The Velvet Light Trap no. 10, Fall 1973. Designer: John Davis
Can genre movies express a personal vision? Are films blurring into other media? And what’s the state of film culture today? Rick Poynor and Adrian Shaughnessy continue their dialogue. Read part one for the beginning of the conversation.
You can make a powerful case for cinema being a genre-based art form, but are genre distinctions still relevant today? Besides being a convenient historical labelling system, I’ve never found it a meaningful way to navigate current cinema. Genres tend to exist only in retrospect; we need the perspective of history to see how the conventions are manipulated, hybridized, or flat-out contradicted — to use your words.
Take film noir, which I know you like as much as I do. Film noir existed because of a unique set of circumstances — the arrival in Hollywood in the 1930s of German émigré directors with sensibilities rooted in expressionism; the rise of interest in psychoanalysis; and the new-found instinct amongst film makers to invert the conventions of Hollywood. But it wasn’t called film noir, or even recognized as a discrete genre until French critics in the 1950s identified it as a strain of violent, psychologically-charged American cinema that ran from the early 1940s to the mid-1950s. And today, critics are divided over what is a genuine film noir movie and what isn’t.
It’s the chronological view of cinema that I tend to gravitate towards. When I’m told that Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia (2006) is film noir, I’m not convinced. But what unites Out of the Past (1947), Gun Crazy (1950), and Night and the City (1950) is the fact that they could not have been made at any other period in history — and this has as much to do with lighting technology, film stock, camera and sound recording techniques as it does with genre conventions.
Today’s serious filmmakers seem free from genre constraints. Take Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long (2008), which deals with an unspoken and hellish event that festers at the heart of a normal French family. This European arthouse hit deftly avoids cliché, sensationalism or melodrama in favor of a calm, temperate reading of an inflammatory situation. But which genre should we place it in? Today there seems only to be two kinds of cinema: commercial cinema and art cinema. Any other categorization tends to come from the marketing departments.
A Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema by David Thomson, Secker & Warburg, 1975. Cover design by Ivor Clayden
As well as viewing cinema as part of a chronological continuum, I tend to think of it as a giant database of interconnections. This way of viewing cinema has been fostered by reading Thomson who appears to view all films as somehow connected. It is a view reinforced by one of my favorite films — Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003). This is a critical reading of the way directors have used the great metropolis in their films. It links Laurel and Hardy in The Music Box (1932) to Wesley Snipes in Blade (1998). The use of LA in countless films has allowed the creation of a sort of cinematic dreamscape (J.G. Ballard calls it the place “where the twentieth century created its greatest myths”); it’s as if the city provides a psychological metaphor that jumps the genre barriers.
But what about today’s filmmakers — the young bucks who make “indie cinema”? (By the way, I can’t think of a phonier or more suspect genre than “indie.”) Is there a Huston, a Welles, a Polanski, a Tarkovsky among today’s filmmakers? Who excites you?
Your question pulls us back towards the idea of the auteur. I’ll return to it, but I’m surprised by your dismissal of genre: it seems so fundamental to what American cinema has been. In fact, the motivation behind the auteur theory, introduced by French film critics at Cahiers du Cinéma, was to challenge the supposedly clear-cut, European distinction between commercial cinema and art cinema, and to show that Hollywood players such as Hitchcock, Hawks and Ford, and even some B-movie directors, were able to fill in generic frameworks with personal themes.
The American Cinema by Andrew Sarris, Dutton, 1968. Cover design by Milton Glaser
Genre is only a helpful term if it’s used with precision and I’m certainly not suggesting that every film belongs to a genre. Arthouse and indie are much too broad as categories to be properly described as genres. It’s certainly useful, though, to talk about the western, the gangster film (film noir is an offshoot), the horror film, the science fiction film, the war film, the musical, or the romantic comedy as hugely popular genres, which depend on situations, characters and narrative codes with which the audience of regular viewers is rightly presumed to be highly familiar.
So a western is set in a recognizable time and place, it deals with familiar types — the unyielding loner hero, the anti-social outlaw, the ruthless cattle baron, the weak and morally ambivalent townsfolk, the educated civilizing woman — and it endlessly returns to the same scenarios. The evolution of the western as a quintessentially American genre is a historical and cultural phenomenon, with its origins in real lives and events, which became mythic in the telling, and in novels such as Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902). It can’t just be brushed aside as marketing; nor was it only identified in retrospect — film noir is untypical in that regard. Westerns were a means for screenwriters and directors to explore narrative ideas that were central to the American conception of personal freedom, community and the taming of the “uncivilized” and lawless west. Filmmakers working in the decades of the classic western might have been fulfilling studio contracts to provide mass entertainment, but they knew exactly what they were doing with these culturally meaningful archetypes.
