Thursday, December 14, 2006

Complex Genres

Because I am interested in genre and influence people often ask me what my favorite one is, if they don’t just assume it is superhero comics. But actually my favorite stories are stories that do one of three things (1) combine genres (Firefly, Marvel Zombies, Dark City, Brick), (2) reinvent genres (Punch Drunk Love and the screwball comedy, Sopranos and the Mob Movie, Seinfeld and the sitcom, Watchmen and the superhero comic book), or (3) Transume a host of genres under a single heading (Kill Bill, Planetary 1-14, Casanova, Samurai Jack). I need more stuff in these categories for my Kill Bill Class. Give me your four best in any category (1, 2, or 3).

39 comments:

Stephen said...

Great topic. I'm again going to answer a bit skew to what you asked.

First, I'd say that Watchmen doesn't just reinvent a genre -- it also combines them, since it's also very good SF and a very good mystery story.

Second, one of the things that fascinates me is the way that combining/reinventing genres can create new genres. My personal current favorite example is this: take an established genre X, and rework it around a young teenage high school girl living in Southern California; anything that does that is a new genre, X'. Done once it's unique; done twice -- if done in an interesting, non-derivative way -- X' itself becomes a genre. And that I know of, it's been done at least twice: Buffy (with X=fantasy/horror), and Veronica Mars (with X=noir/mystery).

And, oh yes, both Buffy and Veronica Mars are great examples of genre crossings. (Both great as examples, and great as TV shows.)

Back to grading. If I think of any good additions to your categories above, I'll post again.

pat moler said...

IDK. Maybe something of grindhouse cinema and exploitation films.

Anonymous said...

In the #1 category:

I think that Angel is a combo genre of Horror/Superhero. He is, essentially, Batman after all.

And Showtime's Dexter is a thriller/superhero narrative, complete with secret identities, and crime-fighting. You can read the other Serial Killers that he hunts down as supervillains quite easily.

-Poormojo

Jason Powell said...

Genre-combos
Sky High
Combines the superhero genre with the high-school genre. (Pretty brilliantly, too -- right up to the last line, where the protagonist's voiceover summarizes the events of the film by describing how his greatest enemy became his best friend, his girlfriend became his greatest enemy, etc ... all very comic-book-superhero plot turns ... and then says, "But hey ... that's high school.")

Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Film noir mixed with cartoon comedy.

Thundercats
May be a stretch, but this is the first example I had ever seen of seeing Tolkien-influenced fantasy interacting with Star Wars-influenced science fiction.

Bunch of genres:
Back to the Future
Romance (George and Lorraine), Sci-fi (time travel), Comedy (every other line is a gag, after all), Period film (mostly set in 1955), Adventure (skateboard sequence/clock-tower finale)

Jason Powell said...

(And I suppose if you consider the entire BTTF trilogy, you could throw "Western" in there too.)

Another franchise that used time travel to get the protagonist involved with several different genres was Quantum Leap. That show had the lead character doing sci-fi one week, Western the next, then a period romance, then a cop drama, then a horror story, etc. ...

Geoff Klock said...

Stephen: I have been grading all day myself -- I know how you feel.

Poormojo: Dexter-as-Superhero I actually wrote about a while back on this blog and completely forgot about; thanks for reminding me. Angel is very influenced by Batman: that's an interesting question whether to consider it a hybrid.

Jason: those are great. thanks.

Marc Caputo said...

How about Paul Auster's New York Trilogy? It definitely reinvents detective fiction. You could even then talk about Mazzuchelli's Comic Lit adaptation of "City of Glass".

As an aside, maybe you could also talk about music that does 1 of the 3 things you'd mentioned. I'm thinking of Talking Heads, especially their early 80s period where they used Afro-beats which acted as both a contradiction and a complement to the urban neuroticism of their lyrics. Later on, Paul Simon did much the same with "Graceland" and then "The Rhythm of the Saints". Additionally, Beck does a great deal of genre-smashing ("Odelay" and "Midnight Vultures"), although I'm more of a fan of his when he's in a more reflective mood ("Mutations" and "Sea Change")

Neil Shyminsky said...

