Film Studies

Ib Bondebjerg

Professor emeritus, Department of Communication, University of Copenhagen

Posted September 2021

The concept of genre predates the birth of cinema by thousands of years, and cinema took genre concepts from literature and theatre from very early on after 1895, the date of the first commercial screening by the Lumière brothers. As film became more and more popular and production increased, genre became a more and more important tool for producers, directors, film companies, and journalists. Marketing of film needed labels for different types of films catering to different groups of audiences. Genres from the early decades of cinema included comedies, melodramas, crime and science fiction, as well as documentaries. Academic, theoretical writings on genre were still to come, as those writing about film and genre in the early period, 1895–1930. were mostly writing from a creative production perspective, or as critics reviewing films.

Early theories of film genres

The first ambitious reflections on film with elements of genre theory was Hugo Münsterberg's The Photoplay: A Psychological Study (1916). Münsterberg combined aesthetic and psychological approaches to film. When it comes to film genre, he saw early cinema as obsessed with the purely visual, but also that narrative and information soon became important. His psychology of the film in many ways points to the later cognitive theory of film: watching film involves a complicated mental process on several levels.

Reflections on film form and aesthetics are numerous from around 1920 and on, and they are an important part of early film genre theory. Examples include the formalist Russian school, including Vsevolod Pudovkin, Sergei Eisenstein, and Dziga Vertov, who all tried to define the fundamental difference between film and other art forms in terms of the visual and montage. Eisenstein's most famous film, The Battleship Potemkin (1925) was a fictional drama, but as he said himself, it "looks like a newsreel of an event" (Barnouw 1993, 61). Eisenstein wanted to combine strong realism with a fictional film form based on a montage of attractions, a film genre which aimed to awaken social consciousness (Andrew 1976, 42 ff; Eisenstein 1949). Vertov's classic film Man with a Movie Camera (1929) was a documentary, but also demonstrated the poetic dimensions of this genre, which inspired coming generations of documentary filmmakers. The manifesto linked to it (see Michelson, 1984 and Hicks 2007) argues for the power of the image and montage, the power of editing and putting sequences of film together based on specific principles. By creating visual shocks and contrasts on the screen, the idea was to influence the mind, to create a more modern view of the world (see also Ellis and McLane 2005: 44 ff).

In the early period, genre theory was developed in both Europe and the Soviet Union based on formal, aesthetic categories but also on considerations of how film genres function in social context and in human psychology. These discussions are part of what we can see as a formative tradition (Andrew 1976, 11 ff), aiming to define the formal language of cinema. In the end, however, it was also about the role of film genres in culture and society. Just as Münsterberg dealt with psychology, film, and genres, Rudolf Arnheim's Film as Art (1957) and Art and Visual Perception (1954) were looking for the connection between film form, film narrative, genres, and our creative mind.

Realist and formative film theory

The Russian school clearly influenced the development of modern documentary film, especially the British documentary movement in the 1930's. The leading figure, John Grierson, gave a seminal definition of the documentary genre in the article "First Principles of Documentary" (1932), in which he stressed both the factual foundation of documentary and the need for creative treatment of fact through image, montage, and dramatization.

Perhaps one of the earliest fundamental ways of dealing with cinematic genres is Sigfried Kracauer's Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (1960; parts of the book also available in Braudy and Cohen, 2004). Here Kracauer uses the films of Lumière and Meliès to distinguish between what he called the two basic tendencies or genre-prototypes in film: the realistic, using cinema to tell stories of reality in a direct way without too many visual experiments; and the formative, which uses the formal, aesthetic dimensions of cinema in an expressive way (see Andrew, 1976).

Cinema is basically a photographic art form, which represents reality to us through moving images. The images on screen look like reality. (Animated films are of course a deviation from this, as are very abstract avant-garde films.) However, the photographic image can also be constructed and manipulated. Kracauer sees these two tendencies as interacting in all films in different ways, moving between direct representation of reality and formal visual and aesthetic experiments. This is also what we see in John Grierson's approach to documentary, where reality is the primary dimension, but aesthetic, visual dramatization is important to get the message through (1932).

