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STORYTELLING AND FILM GENRE: The Value of a Hermeneutics Approach
By Tom Snyder, Ph.D.
Stories matter deeply to us. They make a profound difference in our lives. They stimulate our minds, kindle our imaginations, and stir our emotions. They bring us laughter, tears, excitement, and joy. They help us escape the daily cares and woes of our present lives for a while and travel to different times and places. They arouse our compassion and empathy, spur us toward truth and love, and sometimes even incite us to hatred or violence.
Why do we respond so strongly to stories?
Over the years, scholars have given us at least two basic answers to this question.
First, different stories satisfy different needs. A comedy evokes a different response than a tragedy. A hard news story on page one affects us differently than a human interest story in the magazine section or a celebrity profile next to the movie listings. Second, although different stories satisfy different needs, many stories have common themes, settings, character types, situations, and other recurring patterns. They possess a timeless, universal quality.
The second answer leads us to the field of interpretation called myth studies or archetypal analysis. The first answer helps us organize stories according to their genre. This article deals specifically with movie genre, but sometimes treats the subject of movie genre in an archetypal, mythic manner.
Hermeneutics, the Science of Interpretation
Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation, or deciphering meaning(s). Genre can be an important factor when trying to interpret a work of art or a book, including a work of non-fiction. The use of genre can help authors or creators to structure the meaning of their texts. Looking at genre can help readers, viewers, or listeners determine the meaning(s) that the author intends to convey.
A genre is a body, group, or category of texts that resemble one another because they share a sufficient number of similar motifs, themes, visual designs, ideas, characters, story formulas, and plot devices. By looking at these various common traits, readers, viewers, and listeners can better understand each genre and each text that seems to be part of a particular genre. After better understanding the text’s meaning(s) through the use of genre, they can then apply their particular worldviews, philosophies, metaphysical viewpoints, etc., to evaluate the text’s ultimate value to them and other people.
For example, the parables of Jesus Christ in the Four Gospels are a kind of literary genre. A parable is a succinct, brief story illustrating a theological, spiritual or moral point. Studying the genre of parables can help us better understand the points that Jesus is trying to get across to his listeners.
Every author or creator “couches his message in a certain genre in order to give the [audience] sufficient rules by which to decode that message. These hints guide the [audience] and provide clues for interpretation.”1 Thus, each text in a particular genre is an individual version of a general pattern. This pattern is defined by a set of unwritten rules and expectations. For instance, when we go see a particular kind of movie genre, like a comedy, a romance, a war movie, a horror movie, etc., we expect the movie to follow certain rules and to have certain kinds of plot devices, characters, themes, and even visual designs.
In addition to this, however, a text will also often give us some interesting variations on these common traits. When describing genres and texts which use genres, therefore, we can speak of them as using both Convention and Invention. A convention is an unwritten agreement of expectations between the creator and his or her audience. For example, when we expect to see a movie about the Vietnam War, we expect to see young American soldiers battling Vietcong in a jungle setting. Sometimes, a genre text deliberately sets out to defeat these expectations, as Stanley Kubrick does in Full Metal Jacket when he sets its Vietnam battle scenes amongst burned-out buildings. The use of convention creates shared images and meanings while the use of invention produces new perceptions and meanings. Conventions can change over time, and this helps different genres to incorporate new cultural values.
Genre categories are hardly ever rigid and pure, however. They often overlap. A particular text may thus combine different genres. For example, many “B movies” in the 1950s combined the horror movie with the science fiction movie. The Alien movies starring Sigourney Weaver are a recent example of this kind of mixture. There are also movies and stories that belong to so-called sub-genres, such as slapstick comedies, numskull comedies, westerns about gunfighters, or science fiction stories involving time travel.
The Bible is composed of many books. These books contain examples of many different genres. At the broadest level of genre, the Bible contains both prose and poetry.2 More narrowly, it contains examples of historical narrative, different kinds of hymns, wisdom literature, apocalyptic literature, parables, private letters, public epistles, prayers, creedal statements, love songs, etc.
Below is a list of some typical movie genres and the conventions, story formulas, motifs, themes, symbols, and imagery, or iconography, that may be seen within them.
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Within the conventions of the horror movie, the characters are often faced with a potentially fearful situation where the “normal” order of things is disrupted. This disruption can be graphed by “binary oppositions,” i.e., Life/Death, Human/Animal, and Civilization/Jungle. For example, Dracula upsets the boundary between Life and Death because he is both alive and dead, the Wolf Man confuses the line between the Human and the Animal because he is both a wolf and a man, and King Kong upsets the boundary between Civilization and the Jungle when he escapes to wreck havoc on New York City. Faced with this chaos, the characters must try to restore order by repairing the balance, frequently by killing or banishing the monster responsible for the disruption. Once the chaotic monster is destroyed or banished, the characters are then able to begin their lives anew.
