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The Generic

Beyond the Tomb

When discussing the generic we should be wary of using the term dismissively; yet we need to be equally vigilant in not crediting it with a status that implicitly undermines works that settle for its relative absence. When Tarkovsky proposed in Sculpting in Time that genre was a tomb, this was all very well for a director determined to avoid falling into the preconditions of film genres while himself very, very ostensibly often working within them. Ivan’s Childhood is a war movie, Andrei Rublev is a biopic of the painter of that name, Solaris and Stalker are sci-fi movies adapted from novels working within that genre. We can also think of Stanley Kubrick, who made war movies Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket, sci-fi works 2001 and A Clockwork Orange, a horror movie The Shining. Many of his films were literary adaptations (a genre initself?), including some of those mentioned, but also Lolita and Eyes Wide Shut

Yet do we feel as if we are being a little unkind to these two great filmmakers of post-war, cold war cinema, two directors whose work transcends the times as much as they go beyond the generic? If we say that John Ford often made westerns; that Howard Hawks was always much more flexible than Ford in adapting himself to material that could be a western (Red River, Rio Bravo), a comedy (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday), a noir (The Big Sleep) or a gangster pic (Scarface), then it is unlikely people would think that we are being unfair to Ford and Hawks in seeing them as generic filmmakers, albeit in the best sense. But to say it of Kubrick, and especially of Tarkovsky seems to be missing the point of their work; even, in Tarkovsky’s case, insulting the intentions behind it.

By keeping in mind Hawks and Ford as filmmakers working within genres, and Tarkovsky and Kubrick sometimes working out of genres, we can hold in balance the desire to defend or attack the generic by acknowledging two very different approaches to talking about science fiction, the western, the gangster film, the horror, the comedy etc. We admire Hawks’s ability to work within genres; we respect Kubrick’s capacity for working out of them. For Kubrick the genre is a template to reject; for Hawks a model to emulate. When Kubrick makes us laugh in Dr Strangelove this is less because of a genius for comic timing; more a perspective so darkly absurd in its logic that it is as though a point is being made over generic demands being met. At the beginning of His Girl Friday we accept the codes that insist Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell will get back together by the conclusion, just as we see Grant’s rival for Russell’s affections, Ralph Bellamy, a lummox whose only purpose is to be an obstacle in the way rather than a man of feeling and sensitivity. Like in The Awful Truth where Bellamy is again the figure of fun as Cary Grant schemes his way back into a woman’s affections, we go with the conventions of the screwball comedy; we don’t demand from the film that Bellamy gets a fair hearing. In neither film does he possess the qualities that make him a decent rival to Grant for the woman’s love. Half the point is that he doesn’t have them.

These are generically contained works; Tarkovsky’s and Kubrick’s generically restrained works. They want from genre only enough to keep the works within the boundaries of narrative containment, not generic demand. We don’t watch 2001 or Stalker thinking of how they inevitably must end; we see that in each instance the sci-fi codes no longer quite hold. They are films interested in the premise of sci-fi but not generic conclusiveness. When for example Interstellar ends with civilization saved thanks to a convoluted story of a father and daughter’s love, and the father still relatively young while his daughter is an old woman on her death bed, the mind-bending play with time and space that allows for such a conclusion nevertheless still feels generically contained. What counts is that civilization has been saved. This can be contained negatively too. At the end of Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes we find out that Heston hasn’t landed on another planet after all, but has been in the future of earth with man now in cages and monkeys in charge. The closing scene showing us a collapsed Statue of Liberty illustrates that sci-fi is pretty good at showing civilization lost.

