Reading Room > film > Carol Laseur > Hons dissertation

The Field of Genre and Australian Filmic Texts:
Transforming Cultural Narratives

Carol Laseur

Chapter 1
Genre and Film: Problematic Conjunctions

The question of genre (and genre identification strategies) is the problematic centre of contemporary debate on Australian film. What is genre, and why is it such a troublesome term? Does it stand as a theoretical concept of analysis or as a function of industry/market forces? In this chapter I intend to investigate notions of genre (in theory, in critical action) and the implications for filmic definitions that are produced by various genre strategies. My purpose is to explore the workings of genre, not as an abstract category but as an important cultural defining-agent. The organisation of a field of genres in/for Australian film has important implications for the presentation of Australian culture and its identity.

To discuss the applicability of the category of genre to Australian cinema, then, is also to engage in the pressing debate on contemporary issues of cultural definition as well as to be involved (potentially) in a reorganisation of those categories. Genre can be regarded as a pressure-point in current discussions of cultural production and of the social formations that underpin and deploy that production. Central to this debate is the question: does genre work to facilitate or interdict the changing performances of cultural phenomena in Australian films? Genre criticism may not be an inherently conservative function working to merely provide a formal system of received categories. I will start with a necessary discussion of the notions and functions of genre presently in play.

In its least useful sense genre can be regarded as a formal, received system of stable definitions, as "the recognised paradigmatic sets into which the whole output of a given medium ... is classified."[1] Within this notion, genre is a type of cultural road-map, unproblematically defined and available to 'frame' any particular film. The implication is that one can evidently see the major defining paradigm of a given film (its main form or theme or type) and then (conveniently) place it within this or that category. Such a view is clearly conservative in assumption for only existing definitions could be applied to newly-produced films. The 'paradigm' of a film, it suggests, can be located - by reference to some unproblematic social/cultural context - within a stable set of available meanings. From this position, films such as Wrong Side of the Road or the Mad Max trilogy can all be defined as 'Road Movies' though only, of course, if one makes the decision that the on-the-road motif in the films (and the relationships developed around it) are, in these cases, the central defining areas of meaning. One could as well, with some justification, see issues of Aboriginality and police oppression as being at the 'centre' of Wrong Side of the Road. The Road Movie tag has the potential to direct attention away from these areas of filmic representation in the text.[2] When genre is seen, then, as merely a formal zone of classification (purportedly only simply descriptive), we are most often in the presence of formulaic tag-making.

Against the formal classification approach, the recent work of the Stuffing group (working, as it does, to free the notion of genre of such containment functions) is much more interesting in terms of its implications for approaches to Australian films. To them, genre criticism (the writing of genre) is a way of making connections "that are neither entirely bound nor entirely free." As they put it:

A genre is a very loose kind of unity, and its constituent elements travel into many places, carrying often the crucial echo of a character type, performance style, visual mode, aspect of tone, or whatever... .[3] (emphasis in the original)

In this respect then, genre is "as often virtual as it is actual, as often latent as it is manifest." Importantly, too, Brophy, Caputo and Martin make it clear that it is not only the "cinematic object" involved here. For "every genre above all announces a cultural problematic which is as open to explosion and expansion as are filmic codes."[4] Put simply, various definitions of cultural expression are also at stake here. And, in my investigation of Australian films and the cultural problematic within which they are defined, their suggestion that genre could well prove a valuable avenue of approach in questioning the critical modes of perception at work (are these modes "in synch with films being made today?"[5]) provides an extremely useful strategy.

Genres can be most productively seen as both products and processes, as " 'systems' and 'performances'."[6] They always involve "characteristic ways of 'text-making' ... and characteristic sets of interpersonal relationships and meanings ... as well as what appear to be restrictions on 'what' can actually be appropriately talked/written 'about' ... ".[7] Hence their potential involvement in processes of ideological closure. And these "characteristic ways of text-making" are by no means objective (or autonomous) categories standing apart from any participation in socio-political and historical processes. As Rick Altman eloquently describes:

Treating genres as neutral constructs, semioticians of the sixties and early seventies blinded us to the discursive power of generic formations. Because they treated genres as the interpretive community, they were unable to perceive the important role of genres in exercising influence on the interpretive community ... Genres were always - and continue to be - treated as if they spring full-blown from the head of Zeus ... even the most advanced of current genre theories, those that see generic texts as negotiating a relationship between a specific production system and a given audience, still hold to a notion of genre that is fundamentally ahistorical in nature.[8] (emphasis in the original)

This comment could be quite justly applied to the work of Stephen Neale[9] and to that of Dermody and Jacka on Australian film, in The Screening of Australia (Vol.2),[10] inasmuch as their work - while incorporating notions of historical development in film - tends to also deploy static generic categories. The latter will be examined in more detail in Section Three of this study. In any consideration of genre-study, it is important to keep the transformational and historical elements foregrounded. For instance, the set of genres "in play at a particular historical moment will determine how each is understood, and how each individual text will fit the available categories.[11] Thus, when dealing with specific Australian films, it will be necessary to ask: what are the 'available' generic sets in play at this time? How does this film position itself? Because, in terms of text-making, at certain points in social history some genres are possible ways of meaning(s), and others not.

