Is Genre Served Best by Convention?

When someone praises a movie by commenting that it “rises above its genre’s conventions,” I usually get more than a little annoyed.  Personally, I like genre conventions but more than that, the comment seems designed as a backhanded insult.   It’s basically saying “this movie is so good because it’s not much like other movies in this genre at all.”  And that may be true but don’t dismiss the rest of the genre because of it.   Many times, a movie considered the best in a genre isn’t defying conventions but using them in a surer way.  Without convention, genre quickly falls apart.

colt 45

We all know the titles (and this list isn’t here to inspire agreement or disagreement, just to acknowledge that this is usually the list we get): The Searchers (Westerns), The Godfather (Crime/Gangster), 2001: A Space Odyssey (Science Fiction), Psycho (Horror), Singin’ in the Rain (Musicals), Battleship Potemkin (Historical), Apocalypse Now (War), The General (Silent Comedy), Some Like it Hot (Comedy), North by Northwest (Spy Thriller), Chinatown (Noir).  Each one of those titles is the highest ranking of its genre on the 2012 Sight and Sound poll.

Let’s start with The Searchers.  I think it’s an excellent movie but as I wrote in a recent post, “I think The Searchers is better… [but] Stagecoach is better as a western.” (Pardon the ellipses, I do tend to go on sometimes)  But, of course, Stagecoach itself is considered one of the top films of the western genre as well so what I’m really talking about here is the conventions that come into play in any number of Randolph Scott westerns that would never make anyone’s top ten.  I wrote up one such western for the main site of TCM a couple of months ago, Colt .45.  It has production values more akin to television than cinema and actors that today are sadly underknown.  No one would consider Colt .45 to be an example of the kind of film that makes the Sight and Sound poll but I liked it a lot and consider it a brilliant example of the western and all its conventions, from the stoic loner to the outlaw bandits to the cowboys and indians.    I’d watch it again and somehow, in all its low-budget glory, I might hold it up to someone as a better representative sample of westerns, if quantity is what we’re talking about.

And we are.

The majority of horror films aren’t like Psycho.  They don’t have enormously deep build ups where two characters are damn near fully explored, save for the obvious revelation of one, before the catastrophic shower event occurs.  Sure, Psycho has the same elements as later films, many of which took their cues from it, such as the virginal final girl (Vera Miles), the butcher knife as weapon of choice and a twist ending.  But it stands so far apart in many ways that if someone from another planet asked me to give them samples of violent horror movies, so they could better understand them, I’d probably be better off showing them Friday the 13th or Halloween or Evil Dead, not because they’re better than Psycho, though you could argue for the excellence of Halloween and Evil Dead, but because they’re simply more representative of the genre, or at least the blood and guts subset.

The same holds true for most other genres as well.  Is Apocalypse Now really the movie you show an alien who wants to understand war movies, or do you show all those World War II movies from the forties and fifties?  Battleground, They Were Expendable, hell, even The Green Berets are more representative of the genre overall, aren’t they?  The Green Berets may come off as laughable as a Vietnam movie but it’s a perfect representative of the classic style of war movies from Hollywood’s classic era with more blood thrown in (and one hell of an impaling).

Is Chinatown the best representative for noir, even taking into account that, like Psycho, it follows the conventions of its genre very well?  Isn’t every low budget noir like They Lived by Night or Gun Crazy better at representing the genre?  Isn’t anything Bogart or Mitchum ever did?  Wouldn’t Out of the Past be all you need?

Science fiction may be the worst of all in this argument.  2001: A Space Odyssey (which for some bizarre reason has found its way into three of my last posts – I apologize and promise it won’t be in the next one) is always ranked at the top and I defend as a movie I definitely enjoy but representative of the genre?  Puh-lease!  Forbidden Planet, Destination Moon, War of the Worlds, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man, Soylent Green, even Logan’s Run, are all much more representative of what you would expect to see if you saw dozens of sci-fi films, especially from the pre-Star Wars era.

genre strip

What about musicals?  That genre seems to be an exception.  If I had to show someone movies that represented the musical genre well, I actually would start and end with Gene Kelly movies.  Everything from On the Town and Anchor’s Away to An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain actually are perfectly representative of the majority of Hollywood musicals.  It’s one of the few cases where the critically top ranking films of a genre are also the best overall representative of what you see most often in that genre.

