‘cinematic magic’ or ‘the magic of cinema’.

Finally, from the perspective of cinema theory, realism is not always contrasted to fantasy. To describe a cinema theorist like Rudolf Arnheim as an anti-realist does not mean that he is an advocate of fantasy in cinema. The contrast here is between realism and formalism, between the advocacy of cinema as a depiction of the real world, or of cinema as an expressive medium, which should be judged in its own terms, and not in relation to its closeness to external reality. In this connection, what is at issue is an epistemological rather than a generic approach to realism, and what must be borne in mind here, returning to the question posed at the beginning of this section, is the fact that discussions on realism in cinema may not always be about generic concerns.

G) Mainstream and classical

Another cinematic classification that may have generic consequence is the division between mainstream and non-mainstream. There are various other permutations of this division, resulting in rather different classifications, such as between commercial and independent or commercial and art cinema, or between commercial and offbeat. Leaving the non-mainstream or independent cinema out for a moment, it can be noted that there may be some generic features associated with mainstream cinema, especially in its earlier manifestation as classical cinema (a term introduced by Bazin).

Some of the generic features of classical cinema have been isolated by David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson in their book, The Classical Hollywood Cinema. However, even if overarching generic features cannot be found for mainstream cinema as a whole, it could be said that commercial cinema has stronger associations with what is called genre films, or with what is sometimes called the lower genres or B movies, which have strong generic associations. Independent or non-mainstream films, by their very nature, are harder to classify generically, or they are harder to associate with established film genres.

H) The avant-garde

Before we could determine whether the avant-garde is a genre, we should try to define it. Avant-garde cinema involves experiments with cinema as an art form, whether it be with certain accepted cinematic techniques, or with cinematic narrative. As such, it is also called experimental cinema, and most cinema scholars regard the two terms as roughly equivalent, or they have an inherent connection to each other.  Although Gloria Floren regards experimental cinema as a sub-set of avant-garde cinema – to her, ‘Some avant-garde films are called "experimental,"’ – she nevertheless perceives experimentation as a prominent feature of the avant-garde, which is clearly seen in the title of her definition of the term: ‘Avant-Garde (Experimental) Films’:

Avant-garde film makers want to experiment with new ideas, forms, techniques, and expressions–and are often said to be "ahead of their times." Avant-garde films are characterized by a high degree of experimentation--whether it be in manipulation in narrative materials, in highly stylized visual representation, or in radical departures from the norms or conventions current at the time, avant-garde film is always a vehicle for the filmmaker’s expression.

The avant-garde is occasionally regarded as generic. But is it a cinematic genre? Like non-mainstream cinema in general, the avant-garde as a whole is hard to classify generically, and unlike mainstream cinema, it does not contain, at a lower level, well-defined genres. In this connection, it has been argued by Kathryn Ramey (2010) that the avant-garde is not a genre:

The avant-garde is not a genre of filmmaking, an institution or simply a set of practices. It is a living, changing community, the boundaries of which are constantly being contested from both within and without.

But even if the avant-garde changes periodically, with both internal and external boundaries that are constantly challenged, the same can be said about cinematic genres in general (see the discussion on generic evolution below). What is interesting about the avant-garde is that it does not have a clear set of features that one associates with it. It is more an anti-genre than a genre proper, as it goes against accepted conventions, instead of perpetuating some of these conventions. Although the avant-garde or experimental cinema is often taken as being opposed to the mainstream, there are some examples of experimental cinema, such as Christopher Nolan's Memento (2000), which have found its way into the mainstream.

I) Animation

Animation came about with the technological possibilities of motion-picture photography, specifically, with stop-motion photography in its early history, and the rotoscope. Thus to see cinematic animation as a genre, is to take a technical and not a content-based definition of genre. Of course, the technicalities involved in the creation of animation make possible or delimit what could be conveyed through the medium, thus creating content that is quite distinctive to it.

