Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Transcending the Genre

In this post defending 28 Weeks Later, Sean brings up his dislike of the concept of "Transcending the Genre".

This is kind of a pet peeve of mine, too, not just because it is kind of condescending, but because it's such a fuzzy idea (even though I've used it myself on occasion). If you say that a movie "transcends its genre" you are probably trying to get across one or more of the following ideas (some of which contradict each other):

  1. Most movies in the blogger biopic genre are bad, but The Forager Movie is pretty great. This might be the most common way folks use "TTG". From my POV, this brings us really close to Sturgeon's Law.

    Note: If "TTG" just means "a good movie that happens to be part of a recognizable genre", we're straying into genre-condescension territory: after all, I don't think we'd say of Philip Roth's American Pastoral that it's a male-mid-life-crisis novel that transcends its genre, even though (a) most male-mid-life-crisis novels aren't all that great (IMO, of course) and (b) American Pastoral is pretty great (again, IMO). So this mainly gets applied to books and movies in ghetto genres like sci-fi and the western. My take is that a great movie that is also a great sci-fi movie (for instance) is not a case of "transcending the genre", but rather showing-off the genre or maybe even fulfilling the genre.

  2. Most movies in the blogger biopic genre will appeal mainly (only?) to the die-hard fan, but The Forager Movie will appeal to a general audience. Ok - I have a lot of sympathy for this kind of thinking. For instance, as a fan of super-hero comics I know there are super-hero books that I would recommend to "just about anybody" and those that I would only recommend to other fans. So, in a sense, "TTG" is correct: some movies/books/etc. transcend a lot of the wonky, specific appeal of their genres.

    Note: As a wonk and a fan I know that sometimes I'm not going to be as interested in books/movies/etc. that are aimed at a general audience. Like, with horror movies: I want to be scared! I want my buttons pushed! It's not as important that the story be well-constructed or that the actors are all giving accessible performances or that it is "about something". To clarify: as a rule, I'm in favor of genre books/movies/etc. that do try to reach a wider audience. When it comes to some of my favorite genres, they just aren't necessarily as interesting to me. But this works both ways: there's a fair amount of contempo poetry that is really only accessible to contempo poetry wonks. I'm not one, so I'm more apt to read contempo poetry that is aimed at a general audience. Hmmm... wait a second: once again, we're getting close to genre condescension territory. After all, lit-critics are probably more likely to talk about a sci-fi novel "transcending the genre" and a book of general interest poetry being "watered down for the masses". (Heh - well, obviously, I'm biased.)

  3. While The Forager Movie is recognizably a blogger biopic, it gets rid of that genre's more odious conventions and trappings. This is like #2, but with more of a judgmental edge. Sometimes I suspect when people talk about horror movies that "transcend the genre" they mean that they don't feature lots of T&A and gore. I don't think when people use "TTG" they ever mean just this, but it seems to be a sentiment that gets mixed in there (remember the fuzziness).

    (Personally, I'm somewhat split on this: there are some trappings and conventions that don't bug me, even though I know they're silly/offensive/etc. - colorful costumes in super-hero comics, for instance. Other times, though, they do annoy me - convoluted cross-overs in super-hero comics, for instance. This also raises the question of pandering: some time a movie/book/etc. will feature a genre element simply to pander to the hardcore fan. I tend to prefer stuff that doesn't blatantly pander, but , in terms of "TTG", this gets back to #1 and Sturgeon's Law.)

  4. Usually, blogger biopics are done in by the conventions of that genre, but The Forager Movie avoids those traps. Actually, this really is how I feel about most musician biopics: the conventions of the genre are just seem so stupid to me that even when they're well done, I can't work up that much enthusiasm. This is another variation on #2. The important point here, though, is that the phrasing is more specific than just saying that "The Forager Movie transcends its genre."

  5. The Forager Movie only looks like it is a blogger biopic, but, actually, it eschews (almost?) all of the conventions of that genre. Really the snob version of #2, but, again, this is more specific than the standard "TTG". Personally, I think this line of argument

Hey - I think of a genre as a kind of ongoing conversation people the people creating movies/books/etc. and the audience for those movies/books/etc.* This means that any given genre is going to be a (slowly?) moving target (a genre is dynamic, not a Platonic Form) and that individual books/movies/etc. are going to be a part of that conversation. So maybe it's better to talk about how movies/books/etc. can expand their genre or exemplify their genre at its best or open up their genre to the uninitiated than to talk about how they "transcend the genre", which kind of means leaving the conversation behind.

*For better or worse, marketing folks (used in the broadest sense of the term), also shape the conversation, but we'll ignore that for now.


Steve said...

I agree with you about the phrase; it's pretty fuzzy and, as it's routinely used, pretty meaningless. I can think of several examples of good, solid genre films in recent years -- SERENITY, RED EYE, SKELETON KEY -- none of which transcended anything, even though I thought they were very satisfying genre movies.

Then there are fancy genre films, like MIAMI VICE, that probably are trying to transcend something though sheer force of style and perhaps abstraction, but really don't. They're basically genre films with big budgets and high-powered directors who don't want to admit that they're just making another genre film.