If genres cannot be treated in isolation from social realities then (as Terry Threadgold cautions in "Talking About Genre") nor can they be seen "as separate from the people (the agents of reality maintenance and change) who 'use' it, analyse it, and then, perhaps teach others how to use it."[12] A process of social construction is activated here, wherein genres are far from being merely desriptive, neutral categories. The place allocated to any film in the generic spectrum of Australian Cinema - the text-positioning in play - is a result of cultural work. It is in this sense that genre is an energetic zone of meaning construction with evident connections to social 'message' formations. The theoretician Fredric Jameson put it like this:

... a genre is essentially a socio-symbolic message, or in other terms, that form is immanently and intrinsically an ideology in its own right. When such forms are reappropriated and refashioned in quite different social and cultural contexts, this message persists and must be functionally reckoned into the new form ...[13]

When genre is seen as such a socio-symbolic message, one can posit a situation (in culture) where a set of genres - a set of ideological formations - coexist in either a contradictory or harmonising way. That is, in a political sense, in conservative or radical relationships with cultural norms. To the extent that genres can be seen to operate as categories that close meanings and define forms, what is involved is a process of (applied) limitation on the meaning-potential of a given film. It is clearly this sense of genre that Terry Threadgold has in mind when she describes genre as

the socially-ratified text-types available within a community. They are permitted by and reproductive of the socially-ratified and identifiable situation-types of the culture ... They provide the possible formats for the construction, combination and transmission of the discourses and stories ...[14]. (my emphasis)

And, in terms of the text-types available for the transmission of discourses and stories, a static situation is not being suggested here. Because the genre-field is being constantly transformed by the addition of new examples. Hence, just as cultural formations are in constant flux so is the genre-field. In a sense, then, it can be said that films perform a genre or (given the presence of often conflicting discourses and stories) possibly several genres simultaneously. So while, on the one hand, we have the established "possible formats", on the other, ceaseless work of construction and reconstruction is taking place. If films perform genre(s), then the filmic text can now be viewed as an active agent in the process of cultural placement. Genre-performance is never, as Threadgold suggests, "the simple reproduction of a formalistic model, but always the performance of a politically and historically significant and constrained social process and involves the potential construction of new genres."[15] While this is a process in which all films participate, in terms of investigating the currently-available genre 'spaces' of definition, texts such as Palm Beach, Goodbye Paradise or Bliss are likely to prove particularly illuminating.

To understand the 'meanings' (and strategies) of genre clearly involves some consideration of the "socially-ratified text types" that Threadgold discusses. Here we enter into the vexed area of discourse. Following O'Regan, I will define discourse as "a set of statements, concepts and ideas in their textual form."[16] Discourse, in this sense, is not a fixed, descriptive category but, rather,a type of text identified "in relation to its strategic function in a field of forces."[17] It is important to stress that, in the total cultural field, a single filmic text can 'perform' several different discourses. An Indecent Obsession, for example, performs the discourses of war/combat/survival, of male power-struggle, of sanity/madness, of romance and sexuality, and so on. What will be at stake in my analyses of particular films will not be only the enabling discourses presented and deployed. I will also be considering the way in which specific texts (re)form, (re)accredit and (re)create particular discourses via their enunciative acts.[18] Because, given that films are not merely constituted by a mix of discourses, 'characters' and 'styles' of presentation, a production of meaning(s) is involved.

As genres are not fixed entities, and a genre field is always in a state of relative transformation with the production of new films, then it can be said that genre is (consequently) also a dynamic property of the relations between texts. As a subsequent result the area of the intertextual is brought in to play. In the fullest sense, every film has a dimension of intertextuality because all films occupy a 'space' within the total filmic canon and are, in themselves

... a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.[19]

In the multi-dimensional space that the film-text occupies one would not expect to find any single generic patterning. Quite the contrary - what will be present is a multi-generic performance involving various sets of formal structures. In this respect, genre (far from being a monolithic defining-agent) in practice becomes a variant or sub-species of the intertextual. This is the situation described by Barthes in S/Z and summarised by Sam Rohdie as a weaving and play of coded conventions: "of quotes, of feints of language, of prior representations, so that the method of operation ... [is] from code to code, from language to language, from sign to sign, from copy to copy."[20] The more conservative notions of genre (looking at/for the differences between films) needs, then to be replaced by a view of genre that can account for similarities, connections and intertextual 'quoting' (as well as for any boundary-crossing, multi-generic performances).