I suppose it goes back to what I said at the top of this piece about movies “rising above their genre conventions.”  It’s like someone crafting a gourmet hot dog from the finest available meats, stuffing it with sage and goat cheese, and declaring it better than regular hot dogs because it rises above their banalities.  Well, maybe, but a hot dog from a street vendor with mustard and onions is not only a much better representative of what a hot dog actually is but probably tastes better, too.   And if you want extravagance, get a Coney Island which is still a better representative than that gourmet thing.

Genre conventions are good things.  Their cliches and tropes can be worked with in an endless variety that doesn’t seem stale.  So, yes, aliens attacking from outer space is a cliche to the sci-fi genre.  That doesn’t mean it can’t work, and well, and keep everything within the expected genre trappings.  Sometimes it might do us well to ask, “Is the movie that ‘rises above’ those trappings really better or were the filmmakers not clever enough to figure out how to work within those trappings and succeed?”  I’m not giving the answer, just asking the question.  While you ponder it, pass the mustard.  I’ve got a hot dog with my name on it.

32 Responses Is Genre Served Best by Convention?
Posted By Susan Doll : June 16, 2013 12:50 pm

I’m with you on this one. It bugs me when reviewers (who get less and less insightful the more they proliferate) deride genre films for following conventions. I always tell my students that reviewers who slam a genre film for following conventions is like criticizing a tiger for having stripes.

Posted By Susan Doll : June 16, 2013 12:50 pm

I’m with you on this one. It bugs me when reviewers (who get less and less insightful the more they proliferate) deride genre films for following conventions. I always tell my students that reviewers who slam a genre film for following conventions is like criticizing a tiger for having stripes.

Posted By andrew : June 16, 2013 1:05 pm

Just for fun and not to be argumentative. ( I agree with pretty much the entire post BTW) My best examples of the genre would include: Silverado for westerns, Touch of Evil for noir, Bringing Up Baby for Rom/Com, Singing in the Rain for musical, Gone with the Wind Historical drama, Longest Day for war, Yankee Doodle Dandy fro biopic, Friday the 13th on horror slasher, Poltergiest horror non slasher, Aliens for sci fi.

Posted By andrew : June 16, 2013 1:05 pm

Just for fun and not to be argumentative. ( I agree with pretty much the entire post BTW) My best examples of the genre would include: Silverado for westerns, Touch of Evil for noir, Bringing Up Baby for Rom/Com, Singing in the Rain for musical, Gone with the Wind Historical drama, Longest Day for war, Yankee Doodle Dandy fro biopic, Friday the 13th on horror slasher, Poltergiest horror non slasher, Aliens for sci fi.

Posted By Patricia Nolan-Hall : June 16, 2013 1:19 pm

If I scan a review and find the phrase “genre busting”, it is a review I can happily do without reading.

Posted By Patricia Nolan-Hall : June 16, 2013 1:19 pm

If I scan a review and find the phrase “genre busting”, it is a review I can happily do without reading.

Posted By Gene : June 16, 2013 1:38 pm

I pretty much agree here. The way I would put it is that there are: 1) Some films of a given genre that are, simply put, better films than others ex. Halloween v. Friday the 13th 2) Some films improve (or are very creative/original in) the use of genre conventions rather than merely following a blueprint ex. The Innocents/The Sixth Sense/The Others v. Poltergeist 3) Some films establish a new trend (even though, for example, it could be argued that Hitchcock stole some publicity cues from William Castle it was he that set a trend in cinema) ex. Psycho v. Cabin The Woods. Dramas are dramas, comedies are comedies, etc.. Convention is pretty much already set in stone by setting out on any particular path you choose. When it comes down to it, there is nothing new under the sun, just the way you interpret, portray, and package it.

Posted By Gene : June 16, 2013 1:38 pm

I pretty much agree here. The way I would put it is that there are: 1) Some films of a given genre that are, simply put, better films than others ex. Halloween v. Friday the 13th 2) Some films improve (or are very creative/original in) the use of genre conventions rather than merely following a blueprint ex. The Innocents/The Sixth Sense/The Others v. Poltergeist 3) Some films establish a new trend (even though, for example, it could be argued that Hitchcock stole some publicity cues from William Castle it was he that set a trend in cinema) ex. Psycho v. Cabin The Woods. Dramas are dramas, comedies are comedies, etc.. Convention is pretty much already set in stone by setting out on any particular path you choose. When it comes down to it, there is nothing new under the sun, just the way you interpret, portray, and package it.