We might find Interstellar (especially) or Planet of the Apes crass in their optimism or their pessimism, yet we can say with some confidence they are generically contained. But what about films like The Godfather, The Long Goodbye, McCabe and Mrs Miller, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Mean Streets and Chinatown? These are certainly less radically working with genre than Tarkovsky, but they seem far away from the classic westerns like Ford’s Stagecoach and Fort Apache, the classic Hawks of Scarface and The Big Sleep. Like Kubrick, Scorsese, Altman, Coppola, Peckinpah and Polanski insist the director doesn’t become subsumed by the genre (as Kubrick happened to be in making of the epic Spartacus), but insist that the generic serve their own ongoing thematic fascinations. Even if Scorsese has made several gangster films and Peckinpah directed numerous westerns, we don’t think of them as having made gangster pics and westerns especially; more Scorsese and Peckinpah films. Is this merely a sign of the times or were there other filmmakers of the seventies more inclined to work closer to generic demand rather than auteurist inclination? When we think of Halloween, Dawn of the Dead and The Hills Have Eyes, while we don’t want to deny Carpenter, Romero and Craven have their own perspective, we are likely to see them as more generically contained.

They are films working within genre; not working out of it. It is a point Walter Hill, for example, explicitly expressed when once saying: “my ideal state would be to do an action picture and then a comedy and for every other action picture, a western.” Hill directed some fine films, including The Warriors, The Long Riders and Southern Comfort, but if his name doesn’t immediately spring to people’s minds now is it because he successfully allowed any personal vision to be absorbed by the generic material, and unlike Craven and co. did so by covering numerous different genres? Craven and co remain reasonably well known partly by working mainly within horror cinema; Altman, Scorsese and Coppola by working out of them and keeping their own auteurist credentials paramount.

Yet so far we have only worked from a hunch and from an assumption: we feel that Scorsese and Altman are more individualistic and idiosyncratic filmmakers than Craven and Carpenter, and this chimes with the critical doxa. However, if we think of the notion of a generic moment, we can find in it a reason for the prejudice, and accept a little Tarkovsky’s idea that genre is a tomb. It is not so much that films die there, but that singularity happen to do so.

To clarify our position let’s think of a handful of generic moments across various genres. In horror cinema there is the scene which will make us jump; in heroic cinema a moment where the hero will come to the damsel’s distress. In the action film a scene where our central character is taunted and then beats the person taunting them; in the romance a mismatched couple will nevertheless get together. In the sci-fi a person taken to be human will turn out to be a robot; a robot will turn out to have feelings. In the revenge thriller a person will be violently assaulted only to take an equally violent revenge. In the western a duel will take place in front of the townspeople. 

How obligated to such moments a filmmaker happens to be will give us some indication of the singularity available to the director: the more the generic moment is worked towards, the less space there would seem to be for directorial intervention as the genre takes hold. This doesn’t mean great and individualistic directors won’t use the generic for their own ends, but we have to feel that they are subverting the generic moment to counter the viewer’s expectations and not conform to them. Now of course many a good genre filmmaker will claim that countering is what they do, otherwise the film will be too predictable. But there is the subversion that exemplifies the generic, and the subversion that erodes it. We might now see the moment when in Psycho Marion Crane is murdered in the shower as a cliche of the horror genre, but this was at the time a twofold shock. Firstly that such an explicit removal of character was seen as a violation of the audience. Secondly this was none other than the film’s leading character (played by a star actress Janet Leigh) getting killed halfway through the film. If a more recent slasher film offers a similarly explicit, and even more explicit scene (as many a slasher movie would do in the late seventies and early eighties), they would usually also do so by allowing a secondary character to take the knife, not a leading one. When Carol Clover writes about the slasher film in Men, Women and Chainsaws she proposed the Final Girl: the character who will survive till the end of the film and most obviously manifest in Jamie Lee Curtis’s character in Halloween. “The image of the distressed female most likely to linger in memory is the image of the one who did not die: the survivor, or Final Girl. She is the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril.”

