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

Carol Laseur

Chapter 2
Cutting up the Genre Field

Continuing the discussion of genre theorisation, I intend to carry forward certain areas of the debate from the previous chapter in a specific examination of genre criticism in action. These areas include the following: that genres stand as forms of cultural knowledge; that every social formation has certain ratified text-types; that any involvement in genre (as an operation of criticism) leads to the construction of a cultural canon, and that to construct divisions within a genre-field is to be involved in a categorisation of culture. As previously claimed, the question of genre-identification strategies forms the problematic centre of contemporary debate on Australian film. My discussion to this point indicates that the problematics involved here may be a result of particular interdictory strategies employed by contemporary writers on film in this country. To scrutinise a developed corpus of genre criticism in action will be to also demonstrate the tactical nature of the theoretical strategies developed in this study. My intention, here, is to focus on the presently-dominant patterning of genre divisions (and any theorisation of these divisions) in Australian cinema. In order to do so, one must (inevitably) turn to the work of Susan Dermody and Elizabeth Jacka. Their writings are considered here as an independent object for analysis and will illuminate (for this study) the issues involved in any construction of a facilitating approach to genre classification.

The writings of Dermody and Jacka in The Screening of Australia (volumes one and two) and The Imaginary Industry currently hold the centre ground in the area of film-genre debate on Australian films. Their work is a full-scale attempt to comprehensively define the existing output of texts and to chart the main lines of cultural production involved. They attempt a definitive study of the Australian film industry that focusses on patterns of filmic production. The corpus makes claims, by virtue of exhaustive detail, to construct a panoply of Australian film genres. Yet, as I will show, the specific patterns of generic performance identified in these works (The Screening of Australia, Volume Two and The Imaginary Industry, in particular) are very much open to question.

Generally speaking, in the context of the theorisation of genre that I have developed, one immediately notices a rigorous deployment of categories in the work of Dermody and Jacka. Their texts are full of lists, headings, titles and definitional segments. This proliferation of sections, types and segments is evidence of their attempt to organise films into a 'proper' or suitable cultural order. The overall impression is that of a genre debate which differs markedly from the one being developed here. This difference is marked most clearly by Dermody and Jacka's schematising activities within which notions of an interplay of generic elements (between texts) appears to be a critical problem of/for criticism rather than a significant comment on the performance of films. Moreover, it is worth noting that such rigorous schematisations combined with the complex nature of individual film leads - as it does here - to gaps between text and category. And the presence of these gaps (between definitions of one text and another, between varying definitions of the same text, between one category and another, and the overlapping structures necessarily put in place to contain the difficult-to-define film) indicates that a less interdictory approach to genre is not blunted by such operations of criticism.

While demonstrating the perceptiveness of Altman's point that "in nearly every argument about the limits of a generic corpus, the opposition of an inclusive list to an exclusive canon surfaces",[1] Dermody and Jacka's work can (at the same time) show a great deal about key theoretical issues involved in genre study: how is the centre of a generic field (in this case, that of Australian film) constituted? What is positioned as representing the fulcrum of cultural 'knowledges' in operation? I will turn now to a closer study of the Dermody and Jacka enterprise.

Films are charted, in these critical texts, according to a various assortment of cultural criteria. The visibility of lists indicates the mainsprings of the method.For example, in Volume Two we move from the "AFC genre" to "Social Realism" and the "Purely Commercial" through to categories titled "Sexual Mores/Sexual Difference", the "Male Ensemble Variant" and "Interior Films".[2] Most of these divisions are reworked in their later text The Imaginary Industry to include "Coldly Commercial Features", "Thriller/Detective genre", "Youth Oriented" films and "Personal Relations/Sexual Mores".[3] All of these headings (and lists) function as a type of panoramic display of genre-attributes, with the untheorised 'motive' for the inclusion/exclusion of specific films seemingly determined by self-evident features exhibited by the texts. Some sort of coherence - indicated by the very possibility of listing and grouping - is posited. Of course, some form of descriptive coherent patterning is inevitably produced in any charting of a range of texts. The question here (for my study of facilitating genre-strategies) is: does this operation of criticism produce a useful or illuminating schema of approach? A great deal (it would seem) depends on the particular construction of a cultural canon and the resultant slicing up of the genre field.

