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Some thoughts on Safety, Danger, Dreams and Genre-worlds

Written by James MacDowell.

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I recently had one of those dreams in which I realised I was dreaming. Anyone who has had the same experience will know that, whilst it's strange to realise that the feelings and thoughts you are having are not 'real', it is also simultaneously rather comforting: you know no harm can come to you. No matter what happens, you know the world you're in is safe. What followed this realisation in my dream is a rather pathetic reflection of quite how completely my mind is eternally occupied with films: my sleeping brain started to think about the similarities between dreams and movies. "Isn't this a bit like knowing you're watching a genre film?" the asleep-me thought, "Because I know the rules, there's no danger: I know that I (the protagonist) will survive and that nothing can hurt me." I said to myself: "This is nice, and - at the same time - slightly dull..." I then woke up and found myself in the real world, in which I was potentially unsafe and in which there were no real rules to keep me from danger.

So how perceptive was my dream-mind being? When I realised I was dreaming, it was as if my subconscious had handed me a disclaimer to reassure me that no one was harmed in the making of this dream. It made any subsequent dream-events feel, as I have said, one hundred percent safe. I'm not just talking here about physical safety (though a legitimate nightmare would certainly be impossible under such circumstances), but any discomfort, emotional trauma or even excitement was now virtually impossible.

The thought I had - that such a state of dull awareness is akin to being aware that you are watching a genre film - could seem, in the cold light of day, a somewhat simplistic and harsh judgement of a filmmaking practice from which I gain a great deal of pleasure. I think it might be interesting enough, however, to pursue a little further regardless.

Genre-worlds

The end of Annie Hall: an empty space where there should be a couple
The end of Annie Hall: an empty space where there should be a couple
One of the first things we think of when we think of genre is a set of conventions, codes, which we expect a film's world to operate within. If we are watching a romantic comedy, for example, we know that the central couple will definitely (brave exceptions such as Annie Hall [1977] and My Best Friend's Wedding [2000] notwithstanding) fall in love and be together by the end of the film. Incidentally, we also know it is unlikely that - for example - in this world anyone will be brutally murdered, or that any buildings will be blown up. Similarly, when watching a horror film, we know that a number of people will die and that there will be a fight between hero/heroine and killer towards the finale, at the end of which the killer will either die or escape to menace the world another day. As well as this, we also know that the story will most likely not end with a wedding, and that no one will spontaneously break into unaccompanied song (madman Takashi Miike's glorious The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) almost being one notable exception).

Similar assumptions can be made about the film worlds of any genre with varying degrees of predictability, and are formed mainly from other films we may have seen that fit the same template. Even if we don't know what genre the film we are watching belongs to before we start it (which is unusual, what with the proliferation of trailers, posters and other promotional material all doing their best to give us a good idea), we can generally gauge pretty quickly what kind of genre-world we're in from clues such as music, imagery, setting, opening plot-points, even actors.

These genre-world expectations create a sense of safety for us, and safety - although it can be pleasurable - can also be relatively uninteresting. Now, I very much enjoy genre films. However, many of the films I appreciate the most tend not to be quite so easily placed within generic moulds. The reason for this, I think, is that when I'm watching a film (or experiencing any work of art), I often don't want to feel safe.

Just to be clear: predictability does not make a film bad, and indeed it is entirely appropriate for a certain kind of movie, which may have innumerable other things to recommend it. Equally, I'm not saying that a genre film cannot be unique, unpredictable or exciting. Many of the best examples succeed because they manage to avoid being transparent in their obedience to conventions, but rather skilfully use them to create an engrossing story that feels fresh on its own terms. In such cases we are made to forget that the world we are in is being controlled by structures that stretch back into the mists of time, and are pulled fully into the events of the film as if they were merely happening organically. To return to the dream analogy, to watch a genre film which incorporates its genre's rules surreptitiously is much like dreaming but not realising you are in a dream: you are safe, but you do not necessarily feel so. Also like a dream, if a genre film has somehow practised its rules under the radar, no matter how unlikely the unfolding events are, we will believe them unquestioningly, merely being forced to say afterwards, "But it all felt quite normal at the time."

