Genre can be a double-edged sword for any filmmaker.
On the upside, knowing the genre of your story can help you figure out a character, fix a plot that doesn’t hang together or just simply provide you with inspiration. On the downside, you can quickly get stuck in the codes and conventions of that genre, which can lend your film a formulaic, unoriginal feel, however brilliant your idea was.
So how do you figure out how to negotiate that fine line? How do you poke fun at, or pay homage to a genre and make a success out of it? Let’s have a look at how these films did it.
Thelma & Louise
A classic feminist film starring Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, this Ridley Scott cult classic redefined the road and buddy movie genres in forefronting female characters – usually sidelined or non-existent in films in those genres before then. Some greatly empowering films had come before (Nine to Five comes to mind, as do Cleo From 5 to 7 or Jeanne Dielman, 23) yet this bombastic story became a phenomenon and the mother of all films reconquering male spaces.
An interesting aspect of Tarantino’s classic debut feature is how, despite being a self-defined heist film, the film never actually shows the heist. Every character talks about it, and the crux of the story revolves around that event, but it is never shown. Tarantino, who is always one to remind its audience that they’re watching a movie, has happily admitted that the decision to not show the heist was initially done for budgetary reasons. However, this plot decision actually makes it the elephant in the room and even more potent.
The Dark Knight trilogy
What is a comic book? In the case of the likes of Marvel and DC, it’s vivid images, an other-worldly visual style, extraordinary characters, sound effects written in capital letters… it’s surreal. Now, what happens if you ground that in reality? What happens if terror, heightened stakes and a fight between good and evil take place in a world that feels eerily real?
The world changed after 9/11 and the world became conscious of the tension between those forces. Then came Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Far from the cartoonish (and successful) visuals of Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, he gave us a superhero who is also a fully formed character with emotional stakes.
Poking fun, or at least acknowledging that the genre you’re working in has worn-out tropes is a great way to take the high road and avoid making your film redundant – if done well. At the time of its release, Scream became a sensation not just for its deft treatment of the genre, but also for openly dealing with horror film tropes and featuring characters who were aware of them.
Horror is one of the best genres for indie filmmaker. Equally important, it is a genre market that has a huge and dedicated following.
Burn After Reading
The Coen Brothers are almost a genre of their own by now. Their debut, Blood Simple, was a film noir that with nods to horror, and it seems that most of their career has been about either making films in a specific genre, such as True Grit, updating a genre, with modern Western No Country For Old Men, or quite simply poking fun at and paying homage to movies with Hail Caesar!.
Burn After Reading in itself could be a spy film (in its story beats at least) if it were not for its heavy dose of dark comedy and parodic treatment. Blending those two, while adding another element of derision with the casting of Hollywood A-listers as mostly clueless characters, makes this film incredibly singular.
One of the major storytelling themes since the dawn of time has been “man vs. nature”. Fighting against powerful elements in a fight that seems doomed from the beginning is a story device that is as old as story itself (think The Odyssey), mostly because a good chunk of humanity’s history has been about preserving our livelihood against the elements.
This conflict, presumably, would require strength and grit and perseverance, i.e. traditionally masculine characteristics. Therefore, putting a female character – Jennifer Lawrence in her breakout role – in that situation suddenly becomes a major act of subversion. When Thelma & Louise made women protagonists and made female characters take control of their destiny, a film like Winter’s Bone goes a step further by conferring traditional male attributes to a woman. Talk about subversion.
La La Land
Disclaimer: spoilers will follow. The darling of the 2017 Oscar race and the film whose soundtrack is currently a favourite on my Spotify account has made waves for its splashy revival of the “old Hollywood musical”. It’s a beautiful film, with endearing, real characters and captivating music. Had it been made by a less talented filmmaker, Mia and Seb may have ended up together.
But the film becomes less of a revival and more of an update when it makes the brutal decisions of making our darlings not end up together. Despite the saccharine-heavy nostalgia, it’s a 21st-century film, and happily ever after has become a myth of yesteryear. Nowadays, people are about self-realisation, and Debbie Reynolds probably wouldn’t end up with Gene Kelly if Singin’ in the Rain were made today.
There are probably many more films that did an incredible job at subverting and sublimating expectations and the tropes of a genre. Which ones can you think of?