The organisation of a field of genres, for Dermody and Jacka, is primarily developed around their key category: the AFC genre. Central to their discussion of this genre is the way it has "cocooned the Australian Cinema", dominating market and production strategies, it is seen to be "at the heart of the canon" affecting "aesthetic decisions" and creating "identifiable styles" - all in all it organises feature production into desired ways of "speaking Australianness" - and because it is a "safe benign genre" occupies the central ground of Australian cinema.[4] Before examining some of the problems associated with this kind of cultural blanketing it is first necessary, I feel, to give an example of this category in full.

The Aesthetic Field

The AFC Genre
(* denotes children's film; parentheses indicate a partial influence.)
1973 Libido: The Child
Lost in the Bush
1974 (Between Wars)
1975 Picnic at Hanging Rock
1976 Caddie
Break of Day
Let the Balloon Go*
(The Devil's Playground)
(Mad Dog Morgan)
1977 The Getting of Wisdom
The Mango Tree
Picture Show Man
1978 The Irishman
Weekend of Shadows
(The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith)
1979 My Brilliant Career
1980 Breaker Morant
Fatty Finn*
1981 Gallipoli
(The Killing of Angel Street)
1982 The Man From Snowy River
Ginger Meggs
Kitty and the Bagman
Squizzy Taylor
We of the Never Never
1983 Careful, He Might Hear You
Phar Lap
Winds of Jarrah
1984 Silver City
Tail of a Tiger*
1985 (The Boy Who Had Everything)
Emma's War
1986 Burke and Wills
For Love Alone
1987 The Place at the Coast
The Umbrella Woman[5]
Table 10: AFC-genre Films 1983-88
(parentheses indicate some affinities
Annie's Coming Out (1983)
The Boy Who Had Everything (1984)
Silver City (1983)
Emma's War (1984)
For Love Alone (1985)
The Fringe Dwellers (1985)
Playing Beattie Bow (1985)
Robbery Under Arms (1984)
Great Expectations -
The Untold Story (1986)
A Place at the Coast (1986)
The Lighthorsemen (1986)
(Burke and Wills) (1984)
(The Umbrella Woman) (1986)
(The Man from Snowy River 2) (1987)[6]

These extensive lists represent a process of formulaic tag-making neither stable (in their 'constituents') nor complementary with other categories, a point also noted by Adrian Martin, "this constitutes neither a usefully 'closed' nor a generatively 'open' model of generic mapping."[7] The resulting confusions of this type of mapping can be evidenced in their following claim about the AFC genre (typical of the brief theorisation of categories and headings):

The AFC genre is at the heart of the canon, and Industry 1, while neither fixed nor a completely discrete milieu, contained an identifiable group of people whose track records have been dignified by some association with the genre.[8]

The source (or originating forces) of the category is unclear and ambiguous. Does the AFC genre exist in accordance with 'distinct' names/groups of people? How does a group of people construct a genre or define a category? Are the films involved merely evidence of the "track record" (dignified or otherwise) of unspecified producers? What is occurring here is a problematic attempt to marry notions of genre to a distinctive rhetorical field centred on practices in the film industry.[9] There is no suggestion (or theorisation) of the mediating spaces between these areas. The tendency, in this form of definition, is towards a simple collapsing of patterns of funding regulations, industry organisation and production procedures that results in mystifying the nature of any of the films included in the category itself. And, by extension, renders the category as problematic.