As animation traditionally involves drawings, an animated movie could be made from geometrical forms, but such movies, because of the lack or diminution of the human element, cannot usually be sustained into feature-length films or even shorter animated movies that ordinary people find enjoyable. So the freedom and flexibility which the drawings used for animation opened up, must be balanced up by their ability to attract the attention of the public. Thus line drawings that deal with the human face instead of geometric shapes, such as Blackton's “Humorous Phases of Funny Faces” (1906) – which is regarded as the first animated movie – proved to be more appealing. Among the other pioneering animated movies, the main character of Winsor McKay's “Gertie the Dinosaur” (1914) is regarded as ‘the first cartoon character to show a personality all her own’. This feature, where the main animal characters are endowed with human characteristics, thus endowing animation with relative doses of fantasy, remain a feature of animated movies throughout the history of cinema.

In later examples of animation, not only is there the attempted linkage to human beings and their actions and gestures, but also, to cinematic techniques and other features that are associated with live-action movies. A good example of this is Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Whether animation should imitate human beings and their actions, or, live action movies, is a moot point in the history of animation. Disney, in Snow White and in several movies after it, is traditionally associated with the attempt to do so, whereas other animators or animation companies are of the view that there should be some distance between them.

At the end of the previous century, celluloid animation, or what is also called cel animation or traditional animation, was progressively giving way to digital animation or what is also called computer-generated imagery (CGI). The first film whose images were entirely generated by computer was Toy Story (1995), which was produced by Disney and Pixar. Disney and Pixar had embarked on digitisation earlier, with their Computer Animation Production System or CAPS, which began operation in the late 1980s. The last Disney film which largely depended on hand-painted cel animation was The Little Mermaid (1989), although hand-painted animation itself did not die away, and was reinstated with The Princess and the Frog (2009).

There are significant changes in the production of animated films with the advent of CGI, chief of which was the fact that it was less manually laborious than cel animation: Disney's Snow White, for example, made use of 166,352 finished paintings, and The Little Mermaid made use of a staggering number of well over a million hand-painted bubbles for its underwater sequences. Digital animation may also be virtually cameraless, although significantly, there is usually an attempt to simulate the presence of the camera and some techniques associated with it in the cinematic discourse of most animated feature films that use CGI. However, the difference between CGI and traditional animation lies more with the process of making an animated film. Whether CGI creates a radical new genre of animated films that are appreciably different from those made using traditional animation, is debatable: the difference between the two, one suspects, is more stylistic than generic.

J) Generic evolution

Cinematic genres are not static. They evolve and change all the time. With this fundamental feature in mind, we may want to take a look at some ideas introduced by the Russian formalists: the automatisation of cinematic genres and the dominant (these concepts are also dealt with in NT chapter 9, sections 9.7–9.8).

According to the Russian Formalists, the characteristics of a genre become fixed or automatised after a certain period of time, and thus the genre becomes dominant. Of course, the features of the dominant genre, in spite of stabilising over a period of time, do not remain permanently fixed. They would eventually change over time, and a new dominant emerges.

To Yury Tynjanov, a genre is affected by its syn-functions and its auto-functions. Syn-functions refer to features within the work that have an effect on generic evolution, whereas auto-functions refer to factors outside the work. Thus genres are not only system-internal, but their evolution also relies on external factors. After a period of time, the system-internal features may become automatised, and a new dominant surfaces. But after a further period of time, the process of automatisation may result in the genre becoming too rigid, thus creating a negative impact on the audience. So automatisation eventually gives rise to the need to change the genre. The whole process is then repeated again, with a new dominant arising and the eventual need to change the features of the genre after they have become too rigid. It can be argued that the automatisation of genres, which makes the genre easier to define, occurs only with popular film genres. Art movies are less likely to depend on automatised genres.

K) Cinematic genres & society

It is clear, from the brief discussion of Tynjanov's auto-function and other considerations, cinematic genres do not stand on their own. They not only have a relationship to other texts belonging to the genre, but to society as well. We should also note that genres may reflect certain aspects of society through the patterns or norms found in them. In this regard, we may ask whether the reflections on society found in some cinematic genres, such as the western and gangster movies, are accurate. These generic reflections, such as the character of native Americans in the traditional western, and the association of  gangsters with Italians during a particular period in the history of gangster movies, may deflect from, or distort, what is ‘out there’ in the social world. Cinematic genres thus affect society by changing or modifying social perceptions and attitudes, such as the influence of the western on attitudes towards native Americans or of gangster movies on the perception of Italians.

