To parody a well-known saying, I shall say that a little formalism turns one away from History, but that a lot brings one back to it.

Roland Barthes, Mythologies


Genre analysis
   

Genre analysis can be problematical. What is called analysis or criticism is often little more than making note of superficial similarities or differences among films. This is true across film criticism in general, unfortunately, and especially true of much work with genre. (It is also true outside the medium, of course, and I suspect that in the criticism of other mediums as well, genre analysis is especially prone.) As Andrew Tudor puts it, “it becomes almost the end point of the critical process to fit a film into such a category. . . . To call a film a ‘Western’ is thought of as somehow saying something interesting or important about it” (16). Rick Altman calls this approach to genre criticism the semantic approach—a focus on the more superficial aspects of films that fit into a given genre. A semantic examination would point out the character types, aesthetics, plot lines, etc., which are common to the films. I will conduct just such an examination of the subculture genre in the next section. But this kind of examination falls far short of criticism or analysis.
    The inevitable question that must arise from such an assessment is, “Why bother?” What good does it do to point out that noir films all make extensive use of light and shadow, for example, or that Westerns usually feature saloons? In this case genre analysis is no different from a similar analysis of a given individual film. The observation that science fiction films virtually all take place in the future is no more valuable than the observation that Good Will Hunting has something green in virtually every scene. To be valuable, genre analysis must bring deeper issues to the surface.
    This is where Altman’s second type of examination becomes significant. He calls this the syntactic approach; it is an approach that takes into account the relationships between the semantic elements of the genre, or between those elements and aspects of society at large. This approach recalls the mythological theory of Claude Lévi-Strauss: “If there is a meaning to be found in mythology, this cannot reside in the isolated elements which enter into the composition of a myth, but only in the way those elements are combined” (174). Stuart Kaminsky, for example, finds that the heroes of early gangster films are all short in stature (a semantic observation). He then makes a syntactic inference, pointing out that

their smallness emphasized the affinity between the cocky gangster and the ‘little’ man in the audience who identified with the gangster on the screen. . . . We know part of his problem and tend to react by thinking: if that little guy on the screen can push his way to the top, why can’t I? (16).

It may be interesting to realize that these movies’ protagonists are often short. But examining why that is the case—or what effects it might have—is much more valuable.
    In the context of this deeper, broader method of analysis, I think that genre criticism can be very useful. Qualities or incidences that seem insignificant in individual films can take on more meaning when connected with similar characteristics of other films in the genre—if we have shown the existence of the genre itself, of course. So while the semantic approach is necessary, it is a means to an end—the end being the syntactic analysis which can then be taken up, and which can tell us something about the societies in which the films are produced and consumed.
    The existence of particular genres themselves is significant as well. Given that a group of films share a common lot of significant characteristics, we can and should then ask why this is so. I believe, with Roland Barthes, that the things which are repeated are significant (12). Why are all of these films—from different studios, by different writers and directors, with different actors, etc.—created and consumed in our society? What do they say about the society that is producing and consuming them? What is it that we want or need, in other words, that these films provide? In essence, a film genre is a kind of myth system. The genre film contains mythic archetypes and essential principles, as well as the presentation and resolution of conflicts which are current in society. The Western, for example, very often revolves around a lone hero facing the question of when violence is acceptable, and struggling between individualism and social belonging—questions/struggles which were very much present and significant in post-World-War-II America (the time and place when the Western was most popular).
    Such a myth system can be a profound indicator, and can have profound effects, as we will see. As Robert Ray has put it, “myths and artistic conventions, far from existing in some politically neutral realm of archetypes or aesthetics, are always socially produced and consumed, and thus always implicated in ideology” (14). The genre in question here, specifically, is strongly tied to issues of ethnicity and gender. Within the subculture genre are significant indicators, I think, of the contradictory identities that we—especially those of us who are white and male—form around those nuclei. The genre itself also presents important images of whiteness and masculinity in our society.

Rick Altman proposes another pair of approaches to genre criticism, which he terms the ritual and the ideological approaches. Altman claims that the two are mutually exclusive, but I read that as a function of the use he puts them to: he looks at both approaches as tools for judging the “ultimate authorship” of a given film. So, in Altman’s description, the ritual approach “sees Hollywood as responding to societal pressure and thus expressing audience desires,” whereas the ideological approach defines genres as “simply the generalized, identifiable structures through which Hollywood’s rhetoric flows” (29). Taken away from this attempt to find the author, however, I think that Altman’s dichotomy disappears, and his terms become useful. Essentially, Altman’s ritual approach constitutes a focus on the consumption side: What do these common characteristics represent in society at large? Why is it that we, as audiences, feel compelled to return to these tropes, plots, characters, etc.? This is a focus on the receivers of myths—in our case, the films’ audience(s). The ideological approach, on the other hand, focuses on production: What does Hollywood stand to gain by reproducing these stories in these ways? But Altman’s terminology certainly suggests a broader (and more appropriate) field of inquiry.
    Antonio Gramsci says that ideology is “a conception of the world that is implicitly manifest in art, in law, in economic activity and in all manifestations of individual and collective life” (“Notes” 330). Louis Althusser defines it as a system of representations (images, myths, ideas, or concepts) given a historical existence and a role within a given society (“Marxism and Humanism” 231). Myth, in either case, is one element of the ideological system—a system which expresses the relationship between people and the world (“Marxism and Humanism” 235). Gramsci also points out ideology’s role as a form, a representation, of the historical bloc—the relations of power which exist within a given society at a given time. The material forces which we identify in a society, he points out, would be “inconceivable” without the form of ideology (“Hegemony” 200).
    More specifically, Althusser examines the existence and functioning of what he calls Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs). Hollywood is a powerful media force, and certainly falls easily into Althusser’s description of an ISA. Thinking of Hollywood in this sense allows us to stop focusing narrowly on the intent of—or perceived benefits for—Hollywood in this analysis. Rather, Althusser posits the ISA (Hollywood, in this case) as a sort of tool. Hollywood is important in its relation to other ISAs—churches, schools, political parties, families, etc. As he points out, “what unifies their diversity is precisely [their] functioning . . . beneath the ruling ideology, which is the ideology of ‘the ruling class’” (“Ideology” 139, emphasis his). As such, a more fruitful line of inquiry under Altman’s “ideological” rubric might be: How does this genre serve the purposes of the dominant ideology? How does it affect the ideology itself? I will take this form of “ideological” approach with this paper. Elsewhere, Althusser does explicitly indicate that “in a class society ideology is the relay whereby, and the element in which, the relation between men and their conditions of existence is settled to the profit of the ruling class” (“Marxism and Humanism” 235–6). Any investigation of ideology is an investigation of power. As we examine the ideological forces and effects surrounding Hollywood—and surrounding this genre of films specifically—we are inevitably examining the power structure that permeates our society as a whole. As such, I intend this to be an examination of “the profit of the ruling class”—in whatever form—to which these films contribute.

  Home
  Introduction
  Genre Analysis
  Characteristics
  Westerns/Mobs
  Race, Gender,
    and Class
  Naturalization
  The Postmodern
    Condition
  Conclusion
  Appendix
  Works Cited and
    Films Referenced
  Suggestions?