One of the most interesting features of the proliferation of categories in Dermody and Jacka's work is the inclusion of some films (in some lists) within parentheses. The parentheses indicate films that stand as partial exceptions and/or influence - half in and half outside - the main listed generic category. For example, Dawn! is listed as a partial inclusion in the AFC genre and later (also as a "partial influence") in the Social Realist film section.[10] Another striking placement is that of The Devil's Playground, again a "partial influence" in the AFC genre, given full 'recognition' in "Interior Films" and the "Eccentrics" yet also listed in the "Sexual Mores" and "Male Ensemble" film.[11] Annie's Coming Out occupies both the "Social Realist" and "AFC genre" categories.[12] The Boy Who Had Everything is in both the AFC lists (partially in volume two then later in full) and is also included in the "Interior Film".[13] Lastly Burke and Wills exists across three categories (and two years!) two of which - the "AFC genre" and the "Eccentrics" - are defined as mutually opposed categories.[14] Here, despite the schematising operations of criticism at work, it is clear that some films cannot be made to fit any of the raised categories in a plausible way. The complexity and diversity of Australian filmic production thus appears to resist forms of overtly reductionist generic mapping. The result is the presence of gaps (those mentioned earlier) in the charted field. It is precisely within these gaps that a less constrained sense of specific film features can be examined i.e. within which a flexible genre-criticism can operate.

For all their efforts to list and divide, Dermody and Jacka have on many occasions multiplied the generic possibilities of single filmic texts to the point where one could ask: what purpose do these categories serve? And what are we to make of the films not mentioned at all - films such as An Indecent Obsession - made conspicuous by their absence?[15] Yet the more interesting question, given my focus on multi-generic performance, is one that recognises these texts as films that function in/from a range of discursive fields. This question is even more pertinent when one notes their creation of a 'miscellaneous' group termed "The Eccentrics". In fact, when one considers the general drift of Dermody and Jacka's position on the Australian film revival, it is precisely these 'eccentric' films that are held to be (in an applauding way) signs of optimism for the future.

Extending this point, a close reading of Dermody and Jacka's text indicates that they are working, in a sense, against their own construction of diversity. Paradoxically, most films are analysed via their listed status and an attempt is made to both intervene into, and confirm, genre (and industry) norms. Films that span various genres are not considered in terms of their multi-generic performances but rather as "recessive genes" of an otherwise 'normal' generic whole. The result is a positional marginalisation of the 'eccentric' film (I shall expand on this process later). At this point I want to further examine the implications of their general proliferation of genre models. These models, untheorised in any rigorous sense, rely (for the positioning of central and marginal 'types') on an unstated notion of realism. The AFC genre and Social Realism types are located at the centre of the contemporary genre-field because of their supposedly more realist nature. It is claimed that the defining characteristic of the Social Realist film is "the choice of subject-matter and the relatively plain, dramatised documentary treatment thought proper for such subject matter" and that the "treatment of social issues tends to be instructive and didactic ..."[16] The use of "treatment" - as if films work on unproblematically realistic material provided by a social Real - betrays a failure to engage with important understandings regarding cultural production and the process of vraisemblance. As Stephen Heath describes it, the vraisemblance of a particular society can be seen as "the generally received picture of what may be regarded as 'relative'" and 'Reality' as "a complex formation of montages, of notions, representations, images and of modes of action, gestures, attitudes ...".[17] In this sense, the 'realistic' is a process of significant fictions, formal not substantial, and (significantly) founded partly by the significations of films themselves.[18] And, within this process, it would certainly be important to note that Social Realism is a style, a style that changes over time (involving complex sets of layered cultural representations). One senses that Dermody and Jacka construct this category, by implication, on the basis of audience reaction i.e. those films that an implied audience regards as being realistic or socially apt. To deploy a category of the Social Realist as Dermody and Jacka do, then, is to side-step an important debate on the development (and representation) of cultural 'norms'. More than that, given it is against this central overdetermined category that all the other categories (and, therefore, films) are defined, a conservative, interdictory operation is under way. Conservative because one can see, as Adrian Martin does, that the notions of realism and naturalism with their "alibi of giving a 'slice of life' or a window on the world, is often able to hide its predominantly middle-class agenda extremely, cunningly well."[19] It becomes evident that the so-called Social Realist films are far from being a function of an unproblematic, empirical and descriptive exercise. Major processes of ideological interdiction are being developed here. "Social Realism" - as construction of 'Australian Reality' - is juxtaposed with the not-so-real AFC genre films. Such easily-made claims to any reality serve as proscriptive definitions of cultural understandings and effect the cutting-up of the total canon of Australian films.