Following on the music suggestions, the Beatles would be a particularly accessible and excellent example of genre blending/blurring (i'm not sure that i could put it under just one of those headings, though - 1. seems to describe Revolver, 2. could be Rubber Soul or Sgt. Pepper, 3. suggests the white album).

Mash-ups, though, would provide a much more immediate and visceral sensation of genre combination and reinvention. I'm a particular fan of Mark Vidler's stuff: http://www.markvidler-gohomeproductions.co.uk/

sara d. reiss said...

Movies: Brick & ... The Faculty. (The Breakfast Club re-invented as Alien-Horror movie, for those who don't know) Williamson is v. into blending my favorite 80's movies and horror.

Starship Troopers as well... maybe... What about Christopher Guest movies or David Lynch?

TV shows, you could make an argument that both versions of the Office blend the reality-TV genre with comedy/dramedy. Of course there's Ally McBeal which you mentioned, and Cop Rock. Oh and Ugly Betty: Telenovela-meets-drama-meets-American Soap.

as for music, off the top of my head: The Police, and perhaps Radiohead. Deffo. good calls whomever said The Beatles and Beck. But music is tricky, esp I'd think for your students. Not entirely sure tho, it went well in Texas, right?

neil shyminsky said...

Oh! And how could i forget - 'Lost', of course, is a perfect cross/post-genre case, what with it's literary predecessor in Robinson Crusoe, televisual precursor in Gilligan's Island but also in Survivor, and then the manner in which individual episodes appeal to completely different generic sensibilities (Unlocking the Meaning of LOST itemizes its parent texts particularly well). More generally, of course, it's moved through narratives of survival, the supernatural, science-fiction and is now totally about its own conspiracy-driven mythology. I recall hearing a science fiction writer voice dismay over hearing that people were calling Lost a science fiction show - he applied some list of science fiction criteria to it and realized that it didn't satisfy even one item.

Geoff Klock said...

Marc: Auster is great: almost a fusion of Beckett and the Detective Novel. I will stay away from music, I think, since I am less competent to lecture on it.

Neil: of course Lost. Fantastic. This is turning out to be a good list.

butter said...

Brian Aldiss' "A Report on Probability A" combined sf with Robbes Grillets new novel by which he managed to give a reason for the detailedobsessed prosa of the french new novel genre.
He did something similar with Joyce in Barefoot in the Head.

Ping33 said...

The Last Action Hero - is both a straight B Action movie played straight and a parody of all the conventions within the genre.

52 - Combines all the different sub-genres of DC comics into one umbrella. Offering up: Mystery, Adventure, Sci-Fi, Urban grit and fantasy/Magic

F Is For Fake - combines documentary with essay

There are loads of examples in Videogames too, one of my blog entries is about it.

Mitch said...

The New York Times review of "The Good German" called it a "genre pastiche", but I've yet to see it.

Starrlett said...

combined genres:

Star Wars: A New Hope (scifi and fantasy)

Princess Bride (both the book and the movie) (comedy, romance, and fantasy)

Battlestar Galactica (the 2003+ series) (scifi and the serious one-hour drama)

...and I have to steal Firefly from the original list.

Ping33 said...

He-Man: combines Knights In Armour with Sci Fi all rolled into a huge Toy advert.

Eileen said...

Geoffrey Hill's Lachrimae reinvents the sospiric sonnet sequence (for example, Petrarch's Rime Sparse, Donne's Holy Sonnets, and Hopkins's Terrible Sonnets) even as it exhausts it.

Matt Brady said...

For category 3, there's some good anime series:

Cowboy Bebop is a sci-fi show with elements of comedy, action/adventure, romance, even westerns;

Excel Saga is a comedy, but it spoofs tons of other genres and elements of Japanese culture;

Sgt. Frog (Keroro Gunsou) is another comedy with sci-fi elements that riffs on other genres. I think the anime about to be released in the US, but the manga is fairly popular here;

And, uh, I dunno, maybe Neon Genesis Evangelion? It's a giant robot series, but there's some comedy and teen drama, and it turns into a crazy supernatural meditation on life, the universe, and everything, with emphasis on Christian mythology.

Vishal Kotecha said...