As for the movies that really do transcend genre, I can think of a few. MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER, THE LONG GOODBYE, THE WILD BUNCH, THE GODFATHER pictures, De Palma's BLOW OUT. What makes them special? A vision of the world that extends outside the boundaries of their genres. Altman's characters have a reality and naturalism that burst the bounds of the genre they're operating in. So too with De Palma's Jack Terry, and the characters in THE GODFATHER. With Peckipah, the level of stylized violence and scabrous ruthlessness also break through the conventions of the Western genre, into something epic and much more poetic.

Michael Blowhard said...

Nicely done!

Jon Hastings said...

Michael - Thanks!

Steve - I guess I still don't buy it. I mean, if you're saying that McCabe is better than most other westerns, I'd probably agree. But it's still a western and it seems like the primary difference between it and most westerns is that it does have a more naturalistic style.

And it seems to me that The Wild Bunch picks up on and exaggerates the moral ambiguity of things like the Anthony Mann/Jimmy Stewart westerns. It pushes the boundaries of the genre, but so does, for instance, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly or, in a different direction, The Shooting.

Steve said...

But you can't really say that either Warren Beatty's or Julie Christie's character in MCCABE fulfills the genre requirements for Western hero and heroine. Stewart in THE MAN FROM LARAMIE and WINCHESTER '73 is every inch the stalwart Western hero; more psychologically "realistic" perhaps, in his bitterness and lack of idealism, but still the straight-shooting, decent, competent, forthright, adhering to the values of hard work and frontier justice, etc.

Beatty and Christie belong to a different universe altogether. It's not a matter of being better; they're qualitatively, substantively different. You simply wouldn't use the terms I used above to describe Beatty's character. So too with Elliott Gould's Philip Marlowe versus Bogart's or anyone else's. And the difference in the characters -- their personalities and their actions -- means that even though both MAN FROM LARAMIE and MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER are both ostensibly Westerns, in that they're set in the Old West, the first is definitely a genre film and the second isn't.

Jon Hastings said...

Steve - Sorry, I'm still not buying. Why McCabe and The Man from Laramie are westerns, in my mind, isn't just that they're both set in the Old West, but that both are dealing with "Life on the Frontier". That's the important thing about Westerns, no?

But even so...

You could say that McCabe "isn't really a Western" or that it "doesn't really belong to the Western genre" (I don't agree with this, mind you, but you could say this), but then why say that it transcends the genre? If your point is that McCabe isn't limited by the conventions of the Western genre but you also don't think it actually belongs to that genre, then why bother even raising the issue? If it isn't a Western, why should we care that it goes beyond the limits of the Western? I mean, McCabe goes beyond the limits of most classical Hollywood movies of any genre when it comes to the way it draws its characters.

I'm not just being pedantic or trying to engage in semantic warfare: why point out that McCabe is "qualitatively, substantively different" from other Westerns, unless you think that McCabe actually is a Western. And if it is a Western, doesn't that mean that, rather than "transcend" the genre, it expands the genre - it adds something to the genre, or, according to my "take" on genre, it adds something to the conversation.

Steve said...

Well, I think there's a lot more to the Western genre than simply depicting "life on the frontier." The term genre implies certain character types and archetypal conflicts. Check out Robert Warshow's essay on "The Westerner" in his collection "The Immediate Experience."

And while I personally wouldn't describe MCCABE as a Western, I would say that it does "transcend genre" to others who would put in that box. I don't think you can really say that it "expands" the parameters of what we would consider a Western, because it distorts those parameters to such an extent that you're no longer really talking about a genre film at all.

But I guess at some level this is semantic quibbling. I love both MCCABE *and* the Anthony Mann Westerns. I just think the latter work brilliantly within the confines of the genre, and the former busts out from those confines.

Jon Hastings said...

Well, wrt the Warshow essay, part of my idea of dynamic genres is that no one critic gets the last word. Personally, I think McCabe did expand the genre, in as much as we've since had westerns that are as much influenced by it as they are by Stagecoach (The Claim and HBO's Deadwood, for instance).

Also, I wasn't quite explicit enough, but I meant more than just depict life on the frontier. I think westerns are about Frontier Life - the struggle of establishing a community (a civil society) in "the wild". That's what joins together, IMO, Stagecoach and The Naked Spur and Ride the High Country and McCabe and Deadwood and The Proposition and makes it meaningful (and useful!) to talk about them as being part of the same genre. Like - if were going to recommend a bunch of Wetserns to someone or to teach a class on the Western, I'd probably want to include McCabe along with The Far Country and Wagon Master and The Claim.

Steve said...

Good points about THE CLAIM and DEADWOOD. Perhaps I was too quick to place MCCABE outside of the Western genre. I tend to think of Altman's films as talking more to each other, as opposed to interacting with/expanding on the larger film culture. But of course they do both.

Jon Hastings said...

Steve - I know what you mean about Altman movies. I once got into an online discussion re: the merits of Nashville with a guy whose beef with the movie was that he had lived in Nashville and knew people in the country music community and felt that Nashville wasn't an accurate representation. I didn't have much of a response: I mean, I believed him (why wouldn't I?), but Nashville seems so much like its own self-contained little world that it didn't really seem too relevant.

SFG said...

Yeah, kinda like Borges. Nobody ever counts him as a scifi/fantasy writer, but he wrote about infinitely large libraries, people dreaming themselves into being, people living a year's time in a minute...very naturalistic.

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