FILM GENRE: From Iconography to Ideology - Barry Keith Grant

Wallflower (Short Cuts)
London and New York, 2007
132 pp
This book is another one in the long and precious series 'Short Cuts' by Wallflower, made up of short guides to various aspects of cinema. The series includes titles like CRIME FILM: Investigating The Scene, SHAKESPEARE ON FILM: Such Things as Dreams Are Made Of, WAR CINEMA: Hollywood on the Front Line, THE NEW HOLLYWOOD: From Bonnie and Clyde to Star Wars, FILM NOIR: From Berlin to Sin City, THE HORROR GENRE: From Beelzebub to Blair Witch and dozens of others.
            The high standards established in the previous books are met in this one as well. No big surprise since the author, Barry Keith Grant, is the professor of Popular Culture and Film at Brock University and is one of the leading authorities on film genre – among other things, he is the editor of the three huge volumes of the indispensable FILM GENRE READER. No wonder, then, that he provides this highly readable, informative and authoritative introduction to all issues pertaining to the question of genre.
            Mr. Grant opens the book reminding us that the term genre has at least three major meanings: 1) it refers to a particular mode of film production, 2) it is a convenient consumer index announcing the kind of content to be expected in a given film, and 3) it is a critical concept, mapping out the taxonomy of popular film and pop culture in general. Then he goes on to analyze the term on the level of the generic system (the relation of individual genres to each other and to Hollywood production in general), individual genres (defining individual genres and their common elements) and individual films (reading specific films in their generic context).
            Genre as a concept is placed in its context within the popular culture and its origin is found in the classical studio system from 1920ies to 1950ies., with their economy of expression (through recognizable iconography and conventions) as the key factor in their market value. The studio system provided a stable context for filmmakers to work with consistency and to be creative and expressive within the given confines. The key elements of genre are recognized in conventions, iconography, setting, types of stories and characters, stories and themes. These are all illustrated with examples from well-known genre films.
            Never losing itself in abstractions and definitions, this guide constantly goes back to examples, providing minute case studies to elaborate a given concept: thus, film noir, the musical and horror film are among those singled out to illustrate the application of various theoretical tools in their understanding. Special place is given to analysis of genre and its role in society: genre is basically seen as a modern myth in which gathering in front of the cinema screen has the same purposes that in previous centuries gatherings around the fire were used. Of course, these shared dreams, hopes, fears and values are liable to be abused, and Mr. Grant pays due attention to various ideological uses of generic stories.
            The common complaint implied in the dichotomy: genre vs. art is explained and convincingly negated by the case study of John Ford and his use of the western genre conventions for his idiosyncratic style. It is even better supported by the case studies of Howard Hawks, as another 'genre director' who managed to be an 'author' at the same time, and of Fritz Lang and his peculiar use of genre. The chapter on gender and genre provides a very interesting modern reading of such action classics as DIE HARD and BLUE STEEL and the book concludes with a brief chapter on the genres outside of Hollywood: Italian 'spaghetti western', Hong Kong action films, Japanese samurai and monster movies, etc. Sadly, the book is limited to Hollywood's genres, and not enough space is given to their influence on film genres in Europe and Asia, which is merely hinted.
            If you're theoretically inclined, this book provides an invaluable essence of all varieties of approaches to genre and its meaning. At the same time, FILM GENRE is a clear, easily understandable, well-supported account of what a genre means and how it accomplishes what it set out to do. Because of that, it can serve as an eye-opener to any genre film buff out there who may not have wondered about the possible ideological readings of his or her favorite entertainment. No entertainment is innocent and no genre film is 'just for fun': Barry Keith Grant's books reminds us of the uses and abuses of generic iconography and of hidden meanings inherent to our favorite genres. That's why it is strongly recommended to every student of popular culture and to every cinemagoer who doesn't leave their brain at the box office.

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