Posted By evan dorkin : June 16, 2013 2:24 pm

Agree with what you’re saying, and I’m also someone who eye-rolls at the backhanded compliment regarding genre. But I think you could argue that the Kelly films you mentioned aren’t exactly dead-representative of The Hollywood Musical, especially American in Paris (which I actually don’t like past the last set piece and Oscar Levant, but that’s another conversation). There’s more conceptual work in play in those musicals, aspiration to capital-A art in several sequences, the interplay of Donen and Kelly and even Kelly’s more muscular/athletic dance style (with nods to ballet) that sets it apart from say, Dick Powell backstagers or Astaire semi-screwballs — which is where my head goes when I think of the Hollywood Musical. Which can be said to “elevate it” from the genre. But that’s me, and I can see the argument otherwise, and it really is a case unlike the others where the prestigious film also represents the genre well.

Posted By evan dorkin : June 16, 2013 2:24 pm

Agree with what you’re saying, and I’m also someone who eye-rolls at the backhanded compliment regarding genre. But I think you could argue that the Kelly films you mentioned aren’t exactly dead-representative of The Hollywood Musical, especially American in Paris (which I actually don’t like past the last set piece and Oscar Levant, but that’s another conversation). There’s more conceptual work in play in those musicals, aspiration to capital-A art in several sequences, the interplay of Donen and Kelly and even Kelly’s more muscular/athletic dance style (with nods to ballet) that sets it apart from say, Dick Powell backstagers or Astaire semi-screwballs — which is where my head goes when I think of the Hollywood Musical. Which can be said to “elevate it” from the genre. But that’s me, and I can see the argument otherwise, and it really is a case unlike the others where the prestigious film also represents the genre well.

Posted By John Armstrong : June 16, 2013 2:27 pm

I don’t think that’s the intent of the phrase at all. I read it as, “many lazy genre entries are content to use conventions as a checklist; this film tries to be more than that.”

That said, It’s good to know that there are people out there who read the phrase as you do.

Posted By John Armstrong : June 16, 2013 2:27 pm

I don’t think that’s the intent of the phrase at all. I read it as, “many lazy genre entries are content to use conventions as a checklist; this film tries to be more than that.”

That said, It’s good to know that there are people out there who read the phrase as you do.

Posted By Doug : June 16, 2013 3:06 pm

I think that the films which most seem to set the critics teeth on edge for following conventions is the ‘Rom-Com’.
If a ‘boy meets girl’ story doesn’t break out of the confines of the genre it is dismissively rejected by critics, pronounced a waste of time.
I like happy endings, and Rom-Coms usually deliver those in spades. Even if they follow the regular plots: love triangles, mismatched couples tossed together by circumstance,sparring partners who fall in love-I have no problem watching conventional rom-coms. They don’t have to be Shakespeare to please me, sometimes they don’t even have to be good.

Posted By Doug : June 16, 2013 3:06 pm

I think that the films which most seem to set the critics teeth on edge for following conventions is the ‘Rom-Com’.
If a ‘boy meets girl’ story doesn’t break out of the confines of the genre it is dismissively rejected by critics, pronounced a waste of time.
I like happy endings, and Rom-Coms usually deliver those in spades. Even if they follow the regular plots: love triangles, mismatched couples tossed together by circumstance,sparring partners who fall in love-I have no problem watching conventional rom-coms. They don’t have to be Shakespeare to please me, sometimes they don’t even have to be good.

Posted By DevlinCarnate : June 17, 2013 10:55 am

westerns have cowboys and horses,noir has femme fatales and anti-heroes,horror has monsters,crime has criminals,and sci-fi has fantasy…it’s all in what the film maker does with it

Posted By DevlinCarnate : June 17, 2013 10:55 am

westerns have cowboys and horses,noir has femme fatales and anti-heroes,horror has monsters,crime has criminals,and sci-fi has fantasy…it’s all in what the film maker does with it

Posted By swac44 : June 17, 2013 11:03 am

Chinatown is indeed a great film, but if you’re introducing someone to film noir, it should probably be black & white. Or start with Raw Deal or The Big Combo and then show the Polanski title to show them where the genre wound up. It’s always hard to find something that’s the ne plus ultra of any genre, seeing as there will always be someone there to argue why a given film isn’t, although Stagecoach or Out of the Past are pretty strong contenders. But on the other hand wouldn’t the same be true of an Audie Murphy title or some random PRC quickie?