Chinatown: film noir hero and femme fatal
Chinatown: film noir hero and femme fatal
There are many examples of such films: Chinatown (1974) is just one. If we stop to consider Chinatown's genre, we quickly realise that it is what we call a film noir (albeit an updated one): it has a confused but cool private detective, a mysterious femme fatale, a ruthless criminal mastermind, an unsolved murder and a slowly unfolding conspiracy. According to the conventions of the genre, it is unlikely that Faye Dunaway's character will get out of the story alive, or that things will end happily for any of the main characters. However, due to the inventiveness of Robert Towne's taut screenplay and Polanski's iron-fisted direction - not to mention the superb performances of Nicholson, Dunaway and Huston - we do not see the plot events as the generic compulsions they are, meaning the film's ending still manages to be one of the most shocking in Hollywood history, and "Forget it, Jake - it's Chinatown," manages to ring true.

I should point out here the obvious fact that when I talk about safety and danger, I'm not necessarily talking about the physical safety of the characters. If, say, certain assumptions about a particular character's usual place within his/her genre's world allow you to assume that he/she will be killed off, it makes you feel just as safe as when you know that a hero in an action film won't die: you understand and expect the death, therefore feel no real danger.

Danger can come from being unsure about what genre world you are in, and therefore unsure of its rules and boundaries. This can happen in two main ways - either by a film mixing its genres (which happens a great deal), or attempting to disregard them entirely (very difficult and arguable). Let's look first at an example of the former method.

Mixing genres

When audiences sat down to watch Psycho in 1960, they probably had a certain number of genre assumptions: the film was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, therefore it was likely to be a thriller; it was called Psycho, therefore was likely to contain a psychopath, and so would perhaps have elements of horror. There was nothing, however, in these assumptions to suggest that Marion Crane, seemingly the heroine, would not survive the film - she was certain to be put in danger, yes, but not be stabbed to death forty-five minutes into the story. In the script notes for the shower scene, Hitchcock supposedly wrote, "The knife slashes down at the camera, as if the very screen is being ripped open", and such a description perfectly conveys the expectation-rupturing effect that the scene must have had on its audience. It marked a moment when Hollywood screen space became unsafe, because what Hitchcock had done was created a unique and shocking combination of the conventions and logics of two genre-worlds: the thriller and the horror film. In the world of a thriller, people are murdered; in a horror film, they are killed.


Mrs Bates, instantly making the world unsafe in Psycho.

The first forty-five minutes of Psycho would have us believe we are inhabiting a thriller world (there is a robbery, a woman on the run, a tense semi-chase with a police officer), and we are therefore fully expecting that someone could be murdered. The brutal, sudden, meaningless death of Marion in the shower, however, feels not like a murder but a killing, an event that comes from an entirely different world. Hollywood killings of this abrupt nature hitherto tended to belong only in monster films or science fiction movies, usually committed by some kind of inhuman Other; here - although there is a visual shift towards the gothic and the macabre the moment Marion arrives at the Bates Motel - there is nothing supernatural about this killer. The moment Marion dies (and it takes a while to accept that she has not been cleverly faking, so ingrained are the rules), the audience realises that anything could happen in this world, that there is real danger, because any genre suppositions are now questionable.

What happened with Psycho was that rare thing: the creation of a new genre - one that had its basis in a combination of others, yes, but a new one nonetheless. Of course, from this acorn grew the slasher film, which has since established its own set of codes and rules that have become just as predictable (if not more so) as those of any other genre. Thus, what was once a dangerous world, is again made safe.

