Bright Lights Film Journal

The Plot Genre Revolution: Or, Why the Western Isn’t a Genre

James Cameraon's Avatar: Sci-Fi? Fantasy? Western? Action Flick?

Fortunately for those of us who like distinct and finite categories, the number of plot genres is limited in this formulation by the narrow scope of human desires: find love, journey to a place, escape confinement, win the trial, become the most powerful, revenge a crime, solve a mystery, get the gold.

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It’s the rare movie review that doesn’t mention at least one genre to describe its subject. However, even a passing glance at how film genres are categorized will reveal discrepancies. In its review of the 2009 blockbuster Avatar, for example, the New York Times refers to it as a “paradigm shift in science-fiction cinema,” The Hollywood Reporter claims that the same film “draws deeply on Westerns,” while Netflix categorizes it under “Action Sci-Fi & Fantasy,” “Sci-Fi Adventure,” and “Alien Sci-Fi.” Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) is generally agreed to be a Western, but according to A. O. Scott the film is also a “wild and bloody live-action cartoon” inspired by Asian martial arts and blaxploitation films, not to mention a historically informed critique of slavery. Other forms of narrative media are not immune from the generic conundrum: AMC’s series Breaking Bad (2008-2013) is variously described as a crime show, a drama, and a thriller, while creator Vince Gilligan characterizes it as a “postmodern Western,” citing John Ford and Sergio Leone as stylistic influences.

Genre confusion doesn’t only abound in the consumer market. Browse any scholarly account that touches on genre and you will notice a ubiquitous discomfort with specificity. Film scholars (and authors of the foremost textbook in film studies) David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson remind us that “defining the precise boundaries between genres can be tricky” (328); and in the words of Barry Langford, “we still have a number of questions to ask about what genres are, what they do, why and for whom, and […] genre in turn still has a great deal to teach us about how movies work” (278). Though film critics, theorists, students, producers, and casual observers of film may agree that genres exist and provide an expedient shorthand, when it comes to placing a specific film squarely within a specific genre, all bets are off. In other words, “film noir ” or “Western” may be useful terms for conjuring up the traits often associated with a genre, but when it comes to finding Avatar at the (metaphoric) video store, you’ll have to ask a clerk.

Anthony Mann’s The Black Book, aka Reign of Terror. Historical costume drama/film noir.

Which raises a few questions: Why has it been so difficult for the disparate groups who produce, consume, and study film to agree on generic definitions? Why is it important to have a stable definition of genres? And, finally, how can genres be reconceptualized in a more productive way?

In what follows, I argue that films can be categorized far more usefully according to plot. Plot describes the structure of a film: it is the ordered progression of events that construct a narrative. Narrative films, in turn, are based on drama; drama is based on conflict; and conflict is created by the tension between what characters want. As any beginning screenwriter’s guide (see, among others, the works of Syd Field, Robert McKee, and David Trottier) will tell you, traditional narrative films are constructed around a protagonist overcoming obstacles on the way to achieving a single specific, visible, overarching goal. And because the goals that characters want to attain are relatively limited, this overarching desire of the protagonist may be used to define its plot genre.

A very rough historical overview would posit that genres developed through use by industry professionals and audiences until the mid-twentieth century. From that time until the present, critics, marketers, and fans have seized upon the established terms – Western, film noir, romantic comedy, biopic, etc. – seeking ever more concrete and nuanced definitions. There have been many critical approaches to defining the Western, for example, but usually it looks something like this: a scholar will locate an historical antecedent (such as The Great Train Robbery, 1903), select a paradigmatic film (such as Stagecoach, 1939), identify common themes and iconography, and attempt to formulate a theoretical basis for the future discussion of the genre, though this process ends in an acknowledgment that genres are fluid and unstable. As early as 1973, Alan Tudor observed, “We feel that we know a western when we see one, though the edges may be rather blurred” (6). Scholars have tried to reconcile the Western with its historical usage and with trends in linguistic theory, and genre theory has been dutifully trotted through the vicissitudes of structuralism, semiotics, and poststructuralism.

Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain: Western or not?

