Genre of the Noir Films: “Chinatown” and “The Big Sleep”
Noir films like Chinatown and The Big Sleep have set the general structure on similar films over the years. But one of the major questions that I have about these noir films is surrounding the main protagonists of the film. For instance, both the main protagonists, J.J. Gitz and Philip Marlowe, have been portrayed as the typical “snoop”, as their jobs suggest. However, does their characteristics give the expression of how the noir film genre functions as a whole? Does the expression of a noir film rely on the protagonist’s inquisitive nature as a private detective, eager to decipher the “truth”? If so, does the typical noir film rely, on a larger scale, towards character development compared to other stylistic genres?
The Irony of Genre (or Perhaps Freedom)
In his chapter on genre, Andrew Tudor begins by discussing the “empiricist dilemma” of defining what a genre is, for to delimit certain films (in Tudor’s case he is writing about westerns) and then ask what they all have in common is to beg the question, for one has already presupposed some king of commonality between the films in the act of delimiting them. The problem with this solution leads Tudor to propose another one. He writes, “The second [possible solution] is to lean on a common cultural consensus as to what constitutes a western and then go on to analyze it in detail” (5). That is, to put it rather crudely, accept that there are such things as genres, then place the burden of their definition (i.e. what it is that makes them what they are) upon the phenomenological consensus of society. People join things together, making them interconnected: Tudor says this is simply the way things are. On the one hand, this raises the question of consensus, what it is and how it comes about; and, on theother hand, it raises the question of the relation between social consensus and those things about which there is consensus. But this speculation takes Tudor, and us, too far in a different, albeit intriguing, direction.
In Leo Braudy’s chapter on genre he makes the interesting statement, after explicating that the contemporary “prejudice” against genre films of his day is analogousto the impetus of Romanticism (i.e. the subjective impulse to manifest one’s original, idiosyncratic experience), that, “the frame of genre, the existence of expectations to be used in whatever way the intelligence of the filmmaker is capable, allows freedoms within the form that more original films cannot have because they are so committed to a parallel between form and content” (618). Here “form” or the “existence of expectations” are those conventions, built upon societal consensus, that bring along with them a readily accessible intelligibility. What is ironic here, at least on the surface, is that Braudy argues that freedom is found within a delimited boundary, namely, convention. If one chooses to eschew the “form” or “conventions of consensus” that make up the structure of a genre film, then extra labor is needed to make a film in which everything is new and for which the intelligibility (or the readiness of intelligibility) is dependent upon the parallels established between its content and form. Perhaps the further irony here is that even if one succeeds in making a film in which the form and content intelligibly come together in a truly unique way this “Romantic” process has already begun to solidifying back into a, albeit a new, genre sheerly by its success in ossifying a new structural pattern of intelligibility.
This leaves us with an odd formulation; for, if genre is consensus and in consensus is found greater freedom, then that thing that we confuse with freedom, a certain “newness,” is really a restricted movement in a liminal process on the way to a new, delimited freedom.
A Question on Genre
When we began our study of genre, I asked the following questions: What is the point of classifying films into a group based on “family resemblance”? Genre films adhere to a cinematic code and a particular set of conventions, so what? What purpose does genre serve aside from aiding in my selection of film to view at the theater or on Netflix? Though this line of inquiry may be a bit self-serving and crude; I think it important to ask what value genre in film serves as it applies to my own understanding of cinema.
Tudor sums up the value and usefulness of genre quite nicely. He stated that genre aids “in the analysis of the relation between groups of films, the cultures in which they are made, and the cultures in which they are exhibited.” I agree with this statement; however, I think that the most important of these uses is genre’s ability to aid in the understanding of the audience and the culture for which a film is made. Genre serves a purpose beyond movie selection; through its reflection of popular culture, it provides a window into understanding a society.
Leo Braudy and the Value of Convention
Leo Braudy’s article was the most lively and interesting of the bunch to me. He spends a lot of time talking about films, true, but I felt like the main thrust of his article was directed towards how art works through the medium of film (and specifically how the concept of genre functions within the medium). I found his synthesis of historical and cultural trends across different mediums (poetry, prose, film) to be refreshing: it’s always nice to be reminded that “Art” is not a series of separate spheres, but is a dialogue between painters, novelists, dancers, directors, etc.