Hidden Genres

So, apart from combining other genres, can a film ever avoid belonging to a genre at all, and thus recreate the potential danger of a rule-free real world that I felt on awaking from my dream? An immediate response might be to say, "Yes, you're only talking about Hollywood: just look at any 'arthouse' film made anywhere other than America..." Such a reply would seem valid: genre is often (wrongly) assumed to be primarily a Hollywood practice, and there are hundreds of 'foreign' (that ridiculous word) films that don't seem to fit into any of the genre-categories as we usually define them. Sometimes this is because they are attempting to be more like 'real life'.

Festen: family drama
Festen: family drama
When the Dogme 95 manifesto was drawn up, for example, one of its ten golden rules stated that none of the movement's films should belong to a genre. If we actually look at what was produced, however, we can see that such an ambition is difficult to follow through. In an interview with Thomas Vinterberg - the director of the first Dogme film, the superb Festen (1998) - Robin Wood brought up the fact that, surely, the family drama is in fact a very well-established genre. Responding, a slightly rumbled Vinterberg suggested that the rule was really only referring to things like the action film, the crime film or the thriller: anything with guns, it seems.

This response shows the limitations of what many people are thinking when they say genre. By no means does a genre automatically have to be high-concept. Even when trying to simply portray the most mundane, realistic 'slice-of-life', a film - depending on its content - can often be defined as (for example) a coming-of-age tale, a romance, an ensemble drama - even a 'kitchen-sink' drama: all of which tend to have their own familiar worlds and conventions. What are Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies (1996) and Ken Loach's Ae Fond Kiss (2004) but a family melodrama and a romantic (or even that sub-genre 'doomed romance') melodrama respectively? This certainly doesn't make these films bad (absolutely not in the case of the wonderful Secrets and Lies), but it does make their worlds feel somewhat safer, knowable, understandable.

And what about even more extreme, idiosyncratic 'arthouse' films and filmmakers: what of, say, a Peter Greenaway? For that matter, what of a Bergman, a Fellini, or a Godard: surely these, and other, revered auteurs manage to transcend something as seemingly restrictive as genre? Well, there is a rather convincing school of thought that says that the 'arthouse film' is in fact a genre itself, with its own set of rules - however combative and inverted they may be. A non-goal-oriented plot, unexplained character motivations, lessening of cause-and-effect storytelling, ruptures in the fictional world, overt symbolism: all these things can be reasonably expected to occur in the films of 'arthouse' directors and can easily contribute (often combined with expectations based on an auteur's previous work) to a sense of safety-via-fulfilled-assumptions not at all dissimilar to that created by complete adherence to a familiar genre. We know when we begin watching an 'arthouse' film that we will be not be given the 'norm', so we are not necessarily surprised when the abnormal occurs. Though they apparently exist at the opposite extreme to the genre movie, such films can be just as transparent in their conventions, and the experience of watching them can be just as safe as my post-realisation dream was to me.

Again, this is not in any way to slight such films, but merely to point out that - when it comes to providing a startling or dangerous moviegoing experience - staunch defenders of 'arthouse' cinema cannot automatically be so smugly weirder-than-thou.

Unsafe worlds

Sidney
But this is life: this isn't a movie.

Billy
Sure it is, Sid - it's all a movie. Only you can't pick your genre.

- Scream (1996)

So, what can be done to please me? What are some examples of these films that are "not so easily placed within generic moulds" that I professed a special love for at the start of the article? Speaking, obviously, from my own sensibilities, I feel my most invigorated (my most unsafe) when a film manages somehow to change and evolve as I watch it, which can often happen by moving seamlessly through genre worlds in a way that I do not have the ability (or perhaps the inclination) to anticipate.

Such a film can avoid the sense of reassurance that may accompany a genre picture by never finally settling in one world, but rather creating a new - fuller - world through a collision of many. I am not here talking of blatant, postmodern genre-shift films like From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) or Audition (1999), with their mischievous and knowing bluntness; rather the ones that manage the shift with some degree of subtlety and create a sense that such shifting is merely natural in the world of the film - because it just happens to be spanning multiple worlds at once.

