Genre films and the status quo
by Judith Hess
Cut, no. 1, 1974, pp.1, 16, 18
Hollywood genre films—the western, science fiction film, horror film, gangster film—have been the most popular (and thus the most lucrative) products ever to emerge from the machinery of the U.S. film industry. Critics have long pondered the genre film’s success and have attempted to ferret out the reasons for the public’s appreciation of even the most undistinguished “singing cowboy” westerns. In general, critics have examined these films as isolated phenomena—as found objects—rather than considering genre films in relation to the society which created them. Genre films have been defined as pure myth, as well made plays, and as psychodramas bearing within themselves the working out of unconscious anxieties inherent in the psychological makeup of us all. Certainly any and all of these explanations contain some truth. However none of them explain why U.S. genre films grew and developed and became our most numerous, if not most artistically significant, film productions.
I think that we may see what genre films are by examining what they do. These films came into being and were financially successful because they temporarily relieved the fears aroused by a recognition of social and political conflicts. They helped to discourage any action which might otherwise follow upon the pressure generated by living with these conflicts. Genre films produce satisfaction rather than action, pity and fear rather than revolt. They serve the interests of the ruling class by assisting in the maintenance of the status quo and they throw a sop to oppressed groups who, because they are unorganized and therefore afraid to act, eagerly accept the genre film’s absurd solutions to economic and social conflicts. When we return to the complexities of the society in which we live, the same conflicts assert themselves. So we return to genre films for easy comfort and solace—hence their popularity.
Genre films address themselves to these conflicts and resolve them in a simplistic and reactionary way. Genre films have three significant characteristics which make such resolutions seem possible and even logical. First, these films never deal directly with present social and political problems; second, all of them are set in the non-present. Westerns and horror films take place in the past—science fiction films, by definition, take place in a future time. The gangster film takes place in a social structure so separate from the contemporary structure in which it appears to be taking place that its actual time and place become irrelevant. Third, the society in which the action takes place is very simple and does not function as a dramatic force in the films—it exists as a backdrop against which the few actors work out the central problem the film presents. As Robert Warshow points out in THE IMMEDIATE EXPERIENCE (Atheneum, 1970), the westerner exists in isolation. We have no idea where he gets his money or washes. His trials and confrontations take place in utter isolation (the desert or mountains) or in the setting of a tiny, uncomplicated western town. Horror films present an isolated group of people who live in a tiny village or meet in a castle or island which they do not leave until the end of the movie, if at all. Many science fiction films show professionals moving away from society—to an island, an experimental station of some sort, the south pole, outer space—to cope with alien intruders. Although some science fiction films are set in modern cities, the cities are weirdly empty and serve as labyrinths through which the protagonists thread their ways. The gangster lives in a very limited world populated by a few other gangsters and their molls.
All of these genre films, science fiction included, present a greatly simplified social structure. However frequently this kind of very limited social structure may have existed in the past, it no longer exists in the present. Thus, genre films are nostalgic, their social structure posits some sort of movement backward to a simpler world. And in this simple structure problems which haunt us because of our inability to resolve them are solved in ways which are not possible today. Genre films reject the present and ignore any likely future.
The genre films focus on four major conflicts. The western centers on the violent act and ascertains when, if ever, it becomes morally right. The horror film attempts to resolve the disparities between two contradictory ways of problem solving, one based on rationality, the other based on faith, an irrational commitment to certain traditional beliefs. The science fiction films provide a solution to the problems presented by intrusion, i.e., they tell us how to deal with what may be called “the other.” Gangster films resolve the contradictory feelings of fear and desire which are aroused by attempts to achieve financial and social success.
