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Genre Films and Cultural Myth



By Barry Keith Grant.

In 1957 Francois Truffaut rallied the writers of the French film journal Cahiers du cinéma around the radical idea that film making, even in Hollywood, was an art of personal expression, like literature, painting or music. True auteurs were directors whose work was characterized by a distinctive personality stamped on their films through a consistency of style and vision. Zealots for the cause of auteurism, the group’s excessive enthusiasm emerged in such polemical pieces as Jacques Rivette’s review of Howard Hawks’s slight comedy Monkey Business (1952), which he pronounced was self-evidently a work of genius because Hawks is a genius (Rivette 126). In response, the more reasonable André Bazin, then editor of Cahiers, would caution his writers that they threatened to reduce criticism to a mere cult of personality. “This does not mean that one has to deny the role of the auteur,” Bazin concluded, “but simply give him back the preposition without which the noun auteur remains but a halting concept. Auteur, yes, but what of?” (Bazin 155)

Monkey Business

In answer to his own question, Bazin suggested that we attend to that which is most admirable in American cinema—as he put it, “not only the talent of this or that filmmaker, but the genius of the system, the richness of its ever-vigorous tradition.” (154) Bazin was referring, of course, to Hollywood’s classic studio system, the dominant method of American feature film production from the 1920s to 1950s. The system’s ‘genius’ stems from classic Hollywood’s reliance on genres films, those commercial movies that, through repetition and variation, tell familiar stories with familiar characters in familiar situations. In the following discussion I want to explore how film genres and individual genre films do indeed constitute an ever-vigorous tradition that functions at the level of cultural myth, while at the same time providing a framework for the individual expression of the auteur.

In 1950 anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker dubbed Hollywood “the dream factory,” a term that describes perfectly the American film industry, for Hollywood manufactures products that have given shape to our collective values, aspirations and fears (Powdermaker). In the studio era, the production of movies was organized along Fordist principles, with an assembly-line model that paralleled modern approaches to production in other industries such as automobiles. Every phase of the film making process was undertaken by specialist departments, and everyone from carpenters to cinematographers, from screenwriters to stars, were employees of the company and assigned to various projects by the front office.

André Bazin

The staple products of the dream factory were genre movies—a fact that remains true today, even though the studio system has been replaced largely by independent production. Genre movies comprise the bulk of film practice, the iceberg of film history beneath the visible tip of unique masterpieces that once upon a time were understood to constitute the sum of film art. Genre movies are like the model T’s or the colt revolvers of mainstream commercial cinema, products with interchangeable parts that are convenient for a mass entertainment medium. The efficient narrative style of classic Hollywood cinema depends in large part on the shorthand of conventions made possible by established generic traditions that eliminate the need for a lot of exposition. When, for example, in a Western we see someone ride into town wearing black gloves, a black vest and pants, and two guns tied to either hip with string, we know the character is an evil gunfighter. Movies offering variations of such tested formulae are attractive to producers who are seeking both to minimize the risk of their investment and maximize acceptance of their product at the box office.

Genre as zeitgeist

From the particulars of film advertising in the various mass media to TV Guide listings to the organization of tapes and DVDs at the local video rental store, the idea of genre informs every aspect of American popular film culture from production to consumption. When the US gained wide control of foreign film markets after World War 2, the influence of American film genres even extended internationally, as is evident in such national cinema movements as spaghetti Westerns, Australian road movies and Hong Kong action films. As an indication of the pervasive presence of film genres in popular culture, consider that the word itself refers simultaneously to a particular mode of film production, the classic Hollywood studio system; to a convenient consumer index, providing audiences with a sense of the kind of pleasures to be expected from a given film; and to a critical concept, a tool for mapping out a taxonomy of popular film and for understanding the complex relationship between popular cinema and popular culture.

Whether they are expensive epics or egregious exploitation, genre movies are composed of certain common elements. To varying degree, films of any genre share such characteristics as themes, character types, plot motifs, bits of dialogue, musical figures, narrative and stylistic conventions, settings, and iconography—that is, the particulars of the mise-en-scène, the various objects, including the actors, in the images, and their graphic arrangement in the frame. Audiences quickly become familiar with these elements and expect them. Robert Warshow noted long ago, in his pioneering essay on the gangster film, that the familiarity of viewers with generic convention creates “its own field of reference” (Warshow 130). In other words, there is an appreciation for the form itself, so that the experience of viewing genre movies becomes a kind of ritual based on an unstated contract between spectators and movies.

