A Genre is based on a canon of stories which share a concentration of specific conventions. Genre films are standardised stories defined by specific themes, plot patterns, characters or settings. They are created in respect to already existing films which are newly interpreted, varied, quoted or re-produced. They fulfil the need for classification and serve as film ‘label’ to create specific audience expectations.
Beyond its sheer labelling function every genre embodies a certain life attitude:
- The drama signifies life as an everlasting battle.
- In melodrama fate strikes at random.
- Tragedy lets the hero perish because of his rebellion against god’s will or the regime.
- The comedy wants to unmask various value systems in their one-sidedness.
- The tragic comedy insists on the sanctity of human dignity in a grotesque world and lights a beacon of hope and reconciliation.
- The romantic comedy believes in the triumph of love against all odds and social barriers.
- The road movie understands life as a constant journey.
- The western movie is an expression of human longing for new frontiers as well as new social order.
- The buddy movie celebrates the power of friendship against all odds.
- The thriller demonstrates the fragility of human life constantly hanging by a thread.
- The horror movie questions the rationality of human existence.
- The epic film addresses human entrapment in structure and conditions.
The genre choice a writer makes is always also an expression of a certain point of view, because genre films are more about the ‘how’ – the realisation – rather than the ‘what’ – the content. Therefore a story may be told in various genres. Genre story development means a balance act between structural clustering, typecasting of characters, stylistic refinement as well as originality of narrative details.
From Proto-Genres to Sub-Genres ^
The two archetypical genres are tragedy and comedy. In ancient Greece they were expressions of the ideology that a single human being is fatefully at the mercy of the gods and inevitably doomed should he oppose the divine value system. In the medium film drama and comedy are the two basic forms. Drama took over from tragedy due to the Enlightenment period and a changing social understanding of the world. In modern times individuals are no longer seen as determined but as self-responsible and self-determined. From the two basic forms of drama developed genres over the course of time, so that today there are a multitude of genres. The problem of categorising genre is that their definitions are not based on consistent criteria: genres may be defined based on their content, their style or their dramatic characteristics, which can further refer to the setting, the time, the character(relationships), the narrative tone.
In Hollywood, which is ascribing more importance to genre than Europe, there is a development of a genre-system insisting on genre classification despite the problems of unambiguous categorization. Genres make it possible to clearly classifying a film and therewith make it assessable for the audience on the one hand and on the other hand to tie in with another successful film. Therefore the genre-system consists of a multitude of genres and sub-genres developing and compartmentalising further analogically to the zeitgeist and the respective cinematic trend to define the target audience as accurately as possible and to calculate its economic success in advance. Consequently advertisement and marketing are also strongly influenced by genre and therefore tailor their strategies and campaigns to the genre. Ultimately a genre works like a contract between filmmakers and audience. This contract basically says: ‘We filmmakers promise, that you will get, what you want to see and you, audience will promise us to go and watch the movie’. But here lies the chance to play with and deliberately break the genre expectations of the audience.
At the moment there is a tendency to produce genre hybrids: mulit-genre, genre-mix, and genre-syncretism. However – films that follow their genre criteria one-hundred per cent are at risk to appear anachronistic.
Ultimately the feature combination of various genres is nothing but the continuous development and differentiation of the genre-system: While the first two basic forms of drama developed into genres, which in return developed into sub-genres, these sub-genres now develop into ‘sub-sub-genres’. But this process-oriented characteristic is already immanent. Genre development per se represents a dynamic and open-ended development as genres are always defined by a continuously growing film cannon. While a genre can manifest itself over time it will always miss a fixed benchmark.
Comedy defines itself less via its structure than drama and therefore offers more variability and multiformity. ‘How’ (style) is more important than ‘what’ (content). In principle a comedy can stage the same conflicts as a drama. The difference lies in its attitude. To achieve its comic effect it chooses a different development and conflict solution while creating distance to the characters. In most cases it has a flat dramatic (closed) macro-structure and an open microstructure consisting of a sequence of gags. Therefore the comedy doesn’t intent to construct a major narrative arc which will find closure at the end of the film but to make the audience laugh through a series of various comic situations and episodes. In its comic basic constellation two different mutually exclusive value systems collide. First the protagonist provokes a violation of the status quo. This puts him in an unbearable situation where his subjective claim to happiness stands in opposition to the establishment. Thereby both value systems are mutually unmasked and identified in their one-sidedness.
Dramatic Comedy ^
The dramatic comedy has a dramatic structure like the drama but primarily chooses a comic narrative tone.
A tragicomedy mixes humorous, comic, dramatic, melancholic and tragic moments. The dialectic tension between laughter and crying, empathy and distance creates an emotional roller-coaster as well as a catharsis.
The intended effect of the tragic comedy lies in its attempt to create empathy for the misery of the characters to expose the responsible, grotesque social circumstances. In their representation of human dignity as sanctity it offers the audience hope and comfort.
The disparity of tragedy and comedy in a tragic comedy may contrast in coexistence as well as in working against each other or may merge in to an identical cooperation. In the syntheses of ‘laughing while crying’ comic and tragic elements mutually intensify each other: empathy and distance happen in a constant switchover and may even appear in a paradox concurrence where they are undistinguishable.
Unlike the comedy a tragic comedy needs complex character development because tragedy only works with a blamelessly guilty character in combination with a socially substantial conflict.
Episodic film ^
In an episodic film storylines are quite autonomous. The story is basically made up off several stand-alone stories which are more or less coequal and possess their own main characters. One of the main characters stands out more than the others within the film. This is the secret main character of the film.
The single episodes are linked and consolidated through the theme, the motifs, the characters, the settings as well as the time. Thematic unity makes sure that all episodes are variations of the same theme and that the main characters of all the episodes are connected by a shared need.
Characters may appear in several episodes and therewith create additional links. For example: the protagonist of one episode may be the antagonist of another episode. But characters from different episodes may also just cross each other’s paths or make a cameo-appearance in another episode. These cross-overs don’t necessarily need to have an affect on the plot.
On the other hand the plot of one episode may even crucially influence the development of another episode without the characters meeting outside their own episode. Another narrative trick is to have a key event for all episodes which is then further explored from different points of view in single episodes. Generally the interferences of plot, character, setting and time quite often happen according to random principle to provide the story with a fateful dimension.
The linkage of episodes may either happen consecutively or alongside each other in temporal concentration. In the case of parallel montage it is useful to switch the episodes after a turning point so that the consequent cliff-hangers create tension. This may also prevent the split-up episodic film from having too little narrative drive. Because of its single episodes the episodic film has an open structure even when its single storylines follow a closed dramatic structure.