Genre films, Braudy claims, are “especially criticized because they seem to appeal to a preexisting audience, while the film ‘classic’ creates its own special audience through the unique power of the filmmaking artist’s personal creative sensibility”. This contrast between genre films and “classic” films is extended to a comparison between pop art and pure art. Braudy references the Romantic period as the beginning of the crusade against popular and folk art. As I understand it, the idea is that during the Romantic period an artist was necessarily an independent figure, a creator, a god, and most importantly a unique. The artist’s duty was supposed to be to reach into the abyss and pull forth wholly unique and individual creations, to be “the only one in a corrupt age who could summon up the artistic Eden of the past and collect its fragments into some coherence”. “Genre and convention”, Braudy says “were the fare of the multitudes, while originality and storming self-assertion, without a past, without any controls, was the caviar of the truly aware audience”. Therefore these energies have manifested, Braudy says, in a current mood of animosity towards films of convention and of exultation towards films of originality.
And so I find Braudy’s point of view very enlightening – that there is value in convention. Conventions, after all, exist for a reason. To reject convention entirely is to reject an aspect of our culture and of art. Most interesting of all Braudy’s points, to me, is his assertion that genre films achieve value because of their use of convention. Classifying a film into a certain genre causes us to make certain assumptions about it. When we imagine a genre, we imagine a set of conventional tropes. Therefore, genre instantly provides a wealth of ideas for a skilled director to toy with or to subvert – and likewise it can be very pleasing to take part in and to contemplate the thrill of the subversion. Chinatown, for example, is a film noir and it makes every effort to present itself as a film noir – it references older films in the genre, it delights in the conventional, in the music, in the atmosphere of the film noir. But behind its conventional presentation are a number of subversions and differences from the standard film noir; the pleasure of its main character and of its shocking end only exist, for me, because they have the background of genre to stand out upon. In this way Chinatown engages with its very building blocks and comments upon itself. Why is the end shocking? What about the main character is so fascinating? Why are we shocked and why are we fascinated? As Braudy says, “the joy in genre is to see what can be dared in the creation of a new form or the creative destruction and complication of an old one”. It may not be caviar, but what could be more "truly aware"?
Tudor's Discussion of Genre
Andrew Tudor's analysis of "genre" as a concept was particularly striking. Tudor first notes the non-critics definition of genre, which is a "crudely useful" way of organizing American cinema. This definition, however, seemingly differs from the way a critic would use the term. While both the critic and non-critic use the term, Tudor writes, "The difference, and the source of difficulty, lies in how the critic seeks to use the term. What is normally a thumbnail classification for everyday purposes is now being asked to carry rather more weight. The fact that there is a special term, genre, for these categories suggests that the critic's conception...is more complex than is the case in everyday discourse..." But, how is the critic's definition actually different? One explanation could lie in the notion that critics are attempting to address the "intentions" of a film. For example, all horror films are defined by having the intention to horrify--thus, they can be categorized together. However, Tudor notes that there are "notorious difficulties" with isolating intentions. Another explanation is that they share certain themes. However, this is not how critics normally employ the term. Instead, "most writers tend to assume that there is some body of films we can safely call the western and then move on to the real work--the analysis of the crucial characteristics of the already recognized genre." Unfortunately, this puts the writers in a predicament, as "they are defining a western on the basis of analyzing a body of films that cannot possibly be said to be westerns until after the analysis."
The most striking part of Tudor's discussion is when he seemingly attempts to define genre himself, writing "to talk about the western is to appeal to a common set of meanings in our culture. From a very early age most of us have built up a picture of a western. We feel that we know a western when we see one, though the edges may be rather blurred. This in calling a film a western the critic is implying more than the simple statement, 'This film is a member of a class of films having in common x, y, and z.'" Essentially, Tudor believes that genre should be universally recognized as something based on certain, perhaps undefinable characteristics. In short, we should know a western when we see one. However, this brings up a number of problems with the concept of genre. First and foremost, according to his definition, genres are defined by a particular culture. However, each culture is different, and there is no way to say if a certain film, or set of films, will be understood the same way by different cultures. While this seems to discredit the usage of the term as a whole, Tudor is quick to point out that his analysis should not be perceived as such. He writes, "This is not to suggest that genre terms are totally useless but merely that to employ them requires a much more methodical understanding of the working of film.
Tudor ultimately decides that "genre terms seem best employed in the analysis of the relation between groups of films, the cultures in which they are made, and the cultures in which they are exhibited." I found his discussion of the concept to be extremely interesting, as it caused me to rethink my own usage of genre in defining and categorizing films, as well as the usage of writers I have read in the course.