Because of the central place of genres within popular cinema, and within popular culture generally, genre movies have been commonly understood as particularly good barometers of what we might call the cultural “temperature.” This is true not only of individual genre movies, but also of the changing patterns and fortunes of different genres and of the shifting relationships between them. Whether they are set in the past or in the future, on the mean streets of contemporary New York or long ago in a galaxy far away, genre movies are always about the time and place in which they are made. Inevitably, they are expressions of the cultural zeitgeist, instances of society engaging in dialogue with itself. Genre movies may reflect, reinforce, question or subvert accepted ideology, but viewers enjoy them as genre movies whether they fulfill, violate or thwart conventions and expectations. Whatever their ideological position, then, genre movies are intimately imbricated within larger contemporary cultural and political discourses. They speak to cultural issues both timely and timeless, and attempt to resolve them as narrative rituals.

So, for example, Warner Bros’ musicals in the 1930s may be interpreted as an imaginative response to the challenges of the Great Depression. The typical plot of musicals such as 42nd Street, Footlight Parade and Golddiggers of 1933 (all 1933) involves a group of characters, marked by various differences and conflicts such as class and gender, who ultimately must transcend their personal problems and work together to put on the musical show. This narrative structure is on one level a clear metaphor for the selfless cooperation required of all Americans to get the country back on its economic feet. The musical sequences in these movies, usually directed by Busby Berkeley with his distinctive overhead camera style, emphasized the importance of teamwork for the elaborately choreographed dance routines.

In the past, myths were narratives that helped societies explain religious beliefs and seemingly inexplicable natural phenomena. Similarly, in modern times genre movies are secular stories that seek to resolve the basic problems and dilemmas of contemporary life. As Thomas Sobchack writes, “The Greeks knew the stories of the gods and the Trojan War in the same way we know about hoodlums and gangsters and G-men and the taming of the frontier and the never-ceasing struggle of the light of reason and the cross with the powers of darkness, not through first-hand experience but through the media.” (Sobchack 103) In both cases a set of familiar stories provide a means for a culture to communicate to itself, and in the process help maintain its self-identity as a culture. The difference is that today in mass-mediated society, instead of huddling around campfires in the silvery dark of night to hear our mythic tales, we converge in darkened cinemas under silver screens.

Now, it is true that in the studio era directors were also employees, like the other members of a film’s cast and crew, and that even those few directors who wielded some degree of clout in Hollywood, like Frank Capra and Alfred Hitchcock, had to work within the parameters of the producing studio’s dominant style or specialty. No less a major director than John Ford said that for every film like The Informer (1935), he had to make three Wee Willie Winkies with Shirley Temple to keep the studios happy. But, while genre movies tell familiar stories with familiar characters in familiar situations, it is not necessarily the case that they always are told in familiar ways. For while some directors floundered against the pressures of the studio system, many in fact flourished, using the rules of genre as convenience rather than constraint, as guidelines from which to deviate rather than blueprints to follow.

A flexible tradition

Imitation of Life

By providing the received framework of genre, Hollywood gave filmmakers a flexible tradition in which to explore their own ideas, as with other clearly codified cultural forms such as the comic monologue or 12-bar blues. Douglas Sirk, for instance, director of such subversive melodramas as All that Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1957) and Imitation of Life (1959), said that a director should “bend” his material to his own critical perspective (Halliday 97). Literary critic Marius Bewley once wrote that in Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, action serves as “the intensified motion of life in which the spiritual and moral faculties of men are no less engaged than their physical selves” (Bewley 73). The same holds true in the genre movies of certain auteurs that, exploring a particular genre over the course of many films, manage to elevate their concerns to a cosmology. One thinks, for example, of Sam Fuller with the war film, or Hawks with the action film.

And, of course, John Ford with the Western. While Ford made different kinds of movies, including war films and social problem films, he was and remains today best known for his Westerns. Ford shot all or part of 9 Westerns, including Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956), two of the greatest works in the genre, in Monument Valley, using its unique combination of rugged desert and magnificent mesas to represent both the danger and glory involved in settling the West. The distinctive landscape of Monument Valley has become so identified with Ford that no subsequent movie can show it without invoking this intertextual reference. Ford’s Westerns were so popular in large part because they offered a romantic, nostalgic evocation of the American Dream and traditional values, often expressed in rituals of social bonding such as dances and meals.

As an example, consider the famous sequence in Ford’s 1946 Western, My Darling Clementine. The sequence, showing Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp bidding goodbye to Clementine Carter, the schoolmarm to whom he has been attracted, deftly uses the generic material of the Western to celebrate what John Cawelti calls “the epic moment” of American history—hat pivotal moment when civilization comes to the wilderness (Cawelti 39). Ford represents this epic moment as beginning when Earp has his unkempt hair shorn, a metaphor of the wild loner being tamed. Earp’s honeysuckle-scented aftershave is further emblematic of his new commitment to civilization. As church bells solemnly intone, marking the significance of the moment, Earp and Clementine link arms and walk down the main street. Their linked arms are roughly centered in the frame, graphically expressing the central importance of the gesture. In the distance behind Earp are mountains, staunch emblems of the wilderness yet to be conquered, and behind Clementine the facade of the town’s buildings, representing community, commerce, civilization. The pair walks toward the camera, toward us, as we in the audience for a moment embody the future that will be ensured by the settling of the frontier.

