Saturday, February 9, 2013

Rethinking Genre

Christine Gledhill in her essay ‘Rethinking Genre’ stresses on genre to be a cyclical concept. For her, it helps to fill the gap that is left open by theory that once promised to grasp films as a part of a totalising ‘social formation’ or ‘historical conjuncture’. For example film noir was always understood in terms of the post-war social malaise in American cities in the 40’s and 50’s. But Steve Neale comments that the mental condition of a nation cannot be read from consumer choice at the box office. Thus in the study of genre for Gledhill, texts and aesthetics intersect with industry and institution, history and society, culture and audiences. Genre is capable of understanding culture in a wider context in relationship to rather than as an originating source of aesthetic mutations and textual complications.

Genre is also increasingly a boundary phenomenon. According to Collins, postmodern culture dissolves the boundaries between high and low, literary and vernacular, artistic and commercial and causes a cultural confusion as all areas of cultural production meet in a mass mediated market place. But genre also gets introduced into film studies as an alternative to auteurism, where it puts art back into popular fiction and simultaneously reclaims the commercial products of Hollywood for critical appraisal. The productivity of genre lies in the fact that boundaries are defined, eroded and redrawn. Genre analysis hence tells us much more about the cultural work of producing and knowing genre films. Gledhill states three important areas that combine within genre analysis - Industrial mechanism, aesthetic practice and cultural-critical discursivity.

Genres are also a system of intersecting fictional worlds. There is usually a presupposition that an ‘original’ underlies the hybridity of genre as not only an industrial but also a cultural process. But take for instance, melodrama as a form has been founded on plagiarism, and the notion of a singular becomes inappropriate here. Further, there is no simple identification to be made between gender, male or female and melodrama at any point in its history. As an industrial process, Alloway, Maltby and Altman favour the concept of ‘cycle’ over genre. Tino Balio speaks of ‘production trends’ and Barbara Klinger of the ‘local genre’. Thus the industry does not work with genres directly but to guide production studios who invariably look to replicate a successful film, exploit an asset like a star, a set or a formula that comes out of a mix of elements from different genres. There is an inevitable mismatch between industrial and critical histories. For example, Maltby points out that the gangster film cycle lasted three years while its cultural life extends to the present day.

Gledhill explains that the life of a genre is cyclical and the cultural historian lacks any fixed point from which to survey its panorama. For example, film noir emerges both as a critical concept and a production category and films that were not promoted as ‘women’s films’ were also reconceived under this genre. Also, Melodrama is not a singular genre but combining two broad based cultural traditions - a mix of folk and new urban entertainment forms and middle-class fiction and theatre of sentimental drama and comedy. The melodramatic machine combines news events, popular paintings, songs, romantic poetry, circus acts etc. and generates a wide diversity of genres and draws from several modes as well.
Gledhill describes ‘modality’ as an aesthetic articulation that adapts itself across genres, decades and
national cultures. Melodrama is doubly a source of fascination and threat as it recognised a range of audiences from different classes and nationalities. Thomas Elsaesser, Peter Brooks and Ben Singer suggest melodrama has a capacity to respond to the questions of modernity. The modality of melodrama encapsulates a secular world driven by capitalism and the clash of moral imperatives. Cinematic technology like melodrama emerges out of the merging of two sets of class and gender traditions - fairground with parlour entertainment and cinema of ‘attractions’ with a cinema of narrative fiction. Melodrama also combines bodily eloquence with spectacle.

Gledhill is critical of the term ‘classic’ which is attached to mainstream film narrative tying it to a novelistic past and neglecting cinema’s melodramatic legacy. She finds melodramatic modality to continue to dominate mainstream cinema under the new names of Hollywood genres to the present day. There is further a polarisation of melodrama and realism as critical values under the middle-class intellectual elite. Realism is associated with restraint and reasoning and valued as masculine while emotion and pathos are read as feminine. But melodrama exploits a realism associated with sexualised images from popular Freudism as well as the violence of the western, thriller, action and horror film. She states that desire is generated at the boundaries. Hence genres construct fictional worlds out of textual encounters between languages, discourses, images and documents according to a particular genre’s codes while social and cultural conflicts provide material for renewed generic enactments in them.
There are encounters at the boundaries—for example, the serial queen or the ‘true’ woman as today’s action heroine. The overlapping images and boundaries mean that they are ripe for reconstruction and re-imagination. The job of the critics whether journalist, academic or counter-cultural is to make these connections across generic boundaries and bring into view new patterns. For example, film noir’s return generating new sub genres of neo-noir, tech noir etc.

For Gledhill then, there is a fluidity between boundaries that divide one genre from another but also between fictional and social imaginaries. Genre system complicates the use of film history for in historical research one cannot find a true identity of genre in some past origin, but an identity that is still in the making. The boundaries of genre don’t stay within the fictional but seep into cultural and critical discourse where they are made and remade by audiences, students, scholars and critics.

Author: Harmanpreet Kaur

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