A flawed assumption is made that “Westerns” exist as a prescribed set of definable films, so the critic strives to articulate a precise definition to align with the historical category. As Barry Keith Grant puts it in the introduction to his seminal anthology the Film Genre Reader, “genre movies are those commercial feature films that, through repetition and variation, tell familiar stories with familiar characters in familiar situations” (xvii). Of course, there are films featuring cowboys and six-shooters, set in the West, on the frontier, involving good guys and bad guys. A Western can be defined based on iconography, or location, or historical precedent, or thematic content. What remains contested is the critical mass – the number of characteristics or terms ascribed to a particular film that place it in the category “Western.” For some, Brokeback Mountain meets the criteria (cowboy hats, location, herding cattle, etc.); for others it does not (not set in the nineteenth century, no six-shooters, the themes don’t square with aggrandized myths of masculinity or taming the wild frontier). There is no consensus that yes, Stagecoach is a Western but Brokeback Mountain is not. Ultimately, we are left with an arbitrary line in the sand of a dusty one-horse town.

Throughout this debate very little attention is paid to the one feature of a film that is stable, limited, and easily recognized by those who sit down to write new films. What hasn’t occurred to date, and what I offer now, is a strategy of categorization based on the unchanging narrative plot structure of the films themselves.

In contrast to the Western, the comedy, the film noir, and the musical (none of which can be defined by a single plot), all romances are the same because of one important feature: they are always about a protagonist with (ultimately) a single object of desire: Alvy Singer wants Annie Hall, Harry wants Sally, Elizabeth Bennet wants Mr. Darcy. It doesn’t matter if the movie is set in New York or the English countryside, if it’s funny, satirical, or tragic. It doesn’t matter whether it’s shot in black and white, in 3D, using low-key lighting or day-for-night; whether it’s a musical or silent. These are all methodological distinctions, techniques for depicting the story that are distinct from the plot itself, just as the thematic content of the film – the meaning that is carried away by the audience – is separable from both the plot and the method by which it is realized. A romance is a romance solely because of what the protagonist wants. And we, the audience, know the film is over when those two crazy kids finally get together (or in the case of a tragic ending, when one of them is lost forever).

The “MacGuffin movie”: Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Similarly, all sports films focus on protagonists who want to win the big game, whether it’s Rocky fighting Apollo Creed, Morris Buttermaker coaching his Bad News Bears to beat the Yankees, or François Pienaar of the Springboks winning the 1995 Rugby World Cup (Invictus). All antagonist films feature protagonists wanting to neutralize a monster in some form, be it human (Bowden surviving Cady in Cape Fear, or Jake Sully defeating Colonel Quaritch in Avatar), animal (Jaws), or supernatural (Alien). All detective films are the same in that the protagonist wants to solve a crime, whether that is Sam Spade seeking to find out who murdered his partner, Miles Archer (The Maltese Falcon), or Robert Langdon recovering the stolen vials of antimatter (Angels and Demons). In certain films, the protagonist wants to recover an object (Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly); I would call this the “MacGuffin” plot genre, after Hitchcock’s term. Fortunately for those of us who like distinct and finite categories, the number of plot genres is limited in this formulation by the narrow scope of human desires: find love, journey to a place, escape confinement, win the trial, become the most powerful, revenge a crime, solve a mystery, get the gold.

For a writer, knowing the protagonist’s overarching desire is the most essential part of structuring a film. It offers the beginning, middle, and end. The film is about how the protagonist will overcome obstacles to that desire. The greater the obstacle, the greater the conflict, and the more involved the audience will be in seeing how it is eventually overcome.

One might correctly point out that in The Maltese Falcon, for example, Sam Spade has a love interest in Brigid O’Shaughnessy. However, the overarching desire of the protagonist is to solve a crime, not to be with the woman he grows to love. The film ends not when he gets the girl, or even when he gets the missing falcon (it is not a MacGuffin plot). The film ends when he solves the crime of who killed his partner Miles Archer. (Spoiler alert: If further evidence is needed, we know The Maltese Falcon isn’t a romance plot because Spade sends off the object of his love to be hung for the crime, which makes for an awkward second date.)

