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 slipperiness.
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 employ.
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 Blackbuster 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 repsond.
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 nothing less.
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 exatly 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 either…
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 of SciFi.
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 its 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 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. 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 the terrified girl at the end 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 its through him that we experience the story.
And what is that story if its not a Horror Story and not based on fear? Its a romance coming-of-age story. Let the Right One In is essentially the same story as My Girl with Mcaughly Culkin. Childhood crush and the coming-of-age rights 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.)
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 its a Road Movie. Just because a movie has vampires doesn’t mean its a Horror film. SciFi, Road and Horror are concepts not decorations or badges.