Popular generic texts, according to Annette Kuhn, “are reflections of social trends and attitudes of the time, mirroring the preoccupations of the historical moment” (1990). With reference to a genre of your choice, discuss the validity or otherwise of Kuhn’s statement. By its very definition Genre is made up of a collection of texts. A genre isn’t just born out of one film it is developed by a collective number of texts, all which host a number of similar elements an audience can use to categorise a film.
An audience will have certain expectations of a genre film and much of the films success will depend on how well these expectations are met, not just in respect of that single text but in comparison to other ‘classic’ texts considered within that group. Genre can be simplistically defined as a neat way to archive particular film texts, due to the themes, characters and iconography presented in them. Genre literally translates to “type” and the American studio system have used genre as a way of producing and marketing what they would call a product to a particular audience, whether it be a western a musical or gangster film.
In terms of raising finance for a project it is easier for the producer to pitch a project, if he/she can place their idea in the confines of an already established popular framework and address the codes and conventions associated with that particular “type” of film. This can help studio bosses and backers of the project at least identify a potential audience for the film and maybe give them some indication of how successful an idea would perform within the current market place and viewing trends of audiences.
This at first glance seems a very logical model and a simple way for studios and filmmakers to conduct themselves, but genre like any other theory is a lot more complex and in order for types of films to survive the test of time the conventions and seemingly rigid frame work of a genre must evolve and change in order for film texts to not only maintain their originality but meet with viewers ever increasing expectations. An example would be the gangster film.
In the 1930’s and 40’s audiences were consuming gangster films by the dozen, The little Giant (1933) and The Roaring 20’s (1939) these collection of films often addressed elements of the prohibition era and associated crime, with real life gangsters such as Al Capone making news headlines. For audiences they were socially relevant of the times. In Bad Company (1929) was the first gangster film to depict the infamous St Valentines day massacre. Although most of the genres narrative and characters were clearly fictional, they reflected a social environment that the society of the time could relate to.
By the early 40’s other types of genres dominated the silver screen, the musical for one. Audiences had tired of the traditional gangster film, quite arguably due to changes of the social climate, i. e. the prohibition had long since ended and cinema goers may have now found the characters and story lines associated with these types of films a little irrelevant. This is of course a bold statement and leaves much room for debate as the gangster film still continued to be made and enjoyed success after this period such as White Heat(1949) and Gun Crazy(1949) although certainly not with such widespread audience appreciation of the 1930’s.
Of course other factors played a huge part in making this particular genre so successful, such as star identification with actors such as Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney, who themselves became visual icons of this genre, and aesthetically huge advances in the process of filmmaking in the 1930’s, especially in film sound, but it would be nai?? ve not to take into consideration Kuhn’s statement and understand how the gangster genre intrigued audiences with its representation of urban crime, giving a glimpse at the darker side of American city life, which was occurring at the time.
This genre or collection of film texts would have been regarded as social documents by film critics of the time ‘Genre theory was only identified in the 1960’s before this time films were viewed in two main ways, either as the work of an auteur or as a social document’ (www. robertsmyth. co. uk, Kirk, 2001). Tom Ryall suggests that genre theory evolved from two other dominant approaches of looking at film, auteurism and the social document model, ‘privileging social reality as the originating source for the art product’. (Cook & Bernink, 1999, p 137).
We can therefore see that even before genre theory had fully developed there is some evidence to suggest that certain film texts run in parallel or at least have a relationship with social and cultural ideologies of their time. The gangster genre has enjoyed many peaks and troughs in mainstream cinema since the 30’s, with many of the codes and conventions still in place, although it has survived because it has evolved with time constantly reinventing itself so it still fits neatly into a relevant area of social interest and concern.
Scarface (1983) a remake of a 1932 classic by the same name, although typically a gangster film, offering the suspense, antiheroes and violence associated within that group of films, updated social, political subtext depict the Cuban community with the same stereotypical criminal values as the Italian-American community within similar films of the same genre, Donnie Brassco (1993) and The Godfather (1974). With all three films Al Pacino stared, to some extent representing a modern day icon for the modern day gangster film.
Scarface is a classic example of how genre reinvents itself to maintain popularity, not only aesthetically as film technology evolves, but also thematically as American society and the culture changes. The problem with addressing Kuhn statement first lies with the ability of being able to clearly identify a text within an established framework. Some genres are more easily recognisable than others. The western for example offers us elements which more times than not can be easily located so that we know it is a western. It gives us a definite period in history in which the narrative can be conducted.
Expected iconography, such as the “cowboy” hat, the “six shooter” gun, the horse and a location. ( The action is usually set in the dessert or in a small town of the “New frontier”. ) Even though this genre, like any other has gone through many reinventions, Unforgiven (1992) portraying a recognisable western antihero, as a frail older man, Badgirls (1994) showing cowgirls as the main protagonists and Posse (1993) addressed the issue of race and introduced black cowboys, the genre is still very much true to form in most ways.