The sequence is a lyrical evocation of manifest destiny, a destiny made manifest when Ford cuts to a reverse shot from behind the couple so that they are now walking away from us, heading toward the center of town, toward the construction site of the first church of Tombstone, at present only partially built. Christianity and nationalism provide the literal foundation of Ford’s mythic American society, as twin American flags on one side and the church steeple on the other flank the church floor. With these values the church can be completed and the nation built. At the church site the townsfolk gather together to celebrate with a typical Fordian dance that the director emphasizes in its duration, since the scene’s length is hardly necessary to advance the plot.

My Darling Clementine was made and released in 1946, only one year after the end of World War 2, so Ford’s optimistic vision of American society at the time also reflected the country’s postwar buoyancy. Andrew Sarris, the critic who introduced auteurism to North America, claimed that the work of film auteurs revealed what he called “interior meaning.” For Sarris, such moments, which he called “the ultimate glory of the cinema as an art” (Sarris 513), occur when the director’s personality shines through the film. The sequence in My Darling Clementine is surely such a moment.

Sarris never got around to revealing just what interior meaning actually is, but he hinted that we could find it by, in his words, extrapolating “from the tension between a director’s personality and his material” (Sarris 513). I want to suggest that we might interpret Sarris’s cryptic claim to refer to the distinctly individual ways in which filmmakers work with or animate their films’ generic intertexts. Virtually all genre movies except those driven entirely by formula inevitably reveal something of their maker. The only ones that don’t are those Robin Wood calls “purist” genre movies, ones that exist in the “simplest, most archetypal, most aesthetically deprived and intellectually contemptible form” (Wood 62). As the sequence from My Darling Clementine illustrates, it is through the filter of the individual artist that genre movies become interesting not only for sociological reasons but aesthetically as well.

Ford’s vision changed over time, becoming increasingly dark and disillusioned, but it continued to reflect the cultural sensibility. In his celebrated comparison of Ford and Hawks, Peter Wollen declared his preference for the former, because while Hawks’s vision remained consistent throughout his very long career, Ford’s evolved over time. The changes in Ford’s vision of the American myth not only give his films a greater richness of theme, as Wollen argues, but also anticipate the dramatic changes in American society itself.

In 1960, Ford made Sergeant Rutledge, about a black cavalry officer being court-martialed for rape and murder. The film shows racism dividing the military, in contrast to Ford’s earlier cavalry Westerns from the ‘40s such as Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), which depicted the cavalry as a metaphor for a unified community. Two years later, Ford produced his elegant elegy for the Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). In this film John Wayne, made a star by Ford in Stagecoach in 1939 and featured in numerous of the director’s films since, plays Western hero Tom Doniphon, the eponymous man who shoots Liberty Valance. But after ridding the territory of evil, Doniphon then must step aside, literally into the shadows, giving way to the rule of law as represented by attorney Rance Stoddard, who has taken the credit for killing the notorious outlaw. Returning to the town years later, the now Senator Stoddard finds an unknown Doniphon about to be buried in a plain pine coffin without his boots, an ignominious end for the mythic cowboy hero. The film’s main story is told in flashback, suffusing the action with a sense of time irretrievably past, and in the back room of the railway station an old stagecoach rests on blocks, gathering cobwebs, a relic from a bygone era. Ford’s next and last Western, Cheyenne Autumn in 1964, presents the Indians as victims rather than villains, neglected by government bureaucracy and policed by an ineffective cavalry.

Genre revisions

In his souring vision Ford anticipated—perhaps we might even say initiated—the tsunami of cynical genre films that appeared shortly thereafter. These new genre movies were made by a generation of directors known as the “movie brats,” a group of young cineliterate filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma and Francis Coppola, all of whom brought something of a counter-cultural sensibility to traditional genre forms. Movies such as The Godfather (1972), for example, radically revised the conventions of gangster and crime films, while Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970), following the trail blazed by Cheyenne Autumn, contrasted a brutal, ignoble cavalry, led by a megalomaniac General George Armstrong Custer, with the peaceful Indians they massacre. The powerful scene of the Washita massacre, in which the cavalry rides in and lays waste to an Indian village, including women and children, could not help but invoke images of the Vietnam War for contemporary viewers in 1970, the year of the film’s release. So dramatically did these movies rewrite generic convention that John Cawelti perceived them as constituting a “generic transformation” of seismic proportion, a rewriting of generic myth to suit the less naive, more politicized temper of the time (Cawelti 244). The movies of the movie brats demonstrated Eliot’s idea, in his famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” that newer artists bring an awareness of the past to their work in the present that is only possible in the present, while at the same time reflecting the unique urgency of the present (Eliot 6).

