Thursday, August 11, 2005

Genre Identification: Linda Williams and the “Gross-Out” Comedy


In Linda Williams’ article, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” Williams utilizes the identification theories of Christian Metz and Jean-Louis Baudry in conjunction with genre theory to craft an analysis of the physical reactions the viewer has to three specific “body genres”: horror, melodrama and pornography. Two theorists that must be considered in relation to discussions on genre theory are Rick Altman and Thomas Schatz. Altman’s writing discusses genres through a semantic/syntactic scope or more simply as vocabulary versus context: the semantic approach covers the similar traits that appear predominantly in a specific genre while syntax acknowledges a similar story type to define a genre. Altman suggests that in order for a genre to be successful, “either a relatively stable set of semantic givens is developed through syntactic experimentation…or an already existing syntax adopts a new set of semantic elements.”[1] He uses the example of the science fiction genre, suggesting it exists on a foundation of science fiction semantics, but borrows heavily from the syntax of the horror and western genres. This hints at a cross-pollination between genres that has proved to be quite provocative in the field of genre theory.


Thomas Schatz explores another difficult distinction: the film genre versus the genre film. The vehicle he uses to explore this idea is that of semiotics, the study of signs and symbols as elements of language and communication. Schatz defines three areas for genre analysis: characteristics shared by basically all genre films, characteristics shared by all films within a given genre and characteristics that isolate one genre film from all others. In addition, he explores the separation of genre in terms of social context, “the determining, identifying feature of a film genre is its cultural context, its community of interrelated character types whose attitudes, values, and actions flesh out dramatic conflicts inherent within that community.”[2] From this we get the stereotypical characters that are symbols or placeholders that serve a specific function within the genre as well as the particular social problems that are inherent to certain genres. Schatz acknowledges that vital elements of one genre can still be found in other genres but in a different context (he addresses the presence of musical numbers in many westerns and gangster films that are certainly not considered musicals). Instead, we identify a genre through the conflict situation and the types of characters found in the story as established by the grammar of the film genre.


Linda Williams synthesizes these modes of genre distinction in order to examine their physical effects on the spectator. She writes on three genres that she describes as so excessive and overwhelming in a specific emotion that they produce a bodily sensation in the viewer. This effect is achieved visually through spasms induced by overwhelming sadness from the melodrama, fear and terror from the horror film and sexual pleasure from pornography as well as aurally through tears, screams and moans. Williams does not attempt to claim these are the only genres that evoke such sensations on the viewer, rather she isolates these three because she feels they have especially low cultural status and “the success of these genres is often measured by the degree to which the audience sensation mimics what is seen on screen.”[3] This mimicry is what Metz would refer to as the secondary identification with the characters on screen.


In terms of melodrama, Williams grounds her analysis in “women’s weepies,” such as Stella Dallas (1937) or Steel Magnolias (1989) that are characterized by an element of overwhelming pathos, often spurred by a terminal illness or an accidental death. She does not confine her examination to this gender-exclusive genre however. She makes note of an evolving trend that has created the male version of the weepie; Ordinary People (1980) is a prime example. These observations highlight a Laura Mulvey type of distinction between the male and female identification that Williams explores at great length throughout her article.
What Williams does not do is interrogate the possibility of a film belonging to more than one of these “body genres.” One of the examples she lists under contemporary horror films is a perfect subject to explore this notion, Brian DePalma’s Dressed to Kill (1980). If we are to look at it in terms of a horror, it is arguable that we can just as easily look at it in terms of pornography. Dressed to Kill certainly goes to excess in both regards: the gruesome violence of the murder scenes makes the viewer jump and scream out of repulsion while the film’s sexual scenes and dialogue are as explicit as many of the sequences found in what is considered to be traditional pornography.


