Rick Altman: Film/Genre

[Readings] (02.03.09, 3:29 pm)

What’s at stake in the history of literary genre theory?

This book is about film and genre, but early on, Altman focuses on genre as a literary and phenomenon, looking at how it has been understood historically. He starts with the classic treatment of genre. The purpose of genre is to classify literary types. In terms of classical theorists, Altman compares Aristotle and Horace. Aristotle’s Poetics is arguably one of the most influential and most well known studies of literay types. Altman closely examines Aristotle’s introduction of poetry, and finds that the Poetics relies on many “unspoken and apparently incontrovertible assumptions.” The chief of these is that Aristotle aims his study of poetry as a solid and well defined object, without considering it as a culturally variable thing. These assumptions lead naturally to his conclusions and ultimate judgments.

In an interesting comparison, Aristotle judges poetry as imitating life, whereas Horace treats poetry as imitating other poetry. To Horace, poetics are a matter of how works fit into a tradition of models and techniques, and works should be judged based on the adherence to those models, rather than to life.

Altman reviews the historical approaches to genre studies, but comes to no clear conclusion regarding what genre is or what are the basic principles accepted by theorists. The reason for this is that there are no common agreed-upon principles shared by theorists. However, Altman does find that they tend to rely on several common assumptions, and gives a listing of these: (p. 11-12)

  1. It is generally taken for granted that genres actually exist, that they have distinct borders, and that they can be firmly identified. Indeed, these facts have seemed so obvious to theoreticians that they have rarely seemed worthy of discussion, let alone questioning.
  2. Because genres are taken to be ‘out there’, existing independently of observers, genre theorists have generally sought to describe and define what they believe to be already existing genres rather than create their own interpretive categories, however applicable or useful.
  3. Most genre theory has attended either to the process of creating generic texts in imitation of a sanctioned predefined original, or to internal structure attributed to those texts, in part because the internal functioning of genre texts is considered entirely observable and objectively describable.
  4. Genre theorists have typically assumed that texts with similar characteristics systematically generate similar readings, similar meanings, and similar uses.
  5. In the language of theoreticians, proper genre production is regularly allied with decorum, nature, science, and other standards produced and defended by the sponsoring society. Few genre theorists have shown interest in analysing this relationship.
  6. It is regularly assumed that producers, readers, and critics all share the same interests in genre, and that genres serve those interests equally.
  7. Reader expectation and audience reaction have thus received little independent attention. The uses of generic texts have also largely been neglected.
  8. Genre history holds a shifting and uncertain place in relation to genre theory. Most often simply disregarded by its synchronically oriented partner, genre history nevertheless cries out for increased attention by virtue of its ability to scramble generic codes, to blur established genre tableaux and to muddy accepted generic ideas. At times, genre history has been used creatively in the support of specific institutional goals, for example by creating a new canon of works supportive of a revised genre theory.
  9. Most genre theorists prefer to style themselves as somehow radically separate from the objects of their study, thus justifying their use of meliorative terms like ‘objective’, ‘scientific’, or ‘theoretical’, to describe their activity, yet the application of scientific assumptions to generic questions usually obscures as many problems as it solves.
  10. Genre theoreticians and other practitioners are generally loath to recognize (and build into their theories) the institutional character of their own generic practice. Though regularly touting ‘proper’ approaches to genre, theorists rarely analyze the cultural stakes involved in identifying certain approaches as ‘improper’. Yet genres are never entirely neutral categories. They — and their critics and theorists — always participate in and further the work of various institutions.

This list of bullets is wholly cited from Altman. The listing is very useful because it lays out exactly the foundations of the current study of genres, and what Altman considers to be wrong with it. Each of these bullets is representative of a critique that Altman gives later on, and will often provide his own solutions. In the next chapter, Altman explores some of these assumptions as they pertain to genre in film specifically. It is also worth comparing these principles in the study of the genres of games. The lamentably rigid genre system of mainstream games is supported by the institutional power hinted at in Altman’s points.

Where do genres come from?

This chapter discusses the process by which film genres are formed. Altman develops and hypothesiszes another set of bullets, behind how genres are formed and emerge. This is coupled with an exploration of how films have been marketed historically. Early film was diverse, and genres were gradually imposed. Again, this resembles the emergence of game genres. In the early history of both games and film, the types of artifacts that were made were strongly constrained to the affordances of the media. In this discussion, it is useful to think about genres as systems of patterns and models, which interact with both the affordances of the medium, and the content of the work itself.

