The genre film, whether film noir or slasher, sci-fi or western, can hardly be called ambiguous. In fact, a chief characteristic of genre films is their easily identifiable features; a set of signifiers that define a certain style of film, i.e. chiaroscuro lighting, femme fatales and the anti-heroes of film noir. Ambiguity it at first appears has no place in these worlds. The audience needs to know who the good guy is, who the bad guy is or if there is ambiguity in this matter, as there often is with the anti-heroes of film noir, then the audience at least needs to identify in some significant way whether through an appreciation of the characters wry sense of humor, tough guy antics or a charming leading man. Which is to say you may be able to play ambiguous with right and wrong, good and evil, in the form of a character but you cannot play ambiguous with the intentions of the central character, at least for very long. And definitely not with your own intentions as a filmmaker. A character’s motives must ultimately be laid bare and decisions must be made in the process of filmmaking. Still, ambiguity in the genre film exists, sometimes only for a few brief moments between characters and sometimes due to the filmmaker’s intentions or lack thereof.
Looking at many so-called ‘art’ films, ambiguity is often on display, front and center in both the form of a character’s intentions as well as in the form of the filmmaker’s own intentions. Ambiguity in a character can be a wonderful thing sowing mystery, suspense, and surprise among other things. However ambiguity in a filmmaker’s intentions is often disastrous. In this writer’s opinion many filmmaker’s resist making choices when it comes to a story as either a misguided attempt to capture an objective reality, create mystery where there is none, or out of pure laziness. And some critics and viewers, when they witness something so opaque in its meaning and reason for existing mistake this as ‘art.’ After all it must mean something. Regardless, ambiguity remains a powerful and under-used tool.
One of my chief intentions with Moderngrumble is to explore ambiguity in the genre film, not with my own intentions, but with the protagonist’s as well as in the presentation of certain key aspects of the film. Mostly this is a desire to explore the ambiguous in genre films, particularly horror films, as I believe ambiguity to be key in exploring the existential crises/terrors of the modern world, a little explored avenue of horror. If it creates another layer of mystery in the process, all the better.
The genre film is often all about Tone. Whether it be the paranoid,who’s chiseling who tone of some of the best film noirs or a relentless, suspense wracked tone of terror in an especially effective horror film. Tone is one of the signifiers, one of the defining traits of a genre film. In this sense, tone is in many ways the exact opposite of ambiguity. A sign on the road pointing the way, reminding us how we feel or at least how we are supposed to feel. The prevailing wisdom is that tone is essential in telling a genre story correctly. There are certain expectations that must be met and if you seek to revise genre then you must first master those expectations and only then subvert them through bold tweaks of structure, character and of course, tone.
If you are working with ambiguity however there are no expectations to subvert, the entire notion of ambiguity is a subversion of the identifiable. Applying ambiguity to a genre film then is at once a neutering of the power or shorthand that comes with genre expectations and the ultimate subversion or revising of genre. Or so my thinking leads me to believe this morning as I write this. These are thoughts on a method and are ever changing. I share them here in an effort to create dialogue. Please feel free to disagree, argue, challenge and offer alternatives or if so inclined list some of your favorite ambiguous films or moments. Extra points if it’s genre cinema!