Now the more brutal and unsentimental Westerns of Sam Peckinpah came to embody the contemporary sensibility. Whereas Ford’s later Westerns bemoan the unfulfilled promise of a great new society, Peckinpah’s Westerns take as given that corruption, incompetence and immorality are pervasive, and so they focus instead on his heroes’ attempts to escape it rather than join it. At the end of Drums Along the Mohawk, Ford’s 1939 Eastern Western set during the Revolutionary War period, the director showed a disparate group of Americans—soldiers, women, blacks, even Indians—unified in rapt admiration of the new American flag as it is being hoisted for the first time. By contrast, in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) Peckinpah shows a gallows with a flag atop it being erected on main street, right where Ford would have had his church-in-progress. It is no accident that Ford’s signal theme tune, “Shall we Gather at the River?,” is sung by the marching members of the Temperance League as the astonishing opening massacre commences in The Wild Bunch (1969), an apocalyptic orgy of violence in which the townspeople are caught in a crossfire started by slimy bounty hunters, Peckinpah’s emblem of the crass materialism and immorality of modern society.

In the 1970s critics noted that cowboys had stopped kissing their horses and that they didn’t ride quite as tall in their saddles as they once did. The animals themselves seemed to move more wearily than in the past. In the 1975 Bite the Bullet, the horses sweat profusely as they attempt in vain to keep pace with an indefatigable Iron Horse in a widely publicized race. But the ultimate equestrian indignity in the Western has to be that moment in Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles (1974) when a horse is knocked unconscious by ex-football and literal cowpuncher Alex Karras. Ed Buscombe writes that “a horse in a Western is not just an animal but a symbol of dignity, grace, and power” (Buscombe 22), but in Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962), a horse races not against an inevitable locomotive but an improbable camel—and loses!

Alan Ladd’s Shane (1953) seems timeless, a buckskinned Apollo who descends from the mountains deus ex machina to help out the people in the valley below, and who ascends again at the end into the heavenly hills on his high horse. But in Peckinpah’s truly gritty Westerns, cowboys are not mythic heroes in Northrop Frye’s sense, superior in kind both to other men and the environment, or even heroes of romance, but mere mortals superior to other men only in their embrace of the code of the West. In his films Peckinpah often cast older actors associated with the Westerns of an earlier era as a comment on the status of the genre itself, especially in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which is filled with iconic character actors like Jack Elam, Richard Jaeckel, Katy Jurado and Chill Wills.

Ride the High Country features the visibly aging Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea as two aging cowboys caught in a brave new world of getting and spending. Here the tenuous town of the classic Western has become a more permanent presence in the wilderness, signified by the brick buildings rather than the conventional clapboard structures seen, for example, in My Darling Clementine. The presence of a uniformed policeman rather than the more rudimentary, more singular sheriff suggests an institutionalized law, while the lampposts and automobiles tell us that historically the period of the Wild West is over. The aging Western hero, a silver-haired McCrea, is considerably more trail-worn than Alan Ladd a decade before, and already an anachronism as the film starts, when he is almost run over by a horseless carriage as he tries to cross the street. Elsewhere in Peckinpah cars appear as icons of the dangers of advancing civilization: one is used by the Mexicans to torture a member of the Wild Bunch, and one literally kills the cowboy in The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) when the it runs over him while he’s cranking the engine.

In the opening of Ride the High Country the town is celebrating July 4th, the birth of the nation, but Peckinpah questions the gospel of progress that is so visibly evident there. The holiday celebration is depicted as a carnival, a decadent display complete with exotic dancing girls luring young men, hardly the expression of social and spiritual bonding that such celebrations are in Ford. Peckinpah shows us the sorry spectacle from a high angle, as if judging from above, from a higher moral ground—the high country of the title—what fools these mortals be.

After Peckinpah, the Western experienced a serious decline in popularity and production, no longer the “American genre par excellence,” in the words of André Bazin, that it had been for decades (Bazin 141). Perhaps in the post-Vietnam era Westerns no longer offered the kind of appeal they once did because their relatively simplistic moral vision and attitude of cultural superiority has not fit well with more recent notions of political correctness. Also, given the compromised wars and operations that have characterized the American military since Korea, viewers in recent years have found it difficult to accept without irony conventions such as the cavalry coming decisively to the rescue—as it does in Stagecoach when the platoon appears in the nick of time as if in answers to a genteel lady’s prayers.

