Wednesday, August 30, 2006


Excerpts from Franco Moretti's introduction to Signs Taken for Wonders: Essays in the Sociology of Literary Forms (1983), "The Soul and the Harpy: Reflections on the Aims and Methods of Literary Historiography":

"[H]ow far has empirical research borne out the antithesis between norm and masterpiece on which literary historiography continues to rest? In what sense does Shakespeare 'violate' the conventions of Elizabethan tragedy? Why not say the opposite: that he was the only writer to realize them fully, establishing as it were the 'ideal type' of an entire genre?" (13)

"I can only say that each time I have studied 'low' genres, 'mass literature' (and despite having done it in a way I no longer find satisfactory: looking for their laws of operation in a single work I thought was exemplary--Dracula, The Paul Street Boys, the Sherlock Holmes cycle--and not in a broader and more systematic corpus of 'middle-range' products) I have always ended up finding meanings that were in no sense 'predictable' or 'banal.' Very often, in fact, they were different or even antithetical to what one generally supposes at first sight." (15)

... moving away from Moretti, there is also ...

"At least I’d learned not to be fashionable — that what’s fashionable, or what the smart boys or the establishment approve of, or choose to acknowledge — all that is only one-tenth of what’s going on, it’s only the top one-tenth and it’s likely to be more volatile than all the boring, inarticulate things, where a culture’s real strength is. That’s what A Mirror for England [1970] is about. The unfashionable, solid, petty bourgeois strain in films."

-- Raymond Durgnat,
"Culture Always Is a Fog" (conducted in 1977, printed in Rouge in 8).

Over a year ago (!) I wrote a post on 'impersonal genre cinema' that basically wondered about, specifically, action films and the question of generic expressivity--of films (even if they have 'recognizable-within-limits' directors like McTiernan) not being under-the-radar authorial works, but still being expressive in a sense that went above/beyond mere conventionalism. The point beyond that we usually think of genre as a trap, a textbook with rules that only the foolish or the hackish will follow. And maybe this is one of genre's functions. But I'd like to think of film genres as having more ... I hesitate to say positive or uplifting potential, but something more substantial than simply, merely limits. I wonder what good, concrete, but not simply positivistic (data-gathering) work is being done along these lines. For what it's worth, there's a fascinating Moretti piece on cinema available here (as well as for NLR).


Anonymous said...

Interesting post. You are asking, I think, about the pleasures of genre as OPPOSED to the (single) pleasure of authorial expression.

Auteur films (this only applies in the classical period) are films where the respect for genre as form is, relatively speaking, weak (after all, something's gotta give for the auteur's obsessions to surface) and on the contrary, what we used to call programmers had damn better deliver on the formal strength of the genre -- because there is no other reason to watch them. All is subordinated to FORM which, lacking the power of a strong star, or an "original" script, is the auteur of the movie.

We can say that the anonymous genre worker takes "the form" much more seriously and with more rigor.

For instance, we can say that Michael Mann "fails" as a genre worker -- and that failure is what we like about his films.

Auteurs substitute their own "authority" for the "authority" of the genre.

The stronger and more familiar -- the purer -- genre rules are, the greater the pleasure in their execution. Like in giallo, a perfect genre, where the form is so rigidly over-determined as to be absurd, the thrill is watching how they tie up the ludicrous misdirections and identify the "killer" -- the narrative form itself is the film's own McGuffin.

The problem nowadays is that the power of genre is diluted and made invisible by post-modern hybridization....who wants to see a horror-comedy? or a dramedy? These are pseudo-forms -- two headed monsters. The form is so weak that it barely yields any pleasure.

Zach Campbell said...

Anonymous, thanks for commenting--actually, I was trying not to oppose 'genre' and 'author' per se, but to wonder aloud how they might in fact overlap. I've seen most of Paul W.S. Anderson's features for instance, one (only one) of which I like a lot (Resident Evil), and though I think he's an 'underachiever,' on the basis of RE at least (especially?) I do think one could make a tentative case for him as a worthy filmmaker, with a certain vision.

