The Taxonomy of Genre.
I'm currently writing an essay for my degree that focuses on the sub-genre Folk Horror. I've spoken about Folk Horror a few times in this blog, not least because my second feature - ONUS - is heavily inspired by several Folk Horror movies, and for me it's one of the most fascinating sub-genres that Horror has to offer.
I've already talked about how I believe Horror is the best genre. It's so unbelievably broad and all encompassing that I genuinely feel that there's something for everyone hidden in the murky depths of shadows, monsters, ghosts, slashers, body-horror and so on.
When people saying they "don't like Horror" I find it odd. You wouldn't say "I don't like Comedy", would you? What are you talking about? It's such a wide genre, featuring everything from neo-noir mystery thrillers like Se7en to out and out gorefests like Antichrist. It's the home of horror-comedy as much as it is the home of psychological horror. It's huge. What do you mean you don't like it? You may as well tell me you don't like food, for all the sense it makes.
But in my quest to research for my essay I realised that to begin I first needed to define what a genre is. And... well, I find myself stumped. What is a genre?
According to Google a genre is simply "a style or category of art, music, or literature", and I guess that could be right. I mean, who am I to argue with the dictionary definition? But that word category stuck out to me when I first read that. A category. What's the purpose of this?
Genre as an idea, especially in film (but it can relate to most everything), exists almost entirely for marketing purposes. At least, it did at first. It's an easy way to convey an idea of what your movie is going to be like. It's a Horror. It's a Comedy. It's a sci-fi. People have preconceived notions of what to expect from those labels, from the iconography through the characters and even, in some cases, the actors or directors themselves. It's little more than a shorthand for getting across a mood or a feel.
In terms of categorising films it does a pretty poor job. As I've already stated, using Horror as an example, there's just too much for everything to really fall into those broad categories.
It got me thinking, if we were take genre seriously as a theory, we first have to really consider how genre works. Does it work as expected, with every movie falling within the lines of one of the "traditional" genre categories, or is it more fluid? Is there something more here?
I have a theory, born out of discussions during my degree, that genre is actually more complicated than it first appears, and yet deceptively simple.
In my mind there is a sort of taxonomy of genres. And we begin with three overriding concepts. We'll call them the Super-Genres. Much like in ancient Greece, when the idea was that all that existed were Comedy, Tragedy, and Satire (which was supposedly a middle ground, existing as a sort of Tragicomedy). These are Horror, Comedy and Drama.
They sit at the top, and all movies fall within one of these three categories. They serve as the films primary function. If it's to horrify, then the film is a Horror. If it's to make you laugh, then the film is a Comedy. Anything else sits in Drama, where the drama of a situation or the characters takes precedent.
In this case, your typical Drama film, such as Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave, shares common ground with some far more action orientated, like John McTiernan's Die Hard. Despite the films seemingly sharing very little in common, the emphasis in both lay with the drama. The function is to be dramatic.
Beneath the Super-Genres sit the Genres proper. These genres can fit within any of the super-genres. They become psychological horror, thriller, sci-fi, Western and so on. They can mix and match (Alien is most definitely a sci-fi, although its primary function is to horrify) and move around. They are fluid. They are not bound by the constraints, and often the setting of the film or the ideas presented within the film will dictate which one of these a movie belongs to.
Beneath these we find the sub-genres. Where Folk Horror sits. Body-horror. Slasher. Spaghetti Western. Romantic Comedy. They are facets of the genre that become the focus.
Let's take a look at John Carpenter's The Thing. It's function is to horrify, and thus it belongs to the Horror Super-Genre, but it deals with a "what if", and is heavily about alien life, therefore finds itself categorised as a sci-fi within the Genre proper. But the film also takes a lot of time to present horrific practical effects, with a clear focus on contorting and twisting recognisable forms into grotesque alien beings, and as such it is tied to body-horror.
Ultimately genre is whatever you want it to be, but its my belief that most things fall within this chain. The Taxonomy of Genre.
Or maybe it's all just a bunch of bullshit and you should just enjoy the film?