Of course Jamie Lee Curtis was none other than Janet Leigh’s daughter, but let us bypass intertextuality and see the generic predictability of Carpenter’s film next to Hitchcock’s. In the latter we have the film’s heroine surviving till the end while other more carnal characters get killed off. In Hitchcock’s film it is Crane whom we see at the beginning of the film having just made love to her married lover. Narratively and morally Hitchcock breaks with expectation; Carpenter, working with a genre that Hitchcock had more or less created (the slasher movie), offers a much more conventional experience. In Psycho we don’t expect Marion to die; in Halloween we aren’t at all surprised when various promiscuous young women happen to get it in the neck or elsewhere. It was part of the genre trope, and a slasher film that would slash to death none of its characters would show generic dereliction of duty. Carpenter’s work is contained by audience demand; Hitchcock’s by his own ongoing fascination with what you can do with and to an audience. Vertigo two years earlier had also killed off the leading lady halfway through; only to show that she was still alive and that another woman who looked identical had been taken out instead. Identity was after all often not fixed in Hitchcock: whether it was the man who knew too much who didn’t actually know what he knew, or a man mistaken for someone else altogether as in North by Northwest, Hitchcock was interested in dissolving notions of the self. This stretched to audience identification. What happens if the audience follows closely a character that you then bump off? Will they be able to identify with a character who is at least complicit in her murder? If we feel that the shower scene in Psycho isn’t a generic moment, it lies in its appearance before the genre has been established, and in killing its leading lady who happens to have been.

Often what we find in the generic moment is an assumption that works a bit like a variation of foreshadowing. When someone is shown going off to buy poison we may wonder who will become the victim of this substance. We don’t just assume that this scene is there so the person will kill the weeds. When the films pays a bit too much attention to a person using a chainsaw to chop down a tree, cutting back and forth from the tree to the chainsaw and to the man’s leg, we don’t observe the scene with the indifference of the deed, but with the frantic expectation that he will saw into his own limb. These are foreshadowed moments playing on the viewer’s awareness of film forethought. Of course every day people go in and buy weed killer and chop down trees with no one poisoned and no legs sawn off, but film works with a rather different statistical probability. It is in this reverse statistics where we frequently find the generic moment. 

Thus often the generic resides not in the casual scene that is part of everyday life, but the situation that would easily make the newspapers where we see a variation of foreshadowing at work. When in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the leading female character is horribly raped by her probation officer, then we can assume that her revenge upon the man will be still more extreme later in the film. The movie has little interest in making a comment about violence since what we find so horrific in the earlier instance we find gratifying later on. Sure, the man who will suffer at the hands of the titular character is odious and brutal generally, where the girl is odious and brutal specifically, but one of the signs that we are in a generic moment rests on this point. It is not the representational extremity that is at all problematic; the only question is where we are placed in the film temporally and morally. If terrible things happen to the girl then this awfulness is easily alleviated by the fact it happens quite early in the film, and there is plenty of time available for the girl to get her revenge. We watch the earlier scene, as she is tied to the bed and anally raped, horrified, certainly, but above all indignant, sure that the film will create the opportunity for revenge both in its narrative strategies and the running time that is left. We needn’t have a problem with the aggression as long as she determines to take revenge specifically on a man who acts generally. Here is a man who hurts others not out of a personal and honourable motive, but out of general desire and with a dishonourable purpose. He is movie villain material, and we might go as far as to say that for all the diegetic justification in many a genre film, the bad faith resides in the story’s acceptance that the deed is relatively weak next to the assumed audience’s desire for bloodlust. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo it is as though generically the probation officer has to beat the title character appallingly so the viewer can have their scene of extreme vengeance later on. It gives the viewer something ‘to look forward to’: a typically cinematic example of two wrongs making a right.

This is no doubt what Michael Haneke was seeking to counter in Funny Games as he shows a family in peril failing completely to get revenge on their perpetrators, but it also happens to be evident in small, querying American films like Slingblade and In the Bedroom. The central character in the former kills a bullying individual at the end of the film but does so when no threat is apparent, and the film concludes troublesomely. Here is a man released from prison at the beginning after killing his mother and her lover some years earlier. Clearly a character with various learning difficulties, Billy Bob Thornton plays him as a sympathetic figure who befriends a young boy and his mum, and it is the mum’s abusive lover that he takes out. A dislikable character has been removed from the film, but Slingblade refuses to present the killing as adrenaline driven and necessary. It takes place in a quiet moment when none of the likable characters are under threat. In the Bedroom shows a father determined to gain justice for the death of his son even if it means taking it into his own hands.

