At first, nothing seems more arbitrary than classifying films by genre, other than using five or six firmly established labels. But then, you could say that it’s the most common films that are the easiest to place as part of an established genre.
If that’s the case, then it would be reasonable for those who have thought about the idea of film genres to simply adopt the dominant notion or line of thought. However, those thoughts aren’t based on either the message of the film, or its apparent content, but on two fundamental elements: implicit content and style.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that great, classic movies often belong to several genres, transcending aesthetic categories. Should we view Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights as a simple comedy, a drama or something more poetic? Or Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday – is this a farce, a satire or again, a poetic work?
The difficulty in classification occurs because cinema breaks all the moulds: when reality comes together inside art, the result resists all labels. Both reality and art express themselves in a world of archetypes, one closed inside the other, intersecting together, without any precise demarcation.
One of the most crazy and delirious comedies that has ever been filmed, the cast is led by Ole Olson and Chic Johnson, two comics who nobody remembers.
A frenzied farce, it leaves the same aftertaste of destruction that is as apocalyptic as a modernist painting or certain surrealist works.
Its double layer unnoticed, ignored on its release, the film eventually swelled the ranks of “cursed” movies and now today, it enjoys cult status. And all of this, because the cinemagoer’s perspective can move a film from one category to the other, over a few days, or even a couple of years.
Further, it should be remembered that certain narratives from different art forms, like Hamlet, Death of a Salesman, or A Streetcar named Desire, have found a place in cinema, having been on stage before they arrived on screen.
The scene is essentially based upon gestures and through words. However, film provides something that the theatre just can’t replicate, through its aesthetics, form and the viewer’s intimate relationship with an inanimate box.
Cinema, obviously, has created categories, or rather, genres of films, and the majority of those genres are extensions or modifications of other art forms.
So, there are links between musicals and musical theatre, or between film noir and detective novels. If there is one genre that was very much a cinematic discovery, then it has to be the Western, although, perhaps you’d have to reference the connection between Buffalo Bill’s show and other similar figures from the 1870s onwards.
However, even though a universally recognised classification doesn’t exist, films can be grouped by whether they are narrative, didactic or dramatic works.
The first type of genre includes historical or imagined accounts, such as: a) historical films that, in general, refer to an actual event, like Battleship Potemkin by Sergei Eisenstein; b) biopics of real people, like Lawrence of Arabia, by David Lean; c) accounts of contemporary events, such as documentaries and news magazines.
For imagined stories, the marvelous, fabulous or supernatural plays a big part, such as in Beauty and the Beast by Jean Cocteau.
The didactic genre covers films that wish to teach and instruct, and are about serious subjects in many disciplines. And the dramatic narrative adheres, essentially, to presenting a conflict, which could be internal as much as external and it divides, generally, into drama, tragedy and comedy.
In turn, drama can be subdivided into four main categories: 1) character films, in which the portrait of the main character subordinates the other elements; 2) costume dramas, which aim to paint a picture or satirise the customs and manners of the times, or the ridiculous side of the lives of a people or a society; 3) intrigue, where there is an adventure in which unexpected incidents and unusual activity happen until the film reaches its denouement; and 4) lyric, which aims to make us listen to music or watch dance.
Finally, there are the essays, the searches, the experimental cinema, through which the filmmaker tries to find new approaches to creating new work and so frequently, there is more emphasis on form than content.
*The author is a Cuban critic and historiographer of cinema. This article was contributed by Prensa Latina.
(Translated by Daniela Fetta )