A film study
Part One: On Genre and audience
|Who the duck was I written for?|
When you ask writers who our intended audience is on a given piece, most of us will just shrug our shoulders at first: unless we go into a piece with a particular demographic in mind, we don’t really know who our intended readers are. Nonfiction usually has a natural aim that develops along with the argument, and by the time a work is finished you may discern the audience simply by reading the title. Creative writing rarely has such a natural bridge to its reader. Genre helps, but only so much: if we’re writing science fiction we know some things about our readers’ demographic, but we have to consider that there is space opera and hard science fiction, and the demographic for each brings different expectations. The most constant audience is, of course, the writer. We write something that is informed by us, and as a result we are inclined to write what we would be interested in reading ourselves. Writing for children, which would seem to be detached from an adult readership, often retains the mature themes relevant to the writer’s perspective.
|What else will you let your kids|
watch these days?
But how does genre-bending break a film? Is it really that difficult to put a romance story in a science fiction film? The answer to that lies not in the writing per se, but in audience expectations. When we go into a story, the first rule after suspension of belief that we must address is our ability to “take it for what it is”. Genre is not an excuse to leave our interpretive skills at the door, as the accusation so often goes, but rather genre gives us a powerful toolset with which to deconstruct the meaning of a film: for instance, if we know something is science fiction, we know to pay attention to the way science works to influence the plot, as it will be crucial to interpreting the story. If something is fantasy, we conversely know that how everything works is irrelevant to the human element of the story: there’s nothing in the metal composition of the One Ring that gives it its power, and no logical explanation why only the fires of Mount Doom can destroy it; it is allegory. Genre helps us to know what to give our attention and ultimately what we’re supposed to get out of the story. When we mix genres, we introduce new toolsets that can add to or detract from the readings we’re able to gather from the text. At its worst, genre-bending is the intellectual version of the kid kicking your chair; it’s distracting and causes you to miss important elements of the overall story.
|I love you and all, but those military|
guys made a pretty good argument.
But even Star Trek has been guilty of this same poor use of romance. “Mr. Plinkett” notes in his extensive review of Star Trek: Insurrection not only that the romance between Picard and Anij forces us to question Picard's willingness to help the native people, but his actions run counter almost point by point to his actions in a series episode “Journey’s End”, suggesting that Anij's presence alone is the cause of his “insurrection”. Similarly, First Contact makes use of a love triangle with Picard, Lily, and the Borg Queen, all to a completely unnecessary, distracting effect. In case you were worried Picard might sell out Earth to the Borg, we needed to use his relationships with women to compare the worth of the two cultures. On second thought, no, we didn't. Not only is it unnecessary, but it throws a sexist angle on a franchise known for being progressive.
|"It's too bad she won't live, but then|
again who does?"
My apologies and condolences to anyone who has not seen that episode of Trek, but my point is that most genres can be interwoven if done in a way that complements them both. Romantic comedy, space opera, and crime drama are just a few of the successful hybrid formulas that work consistently for larger audiences. Science fiction is perhaps most guilty of poor genre mixing because of the expectation of realism that goes with it, which is why it prefaces this discussion so heavily. Genres like comedy and tragedy, the two “original” genres, mix pretty well with just about any other genre except for each other, and even that can work in the right circumstances (see the Coen brothers). If the mix fails to work, then the writer asks us to bring a toolset that we do not need into the film, and this will ultimately result in confusion, frustration, and things not “making sense”.
|So it's about a guy... and his sled...|
|What could this movie be about?|
As a brief addendum, I must point out that my focus will be on writing, editing, timing, and maybe a bit of casting, as films do not exist in a bubble. I will not focus so much on cutting, music, or the quality of the acting. While these things can make a huge difference in one’s ability to interpret a film, they are not my areas of expertise and so I will only mention them as they make a significant impact on the audience’s viewing experience (for instance, Last Action Hero has a soundtrack that is very self-aware, and at one point is changed by the main character). Most of the films I will be covering will be traditionally-composed films by Hollywood standards, so the audience isn't likely to be focused on elements other than character and story in deciding if it is a good film or not. And though I will be talking about “bad” films, these are all films I adore. Whether or not they were commercially successful doesn't mean they do not have their fan base (I like to believe there are no bad films, just bad reviews). The task here isn't to rail movies I don’t like, so don’t get mad if I insult a movie you like, because I like it too.
With all that said, stay tuned for Part Two, in which I will analyze McTiernan’s lackluster Last Action Hero and Wes Craven’s horror revival Scream.
 Genre is, by definition, a means of grouping texts together by their common themes. It is not as definitive a science as we might like, and the term is used here to indicate a grouping defined by fans rather than scholars. A proper genre study would occupy at least a textbook.
 I have made this argument in the case of Bucky O’Hare in my article A Man in Sheep’s Clothing: Fan Subculture and the Furry Phenomenon, and would love to expound on this with other children’s media in a future article.
 Hitchcock, Kubrick, Tarantino, Allen, Lynch, King, and Kurosawa, to name a few.
 “The Death of the Author”. http://www.ubu.com/aspen/aspen5and6/threeEssays.html#barthes