Jan 152008

I’m also studying cinema, so this is a post about how genres evolve over time and how movies like Cranked and Shoot ’em Up signal a new stage of evolution in the genre of action films. Having more mental models is better, so you might learn something from this, too, even if you’re not into film theory.

A genre, for our purposes, is a consistent and codified way of approaching deep thematic conflicts inherent in our society and solving them on a superficial level. What is being codified as convention can be a variety of things, but two broad groupings might be plot/character types, setting and iconography (what you see). An example of a highly codified genre might be the Western. The bad cowboy and the good cowboy are broad character types, their conflict forms the basis of a plot type (which actually plays out a concern of society’s, perhaps civilization vs wilderness, etc), and the setting is a desert town in the searing heat, and the iconography are things like horses, six-shooters, cowboy hats, leather boots, etc. And we (ie regular cinema viewers) really only become aware of these conventions when they are violated. For example, if a cowboy suddenly came riding on a spaceship, we’d be a little shocked.

You see, genres go through a few stages that I’m only half remembering (according to a cinema critic I can’t quite remember the name of, either Kitses or Shatz): Formation of convention, Stablization and codification of conventions, and the eventual bringing forward of convention and potentially satirizing them.

Formation of conventions is the stage where conventions of a genre (or sub-genre) are hammered out, potentially because of the runaway success of a certain film or small group of films. Various different kinds of plot types or so on might be attempted to find which one audiences respond to best. As an example, Ripley’s Gladiator started off sub genre of epic pseudo-historical films like Troy and Alexander. Their conventions were fairly well established as showing the beginning of a character, fast-forwarding to their prime and showing their might and a a heroic death of a main character at the end. However, this sub-genre failed to gain a hold on the audiences and thus has been somewhat discontinued, at least in that form (you might argue 300 was a movie this sub genre, but feh).

The second stage occurs when a genre’s conventions have been stabilized and the audiences keep coming in to watch the movie. A sort of “golden age”. Things don’t change much here. The classic Ford westerns are an example of this, as is a movie like Rio Bravo. However, filmmakers continually ask the question of their audiences, “Do you still want to believe in this?” If the answer starts to come back, “no”, then other kinds of films become popular, many that make the conventions of the genre more obvious and in your face, especially by violating them.

As a genre moves into the self-conscious stage, you find something like McCabe and Mrs. Miller, which, if you’ve seen it, is not set in a desert town, but in the western frontiers in the cold forbidding forest. The “myth” of the hero cowboy who comes in and saves the town from thugs bravely and courageously is also shattered by McCabe turning out to be much of a coward and a bit of a liar.

Now we turn to the subject at hand: Shoot ’em Up and Cranked. If you’ve seen them, they’re just ridiculous films. Cranked has the sorriest excuse for a whole ton of action films I’ve ever seen (Jason Statham has been injected with a poison that will kill him if his adrenaline level goes below a certain point, so like Speed but with poison, so he must go around killing people and blowing up cars and having sex in the middle of chinatown, etc.). Shoot ’em Up delivers what the title promises. I’ve found myself laughing at these films, partly because of the sheer joy of it. The filmmakers seem to have realized that the real reason people watch these films is for the massive action sequences and that the plot only gets in the way, so they’ve reduced these films right down to the action. Doing so, they’ve also made the conventions of the action genre (guns, hordes of badguy lackies and so on) more obvious and apparent.

I’m partly amused by writing this pseudo-scholarly (I’m sure I got some of the theory wrong) dissertation on two of the basest films I’ve ever seen…and I love them! And now I’ll return to my movie and then call it a night. Have fun!

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