My dissertation was on Heroic bloodshed(which has gansters with samurai ethics mixed and martial arts chorography transplanted onto gun battles). I also argued that elements of HB films could be found in other genre movies like the Crow , Donnie Brasco and
The Matrix. The Matrix is an obvious mix of many genres in itself, martial arts, HB, futuristic sci-fi, super hero sci-fi, cyber punk,exitential sci-fi, body-horror.
Dark city horror-film-noir?
Alien-horror slasher movie meets sci-fi.
Abbot cosstello meets frankenstein genuine comedy meet genuine horror.
As mentioned by 'Stephen' tv wise teen dramas get mixed with other genres quite a bit these days-smallville being another example.

Outside of movies the batman character can fit many genres- detective, horror, crime drama, superhero, sci-fi, camp superhero(shamfully), espionage/spy drama.

Geoff Klock said...

This is fantastic -- and Eleen came by to mention Geoffrey Hill. I tried to get into Hill while I was at Oxford (he was all the rage and visited once, giving a big hour long poetry reading). Tried and tried. Hill is tough to like. Perhaps I need more Anglican (is that right?) angst. I did like a story where an interviewer, making a Donne allusion, said that he walked around Cambridge "like he had been raped by God."

Vishal: That sounds like a cool diss. When does the book version come out?

Ping33 said...

Film Noir isn't a Genre, it's a movement.

Geoff Klock said...

ping: that's, at the very least, debatable.

Ping33 said...

When most people say "Film Noir" they are talking about a certain kind of mystery film. There are Western Noir's and Sci Fi Noirs... it's nor a genre. At least it's a modality. But most serious scholars note that placement in time is important with true Noirs coming exclusively from 1941-1958.

Jay Nagy said...

Trying to stick to what you haven't mentioned it.


"Straight to Hell" by Alex Cox (I wrote a term paper on this myself): Gangster movie's car breaks down in a spaghetti western. The Pogues as
coffee-addicted mariachi banditos.

"Unbreakable": Not my favorite movie but I really like what it did, giving all the ingredients and waiting for you to figure out it's a superhero story

"Blade Runner": Especially WITH the voiceover making it even more stylistically anachronistic. I don't care if everyone involved disowns it, it works great for ME.

"Help!": Musical thriller comedy

(P.S. "The Limey", "Throne of Blood", "Dogma")

Geoff Klock said...

Ping: remind me how the "noir is not a genre" argument goes. The evidence cannot be that it is a modality that can be imposed on a number of genres because of exactly what we have been talking about here: you could say that the western is a modality and not a genre because we have Western Sci-fi (Firefly) and Western Kung fu (Kill Bill). I don't get what the problem calling a group of films "film noir" and another group "neo noir" is. What's the drawback? What gets lost?

Geoff Klock said...

Nevermind: I found it myself. Here is the wikipedia entry:

"While many critics refer to film noir as a genre itself, others argue that it can be no such thing. Though noir is often associated with an urban setting, for example, many classic noirs take place largely in small towns, suburbia, rural areas, or on the open road, so setting can not be its genre determinant, as with the Western. Similarly, while the private eye and the femme fatale are character types conventionally identified with noir, the majority of film noirs feature neither, so there is no character basis for genre designation as with the gangster film. Nor does it rely on anything as evident as the monstrous or supernatural elements of the horror film, the speculative leaps of the sci-fi film, or the song-and-dance routines of the musical."

BUT

"A more analogous case is that of the screwball comedy, widely accepted by film historians as constituting a "genre"—the screwball is defined not by a fundamental attribute, but by a general disposition and a group of elements, some (but rarely and perhaps never all) of which are found in each of the genre's films.[3] However, because of the diversity of noir (much greater than that of the screwball comedy), certain scholars in the field, such as film historian Thomas Schatz, treat it as not a genre but a "style." Alain Silver, the most widely published American critic specializing in film noir studies, refers to it as a "cycle" and a "phenomenon," even as he argues that it has—like certain genres—a consistent set of visual and thematic codes. Other critics treat film noir as a "mood," a "movement," or a "series," or simply address a chosen set of movies from the "period." There is no consensus on the matter."