Funny about 2001, I was just remarking how in almost any discussion in a Facebook film group I follow, every thread seems to wind up arguing over whether or not Stanley Kubrick is the greatest thing to happen to film since the invention of sprocket holes.

Posted By swac44 : June 17, 2013 11:03 am

Chinatown is indeed a great film, but if you’re introducing someone to film noir, it should probably be black & white. Or start with Raw Deal or The Big Combo and then show the Polanski title to show them where the genre wound up. It’s always hard to find something that’s the ne plus ultra of any genre, seeing as there will always be someone there to argue why a given film isn’t, although Stagecoach or Out of the Past are pretty strong contenders. But on the other hand wouldn’t the same be true of an Audie Murphy title or some random PRC quickie?

Funny about 2001, I was just remarking how in almost any discussion in a Facebook film group I follow, every thread seems to wind up arguing over whether or not Stanley Kubrick is the greatest thing to happen to film since the invention of sprocket holes.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 17, 2013 12:56 pm

For the record, I think the importance of sprocket holes cannot be overstated.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 17, 2013 12:56 pm

For the record, I think the importance of sprocket holes cannot be overstated.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 17, 2013 1:09 pm

Earlier in this thread, Evan mentioned musicals and there are so many different types of musicals that the Gene Kelly ones don’t represent well. I guess that’s true to a degree but then there are so many different kinds of all genres that I tried to break them down, like the “violent horror” examples I give, rather than, say, ghost story horror or monster horror. I think for the Kelly musicals, I was thinking 50s style MGM, etc and I wasn’t really clear about that.

This also goes towards John’s point – “I don’t think that’s the intent of the phrase at all. I read it as, ‘many lazy genre entries are content to use conventions as a checklist; this film tries to be more than that.’” – that there are so many different ways to approach genre conventions that if a filmmaker simply rests on those conventions they’re not doing anything exciting or original or, conversely, if a filmmaker does more, it should be recognized.

The thing is, those movies usually are recognized, hence the Sight and Sound poll results. My point is that just because a film chooses to do nothing but follow conventions, doesn’t mean it’s bad and, in fact, it may be better because it’s a perfect example of how conventions can be used. That’s kind of what I was getting at with the hot dog thing. Sure, be more creative with it and putting it on a gourmet menu might be great but that doesn’t mean it’s better than a regular old hot dog.

Or how about music? There have been many ingenious variations on rock and popular music in the last sixty years. Some might praise Lennon, McCartney and producer George Martin for pushing boundaries on Pepper and Abbey Road but does that make a piece of pure pop perfection like “I Saw Her Standing There” any less brilliant? It sticks to all the basic conventions of fifties rock and still outdoes something like “Strawberry Fields Forever” by a mile (well, at least in my opinion).

How about “Johnny B. Goode” or “Good Golly Miss Molly?” These are also songs that don’t try to do more with the conventions, rather, they seek to use those conventions as perfectly as they can.

All I’m saying is, once someone goes outside the conventions, it’s considered a greater achievement than working with the conventions and coming close to perfection.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 17, 2013 1:09 pm

Earlier in this thread, Evan mentioned musicals and there are so many different types of musicals that the Gene Kelly ones don’t represent well. I guess that’s true to a degree but then there are so many different kinds of all genres that I tried to break them down, like the “violent horror” examples I give, rather than, say, ghost story horror or monster horror. I think for the Kelly musicals, I was thinking 50s style MGM, etc and I wasn’t really clear about that.

This also goes towards John’s point – “I don’t think that’s the intent of the phrase at all. I read it as, ‘many lazy genre entries are content to use conventions as a checklist; this film tries to be more than that.’” – that there are so many different ways to approach genre conventions that if a filmmaker simply rests on those conventions they’re not doing anything exciting or original or, conversely, if a filmmaker does more, it should be recognized.

