Attached below is a quick essay on film noir I wrote a couple of years ago. The list included is a combination of my favorite film noirs and the ones mentioned in this article.
Genre by it’s very definition is all together more simple to explain on it’s own than in the context of film; it‘s defining features are not complicated by the use of images and narrative arcs that film lends to it. For years the challenge that comes from describing genre films has increased and decreased, simplified and intensified. It has constantly been changing and questioned. Genre isn’t just the aesthetics of cinema but it’s also it’s contextualization and in a way it’s spirit. It can be used on purpose, to hide a filmmakers meaning within a Hollywood system. It contains both semantic and syntactic approaches that try to explain the ways in identify a genre. Explaining a genre can be obvious as in the Western or it can be difficult as in Film Noir. Genre can even be moulded and twisted into a kind of hybrid; a narrative that incorporates more than one genre into it’s structure in order to achieve a new flavour to a familiar appearance. Many genres have risen through the history of film, some of those will be discussed; the all American Western, the film noir, the horror film and many more. The use of examples from films related to the accompanying genre will be used to also aid in the discussion of film genre. The idea of genre and the ways to which it can be studied, complicated/simplified, is what will be discussed further and hopefully a clarity (at the least a statement of facts) will arise from the study and discussion of film genre.
Rick Altman posed the idea of language and the way in which language is structured and created in order to compare genre (Altman 682). The idea of syntax and semiotics; semiotics being the study of signs and their signifiers and syntax being the structure, rules and elements that build up sentences. In film this semiotics would refer to the signs that indicate a genre, the signs and signifiers like the locations, lighting, shots and characters. The syntax of film leans more towards the relationships, tone, mood and attitudes that a certain group of films gives off (Altman 686). The best example of both of these comes in the form of the Western. In the Western the semantic approach to that genre would be things like it’s setting, usually a wide open plain – think Monument Valley. The lighting would be natural as Westerns are usually shot on location, the shots usually are composed of large environments dwarfing the lone cowboy and the characters are usually good guys and bad guys, cowboys and Indians, black hats versus the white hats (Altman 685). These build up the semantic approach to the film’s genre as they are the signifiers and aesthetic images that come with the terrain. Using the Western yet again you can also see the syntactic approach to genre study. The Western will have a loner who stands for truth against the gang who are out for no good. It’s good versus evil in a Western and good always prevails (Altman 685). The tone can differ but the archetypal tone for a Western is man against nature or nature against industrialization, with that comes the sense of unease of change not wanted, it’s a foreboding tone but one that usually ends with a happy ending. Instead of dealing with the aesthetics of the images the syntactic approach concerns itself more with the narrative layers or structure and rules of the genre (Altman 685).
Rick Altman continues with this theory of semiotics and syntax of film genre in his theories but pushes them forward into a new territory. Altman devised of a hybrid in genre theory. Saying that genres are not homogenous but elements from multiple genres put together or a ‘Hybrid’ (Altman 682). Take for instance George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), there is a film that has the semiotics of a sci-fi adventure, the laser guns, flying battle ships, aliens, mystical powers but has the syntax of a Western; lone man goes against evil, he has his trusty clumsy partner, he is a simple person, one who yearns for adventure and goes after the all industrialized empire, good versus evil as nature versus machine – the Death star…The Empire. Another such example would be the Coen’s No Country for Old Men (2007). Again, the semiotics of a Western: the wide open plains, cowboys, Texas, guns and horses but has the syntax of a film noir even sometimes a horror movie. There is a murderer, one could even call him an unstoppable force, he kills without mercy and with a semi-novelty killing device. It deals with a man who finds a loot of money and must escape his pursuers who are a bunch of dirty business men, corrupted by greed and the lust for power and control, those are the rules and structural elements of a film noir and Anton Chigurah seems to follow the rules of a horror movie; a ‘slasher’ movie to be more precise (Olson 67).
Altman however has a dispute with his own approach of genre hybrids. He points out little discrepancies he has with both the semiotics and syntax of genres. With the syntactic privileges the structure to which films are made lean towards manipulating people. Audiences do not want to be manipulated but the syntax of genre disguises this, makes it seem new (Altman 688). The relationship between the semantic and syntactic is fundamental to the theory of how meaning of one kind (either semantic of syntactic) contributes to establishing a meaning to the other (Altman 689). Altman continues by saying that the more durable of genres are those that have established syntaxes e.g. Films by the Coen brothers or ’Film Noir‘(Altman 688). while the less durable are those genres that are dependent entirely on recurring semantic elements and conventions e.g. the Saw franchise or the ‘slasher‘ genre (Olson 67).