L) The western


The western is a genre that has been regularly revised and is constantly evolving.  Its history as a cinematic genre practically spans the whole history of cinema, almost from its very beginning. One way to view the history of the western is to divide it into the following; we will be briefly looking at ii–iv later in these notes:

  1. Early beginning in silent cinema
  2. More traditional westerns associated with John Ford, Howard Hawks etc.
  3. Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns
  4. Redevelopment with Clint Eastwood (and others), post-Leone

Some constant elements of the movie western were virtually there right from the beginning of its history: for example, the idea of who a cowboy is, and who should be the protagonist, appears to be quite consistent for over a century. Of course, this idea can be parodied, but parodies often reaffirm rather than destroy the genre (see below).

Who is a cowboy, and who is the hero of a western?

It is clear to most of us that a cowboy is someone who wears a hat, rides a horse and carries a gun. The hero of a western is not someone who merely has passable abilities in horse riding, but should be very good at it, although one questions if, historically, the horse continues to be important in the genre with technological development. The hero of a western must also not only carry a gun, but must be an accurate and quick shot, and it is sometimes assumed that he must have killed people with his gun too (of course, if he was a hero, he had killed for a good cause).

Radical changes in the genre in the fifties and sixties

Genres do not always evolve gradually. If we look at American westerns made in the early fifties, such as John Ford's Rio Grande (1950), Fred Zinnemann's High Noon (1952) and George Stevens' Shane (1953), and compare them with the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone in the sixties, such as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), we can see significant developments in the evolution of the genre over a span of less than two decades. We notice, for example, that there is greater respect for marriage, family life and women in the American western, although there is, at the same time, questions being posed on whether the western hero could actually lead a normal married life. Marriage and family life take a backseat in Leone's westerns, and are even treated with contempt by some of the characters. The image of woman as mother and wife concomitantly takes a beating in the spaghetti western. The same can be said about the more general division between good and evil, which becomes vague or non-existent in Leone's westerns, but is definitely clearer in the American western of the fifties.

Many of these variations are not merely national differences between the American and Italian conceptions of the genre, but are historical differences that are carried over in later examples of the genre, including those produced in the United States. Eastwood provides continuity here, as he was very much part of Leone's spaghetti westerns, taking the lead role as the man with no name in three of Leone's most famous and highly regarded westerns. The first western that Eastwood himself directed, High Plains Drifter (1973), certainly showed more of the influence of the spaghetti western than the American westerns of the fifties (there were in fact clear traces of the mediocre spaghetti western Django the Bastard (1969) in Eastwood's movie).

M) Other generic considerations: mixture, music and ideology

Genres are often mixed. A western, for example, can also be a musical, as in the case of Paint Your Wagon (1969). On a smaller scale, there are references to other cinematic genres within a film, which is often an indication that some characteristics of the other genres can also be found in the film. Some of these references to other films are made via music, such as the theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, to refer to some heroic (or foolhardy) actions made by some characters in non-western movies.

Genres are not ideologically bare. The western, for example, is quite often associated with American politics or how the United States conducts its policies in foreign countries. Genres also have gender associations. Action movies with dominant male heroes, such as most traditional westerns, are often regarded as masculine genres, whereas the maternal melodrama or Bollywood movies in general, have been regarded as feminine genres.

N) Generic parody

Genre films are quite often parodied. But as noted above, parody does not destroy the genre. An examination of some generic parodies will reveal that some of them actually reaffirm the genre, and may even be good examples of the genre. The western for example, has been parodied throughout its history, in such films as George Marshall's Destry Rides Again (1939) and Mel Brook's Blazing Saddles (1974), but it survives, and, as noted, whenever there is a decline of the western as a genre, such as during the seventies, it is more likely that it is caused by competition from other genres. It should also be noted, that there are parodic elements in Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992), but the film survives as one of the best examples of the genre in the last decade of the twentieth century.

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