Sunday, December 09, 2012

How to Manage Expectations, Step 2: Choose a Sub-Genre or Two (But Not Three)

Last time, I delivered the unpleasant news that a genre is really a set of handcuffs that a writer chooses to wear, accepting a set of limited options in return for a pre-selected audience that wants its movies to fit within those parameters. Today, it gets ever worse. Once you’ve limited yourself to a certain genre, you’re not done: you now need to pick a sub-genre.

As with genre, sub-genres can be defined by subject matter (time travel), point-of-view (satire), source material (docudrama), etc. Movies aren’t strictly marketed by sub-genre (they didn’t get their own sections at Blockbuster), but there are usually lots of clues on the poster, trailer, or tagline to let you know which one you’ve got. People don’t limit their movie choices quite as strictly by sub-genre, (most time-travel fans also like space operas) but everybody has their sub-preferences, which incline them more towards one than another. 

Combining sub-genres is tricky. As with genres, you can mix one or two, if you do it right from the beginning, but you can’t switch back and forth at will, and you can’t have it all. Here are some sub-genres:
  • Comedy: Romantic Comedy, Comedy of Manners, Farce, Spoof, Satire, Dramedy, Coming of Age
  • Drama: Melodrama, Soap opera, Character study, Slice of life, Biopic, Docudrama, Ensemble, Romance, Coming of Age
  • Thriller: Noir, Procedural, Contained, Detective, Police, Spy, Revenge, Manhunt
  • Horror: Grindhouse, Slasher, Sexualized Monster, Gruesome Monster, Transformation, Psychological, Black Comedy, Zombie
  • Action: Super-hero, Historical adventure, Super-spy, Super-cop, Martial Arts
  • Sci-Fi: Dystopian, Space Opera, Space Exploration, Robot, One Step Beyond, Alien Invasion, Time Travel
  • Fantasy: Fairy Tale, Magic Realism, Sword and Sorcery, Medieval, Cross-Over into Fantasy World
  • Western: Spaghetti, Elegaic, Modern-Day, Cattle Drive, Lawless Town, Frontier, Revenge
  • War: Black Comedy, Men on a Mission, Heist, Docudrama, Frontlines, Coming of Age
You can find at least one movie that combined every possible pairing of these sub-genres, but some work a lot better than others. Sexy zombie movies clearly don’t work, but it doesn’t really make sense to do a zombie-slasher movie either, since they tap into different fear-centers in our brains.

One problem is that, as with combined genres, you run into mixed metaphors: It would be ridiculous if, in the middle of Terminator 5, a wizard showed up, or a vampire, or a singing cowboy, but it would be almost as bad if an alien invasion arrived. That’s a different sub-genre, and a different metaphor, so what would it all mean?

But there are subtler problems as well. Let’s look at high school movies in each comedy sub-genre:
  • Romantic comedy: Sixteen Candles
  • Comedy of Manners: Clueless
  • Farce: American Pie
  • Spoof: Not Another Teen Movie
  • Dramedy: Fast Times at Ridgemont High
  • Satire: Election
  • Coming of Age: Gregory’s Girl
These movies are all funny, and they have similar settings and characters, but it would hard to move any scene from one to another. It would be jarring for Fast Times at Ridgemont High to have a scene that spoofs another movie, just as it wouldn’t work for (the surprisingly funny) Not Another Teen Movie to have a sensitively observed moment of truth.

Another reason to stick to one sub-genre is point of view. We sympathize with Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, but we also look down on her as a tone-deaf exemplar of a certain type. On the other hand, we fully identify with Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles, who is on the same level as us. Once those two perspectives are established, it would be too jarring to jump back and forth between them.

So once you have your genre and sub-genre, how do you tap into the expectations that they create in your audience?  That’s tomorrow...


j.s. said...

A number of the genres and subgenres you list are pretty ancient, some even seem to go back to the beginning of human storytelling. But for the more recent ones, I've always been interested in precisely the moment that new genre distinctions/innovations arise. Is it all about trial and error, about incremental change, about the combinatory genius of arranging many preexisting parts into a new whole? Is it mostly something people tend to recognize after the fact, in retrospect (the way the French discovered Film Noir). Or are there ever big creative leaps that are obvious to everyone almost immediately?

Matt Bird said...

Yeah, it's funny watching "Zombie" become a full-fledged sub-genre in the last few years.

"Vampire" has always been its own sub-genre but "Frankenstein" isn't one, since all such stories are considered to be a reference back to one particular story.

Really "Zombie" should fall in the latter category, since all modern zombie traits (shuffling, rotting, eating brains) come from the same place: Romero's "Dead" franchise. And for years, any non-caribbean zombie movie, even if he wasn't involved, was still referred to as an homage to his work...

...But at some point in the last ten years, Romero's creation lost its association with him, and "Romero-esque zombie" was just shortened to "Zombie" as it became a true sub-genre: regarded as a part of the collective unconscious and open to everybody.