As I have suggested, with the production of new films, the perceived limits of a genre field can be constantly and continually reconstituted. In this situation (with 'boundaries' under threat) the tendency is, again, for genre to become a normalising category. Once this process occurs, what does one make of the films that resist simple categorisation? This is a crucial question in relation to the so-called 'eccentric' films of Australian cinema, as it will be necessary to ask: what constitutes these texts as eccentrics and for whom? Against which generic/cultural/film-industry norms of definition? After all these films (see Chapter Four) are part of Australian cinema, not escapists from that context. It seems of some significance, then, to see what is at stake here. Threadgold describes the situation:

If genre, per se, is inadequate to describe the way we produce texts, this does not mean that what genre doesn't, can't explain is anarchic, free, unconstrained. It simply means that we have not explored the nature of the text/context relationship enough ... There is much more to understand about those elements which seem to 'escape' the system.[21]

For one thing, as she goes on to point out, not to try to understand these processes of discursive production is effectively to maintain the status quo, as it is these very processes that are "the discursive capital of the community - its discourses and stories and the genres which shape, structure and transmit them ...".[22] A difficult-to-define filmic text, then, may well be involved in a subversive critique of the nation's 'discursive capital'. This could, effectively, be one of the reasons for a film's marginalisation. Of course, while 'outside-the-norm' texts may well present a challenge to available genre patterns, this does not necessarily imply inevitable ideological challenge. What is occurring though, is that some films produce new correlations (in Umberto Eco's terms, new correlations of cultural codes) which "will not be accepted by cinema."[23] Although it is unclear, at this point, exactly what Eco means by 'cinema' (viewers? critics? a film culture? the industry?), certainly in the reception-process of new films an element of discrimination - including acceptance and rejection - is at work. Either way, the films that 'trouble' the general categories (those that, perhaps temporarily, escape the rhetorically-limited field of statements about Australian cinema that are on the 'public record') can indicate a great deal about the cultural 'shape' of the categories in play at any particular time.

In this process of generic delineation, what of the role of the community of film critics/writers/ theoreticians, those who produce writings (who write genre) on films? Something of the nature of these functions can be seen, for example, in the alternative responses to the question: where do genres reside? Are they, as Neale would have us believe, components of the cinematic machine - the place of regulated subjectivities and positioned meanings - forming a general type of 'systematised articulation'? Approached in this way:

... genres are not to be seen as forms of textual codifications, but as systems of orientations, expectations and conventions that circulate between industry, text and subject.[24]

Neale suggests that the very existence of distinct genres sustains a system of regulation. That is, genres work as agents of regulation, processing 'meanings' defining spaces and controlling spectator interaction with texts. Yet a writer such as Ross Gibson implicitly ascribes a considerably more active role to the presentational process of a film:

... in the case of cinematography, given the seriality of the motion picture, every image is located not just within culture generally but also within a specific diagetic flow which necessarily gives rise to some sort of meaning ... it is a presentation, a newly created or arranged portion of the reality of the cultural world.[25] (emphasis in the original)

The former view stresses the 'hedging-in' activities of genre, whilst the latter chooses to highlight each film's (even each image's) ability to give rise to meaning. Here one can see, again, a playing-out of a form of the interdiction/facilitation debate (genres as systems of regulation; genre as constantly re-creative performance). Similarly, it is certainly possible, probably inevitable, that the ideological position of any writer on film will (to some extent) determine the particular shape of the generic divisions ascribed to specific filmic texts.[26] In this sense, genre - claimed to be a text-based category - will be actually (to use Hunter's phrase) "a warrent for the critic's labour as 'knowledge of the text'."[27] This would seem to be particularly the case when genre is seen to have an order-producing function. Rick Altman has described this situation where, in order to mask what he calls "the scandal of applying synchronic analysis to an evolving form" critics become "extremely clever in their creation of categories designed to negate the notion of change and to imply the perpetual self-identity of each genre ...".[28]

It is important, too, to point out that the film industry plays a central role in this process. Specific films are tagged 'musical', 'thriller', 'drama', 'comedy' and so on often well before the film reaches final production stage. This practice is emphasised by the sweeping generalisations (for 'ease' of viewer choice) applied to video shop shelving arrangements.

