click to buy 'Genre and Contemporary Hollywood' at Amazon.com(British Film Institute, London, 2002)

“Genre” and “Hollywood” – it is not at all unusual to find the two terms side by side. Certainly, the notion of genre has become part of our day-to-day language for talking about and engaging with mainstream cinema. And genre theory and criticism is well established nowadays as a central part of the academic study of film, especially within cultural studies, which is often concerned with the analysis of such popular forms and media as Hollywood cinema. But whereas once upon a time the study of film genre was largely dominated by concerns with questions of aesthetics, since the early ’80s the aesthetic approach has increasingly been challenged by a focus on the historical and institutional nature of genre – by an approach which is concerned not simply with pointing out how generic conventions change over time, but with mapping such changes in relation to shifts in audience composition and commercial practices. Accordingly, contemporary studies of genre and Hollywood often concentrate on the interplay between the economic and the symbolic realms – how the particularities of Hollywood’s symbolic output (i.e. the films themselves) are tied to the ways in which Hollywood film production is organised and financed.

It is in this context that Genre and Contemporary Hollywood positions itself as a discussion of recent developments in Hollywood genre. The book is organised into two sections: Section One explores the ways in which Hollywood genres changed during and after the 1970s, (classically identified as the period of transition from “Old” Hollywood to “New” Hollywood) and Section Two the trends in Hollywood production as evidenced since that transition. At the same time, the anthology follows recent attempts to revise the very notion of genre in order to account for the ways in which developments in contemporary Hollywood production defy description in terms of traditional generic categories. As editor Steve Neale puts it,

Inflected in varying ways and to varying degrees by recent revisionist work on genre, the contributions to both sections are designed to be exploratory rather than definitive, to open up the topic of genre and contemporary Hollywood from an array of different perspectives rather than provide an overview from a single omniscient position. Genre is itself a multi-faceted phenomenon. Genres can be approached from the point of view of the industry and its infrastructure, from the point of view of their aesthetic traditions, from the point of view of the broader socio-cultural environment upon which they draw and into which they feed, and from the point of view of audience understanding and response. Readers will find examples of all these approaches in this book (2).

In this way, the 20 or so contributors to Genre and Contemporary Hollywood cover a range of cinematic forms and trends, from the traditional genres of the western, the gangster film, the musical, the combat film, horror, the biopic, and the romantic comedy, through less clearly delineated genres, such as the contemporary woman’s film, children’s film, teen films, Shakespearean cinema, and the modern blockbuster, to more recent “trends” or “cycles” in film production, including discussions of movie ratings, cinematic adaptation, the increasing influence of black popular culture, and the effects of economic globalisation on studio production. The chapters focusing on this latter group of “genres” in particular do much to break with the idea that the notion of genre refers primarily to sets of textual features or conventions which define a given body of texts.

Notwithstanding this focus on the less “formalised” elements of Hollywood genres, it’s debatable whether the anthology as a whole succeeds in its aim of exemplifying the multiple “points of view” from which genres can be analysed. This is because many of the chapters treat Hollywood film as an industrial product defined by various economic imperatives and patterns of consumption within the context of a production system. There are a number of chapters, for instance (particularly those by Neale, Sheldon Hall, Carolyn Anderson and John Lupo, Tino Balio, Peter Krämer, Kevin Sandler, S. Craig Watkins, and Thomas Austin), that draw upon what is known in cultural and media studies as a “political economy” approach to the analysis of cultural production. As an approach to what many cinephiles would see as a primarily aesthetic form, political economy offers a seemingly radical counter to more conventional ways of looking at film, insofar as it tends to focus on the external factors of film production, especially the economics of the film industry. It undertakes such analyses in order to explain how particular films are produced while others are not, demonstrating the ideological implications of such industrial processes and structures. Thus, while an aesthetic approach might see particular films as an expression of artistic vision and passion, or at least as a response to and continuation of particular traditions of film-making, a “political economy” approach sees such aesthetic issues as always answerable to economic and institutional imperatives.