I don't buy the argument that it is not a genre: I think it is most useful to think of it as a genre alongside the Western and the Screwball comedy. Also I just don't feel like calling it a "modality," so my biggest objection has to do with the fact that I just don't like the sound of the other options, and don't see the point of them.

scott s said...

Nobody's mentioned Ghost Dog? There are so many parallels between Kill Bill and Ghost Dog. For me, it’s is a way better and more important predecessor of Kill Bill. I don’t think Kill Bill adequately comments or adds anything to the genres it uses, other than stylistic parody or glamorous repackaging, whereas Ghost Dog contributes something substantive. Jarmusch finds weak points in each genre and exploits them through clever mix-up.

It’s a very discreet comedy, that’s somehow kinda serious. Everything borders on ridiculous: Forrest Whitaker is a fat, pigeon-loving action hero. The gangsters are woody allen-neurotic, soprano-esque, and listen to rap. The RZA soundtrack plus RZA cameo are direct links to Kill Bill. The use of animation is innovative. Plus it explicitly remakes a noir-ish movie, Le Samourai, which itself bends genres.

How does everyone feel about Ghost Dog?

Ping33 said...

The problem I have with calling Noir a genre is that it denies historical context to movies which are, quite clearly, from a period both thematically and technologically. There's a reason why movies like LA Confidential or Memento get called NEO-Noir or other such things, and that is because the only way to achieve authenticity in the "genre" is to have made it in the past. This is why High Noon is a noir despite the fact that it doesn't meet most of the criteria which immediately says Film Noir to us. Just like you can't make a French New Wave or German Expressionist film without being in a certain place at a certain time you can't make a Film Noir right now.

Geoff Klock said...

Scott: I am a huge Ghost Dog fan. I have written extensively on Dead Man, and Ghost Dog is importantly related to that film. I am not sure I agree it is smarter than Kill Bill: it certainly goes to lengths to appear smarter (quoting Samurai books rather than Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan), but that doesn't mean it is. In any case, a fantastic movie.

Ping: It seems like your objection would be answered by calling old noirs "Film noir" and new ones "neo noirs", which is what a lot of people, myself included, usually do (though I get lazy with it and say film noir to cover the whole thing sometimes). Is that the answer, or do you still think we should call it a "modality" or whatever?

mitch said...

I've only got two for Genre combination and/or reinvention:

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey pretty much redefined Sci-Fi Space movies by loaning them the elegance and purity of classical music. In the first Star Trek Movie, 2001's influence is painfully, mind-numbingly obvious.


2. Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang ... I hated this movie when I first saw it, but it's been playing on Cinemax for weeks and I've grown to love it. It combines post-modernism's self-aware, unreliable narrator with a "neo-noir" mystery (note that all the "chapter" titles are Raymond Chandler titles) to create something truly unique.

Ping33 said...

Geoff: I still like "movement" do describe "true" Film Noir. Because, Like French New Wave, New Italian Cinema or German Expressionism it makes known that these are films OF A TIME.

I also think MUCH can be written about the relatively recent penchant for updating/remaking classic socially activist pieces into strange, timeless documents which attempt to indite current politics without saying anything about them. From The Manchurian Candidate remake to the V for Vendetta adaptation there seem to be a lot of these movies which want to STAND FOR SOMETHING and maybe even be political without commenting directly on modern politics (like their respective sources did) There is a real dishonesty about them which, to me, is the same as a Neo-Noir which is nothing but an homage to older movies. I wonder how you would think that Kill Bill fits into this idea since it too is a reflective homage to older films rather whereas those older films were reactions to the world and environment in which they were created.

Geoff Klock said...

Ping: TS Eliot, as I am sure you and many of the readers here know, said, famously:

"Someone said: 'The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did' Precisely, and they are that which we know."

I just don't buy, or am just not bothered by, your distinction between an "homage to older films" and "a reaction to the world and environment in which [films are] created" since a very important part of the world and the environment in which films are created necessarily includes OTHER FILMS. I don't deny that homage can be quite empty -- you are dead right to say that V for Vendetta and the Manchurian Candidate go for empty political posturing that was sincere in earlier films. But the emptiness does not bother me because I don't go to the movies looking for some updated version of wisdom literature.

