Free Film School #81: The Evolution of Genre

Greetings, my flock, and welcome to the latest installation of CraveOnline’s Free Film School, a free online university that is, at my estimation, at least eight times better than USC and NYU combined (all estimations unconfirmed). I bid you all a very happy New Year, and I hope you all had a wonderful time, and that you over-ate with gusto and glee.

Enough chit-chat. To the lecture. A new year doesn’t mean we get to stop pondering the limitless facets of the film world. Things have just become a year more interesting is all. This week’s lecture is going to be a sort-of extension of the article I wrote for this week’s B-Movies Extended, which was, if you take the time to look it over, a musing about the way film trends move and how we, as serious critics of the cinematic form, tend to view film trends differently as they pass through history. I used that article to zero in on very specific current movie trends (in particular found-footage horror movies and superhero-themed action movies), and attempted to dissect their cultural significance as they were still rolling high. I also posited that our view of these trends will most likely change once they are no longer trendy. No genre ever truly dies, but they certainly do fall out of fashion, and give way to new genres, new subgenres, and new trends.

I’d like to use this lecture, if I may, to ramble a bit on the notion of genre evolution. I’m not going to analyze any one particular genre this week (in previous weeks, I’ve looked at genres like Film Noir, Musicals, and even Women in Prison films), and I’m not going to delve into the particulars of certain genres’ histories. Rather, I’m going to think about how genres tend to move throughout film history, and I will attempt to spot patterns in the life-cycle of certain genres.

We can all agree, I think, that certain film genres tend to pass out of favor after a time. Westerns, to cite the most obvious example, are no longer the cultural powerhouse they once were. There was a time in the 1940s when Westerns ruled the cinematic landscape, and a new Western seemed to have come out every week. These days, Westerns are occasional ventures, and when they’re not mashing with other genres (Cowboys & Aliens, The Lone Ranger), they are clear homages to a moribund genre whose day has passed (the 3:10 to Yuma remake, Unforgiven). As I said, no genre will ever truly die, but when they fall out of public favor (for whatever reason), they tend to enter this odd elder statesmen state, where they are only visited as a form of nostalgia. Musicals are another good example. If you look to the 1950s and 1960s, you find some of the greatest movie musicals ever made. By the ‘70s, things have become a little darker. By the ‘80s, we have garbage like Xanadu. The musical renaissance of the ‘00s (which was brought about by the off-putting and near-unwatchable Moulin Rouge!) was clearly taking aesthetic cues from older musicals, and making them “modern” and “edgy.” The musical genre was now only looking backward.

I would like to posit the following film theory: that genres all evolve along similar paths. Indeed, they follow a very similar path that Shakespeare ascribed to man in As You Like It. Each genre in its time plays many parts. They are born, they grow, they mature, they mutate, they become senile, and they die. It’s hard to predict which genres and subgenres will become popular enough to proliferate, but once they are popular, you will likely be able to see the patterns emerging. The genre doesn’t have to be the most popular genre on the market, nor the most lauded by critics (this theory applies to Film Noir just as much as, say, teen sex comedies), but they all follow the proceeding life cycle.

The Nascent Period

As an example, let’s take a look at American Film Noir, although you are welcome to use your favorite genre in this space (satires and horror films notwithstanding; more on them later). In the nascent period, the genre is not yet codified. In film noir, this would be crime films of the 1930s. Gangster pictures that deal with crime and criminals, but don’t have the striking visual expressionism of noir. Looking back, we can see noir taking shape, but at the time, it wasn’t quite a genre yet. Slasher films are typically said to have begun in earnest with Halloween in 1978, but any horror fan will also immediately point to Bob Clark’s 1974 Black Christmasas a “proto-slasher.” The genre finds its feet.

The Codifying Period

Usually a single film will come along in a genre’s history that will codify the patterns that a score of imitators will immediately pick up on and repeat. Noir doesn’t really have a single film of birth, but the 1940s saw a sudden explosion in German-influenced American crime films with long shadows, simmering sexuality, and a lack of heroes. Suddenly, Film Noir wasn’t just a film or two. It was A Thing. This period may also be referred to as The Classic Period, as this is when a genre’s standard will be set, and the rules will be written. This is the phase of startling creativity and invention on the parts of the filmmakers.