Both films wonder whether two wrongs can make things right without the self-reflexive touches of Haneke’s film. Where Haneke takes the family in peril genre and constantly asks the viewer to acknowledge their complicity, Slingblade and In the Bedroom in their own unobtrusive ways muse over what might be involved in the notion of revenge. All three films, however, appear to be working out of genres, where The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (in its original Swedish version and also in David Fincher’s American remake) work within genre. When Rooney Mara, who plays the title character in the remake talked about the rape scene, she said: “it was incredibly intense, We did this all in a week…we were working sixteen hours a day, and it was really, really challenging not just emotionally, but physically. But it’s such an important scene. We wanted to do everything we could to get it right.” But the Huffington Post journalist interviewing Mara adds, “director David Fincher hinted that the scene ? and the subsequent revenge payoff ? would be visually unforgiving.” Here the extremity of the rape scene is met by the extreme capacity for revenge.

Fincher is a director who usually works within genres and occasionally out of them, with Zodiac his most interesting film and the least generic. The violent moments aren’t the punctuated killings evident in Seven, with a clear killer and a couple of detectives determined to get their man, but a film based on an actual killer who was never brought to trial as the film is left with a haunting ambiguity quite at odds with the horrific twist in Seven. While Seven is a genre movie with a twist all right; Zodiac’s terror rests partly in its very absence. Like In the Bedroom and Slingblade it generates the unsettling; it asks not for the generic surprise but for a properly moral one. The horror doesn’t rest in a head in a box that leaves the viewer narratively stunned, but instead in leaving us morally unsettled. In Seven Fincher takes full responsibility for an event the viewer wouldn’t have predicted and can do nothing about: it is an act of pure evil that leaves the viewer helplessly accepting the film has got one over on them. In Zodiac, Slingblade and In the Bedroom the directors don’t get one over on us; they instead ask for a relationship closer to mutual enquiry. The filmmaker seems to know no better than we do what should be done in such circumstances. In Slingblade some viewers might come away thinking the central character was right in his actions; others might wonder whether he could have found another way to stop the hectoring and aggression without killing the man? 

However this is where the film denies its generic demands for the purposes of its moral enquiry. Seven is in many areas an impressive piece of work, fascinated by evil and organized visually so that it pushes neo-noir into new areas of darkness that Fincher would continue to pursue in other films. (In Reverse Shot James Crawford says: “In ten years time, we may well look back at Zodiac as a landmark evolution in shooting (in) the dark—a problem that cinematographers have never adequately solved.” Its ending is also much more shocking and surprising than in Slingblade. We’re not surprised that Thornton gets his man; we’re very shocked that Paltrow’s head ends up in a box. The only shock is how and when it is done in the former, as Thornton as director puts the onus back on the viewer. Fincher creates a cinematic twist as memorable as any in a decade where the twist was often the thing (American Psycho, Fight Club, Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects). Yet, for better and for worse, Seven‘s scene feels much more like a generic moment, a twist in the tale that acknowledges the authority of the filmmaker over the indecisiveness of moral purpose.