  1. Films often gain generic identity from similar defects and failures rather than from shared qualities and triumphs. (p. 33)
  2. The early history of film genres is characterized, it would seem, not by purposeful borrowing from a single pre-existing non-film parent genre, but by apparently incidental borrowing from several unrelated genres. (p. 34)
  3. Even when a genre already exists in other media, the film genre of the same name cannot simply be borrowed from non-film sources, it must be recreated. (p. 35)
  4. Before they are fully constituted through the junction of persistent material and consistent use of that material, nascent genres traverse a period when their only unity derives from shared surface characteristics deployed within generic contexts perceived as dominant. (p. 36)
  5. Films are always available for redefinition — and thus genres for realignment — because the very process of staying in the black involves reconfiguring films. (p. 43)
  6. Genres begin as reading positions established by studio personnel acting as critics, and expressed through film-making conceived as an act of applied criticism. (p. 44)
  7. The first step in genre production is the creation of a reading position through critical dissection, and the second is reinforcement of that position through film production, the required third step is broad industry acceptance of the proposed reading position and genre. (p. 46)
  8. The generic terminology we have inherited is primarily retrospective in nature; though it may provide tools corresponding to our needs, it fails to capture the variety of needs evinced by previous producers, exhibitors, spectators and other generic users. (p. 48)

As pertains to adaptation, the most important of these is (3), which suggests that in order for an adaptation to be made in the first place, the genre must be adapted and recreated, or borrowed from similar adaptations. This is doubly important in the space of game adaptations, where the issue of mechanics and content is so variable.

Are genres stable?

Genres are frequently understood in adjective-noun pairs, for example “musical comedy”, or “western romance”. These evolve in cycles and blend and fold back in on themselves. The adjective-noun pairs can also be thought of in terms of content and mechanics. Genre explains what sort of content is present and according to what sorts of rules they operate. These may also be seen as intersections of models, where the resulting artifact is constrained by both sets of expectations.

Where are genres located?

The goal defined by the question of this chapter is to find where genres are located. In the traditional sense of genre studies, they are located detached from both the audience and the work, as external and objective categories. Altman reformulates the matter of finding location as discerning how one genre is different from or resembles its neighbors. This echoes Wittgenstein’s assertion that games are alike in the sense of family resemblances. A genre is a complex situation, rather than a structure. There are ways of looking at genres, all different, from the perspective of the authors, readers, or the text itself.

To clarify the genre location issue, Altman asks: where is the location of America? Is it in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights? Is it in geographic landmass, in the flag, shared values, or in the hearts and minds of Americans? This question is really purely epistemological, but reveals fundamental ambiguities in how something so supposedly straightforward is unclear.

These problems are similar to the problem of finding models, especially as pertains to fictional works. Ultimately, models and genres are interpreted, but the process of interpreting is an authoratative act. Whoever interprets and then conveys their own take on a model is exerting authority over the artifact in question.

Genres often emerge because of the constraints imposed by institutions (such as the half-hour television block), which usually come from economic or technical concerns. Gradually, as these constraints are turned from limitations into affordances, they become institutionalized themselves.

A final example compares genre classifications to ways of looking. Borrowing from Wittgenstein, who exhorts the reader to, in discussing similarities, look rather than think, Altman does an experiment looking at, not thinking about, nuts. He first looks in the supermarket, where nuts are grouped together along with other things, such as mixes, chocolate morsels, and oils. The products are near each other based on surface qualities. At home, nearness relates to function, not form. This comparison is useful in consideration of genres, classifications, as well as literature and games.

What communication model is appropriate for genres?

The traditional communications model relies on a sender, receiver, and some sort of medium that exists in between them. In the case of literature or film, the thing in the middle is both the medium and the text itself. Altman explains that in mass culture, such as film, the films are dispersed to many recipients, but those recipients in turn interact with each other, and finally change their impression of the actual artifact and the medium themselves. The codes of interpretation and understanding are written by the audience. Thus, borrowing from Eric Rothenbuhlerr, Altman argues that film is twice written: “To count as generic communication, however, something must be read as if it were twice written, first by the original authors and then again by the constellated community that ‘rewrites’ the genre.” (p. 172)

Borrowing from Jameson, I might make a few observations: This approach also can be used to consider a text as existing in time, not just having meaning to one audience, but to many. Texts have lives of their own, and are invigorated by translations, adaptations, and reinterpretations. These change the original, going so far as to tear it up and reincorporate it in new products where the form of the original has little resemblance with the final product. While living, a text is also a shell of the ideas of the original author. The original model gone, and now it relies on its readership to have meaning made from it. In this context, genre is like a surface which attempts to meld between the artifact and the audience, but, the genre is pliable and, like the audience, will change over time.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorAltman, Rick
Tagsmedia traditions, film, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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