Genre is a term that you will get to know very fast in a film class. That is because the film industry classifies every film in a genre. It is the way films are pitched and sold. It is far easier for film executives, agents and foreign financiers to talk in terms of genre. Different genres attract different audiences which in turn, bring in different amounts at the box office.
There are many elements in the narrative of the film to help classify a genre. If you are having trouble identifying what type of film you are examining, you should consider a series of questions that can help you define what you are viewing.
The first three questions you should ask are:
- Where is the narrative of this film taking place?
- Who are the main characters and what are their goals in the narrative?
- What iconography keeps showing up in this film?
Where is the narrative of this film taking place?
If it is taking place on another planet, in outer space, or on some sort of spaceship, it is safe to say that you are watching a Science Fiction film. For example, it would be hard to argue that Galaxy Quest or Starship Troopers are not SF films. If you want to get more complicated, look at a 1980s film such as Night of the Comet. It has SF elements, but comedy and horror elements as well. Just as a film like Alien is a SF/Horror film.
If the narrative is taking place in the Old West, then you can safely guess that your film is a Western. Look at the DVD Cover for the film classic, Stagecoach below. What elements in that picture conjure the old west for the viewer? A cowboy. A stagecoach. The open land of the west…
Who are the main characters and what are their goals in the narrative?
This can also help you identify what type of genre you are watching. If you are watching a Hollywood Studio film, it should be relatively simple for you to identify a genre by examining the main character in the film and whatever his or her goals might be. For example, if you are watching the film Bowfinger (available on Hulu if you have a subscription), you will immediately note the title of the film refers to the protagonist’s last name, Bowfinger. You will note he is a down on his luck film producer/director. By the time Bowfinger goes to Le Dome to try and get a studio head to finance his film, you should be able to tell you are watching a comedy. You know by the end of the first 10 minutes of this film that Bowfinger wants to produce a film, Chubby Rain, and become a success in Hollywood.
Another element to take into consideration is the actors: are they known for a certain genre? For example, Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy are known for their comedic films. In the case of Bowfinger, you can make an assumption that you will be seeing a comedy based on the cast.
If you are watching the film noir Mildred Pierce, you can ascertain that the film’s lead character is indeed Mildred Piece (Joan Crawford). Within the first 10 minutes, it is clear that a murder has occurred and Mildred is the prime suspect. One key way to identify film noirs from the 1940s is that the fatal event usually begins at the start of the movie and the rest of the movie is a flashback. Another thing to notice is that many film noirs are also melodramas (a great deal of the story has to do with family, marriage and problematic love). Film noirs also tend to contain
Another thing to notice is that many film noirs are also melodramas (a great deal of the story has to do with family, marriage and problematic love). Film noirs also tend to contain femmes fatales (the lead female characters who are always somehow the cause of the violence and held accountable for their deeds); a private detective or a police detective; and finally, a crime.
What iconography keeps on showing up in the film?
Iconography can be defined as the study of the imagery or symbolism in a work or body of art. For example, in the western, the horse, the cowboy, guns and rifles, and saloons are all images that can be found in the western. Each of these things can be considered a symbol of the west.
If you had to talk about modes of transportation in Westerns, three things should come to mind: horse, stagecoaches and railroads. These are all considered icons of the western. Each has a deeper meaning.
A horse is always associated with the outlaw, the hero and the law. A horse is far different from a stagecoach. While more civilized inhabitants might ride a stagecoach (this was how many women were brought out to the west in films), our outlaws and heroes always tend to ride around on horses. This symbolism reflects the individualism associated with Westerns. It is usually every man for himself. While there are communities, they are not always safe. The one thing, it seems, you can depend on is your horse…to a degree. Even they can be compromised in battles, stolen by rustlers, or sadly, sometimes killed. Finally, there is the railroad. This icon represents wealth, progress and change. The more people that come, the more that can be built and bought.
Iconography is something that gets more meaningful the more an object appears in a film. For example, every time a gun appears in film noir, a western or a thriller, it can take on different meanings; however, one of the most common readings of a gun in terms of symbolism is that it stands in for the phallus. If a woman is using a gun, it becomes a symbolic medium of power. It enables her to kill. If a man is using a gun, depending on the type of character he is in a film, he could be said to be compensating for his own lack of phallus by using many guns or large guns. Next time you are watching a film with a gun, note who is using it, why they are using it and who it is being used against.
These are just a few thoughts about how to identify genre. If you are having a hard time, the best thing to do is simply put the film title into a search engine and see what genres pop up in the description of the film you are searching. Then use that information to go back and watch the film and look for what elements in the film define it as a certain genre.