The thing is, those movies usually are recognized, hence the Sight and Sound poll results. My point is that just because a film chooses to do nothing but follow conventions, doesn’t mean it’s bad and, in fact, it may be better because it’s a perfect example of how conventions can be used. That’s kind of what I was getting at with the hot dog thing. Sure, be more creative with it and putting it on a gourmet menu might be great but that doesn’t mean it’s better than a regular old hot dog.

Or how about music? There have been many ingenious variations on rock and popular music in the last sixty years. Some might praise Lennon, McCartney and producer George Martin for pushing boundaries on Pepper and Abbey Road but does that make a piece of pure pop perfection like “I Saw Her Standing There” any less brilliant? It sticks to all the basic conventions of fifties rock and still outdoes something like “Strawberry Fields Forever” by a mile (well, at least in my opinion).

How about “Johnny B. Goode” or “Good Golly Miss Molly?” These are also songs that don’t try to do more with the conventions, rather, they seek to use those conventions as perfectly as they can.

All I’m saying is, once someone goes outside the conventions, it’s considered a greater achievement than working with the conventions and coming close to perfection.

Posted By Commander Adams : June 17, 2013 7:10 pm

It goes without saying that I fully agree about FORBIDDEN PLANET being the perfect fulfillment of science fiction genre conventions. :)

Posted By Commander Adams : June 17, 2013 7:10 pm

It goes without saying that I fully agree about FORBIDDEN PLANET being the perfect fulfillment of science fiction genre conventions. :)

Posted By Emgee : June 18, 2013 7:50 am

Define or defy, that’s the question. A case in point is 2001; Kubrick consciously set out to make a science fiction movie that looked scientifically plausible. ( If he succeeded…well, that’s another debate). Earlier scifi movies used a sort of bogus science jargon to basically create action fairietales.
Star Wars basically returned to that formula, as have most other scifi movies ( Avengers et al)
So an alien primer on scifi should begin with Forbidden Planet and leave 2001 to the end of the course.

Posted By Emgee : June 18, 2013 7:50 am

Define or defy, that’s the question. A case in point is 2001; Kubrick consciously set out to make a science fiction movie that looked scientifically plausible. ( If he succeeded…well, that’s another debate). Earlier scifi movies used a sort of bogus science jargon to basically create action fairietales.
Star Wars basically returned to that formula, as have most other scifi movies ( Avengers et al)
So an alien primer on scifi should begin with Forbidden Planet and leave 2001 to the end of the course.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 18, 2013 3:13 pm

Earlier scifi movies used a sort of bogus science jargon to basically create action fairietales.

I must say that has always been my favorite part of sci-fi, the baloney explanations. I’m not crazy about trying to be too “realistic” so, yes, start with the Forbidden Planet stuff first and maybe stay there.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 18, 2013 3:13 pm

Earlier scifi movies used a sort of bogus science jargon to basically create action fairietales.

I must say that has always been my favorite part of sci-fi, the baloney explanations. I’m not crazy about trying to be too “realistic” so, yes, start with the Forbidden Planet stuff first and maybe stay there.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 18, 2013 3:15 pm

Commander Adams, I would expect nothing less of a man in command of 18 competitively selected super-perfect physical specimens with an average age of 24.6 who have been locked up in hyperspace for 378 days.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 18, 2013 3:15 pm

Commander Adams, I would expect nothing less of a man in command of 18 competitively selected super-perfect physical specimens with an average age of 24.6 who have been locked up in hyperspace for 378 days.

Posted By robbushblog : June 21, 2013 4:45 pm

As a believer in the stricter classifications regarding noir (Noir films are black and white, never in color and none were made after Touch of Evil) I would say that Chinatown, while paying sort of homage to the noir genre, is not noir.

And I would NEVER eat a hot dog stuffed with sage and goat cheese.

I do however, on rare occasions, enjoy a horror movie when it’s not typical of the genre. By that I mean, most horror movies made since 1980.

Posted By robbushblog : June 21, 2013 4:45 pm

As a believer in the stricter classifications regarding noir (Noir films are black and white, never in color and none were made after Touch of Evil) I would say that Chinatown, while paying sort of homage to the noir genre, is not noir.

And I would NEVER eat a hot dog stuffed with sage and goat cheese.

I do however, on rare occasions, enjoy a horror movie when it’s not typical of the genre. By that I mean, most horror movies made since 1980.

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