Warshow on the Western
I particularly enjoyed reading Warshow and comparing his descriptions of the typical Westerner with the role John Wayne played in The Searchers. In the absence of previous exposure to "Westerns," I had to rely on this reading (among others) along with watching this film, to develop an idea of what a Western entails. The figure of the lone Westerner was especially interesting to me; Warshow describes the typical Westerner as a man who "is on the side of justice and order," but who truly defends "the purity of his own image - in fact his honor" (48). Yet, Warshow also states that this image of such a noble man borders ridiculousness, and thus "the Westerner at his best exhibits a moral ambiguity which darkens his image and saves him from absurdity; this ambiguity arises from the fact that, whatever his justifications, he is a killer of men" (49).
John Wayne's character, Ethan Edwards, in The Searchers appears to be in line with this description. From the beginning of the film, we understand that Edwards has participated in illegal activities (as evidenced by the large amount of gold coins in his possession, his three year absence even after the end of the Civil War, and his refusal to pledge allegiance to the Texas Rangers). Yet, we quickly see that Edwards has his own code of honor and a sense of what is right; he loves his brother and his family, and feels so strongly about acquiring justice for their deaths and abductions that he searches for Debbie for years. We the audience (at least, to me, personally) initially admire his tenacity and refusal to give up. However, it soon becomes clear that Edwards plans on killing Debbie, because of her "defilement," having lived for years with the Comanche Indians. This most definitely is an example of "moral ambiguity" in Edwards's character, as there are many other characters in the film who object to his design and even actively try to prevent his success; his moral code does not necessarily align with the moral code of the rest of society, because it is his honor he truly defends. Ultimately, Edwards again surprises the audience (and the characters within the film) by rescuing Debbie and restoring her with her remaining family, keeping in line with the image of the ideal Westerner - a man who, according to Warshow, "is the last gentleman" (48).
There are many other aspects and scenes of the film I could have discussed to continue the application of Warshow's writing on this subject of the typical Westerner, but these were the scenes I felt most clearly reflected Warshow's topic. I would be interested in seeing other Westerns and comparing the different variations in the main "hero" in each, and how they line up with or diverge from Warshow's characterization of a Westerner.
“Spectators and Spectacle”
Jane Feuer, The Hollywood Musical, “Spectators and Spectacle”
Jane Feuer begins by discussing the stage and the proscenium arch. As musicals leave the physical stage, the outside world becomes a stage for the spectators to watch performances. She references many famous classical musicals like Top Hat, Show Boat, The Band Wagon, and Singin’ in the Rain to show the two types of audiences that are created by the musical film genre.
The first type is the internal or theatrical audience. This is the audience within the film that sits in the theatre and watches the dancers and singers perform on stage. The other audience is the film audience or spectator. This term refers to the audience that goes to the movie theatre to watch the film. As the film audience, at times we are included with the internal audience and at other times we replace the internal audience. This replacement and inclusion is possible through the editing and the mise en scene. For example, the spectator is included with the internal audience when the camera is placed in the imaginary “third-row-center seat.” The placement of the camera gives the spectator the illusion of a “shared experience” with the internal audience; we are in the theatre within the film, watching the performances on stage. Then the camera cuts to a closer shot of the performance. The internal audience is no longer addressed; the film audience has replaced them. We get a closer look at the action and the illusion that the performance is “all for us” (Feuer 28). The same movement of the camera from within the internal audience to on stage with the performers creates a third person and first person experiential reality for the spectator.
The latter part of Feuer’s article titled “The World Backstage” shows the use of the camera backstage to “demystify” the production of the on stage performance, creating another access point that the internal audience does not have. The shot “from within the wings” is used to simultaneously refers to the demystification and “remystification” by cutting back and forth between the point of view shot from backstage and the shot from within the internal audience. Feuer says “demystification is always followed by a new mystification, the celebrations of the seamless final show or placing back on her pedestal of the disgraced performer” (44).
Finally, in “And the World behind the Camera”, Feuer, referring to Singin’ in the Rain, says “it’s like we’ve been given a complete confession in order to conceal the real crime” (47). Here she is referring to the “magic” Singin’ creates when the demystification of the performance by showing the wind machine and soft lights during the duet “You Were Meant For Me” restores the illusion. The technology is present and evident, but our attention does not linger on the technology. It is redirected back to Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds as they perform the number.