Monday, December 4, 2006

Reinventing Classic Genres

One exciting thing that I run across once in a while is a movie that takes a well-worn genre, say film noir, and tweaks it to breathe new life into the genre. I'm sure we can think of many different examples of this, and that's partly what this post is about. However, in some cases, the movie is able to take the genre to a whole new level, perhaps even entering a new space beyond the definition of the genre in question.

In their article "Dark City, Noir, and the Space Between: Or is it Our Nature to Live in the Dark?" Robin L. Murray and Joseph K. Heumann give an example of a movie entering a completely new genre space. Combining noir, sci-fi, and fantasy, Dark City is able to communicate a philosophy of ecocriticism (defined in the article). Read the article from the online journal Scope here.

I think the problem that I have so often with Hollywood film is that it does not seek to do anything new, to find a new way to tell its story. It is merely trying to give the expected genre experience for a given audience. Genres go through dry periods because filmmakers and producers are afraid to challenge narrative conventions. Is it the case that by challenging conventions, the movie is going to do worse at the box office? I suppose that's a pretty hefty question, and I'm not sure any one of us can do more than speculate about its answer. I think I remember that "Dark City" did not do particularly well at the box office.

I really like the idea of a movie creating its own world for the viewer to step into. Being able to predict the storyline in a typical genre movie keeps the viewer from getting involved. I would also argue that adhering to genre conventions hinders a filmmaker from creating a unique filmic space, a world established and whole within the film. Once a movie makes its own rules for storytelling, it has stepped beyond the realm of genre altogether. I do not mean to argue that genre films are not worthwhile as entertaining films. I mean that films like "Dark City" are able to tell their stories more effectively. Because these films defy expectation, they are given the opportunity to bring the viewer farther into the film.

I feel like film as an art form is particularly vulnerable to the demands of mainstream audiences. In general, film is the most expensive art, requiring a great amount of personnel and technology to make. Thus, the box office makes the film. I think this is why many people have been slow to espouse the idea of film as art. Going to a 20-theater suburban cineplex, one would be hard to find a film that makes any sort of artistic statement. Thus, it is the genre-bending films like "Dark City" that carry the torch for film as art. By telling their stories in a new way, they not only are more interesting for the viewer, but they benefit the state of film.

There is more to be said about how reinventing genres can be done, what films do this well, and how defying genre can lead to a better film and a better state of film. But maybe someone else can chime in at this point.

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