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Genres of Order and Integration

Introduction

Thomas Schatz (1981) believed genre films were a “social force” because they reflected our values and ideology, but also raised questions about important cultural issues. He argued genre filmmaking followed two dominant narrative strategies: order and integration.

Genres of order highlighted “the values of social order” because they focused on a protagonist who wanted to eliminate a physical threat to society. For example, the reluctant gunslinger in the Western who has to protect the frontier town from cruel bandits, or the detective who investigates unscrupulous criminals and brings them to justice.

By contrast, genres of order were produced to “celebrate the values of social integration”. This function is epitomised by musicals and melodramas where the relationship between the romantic leads reinforces the dominant ideology of love and courtship.

Schatz summarised the difference between the narrative strategies in a table:

table summarising the genres of order and genres of integration

Genres of Order

Genres of order often transport the audience to places where “fundamental values are in a state of sustained conflict”, such as a gunfight for resources in the wild west, or a battle for survival on an alien planet. The film’s setting becomes a symbolic arena of action” which can help us learn about conflict in our own culture.

The protagonist is a “redeemer figure” who is tasked with bringing order to this ideologically unstable setting. There is no magical solution to the problem. Inevitably, this external conflict will involve action sequences full of physical violence.

The hero is an agent of social order, but their individuality is not compromised. After he eliminates the threat, the gunslinger rides into the sunset and the private eye gets ready for his next case. In this way, the resolution is usually ambiguous.

Schatz used term “rites of order” to label genres which incorporated this narrative strategy.

Genres of Integration

The setting in genres of integration tend to be “civilised” so there is no conflict over the “control of the environment”. That is why the space is not always determined or defined in the film.

Instead of physical conflicts, these narratives follow the “struggle of the principal characters to bring their own views in line either with one another’s or, more often, in line with that of the larger community”. For example, in romantic comedies, there is usually a “progression from romantic antagonism to eventual embrace” and the promise of marriage in the resolution. Of course, the new couple is applauded onscreen by their friends and family because they are conforming to society’s expectations.

Filmmakers have to rely on more abstract and ideological codes to represent emotional spaces, especially the tension between the protagonists and their duty to reinforce the dominant ideology. Schatz noted this made genres of integration difficult to analyse.

Finally, he called these narratives “rites of integration”.

Narrative Structure

Thomas Schatz defined genre as “one-dimensional characters acting out a predictable story pattern within a familiar setting”. He also noted “genre films comprised the vast majority of the most popular and profitable productions”. One of the reasons genre films are so successful is because they appeal to our previous experiences and satisfy our expectations.

The genre’s narrative pattern soon becomes obvious to the audience.

Rather than a linear narrative which relied on causality, Schatz suggested genre filmmakers took a thematic approach based on the “opposed value systems” and ideological conflict. He divided the narrative into four parts:

  • Establishment – the dramatic conflict is encoded via various narrative and iconographic cues.
  • Animation – the actions and attitudes of the characters will draw attention to the conflict.
  • Intensification – through conventional situations and dramatic confrontations, the conflict reaches a crisis.
  • Resolution – the physical or ideological threat is eliminated, and the appropriate order is (briefly) restored.

Schatz suggested the most significant feature of a narrative was its resolution because it offered some sort of solution to the ideological conflicts in our own lives.

Iconography

Although our knowledge of the codes and conventions is a “cumulative process”, the iconography of genre is easy to learn: the cowboy on the white horse is probably the hero; the alien in the black cybernetic spacesuit is probably the villain; and the high contrast between light and shadows on the screen might suggest a character’s moral ambiguity in a film noir.

One common feature in the Western is the cowboy riding his horse towards the setting sun. This visual code is used in the denouement to connote his spirit of independence. Perhaps the image reveals the binary opposition between the individual and our role in society.

cowboy on horse looking at the sunset
The Cowboy Archetype

Generic characters have the same function: the hardboiled detective has to bring law and order back to the streets; the ruggedly handsome gunslinger civilises the wilderness; and the comedic best friend is there to support the romantic leads. Some actors even have genre credibility. From Humphrey Bogart as the cynical detective to Liam Nesson as the action hero with a specific set of skills, the audience likes to see familiar faces in certain roles.

In conclusion, genre is a “range of expression” for filmmakers and a “range of experience” for the audience.

Schatz, Thomas (1981): “Hollywood Genres Formulas, Filmmaking, and The Studio System”.

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