The discussion of film noir came up with the film No Country for Old Men, film noir has lent itself to being one of the more challenging aspects of genre identification than another kind of film group. Most genres were and are created out of the Hollywood system, if no the Hollywood system than the Westernized way of making films. Film noir has been said that it is and cannot be a genre because it is defined by mood and tone, it did not start out with a set of criteria to which any one filmmaker used to mould a film noir it came out of an historical context (Krutnik 16). It was coined by the French after they began to notice a certain similarity to American films after the war, they were foreboding, they consisted of shadows and pessimism, they dealt with thugs, dirty cops and nasty females (Krutnik 16 and 22). Film Noir was an unsystematic categorization of films made during or after World War II and had, in conjunction, certain narrative and thematic conventions (Krutnik 20). However if you were to look during our present day one could more or less say that film noir has become a genre. There are many films that set out to be ‘Film Noirs‘, take Sin City (2005). Sin City is a film that has both the semantic and syntactic approaches of film noir. It was done on purpose and made with conscious decisions as to the way the narrative and visuals would feel and relate to one another. To say that film noir is not a genre would only be telling of it’s origins, if it is at all possible given the definition of genre that a style can thus grow into a genre because of historical contributions and the aid of time than no other group of films is deserving more than the films of Film Noir (Bregent-Heald 136).
Now we can begin to look at a few variations of genre theory, those films that seem to escape a certain classification, unlike Film Noir, their distinct style does not appear too easily, they are more coded in their appearance and trickier to group. Take for instance Blue Velvet (1986), a film that unfolds like a mystery, carries the characters that a mystery has; the deranged killer, the helpless woman vying for her family back and the young man trying to make it as a amateur sleuth. However looking past these signifiers you start to see the same themes, a sense of melancholy and the foreboding, the journey into the night, through the underworld. So what sets films like Blue Velvet apart, why do they carry both the semantic and syntactic approaches of the same genre and yet trickle down the back side of the whole notion? In that lies the director and the input and direction to the creation of the film. David Lynch is notorious for his detached characters shouting or whispering the strangest most perverse things, characters seem to exist in worlds unto themselves and no one takes notice, you are on earth as we know it, everything looks the same except Lynch puts macabre twists on everything, as if The Twilight Zone was a nymphomaniac on Prozac. This is a problem that genre theory encounters time and again, especially when looking at it through Altman’s semantic/syntactic approaches. It follows the idea of the ‘Pennsylvania Western’, these are films that do not take place in the same time and place but lend themselves to similar characters and narratives, they are detached from their genre origins (Altman 685). Therefore genre theory can carry with it many burdens, it is not a full proof theory, none ever are. It contains problems with classification and depending on what theorist you are deriving from many genres must be taken with a grain of salt because not every filmmaker will follow the same formula for too long. It is not applicable to all genres of film because it concerns itself with majority of films and in an extreme sense, the stereotypes of grouped films (Borde & Chaumeton 7).
Tracking back to film noir there is the one more problem that will be addressed before concluding. Foster Hirsch whose name alone sounds like it’s out of a pulp novel describes in his work that film noir can be identified or determined by the title or key words within the title (Hirsch 16). Take for example The Big Sleep (1946), there are some recurring words you see in other films dubbed Noir; The Big Heat (1952), The Big Combo (1949) and even made as a homage by writer-artist Frank Miller in his Sin City stories – The Big Fat Kill. He goes on to say that titles that contain violence or sex can also be connected to film noir or those that carry existential themes In a Lonely Place (1952). However a problem arises straight from the get go (Hirsh 15) . No one film or group of films can be categorized just by their titles this is more of an assumption or intuition which derives from Krutnik’s thought of film noir. Many other films contain titles that could easily be accounted as Film Noirs but are sadly left out of the gamut; The Furies (1950) which is a Western or The Searchers (1959) which carries an semi-existential theme but is again a Western. The same can be said vice-versa, who would put Sunset Boulevard (1950) into a film noir group just by it’s title? However it is continuously done so anyway on many lists of the best Noir’s to date. Double Indemnity (1944) is another film, in it’s title there lies no real indicator of violence, sex or foreboding nature, it’s title is in fact a clause, a statement, insurance and yet the film is usually regarded, along with Laura (1944) as the film that launched the film noir style. Concentrating on the femme fatale and cool talking loner, cigarettes and murder are everywhere and you can’t find an interior set without Venetian blinds casting shadows along the room. Krutnik’s notion that the term was created out of intuition and the term is used to such an extent that is threatens to become meaningless only further proves the complications of genre theory and film noir (Krutnik 28).
In conclusion it becomes apparent that genre theory is an approach to the study of certain films; it’s approaches are ridden with problems the deeper you get into individual genre groups. Film Noir is one such example, the harder you look at it the more question that arise from such people’s theories as Altman’s or Krutnik’s, Bored and Chaumeton’s and in particular, Hirsch’s. Genre theory has many approaches, such as the semantic and syntactic approaches and each of those carry with them a kind of ‘hybridity‘, film’s can be aware of their signifiers and structures and thus create new twists on a familiar jig. By the end you can see that genre theory would come in serious use during the study of film history. You would begin to see the way in which film evolved, the rules that certain films follow and then the ones that break them. Filmmakers like Tarantino, Haynes and the Coens they set out to reinvigorate a genre or work within it to lure you into experiencing meanings you perhaps didn’t notice before. Genre is the cast in which a film is set in, it’s delivered to an audience for their enjoyment. Filmmakers must utilize their knowledge of the aesthetics and the rules in order to better the genre they wish to create in, if they choose to create in any genre at all.Read less