New frontiers

Today viewers tend to laugh at this scene in Stagecoach, yet contemporary audiences were thrilled when Han Solo came back for the final showdown with the Death Star in Star Wars (1977). Perhaps the pristine potential of a new society as envisioned by the Western seems too remote, too much of an impossibility, to too many viewers, while a space opera like Star Wars is able to provide the satisfactions of classic Westerns in a more updated way. Although President Bush has been able to invoke the genre’s rhetoric in his war on terrorism, the Western, at least until September 11th, had seemed somehow less relevant to the complex global politics of the emerging new world order.

Instead, science fiction has usurped the place of the Western in the popular imagination. Many science fiction movies are like Westerns, with space becoming, in the famous words of Star Trek, the “final frontier.” In the lawless expanse of space, heroes and villains wield laser guns instead of six-guns, space cowboys jockey customized rockets instead of riding horses, and aliens serve as the swarthy Other in the place of Indians. In the climax of Star Wars Luke Skywalker can turn off his computer and “let the Force be with him,” just as in the Star Trek franchise the buddy pairing of Kirk and Spock suggests that we can successfully balance rugged individualism and scientific rationalism—just the kind of resolution with society that the Westerner as tragic hero could never achieve. Thus the Western myth of a redeemer hero with a superior moral code and a quick draw, a Natty Bumppo with a Jedi light saber, survives within a different genre, a genre with a technological iconography rather than a pastoral one.

Producer Gene Roddenberry described his Star Trek show as “a wagon train to the stars,” suggesting the many affinities between the two genres. But when George Lucas took the scene from The Searchers where Ethan Edwards discovers the bodies of his brother’s family after an Indian attack and reworked it as Luke Skywalker finding his aunt and uncle’s homestead destroyed by storm troopers, he began a series of science fiction adaptations of Westerns. Enemy Mine (1985) was a remake of the old 1950s liberal western, Broken Arrow (1950); Outland (1981) is a version of High Noon (1952) set on a space mining station instead of a frontier town; and Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) was a remake of The Magnificent Seven (1960), itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954). Because today we are more likely to be familiar with computers than horses, and more likely to visit the new frontier of cyberspace than what remains of the wilderness, the classic Western has been largely replaced by the science fiction film in the current generic landscape.

Nevertheless, there do remain frontiers for the Western, and for other genres as well, still to explore. In the last decade some genre movies have begun to examine the representational strategies of race and gender that have informed generic traditions, a concern that had been largely ignored, even in those revisionist genre movies of the 1970s. The various genres traditionally have been the cultural property of a white male consciousness, a perspective that informed the very conception of the genre system itself, a system that was built on certain gendered assumptions. Generally, the action genres—adventure, war, gangster, detective, horror, science fiction and, of course, the Western—were addressed to a male audience, while musicals and romantic melodramas, which were also known in the industry as “weepies” and “women’s films,” were marketed to women.

This gendered division of genres bespeaks the general patriarchal alignment of women with emotion rather than action. In the action genres, typically it has been white men who must get the job done, whether driving the cattle, outsmarting the spies or defeating the aliens. Women generally have functioned as hindrances to, rewards for, or at best, aids in, this doing, while people of color have been either token helpers or figures of comic relief. In short, most genre movies addressed an assumed viewer who was, like the filmmakers themselves, white, male and heterosexual. But the interrogation of identity politics has infiltrated popular cinema across the range of genres, reflecting developments in contemporary society at large.

Several Westerns have sought to explore the genre from previously marginalized perspectives. Mario Van Peebles’ Posse (1993), for example, reinserts blacks into Western history, from which they have been largely written out in popular film. Posse opens with a black man speaking directly to the camera, presenting the entire story in flashback. This framing device refers to the earlier and similarly subversive Little Big Man, in which the aged Jack Crabbe in the present reveals the “truth” about, and so demythifies, famous Western figures whom he claims to have known first-hand. Significantly, the interviewed witness in Posse is played by Woody Strode, himself an icon that had appeared in several of Ford’s Westerns. In Ford’s films, Strode always embodied a respectful, subordinate presence, even in Sgt. Rutledge. But in Posse, Strode expresses a more militant point of view, confronting the camera and directly criticizing white people—that is, “us,” the normative spectators of the classic genre film—for having taken the land from native Americans. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the newspaper editor speaks for Ford when he says, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Posse, by contrast, prefers to reclaim fact from the myth.

