The Generals of Genre

The romantic comedy genre is dead. The horror genre has received numerous obituary notices over the past ten years. Film Noir is pretty much an historical concept used for stylistic flourish and the occasional directorial hommage.

Genre film-making – a major backbone to the low budget and indie cinema – is often treated as a dead commodity. Reports on the demise of various forms of genre appears almost as frequent as rumors of Bill Cosby’s death. They are also about as accurate.Arguably, genres don’t really die. They mutate. They evolve. They move and develop in a direct relationship to the shifts and variations in the audience’s tastes and sociological sensibilities. It is a process that is impossible to predict. Often, the changes to a genre are not even recognized until late in its development. Even then – despite the glorious clear vision of hindsight – the key reasons for the change are often murky.

Take for example the modern horror genre. Death notices for the horror film is practically a sub-genre of film reporting. However, most of the reports are largely on the general collapse of the 1980s style slasher flicks. The modern horror movie has developed into such forms as the lost-footage presentation (e.g. The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity) and  extremely revamped versions of the zombie narrative (such as 28 Days Later) as well as the rise of torture-porn (Hostel and Saw).

In reality, the horror genre is still rapidly changing and every example I have given is now passe. The future of this genre is still evolving and is, I suspect, about to enter another radically divergent phase. Add in the covert but extremely political nature of horror movies (and yes, they are often very political), and the range of possibilities before us is virtually endless.

The romantic comedy genre is also officially dead. Heck, I’ve been to its funeral twice already. However, the reports may be a tad exaggerated, a quick glance through the top ten titles on the BoxOfficeMojo list of  romantic comedies since 1978 reveals both strength and the emergence of new variables in the genre.

Not surprisingly, My Big Fat Greek Wedding is number one. This movie is about as old fashioned as you can get without attaching a social security check (and this is not meant as a negative thing; I liked the film). Number 5 on the list is There’s Something About Mary.  OK, any genre has room for a stretch.  In this case a long, long stretch. At 9 is Knocked Up. We may now be entering the post-romantic comedy genre where we cease to care about how the couple gets together. We now want to know how they keep from killing each other.

The many changes taking place within contemporary romantic comedy require extensive study. After all, issues about gender, gender roles, gender identities etc. etc. are undergoing massive change and revision. It would be very difficult to second-guess what the audience will find romantic (or even comedic) at this point. The genre isn’t really dead, but it is getting hard to recognize.

However, the list also suggests an interesting development that has been largely ignored.  If you look at the top 50 titles, there is a noticeable drop in movies made in the current decade.  Many major titles are from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s.  A couple of recent titles that made it to the upper tiers are Hitch and Think Like a Man; likewise certain movies like Something New have produced mediocre box office results but surprisingly strong cable and DVD viewings.  The African-American romantic comedy is a distinct and developing form.

If any genre seems to be dead, it is the Western. The mythic cowboy saga suffered a lonely brutal death decades ago. I hear it was buried somewhere in the High Country of Nevada. The traditional Western with white hats and black hats is also dead, which was one of several problems with the recent Lone Ranger fiasco.

On the other hand, the Coen Brothers milked True Grit for $251 million at the global box office a few years ago.  Their version was an extremely gritty and realistic presentation, much like Clint Eastwood’s production of Unforgiven. So while old-school Western is dead, a modern form has emerged: raw, naturalistic, totally unflinching in its presentation of the harsh details.  Box office results can still be hit or miss, but the genre isn’t actually dead. The Western has completely mutated.

Which is how genre film-making survives.  Sometimes, it even thrives.