The Wheel-Spinning Period

Eventually, the genre will become so codified, that it will be a standard. It will, for all intents and purposes, be a proper genre. It will warrant its own section at the video store or its own Netflix category. By this point, filmmakers may see the classic genre as old hat, and will no longer be interested in re-codifying standard tropes. When filmmakers try to recapture something that has become familiar to audiences, audiences and critics tend to describe it as cliché. As such, the genre will run out of steam a bit. Think of the crime films of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. They weren’t so much about P.I.s and femme fatales anymore. They were about amoral criminals and killer couples like in The Honeymoon Killers or Gun Crazy. Things became less enjoyable. Darkness begins to seep in around the edges.

The Analytical Period

Now we have the period where the genres begin to turn in on themselves, and look at themselves in the light of well-known public familiarity. They turn dark and introspective. Think of 1956’s The Searchers starring an aged John Wayne. The glory days of the Western were fading by 1956, and the genre’s poster-boy was now craggy. The Searchers, about a vengeance-minded vigilante, follows all the tropes of the Western, but also subverts them, showing the pain and darkness that comes with a genre infused with murder, theft, and filth. The seams begin to rip. This period may also be referred to as the “dark” period. By this point, the genre has pretty much lived its life, and we’ve now analyzed what was behind it. We are now at a period in the genre’s life when we may look back to see how it began, dissect its appeal, and perhaps poke at its fallacies. I might include, for Noir, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. To look at something a bit more modern, some may say that 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises was a sign that superhero movies are already turning inside-out. Some have even said that 2008 was the peak of superheroes, and now we’re spinning wheels and deconstructing (in terms of creativity, anyway).

The Weird Period

Many film genres also tend to have an analytical period that is so dark, it becomes near-surreal. Other genres begin to overlap with the one in question, and the genre is lost in a bizarre swirling miasma of conflicting ideas and aesthetics. Look at the way musicals evolved. Bold and fun, based on Broadway. Then rock operas began to infiltrate. Then other genres began to seep into musicals. Soon, we had to deal with stuff like Xanadu, a fecklessly unassuming entertainment about a roller-skating goddess. The genre has deconstructed. All we have now are pieces with which to kind of experiment. If you look at any latter-day films in any currently moribund genres, you will find that the end was marked by darkness, followed closely by weirdness.

There is a weird entropy to most genres. They are built up in our minds, they become codified, and then their very fame ends up being the thing that destroys them. Then, once they've broken down, we enter the final, postmortem stage:

The Homage Period

Once the Noir trend ended properly sometime in the 1960s, we still saw films like Robert Altman's The Last Goodbye, and Roman Polanski's Chinatown. These films were very much in the Noir mold, but were clearly not of the same vintage, and most certainly not of the same mood. These films, while both excellent, were, in terms of their genre cred, mere distant echoes of the glory days that proceeded them. I feel that films like Chicago are not a re-birth of fresh musicals, but an homage, harkening back to the glory days. The homage period lasts for the rest of time. Will Westerns experience a resurgence in the public consciousness? Perhaps. Likely not. But some Westerns will still be made, and they'll likely be compared openly to the Westerns of yore. It's around this time, when you stop and look around at what's playing in theaters – you look at most any cop film or kung-fu film or monster film – that you begin to see echoes of echoes of echoes. You start to notice that most films are not only of a certain genre, but are perhaps of dead genres. You being to realize how little startling originality there can be in theaters. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Those nostalgia glands are active little suckers.

This pattern can be applied to most any film genre. There are two genres, however, that seem to be evergreen, ever-continuous, and ever-repeated. The first of those is satire. Satire – always poking fun at the most popular trends – is always a warranted reaction to the forefront of trends. If considered as a genre unto itself, satire will always be relevant and present. Although specific satire films are only as relevant as the thing they are satirizing; it's unlikely that the Seltzer/Friedberg spoofs will prove to be immortal. James Bond is still in the public consciousness (do you think James Bond can die?), so spy spoofs will always be relevant.

The other genre that seems to live on is horror. Most of the so-called “big” genres (Noir, Westerns, Romantic Comedies, Musicals, International Romance Movies) tend to have their glory days; we can point to specific moments in history when these genres were big and notable. Rumbling underneath all of them, however, are horror movies. Sometimes hits, often bombs, horror movies are typically cheap to produce, and tap into universal fears of humanity. As such, studios are always quick to make them. Over the century-plus of film, they have proven to be bona fide entertainments in every single social climate. Horror films, then, are timeless in a way.

Do you recognize the patterns?

Homework for the Week:

How accurate do you think my model is? Take several films from the history of a genre; maybe one I didn't mention here. What films within that genre exemplify each of the periods I listed above? Are there other genres besides horror and satire that buck the trends? Do you think you'd be able to predict the downfall of a genre's popularity using this model? How hard-and-fast do you think these rules are?