Neale’s own chapter on Westerns and gangster films exemplifies this “political economy” approach. In his discussion of those genres, Neale argues that such contextual factors as

television production policies, book publishing, legal judgments, demographics, and the nature of New Hollywood – and the nature of the New Independents that have grown up alongside and interacted with it – have all, at times, been as important [in shaping contemporary westerns and gangster films] as the example set by any of the longstanding generic traditions or ‘classic’ films to which some – though by no means all – of the post-1970s gangster films and Westerns have alluded (27).

Similarly, Anderson and Lupo contextualise their discussion of “the state of the biopic at the turn of the century” with frequent references to production budgets, studio competition, star power, and television’s appropriation of the genre for its own commercial purposes, while Balio’s account of “Hollywood production trends in the era of globalisation” – a chapter unequivocally working within a political economy framework – contains more references to budgets and box-office takings than to themes or imagery.

This is not to suggest that the focus on Hollywood as a cultural industry does not result in important and useful insights. For instance, Sandler’s chapter on movie ratings demonstrates, through a series of case studies, the extent to which the producers of films for adult audiences have consciously to negotiate the demands of film classification in order to have their films see the light of day, restraining the depiction of sex, violence and drug use to the point where the film can obtain a classification which bars children but includes older teenagers. In this way the “incontestable R”, as Sandler calls it (which is almost the equivalent of Australia’s MA+ rating) helps to define the nature of particular films in the same way that traditional genres have been seen as informing new productions. Similarly, just as the particular characteristics of traditional genres are usually subject to contestation from a range of interested parties (including film producers and audiences), so too is the “incontestable R” regularly the site of clashes over which films fall within its limits. Thus the political force of movie ratings functions in the same way as the aesthetic demands of genre: as a “formula” programming financing decisions; as a “framework” governing production processes; as a “category” central to marketing, distribution and exhibition; and as a “viewing position” adopted by film audiences (203).

But while Sandler’s remarkable analysis shows that a view of Hollywood cinema as industrial product can lead to innovative observations, it also shows that the very idea of genre is in danger of relinquishing its critical force. If movie ratings can be seen as constituting specific genres, in other words, then it seems as though just about any element within the economic and political context of film production can do the same. Thus genres become reduced, effectively, to categories that are defined almost exclusively by, and in the interest of, the film industry – by major studios and marketing departments. But if the point of a political economy approach to Hollywood film is to demonstrate the ideological implications of industrial structures, why repeat the very terms deployed within and by such structures? Doesn’t this just confirm the prejudice that mainstream cinema is nothing but a standardised, soulless commodity? And that, by extension, those people who actually like Hollywood cinema must therefore lack the critical faculties required to demand something better, something more authentically expressive?

The tendency to treat Hollywood film as an industrial product is, of course, by no means limited to Genre and Contemporary Hollywood. Not only has such a tendency effectively hardened within academic cultural studies into something like a disciplinary imperative, but the same notion also regularly informs our everyday engagements with mainstream film and mainstream genres. It is not at all unusual, for instance, to hear someone speak of the “crass commercialism” of Hollywood, or to hear another bemoan the way in which such and such a film’s subject matter has been “sanitised” for a mainstream audience. Indeed, the fundamental notion of popular genre seems inextricably tied to the idea of mass production, to the point where “Hollywood film” is regularly conceived as the very antithesis of “art”. Consequently, even “aesthetic” analyses of Hollywood film tend to adopt the industrial view to the extent that “genre” is taken to name the “formula” with which particular Hollywood films are made. Thus “genre” is simply another element of the production line, with any film from a given genre largely interchangeable with any other. To that extent, there’s very little need to produce detailed readings of specific films, since all that’s required to understand the genre is to describe the essential elements of the formula and to recognise their place in the production line. (It is interesting to note, in this respect, that the index of Genre and Contemporary Hollywood contains entries for around 1,500 films, yet the vast majority of those films are referred to only once or twice, and only a handful of films receive any detailed analysis.) Of course, more detailed and historically-aware analyses of the aesthetic characteristics of Hollywood genres are keen to demonstrate the textual variation within genres at specific moments in the history of Hollywood. Indeed, this is the path taken in chapters by Karen Hollinger and William Paul. But even in these latter analyses, the “aesthetic” approach to Hollywood genre ends up deploying the idea of genre, or “sub-genre”, merely as a means for identifying various production trends.