While the western no longer exerts the amazing hold it once had on international audiences, filmmakers return to it even now, finding new things to do with its well-worn conventions: Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992); the superb TV series Lonesome Dove (1989) and Deadwood (2004); Tommy Lee Jones’ modern-day western The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005); Andrew Dominik’s mesmerizing The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) — auteur or not, he’s a director I’ll be watching closely. A lot of the fascination of John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005), written by the rock singer Nick Cave, comes from seeing American western archetypes transported to the Australian outback.
Hitchcock by François Truffaut, Panther, 1969
I get a huge amount of enjoyment from genre films and it’s always revealing to see how genres flourish at particular moments, reflecting social trends and concerns. Horror, for instance, is bursting with horrible vigor right now and this is an international phenomenon. A great example of genre-bending hybrid horror is the Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In (2008) directed by Tomas Alfredson, another director I’ll be keeping an eye on. Its sensitive writing, ordinary-person acting style (the central characters are two 12-year-olds), banal locations and sumptuously restrained photography and compositions might seem to make it art film fare — I saw it in a New York arthouse. But its generic subject matter puts it in a lineage of intelligent vampire horror that includes Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), Herzog’s reworking of Nosferatu (1979), and Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987). The closest comparison with Let the Right One In that comes to mind, is George Romero’s wonderful, little seen Martin (1977) about a mixed-up teenage vampire living in Pittsburgh.
Closer to the commercial mainstream, Frank (Shawshank Redemption) Darabont’s The Mist (2007), which we could easily write off as schlock, has a lot of terrifying fun with rampaging alien creatures — paranoid 1950s sci-fi movie meets unnameable monstrosities out of H.P. Lovecraft — while finding plenty of time for a plausible examination of character under pressure revealed through searching hand-held close-ups. The icily bleak ending, which plays out to Dead Can Dance’s gothic spine-chiller “The Host of Seraphim,” sung by Lisa Gerrard, is devastating, and its surrender to despair feels much closer to arthouse than to the usual test-screening cop-out.
I relish the uninhibited mash-up of genre conventions in films like this. Filmmakers are steeped, both consciously and unconsciously, in decades of film history, just like their audiences, and genre is part of the “database of interconnections” you mention. Film’s intertextuality is a key aspect of its meaning and pleasure. For sure, film noir is a label best kept for certain American films of the 1940s to 1950s, but that doesn’t stop directors gleefully remixing noirish themes and styles in movies such as Blade Runner (future noir), LA Confidential (retro noir) and Sin City (comic book noir). Strong arguments have been made for “neo-noir” as a new genre that emerged in film noir’s wake in the early 1960s and continues to this day.
Cineaste vol. VIII no. 4, 1978. Design consultant: Bill Plympton
As usual you make a persuasive case. But I’m still inclined to the view that cinema has reached its “end of history” era and films are no longer constrained by genre considerations, or even identifiable by genre categorization. We both agree that marketing determines how the majority of films are made, packaged and categorized. But away from the dead hand of marketing-led cinema, modern directors are unconstrained by genre conventions.
This has been made plain to me by the larger than usual number of current movies I’ve watched since our last exchange. I’ve been repeatedly struck by their lack of a genre-based foundation. Three films stand out in this respect: Steve McQueen’s Hunger, Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, and Clint Eastwood’s The Changeling — one of the most tightly written pieces of cinema I’ve seen in ages. Eastwood confidently conflates half a dozen genres and mashes them into a sophisticated, thoughtful and vividly entertaining movie. He clearly has a firm grasp of genre, but the end result is a film that is genre-less.
Jonathan Demme’s movie is more complex. It’s a lens-in-the-face portrait of a dysfunctional middle-class family and deals with various contemporary problems such as addiction, divorce, and the legacy of familial wounds. It’s shot like a home movie, and seems to owe as much to fly-on-the-wall TV shows like The Osbournes as it does to cinema’s grand narrative tradition. I tried to describe it to a friend and after a few faltering attempts my friend said — “sounds like Little Miss Sunshine.” It has a loose resemblance to that film, but only in as much as both movies are infused with a spirit that is at odds with traditional Hollywood compactness and narrative robustness. Neither film can be said to be genre-based, but both are unquestionably of their time.
Hunger is different again. As you know, many leading film critics have chosen it as their film of 2008, and it’s easy to see why. It’s almost obtuse in its flaunting of genre and cinematic convention. It contains one intense 17-minute scene: a single locked-off camera records a philosophical conversation between a priest and the convicted IRA prisoner Bobby Sands. This segment is unlike anything else in the movie, and is written with spellbinding precision, although the film as a whole is light on dialogue and heavy on atmospherics and sudden violent action. McQueen is a video artist — easily guessed from watching this film — and the camera’s unflinching gaze owes more to the gallery than to the local multiplex.
