Blade Runner, Hollywood, and the Reliance of Genre

by criticalhit009

In which a discussion about Blade Runner prompts a discussion about the nature of art and genre itself.

Jonathan Hielkema: So here’s the problem with Blade Runner. One of them. It’s totally unsure of itself. I’m beginning to think the reason it can support so many readings is that it’s one of the most self-contradictory films ever made. Which makes it a nice “in” for analyzing postmodernity, but a thoroughly dispiriting experience to watch. So let’s take another futuristic dystopian film from the 80s. Brazil. That film has:

1. A consistent aesthetic
2. Is unrelentingly critical and ugly rather than sometimes wallowing in its own spectacle.
3. Has a kickass samurai instead of that geisha sign.

Also, it doesn’t have those damned Coke ads everywhere. Body Heat is the same damn thing. Coke everywhere.

Jacqueline Ristola: Same thing with In The Heat Of The Night, there are Coke products everywhere in that film. But that’s a completely different genre and decade. Continue.

JH: Thing is, I didn’t notice any product placement in the noirs we watched until Body Heat. And I’m like, “oh, here we go with the corporatization of the studio system.”

Blade Runner’s poster is also basically the Star Wars poster. Star Wars might be the herald of the new blockbuster age. And Body Heat was produced by George Lucas and directed by the screenwriter of Empire Strikes Back. So here’s my theory. This whole postmodern revival of noir in the early 80s was on the same level as Star Wars’ revival of the old sci-fi serials. It’s like the fanboyish dark side of the movie brat generation.

JR: I think you’re on to something. You also have movie brats seeing what they loved growing up and wanting to emulate it as well. Love letters to genre, and so forth.

JH: Right. But at no point in the history of American cinema does genre go away. Which is interesting, because genre is not a big part of art cinema in Europe.

JR: Perhaps that’s why foreign film can be so inaccessible for many people. “What genre is Breathless?” “Uh….”

JH: While even the most audacious Hollywood movies from the 70s tend to be genre flicks.

JR: Hmm. It seems you can never escape genre, at least in Hollywood.

JH: What’s Godard’s Notre Musique? Tell me what genre that film is.

JR: Well, when in doubt, films get shoved into “avant garde” or “art house.”

JH: Those aren’t genres. “Art house” is a type of theatre. It’s an exhibition space.

JR: I mean that people use the term “indie” or “arthouse” as genre sometimes. They prove useful categories for some people. [ED: Here’s a good exploration of the problems surrounding such terms.)

And I’m going to shove the whole “use as meaning” discussion we could have for now. It’s a mess that will only distract us from our train of thought. So here’s a question I’ll pose:

Can a film escape genre?

Note that that kind of phrasing implicitly says that there’s something wrong with genre, that great film could be hampered by it, when that is not necessarily the case.

JH: If a film is abstract enough, I think so. Like non-narrative film, which is more like genre-less abstract painting.

JR: If there is a narrative, we can distill outwards and look at the two grand forms of genre: comedy or tragedy. And we then we make value judgements from there.

So, “Empire” by Andy Warhol. 8 hours of film looking at the empire state building. Narrative? No. Genre? Also no. So there we have it.

You can only escape genre by eschewing narrative. Boom.

JH: OK, all narratives rely on conventions and stock settings as shorthand. I’ll buy that.

JR: Richard Dyer wrote on the concept of stereotyping, that we rely on stock constructs to organize our perception of the world. Films with no genre might avoid some of the easy stock stereotyping existing in narrative media. Though you could have symbols of genre (the cowboy hat) and have it be a placeholder for, say, evaluating those myths and tropes, without a film being a western itself.

JH: Right.

JR: Anything to add/continue?

JH: Not on genre. As for Blade Runner, mrenh.

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