Genre Film As Ritual
The claim that genre films are a form of secular ritual must be justified. Religious and media studies scholar Ronald Grimes (2006) has suggested that this identification is misleading. Convention, narrative, and performance are properties shared by both ritual and media. However, it does not follow that ritual and media are equivalent. Frederic Jameson (1978) has even suggested that such scholarship is obscurantist, mystifying the industrial character of the film industry.
Such skepticism is justified. However, the when the characteristics of genre film are surveyed it becomes clear that they share more than just convention, narrative, and performance with ritual. These movies are repetitive enactments of socially weighted and efficacious representations. There are numerous examples of how popular, marginal cinema interacts in meaningful ways with the cultural milieu in which they emerge. For instance, the ideological and psychological potency of the Hollywood western for 20th century American audiences has been thoroughly documented and explored (Wright, 1977; Cawelti, 1999).
Meyer (2006:183-184) describes how the Ghanian straight-to-video film industry is “above all concerned with visualizing what resonates with the structure of feeling of the audience.”* This structure of feeling is instantiated in a popular Pentecostalism and a focus on occult figures like witches who acquire power and wealth through illegitimate means. In the popular Diabolo films (1991-1995) a man “misuse prostitutes by entering their vagina in the form of a snake in order to make them vomit money” (188). In these movies, the occult and witchcraft have become site at which the conflicts of modernity and increasing inequalities are symbolically manifested in performance. These concerns are simply reflected in the films, but they are reduced in scale from the impersonal forces of global capitalism to the frame of a single body and ego (Comarroff and Comarroff 1993).
Interestingly, Meyer reports that many of the filmmakers dislike the Pentecostal worldview of the films, but audience demand requires it. The genre filmmaker must be responsive.
Film scholar like Thomas Schatz (1976) and Vivian Schoback (2003) have proposed that the process of production, exhibition, and appropriation engaged in both filmmaker and audience reproduce the social function of ritual in mass culture. Given the economic risks of filmmaking, there is a tendency to imitate successful films. Identifiable types, or genres, like “horror” or “musical” emerge. What determines which types will emerge and which conventions will be accepted and elaborated?
Schatz and Schoback both contend that audiences selectively attend to representations of those conflicts of urgent concern in their lives. Such concerns involve the irresolvable contradictions and strains of modernity imposed on the individual by the policies and surveillance of massive state and corporate institutions. The conflicts are addressed obliquely in genre films, embodied in narrative and performance. In this way they are similar to popular conspiracy theories that give names, faces, and motives to events whose causality is diffuse and dentritic, ramified throughout the entire tissue of capitalist modernity. In genre films these events, forces, and institutions are reimagined as gay monsters short-circuiting and short-circuited by the impossible resolutions mandated by hegemonic discourse. The world is briefly inverted following a Bahktinian grammar of grotesque idealism in a marginal cinematic space where there is greater freedom of movement, expression, and imagination.
The Italian popular cinema of the 1960s and 1970s included spy movies, giallo thrillers, gothic horror, space operas, topical slapstick, Mondo documentaries, sex films, swashbuckling adventure films, and sword and sandal peplum. In the boom-bust cycle of the opportunistic and decentralized Cinecitta production system, each of these genres experiences a relatively brief florescence (Frayling, 2006). Many of the genres, such as the dozens of spymovies made in the mid-1960s, are fairly trivial in terms of their long-term cultural impact. However, the Western alla’Italiana, giallo, and gothic horror movies have a peculiar potency reflected in their widespread influence in world cinema from Hong Kong and Bollywood to Hollywood. These movies resonated with their audiences ‘structures of meaning.” structures in flux as each person participated differently in the modernization of Italy.
The westerns made at this time were particularly successful at translating a Hollywood genre into an Italian idiom (Frayling 1998a; 1998b). Filmed in the desolate open spaces of the Spanish Almerian desert or the vast sandpits outside of Rom, they allowed audiences to indulge in a liminoid space in which to experiment with different possible orientations toward a new social world (Turner 1982). In some cases, this was a collectivist orientation coherent with leftist politics of the late 1960s. In others, it was a transformation of traditional familism into a new consumerist individualism (Banfield 1967; Silverman 1968; Boissevain 1966). This experimentation was mediated by a liminal hero whose progress through death is the genre’s central narrative.