It would be unfair to privilege categorically one over the other: the generic over the ethical, the brilliantly made over the subtly felt. Yet perhaps the notion of genre today doesn’t have the formal authority that it once possessed, just as now we cannot believe in the Gods and the nature of fate as we once did. We can still admire Oedipus Rex, Medea, and The Odyssey, but we admire them as texts from the distant past, marvellously exploring and expressing a moment in time and doing so with such astonishing comprehension of being that they remain vitally pertinent. But someone writing such a work now would seem to be relying on an age that is not remotely their own. This doesn’t of course mean that such works cannot be utilised in the present. But when they are, usually another, modern context is invoked, and the thematic held. Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris, Polanski’s Chinatown, Margarethe von Trotta’s section of the portmanteau work Germany in Autumn are all relevant examples. Godard’s film focuses on a production of Homer, all the while calling attention to the problems of making the film, and embedding the story of Ulysses and Penelope within a marital crisis that isn’t based on geographical distance but emotional inertia. The gap is no longer one of faraway lands, but one of faraway feelings as the film accesses the very modern mode of alienation. In Chinatown the Oedipus twist in the tale isn’t that the film’s detective Gittes has slept with his mother and killed his father, but discovers that his lover has in the past slept with her father and Gittes now understandably would wish to kill him. Yet the modern tragedy means that the all-controlling father lives, the daughter dies, and the detective is left with another person whose life he has failed to save, in the very place where tragedy had struck years earlier: in Chinatown. In Germany in Autumn, von Trotta takes off from Antigone, with the present day predicament whether or not a member of the Red Army Faction is entitled to a decent burial. Should the state quietly bury someone who was a nuisance to it, or show its liberal nature and acknowledge the importance of human life no matter how dangerous the state might believe she has been to the lives others? 

In each of our examples old texts are revitalized. They are not simply recycled, and this is partly what seventies American cinema wanted to acknowledge in contrast to classic Hollywood. When Peckinpah made The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, he didn’t want to replicate the tropes of the classic western; he wanted to invigorate cinema with the taste of the real, with a proper questioning of moral life in the old west. The classical unity of the western with cowboys and Indians, goodies and baddies, black hats and white hats, town square shoot-offs and always killing a man in the front and not in the back, interested him less than muddying the west, creating a world of compromise and messy duels, impossible challenges and sour victories. As Richard Combs says in Movies of the Eighties, “concepts of honour and personal morality…are crucial to Peckinpah, despite the supposed amorality of the ‘new’ westerns. The true violence of his films is not in the balletic displays of slow-motion slaughter but in a kind of internal shock ? the displacement of characters who cannot or will not compromise or change, even to survive.”

Many of the successful newer filmmakers, like Fincher, Christopher Nolan and M. Night Shamalyan, to David Gordon Green, Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, are usually working within genres, even if Anderson happens to have offered a consistently comedic universe within the context of a very singular production design. The filmmakers most influenced by seventies cinema are more likely to work further away from genre or rely strongly on one that was never a classically inclined example of it, but one that grew out of a certain interest in exploring America: the road movie. Brown Bunny, Gerry, Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy are all about geographical movement over narrative delineation, and of course can be seen to be a little indebted to the western: the genre most inclined to show characters moving through space, from one destination to another. After OId Joy and Wendy and Lucy, Kelly Reichardt directed Meek’s Cutoff, with 19th century folk moving westward and getting lost. But this was a west without point and purpose, and had little to do with taming nature and the birth of civilization.

Bodyswerving genre demand might reflect an independent minded cinema that feels under no obligation to work within modes as long as it is willing to work without much of a budget. When we look back on such marvellous seventies films as The French Connection, The Godfather, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, McCabe and Mrs Miller and The Deer Hunter, these films weren’t made on the cheap but with full studio backing (and sometimes, as with Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, full studio meddling). These small-scale films though don’t have to work within or even out of genres because their purpose is to work as independent productions. There might often be a comedic tinge to many an Indie film (from Jim Jarmusch to Hal Hartley, from The Color Wheel to Daddy Longlegs), but the idea is to be sui generis, as if being an indie director is also to be independent not only of studios but also of generic expectation. Perhaps one reason why Noah Baumbach despite working with Sony on The Squid and the Whale, Paramount for Margot at the Wedding is seen as Indie lies in what some see as generic refusal. As Demetrios Matheou says of Baumbauch’s recent film While We’re Young: “although Noah Baumbach’s previous films…have always featured incidental humour, While We’re Young is his first out-and-out comedy.” (The Herald)

