Lazy Luddite Log



I have been both watching and reading about old movies lately and this has gotten me pondering the topic of genres. Walk into a video store and you will find several different sections. If you are like me however you will have more genres in your own personal schema than the shop utilizes. It is some of the shop-negected genre names I will discuss in this post.

If I were to make a map of 'movie-space' I would very likely define it by drawing borders separating that space into a dozen or more movie genres. However I am well aware that another person may draw the borders differently. Arguments start that way. If I were discussing music then I could get rather tetchy but luckily I am more relaxed on the topic of movies. Mind you that music comment does remind me of a phenomenon I do want to touch on - something I think of as "genre-drift".

A genre emerges once it can be regarded as having a number of distinct characteristics. Then over the decades it changes. Often its defining characteristics become more pronounced - it gets "harder" or "faster" or "deeper". It sometimes can even become a bit of a caricature of its original form. Sometimes the newer form will be given a newer name but sometimes the reverse can happen. The original genre name travels with the latest and most extreme incarnation of the genre while the original music itself is re-tagged with some more general label. I wonder whether this happens with movies too.


In the past I was involved in discussions of what the difference is between horror and thriller genres. At the time I suggested that horror has a supernatural element - Freddie Kreuger is a murdering ghost. Friends quickly named movies lacking anything supernatural that were definitely horror rather than thriller - think Saw. I needed a new definition - one involving (say) a level of bloodiness. But over time the use of blood and gore in horror (indeed in many other genres) has grown and some of the oldest horror movies never show blood but are still deemed horror. Even to this day we still call Nosferatu horror (this classic has been spared the problem of genre-drift it seems).

What do I do now? How can I draw a line in the sand between horror and thriller (or indeed between thriller and suspense or between suspense and mystery)? Possibly the name itself is instructional - horror will horrify while thrillers only thrill. Whatever generates the desired effect will fit the bill. But then would each of us shelve the DVDs differently? Yes I suppose so. Or I may just stay away from those shelves because most of these movies scare me too much!


I have sometimes wished there were more sections in that video store. I may be in the mood for adventure and then have to sift the entire action section for what I want because I feel that adventure is a distinct thing. If anything it is a fusion of genres rather than a sub-genre of action. But if I were challenged to describe this genre what would I say? I may just be lazy and name some key adventure movies starting with Indiana Jones. But I should try and do better than that so here I go:

Adventure has many action scenes. It also has historical elements - even if it has a contemporary setting it will have historical events or persons or objects as important to the plot. It will have an element of discovery or exploration or exploitation of the exotic. Morally it will tend to depict characters as definitely good or evil (except sometimes one can masquerade as the other). Does that do the trick? Is adventure a blend of action and historical and mystery? I think I have done okay but maybe there is more to it than that - they tend to also have supernatural themes.

Sword And Sorcery

Something that consistently has the supernatural in it is fantasy. Within that genre there is a distinct sub-genre with the name 'sword and sorcery'. The name is deceptive because it refers to a smaller list of movies than simply all the fantasy movies depicting both armed combat and spell-casting. The Beast Master is included while The Lord Of The Rings is most definitely excluded. So what does define sword and sorcery? I am tempted to say it is "trashy fantasy" with its tendency to focus on violent combat and semi-nudity thereby serving the baser desires of viewers.

There may be more to it than that however. For one thing it uses settings that allow it to justify the scantily-clad characters (of both genders) and all the hack-and-slash. These settings are analogues of the ancient world (rather than the medieval settings that inspire much fantasy fiction). Such settings allow themes of the contrast between civilization and barbarism to be explored. Those movies that do this tend to expose civilization as corrupt while celebrating the rugged independence and integrity of barbaric protagonists. I suspect this is one thing that makes me wary of the sub-genre. I personally think much good comes from the life of the Polis. Still every so often all you want is something trashy and you can put on the ideological filters and enjoy the ride. Yes Conan "steel is stronger than flesh" - whatever you say dude!

* * * * *

There are plenty of other genres and sub-gengres and crossed-genres that can be argued and defined and re-defined. I have just chosen a handful that I have been exploring lately. I am interested in what others have to say on such matters.



  • Dear Daniel,

    just draw the damn map already, and we'll argue about that.

    (And to start the argument off--- you can have your main genres as continents, then pick out individual films as cities or towns) (Though this blends the geological with the societal in an already uncomfortable way).


    By Blogger jc, At 02 October, 2012  

  • Hey Julie

    I could try drawing the map. It depends on how much a topic interests me.

    I _describe_ a map of ideology here:

    And one could also argue that a set of inter-linked web pages are a kind of map. If so I have mapped blues-derived popular music here:

    Finally I have even drawn geographical maps:

    If I do ever draw a map of movie genres I will make sure to tell you.

    By Blogger Daniel, At 03 October, 2012  

  • I'm copying and pasting comments to this same post from LiveJournal (complete with messy formatting text). See below...

    From: nclean
    Date: October 1st, 2012 02:18 pm (local)
    Select: Delete Spam Screen Freeze Track This
    As with all categorisations, the more accurate you try to be, the more the exceptions to descriptions will bust the boxes.

    I have a strong desire for sci-fi, but am fairly uninterested in horror. This is fine for books, but a typical movie store sci fi section will be
    * television series (usually star trek), which may take a decent chunk
    * the majority of the remainder will be sci-fi horror
    * Star Wars (Sci-fi adventure, no?)
    * A few sci-fi action (many films) and adventure films (fewer - things like Ice Pirates)
    * Very few other Sci fi films will be on show
    (Reply) (Thread)

    From: originaluddite
    Date: October 3rd, 2012 01:56 pm (local)
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    Yes. I imagine if you want a purer form of SF in audio-visual form you could be looking for a while. Star Trek (which had five series and ten movies even before the original crew 'reboot' movie) is sometimes derided as "soft" rather than "hard" SF but a more generous interpretation is to say that it focuses more on speculations in the social rather than natural sciences. Still it is way too fluffy a lot of the time.

    I would be more inclined to say there is more "SF Action" than "SF Horror" in the SF section - more Aliens than Alien. Still I would agree that most SF movies are SF spliced with other genres that work well depicting lots of spectacular special effects.

    Star Wars is an interesting one. Many think of it as more fantasy in SF clothing (techno-fantasy?) in terms of its tropes. It could also be described as adventure - lots of exploration of some _very_ exotic locales with a long history - it is a galaxy far away and long ago after all.

    You name Ice Pirates which just makes me think that every decade has its forgotten and trashy SF - a blogging topic in itself.

    What kind of pure SF _is_ left for you to find? Contact (the movie of the Carl Sagan novel)? District 9? Moon?
    (Reply) (Parent) (Thread)

    By Blogger Daniel, At 09 May, 2017  

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