It is an illuminating exercise to chart the extremely diverse ontological nature of the generic categories employed. A number of discursive fields are plundered for appropriate tag-titles. The most striking of these titles ("Middle-Aged Spread")[20] functions as a chapter-heading. While implying that culture can be defined genetically, it is drawn from discourses of human biology including stereotypes of physical development (seen as a movement towards "Tentative Maturity" - Australian cinema as a 'growing child').[21] "AFC Genre" is clearly drawn from industry structures with government funding implications. From the discourse of age and audience (in this case, teenage) the category of "Youth" appears, while "Male Ensemble" and "Sexual Mores" are grounded by discourses of gender and relationships, as well as being informed by feminist criticism. Here films are charted according to a diverse range of criteria: the gender of actors/actresses involved, the thematics of sex (discreet and bawdy) and personal relationships (mannered or abused) and the signification of feminist values. The appropriateness of filmic concerns is measured against a type of feminist analysis as if the field is an evidently composite unity.

The category of "Eccentric" is derived from discourses of cultural taste and normality/abnormality (also leaning on a quasi-genetic definition) with the term also functioning as a striking pun of Dermody and Jacka's methodology i.e. "eccentric" as ex-centric, away from their presumed cultural centre. "'Coldly Commercial' Features" - almost impossible to take seriously as a category - appears to be drawn from monetary discourse with implications of intentional profit-chasing. And from physics, perhaps, comes the notion of an "Aesthetic Force-Field".[22] However idiosyncratic these categories (and the discourses that underpin them) may be, they certainly demonstrate the cultural assumptions inherent in the constitution of a centre or a taken-for-granted fulcrum, around which the canon is formed. It is one based on cultural immaturity/maturity models (problematically rendered in terms of 'normal' and 'eccentric' performance) within a tense interplay of art - and industry - formations.

Dermody and Jacka are unclear as to where precisely genre markings reside. There is no indication, on their part, of any of the problems associated with genre and taxonomic procedures. Their ill-defined categories raise a number of problematic questions for the reader/critic of Australian film. The problems I have outlined above are further compounded once one asks: at what point does a notion of (genre) ascription actually occur? Does it reside/occur in the scripting process, or in the direction of a film, or in marketing (pre-sales), distribution, exhibition, etc.? Other factors - audience, gender, age, taste and subject matter - also have a significant impact on the potential construction of genres. Dermody and Jacka write from an empirical standpoint as if the categories are already in existence, while the cultural positioning of a film, they appear to claim, is transparently identifiable in the filmic text itself. What is occurring (in a critical sense) is an imposition of categories formed on the basis of the critic's own standards of 'taste' and association. It is this, in the final analysis, that suggests the appropriate categories to be raised.

Their work takes no account - and this is a definitional feature of interdictory criticism - of their own critical operations, nor of their involvement in socially ratifying certain text-types.

