Genre is dead...long live genre

Hattie Metcalfe discusses the history of genre, and whether it is still essential in today's cinema.

Harriet Metcalfe
2nd May 2020
Nowadays, it’s tempting to categorise everything into neat boxes just to make sense out of the confusion that is the 21st century. And traditionally, this was how film studios would make money – by specialising in one genre and knowing how to appeal to that audience. But recently, it’s getting harder to ‘class’ some films within these pre-existing spaces. So do we still need the movie genre? Was there any point of having it in the first place? And how the hell are we supposed to classify Holmes and Watson as a comedy?

In the golden age of Hollywood (roughly 1910-60s), genre had a prevalent place in the movie industry. Each of the major studios would work together as a studio system to ensure there was no overlap in the kinds films they were producing; MGM would make musicals and dramas, whilst Warner Bros would create iconic romance/dramas like Casablanca (1942). They’d be limited by law as well; Hayes code ensured they couldn’t show anything even slightly controversial, for fear of losing audiences – not that that would matter. Oh yes, because just as much as today, studios loved the money – and block booking theatres would ensure their old films would also have to be played, just for the cinema to be able to play the latest release from that studio. And for years this worked pretty well – but us audiences get bored easily (I couldn’t make it through even fifteen minutes of Love, Wedding, Repeat). So when the younger LA audiences grew up and decided to become filmmakers, they wanted to flip the system completely.

New Hollywood was unarguably still influenced by the genres of Old Hollywood, just as films of today are.

The 1960-80s saw “new Hollywood” – think Bonny and Clyde (1967), Apocalypse Now (1979) and Night of the Living Dead (1968). They were still genre films, no doubt about it, but now the director was at the helm instead of the studio. They had bigger budgets, more control and less pressure from government to be “audience friendly”. And some of their productions became arguably more legendary than the films themselves – Apocalypse Now especially, for how the production went to shit (whichever of the seemingly hundreds of cuts you watch) – helicopters were being called back for use in the Vietnam war, and Coppola even put his own assets up for collateral when the film inevitably ran out over budget. New Hollywood was unarguably still influenced by the genres of Old Hollywood, just as films of today are.

But I can’t write this without talking about La La Land, because love it or hate it, Damien Chazelle’s 2016 film is the best modern example of generic tropes from both eras. *Deep breath because the musical nerd in me is about to explode.* Although it’s set in the 21st century, the film harkens back to a lot of classical musicals. The ‘A Lovely Night’ scene is very Singing in the Rain (1952), with Ryan Gosling literally swings round a lamppost, and Top Hat (1935), and you can’t tell me the waltz during the planetarium scene doesn’t scream classic Hollywood romance. In an interview with The Independent, Chazelle emphasised this: “trying to call back certain things from the past that I felt had been lost and didn’t need to be lost. But also, really, the main goal was to try and update those things” – which is exactly why Sebastian doesn’t end up with Mia. He uses all these romance tropes – pretty skies, romantic music, dancing – just to lead you on like a dodgy guy on Tinder. And hello New Hollywood influence for not giving us the ending we wanted or expected. La La Land proved films don’t always have to obey the traditional rules of the genre they might claim to ‘belong’ to – I only hope more films do that in the future.

I’m not completely sure why genre is still so prevalent. Sure it makes finding films on Netflix easier, and awarding academies use genres as titles for nomination categories – but there’s always so much overlap. When was a film a comedy and not a drama as well? Or an action film with little to no adventure mentioned? La La Land itself is a musical/comedy/drama (and fantasy if you count the waltz in space). Sure, we can say horror films are one of the most obvious genres still around – but then films like Shaun of the Dead (2004) are listed as a horror/comedy… and if I - who had to move to sit in the corner of the cinema when I was the only one there when the It (2017) trailer came on - am not scared by that, then it doesn't feel like much of a horror.

There are sub-genres of sub-genres of sub-genres and I'm still confused by it all. But I think it'll always be around in some shape or form, however much we try and fight to be "outside" of it and create something new. Genre is dead... Long live genre.

Questions were raised after The Martian (2015) won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy.
Video Credit: Mashable Watercooler
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AUTHOR: Harriet Metcalfe
English Literature BA student. Loves film, TV, books and coffee. Thinks "Thor: The Dark World" gets too much hate. Twitter: @hattiemetcalfe

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