Where once the western ruled, now we have the superhero genre. But it’s all just part of a cycle.
Film noir, the western, sexploitation, the disaster movie. What do they all have in common? That’s right, they’re all as dead as the coalition’s green credentials. For some, the reasons are simple. The disaster movie, for example, was a silly sub-genre – little more than a fad – whose appeal quickly faded. Even the most addled and stupefied viewers quickly became tired of the clunky plot dynamics and one-dimensional characters. (Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and the major exception to this one is Titanic.)
Film noir died for no more extraordinary a reason than the coming of Technicolor
But even the most impressive genres can die for disappointingly mundane reasons. Film noir, a genre that yielded dozens of classic films which continue to impress and inspire, died for no more extraordinary a reason than the coming of Technicolor. Although film-makers like Henry Hathaway experimented with colour film noirs (surely a contradiction in terms I hear you mutter; well, see Niagara), the genre was nevertheless doomed.
Many films continue to be made that bear the unmistakeable influence of film noir and invariably earn monikers like ‘noirish’ and ‘neo-noir’ (Blade Runner, Lost Highway, Blood Simple, to name three), but these are films inspired by film noir; they’re adding to and referencing the genre rather than being a part of it. That said, cineastes may mourn the passing of film noir, but there isn’t a person alive – with the exception of escaped mental patients, people with monobrows and UKIP voters (not necessarily different categories) – who isn’t glad to see the back of the ‘roughie’.
With names like Scum Of The Earth, The Defilers and Rape Squad, the roughie was an unpleasant and deeply misogynistic breed of sexploitation flick that flourished in the mid to late-60s. The two related genres that had preceded it – the nudie cutie/nudist movie – had featured banal depictions of naked women bird watching, administering analgesics at a dentist’s office, serving customers at a ticket booth or doing things even more exciting (hard to imagine I know) and usually involved luckless Benny Hill-types perving on them (The Immoral Mr Teas, and personal favourite Nudes On The Moon).
The tropes that defined the western were based on a mythical conception of the Old West that doesn’t bear any scrutiny today
But as audiences came to demand more from their erotica, film-makers unable to depict anything more sexually explicit than a nude game of volleyball substituted violence for sex, and the roughie was born. Where film-makers might have shown happy and consensual acts of sexual congress, they instead showed rape, kidnapping and murder. Although the roughie is thankfully long dead, its hypocritical and deeply unhealthy attitude to sex and violence continues to live on in any number of Hollywood movies – see This Film Is Not yet Rated.
The western is an altogether different beast. The very tropes that define it as a genre were based on a mythical conception of the Old West that doesn’t bear any scrutiny: man alone conquering nature and civilising savages; a knight errant with nothing but his sense of virtue, loyalty and ridiculous head-ware for guidance. The truth of course is that the ‘pioneers’ were supported and encouraged by the American government to steal and settle land that had been inhabited for hundreds of years by Native Americans. It was a vicious imperial project that would be completely unjustifiable to a modern audience. Any film that sought to accurately portray this reality now would arguably therefore not be a western at all, but a historical drama that coincidentally dealt with the same period in American history.
In the same way that the western reflected America’s confidence and conservatism at the height of its popularity, so the superhero movie which currently dominates box offices reflects America’s current dark night of the soul (Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies are probably the best example of this). Probably when the genre begins to die we’ll have a ream of books and articles analysing the ‘golden age’ of the superhero film, but what will replace it? It’s hard if not impossible to determine what genres might make a resurgence.
The success of Les Miserables means the film musical stands a chance of resurgence
The film musical stands a chance. With the success of Les Miserables, a number of other musicals have already gone into production, including Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat and there is talk of a film of Cats (presumably lots of CGI in that one). Whether any of these films will rival the magnificence of such studio musicals as An American In Paris or Singin’ In The Rain and constitute a new ‘golden age’, or be merely a disparate and unrelated group of cynical cash-ins, remains to be seen.
Or could we see a return of the so-called ‘women’s picture’? The success of Mamma Mia proved two things: 1) Middle-aged women constitute a sizeable enough audience for film-makers to cater to and 2) people like crap. Can it be too much to ask that the revelation that middle-aged women will go to the cinema in significant numbers, and not just to take their kids, will translate into a greater number of strong and complex female characters, not to mention better representation of older people? Given Hollywood’s reputation for drawing the wrong conclusions from just about everything, you might say almost certainly not.
Featured image: Universal
Inset images: United Artists; MGM