All three films raise the question: why would any director want to make a genre film today, other than as an academic exercise? It would instantly lay him or her open to accusations of looking backwards. That said, I’d rather watch a Warner Bros film noir from the 1940s than any amount of modern commercial cinema.
Film as a Subversive Art by Amos Vogel, Random House, 1974. Cover design by Sheila Sherwen
I think we are talking about different things. The films you mention were supplied to you as a Bafta member as examples of the better quality — or, at least, better promoted — films released in the last year. They aren’t typical of the great mass of movies, most of which are commercial ventures handled by producers and directors who have no pretensions to any kind of artistic seriousness. Hunger is far away at the other end of that spectrum, though the prison movie is arguably an under-appreciated genre in its own right, and Eastwood and Demme are both directors who know genre from the inside.
Genre has a stronger hold on contemporary cinema than you suggest. An article in Sight & Sound notes that, “Every other British film premiered at Edinburgh this year  seemed to be an exercise in genre, mainly horror” (a few years ago it was gangster films). Their makers hope that these movies can pull in thrill-seeking audiences while sometimes using generic formulas as the conduit for more serious concerns. Although most of this stuff is trashy and the columnist is understandably skeptical — as you are — he does point to Let the Right One In and the Spanish ghost/horror film The Orphanage (2007) as examples of new films that succeed in having it both ways.
Wall-E, which we’ve both seen recently, shows how genre continues to play a significant role in commercial cinema, and some critics even rated it one of the films of the year. In essence it’s a science fiction movie, applying a storyline that originated decades ago in adult fiction to an animated kid’s film: Earth has been destroyed by humanity’s excesses and the survivors have departed for the stars. The satire aimed at couch-potato consumerism might not be as compelling as Wall-E’s melancholy, almost Beckettian existence tidying up mountains of junk, but it’s still pushing beyond the usual safe subject matter and imagery of a family movie, using generic situations that work whether the viewer is aware of their origins or not.
But perhaps this discussion prompts an even more fundamental question. Are these good times for filmmaking and what used to be called “film culture”? What’s your view?
Film Comment vol. 2 no. 2, 1964. Art director: Noel Thomas Jr.
I think cinema is fantastically healthy. My opinion is based on watching movies by youngish directors, writers and actors from around the world who make films that stand comparison with even the best from cinema’s golden past. This status is typified by a movie like There Will be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson) or — more surprisingly — by the animated film Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman). Both tell us something about the psychological ecology of our times. I could name another dozen.
Yet I’ve been struck by something unexpected while gorging on the many fine films I’ve watched in the past month. I’ve always believed that movies are inherently superior to TV drama. Yet I’ve sat through a number of films recently that have prompted the question: is this better than the best TV drama? I have to tread carefully here because I don’t watch much TV. The Wire, The Sopranos and Mad Men are pretty much the extent of my knowledge of current TV drama. But there’s enough in those three strands to alert me to the fact that directorial verve, intellectually nourishing scripts, and state-of-the-art acting are not confined to the cinema. In a recent Guardian article, writing about The Wire, and its creator David Simon’s earlier work Homicide: Life on the Street, Chris Petit notes: “Homicide kicked off a run of in-depth shows which suggested that the television drama series, not Hollywood cinema, was emerging as the perfect American format.”
Take the film Revolutionary Road. I’m agnostic when it comes to its director, Sam Mendes. I’ve yet to see a film by him that doesn’t have an air of sterility. Richard Yates’ novel of the same name, however, is a favorite, so I watched the movie keenly. It’s not bad. Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio give robust performances, and the art direction and soundtrack are compelling. And yet the same themes — thwarted ambition, the rise of post-war corporate conformity, suburban snobbery — are better handled in Mad Men.
So what does this mean? Since it was usurped by television in the 1950s as the all-conquering 20th century popular art form, cinema has been locked in a deadly battle with the one-eyed monster. Yet despite the power of TV, cinema has always demonstrated its artistic and technical superiority. But I wonder for how much longer? As movies are increasingly devoured on laptops and iTouches, the notion of a cinematic culture — to revert to your question — as distinct from a television culture seems increasingly blurred.
