Film genres can easily become double-edged swords for any filmmaker. Although specific genres help viewers identify the similar patterns and tropes of a director’s creation, some filmic categories contain certain viewer expectations, which can inhibit the screenwriter, the director, and—ultimately—the film.
Below is a list of films in which directors were met with the struggle of twisting, subverting, deconstructing, or altering the elements of various genres, as well as the viewers’ expectations. Some filmmakers have been successful in these endeavors, or have used the genres to express other goals and means. Other directors of certain works—though their films are not great—have managed to offer a fresh perspective on the respective genres.
1. Buddy film – Withnail and I
Long before the existence of cinema, in diverse versions across time and cultures, comedic duos have been a staple of entertainment. In film, some of the most memorable versions of this type of comedy, which span decades, have bloomed to the point that it has become a genre of its own.
The comedy duo sparkled in the 20s and 30s with comedic characters such as Laurel and Hardy and Abbot and Costello; it moved toward generational landmarks such as Bob Hope and Crosby in the 40s and 50s and Cheech and Chong in the 60s and 70s. Finally, noteworthy examples of the current “buddy comedy” are John Cho and Kal Penn in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004) and Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum in 21 Jump Street (2012),
British cult comedy Withnail and I tweaks the already uneven character dynamics to darker and more dramatic results. In the film, Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and Marwood (Paul McGann) travel for a few days to a cabin located in The Lake District.
Their relationship depicts the codependence of two social outcasts—one who nobody can stand and another one who believes he deserves no company other than Withnail. Through several ordeals, their relationship is strained by Withnail’s unapologetic arrogance, while he manages to finally exhaust the protagonist, which forces the duo to part different ways at the end.
2. Western – El Topo
Westerns have always been heavily associated with American culture. The Western genre helped cement a certain mythological flair into American history through the tales of great individuals who, with very little, changed their country with nothing but strength, hard work, and knowledge.
The genre changed, however, as the counterculture sprouted feel-good post-war era films like Little Big Man (1970) and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966). These two films represent a morally-gray Old West and differ from the pristine, straightforward, two-fisted tales from previous years.
In El Topo, Director Jodorowsky adapts a classic genre of American cinema into a metaphysical fable about the futility of material life, which is contrasted with the nigh-reachable path of satisfaction through illumination.
In the first half of the movie, El Topo is a gunslinger who abandons his son in a quest to become the greatest shooter in the West. He is only able to defeat his rivals by cheating them, or he discovers his victims are apathetic about life and death; thus, his victories are rendered meaningless. In the second half of the film, El Topo, after spending years meditating with a gang of outcasts with physical deformations, attacks a small cowboy town that may or may not represent civilization.
3. War Film – Catch-22
French film director Francois Truffaut once noted that it was impossible for any director to make a “true anti-war film.” Throughout the years, many directors have tried to film movies that subvert the traditional ideals of war as a heroic struggle against the forces of evil. Any viewer can misunderstand the simple message that “war is bad” because of his or her craving for a film’s coherent style and compelling storytelling.
Perhaps one of the best examples of this phenomenon is portrayed in the film Jarhead (2005), where U.S. soldiers cheer during the “Ride of the Valkyrie” scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979).
Although Mike Nichols’ irregular adaptation of Joseph Heller’s 1966 novel, Catch 22—screenplay written by Buck Henry—may not be considered a particularly great film, it sheds a different light on war.
Here, war is just another mundane and absurd extension of life, which parallels bureaucracy or business. Death is neither glorious nor horrifying—just an expected, yet meaningless, loss in an incomprehensible structure. The enemy, at the end, is just an excuse—an invisible goal, so those soldiers who thrive on war can endure the consequences.
4. Action Film – Starship Troopers
In Starship Troopers, director Paul Verhoeven experiments with the most basic conventions of action plots. The hero (Casper Van Diem) in this film is dissimilar to the ideal individual with whom the audience usually identifies and empathizes; in fact, he is akin to a bland figure who, by sheer luck, escapes death while all potential heroes suffer fatal consequences.
Along with fascist imagery and news segments constantly interrupting the action, the parody is subtly enhanced by characters who are unaware that they are actually in a propaganda film about a militaristic dystopian future. As long the viewer is enthralled by a protagonist following his mission, the characters and the audience can and will withstand any kind of values.
The hero, then, only becomes a hero by default because of his justified actions and audience expectations. His hero status trumps his immoral or illogical behavior because everything he opposes as “bad” is acceptable. Adding insult to injury, toward the end of movie the war is not nearly over, yet the audience is well aware of the ridiculous and insignificant victories celebrated by the heroes.
5. Science Fiction – Her
Science Fiction has always been paradoxical. Directors of the genre attempt to maintain its sincerity, while retaining an exciting sensation of making the impossible possible. Cinematic Science Fiction, for many decades, was relegated as juvenile entertainment; slowly, the genre managed to earn the respect of public with pioneering films such as The Day That Earth Stood Still (1951), Alphaville (1965), A Clockwork Orange (1971 ), Blade Runner (1982), and Solaris (2002).
In the last few decades, this genre has become an audience favorite because of its narrative possibilities, providing viewers with the opportunity to appreciate a wide array of visual effects.
What makes Spike Jonze’s Her different? Ultimately, Science Fiction is not about science, but about the relationship of individuals with technology and progress. Her is a serious film about love and humanity, and how technology—instead of being an alien instrument or a mirror to trap people into their own gaze—is simply a tool that enhances the best and worst of being human. Her offers a heart, while other Sci-Fi films can only provide the audience with a visually-thrilling, yet sterile, world.
6. Horror – Funny Games
German director Michael Haneke’s fascination with violence and death is well known, as he manages, through these two concepts, new ways to understand the relationship of people. In his 1997 movie Funny Games (remade in the US in 2007), Haneke transforms this fascination to the audience, with the two main antagonists, Peter and Paul, taunting the audiences about their expectations.
The set-up is simple: two strange young men arrive at a summer cottage and kidnap a family betting each other which member will live until 8:00 a.m. the next day
While they subject the family to sadistic activities, they banter about what they are doing and discuss conventional horror genre elements (i.e. which character will survive; and the fear and tension of possible escape, etc.) Perhaps, the most significant elements are the characters’ motiveless actions and self-awareness that the plot is just a flimsy excuse for the audience to enjoy some violence.