Similarly, Maggie Greenwald’s The Ballad of Little Jo (1993) foregrounds the postmodern idea of gender as performance. The film is based on the true story of Josephine Monaghan, a woman who in the 1880s dropped out of New York society when she had a child out of wedlock, went west, and for the rest of her life passed as a man, making a successful career for herself as a sheep rancher in Idaho. Little Jo begins by showing a woman in Eastern dress incongruously walking down a road in the West rather than the traditional cowboy hero riding into town. Men pass Josephine on horses, and one of them calls her a “pretty filly.” A wagon loaded with goods appears in the foreground of the frame, momentarily blocking her from our view. At last she is offered a ride by a passing peddler, whom we subsequently discover has secretly sold her to some soldiers for their sexual pleasure. The Ballad of Little Jo begins, then, by using the imagery of the Western to express the feminist insight that capitalism and patriarchy are intertwined, and that women are positioned as objects of exchange within that economy. And consistent with this awareness, director Maggie Greenwald refuses to allow Jo, played by former model Suzy Amis, to become an object of the camera’s traditionally male gaze. After escaping from her captors, Josephine obtains some men’s clothes at a general store, and then, to the sudden shock of the viewer, slashes her face with a knife from cheek to chin. Her scar becomes a badge of masculinity to the other men in the film, and it prevents viewers of the film from comfortably regarding her as an object of visual pleasure. In The Ballad of Little Jo, the frontier comes to mean a new, unknown frontier of gender equality in visual representation.

Thelma and Louise

Such progressive genre movies were likely greenlighted in Hollywood because of the surprising success of Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise in 1991. One of the most popular movies of that year, Thelma and Louise was a generic hybrid of the Western, the buddy film, and the road movie—all three genres among those traditionally regarded as male. But Thelma and Louise reversed Hollywood’s conventional definition of woman’s place as the domestic sphere and reimagined the buddy movie as female adventure. The pair’s acts of resistance, like blowing up the tanker truck of a driver who makes obscene gestures at them, come to seem nothing less than imaginative acts of retribution for all women, transcending their personal plight.

In the film’s controversial ending, Thelma and Louise drive over the edge of the Grand Canyon rather than capitulate to the police. The last image is a freeze frame of the car in midair, at the apogee of its arching flight, followed by a fade to white. This ending is, as many have remarked, a direct reference to George Roy Hill’s quintessential buddy movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). It sparked considerable debate regarding its political value: did the ending signify suicidal defeatism or triumphant transcendence? In Time magazine Richard Schickel wrote that it is “hard to find anyone who detects a note of triumph in their suicide” (Schickel 56), but obviously he hadn’t consulted academics such as Peter Chumo, who reads the women’s final gesture as a noble refusal to allow themselves the ignominious ending of being gunned down like Bonnie and Clyde. As he rapturously enthuses, “Thelma and Louise. . .is a road film that finally denies the need for a physical road. Its heroines create their own road…”  (Chumo 12).

But whatever one thinks of the film’s ending, the debate it engendered was itself significant for, as Rebecca Bell-Metereau noted, “Critics did not concern themselves with the outcome of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid [or] Easy Rider [1969], because a male death in the conclusion is sacrificial, symbolic, and Christ-like. A female death at the end of the story rarely receives such a heroic interpretation, from feminists or non-feminists.” (Bell-Metereau 248) The controversy over Thelma and Louise’s ending suggests how thoroughly novel the film was at the time; and however one interprets this ending, it does show that the fate of women could also be represented as mythic—that they too could remain true to their values and achieve glory in death, like any macho Wild Bunch.

Contemporary genre legacy: Kathryn Bigelow

Since Thelma and Louise, several contemporary directors have established themselves as auteurs by playing on the racial and gendered implications of genre, the two most important being Spike Lee and Kathryn Bigelow. Lee’s films tend to challenge viewers in overtly confrontational ways, while Bigelow is more subtly subversive. While Lee has ranged across different genres from musicals (School Daze, 1988) to biopics (Malcolm X, 1992) to road movies (Get on the Bus, 1996), inflecting each from a black cultural perspective, Bigelow has stayed within the various action genres, providing their traditional pleasures but questioning their gendered assumptions. Her films Near Dark (1987), Blue Steel (1990), Point Break (1991) and Strange Days (1996) all play with generic convention while at the same time offering rapid narrative pacing, and viscerally exciting scenes of physical action.