Overcoming the insurmountable obstacle: Michael Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

What the concept of plot genre offers is a much clearer description of filmic categories and a useful analytical structure. Such previously genre-defying films as Brokeback Mountain, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Memento are instantly recognizable according to their plot genres (the first two are romances, the third a detective story). What makes these films unusual – what distinguishes them from others in their plot genre – is not the main character’s desire; rather it is the well-selected and seemingly insurmountable obstacle the protagonist must overcome in order to succeed at his overarching goal (the homophobia of frontier society, a device that erases memories, anterograde amnesia). In this formulation, the obstacle, then, is an area where screenwriters can explore their creativity. Wants are limited, but motivations, obstacles, and characters’ diverse responses to obstacles are as boundless as a writer’s imagination.

In short, focusing on the plot genre offers a concrete, reasoned tool of analysis that remains consistent regardless of context. It’s a helpful tool not just for those who view films (academics, critics, audiences), but also for those who create films (producers, directors, and particularly writers). My hope is that in the future the industry will recognize that when a film fails creatively, it is likely because the structure underlying the story – the plot – has failed. (Take note, George Lucas.) By understanding why plot genres are consistently effective, artists can instead exercise their creativity in those areas that truly distinguish a great film from its opposite: the subtleties of the obstacles, the methodology (including filmic elements such as shot selection, lighting, editing), and the script (dialogue and thematic content). Brilliant narratives fall peacefully within these established plot genres without fear that they are cliché or trite. No one faults the Odyssey for adhering to the journey plot genre (Odysseus wants to get home). No one faults Hamlet for adhering to the revenge plot genre (Hamlet wants to kill his uncle who killed his father). No one faults Casablanca for being a MacGuffin film (Rick wants to get the letters of transport), or The Godfather for being a gangster film (Don Corleone wants to become the capo di tutti capi and hold on to that position). To the contrary, these narratives succeed because of the strength of the protagonist’s desire.

Just as you wouldn’t want to reinvent the materials of architecture every time you built a new house, there’s no reason to reinvent the structural underpinnings of a film every time you write a new script. Sure, it’s nice to see a cantilever now and again, but there’s a reason that steel beams support most cities: they work.

Works Consulted

Altman, Rick. Film/Genre. London: BFI Publishing, 1999.

Altman, Rick. “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre.” Film Genre Reader IV. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012.

Bordwell, David, and Kristen Thompson. Film Art: An Introduction. 9th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009.

Dargis, Manohla. “A New Eden, Both Cosmic and Cinematic.” The New York Times. 17 December 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/18/movies/18avatar.html. Web. Accessed 2 March 2015.

Grant, Barry Keith, ed. Film Genre Reader IV. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012.

Honeycutt, Kirk. “Avatar: Film Review.” The Hollywood Reporter. 10 December 2009. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movie/avatar/review/93803. Web. Accessed 2 March 2015.

Lacey, Nick. Narrative and Genre: Key Concepts in Media Studies. New York/London: Macmillan Press, 2000.

Langford, Barry. Film Genre: Hollywood and Beyond. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2005.

Lopez, Daniel. Films by Genre. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co. Inc., 1993.

MacDowell, James. “Brokeback Mountain.” Alternate Takes. 17 January 2006. http://www.alternatetakes.co.uk/?2006,1,48. Web. Accessed 2 March 2015.

Neale, Steve. Genre and Hollywood. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Scott, A. O. “The Black, the White and the Angry: Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Django Unchained’ Stars Jamie Foxx.” The New York Times. 25 December 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/25/movies/quentin-tarantinos-django-unchained-stars-jamie-foxx.html?_r=0. Web. Accessed 2 March 2015.

Tudor, Alan. “Genre.” Theories of Film. New York: Viking Press, 1973. Rpt. in Barry Keith Grant, ed. Film Genre Reader IV. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012. 3-11.

Vineyard, Jennifer. “Vince Gilligan at Breaking Bad Museum Exhibit: ‘That’s a Bit of a Spoiler’.” Vulture.com. 29 July 2013. http://www.vulture.com/2013/07/vince-gilligan-breaking-bad-exhibit-tour-guide.html. Web. Accessed 2 March 2015.

NOTE: All images are screenshots.