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Science Fiction Movies
According to literature and movie scholar Frank McConnell in The Science Fiction of H.G. Wells, there are at least five conventional story patterns in science fiction movie and literature: 1. Man grows apart from society (e.g., THX-1138); 2. Man transforms other men (Frankenstein movies and Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones); 3. Man goes into the future (Time After Time, Kate and Leopold and The Time Machine); 4; The future implodes upon man (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Matrix, Minority Report, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and The X-Men movies); and 5. Man travels to outer space and finds worse or more beautiful beings (the Alien and Star Trek movies, or Avatar). Like the horror movie, the science fiction movie frequently shows humans in a new and/or strange context, testing them against the unknown. However, science fiction movies do this in a more detached, less personal, way. Often, the moral chaos of the horror movie becomes a social chaos in the science fiction movie. Of course, science fiction is also about the future and our hopes and anxieties for the future. Technology can play a key role in all of this. Many science fiction movies portray some aspect of the relationship between humans and their machines. Machines and technology can be seen in either a positive or a negative light, or both.
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We can identify two dominant trends in the comedy genre, says Stuart M. Kaminsky in his book American Movie Genres. First, there is the trend where an individual is out of step with the particular culture depicted in the movie. The individual’s comic adventures stem primarily from his inability to get along in society, even though the person often wants very much to become a part of society. This type of movie was most popular in the 1920s, but continues today in some of the movies of Woody Allen and Bill Murray. The second trend of comedy movies started in the early 1930s. This second mode was the man versus woman type, often called romantic comedy. Most of these movies are absurd depictions of the confrontation between a man and a woman, an interaction where the male’s defenses are often exposed and ridiculed. In more recent movies, however, such as Back to School and What Women Want, this trend shifts to where the man is shown trying to break down the woman’s defenses in order to date her or seduce her. In many comedy movies, says Frank McConnell in Storytelling and Mythmaking (Oxford University Press, 1979), the “‘natural’ order of society disintegrates into a carnival atmosphere where social conventions are suspended in a limbo world between complete dissolution and a hoped-for rebirth.” This is exactly what happens in the climax to Steven Spielberg’s under-rated comedy, 1941.
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The Police Movie
According to Kaminsky in American Movie Genres, several elements repeat themselves in these movies, movies like Dirty Harry, The Big Easy, Tightrope, 48 Hours, Die Hard, Speed, 15 Minutes, Along Came a Spider, Blood Work, Hannibal, The Hunted, and Cop Out. 1) The police officer becomes emotionally involved with the criminal; his pursuit of the criminal becomes an example of personal and societal justice or revenge. 2) The police officer begins to identify with the criminal; this reinforces his hatred of the criminal, for the criminal represents negative elements the policeman hates in society and fears in himself. 3) The police officer’s family, partner or girlfriend is often threatened or destroyed, increasing the police officer’s involvement with the criminal. 4) The police officer finds himself driven outside the restrictions of the law because that law is too narrow to deal with the criminal and too rigid to handle the police officer’s emotional need for confrontation. 5) The police officer is threatened with loss of his job or loses his job because of his emotional involvement and his desire for revenge. Often, he has a mentor who advises him to stick to the rules, but the police officer does not heed the advice of this mentor. 6) At the end of the movie, the officer and the criminal face one another in a final confrontation. 7) The identity of the criminal is often known very early in the movie.
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The Musical Genre
Musicals often seem to take place in a fantasy world. One of their major themes is the interplay of fantasy with reality. Another thematic, and narrative, consistency is their frequent depiction of the boy-girl, male-female relationship, much like some comedies. Relationships and the emotions they create are acted out through song and dance. The musical numbers also become rituals where celebrations of friendship, romance, marriage, and work take the form of song or dance rather than literal presentations of events. Many musicals also reflect the romantic comedy sub-genre of the comedy genre. One valid way of studying musicals is discussing what each individual performer brings to these genre conventions and how this may help us interpret the stories and characterizations in a particular movie. Thus, a scholar can contrast the work of Fred Astaire in THE BANDWAGON with that of Gene Kelly in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN.
