The thought receptacle

Stephen's mental dustbin

Tue, 12 Oct 2010

Genre bender

Several weeks ago I went to see The Brothers Bloom at Saffron Screen. It's a wonderful film which I highly recommend, particularly now that it's out on DVD. Not only is it funny, witty, charming, visually inventive, and a rollicking story, but it explores some fascinating themes which resonate particularly with me---primarily the question of authenticity in one's own existence, but also about the nature of habits, acceptance, family ties and other things.

On the other hand, I should warn you that not everyone was as impressed by the film as I was. A leading Amazon reviewer criticises it as “genre-confused”. He or she is put off by the fact that it doesn't seem to subscribe to any well-defined genre---it's not really much like a typical detective story or an adventure movie; it's not even really best described as either a drama or a comedy, despite having elements of both. Clearly, this bothers some people---even Peter Bradshaw was “baffled” (his word).

It puzzles me why anyone would consider this a problem. To criticise a film as “genre-confused” is the tail wagging the dog---genres emerge from films, not the other way round. The most interesting works, not just films but any kind of art, are often those which challenge, combine or subvert established styles. “Genre-confused” ought to be a compliment rather than a criticism. In music, perhaps even more than film, many of the very best albums can't at all be described by a single genre-tag, unless they happened to be the work that spawned the tag itself. I'm sure you can make your own list, but to shamelessly drop some albums from my own: Astral Weeks, What's Going On, Remain In Light, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea or whatever other famously brilliant album you could care to mention don't suffer from being genre-confused---they revel in it.

Some people value genres. I've even heard of people who organise their record collection by genre. They must be dull collections. I couldn't even start to genre-ify my collection... any attempt would quickly get stymied by the genre-combining, genre-confusing and genre-defying. A while ago I spoke to a chap who was doing his PhD on French film wanting to discover “where there was a genre of French post-grief drama” in film. I couldn't help thinking what a pointless question this was. Meanwhile I notice that the Guardian's current film season is another culprit: they're running a series of supplements with articles on “the best films”, broken down, you guessed it, by genre. One of the genres is “arthouse”. What on Earth does that mean?

One of the ways in which certain music journalists often annoy me is that they try to describe music by its similarity to other artists. You could claim this to be helpful, in that it might be relating unfamiliar music to something you've heard before. In practice it never is, partly because the comparisons are frequently way-off, and partly because the journalist is really just trying to show off their own knowledge, usually by picking artists comparably obscure to the one being reviewed. In either case, it's unfair on the music being described: to say it sounds like something else is at least an implication of unoriginality. So really, this treatment is best saved for the work that truly is derivative (er, Delphic maybe? or insert some other derivative band here).

Rather than endlessly trying to relate some new piece of art to prior or peer works, why do people find it so difficult to take things as individual works, to be considered on their own merits? Instead of asking “does it do X as well as work Y?”, ask “do I like it?”. In summary: I hate genres. I hope you do too.

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