Once one moves past the general categories in these volumes of Dermody and Jacka into what one critic has called the "thumbnail film analysis",[23] it becomes apparent that the incoherence of the genre-tags does not inhibit the discussion of individual films. Ironically, this comes about because of the very lack of control of the categories themselves. It is noticeable (again, an ironic feature) that it is on the so-called "Eccentric" films - Palm Beach, Goodbye Paradise (and others) - that the most interesting writing is focussed.[24] It seems that it is only when films 'escape' the central categories that they appear to be interesting to the critics. In the whole enterprise, as I have noted, the critics' claims are to a type of analytical and detailed reading of the films under discussion. Yet, generally speaking, the analysis of individual films partakes of what Meaghan Morris has called the Gut Reaction of Australian reviewing practices. She writes of an "inability to articulate some principles of a critical practice [which] is symptomatic of a certain malaise about how reviewing works in Australia" and of the type of reviewing that appears "to celebrate the mere making of films in Australia as a miracle in and for itself."[25] The Gut Reaction works, she claims to protect critics and judges from criticism and judgement.[26] Certainly, despite the descriptive usefulness of their work, these points apply here, particularly to the Screening text. For example, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is termed "a very different kettle of fish"[27] (yet another strange category). More obviously, the so-called melodramatic dimensions of Careful, He Might Hear You, trenchantly satirised by the authors, is then recuperated as being the result of a "carefully overwrought" intentionality.[28] These are among many examples in the texts. One also notices the absence of any cross-referencing between texts, contents and ideas. Such a reviewing-style procedure renders the large-scale categories almost completely redundant. This is the situation that I indicated earlier: the result is the (unintended) creation of a critical, interpretative space that circumvents the interdictory impulse.

Turning now to look more closely at the category "Eccentrics" (the other strong defining feature of their work). As previously mentioned, this category is far more interesting as a critical mode of approach than its predecessors, not only in the choice of films presented but also in the manner in which they are analysed. Here a noticeably facilitating approach surfaces. It is only in this section that films are juxtaposed in a positive critical/analytical fashion. There is some consideration of a film's intertextual mobility within a complex field of genericity. For example, Going Down is seen in terms of its "playful uses of genre":

... the style is funky cinema-verite which just keeps up with all the changes of narrative tack and new declarations of generic direction, from comedy through to social realism to musical comedy and even comic action film.[29]

Here, despite their general trend towards classification and containment, there is a recognition of the proliferation of generic features that marks many Australian films. What continues, though, is the muddled nature of the definition(s) of this category. The 'eccentrics' are singled as the last reprieve of Australian cinema, hailed as separate from - yet necessarily linked to - the canon as a whole. Again a type of human biology is advanced when Dermody claims that

There is a cinema within the Australian feature film cinema that is a little like a recessive gene, perhaps a mutant one, just occasionally showing up and never really affecting the main body of film thrown up by the dominant prevailing genes.[30]

As I pointed out earlier, it is a paradoxical situation that the 'eccentrics' are seen as being in some sort of isolation from Australian cinema while, at the same time, 'escaping' from the existing canon. The 'eccentrics' are defined as "not-easily-classifiable" and "uneasily classifiable" simultaneously! It is "not a coherent category ... existing only to prove the 'rule' of other, dominant genres, cycles and trends ... ." They are the "non-conformists", the "little Aussie battlers" regarded as a "small recessive 'tradition'."[31] Again, the category is seen to exist (albeit incoherently) as if it is the property of the filmic texts included, rather than a result of an organisational operation of critical activity. The cultural problematics raised by Dermody and Jacka's need for an "Eccentric" category, however, certainly warrant further attention, as do some of the (in many ways) challenging films that they focus upon.

I intend to look more closely at some of these so-called 'eccentric' films in the following chapter of this work. Rather than (as in Dermody and Jacka's schematisation) looking to see what these texts - eccentrically or otherwise - have in common, my aim will be to scrutinise the singular nature (the particular characteristics) of these films. In doing so, I will be keeping in mind the function of stylistics ( rather than merely 'subject-matter' definitions) as part of the interweaving of generic possibilities in these texts in the way in which Kate Sands, for example, has described Starstruck as "a benign and wacky film, set in contemporary Sydney, and interweaves elements of fairy-tale, romance, Sydney working-class pub culture and various rock-and-roll dance sequences."[32] Along with an examination of multi-generic elements, full recognition must be given to the distinctions between those films which take the signification process, the production of meaning, for granted, and those which see the production of meaning itself as problematic.[33] The same applies to what Adrian Martin has called "the question of how these films speak and shape themselves - the politics of their invisible or calculatedly transparent form."[34] It is precisely on this question that Dermody and Jacka's work is strangely silent. In the next chapter, while taking into account the problematics of criticism that have been outlined here, my study will move to a consideration of specific Australian filmic texts as case-studies for analysis.

