#blogsync – 30 June Blog.
I have been a teacher of English and Media Studies for 24 years, a Headteacher for 9 years and, at the age of 48, this much I know about, a ‘great classroom explanation’ of genre theory.
I owe a lot to Ian Wall and Film Education. When I began teaching media studies in 1990 Film Education published a series of booklets called, I think, How to Read a Film; I nicked the idea behind what follows from the Genre booklet of that series. That Film Education has become another victim of our austere age seems very wrong.
Language has so many limitations. Most of the time we explain things through metaphor and simile; we use comparisons expressed in other words to explain something, rather than explain that something itself using its own terminology.
The commercial imperative which underpins film genre production is easily forgotten. The Baked Bean Theory of Genre, with Heinz, Crosse & Blackwell, Tesco’s and all, competing for the biggest share of the baked bean market is a great way of emphasising to students this aspect of film genre production. The powerpoint I use is here. What follows is just one way it can be used to explain the concept of genre in film production, but I am sure it could be used in a similar way to explain Gothic literature as a genre, for example.
For a film to be classified in a certain genre it has to contain a well-defined, familiar set of key features; the same with a tin of Baked Beans. And if we think of Baked Beans we automatically think of Heinz Baked Beanz. So, the key features of a tin of Baked Beans which form the definitive concept of baked beans are: the beans, the tomato sauce, and the pastel blue tin wrapper with the (later to develop the phonetic Beanz) strapline Heinz Baked Beans:
Mainstream film is all about industry profits. Imagine releasing the first ever tin of Heinz Baked Beans on an unsuspecting public! You’ve kept that product secret for months and suddenly, BOOM! it captures the whole of the Orange Teas market in hours. Commercial joy… (BTW, that’s what we called teas in the ’70s when you got home from school and your mum either couldn’t afford, or couldn’t be bothered, to serve up anything other than a tin of beans or spaghetti or ravioli on toast – the orange refers to the colour of the food). This mum here may look perfect, but I reckon it was just too much bother to cook the kids anything but an Orange Tea…
Commercial competition drives innovation in film genre. Imagine you’re the head of R&D at Crosse & Blackwell. Your tinned ravioli sales plummet overnight. What to do, what to do? You change your production line so that it produces your own baked beans following the exact same formula as Heinz, except for the pastel blue tin wrapper and that irritatingly good phonetic strapline. And you recover a decent share of the Orange Teas market.
To keep a genre commercially viable and interesting to your audience you tweak the well-defined, familiar set of key features, adding something new to the next film whilst clearly maintaining the next film’s genre classification. The bosses at Heinz are gutted. With Crosse & Blackwell’s beans on the market profits have dropped. What to do, what to do? Answer: develop a new product which is still undeniably Heinz Baked Beanz, but with a twist on the original – Heinz Baked Beanz with Pork Sausages! Still Heinz, still baked beans, but with a difference which will attract new buyers. And, hey presto, profits rise again and you steal back most of the Orange Teas market you lost to Crosse & Blackwell.
Film genre production is cyclical. Bosses at Crosse and Blackwell respond with…their own Baked Beans with Pork Sausages. Heinz retaliates with Curried Baked Beans. And so it goes on until every variation on the original Heinz Baked Beanz has been developed…
Keeping within the limits of the genre is important. There are moments when the well-defined, familiar set of key features are tweaked so much that the new product is almost unrecognizable as Heinz Baked Beanz – Heinz Baked Beanz Pizza, for instance – but throughout the production cycle the definitive, pure concept of baked beans – the beans, the tomato sauce, and the pastel blue tin wrapper with the phonetic strapline Heinz Baked Beanz – is recognisable.
Film genre cycles tend to end where they began. As the product is exhausted, Heinz decide to promote the original product once again as there will be customers who have forgotten what plain old Heinz Baked Beanz tasted like; they re-establish the product which began the whole product cycle all those years ago. If the original bolsters sales again, the cycle will repeat itself.
Once students understand the metaphorical explanation of something, they find the real thing easy to understand. The Heist movie genre is a gift to teach. It is a sub-genre of the Gangster movie, something I have written about before here. The Heist movie genre is nicely demonstrated by the following eight films:
The Asphalt Jungle (dir: Huston, 1950) – the blueprint for all Heist movies;
Rififi (Dassin, 1954) – variation: the 28 minute dialogue-free safe-cracking scene;
The Killing (Kubrick, 1956) – variation: parallel narratives;
The Taking of Pelham 123 (Sargent, 1974) – variation: hold up on a tube train;
City on Fire (Lam, 1987) – variation: set in Japan with the Police insider;
Reservoir Dogs (Tarantino, 1991) – variation: the heist movie without a heist, in real time;
Ocean’s 11 (Soderbergh, 2001) – variation: hi-tech trickery and a re-make;
Heist (Mamet, 2003) – as the title suggests, a definitive heist movie of the old school.
If you want to study one film, then make it Reservoir Dogs, as it steals from all that came before it: The Killing (parallel narratives); The Taking of Pelham 123 (the colour nicknames); High Noon (real time); City on Fire (insider Policeman and several iconic moments; Keitel’s eye-level double gunning down of the Police car is taken directly from Lam’s film, for instance). And it does the most audacious thing – it has no heist and yet is a heist movie. Tarantino shows that you can remove the main element of the genre’s recipe and still keep the movie rooted unmistakably within the genre. I think it’s the heist movie’s Heinz Baked Beanz with Red Hot Balls!