The birth of modern film genre theory

These two fundamental tendencies in the theories of film and genre continue from the 1950's on. The Russian formalist school conceives of film as a specific language, a conception that also appears in semiotic and structuralist film theory, for instance in the works of Christian Metz (1977/82). The realist approach is strongly represented in the writings of André Bazin. Essentially Bazin defines cinema as a realist, photographic art, even though he is aware of how cinema is also a process of editing, montage, and narrative. Bazin was connected to the French “new wave cinema” of the 1960's, a new realist cinema that also appeared in other European countries and is documented in Jim Hillier's collection of articles Cahiers du Cinéma 1-2 (1985), and also in Braudy and Cohen (2004).

Bazin is one the most outspoken critics of montage theory and the formalist school. For him the most basic genre of cinema was the realist film capturing everyday life. Cinema was for him the art of the real (Andrew, 1975, 137 ff). His writings predated the French new wave, for instance Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, whose films in many ways embodied his concept of realism as the basic genre. However, new wave directors all over Europe also mixed in other genre-formats (for instance crime and comedy).  In fact, Bazin was well aware of the power of popular genres such as those in American cinema. His famous articles on the American western praised it as the American film genre par excellence (Bazin 1953; 1955). From the 1950's and on, the theoretical and analytical concept of film genre became more central and more complex.

Susan Hayward's Key Concepts in Cinema Studies (1996) points to Bazin and the journal Cahiers du Cinéma as a place where auteur theory, cinema’s claim to artistic freedom, is reconciled with genre theory. There is also a broader conflict hidden here, between film as an art form and as popular mass entertainment. Given the global dominance of American films, any discussion of film genre is clearly connected to global power structures of cinema and the prevalence of mainstream American “genre films,” understood as formula-based movies for the mass market. Bazin's analysis of the western is thus part of a broader sociological understanding of genres and cultures on the global film market.

The basic dimensions of film genre theory

Looking at the theories of genre as they have developed since 1920, it is clear that genre is a complex issue. Genres can be analyzed from very different perspectives: the sociological perspective, related to the creative production process and other institutional dimensions; the aesthetic, stylistic perspective, which focuses on the structure and style of films as texts, including formal and narrative aspects; and finally, the audience perspective, which includes both empirical dimensions of reception and psychological-cognitive dimensions of various film genres.

The sociological perspective

The sociological approach to genres focuses on institutional aspects of genres such as the production or distribution system, the creative processes of film-making, financing, the role of advertising, etc. Other sociological theories examine how themes and narratives of specific genres are expressions of social and cultural values, and with how production cultures influence filmmaking and genres. For example, American and national mainstream genres are often measured against more sophisticated forms of film art. This cultural tension between European art cinema and American mainstream genre cinema has a long history and is still alive today, as documented in Catherine Fowler's The European Cinema Reader (2002).

Rather than seeing this as a normative, cultural difference, another approach has placed different genres and their sociological, psychological, and aesthetic backgrounds into historical context. Thomas Schatz's Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking and the Hollywood System (1981) focuses on how the production system generates genres that reflect core American values and function as a ritual exchange with audiences over time. He proposes an evolutionary model of genres from an experimental stage to a classical stage and into a more reflexive stage, a progression from transparent storytelling to self-conscious parody and subversion as both directors and audiences seek more than formulaic repetition from a genre. Schatz defines two large genre-prototypes: Order (western, gangster, detective) and Integration (musical, screwball comedy, and family melodrama). These represent different narrative ways of tackling main themes in American culture over time, and they appeal to different segments of the audience.

Steve Neale’s Genre and Hollywood (2000) also points to an evolutionary model, with genres going through different phases of dominance, canonization, and reshuffling and mixing of genres. Others, like Bordwell et. al. in The Studio System (1985), have analyzed the Hollywood genre system in its most classical form and style, developed by the big Hollywood companies and their production mode between 1930-1960.