If we are to look at this film through Altman’s semantic/syntactic approach, we can propose that the film is not genuine pornography because even though it utilizes semantic elements of pornography, the context of the events is within the investigation of a potential serial killer. We can also use Schatz to further dispel the idea of a pornography if we incorporate his idea that “the most significant feature of any generic narrative may be its resolution – that is, its efforts to solve, even if only temporarily, the conflicts that have disturbed the community welfare.”[4] With this in mind we can more accurately classify Dressed to Kill in the genre of horror or thriller since it concludes with the killer’s identity being revealed and being apprehended by the police, instead of a sexual activity as would be expected in pornography. Williams’ classification process enforces a more rigid structure that is not well equipped for such hybridization and films like Dressed to Kill prove to be a challenge to dissect.


Schatz proposes that “the sustained success of any genre depends upon at least two factors: the thematic appeal and significance of the conflicts it repeatedly addresses and its flexibility in adjusting to the audience’s and filmmaker’s changing attitudes toward those conflicts.”[5] One subgenre that is slowly emerging over time that fits in well with Williams’ other body genres is the gross-out comedy, or films that derive their humor primarily from bodily functions that cause the viewer to cringe out of disgust while also evoking laughter.


The gross-out comedy has long been considered as a genre primarily geared toward a teenage-male audience, thanks to teen-sex-comedies like Porky’s (1982), The Last American Virgin (1982) and Losin’ It (1983). These films all feature scenes in which sexual situations are mostly played for laughs as they frequently result in mishap and embarrassment. However, the release of There’s Something About Mary in 1998 helped expand the genre to appeal to an older audience of both males and females. Instead of the horny teenagers of the ‘80s, the lead characters are now lovelorn 30-somethings and the title character is a strong, independent female played by Cameron Diaz. The semantics were still the same (masturbation, voyeurism, embarrassment, genital pain) but the syntax was elevated to a more (theoretically) mature level.


Due to the overwhelming success of the film, an onslaught of gross-out comedies was released in the following years. However, the genre was now expanded to films that included “toilet humor” featuring scenes of excrement and urination, but sidestepping the explicit sexual element like Big Daddy (1999). That same year American Pie (1999) popularized a synthesis of sex humor and toilet humor by having characters unknowingly consume bodily fluids beginning with semen and progressing to urine and dog feces in the sequels. This trend was continued in other imitators like Tomcats (2001), Van Wilder (2002), and perhaps the ultimate example of gross-out humor, Jackass: The Movie (2002).


The most interesting advancement in the genre is the advent of the female-led gross-out comedy that appeals specifically to teenage girls with limited cross-over appeal. This can best be seen in The Sweetest Thing (2002), which also stars Cameron Diaz who has begun to serve as an identifier of the genre film. The film is headed by three female leads who realize they need to reexamine their approaches to dating in order to obtain a desirable husband, all the while featuring numerous and extensive jokes about oral sex, fecal matters and on-screen female regurgitation. Another example of the genre reaching broader appeal can be found in Meet the Parents (2000). In this case, the film is a family comedy focusing on middle-aged adults in which the topic of marriage and other mature subject matter has been injected with gross-out humor involving faulty septic tanks and feline urination.


This genre expansion in terms of gender and age relates back to Williams’ inclusion of the “male weepie.” This is part of a larger discussion about female identification that Williams explores through this as well as the emergence of bisexual pornography in which the classic rules of sexual identification have been morphed. Williams feels that these advancements are important in that they acknowledge a feminine viewing pleasure that was purported not to exist in classical gender theory such as Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Mulvey expanded upon Metz’s idea of primary identification by using psychoanalysis to suggest that the cinematic identification is exclusively male. Later works by Tania Modleski and Jackie Stacey have given examples similar to Williams that strongly persuade for the existence of a female identification. Due to films like There’s Something About Mary and The Sweetest Thing, we can firmly campaign for the presence of the female gaze in the gross-out comedy.