The problems posed by these contradictions are solved simply. The western decrees that the violent act can become morally right when it occurs within the confines of a code which allows for executions, revenge killings, and killings in defense of one’s life and property. In the microcosmic western society everyone’s code is the same; thus absolute guilt and innocence are possible because social and moral goodness are the same. Horror films present man as fallen, prey to uncontrollable evil impulses. Only by reliance on traditional beliefs and the domination of a well defined upper class can we be saved from doom and perdition. The science fiction film’s answer to the problem of the intruder is sheerest isolationism. No possible advance in knowledge gained from communication could possibly outweigh the dangers It presents—the only sane response is to eradicate It. The gangster film, by implication, opts for happy anonymity. To be successful is to become vulnerable; the successful one becomes the foe of all who wish to take his place. Gangster films show the fearful results of attempting to rise within a hierarchical society and thus defend class lines. These simplistic solutions—the adherence to a well defined, unchanging code, the advocacy of methods of problem solving based on tradition and faith, the advocacy of isolationism, and the warning to stay within one’s station if one is to survive—all militate against progressive social change.
In order to flesh out these assertions it is necessary to examine each of the genres in some detail. The western male is dominated by a code of honor which prescribes his every action; violence by lynching or shooting, amorous advances, or friendships are determined by some fixed rule. One lynches cattle rustlers but not petty thieves—one runs them out of town. One sleeps only with bar girls, not eastern school teachers. One never shoots a man in the back; one is utterly loyal to one’s friends, defending them physically and verbally at every possible opportunity. At a certain mystical point in the interaction between two opposing forces, the western version of the duel becomes morally acceptable. Both the villain and the know immediately when this point comes as they do not exist as psychological entities apart from the code—rather, they embody the code. The earliest westerns afford the clearest expression of the workings of this code. In these movies the heroes and villains are like chess pieces moved about to depict the code’s intricacies. In a great many westerns you will note the eerie occurrence of two phrases which are as far as these movies go toward positing motivation: “I have to...” and “All I know is... “ These phrases express how the code provides motivation, not the person himself. Westerners act together in absolute, unthinking accord. Westerns examine those aspects of the code which determine the westerner’s response to situations which demand violence. The compartmentalizations of the code—one treats bank robbers one way and friends another—allow for situations which involve contradictory responses. What happens, for example, in THE VIRGINIAN (Victor Fleming, 1929), a movie that Robert Warshow calls “archetypal, “ when a captured rustler is at the same time a friend? Gary Cooper, a chess-piece representation of the code, is caught on the horns of a moral and social dilemma. Although he must bow to the will of the other members of the posse, for whom the situation is not complicated (the rustler is not their friend) and assist in the lynching, and his friend exonerates him, Cooper must work within the code to redeem himself—to rid himself of guilt by balancing the books.
And, there is a single, simple solution. His friend has been drawn into rustling by the film’s real villain, Trampas. Cooper must wipe him out, at the same time showing the restraint demanded of the westerner. He must wait for that mystical point in time at which the showdown becomes morally and socially right. And, Trampas, because he is a villain and thus cannot act any other way, provides Cooper with sufficient injury and insult, and is thus shot in fair fight. Several violent actions are condoned in the movie: traditionally sanctioned violence demanded by the group (note that Cooper never questions the lynching, he only suffers because he is forced to abandon his friend); violence which is brought about by repeated attacks on one’s character (Trampas indicates that Cooper is a coward) and which redeems the violence Cooper has been forced to do to his friend. These acts of violence have complete social sanction. Only Cooper’s eastern schoolmarm girlfriend fails to condone Cooper’s actions; she has not as yet been assimilated into western society.
In the western every man who operates solely with reference to this strict code lives and dies redeemed. He has retained his social and moral honor. The code provides justification; thus it allows for a guiltless existence. On the other hand, we do not know ourselves when, if ever, violence is justifiable. We have great difficulty in forming a personal code and we cannot be sure that this code will conform in any way to the large, impersonal legal code set up to regulate our unwieldy, decaying economic structure. The westerner’s code is at once personal and social—if a man lives by it he both conforms to social norms and retains his personal integrity. It is evident whence comes the satisfaction we get from the western. Momentarily we understand the peace which comes from acting in accord with a coherent moral and social code and forget our fragmented selves. Many critics have seen the western as a glorification of traditional American individualism. On the contrary, the western preaches integration and assimilation and absolute obedience to the laws of the land.