The aesthetic and stylistic perspective

Both film reviewers and film scholars from early on dealt with genre from an aesthetic and stylistic perspective. The focus can be on themes, narrative structures, visual form, aesthetic style, and acting. Questions asked are: what constitutes a genre, what variations do we find between different films belonging to the same genre, what national differences do we see, and how does a genre develop over time? Andrew Tudor in in his book Theories of Film (1973) sees a genre, for example the western, as a film tradition with a set of conventions, certain common themes, typical actions, and what he calls mannerism (a special style). But he also points out that all film genres are somewhat loose categories: "genre is what we collectively believe it to be" (Tudor 1973; quoted from Grant 1995, 7). Genre is constituted in the relation between specific films, audience reception and the labeling of genres by critics and film companies.

The same main points run through Edward Buscombe's article from 1970, "The Idea of Genre in American Cinema," referencing both Aristotle and literary theory. Genre is based on repetition and familiarity and novelty: we recognize certain thematic and aesthetic elements, but we can also see variations and changes from film to film and over time. Rick Altman goes a bit further in an article from 1984 about the semantic and syntactic approach to film genre, later expanded in his book Film/Genre (1999). He connects film genre theory with the tradition of structuralism and semiotics; using the western as his main example, he defines two very different, structural ways of describing genre. The semantic approach describes the defining elements of a genre (characters, narrative sequences, plot, settings etc.). The syntactic approach deals with how the syntactic elements are related and why they have cultural staying power; for example, the stock elements of the American western are related in a conflict “between culture and nature, community and individual, future and past” (Altman 1984, 10). Altman's theory of film genre thus applies a kind of structural linguistics to film, treating film as a language. In his book, Altman supplemented this approach with the pragmatic dimension, which defines a genre by its use(s) in context, an approach that relates directly to the audience perspective.

The audience perspective: Reception and ideology

Sociological genre theory and the structural and aesthetic theories of genre are both strong in film studies, but other paradigms are just as important. Different forms of psychological theories of cinema and the viewer became dominant, and they also entailed a focus on ideology. Film psychology focused on how different genres might influence audiences. As already pointed out, psychological theories of film go back to Hugo Münsterberg's book from 1916, but newer film theory relies on Freudian and Lacanian psychology together with structural and semiotic theory.

In her well-known article "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975), Laura Mulvey uses a Freudian-Lacanian critical perspective to allege male dominance in mainstream Hollywood cinema. Genre theory here becomes feminist criticism of genres that subject women to a male gaze: they are reduced to passive objects of male desire. This psychological reading of cinema takes a critical, ideological form, which corresponds to other forms of ideological genre theory. Comolli et al. in their article "Cinema/Ideology/Criticism" (1969) for instance claim that all films are in different ways embedded as a commodity in capitalist society, even though some genres offer opposition to the dominant ideology. Just as feminist film theory looks for female counter cinema, ideological analysis in general looks at the ways genres embed conventional ideologies and the ways in which cinema can contribute to changing audience attitudes and perspectives, usually in the form of social critical cinema.

The audience perspective: Embodied cognition

The cognitive psychological approach to cinema aims for a fundamental understanding of all types of films and cinema reception in general as a product of our embodied mind. A central figure in this theory is David Bordwell, who combines inspiration from structuralism and cognitive psychology. His seminal work, Narration in the Fiction Film (1985), offers a new perspective on different basic modes of narration and the way different film genres cue the spectator. Contrary to ideological film criticism, this theory sees the viewer as very active and the viewing act as a combination of cognitive and emotional processes. A key element is a comparative analysis of how classical narration (for instance the main Hollywood genres) and art cinema narration (American or European art cinema) works, an analysis based on very basic definitions of filmic structures and audience reception.

With the rising interest in emotions and cinema, cognitive film genre theorists have studied emotions in different film genres, examining how emotion relates both to embodied cognition and to society and culture. Murray Smith in his Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion and the Cinema (1995) has analyzed how viewers engage with film characters, and how emotions play a role in different genres. Carl Plantinga takes the same route in his book Moving Viewers, American Film and the Spectator's Experience (2009), a study of how American film genres appeal to global audiences, because their narrative, structure, and style create both cognitive and emotional responses. Like Bordwell and Smith, Plantinga builds on a combination of social and cultural factors influencing our perception of film genres, including mental schemata and predispositions. Plantinga also points to the communal function of film genres and film narratives, an idea resembling the earlier mentioned ritual-social approach to genre.

