I've spoken about genre before on this blog. I've spoken about my theory on how genre really works, and I've spoken about how difficult it can be to categorise certain films into certain genres. Hell, I wrote a whole massive essay for my degree on the Folk Horror sub-genre, and whether or not it has its own tropes and recurring motifs (it kind of does, if you were interested), but my relationship with genre as a concept has always been a little up and down.
On the one hand, I would consider myself a genre fan, while on the other, more recently, I've found genre films have begun to become a little... well, frustrating. But, in order to understand that statement you kind of first have to understand what a genre film is.
Most people, it seems to me at least, when you talk about "genre pictures", will automatically assume you're talking about horror, or sci-fi, or horror/sci-fi. And while those are certain examples of "genre films", that's not really where it ends, or even where it begins. It's a far more complex thing than that.
Furthermore, people tend to look down on genre films. They're often considered, at least by self-professed film connoisseurs, as "low-brow" and not worthy of your time. While their have been genre films that have won prestigious awards, more often than not they're ignored for your more stereotypical "Oscar-bait" kind of movie. You know the ones I mean.
Yes, I'm looking at you, Green Book.
To highlight just how absurd this particular outlook is, let's consider that The Lord of the Rings, most of Charles Dickens' output, and famously William Shakespeare, are all examples of what was called "genre fiction". Genre film is simply the cinematic offshoot of that, and it exists primarily to distinguish these "lesser" works from their more high art counterparts. It's dumb, and makes little to no sense. Especially considering time can elevate something beyond it's initial reception. Charles Dickens would hardly be considered low-brow reading now, would he?
Since the birth of the blockbuster, popularised by Steven Spielberg's Jaws but cemented as the mainstay of modern cinema by Star Wars, genre films have become more and more popular, even amongst those snooty film scholars I mentioned above. Genre films have become more in-depth, and are often now recognised as a great way to tackle big, hefty themes and ideas in a digestible, interesting way. In fact, it's my personal opinion that often times genre films are better equipped to deal with contemporary societal issues than so-called "high art", precisely because they're more digestible, and because the concepts hide within the narrative, striking out at the audience only when it is time.
However, as I previously mentioned, my relationship with genre films is all over the place. While it's true, in my opinion, that genre films are perfectly poised to tackle these concepts (and they do quite often, too) it's lead to something I'm reluctant to refer to as a dumbing down of audiences, but am unable to think of another term.
Star Wars was a response to the Vietnam War, and a lot of its imagery was born out of Nazi Propaganda. The Thing is about paranoia and the Cold War, and the enemy hiding within. I mean, Jesus, even The Avengers deliberately invokes the imagery of 9/11 during its final battle. And these are hardly the only examples of movies commenting or drawing upon real world events and ideas to present their own themes and concepts. A Christmas Carol is about a selfish, grouchy capitalist who learns the truth is money isn't the be all end all if misery is all it brings to those around you, and The Lord of the Rings is more or less a plea against industrialisation, regardless of what J R R Tolkien actually thought about it (death of the author and all that...).
And yet... there seems to be this really bizarre trend at the moment whereby people demand that movies not be "about" something.
I have this conversation a lot, and it's really confusing. I don't know whether it's a misunderstanding of how audience reception works, or whether it's genuinely just ignorance of what stories actually are, but either way it's weird. For example, the backlash against Star Wars for apparently being controlled by the "PC brigade" now they're under Disney seems to really miss the point that it was originally about Vietnam, or that Billy Dee Williams was cast and Lando at least in part as a response to accusations of racism.
Maybe it's a case of people watching these films when they were younger, and unaware of the wider context, only to now watch new movies, recognise the context and become frustrated that they've lost their innocence. Misplaced blame can be a pretty powerful thing, after all.
Whatever it is, I find it strange. I, for one, enjoy it when a film has something say. Mad Max: Fury Road is awesome because, well, car chases and explosions, sure... but it's made even better when you watch it through a feminist lens.
When I write something, my jumping off point is often "what am I trying to say", and I highly doubt I'm alone there. Stories are always, in one way or another, about something deeper. After all, they come from people, and people can't help but draw on their own personal experiences for everything. But I really wish there was a better understanding of this. All that time I spent in school, discussing books like Heroes by Robert Cormier, seems to have been lost on lots of people. And maybe therein lay the problem. Perhaps we should be discussing films in the same way we discuss books, and at that level. Let's put it this way, if you'd put Star Wars on in English and then told me to talk about it I'd have eagerly gone into school everyday.