It is as though there has been a split between the generic acceptance that one works within genres, and the independent idea that one works outside of studios. The seventies directors were more inclined to work within studios but out of genres, finding originality within their specific sensibility rather than working independently. Numerous independent films might easily be described as quirky, but that is a tonal emphasis rather than a generic attribution. Certainly numerous films in the indie movement mumblecore possess this aspect: from The Pleasure of Being Robbed, Listen Up Philip, Funny Ha Ha and Frownland. They are often ridiculously small scale films about ridiculous characters caught in the silliest of situations. In Daddy Longlegs the central character doesn’t want his children to wake up in the morning to find him gone and them alone, so he gives them sleeping pills that leave them conked out for what he fears will be forever. In Listen Up Philip, the title figure gets called on to be the young ‘un when a veteran writer and a friend take a couple of girls back to their place, and want Philip to provide the youthful energy.

These are comedic moments but not all the films would easily pass themselves off as comedies. The scene from Daddy Longlegs leaves us feeling more worried for the kids than laughing at the dad, and Listen Up, Philip has many a sour moment that allows no comedic pleasure to override the general misanthropy. If Geoff King in American Independent Cinema can say, “the industrial realm is, clearly, an important part of any definition of independent cinema”, then both films are indie works. Listen Up Philip was produced by the small-scale Sailor Bear and others; Daddy Longlegs by Neistet Scott Associates. The sort of seventies films working out of genres like The Godfather, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and The Long Goodbye were produced by Paramount, MGM and United Artists.

However, if a sign of independence rests on how a film is financed and made, that doesn’t mean a film working within the confines of Hollywood, and working ostensibly within genres, needs to acknowledge and accommodate the generic moment. It hardly feels generic when Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye shoots dead his best friend, more or less doing so because of his missing cat. This isn’t one of those scenes where the best friend turns and the hero has to kill before being killed. It is closer to a cool, resigned acknowledgement that Terry is better dead than alive, and neither Marlowe nor the audience is given much of an adrenaline buzz out of the deed being done. Equally, knowing Terry has played him doesn’t lead to a very strong feeling of indignation either. We don’t get the indignant and vengeful tropes central to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

In Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid again someone has to kill his friend, but this doesn’t lead to audience pleasure out of character relish: Pat kills Billy and we might prefer it were the other way round, though would prefer most of all that the friendship could have been sustained. In both these seventies film the duel is tempered and turned around as they refuse generic moments; the narrative set-piece.

Of course generic moments don’t always take place in a cinema of revenge; it is evident in any scene where the generic expectation and the audience demand seem to trump external factors that would appear to compromise an investigation of the real. When Combs compares the spaghetti western to Peckinpah’s revisionist westerns, he says “they [the Italians] produced a mannerist Western, one of extreme but ritualized violence in which the traditional idealism was replaced by cynicism, self-seeking and materialism.” (Movies of the Eighties) This is why we have the hyperbolized duels, exaggerated versions of the traditional conflict. We see it today in Tarantino’s big conclusions: in Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. These are mannerist works responding to generic demand and audience expectation: reality has little to do with it, and Tarantino’s significance resides in how well he works a twofold assumption: to play with the genre and play with the viewer. Tarantino manages to be both auteurist and generic, taking genre tropes and turning them into the Tarantinoesque. It is a genre trope that characters are caught in a situation that they can’t easily escape, yet partly what makes them Tarantinoesque is the amorality mingling with the cinematically sadistic. If we’ve noted that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo gives us the rape scene all the better to give us violent revenge, Tarantino will assert the scene not only generically but authorially too.

Whether it happens to be the early moment from Inglourious Basterds, with the camera moving below the table and under the floorboards where numerous Jews are hiding, or the scene in Django Unchained where Christoph Waltz’s bounty hunter looks like he is in an impossible situation with the townsfolk surrounding a bar with guns, Tarantino knows how to make a generic moment his own by combining the trope with the knowing awareness of the trope. Tarantino doesn’t expect the viewer merely to follow the generic expectation, but adds to it his own twist that says this isn’t only about a character getting out of a difficult situation but the filmmaker also. After Waltz shoots the sheriff dead he explains to the marshal and the townsfolk exactly why he has taken the man out: that the man he has killed was a former cattle rustler and murderer.