This embodied cognitive and emotional understanding of film genres is put into broader evolutionary perspective in Torben Grodal's book, Embodied Visions: Evolution, Emotion, Culture and Film (2009). The main argument here is that the way we react to cinematic genres resembles the way we react to reality in general. Even though audiences and films are influenced by the specific society and culture they belong to, all humans are also biological creatures, with a mind and body that have a long evolutionary history. Film audiences and film genres are not just socially and culturally constructed. Most film genres speak to something in all of us: stories and emotions transcend cultures and nationality.

Documentary genre theory

Theories of documentary genres historically developed alongside theories of fictional genres. The theoretical perspectives are to a large degree the same, but documentaries have many distinct genres. One of the most influential contributions to documentary genre theory comes from Bill Nichols, especially his seminal work Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary (1991) and the subsequent and much cited book Introduction to Documentary (2001). Influenced by semiotics and critical theory, Nichols defines documentary as "discourse of sobriety," and he stresses documentary as a rhetorical form dealing with factual reality and dedicated to knowledge—unlike fiction film.

However, he also acknowledges that documentary film has many different genres and that overlaps with fiction film genres occur. He defines four very different genres of documentary film: expository, with direct authoritative address to the viewer and a focus on hard facts and arguments; observational, presenting observed “fly-on-the-wall” reality, often without authoritative address; interactive, based on active intervention in reality and interaction between film and film characters; and reflexive, using more experimental descriptions of reality, and poetic reflexive strategies. In his book from 2001 Nichols re-named the interactive mode as participatory, and he added a new documentary genre, which he called performative, a genre based on strong subjectivity,

In the 1990's the cognitive approach to film also started dealing with documentary film. In 1994, Ib Bondebjerg defined documentary from a cognitive and pragmatic perspective in the article "Narratives of Reality: Documentary Film and Television in a Cognitive and Pragmatic Perspective" (reprinted in Bondebjerg 2020). Plantinga three years later developed this perspective further in Rhetoric and Representation in Nonfiction Film (1997), and finally an anthology, Cognitive Theory and Documentary Film (Brylla and Cramer 2018) showed the growing presence of this theoretical approach. In his foreword, Nichols pointed out that the cognitive approach had contributed to a greater understanding of the differences and many similarities between documentary and fiction: "The line between fiction and documentary . . . is a finer, more fluid one than we sometimes suppose" (2018, vii)

Film and genre: globalization

Film culture has been global since at least 1930, with American popular cinema in the lead. Genre theory very much grew out of the formats defined by this global cinema, but all film cultures have national genres, or national variations of basic genres. Despite national differences, genre, especially in sociological and cognitive theory, is defined as having a ritual or even mythological function. They are ritual narratives dealing with fundamental cultural values and conflicts and social change which speak to a wide and diverse audience (Schatz 1981: 261f), formulas shaping collective fantasies shared by large groups of people in a particular national context (Cawelti 1976, 7). However, as cognitive genre theory tells us (Grodal 2009, 4 ff), many genres also speak directly to global audiences.  Genres speak across cultures, because popular genres speak to emotions and narrative structures deeply embedded in all humans.

As cinema is well past its first centenary, it appears to be a more globally dominant art form than ever. Film started in cinemas, entered television, and videotapes, DVDs. Now film genres are available on digital platforms such as HBO and Netflix. The new platforms and digitalization have not fundamentally changed film genres, but they have made them available instantly by choice, which also means that our choices are used by producers and distributors to read our tastes.

The theory of film genres has undergone considerable change from the first theories in the early 1900 to today. Film and media studies have spread through academia and more refined methods have also found their way into production and distribution companies of film. Theories of how audiences respond to different films and film genres are used by the film industry, both in the form of empirical audience data and as psychological and sociological profiling of different types of audiences. Although academic research into film genres and audiences can thus be useful for film companies, film theory also maintains its critical distance and independence, providing its more holistic look at both the sociology and the psychology of film genres. The multiplicity of perspectives on film genre suggests how complex the issue is and guarantees that debate will continue.


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