For me, though, and I suspect for a great many readers of Senses of Cinema, the analysis of genre is at its best when that notion is used to make “exploratory rather than definitive” observations about particular films. And that is why I find that, while the analyses provided by Genre and Contemporary Hollywood are no doubt significant in bringing the political economy of production history up to date, there are only two or three chapters that in their entirety really grab my interest. One of these is by J.P. Telotte, who analyses a series of film musicals in terms of what he calls a structural principle where particular musical sequences exist in tension with conventional narrative elements. Such a tension means either that the diegetic world of these films must be seen as vastly different from our own, or that the scope of expression must be restrained so that “the world of song and dance” can maintain contact with “the everyday world of human problems” (p.55). Importantly, though, Telotte uses this “structural principle” to pursue not an outline of production trends but an insightful reading of a series of films, in particular Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, 1977) and Footloose (Herbet Ross, 1984). Both of these films, Telotte argues, “clearly signal the continuing attraction which song and dance hold for us, and, with their industrial extensions in the recording industry, their soundtrack albums, they clearly provide a measure of the power of their music”. Yet they “also underscore the fact that the function of music and dancing has radically changed, in the film narratives as in the larger culture”, since “those [expressive] elements (and hence their power) are pointedly circumscribed in the world these films depict” (p.60).

Not only, then, does Telotte offer an aesthetic engagement with the films he discusses, but he also points at a different way of incorporating within analysis the industrial context which political economy seeks to highlight. His appeal to elements outside the narratives themselves – such as the existence and popularity of soundtrack albums – emphasises less an industrialised aesthetics than an aestheticisation of the industry, as it were: a view of the industrial elements of film as part of the film text rather than as merely the prior, external conditions of production. In this regard Telotte is not quite alone, since a second chapter, by Michael Hammond, also hints at such a view. Hammond’s discussion of “the combat film in contemporary Hollywood”, worth mentioning in any case for its aesthetic focus on a small number of films, is particularly remarkable for the way it interweaves speculation on the look and themes of the particular films under analysis with thoughts about the role of audiences, including test audiences – as witnesses, adjudicators, survivors – in the cinematic event, and with reflections on “the ‘debt’ that contemporary Hollywood war films owe to [the Vietnam] war’s narrative inconclusiveness, its blurring of boundaries between good and evil, right and wrong, left and right” (p.62). In this way, Hammond, like Telotte, starts to indicate (albeit perhaps unintentionally) the ways in which an aesthetic approach to Hollywood film can think about the institutional and industrial conditions of film production without having to reduce such films to the determined product of mass production system.

Outside the chapters by Telotte and Hammond there are enough isolated, if brief, revelations about particular films to make Genre and Contemporary Hollywood worth reading, especially if one welcomes detailed observations on the nature of shifts in Hollywood production during and since the 1970s. However, as an academic who has a professional interest in the revision of genre theory that Neale suggests informs his anthology, I would like to see discussions of genre and Hollywood that overturn the prejudice built into the concepts through which we view popular film. One should not underestimate the importance of the political economy approach – the view of Hollywood as a cultural industry – which informs a great deal of Neale’s anthology. Political economy has been profoundly effective in demonstrating that those cultural forms which see the light of day, and the ideas about the world which those cultural forms enable us to imagine, are partly conditioned by an economic and industrial system that operates primarily in order to increase the wealth and power of those who already have considerable amounts of both. But if we are serious about exploring new ways of thinking about genre, and if we are serious about challenging rather than confirming the imperatives (or “ideology”) of that economic system, then it seems to me that we must go further than demonstrating the industrialisation of culture. Indeed, it seems to me that we might need to go in the direction hinted at (but only barely) by Telotte and Hammond. It seems to me that it’s time the academic analysis of popular film and popular culture considered the possibility of an aestheticisation of industrial contexts. And if such a possibility seems almost unthinkable, surely that is the point?

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About The Author

Robert Briggs teaches in Communications & Writing at Monash University (Gippsland). He has published numerous articles on post-structuralism and cultural criticism and is currently writing a book on popular fiction and film.

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