The horror film deals with the conflict between rational or scientific and traditional ways of problem solving. In DRACULA (Tod Browning, 1930), FRANKENSTEIN (James Whale, 1931), THE MUMMY (Karl Freund, 1932), and THE WOLFMAN (George Waggner, 1948), the monsters are the embodiment of human evil. They are three dimensional representations of our uncontrollable will to evil; we must conquer them if society is to survive. Lawrence Talbot ignores the gypsy’s warnings, is tainted by a wolf bite and becomes dominated by evil desires—he kills those he cares for. Dracula, the incarnation of unbridled sensuality, attracts his victims, sucks them dry, and condemns them to becoming like him. Before becoming a mummy, an Egyptian prince has unsuccessfully pitted himself against the will of the gods. He too represents unbridled sensual appetite, the naked id. Dr. Frankenstein’s poor maimed creation is a projection of his own overwhelming will to power and knowledge beyond that granted man by God. Because he relies totally on scientific means to ends, he becomes a monster himself—he is redeemed by suffering and by his complete rejection of his heretical drive to uncover the secrets of life and death.
Various groups attempt to overcome the monsters. “Ignorant peasants” (for example, the Egyptian workers or the Carpathian peasants), who believe in the reality of evil but who belong to a traditionally oppressed class, are overcome, or at best live out a miserable existence under the monster’s sway. The masses are shown to be without sufficient moral strength to overcome the monster themselves. These monsters are at some point opposed by an enlightened scientist who, because he believes only in the ability of science to defeat social and physical ills and in rational, demonstrable means to ends, disregards tradition and thus threatens the existing social order. Because he refuses to believe in the power of the irrational will to evil, the monster annihilates him. The monster is finally defeated by a member of the upper class who abandons scientific training in favor of belief in the traditional ways in which others before him have overcome evil forces. Dr. Van Helsing, once he realizes that medical science cannot save Dracula’s victims, does research, finds what traditionally has been used against Dracula (beheading, garlic, a stake through the heart), and employs these means. The wolfman is killed by a silver headed cane, the mummy is destroyed by an appeal to the ancient Egyptian gods. Jan Helsing makes the required return to tradition with a commitment to articles of faith, as do all those who defeat the evil.
The message is clear: science must not be allowed to replace traditional values and beliefs. Otherwise, chaos will result as humans cannot control their own evil tendencies or those of the people around them without supra-rational help. The social order out of which these monsters spring is posited as good—it must remain unchanged. Only by the benevolent dictatorship of the hereditary aristocracy can these monsters be kept at bay; the existing class structure prevents chaos. Like the German expressionist horror films which preceded them, American horror films (the first and best of which appeared in the early thirties) may be seen as a reaction to a period of economic and social upheaval—the films are, in effect, a plea to go back to older methods of coping. This solution works in the horror film’s oversimplified world.
The science fiction film, which developed during the forties and fifties, may be seen as a dramatization of those fears and desires aroused by the cold war period. “The other,” however strange an alien, has at least some significant relation to those massed hordes of Communists foisted on the American people by such venomous red baiters as Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, and Billy Graham. Confronted by “the other,” state these films, there is only one possible response. We must use every scientific means at our disposal to destroy the invader.
