Wednesday, March 15, 2006
MYTH OF GENRE part 2
If you think about it, Jaws is just a monster movie. And, like a lot of monster movies, incidental characters are picked off as our hero tries to stop the creature. But, somehow, the film transcends genre. It’s because it has an armature and a character of change.
Lots of films came out after Jaws which tried to repeat its success. One film used an orca whale in place of a shark, and another used a mutated bear.
None of these films went below the surface to understand why Jaws had resonance.
Terminator and Aliens are also just monster movies on the outside; what sets them apart are their strong armatures.
This happens in literature as well. No one ever says that 1984 is just a science fiction novel. Or that Animal Farm is a kid’s book because it has talking animals. Nor do they say the same of Gulliver’s Travels because its world is fantastic.
Is Star Wars sci-fi or is it fantasy or is it action? If it is sci-fi, does it have anything in common with Alien? What do E.T. and 2001 have in common? What are the similarities between Terminator 2 and Galaxy Quest? Indeed there is little these films share in common.
We have also prescribed a hierarchy to genre stories: “This is a costume drama; it must have more to say than a sci-fi story.” This, of course, is not the truth.
When Clint Eastwood made UNFORGIVEN, it felt like few westerns before it because it was more concerned with theme than with props, setting, costumes and stereotypes. It transcended genre.
Fed-up with the restrictions enforced on him by networks and advertisers, Rod Serling stopped writing the prestigious teleplays for live television for which he was famous. When he announced that he would be doing a fantasy show, many thought he had given up on doing “serious work” for television.
Mr. Serling knew something the executives didn’t. “I knew I could have Martians say things that Democrats and Republicans couldn’t,” he said. He was able to use the prejudice of genre hierarchy to his advantage. He wrote fantastical stories about real human issues without any flack from advertisers, and audiences always knew what he was saying.
We all have a fondness for a particular motif. I like the clothes and cars from the mid-twentieth century. I have a visceral response to those things when I see them in movies. That doesn’t make the film good.
More importantly, other people may not share my appreciation for these things, so as a storyteller, I must speak to them on a deeper level. The armature must be so strong that it makes the story universal and makes the genre inconsequential.
As a storyteller, you should be aware in which genre your story will, more than likely, be viewed. Outwardly, it should be in a recognized genre.
That will make it much easier to sell and to market. Only you need to know you’ve transcended the genre. Your audience will know it too, they just won’t know they know.