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The War Movie
The war movie genre usually entails a disparate group of men (sometimes both men and women in more contemporary movies), who must fulfill a particular mission or series of missions. Sometimes, they even go through a whole war together, as in Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One. The different individuals in the group must learn to work together, often under the command of a single charismatic individual, but sometimes under one commander and one platoon leader, often a sergeant. Conflict can occur because of the different attitudes and different ethnic cultures within the group, or because the commanding officer and officer of lower rank disagree about strategy or military tactics. Sometimes, the attitude of a “lone wolf” in the group can endanger the cohesion of the group, as in Don Siegel’s Hell Is for Heroes starring Steve McQueen and Bobby Darin. Furthermore, there are some war movies where a veteran soldier melds a band of young recruits into a single cohesive group, as in The Big Red One or The Sands of Iwo Jima with John Wayne. Whatever the case, however, the brotherhood of the group often is ultimately challenged by the physical, military obstacles confronting the soldiers. Obviously, levels of patriotism will vary in each war movie, but they often will become an important theme within the story despite the efforts of the moviemakers to devalue them. Finally, the power of war to either brutalize or desensitize the moral conscience and psychological temperament of the soldiers, or an individual soldier, can also be an important theme within this genre, which is one thing that happens in the acclaimed, Oscar-winning movie The Hurt Locker. Sometimes, war causes insanity, as in Apocalypse Now, the Civil War sequence in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, or William Friedkin’s The Hunted. How the individual characters deal with the brutality of war is the key element. Religion and human fellowship, however, can play a role in moderating the dehumanization that occurs.
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As John Cawelti and many other scholars have noted, one way to analyze westerns is by talking about how they depict the Western Hero and the Code of the West. Sometimes, the hero is a character of great shyness and gentleness, despite being a man of violence. Other times, the hero’s violent character is barely kept in check by social conventions or codes of personal honor. Even if he is depicted as basically good, the Western Hero can still be seen as having flaws, some serious, some minor. Many westerns affirm the view that true justice depends on the individual rather than the law, which is shown to be ineffectual against evil or lawless men. Often, the western uses violence to affirm individualism but stops short of favoring anarchy by making the individual’s violent action an ultimate defense of the community against the threat of anarchy and evil. This is what seems to happen in Howard Hawks’ classic western Rio Bravo, where John Wayne is a professional lawman who, despite his protests to the contrary, gets help from two of his friends in the community to stop an evil rancher who has kidnapped the deputy, played by Dean Martin. Frequently, the Western Hero is an archetypal wanderer who is neither part of Civilization nor part of the vast landscape, or Wilderness, in which he roams. This gives many westerns a tragic sense of loss. This was especially true of director John Ford’s later westerns The Searchers (see the accompanying photo) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. As with the other genre categories, we can take a look at how different directors approach the western. For example, we can learn a lot about how the movie medium conveys meaningby comparing the westerns of John Ford with the westerns of Howard Hawks, or by comparing the western performances of John Wayne versus those of James Stewart, Gary Cooper, and Clint Eastwood.
It would be wrong to criticize a particular movie because it contains a genre we don’t like, unless, of course, a moral issue is concerned, as in the case of mad slasher horror movies. As movie scholar Stuart M. Kaminsky asserts, “Valid genre criticism does not impose a belief on a form or dictate what it should be. Valid genre criticism recognizes that a form exists and then examines it to see what it means. . . . If a society or a culture can produce, can create, its creations are worth examination and appreciation. After all, we do not talk about specific Egyptian artists but about ancient Egyptian art. . . . some creators can work best within genre; they need genre, need a form, to create best. A prime example of this type of artist is William Shakespeare.”3
In conclusion, using genre motivates us to develop a strategy for reading, viewing, hearing, and interpreting a text, or movie. It helps to clarify the meaning(s) in a text. “The very practice of examining a collection of generically related texts will result in the illumination of each individual text.”4
By comparing movies that share a particular movie genre, we gain a better understanding of that movie genre. By placing a movie within a particular genre tradition, we gain a better understanding of the author or moviemaker’s intentions in creating the movie.
1. Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 9.
2. For an excellent definition of prose and poetry, see Tremper Longman III, Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation, Vol. 3 of Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987), 75-76, 120-121.
3. Stuart M. Kaminsky, American Movie Genres, 2d edition (Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1985), 3-4.
4. Longman, 82.
For more insights into genre analysis, see also the following:
Aune, D. E. The New Testament in Its Literary Environment. Philadelphia: Westminster,
Cawelti, John. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular
Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975.
Neale, Steve. Genre and Hollywood. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Kitses, Jim. Horizons West: The Western from John Ford to Clint Eastwood. London:
British Movie Institute, 2004.