Sunrise: Romantic melodrama or romantic comedy?
Sunrise: Romantic melodrama or romantic comedy?
Some examples: Murnau's Sunrise (1927) shifts wildly between being a romantic melodrama to being a romantic comedy and back again as if unable to decide which of these genre-worlds its lovers will eventually emerge in; in Cukor's The Philadelphia Story (1940) the movements from screwball comedy to drama, along with two leading men who seem equally as likely to get the girl, mean the governing conventions are uncertain; Vertigo (1958), with its morphing from mystery/ghost story to thriller to dark romantic obsession, breaks all its own genre rules in a loss-fuelled hallucinatory frenzy; Wilder's The Apartment (1960) teeters between dark comedy, romantic comedy, farce, corporate satire, drama and all-out tragedy, meaning one honestly doesn't know how Bud's sad and put-upon little life story will turn out; 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) leaps from prehistoric tale to science fiction thriller to avant-garde symbolism, leaving the viewer with all that is familiar finally stripped away; Taxi Driver (1976) manages to create an uncertain world by floating between lyrical and wistful (almost sweet) Catcher in the Rye-esque disaffection, social-realist urban drama, and even tempting to enter the realms of political thriller, before finally ending in a flurry of violence that verges on horror; Vincent Gallo's Buffalo 66 (1998) starts as an arthouse study of alienation, quickly becomes a hilarious dark comedy and ultimately blossoms with a spectacular juxtaposition of pessimistic indie fatalism and Hollywood love story, all told in a world in which musical numbers seem ever a possibility.

All these films manage to surprise, and to feel fresh and dangerous, because they do not allow me the chance to second-guess them through knowledge of their genre-worlds. As a side-note: perhaps the fact that they are all American films reflects not only my own taste, but also that - as I have said - one can only be shocked if one is not expecting to be shocked. Being (stereotypically) a genre-based industry, Hollywood in a sense has an advantage: because each film is almost assumed to fulfil certain expectations, when it doesn't do so the result can be particularly jarring and particularly refreshing.

To give a slightly more detailed description of how genre-mixing can create danger, I will now briefly indulge myself completely and discuss Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia (1999) - that much praised and equally maligned epic of late nineties Hollywood cinema - a film that is nothing if not a complex, yet subtle, genre roller coaster. I love this film for many small personal reasons, not merely the ones that link it with this essay's topic; I do think, though, that its approach to genre is probably a large factor in its appeal.

Magnolia and the dangerous world

Magnolia: ensemble melodrama?
Magnolia: ensemble melodrama?
Ignoring the faux-historical-recreation prologue, Magnolia quickly establishes itself (through its character introductions) as an ensemble drama (perhaps in the vein of Altman's Nashville [1975] or Shortcuts [1993]) that will be mixed with elements of the family melodrama (e.g: the death-bed search for Earl's long-lost son). The firmly naturalistic expectations conjured up by such a film are somewhat upset, first, by the introduction of the larger-than-life character of Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise) and the exaggeratedly ironic tone with which his ridiculous "Seduce And Destroy" self-help seminar is offered to us (complete with the over-the-top use of Strauss). Quite apart from anything, we are not expecting to hear the words, "Respect the cock and tame the cunt!" in an ensemble family melodrama: this is a line and a character from a much harsher world of dark comedy or satire.

Frank in his satire.
Frank in his satire.
At the other end of the spectrum, however, lies the character of the innocent Jim (John C. Reilly), a bumbling, sweet and likeable cop who appears to have just stumbled out of an inoffensive New York-based romantic comedy (see his comic meeting with the eight-year-old rapper and the humiliating dropping of his night-stick). Jim is to cross paths with someone from another genre world: Claudia (Melora Walters), a strung-out coke addict who would not seem out of place in Anderson's earlier, harsher, porn drama Boogie Nights (1997). The uncertainty in tone continues across the board: there's a shady criminal figure seemingly from an urban crime drama ("The Worm"), a child-genius (whom we suspect may be being abused) from some kind of 'issue-drama' (Stanley), a Hollywood 'good soul' male nurse from something like Terms of Endearment (1983) (Phil), an American-indie-film sad-sack loser (Donnie), as well as other characters (Jimmy, Linda) who are more difficult to place in a genre-world.

