Genre vs Formula

“Cliches about genre include the idea that they are easily defined and recognized, that they are fixed and never change, that they are based only on recognizable literary devices—such as characters and plots—and that films are either one genre or the other. Actually genres are hard to define, tricky and contradictory.”
So speaks Jeanine Basinger in the excellent The World War II Combat Film, the result of watching hundreds of such films and attempting to define what qualities make them a genre. Among her points are that genres may start for specific reasons—gangster films and WW II films were both responses to specific historical developments—but they’ll continue on until those events have passed, as witness we still have both genres today.
Going into Basinger’s analysis in detail would take far too long (but if this sort of thing interests you, her book is a great place to start, and an excellent read) but one of her points is that what makes a genre a genre, rather than just a formula is that it has flexibility. A genre comes with specific characters, settings and plot elements, and often specific themes; later filmmakers can replace the themes and keep the elements or take the themes and give them different elements.
A WW II combat film can be pro-war or anti-war. It can salute our troops, portray them as brutes, revere patriotism or mock heroism. And this isn’t just a matter of post-Vietnam cynicism: As Basinger points out, Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) shows a lot of respect for the Marines but it clearly sides with John Agar—a civilian recruit who’s looking forward to returning to civilian life once the war is won—over John Wayne, a lifer with no interest or capability to live a life outside the Corps.
The same is true of crime and gangster films. Gangsters can be a threat to the established order or a glamorous fantasy; they can be roguish heroes or brutal sadists. A heist film can show crime does not pay (Asphalt Jungle) or that crime is loads of exciting fun (The Italian Job).
A formula, on the other hand, doesn’t vary much. Mysteries of the 1920s and 1930s tended to follow strict formula and strict character roles: Bumbling police, brilliant amateur, aristocratic, wealthy suspects (I think it was S.S. Van Dyne who asserted that murder among the lower classes just wasn’t interesting).
Defining the boundary between formula and genre, or at least subgenre, is still easier said than done, I think, and probably shaped by one’s personal taste (quite aside from the fact that in casual conversation or blogging I could easily use “genre” even for something I think is really a formula). I’d class epic fantasy as more formula than subgenre, but I’m not a huge fan of epic fantasy (though I should point out that by saying “formula” I don’t mean “It sucks!”). The countless cozy mysteries with suburban housewives or quirky store owners investigating murders strike me as formula too, though to anyone who enjoys them, as I noted here, one series is not interchangeable with another.
Westerns, on the other hand? A genre that gives us such odd variation as The Oklahoma Kid (ganster movie in Western outfits), thoughtful dramas (Seven Men From Now or The Naked Spur), endorse the ethnic cleansing of the Indians or condemn racism.
Swashbucklers? I’d count that as formula, much as I enjoy it.
But take super-hero comics. Super-hero adventures are a formula, even though it’s one I like. As I’ve blogged about, however, they can be used in a variety of non-formulaic ways. So while I’m inclined to say formula, am I wrong? Or is a formula only a formula until someone finds new things to do with it? World War II movies could easily be as archaic now as WW I movies, if people hadn’t found ways to reinterpret the stories—perhaps every formula is just waiting for a genius to pump fresh blood into them.
Or perhaps not.
And now that I’ve accomplished the impossible and defined genre, for my next trick, I shall define art! (Just kidding).

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