In the article ‘Experience and Meaning in Genre Films’, Barry Keith Grant explores the construction of the audience contract, formed even prior to the commencement of the genre film. With the use of filmic examples as well as academic reference, Grant deconstructs the physiological, ideological and cultural components played upon constructing, releasing and viewing film.
As Grant explores the importance of films as ideological constructs, aspects of myth become central to genre films, as they become a way to tell stories from perspectives that may almost be lost to society. This logic can certainly be applied to Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972), as it explores a specific culture that was eradicated by history, only to be relived through cinema.
Barry Keith Grant opens his article emphasising the significance of audience engagement and the “distinct physiological response” (Grant, 2012, p. 133) as the signifier of efficient genre film reception. The spectator must be engaged, with “willing suspension of disbelief… for character identification” (Grant, 2012, p. 133). With an emphasis on these successful bonds, Grant establishes that the greatest filmmakers are concerned with the sometimes exploitative nature of the film experience, especially “their recurrent theme [of] the psychological/sociological” (Grant, 2012, p. 133).
Grant’s emphasis on filmmakers employing this method is demonstrated through examples of directors who corroborate audience engagement such as Alfred Hitchcock and Francios Truffaut. Grant also discusses that this importance is not limited to either ‘open’ or ‘closed’ films, as “they all mobilise elements of the viewing experience as an essential… element of their film work” (Grant, 2012, p. 134). Thus, both of these film categories make use of this underpinning rule of audience engagement, which Grant demonstrates through the juxtaposition of contrasting filmmakers such as Fritz Lang and Federico Fellini.
Grant next delineates the specifics of generic construction. Although critics see films as expressions of the filmmaker’s personality, genre films include a more specific makeup, “the function of genre works as secular myth and the assumed ‘contract’ between filmmaker and film viewer” (Grant, 2012, p. 134). Grant also emphasises the equilibrium of the “system of production, distribution, and consumption” (Grant, 2012, p. 134), highlighting that each allows for the film’s existence. In discussing these elements, Grant uses a counter-argument in considering the significance of individual film reception. Upon reaffirming that genre “sets… expectations that condition our responses to a genre film” (Grant, 2012, p. 134), and that the dynamics of these conditions are pivotal in the reception of genre films.
Upon invoking anthropological ideals, Grant illustrates the idea that genre films have become “contemporary versions of social myth” (Grant, 2012, p. 134), linked with cultural values that are commonly shared at the time of production and distribution. Further, Grant uses particular examples, including disaster films made during the Nixon Administration which clearly demonstrated the social disillusionment in America during this time: “the good [and evil]… perish indiscriminately… expresses the increasingly prevalent social dis-ease of the time” (Grant, 2012, p. 135).
This evolution as a reflection of culture, Grant states, supports the claim that genre film is art. Grant employs a quote from Dewey which suggests that “an interaction with the text [is an] aesthetic experience” (Grant, 2012, p. 136). Grant goes on to use Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960) to demonstrate how the viewer is led to emit specific emotional reactions upon identifying with “antisocial” characters. Grant states that Hitchcock delivers us signs of redemption when identifying with Marion, only to have her murdered. This defies our expectations of both the genre and its conventions, with our expectation for the protagonist to persist, especially prior to redemption. Following Marion’s death, identification is shifted to Norman, which Grant states only enhances the disturbing nature of the film. Grant states that the narrative shift in Psycho prior to Marion’s demise is all the more significant, as it “implicates the viewer in the immoral desires of the characters” (Grant, 2012, p. 137).
In demonstrating the idea that Psycho’s horror comes predominately from experience and idendifications rather than visual cues, Grant implement’s Stephen C. Pepper’s term ‘contextualism’. Grant explains contextualism as a critical practice that places value on experience first, and aesthetic second. Applying this convention to the horror genre, Grant states that “a horror film is more than simply a bundle of conventions and icons” (Grant, 2012, p. 138) and rather “a unity of some kind of action” (Grant, 2012, p. 138). This application of Pepper’s contextualism by Grant to Psycho further demonstrates the importance of experience even when it is exploited by filmmakers.
Grant questions the role of contextualism and whether film genre carries with it an inherent sense of predictability through their conventions. They are “’positioned’ by generic conventions, themselves determined by the dominant ideology” (Grant, 2012, p. 139). Answering this question, Grant reveals that whilst contextualism has the potential to devalue genre films, the value of genre films can be demonstrated though the use of an auteur, providing tension or conflict: “…auteurs who, working within or against this system, animate these forms” (Grant, 2012, p. 139).