The Making of Kubrick’s 2001 edited by Jerome Agel, Signet, 1970
I don’t think it’s nostalgia to say that American cinema is not what it was. The 1970s, charted so brilliantly in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, produced a remarkable number of enduring films. Much as I enjoy the work of, for instance, Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Soderbergh, Ang Lee, Michael Mann and Todd Haynes, I don’t believe it equals an era that gave us such films as The Godfather parts 1 and 2, Badlands, Deliverance, Two-Lane Blacktop, Chinatown, Taxi Driver and The Last Detail. Nevertheless, quirky, personal, original films do still get made in the U.S.: Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know, and Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, to name but three. Anderson is the epitome of a design-conscious director, with his highly composed, almost pictorial image construction, luxuriantly assured command of art direction, and even a consistent typographic style based mainly on Futura, which he applies to “chapter” titles and all the printed materials and signs that feature in his hipster comedies.
Film culture has certainly changed in recent decades. There was a time when anyone claiming a serious interest in cinema would feel the need to see the classics of film history. You could cover a lot of ground just by watching films on TV. In Britain, the main channels no longer show a rich and varied mixture of even English language films and foreign films are close to disappearing. How would younger viewers acquire a deep knowledge of film history without spending a fortune on DVDs? If you can afford it, though, the wealth of material now available is a fantastic gain.
The French director Olivier Assayas recently stated, without apparent regret, that the cinephile culture prized by older filmmakers “has become irrelevant” and for many viewers this is probably true. There is intolerance now for slower moving, black-and-white films and a reluctance to read subtitles (Blockbuster fends off customer complaints by putting a warning label on the box). An article in the Guardian last year lambasted the “coffee-table-ization” of even art cinema, with stylishly literate movies such as The Hours and Atonement attracting audiences that would once have gravitated towards the more demanding output of directors such as Bergman, Bertolucci or Herzog.
Screen vol. 23 no. 5, November/December 1982. Designers: Julian Rothenstein and Hiang Kee
It would be wrong, though, to suggest that challenging films that experiment with the medium aren’t being made. They are out there for anyone who wants them. The work of Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher), Catherine Breillat (Anatomy of Hell), Gaspar Noé (Irréversible) and Lukas Moodysson (A Hole in My Heart) is as demanding as any I have seen. The confrontational cinema now produced in Europe, especially in France, much of it violent or sexual and often both, has been dubbed the “New Extremity” by critics — it’s the subject of a conference in the UK in April. Rewardingly intense, if less controversial film experiences have come from every direction in recent years: Amores Perros (Mexico), City of God (Brazil), House of Flying Daggers (China), Oldboy (South Korea), Jindabyne (Australia), The Lives of Others (Germany), The Bothersome Man (Norway), You, the Living (Sweden) — this could quickly become a long list.
So, like you, I think this is a good time for filmmaking, though watching them on tiny screens is an enfeebling, anti-cinematic trend to be resisted. The best evidence I know for the audience’s undiminished passion is IMDb, the Internet Movie Database. Viewers step in where only film critics once ventured and report their reactions, often in exhaustive detail. These reviews — sometimes there are hundreds devoted to a movie — build up to form a “thick description” of a film’s texture, weaknesses and strengths. Even when everything has already been said, someone will turn up at IMDb with the images still glittering in their mind’s eye and say it again simply because the hallucinatory power of the experience demands some kind of expression. Films have become our shared dreams and we can’t seem to live without them.
I Lost It at the Movies by Pauline Kael, Jonathan Cape, 1966. Cover design by Tim Jaques
I’d like to end where we started by trying to define the appeal of cinema. I think films exist on two levels. The first is the shared or public level: we enjoy talking about movies, telling friends about them, and communicating our enthusiasm — or displeasure. But there’s another level, and it’s to do with what we both agree is the deep, personal, immersive power of cinema. As I said earlier, I rarely go to movie theaters, but when I do, and when I see a genuinely great film, I relish the way it stays with me even when I’ve left the theater; not only stays with me, but transforms the mundane world around me. That’s hard to beat. Novels can do this, music sometimes, but for me, no other art forms can rival the transformative power of cinema.
It seems as if we have two main ways of viewing films, the public way and the private way. The public way is rational, the private irrational. Certain nimble-minded film critics are able to combine these two viewpoints. David Thomson and the late Pauline Kael stand out in this respect — both write about films with critical objectivity and technical knowledge, yet they also write as if movies were real life. Some of their criticism is closer to novelistic invention than to finely reasoned analysis. They speculate on characters, envisage back-stories, and fantasize about motivations and intentions. Which, of course, is exactly what we do as viewers when we give ourselves up to an engrossing movie: we enter the film’s enchanted domain, but we always bring our real-world skills to assess, anticipate and measure what we see on screen. I’ve never subscribed to the view that we watch cinema for escapist reasons. I think it’s the opposite. We go to face up to fundamental realities.