In order to properly define the gross-out comedy as a stable genre we must examine it according to both Altman and Schatz’s theoretical requirements. Considering the inherent role that sex plays in the majority of the bodily functions of the genre, it is equitable to say that all films of this nature must also be considered romantic comedies or at least feature key romantic subplots. Without an object of desire to lust after, the range of bodily functions available to create comedic set-pieces is greatly diminished. We can propose that the semantics of the genre frequently include sex, masturbation, teenagers, vomit, excretion, urination and bodily pain while the syntax is that of the classical Hollywood romantic comedy. The Schatzian approach would consider the films in terms of social conflict and narrative resolution: Boy meets girl, Boy loses girl, Boy needs to learn how to recover girl, and Boy wins back girl (or vice-versa as the identification oscillates).[6]


Sadly, there is a potential futility to be found within the genre. We can return to Altman’s theory of semantic/syntactic synthesis in constituting a successful genre which states that to achieve durability a genre must possess both a coherent and stable syntax and not just recurring semantics.[7] In these terms, the gross-out comedy appears more as a fad than as a genre all of its own. Seeing as its roots lie so intricately in the firmly established romantic comedy genre, the semantics of the gross-out can be perceived as responding to a popular interest during a particular period of time. With this we enter back into Schatz’s theory about the discourse between the audience and the studios suggesting the films of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s appear to be answering to some cultural desire to be grossed-out or disgusted. However, as Schatz suggests, it is likely this interest will quickly dissipate much like it did after the spout of raunchy teenage-sex-comedies of the early 1980’s.


If the genre is (conceivably) destined to last only for sporadic, brief periods of time, one must question the significance of investigating it so thoroughly. There are a number of answers to this. Most provocatively, it opens discussion on the much broader topic of laughter in general. The psychological and psychoanalytical discourse required to properly tackle a query such as how a physical reaction like the cringe that is characterized by disgust or fear can somehow be the impetus of laughter is too immense to be covered here. This field harkens back to the question of spectatorship in relation to genre.


The return to spectatorship marks the return to the central text of Williams’ “body genres.” One of the many important aspects of her article is the new approach to genre distinction: the physical effect on the viewer. In this sense, the gross-out comedy must be taken into account within a contemporary revision of her theory. The genre not only satisfies the visual, aural and low-culture requirements of her body genre criterion, the genre’s existence is fundamentally based on the act of bodily secretion and therefore must be considered as an integral member within this analysis.


[1] Rick Altman, “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 686.
[2] Thomas Schatz, “Film Genre and the Genre Film,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 695.
[3] Linda Williams, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 730.
[4] Thomas Schatz, “Film Genre and the Genre Film,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 699.
[5] Thomas Schatz, “Film Genre and the Genre Film,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 700.
[6] Linda Williams, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 736.
[7] Rick Altman, “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 690.

References

Altman, Rick. “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre.” In Film Theory and Criticism, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Schatz, Thomas. “Film Genre and the Genre Film.” In Film Theory and Criticism, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” In Film Theory and Criticism, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

2 comments:

Cinema Journal said...

"However, as Schatz suggests, it is likely this interest will quickly dissipate much like it did after the spout of raunchy teenage-sex-comedies of the early 1980’s."

Where does "40 Year Old Virgin" word into this? I see its title as a sign of the genre's decline. It is a desperate title, one designed to turn you into the ultimate frat boy, laughing at this old guy "who's never got laid." Since i haven't seen the movie, I can't comment any further, but I thought I'd share my thoughts on the title.

Please respond! I'll be checking back every 5 minutes.

-C

Stephen Snart said...

It's tough to say where The 40 Year Old Virgin fits into things. My immediate reaction is that it doesn't mark much of an incline or decline in the genre but merely an extension of previously covered material. Despite the film's title and some mean-spirited humor in the first half hour, the film doesn't belittle or take cheap shots at its lead character but instead glamorizes him. There might be some evidence of decline in that it's taking the Something About Mary formula of older characters engaging in gross-out situations but the audience here is narrower than with Mary. A more potent example from this summer would probably be Wedding Crashers which seems to have connected with a wide range of demographics.