My "background" or my informal-but-deeply-ingrained training as an auteurist cinephile (i.e., 'High Noon is a piece of shit but let's sit and discuss Boetticher's Decision at Sundown for a couple hours') has led me to almost instinctively try to defend someone like Anderson or some film like Resident Evil in terms where the author works against the genre. The genre, its conventions, I always a priori align with the cold rigidity and stupidity of mere commercialist rubbish. But I should be wondering how genre and author work together, especially when the achievements are modest and we can't simply chalk it up to a convenient catch-all (or combination of such) like the genius of the system, genre, and/or author. I'm simply trying to break out of this assumption, this habit, of mine, and learn some new ones. Easily said, less easily done.

Anonymous said...

Here's my problem with that example...Anderson is a bit of a cheat because the guy WRITES his scripts so, as far as I'm concerned, he's already way deep into auteur territory.

Fritz Lang is a great example of a guy who is a genre worker and auteur in equal, perfect synch. And you could say the same thing for Ophuls in his american period. But these are "classical" examples.

The question is are there any true "anonymous genre workers" anymore? Maybe in porn? Or in the bottom tiers of straight to video...?

How do you critique a cinematic universe where even hacks have auteurist characteristics? More and more, I'm back with Bazin -- don't worship "personalities" -- deal with the films.

Zach Campbell said...

If Anderson writes his own films, we can say that he his imprint on the works themselves is more readily apparent by dint of the on-screen credit--but are the films any less generic for all that? My interest in authorship is not about control, but about point-of-view. I agree with you that Lang's work makes a great case for 'dual' genre/author frameworks (and Lang and his oeuvre are 10,000x better than Anderson's). But Lang's POV is so very strong, wouldn't you agree, even based on the most purely commercial works of his I've seen--whereas writer-director Anderson's work never seems co confidently ... authorial. It's in the very fact that the Hollywood system as we knew it has crumbled into something very different, and that every hack (Ratner!?) gets an auteur-stamp, that I'm curious about all the 'little talents' whose authorship and genericism are not easy to pull apart.

I'm not interested in worshipping personalities as a replacement for dealing with films, either ...

Anonymous said...

Zach wrote: "But Lang's POV is so very strong, wouldn't you agree, even based on the most purely commercial works of his I've seen--whereas writer-director Anderson's work never seems co confidently ... authorial. It's in the very fact that the Hollywood system as we knew it has crumbled into something very different, and that every hack (Ratner!?) gets an auteur-stamp, that I'm curious about all the 'little talents' whose authorship and genericism are not easy to pull apart."

Yes, agreed Lang has a strong authorial "view" -- and the case is made more complicated by the fact that like Griffith, he is inventing forms that will become cliches of cinema.

But isn't this the case with certain auteurs..? -- their quotidian production gets "certified" and adopted by others in the future -- making it invisible inside of its moment. One can only make conceptual distinctions between "mere" utility, style, and authorial POV to a body of work, an oeuvre. There is a probably a fulcrum point in a filmmaker's work (even a hack's) where they "hear" their own voice for the first time, and strive to amplify it.

Again, it seems that only in Film do we problematize certain conventions like Genre into inflated --pregnant beyond all sense -- semiotic categories. A sonnet is just a sonnet. Genres in films are meta-form visual analogues of these rhythmic shapes.

And I also suspect that modern "auteurs" are more like kinetic sculptors than painters or writers. In other words we're looking for apples (classical auteur values, psychology, narrative, theme, mise-en-scene) when we should be looking at the oranges (action, plasticity, style as form and content, movement, color)...

Zach Campbell said...

Anonymous--I don't really have any serious disagreements with what you've written, I think you make good points. I'm not trying to think of genre as something with rules (which authors "break" or "conform to," etc.), in case that's the impression I gave. You've put it very well--I'd like to start thinking of filmic genres as being more analogous to literary ones. (I don't mean to suggest that this can or should be done 100%, but I think a move in that direction would be good.) Which is where Moretti comes in--he's not 'theorizing' the genre per se, he's trying to situate and contextualize it. Which may be a good way for us to understand how genre operates in a way neither opposed nor in place of authorship (from a director or anyone else).