So, in short, I guess I'm proposing that an influential innovation become a sub-genre when it stops being associated with the work in which it first appeared.

j.s. said...

The evolution of the zombie subgenre is a perfect recent example of a single innovator who makes a big creative leap from which all else follows. It it heresy to say, though, that slow zombies, interesting metaphor though they seem, never made much sense to me as a visceral threat? I mean, they can't even run and they're stupid, how hard could it be to best them? Fast zombies on the other hand, as in 28 DAYS LATER and the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake are like an angry mob, just bottomlessly dumber and angrier.

Matt Bird said...

I think that they're coming to represent two separate metaphors: slow zombies represent the sluggish-but-rapacious mob, and fast zombies represent the furiously-angry mob.

And I think that they'll both stick around, since "The Walking Dead" shows that slow zombies can still be plenty scary. Maybe they'll become two separate sub-genres soon. (As you've just proven, we're still in the phase where everyone refers to fast zombies by referencing the two movies that originated them.)

In fact this might be what makes a new sub-genre independent: when it becomes an independent metaphor.


Two more comedy sub-genres I forgot: High Camp (HS example: High School Confidential) and Low Camp (HS example: Beach Blanket Bingo).

Another example of sub-genres splitting off: Spoofs belonged to Mel Brooks for a long time, but by the time the Airplane movies came out, they became a full-fledged sub-genre. (Although spoofs still like to claim some tangential relationship to Brooks or the Zuckers)

j.s. said...

Nice catch with the emergence of spoofs. Boy, they sure don't make them like Mel Brooks and the Zuckers used to. I know you mentioned NOT ANOTHER TEEN MOVIE as being funny, but is it really close to being in their league?

j.s. said...

Oh and I think found footage is another interesting emergent genre/subgenre with plenty of unexploited potential. It's not like their isn't some historical precedent for pseudodocumentaries either serious (David Holzman's Diary, It Happened Here) or funny (Spinal Tap). But the ubiquity of small cameras with almost endless recording capacity in the last 10-15 years and the habit of oversharing through social networks has created favorable circumstances for the verisimilitude this new mode of storytelling demands. It's started and remains most firmly planted in horror, but there are a number of non-horror thrillers and other crossbred genre stories in the works with a found footage conceit.

J.A. said...

It's a pet peeve, and neither here nor there as far as this discussion, but those two movies didn't originate fast zombies, they popularized them. As far as I know, the first movie to have fast moving, active zombies was CITY OF THE WALKING DEAD aka NIGHTMARE CITY by Umberto Lenzi. As a fan of B-Grade zombie movies growing up the belief that 28 DAYS LATER was the first movie to make zombies run always bothered me. It reminds me of the way I used to argue with people who thought CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON invented wirework. Of course, as you've discussed on this site, it isn't about the first example of a particular element which people remember, but the use of emerging elements in new and memorable ways.

PS- this is not an endorsement of NIGHMARE CITY, it's a horrible movie. But awesomely horrible.

Matt Bird said...

No "Not Another Teen Movie" is not as good as Brooks and ZAZ at their best, but it used to run all the time on Comedy Central, and I found myself watching it more than once and laughing my ass off.

And how could I have forgotten the mockumentary sub-genre?? (Once associated exclusively with Woody Allen, then with Christopher Guest, then it became ubiquitous)

(Hmm, can't think of a high school example of mockumentary [except the great "Steve Holt!" scenes in "Arrested Development."] Clearly this is a movie that someone needs to make!)

j.s. said...

Well, there's PROJECT X, the teen "parents are away so let's party while we film it all" movie that flopped. And then there's that spec that sold about a tornado hitting a small town prom, told from multiple victims' POVs, including cell phones, etc.

But you're right that there's a ton of room for innovation and experimentation with pseudodocs, found footage or mockumentaries (a moniker which makes more sense for a comedy), however you want to label it.

This is as good a place as any to say that anyone writing in a given genre who wants to do something that matters had better commit to a study of said genre's origins, history, high points and innovations. I'm reading a book right now about the action genre that makes a pretty convincing case for it's synthesis out of the Western and the Noir traditions. I'd never thought of it that way before but it's certainly changed the way I see action film stories and heroes for the better.

Jay Rosenkrantz said...

@j.s. what's the book you are reading (about the action genre)? Have any other book recommendations for getting more educated in the history, innovations and high points of the various genres?

j.s. said...

Jay the action film book is ACTION SPEAKS LOUDER by Eric Lichtenfeld. Other interesting genre studies include the FILM NOIR READER, MEN WOMEN AND CHAINSAWS by Carol Clover (the slasher film), PURSUITS OF HAPPINESS by Stanley Cavell (screwball comedies of remarriage), HORIZONS WEST by Jim Kitses.