GENRE AND ITS SLIPPERINESS
Star Wars is NOT Science Fiction. Mad Max is NOT a Road Movie, Let the Right One In is NOT a vampire movie, writes Mike
I’ve been writing, talking and thinking a lot about genre lately and have taught
many classes in the past year on SciFi and Horror cinema. I think I’ve got a
handle on it, a firm grip to leverage genre as a useful tool. And yet, despite
the confidence in my grip, genre persists on presenting an unavoidable
My focus on genre is in its functionality, results from genre informing process
rather than self-servicing analysis - understanding and teaching genre as a
tool. Not a set of rules but a functional toolbox of utensils a storyteller can
"a clear recognition of the genre tool is vital"
Following this directive it becomes important to be able to clearly
understand when a film is using a genre and when its not. Such distinctions are
not so crucial for the general public (who tend to follow the Blockbuster video
store model of arbitrary genres for shelving purposes) but for a filmmaker a
clear recognition of the genre tool is vital if they want their film to stand on
the shoulders of giants and be able to exploit the mythological base of genre.
So, with this as a framework I am often surprised at how liberally genre paint
can be slopped around. There are a great many good and popular films that are
too often and unthinkingly referred to as belonging to a particular genre when
even a modicum of critical thought will see a disconnect between the genre and
the result on screen. A few such genre mis-appropriations have been bandied in
front of me of late and prompted me to respond.
For example; Star Wars is not Science Fiction. You can certainly find Star Wars
on the SciFi shelf of Blockbuster but Star Wars employs none of the recognisable
and consistent patterns or ideas of SciFi, none of philosophical speculation
that is the heart of SciFi. Replace light-sabres with swords and x-wings with
horses and the film is exactly the same. There is no What if scenario for Star
Wars, no questioning of human progress. Star Wars is fantasy. Nothing more
"Alien is not Science Fiction"
Alien is not Science Fiction. One of the core tenets of SciFi is that the
world IS the story; that the progress-trap the world embodies is integral to the
narrative and characters. Blade Runner, 2001, Sunshine, Battlestar Galactica all
represent SciFi where the world is inseparable from the story. However Alien, as
with Star Wars, is wholly transposable. Exchange the Nostromo intergalactic star
freighter with Nostromo the trans-atlantic container ship and you have exactly
the same story, same characters, same fantastic monster. All part and parcel of
a Horror film and the tag line from the film poster tells it all… “In space no
one can hear you scream”. In the middle of the ocean noone can hear you scream
If Ridley Scott had gone into making Alien using SciFi as his genre tool the
film would have been quite different. Alien could be SciFi if the alien creature
was made by humans - the product of our own design - and got out of control -
progress out of control, hubris, playing God, the fundamental myths at the heart
"Mad Max (either 1 or 2) is not a Road Movie"
Mad Max (either 1 or 2) is not a Road Movie. Whilst it might certainly be
focused on cars and spend a lot of time on the road this doesn’t equate to Road
Movie genre. Road Movies are not about cars or roads, they are about a journey
from a clearly designated point A to point B. The pattern recognition observed
across Road Movies is that :
A) the character(s) must get to a defined destination for a particular reason.
B) the bulk of the story and its events takes place along that journey
C) that in the end the destination doesn’t matter, its the journey that changes
the characters and causes them to grow and transform.
Little Miss Sunshine, Bran Nue Dae, The Road, Cannonball Run, Easy Rider,
Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Thelma and Louise - these are Road Movies. Mad
Max has no journey at all, no defined destination, the events take place around
a single location not along the road to somewhere else. And there is no
character growth or transformation caused by the journey and the effort to get
to the destination.
It comes back to the functionality of the genre tool. Calling Mad Max a road
movie is not functional because it’s not useful. The Road Movie label doesn’t
help connect Mad Max to any other Road Movies. There’s no clear pattern
recognition to inform the mythology or narrative form of the film. There is no
mythological or conceptual thread that places Mad Max and Thelma + Louise in the
same group. Calling Mad Max a Road Movie doesn’t help us understand why Mad Max
works (and works so very, very well). If George Miller set out to make a
road-movie Mad Max would not be the result. But if he’d set out to make a
Dystopian action film, one that draws heavily on the Western swapping horses for
cars, then Mad Max is certainly the result. What we see is the firm connection
between the tool (genre) and the result of what the tool has wrought. In both MM
1+2 the loner sheriff is forced to civilise the frontier but in doing so is
ultimately unable to live in it and heads back to the wilderness. Mad Max owes a
great deal to the Westerns of John Ford.
"Let the Right One In is Not a horror film"
Let the Right One In is Not a horror film. It may well have a vampire,
copious blood and a great deal of brooding but none of these things speak to the
Intent of the film. Horror films, as a clear genre with an unassailable
longevity, have an equally clear intention - to scare you. Horror films do this
by scaring the protagonist through whom we experience the story; we feel the
fears they do. Running from the old house with the terrified girl at the end of
Texas Chainsaw Massacre we are terrified as she is terrified. The films’ intent
is to Terrify and through doing so engage with metaphor and myth about the dark
side of isolation, progress and family (as suffered by the family of unemployed
meat workers in a town deserted by a freeway and isolated from civilisation.)
By contrast Let the Right One In has no such intention. It never sets out or
intends to scare the viewer and this is evidenced by the fact that the
protagonist is never scared by his vampire friend. If he’s not scared how are we
supposed to feel scared? She may frighten others but she never really frightens
him and it’s through him that we experience the story.
And what is that story if it’s not a Horror Story and not based on fear? It’s a
romance coming-of-age story. Let the Right One In is essentially the same story
as My Girl with Macaulay Culkin. Childhood crush and the coming-of-age rites
that come with the passage into adolescence. The fact that the female love
interest is a vampire in Let the Right One In simply serves to raise the stake,
ratchet up the tension and stamp in a mythological metaphoric base. The vampire
element provides a way to touch on the “darkness within” as a metaphor -
however, this of itself doesn’t make it a horror film. The feeling-state this
film intends is not one of fear but of nostalgia and romance. The vampire bit
just gives it a kick and a fresh angle with higher stakes beyond life and death.
(It might be argued that Twilight is in much the same category - romance rather
than horror with no intent to Terrify. But frankly I find Twilight absolutely
fucking terrifying with its gut-wrenching moral conservatism and mindless
self-absorbed characters, so its about as scary as any film I can name.)
"to recognise genre as a tool rather than a label"
The point of debunking some common mis-applied genres is to recognise genre
as a tool rather than a label. And whilst flexible and not set in stone, genres
do provide a clear structure toward an intended feeling state. As filmmakers if
we know how we want to make the user feel and we know what mythological base we
want the film to stand on then we can apply genre in a more functional way than
a superficial label.
Just because a movie has space ships doesn’t mean it’s ScFi. Just because a
movie has roads and cars doesn’t mean it’s a Road Movie. Just because a movie
has vampires doesn’t mean it’s a Horror film. SciFi, Road and Horror are
concepts not decorations or badges.
[This article first published on MikeJones.tv ]
Published November 4, 2010
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Mike Jones is lecturer in Screen Studies at the Australian Film TV and Radio
School and the author of several articles, blogs and books.