Upon examining the components of generic film, Grant discusses the ways in which typecasting dictates or subverts an audience’s expectations. Using the example of Edward G. Robinson, with each of his roles informing the next. In Scarlet Street (Lang, 1945), Grant states, the audience’s expectations are frequently subverted, playing with tension and violence, ultimately implicating the audience, “imagining ([and] even hoping) that Cross will murder his wife” (Grant, 2012, p. 140). Grant’s examples support this claim that generic meaning can be generated by actors and casting, with expectations following them.
Grant follows with a discussion of Night of the Living Dead (Romero, 1968) and it’s propensity to play against conventional structure. Grant explains that through Romero’s consistent generic violations, the film presents as all the more shocking, especially with regard to the original production and release period: “I began to understand… that the night of the living dead is not the evening of the film’s narrative, but the darkness in the human spirit” (Grant, 2012, p. 144). Grant’s summary and conceptualisation of Romaro’s horror film, written in first-person, further substantiates the ways in which a generic films achieve success though highlighting experience and subverting the viewer’s generic expectations. A viewer only has to be open to it “as [a] potential experience, it is a rich film indeed” (Grant, 2012, p. 145).
In returning to the idea of the aesthetic experience, Grant observes that repeated viewings can be of equal importance when interacting with film as an art object. Grant distinguishes this experience as an act of “funding” one’s experience by seeing it again: “…by the composite sum of all the other films of that genre we have seen” (Grant, 2012, p. 145). Upon revisiting certain generic films, Grant adds that viewers can revisit elements that are unique to that specific genre, as well as the social values from which it was constructed: “…we are… forced to deal with the cultural construction of social values” (Grant, 2012, p. 146).
Through his conclusion, Grant predicts that genre films will continue to evolve, along with critics’ observations of them. Grant maintains that the most important aspects of generic film are “the nature of the audience contract and generic experience” (Grant, 2012, p. 146). Grant states that although most genre films do not succeed by contextualist standard, “they are all of… interest as ideological constructs” (Grant, 2012, p. 146). Grant affirms the importance of understanding the ideology behind a film’s composition as well as “our collective and individual responses as well” (Grant, 2012, p. 146).
Upon applying Grant’s ideas to Cabaret (Fosse, 1972), the importance of understanding its production and reception runs true in order to fully understand it as a generic film and ideological construct. Loosely based upon a Broadway show which made its debut in 1966, its narrative found its origins in pre and post-World War II literature. The film was released in 1972 to a successful critical and box-office reception. The film itself explores the underground cabaret culture which emerged in Berlin after the First World War.
Told though the perspective of a young British academic (Michael York), Cabaret subverts the tropes of the musical genre through it self-reflexivity, with scenes backed by the cabaret itself. It is only Sally Bowls (Liza Minelli) who both sings and works in the plot, but is also the heart of the film, as we are pushed to align with her experience principally.
It is the film’s genuine drama that subverts the conventions of the musical genre. With the inevitable rise of the Nazi party, the viewer is startled out of the romantic plot, much like the characters. A dark undertone emerges, as well as a disturbing sense of reality. Upon this understanding and further character developments, the last song ‘Cabaret’ is performed for the viewer who has the knowledge of what would come next in history and culture, with this one eradicated completely.
Additionally, Grant’s idea of cinema as “contemporary versions of social myth” is perfectly applied here, as it gives viewers to the opportunity to see this culture in as full a form as is possible today.
In closing, Barry Keith Grant maintains the significance of the ways in which genre films can demonstrate meanings through experiences and expectations. Upon subverting generic expectations, film can be viewed uniquely and with multiplicity, playing upon pre-ordained conceptions of how genre performs and allowing viewers to revisit long-gone social reflections.
Fosse, B. (Director). (1972). Cabaret [Motion Picture].
Grant, B. K. (2012). Experience and Meaning in Genre Films. In U. o. Press (Ed.), Film Genre Reader IV (pp. 133-147). Texas: University of Texas Press.
Hitchcock, A. (Director). (1960). Psycho [Motion Picture].
Internet Movie Database. (2016, 01 01). Cabaret (1972). Retrieved from Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0068327/
Lang, F. (Director). (1945). Scarlet Street [Motion Picture].
Romero, G. (Director). (1968). Night of the Living Dead [Motion Picture].
Analysis of Barry Keith Grant’s article Experience and Meaning in Genre Films
Written and assessed during Semester 2, 2016