When James Bond looks like he’s been killed at the beginning of Skyfall we know he will be fine; it is a Bond film, and the makers themselves take it so much for granted that they hardly justify his survival from what looks like certain death. There is plenty internet speculation musing how he managed to escape an almost certain demise as the film allows for a rather too lazy ellipsis. In Django Unchained Tarantino shows Waltz’s Dr Schultz explaining exactly why he is doing what he is doing and the townsfolk see the logic of his thinking, just as we in the audience happen to do likewise.

Both Schultz and Tarantino think their way out of the situation, and there is no need for internet forums trying to explain how they pulled it off. It is as if Tarantino is saying how often have you seen characters caught in tough situations and how often has the filmmaker chosen easy generic tropes to get the characters out of them? Bond comes to mind again: a bomb goes off and he escapes; he pulls a weapon we didn’t know he had from his sock etc and takes out the villain. We are not convinced; we accept. We acknowledge that in generic films offering generic moments often the important thing isn’t the ingenuity of the character’s actions, but their predictability. In the very efficient but finally predictable Goldfinger, Bond is tied down as a laser works its way up to his crotch while the prime baddie talks incessantly; we wonder how the heck will Bond extricate himself from this crisis. He doesn’t, the loquacious villain turns the machine off at the last minute and tells Bond he is more useful to him alive. While Skyfall settles for lazy ellipsis and Goldfinger for an easy solution, Django Unchained creates not the trope but the metatrope: a term from Roman Jakobson that acknowledges the self-awareness of the art work. If for example Tarantino had cut between the Gestapo officer and the French farmer talking in the basement below in Inglourious Basterds, we would have had the trope: the cinematic vocabulary would have been serving simply the need to show how dangerous happened to be the farmer’s predicament, and how many lives were at stake. However, by first building up the scene between the officer and the farmer, Tarantino all the more cruelly reveals the lives below with that slowly inching shot from above the floorboards to below them. Just as the director in Django Unchained asks the viewer to wonder how the filmmaker as well as the character will come up with a plausible solution, so in Inglourious Basterds Tarantino asks us to see less the film’s thinking than its technique. But the point remains the same; to make us aware of the film and not just accepting of the genre.

However, while we admire Tarantino’s metatropic style, the director is still working within genre rather than out of genre: he is still practicing generic moments, no matter how self-reflexively. Tarantino might say in a Telegraph interview “I think it’s one of the strengths of my movies that I work in genre…I like making very, very personal movies, buried inside of genre.” But the personality in Tarantino’s films comes from remaining within the generic. He makes the film decidedly Tarantinoesque, but they hardly seem personal the way we might find Scorsese films like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull personal. In Scorsese’s best work the self in self-consciousness is stronger than consciousness; in Tarantino it is the other way round. What gives them much of their personality is that Tarantino works within genre but then offers the metatrope: his personal stamp comes from a certain rearrangement.

Now there are those who believe that is what art happens to be, and the Russian formalist Victor Shklovsky would perhaps see in Tarantino’s work a very fine example of it. He says: “the works of poets are classified or grouped according to the new techniques that poets discover and share, and according to their arrangement and development of the resources of language; poets are much more concerned with arranging images than with creating them. Images are given to poets; the ability to remember them is far more important than the ability to create them.” (‘Art as Technique’) Few filmmakers seem to remember film images more than Tarantino, yet if we believe Scorsese is the more important filmmaker it does not rest on his greater cinephilia. It resides in a feeling that he gives to images a raw expression that absorbs life as much as art, that he can film the New York streets with the force of its given present in Taxi Driver; that he can access the milieu of Little Italy in Mean Streets; that he can remember tired and endless actual arguments when he makes Raging Bull.