Blue Steel

Blue Steel, for example, is a noirish police thriller that exploits to the fullest the action film’s conventional representation of the gun as totem of masculine power. From the opening credit sequence in which Bigelow’s camera penetrates the interior of a Smith and Wesson handgun, a woman rather than the man wielding the phallic camera, Blue Steel deconstructs the cop film’s fetishisation of the pistol. The plot involves a rookie female cop, Meaghan Turner, whose gender troubles all the men in the film once she dons her uniform. In the chaos of a supermarket shootout between Turner and a thief, his gun is pocketed by a male bystander who becomes obsessed with her gender-bending image and becomes a serial killer, shooting people with bullets on which he has carved her name.

In the final violent confrontation, Turner manages to triumph over the psychotic killer, who seems at first an unstoppable monster, like Michael Meyers in Halloween (1978) or Freddie Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street series. The casting of Jaime Lee Curtis, star of Halloween, as Meagan in Blue Steel invokes her iconographical reputation as the conventional “final girl” of the slasher film. For Carol Clover, the final girl, although the object of masculine torture for much of the narrative, is actually a resourceful Rambette who is able to triumph over psychotic patriarchy at film’s end (Clover). For this reason, some have seen Blue Steel as empowering for women. But the film also suggests, by associating the killer in various ways with the other, supposedly more normal men in Meagan’s life, that while Megan’s triumph over the killer fulfills generic expectation, it is in fact a limited victory in a world of entrenched sexism. By making possession and control of the gun a contest between a policewoman and a male criminal, the film foregrounds the metaphorical and gendered implications of one of the primary icons of the police thriller.

Point Break is Bigelow’s most accessible action film to date. A hybrid buddy and crime film, the plot concerns a band of bank robbers who commit heists because they are devoted surfers who need to maintain their cash flow as they travel around the world in search of the perfect wave. The gang is known as The Ex-Presidents because they wear masks of former US presidents while committing their robberies. The case is being investigated by a pair of FBI agents, one of whom, the hotshot rookie and former college football star Johnny Utah, goes undercover and infiltrates the gang. This leads to an internal conflict for Utah, who is torn between his duty as an officer of the law and his attraction to the mystical mumbo-jumbo of the gang as espoused by their charismatic leader, Bodhi (Patrick Swayze).

Strange Days

As the story unfolds, viewers are treated to some terrific action sequences, the most memorable of which is an extended chase effectively photographed with a modified Steadicam through alleys, houses, and backyards that adeptly places us squarely within the exciting action—the same technique Bigelow would later use to more disturbing effect in Strange Days. In the manner of Sirk’s excessive melodramas, Bigelow pushes the action in Point Break past the breaking point of realism to the point of parody. The lone woman in the film’s hypermasculine world of skydiving, surfing and bank-robbing at one point turns on her heels and walks out of the picture, declaring “There’s too much testosterone here for me.” Clearly she voices the opinion of the filmmaker, who presents the action as overblown spectacle.

The film offers some direct—and rather humorous—social criticism in its depiction of a band of bank robbers who look like presidents—particularly when “Nixon” jumps up on a bank counter during one robbery and declares “I am not a crook!” and when “Reagan” waves a gas pump in the air and ignites a filling station into a flaming fireball. But for the most part Point Break focuses its critique on the masculine myths of action cinema more subtly. The characters are obviously types, the stuff of genre. Johnny Utah’s name is itself something of a mythic amalgam, evoking both the Western and legendary gridiron gladiators in the masculine world of football like Johnny Unitas and Joe Montana, not to mention movie characters in the tradition of Johnny Guitar (1954), Johnny Cool (1963) and of course Johnny Apollo (1940). Keanu Reeves’ typically flat performance as Utah ironically works well in Point Break, because it emphasizes the character’s complete lack of psychological depth (he was also Johnny Pneumonic!).

If, as feminist critics have observed, action movies exhibit a masculine homosocial hysteria mapped onto the excessive display of the male body, then Point Break is the paradigmatic action movie. The male characters are on constant display—even to the point that in the plot they are identified by the tan lines on their buttocks when they “moon” the security cameras of a bank they have robbed. The film dotes on the muscular body of Patrick Swayze and exaggerates the macho camaraderie of the surfer gang to absurd proportions. In the climax, Reeves pursues Swayze out of an airplane without a parachute in a riot of the repressed homoeroticism that typically infuses the buddy film. Utah’s windy free-fall toward Bodhi suggests sexual ecstasy, which culminates as they couple in midair. The two men grapple with each other, their windswept faces together in intimate close-up as they tussle for either the totemic gun or the pull cord while Bodhi yells “Pull it, pull it.” As we see in the subjective zoom shot of the ground rapidly coming nearer, for both men it is an experience in which the earth moves, as they roll together in the dust before the gently flapping parachute settles in postcoital calm.