But I don't think that all Neo-Noirs are "nothing but homage" or that Kill Bill is nothing but homage. Dark City, for example, has a lot to say about the relationship between psychoanalytic criticism and film noir, and Kill Bill invites every genre to participate so it can absorb and trump them all, establishing itself as the master film (whether this is successful or not is a whole other matter).

I hope you are having fun with this discussion. I am having a blast.

Ping33 said...

I would argue that Dark City uses it's "noirness" differently than, say, LA Confidential does. In Dark City the fact that he lives in a B movie is important. The whole reality is one which has been constructed from movies and that, thematically is critical to the plot.

I would say that by being "just an homage to old Movies" Kill Bill makes a statement because those movies are ones which have been fairly universally critically reviled (except by radicals like Ebert, yes, Roger Ebert, and if you don't believe he's a radical than you don't know your history of film criticism.) And in being a triumphant homage to those kinds of "B Movies" Tarantino restates their importance.

With the political movies and the empty neo-noirs you run into problems. Because these are movies which, by their nature, NEED to reflect on and speak to the problems of the real world. If they end up being half about real-life and half about fiction you end up with a waffling mish-mash which can't really be taken seriously as if would have had it taken either responsibility seriously. I guess that these kind of cop-out films do exemplify something telling about our current society. Maybe the needlessly-reflexive-apolitical-political-homage movie will be come a movement itself. I nominate "Post Millenial Backwash" as official title.

Geoff Klock said...

So Dark City is a neo-noir with substance (sort of) and LA Confidential is a neo-noir that does not have anything to say (which I don't necessarily believe, but am going to just assume for the sake of argument in the post). I still don't see why referring to their "noirness" or "noir modality" is any better then giving them the genre labels I just gave them. Or did we leave that discussion behind? And I don't see how Kill Bill can be both "just an homage" and make a statement, but I suppose it doesn't really matter and I see your point about it.

Ping33 said...

I kind of left it behind a little. That last post of mine ended ub being the springboard to my first blog post in 2 months ;)

I think my central point is that Noir is a movement which transcends genre. It has since become a convention which is used to varying effect and for varying reason. You can't say "Blade Runner is a Noir/Sci Fi" as being "cross-Genre" because there is only one genre there. Rather, it's a SciFi told using Noir conventions. The effect of which give it a timeless feel and roots the audience in it's world.

Most people I know who really love grindhouse hate Kill Bill. Mostly I think because they liked their secret club which no one knew about. But also because there is nothing really new in it and mostly it doesn't live up to the source. For me, I never liked those movies so was impressed that Kill Bill made them interesting and watchable to me. So I would say the results are as mixed as you do above as it winds up being either just an homage to some while making a statement with many others.

Geoff Klock said...

Ping: you are a smart and articulate guy, and I am glad to see a new post on your blog. But I am still calling Noir a genre, because you have not convinced me not to. Genre genre genre. The film noir genre, the neo noir genre, the film noir genre broadly defined (i.e., both film noir from the forties and fifties and neo noir). Blade Runner and Dark City are hybrid genres. Because I said so. Nothing gets lost with the term "genre" and there are no drawbacks that I can see.

(You know, the reason I am probably so attached to the idea of noir as a genre is because I sell myself as a genre and influence guy and if noir is not a genre then it feel less like it is part of my field.)

I wonder what your grindhouse loving friends will think of Tarantino's new movie, titled Grindhouse? I need to see more grindhouse.

Geoff Klock said...

And even though it has just been me and ping down here for a while: MOST COMMENTS EVER!

Ping33 said...

what's lost is socio-historical context. An idea that these movies happened at the time and in the manner that they did because of larger outside forces in the real world. Movies which embrace Noir as a genre but aren't from the movement are more about other movies than they are the real world. This is a "genre" which looked to inject reality and a truth which wasn't being seen in mainstream Hollywood films, it's the ultimate irony that in the end its been subverted into a formalist method which is insulating from reality.

Geoff Klock said...

I guess I just don't care than much about socio-historical context. Or, much more likely, I care WAY TOO MUCH about movies and movies about movies.

We should do this debate on Slate.com. We are every bit as smart as their film people who go head to head like this all the time.