When genre is seen as an enabling category, as in the writings of the Stuffing group, no concern is expressed in terms of a film's capacity to exist in a complex field of cultural meanings. For Brophy, Caputo and Martin, inclusion and exclusion are areas of critical possibilities, part of a dynamic process within which the aim is to develop " a possible strategy somewhere between dreary closure and delerious intertextuality."[29] Genre is a product/function of the discourse of criticism, working

... as a critical lexicon it [genre] works to fill in the gaps and spaces between its conflicting and contradictory analyses, connecting them together in spectrums of inclusion/exclusion in the same way as it connects films together.[30]

Genre, then, is an operation of criticism itself evolving alongside the production of filmic texts. As I have suggested, this form of 'facilitating' criticism will be employed in my analyses of particular Australian films that follow.

A further note on my intentions in the remainder of this work. It will be informed by what Tom O'Regan has called "an emblem to the investigation of Australian film."[31] It is one provided by Foucault:

I am trying to work in the direction of what one might call eventalisation ... . It means making visible a singularity at places where there is a temptation to invoke a historical constant, an immediate anthropological trait, or an obviousness which imposes itself uniformly on all.[32]

Within this process of making "singularity visible", I intend to investigate, in each of the films, "the relationship which it establishes between a knowledge which it produces a power which it programs", that is, "to evaluate its strategic functioning in a field of forces."[33] Before moving to a close study of exemplary films, it is necessary to consider the question of genre as an operation of criticism in a more detailed way. The work of Susan Dermody and Elizabeth Jacka provides a specific instance of genre-criticism in action in Australian cinema.

Notes to Chapter One

1. Tim O'Sullivan, et. al., Key Concepts in Communication (London: Methuen, 1983), p.98.

2. See Susan Dermody and Elizabeth Jacka, The Screening of Australia, vol. 2: Anatomy of a National Cinema (Sydney: Currency Press, 1988), p.116, where this film is described as a "low budget road movie about the Aboriginal reggae rock band, No Fixed Address ... ." Mention of racial harassment comes after this generic placement.

3. Philip Brophy, Raffaele Caputo and Adrian Martin, "Introduction in Brophy, P. (ed.), Stuffing, Film: Genre (Northcote: Stuff Publication, 1987), p.1.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid., p.2. Earlier, they claim that the "ultimate paradox of genre is how it is theoretical in nature, yet utilitarian in value; uncontainable in a single theory yet suited to endless application."

6. Terry Threadgold, "Talking About Genre: Ideologies and Incompatible Discourses", Cultural Studies, vol.3, no.l (Jan. 1989), p.108.

7. Ibid., pp.105-106.

8. Rick Altman, "A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre", Cinema Journal 23, no.3, Spring 1984, p.8.

9. Stephen Neale, Genre (London: British Film Institute, 1980).

10. Dermody and Jacka, op.cit.

11..O'Sullivan,, op.cit., p.99.

12. Threadgold, op.cit., p.103.

13. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (London: Methuen, 1983), p.141.

14. Threadgold, op.cit., p.109.

15. Ibid.

16. Tom O'Regan, "Writing on Australian Film History: Some Methodological Comments", Local Consumption: Occasional Papers no.5 (Sydney: Local Consumption, n.d.), p.3.

17. Ibid., p.19.

18. See O'Regan, ibid., p.11.

19. Roland Barthes, Image-Music-Text (Glasgow: Fontana, 1977), p.146

20. See Sam Rohdie, "National Fiction", Continuum: An Australian Journal of the Media, vol.1, no.1 (1987), p.158 and Roland Barthes, S/Z, transl. R. Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974).

21. Threadgold, op.cit., p.122.

22. Ibid.

23. Umberto Eco, "On the Contribution of Film to Semiotics" in Mast, G. and Cohen, M. (eds), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1985), p.207.

24. Neale, op.cit., p.19.

25. Ross Gibson, "Formative Landscapes" in Murray, S. (ed.), Back of Beyond: Discovering Australian Film and Television (Sydney: Australian Film Commission, 1988), p.27.

26. It is important to add that I do not exclude myself from this process.

27. Ian Hunter, "Fetishism in Film 'Theory' and 'Practice'" in The Australian Journal of Screen Theory, vols. 5 & 6, nos. 1 & 2 (1978), p.54.

28. Altman, op.cit., p.12.

29. Stuffing, op.cit., p.1.

30. Ibid., p.2.

31. O'Regan, op.cit., p.24.

32. From Michel Foucault, "Questions of Method: An Interview", Ideology and Consciousness, no.8, Spring 1981, p.4.

33. See Jacques Donzelot, "The Poverty of Political Culture", Ideology and Consciousness, no.5, Spring 1979, p.74.

New: 23 February, 1996 | Now 30 March, 2015