Notes to Chapter Two

1. Altman, op.cit., p.9.

2. Dermody and Jacka, The Screening of Australia, op.cit., pp.28-29, 39-40, 43-45, 52-53, 58-59 and 68-69.

3. The Imaginary Industry, pp.99, 102, 106 and 111. Many of the changes in their later work indicate that a more selective process has been undertaken, though most of the categories still represent pre-given (and unproblematic) sets of relations between film/genre/culture as a whole.

4. Screening, op.cit., pp.28-37.

5. Screening, pp.28-29.

6. Imaginary Industry, p.83.

7. Adrian Martin, "Review of The Screening of Australia, volume 2", Cinema Papers, no.71, January 1989, p.63.

8. Screening, p.37.

9. See Tom O'Regan, "Dissecting the Revival", Australian Book Review, no.105, October 1988, pp.17-19.

10. Ibid., pp.29 and 39.

11. Ibid., pp.29, 69, 71 and 53.

12. Ibid., pp.28-29 and 39.

13. Screening, pp.28-29 and 69. Imaginary Industry, p.83.

14. Screening, pp.28-29 and 73. Imaginary Industry, p.83. The film is variously dated here as 1984 and 1986.

15. The non-inclusion of An Indecent Obsession demonstrates that, despite the ill-defined range of genre-categories deployed, some filmic texts clearly defy singular categorisation in any list. Alternatively, perhaps the film is seen not to be worthy of mention. See, for example, Brian McFarlane's review of the film under the heading "M*U*S*H*" where it is described as "this $2-million farrago" in which scriptwriter Denise Morgan "seems to have steeped herself in the peculiar awfulness that the author's name conjures up" (Cinema Papers, no.53, September 1985, p.64).

16. Screening, p.41.

17. Stephen Heath, The Nouveau Roman: A Study of the Practice of Writing (Philadelphia: Temple University, 1972), p.82.

18. A point noted by Graeme Turner in "Mixing Fact and Fiction": "Realism has itself acquired specific inflections in contemporary Australian cinema ... fact has been interrogated, reshaped, 'made strange', while fictions have been familiarized through the invocation of history. The result is a body of films which ... challenge the status of fact, and of history, while proposing competing, even fictional definitions of the real" (Back of Beyond, op.cit., p.69).

19. Adrian Martin, "Nurturing the Next Wave: What is Cinema?" in Back of Beyond, op.cit., p.97. He also claims that Australian Cinema "has too often been, since its mid-1970's renaissance, the home of good intentions, liberal ideology and comfortable worthiness."

20. Screening, p.179.

21. Ibid., p.151.

22. Ibid., p.28.

23. Adrian Martin, "Review of The Imaginary Industry: Australian Film in the Late '80s", Cinema Papers, no.72, March 1989, p.56.

24. See Dermody and Jacka, Screening, pp.140-144 (on Palm Beach) and pp.202-05 (on Goodbye Paradise).

25. Meaghan Morris, "In-Digestion [Part One]: a rhetoric of reviewing", Filmnews, June 1983, pp.9 and 14. See also, Morris, The Pirate's Fiancée (London: Verso 1988) pp.105-121.

26. Morris, "In-Digestion", p.14.

27. Screening, p.116.

28. Ibid., pp.210-214.

29. Ibid., pp.198-99.

30. Dermody, "The Company of Eccentrics" in The Imaginary Industry p.132.

31. Ibid., p.133.

32. Kate Sands, "Women of the Wave" in Back of Beyond, op.cit., p.15.

33. A point made by Kate Sands. See ibid., p.5.

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