Point Break

Point Break cleverly works within its generic bounds, but such movies still remain the exception to the norm. Hence one might claim that Hollywood’s genre system is a prime example of the culture industry according to Frankfurt School theorists such as Theodore Adorno. From this perspective, genre movies are merely instances of pseudo-individuation, like changing the tailfins and front grills on different models of cars all made by GM with the same frames and engines. For such critics, all genre movies, in their inevitable simplification of complex social issues, surely encourage a false consciousness on the part of spectators. As Judith Hess Wright insists, “Genre films produce satisfaction rather than action, pity and fear rather than revolt. They serve the interests of the ruling class by assisting in the maintenance of the status quo, and they throw a sop to oppressed groups who, because they are unorganized and therefore afraid to act, eagerly accept the genre film’s absurd solutions to economic and social conflicts. When we return to the complexities of the society in which we live, the same conflicts assert themselves, so we return to genre films for easy comfort and solace—hence their popularity.” (Wright 41)

Obviously this model of popular cinema is itself too simplistic. Indeed, film genres are so interesting because they are the site, as Jean-Loup Bourget put it, of “The conflict between the movie’s pre-text (the script, the source of the adaptation) and its text (all the evidence on the screen and sound track)” (Bourget 51). Genre movies provide us with a way to reconcile the apparently antagonistic approaches of auteurism, which claims that a film is the work of one creative individual, and the sociological, which suggests that a film bespeaks its cultural moment, whatever may the conscious intentions of the film’s makers. To conclude, then, I return once again to T S Eliot, who wrote that “No poet, no artist of any art has his complete meaning alone” (Eliot 4). And when an artist does something new with genre, as directors like Ford, Peckinpah and Bigelow have done, the entire tradition is modified in retrospect. This constant transformation is what keeps film genres, in Bazin’s words, “ever-vibrant,” allowing us both to admire the tradition and to appreciate the individual talent. The fact that genre films can be at once works of art and cultural myth is surely at the heart of the system’s genius.

Barry Keith Grant has published more than twenty books on film.

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This article was originally published in Film International 1, vol. 1, no. 1, 2003.

References

André Bazin “La Politique des Auteurs” in Cahiers du cinéma 70 (1957), reprinted in Peter Graham (ed) The New Wave, Garden City, NY: Doubleday 1968: 137-155.

–  “The Western, or the American Cinema par excellence” in Hugh Gray (ed)  What is Cinema?, volume 2, Berkeley: University of California Press 1971: 140-148.

Rebecca Bell-Metereau Hollywood Androgyny, 2nd edition, New York: Columbia University Press 1993.

Jean-Loup Bourget “Social Implications in the Hollywood Genres” in Barry Keith Grant (ed) Film Genre Reader II Austin: University of Texas Press 1995: 50-58.

Marius Bewley The Eccentric Design: Form in the Classic American Novel New York: Columbia University Press 1973.

Ed Buscombe “The Idea of Genre in the American Cinema” in Barry Keith Grant (ed) Film Genre Reader II Austin: University of Texas Press 1995: 11-25.

John Cawelti “Chinatown and Generic Transformation in Recent American Films” in Barry Keith Grant (ed) Film Genre Reader II Austin: University of Texas Press 1995: 227-245.

The Six-Gun Mystique Bowling Green, OH: Popular Press 1985.

Peter N Chumo II  “At the Generic Crossroads with Thelma and Louise” in Post Script 13, number 2 (Winter/Spring 1994): 3-13.

Carol Clover Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film Princeton: Princeton University Press 1992.

T S Eliot “Tradition and the Individual Talent” in Selected Essays New York: Harcourt, Brace & World 1950: 3-11.

Jon Halliday Sirk on Sirk London: Secker & Warburg/ British Film Institute 1971.

Hortense Powdermaker Hollywood: The Dream Factory Boston: Little, Brown 1950.

Jaques Rivette “The Genius of Howard Hawks” in Jim Hillier (ed) Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1950s: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1985: 126-131.

Andrew Sarris “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962” in Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen (eds) Film Theory and Criticism New York: Oxford University Press 1974: 500-515.

Richard Schickel “Gender Bender” in Time 24 June 1991: 52-56.

Thomas Sobchack “Genre Films: A Classical Experience” in Brry Keith Grant (ed) Film Genre Reader II Austin: University of Texas Press 1995: 102-113.

Robert Warshow “The Gangster as Tragic Hero” (1948) in The Immediate Experience New York: Atheneum 1971: 127-133.

Robin Wood “Ideology, Genre, Auteur” in Barry Keith Grant (ed) Film Genre Reader II Austin: University of Texas Press 1995: 59-73.

Judith Hess Wright “Genre Films and the Status Quo” in Barry Keith Grant Film Genre Reader II Austin: University of Texas Press 1995: 41-49.

 

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