Posted by Greg Ferrara on June 16, 2013
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.
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.
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.
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