Scorsese manages to go beyond the trope and the metatrope and thus far beyond the generic moment. When Tarantino straps the fictional cop to the chair in Reservoir Dogs this is a terribly cruel version of a damsel in distress, but with the emphasis on the distress as we know it is unlikely anyone will be coming to the rescue of the cop as Michael Madsen’s Dog takes off an ear. We can think again of the moment in Goldfinger, but on this occasion it isn’t the voluble schemer Gert Frobe plays, but a man in the moment, moving to Stuck in the Middle with You as Madsen’s character enjoys sadistic pleasure at the expense of another’s great misery.

We might say this is a generally very evolved scene, with Tarantino putting several kinks into a familiar scenario, but it never becomes more than its generic moment, no matter how developed it happens to be. Scorsese’s head in the vice scene in Casino is less ingenious but more verisimilitudinous. Despite the Joe Pesci voice-over telling us this is basically about getting a job done, creating a gap between the word and the deed, Scorsese’s purpose here is to show what a gangster needs to do to get a confession out of a tough nut to crack. You literally treat his skull like a nut. Wikipedia talks about Charles Nicoletti doing exactly this: “In 1962, Nicoletti took part in an infamous torture case. He, Alderisio and Anthony Spilotro, known as “Tony the Ant”, had kidnapped 24-year-old Billy McCarthy, a thug who had killed two Outfit associates with the help of Jimmy Miraglia, also age 24. The three men started torturing McCarthy to find out the name of his accomplice. Spilotro had placed the man’s head in an industrial vice and started squeezing it tighter and tighter. Suddenly, McCarthy’s eye popped completely out of its socket.”

Of course generically inclined filmmakers will take from real life too, but perhaps not because they want to understand an aspect of the world but instead to create novelty within the generic and will be happy to play with historical fact in the process of doing so. We can think for example of The Patriot, where the film meddles with history for the purposes of generic villainy. “The extreme violence reaches its peak when the villain Tavlington confines the inhabitants of town in a church, sets it ablaze and burns them alive. Something remarkably like this event actually happened, but not in South Carolina during the American Revolution. It happened in the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane on June 10, 1944, during World War II, and it was done by Germany’s 2nd S.S. Panzer Division.” So says the New York Times, adding, “there were atrocities enough on both sides in the American Revolution, but Roland Emmerich, the film’s director, has converted an 18th century British and American Loyalist Army into the S.S.” This isn’t about getting things right historically, but creating barbarous acts as cinematic relish. The scene is nothing if not a generic moment.

Francois Truffaut once suggested that “a successful film had simultaneously to express an idea of the world and an idea of cinema.” (‘What do Critics Dream About’) One of the problems with the generic moment is that it says a great deal about the latter but often not enough about the former. If we finally respect Kubrick, Scorsese, Altman, Peckinpah and others it is because they manage to speak both of life and of art in intricate combinations. Hawks, Ford and others also of course wanted to speak about certain truths, but often formulated them mythologically. As Jeremy Agnew says: in The Old West in Fact and Film, “Western movies are about legends and heroes, not necessarily about reality.” Ford and Hawks created types to understand the new America, and while we may now find numerous characters in classic Hollywood genre films stereotypical, the movies also managed to create many who were archetypical in the process. Even if the filmmakers thought they were giving the audience what they wanted, they were also creating modern myths for a relatively new country. Charlie Chaplin’s comedies created the little man; John Wayne’s westerns the big man; Humphrey Bogart someone wise to the world; Marilyn Monroe curiously innocent in it. The very stereotyping created archetypes, and Chaplin and co all remain cinematic icons.

Without genre this might have been hard to create. Yet there is also in many an old genre film a naivety that in the generic today is closer to cynicism and Tarantino its masterful exponent. We know that he knows that we know the tropes are tired, and we want from the generic filmmaker a novelty that can stifle the yawn, can make us say that we haven’t quite seen that before. But is it enough, or do we today often have to go outside genre to find some of the innocence that was once to be found in it? Wendy and Lucy, The Brown Bunny, Gerry and Boyhood seem more innocent than the more generically inclined The Dark Knight, Fight Club, Django Unchained and The Usual Suspects. Genre isn’t always the tomb Tarkovsky suggests, but many a film certainly will still die there.

©Tony McKibbin