Earl in his melodrama.
Earl in his melodrama.
These characters and stories create a mix of conventions and assumptions so potentially unstable that, when we see Phil - the apparently kindly house-nurse of the dying Earl -watching porn on TV or ordering Hustler magazine over the phone, we just don't know what to think, thus a creeping sense of dread is allowed to prey on our mind.

Jim in his crime film.
Jim in his crime film.
And you will know, if you've seen the film, that this is even before things start getting really strange, for there are two major set-pieces which blow apart genre conventions entirely, events that would be completely impossible to predict based on assumptions of what has been previously known to be likely in the film's world. On the off-chance that you don't know what I'm referring to (unfortunately, as with the surprises in Psycho, there are now few cinema-goers who have not at least heard something of them), I'll keep quiet; suffice to say, they are surprising. However, it's not just the unexpected nature of these events that is important to my discussion here (though they do obviously contribute to a further sense of danger and uncertainty about the rules of the world), but rather the fact that they act as a kind of levelling device that serves to highlight - via the effects they have on the different characters - the fact that all these people do inhabit the same world. Everyone is linked.

Claudia in her harsh drama.
Claudia in her harsh drama.
Though the characters may seem to come from different worlds, Frank is still the son of Earl, Claudia is the daughter of Jimmy, Jim falls in love with Claudia, Phil meets Frank, Jim saves Donnie, and so on: they rub up against each other, sharing worlds as they do so.

Jim in his romantic comedy.
Jim in his romantic comedy.
When Frank, a satirical portrait of a sex-guru, finds himself by the bedside of his dying father, his emotional outburst comes not from his world, but from the world of his father's melodrama. Jim leaves Claudia's apartment feeling great about the promise of a romance, only to find himself immediately in a crime film when he is shot at by "The Worm". Claudia's desire to clean herself up by going on a date with Jim is an attempt to share in a piece of his optimistic romantic comedy world, an attempt to look at life that way for a change. The bottom line is: these very different people love, hate and exist in one world, a world not controlled by one set of conventions, but by many.

This, in some way, is as close as we can get to a portrait of an unsafe, rule-free, 'real' world. Obviously, Magnolia is not what anyone would usually call a 'realistic' film, but as I have said, a conventionally 'realistic' film follows rules too, and - tellingly - can often also in fact be fairly neatly slotted into some other genre.

The reason for this is that, looked at a certain way, our lives are indeed nothing but a combination of genres: not in any panicked postmodern sense, but simply in the sense that they can feel that way. Lives are unsafe, ungoverned by knowable convention, because we have little control over when the genre will change. I hope it is not too wildly insensitive to mention here that many survivors of the London bombings on July 7th 2005 were quoted as saying, "It was like something from a Hollywood disaster film"; we can hardly deny them the fact that, yes - of course it was. That is how the real world operates: it shifts, morphs, changes its rules daily, hourly, for each of us, and seems an entirely different world each time it does so, depending on how new events have affected us.

That, basically, is the reason why I so love a film that manages to make me feel unsafe: because that is how the real world can make us feel. Film's potential for total immersion through sight, sound and movement means it can create a whole world in a fuller sense than any other medium, and the completeness of this world is one place from which a film can derive its power. A film that seems to operate transparently in one familiar world can feel safe, understandable, knowable - like my dream. One that convincingly combines multiple worlds has the potential to create an extremely multifaceted and unpredictable place: something like the world one awakes to after dreaming.

This article was published on July 21, 2005.