Film Genre 2000
edited by Wheeler Winston Dixon
Published by State University of New York Press
266 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Reviewed by Claude Lalumière
Despite periodic cries of doom, the Hollywood film industry is in good financial health. Despite also rising ticket prices, attendance shows no signs of tapering off. The appeal of the theatrical cinema experience has withstood the assault of television, video games, VCRs, the Internet and DVD. In all likelihood, it will also survive any future assaults. Cinema, from its worst offerings to its best exemplars, is here to stay -- especially the big-budget world of Hollywood films.
American cinema is divided into a panoply of genres, some appealing to a considerable cross-section of the domestic and world population, others catering to niche markets. Film Genre 2000 offers 14 critical essays on the landscape of 1990s American cinema: one general overview and 13 chapters on specific genres. Not all genres are explicitly covered here, but, as demonstrated in this book, many films fall under more than one rubric and genres often overlap or subsume others. For example, there is no chapter on fantasy films, but they do get discussed when they also fall under the jurisdiction of horror, musicals and children's films -- as they often do.
The 13 genres covered, in order of appearance, are Black cinema, literary adaptations, musicals, political films, martial arts, horror and science fiction, teen movies, crime, action, children's films, noir, westerns and romance. The editor, Wheeler Winston Dixon, has done a fantastic job of assembling not only a group of committed specialists but also a diversity of styles, approaches, concerns and ideas. The result is a book that offers a multifaceted look at the culturally inescapable world of American cinema. The one thing all the writers assembled share is a profound yet demandingly critical love for their chosen genre. The only essay that left me truly disappointed was Tom Conley's "Noir in the Red and the Nineties in the Black." It covers one of my own cinematic passions, noir. It even discusses, at length and in favorable terms, one of my favorite 90s noirs, John Dahl's The Last Seduction. Sadly, unlike the rest of this book, it's written in a pompous and presumptuous manner and is more preoccupied with name-dropping theorists than engaging in a probing dialogue about its subject. Still, even here, the author's love of noir pierces through his rebarbative affectations.
Although these intelligent essays are tremendously enjoyable, the reader too, like the authors, must still be critical. At times, questions are raised and then dropped as if no film had yet addressed those issues -- even when this is manifestly not the case. When Mark Reid, in "New Wave Black Cinema of the 1990s," laments that too many films exaggerate black-on-black violence, why does he not refer to Robert Townsend's The Meteor Man -- a 90s film which attacks the propagation of that racist agenda and valorizes nonviolent but active solidarity? And, further, why does he ignore Townsend's work altogether? Chuck Berg, in "Fade-Out in the West," may have found that Clint Eastwood's brilliant recursive western Unforgiven was the perfect swan song for classical western cinema (and I agree), but when he asserts that in its wake all that "remains is a grab bag of exhausted and watered down themes, high fashion stylistics, and... nostalgia," what is to be made of Jim Jarmusch's eerily moving Dead Man (not mentioned by Berg), a later western that combined deep compassion, artful storytelling, poetic meditation and a fresh historical perspective? Did it not show that is still possible to make pertinent westerns? Kudos to Berg, though, for pointing out and describing the insidious racism of Kevin Costner's overly praised Dances with Wolves.
But all of that is part of the fun. These essays are written to engage readers in a thoughtful and thought-provoking dialogue on popular cinema. In this, they succeed. Dixon's keen decision to mingle divergent and complementary voices invites an active and participatory reading experience. | April 2000
Claude Lalumière is a freelance writer, editor, translator and publishing consultant. He's the founder and former owner of Montreal's Nebula Bookshop. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.