As in the horror film, the social order which exists previous to the coming of the aliens is posited as good. The aliens, who are scientifically advanced but who lack emotions (that is, they do not share our values), invade in frightening machines. Often non-violent communication is established between a few scientists and the aliens. However, these scientists invariably learn that these beings aim to take our bodies (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, Don Siegel, 1956), or to assume social and political control (EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS, Fred F. Sears. 1956), or to suck our blood (THE THING, Christian Nyby, 1951). The uneasiness Americans feel about scientific advance and intellectuals in general is evident in many of these films—often a wild haired scientist is willing to hand over the country to the invaders in order to learn more about the secrets of the universe. He is either annihilated by the very invaders he has tried to protect, or he regroups when confronted by the invaders’ lack of concern with our traditional values and social structures. Usually, however, the scientists (often they are allied with the military) are the first to recognize the extent of the aliens’ ill will and band together to defeat them. Great ingenuity and immediate scientific advance are required to win the fight, but the scientists discover the necessary materials in the nick of time and save the world. Although a few films question the absolute evil of the aliens (20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH USA, Nathan Juran, 1957; THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, Robert Wise, 1951), these films were not well received. It was those films which gave a single, unequivocal answer to the problem of “the other” which were the most successful. The message of these films was that “the other” will do only evil, no matter what blandishments disguise its true intent. The only recourse is to destroy it utterly. And, so say these films, we can. These films build on fears of intrusion and overpowering and thereby promote isolationism. Also, they imply that science is good only in as much as it serves to support the existing class structure.
The best beginning to a discussion of the gangster film is Robert Warshow’s description of our reactions to it:
The world of the gangster is made up of a pyramidal hierarchy. Only one man can be the top dog. We follow a single man as he makes his way up the various ranks of the structure. As in PUBLIC ENEMY (William Wellman, 1931), he may start out as a petty thief who sells his loot to a fence a few steps higher up in the system. He quickly graduates to stealing liquor supplies, and finally to the rank of boss. Unlike Scarface and Little Caesar, who make it all the way, Cagney is undone by his own temper and arrogance before he becomes much more than small time. However, he is intrepid enough to attempt to revenge another gang’s decimation of his own hierarchy, and is killed as a warning to others who might attempt to meddle with the strong.
These men are rebels and renegades, but only within the confines of the existing order. They do not wish to establish a different kind of structure, but to fight their way to the top of an existing one. This pyramid is a microcosm of the capitalist structure. We have a very ambivalent response to the competition necessary to survive in our own competitive society. We know that we must defeat other people to succeed ourselves. And because we have reached any worthwhile position through aggression, we are left vulnerable to any competitor who covets our position. We are left with the choice of fighting with all comers, and we know we cannot do that successfully forever, or else failing. As Warshow states, we can exist with our own economic and social failure as we watch the gangster’s death. For a moment it becomes acceptable to survive, even at the price of economic anonymity. A gangster film would never suggest that a different sort of social and political structure might allow for more humane possibilities. In fact, the gangster film implicitly upholds capitalism by making the gangster an essentially tragic figure. The insolubility of his problem is not traced to its social cause; rather the problem is presented as growing out of the gangster’s character. His tragic flaw is ambition; his stature is determined by the degree to which he rises in the hierarchy. We are lead to believe that he makes choices, not that he is victimized by the world in which he finds himself. The gangster film retains its appeal because our economic structure does not change—we must commit aggressive acts to survive within the confines of our capitalistic structure. And, as Warshow implies, when we see a gangster film—be it LITTLE CAESAR (Mervyn Le Roy, 1930) or THE GODFATHER (Francis Ford Coppola, 1971)—we are moved not to struggle out of our class or to question our hierarchical social structure, but to subside and survive.
We may trace the amazing survival and proliferation of the genre films to their function. They assist in the maintenance of the existing political structure. The solutions these films give to the conflicts inherent in capitalism require obeisance to the ruling class, and cause the viewer to yearn for less, not greater freedom in the face of the insoluble ambiguities which surround him or her. He or she is encouraged to cease examining him/her. He/she is encouraged to cease examining his/her surroundings, and to take refuge in fantasy from his/her only real alternative—to rise up against the injustices perpetrated by the present system upon its members.