The Boundaries of Genre: History, Impedance and Flow

Sue Harper

1 August 2017


Sue’s blog is based on her keynote lecture which was  delivered at the British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies (BAFTSS) Conference at the University of Bristol, 19-20 April 2017, when she was awarded an ‘Outstanding Achievement Award’.

I have three separate agendas for this BAFTSS lecture: to give an overview and critique of my own academic work, to make a contribution to the debates on genre (the topic of this conference), and to suggest a number of terms which might help us to think through the issues of innovation and transformation in film culture. It’s important to say that, although this lecture is in response to my Outstanding Achievement Award,  I don’t think that seniority  should automatically confer deference.  I don’t want to be an authority now, but a doorway  or a portal to a looser and freer mode of thinking about film culture.


My own work in film originated in a revolt against non-contextualised analysis. I did English and German at a university which specialised in a “poem-on-the-page” approach, with a good dose of Leavis thrown in. This was unsatisfactory, to say the least. I did well, but I knew it was a silly way to proceed. When I went to a lecture in 1965 by E.P. Thompson called “Apostacy and Disenchantment”, it was an absolute coup de foudre for me. Thompson insisted on seeing culture in its historical context, and I knew then and there that I had to work in this field, and did an MPhil under him  – about Hazlitt and the political journalism of the Romantic period. What I was looking for then was the consonance (or contradiction) between artistic discourses and those of other social practices. And I’m still doing that now. History is for me the master-discipline: but what I want to know is, is cultural history simply an adjunct to it, or could it be a means of recasting the debate about historicity itself? In my most fanciful moments, I wonder whether the social function of popular cinema is sometimes to operate as the canary down the mine – as a sort of early warning system of subtle changes in consciousness. The real issue is when it operates like that.  There are periods when cinema lags behind (something like a tortoise), rather than setting the agenda.  This has to do with the medium’s technological developement and social purchase. Genre has a role to play in this canary-or-tortoise process, and it is one of the aims of this lecture to talk about that. But with one proviso. We will need to begin to think about a  critical world beyond genre if we are to make any headway at all.

Most of my work, on costume film, on Portsmouth film-going, on the 1950s, and the 1970s (and even my most recent published piece on Tom Jones in the Historical Journal of Film Radio and Television) has been unashamedly revisionist: that is to say, it is based on archival work. I am one of those sad  creatures whose happiest hours have been spent in the National Archives. But let us not fall into the traps of thinking that the archive is  absolute or neutral – or (worse) that its conclusions can be straightforwardly adduced into a feminist or socialist discourse.  I think we should begin with the archive: but we should never end with it. As I have been insisting for some time, we now need to look beyond the archive and to speculate about the triggers of innovation, the nature of overlap between different media, and the boundaries of genre.  What concerns me now is the relationship between film culture and broader patterns in taste and ways of seeing. In some periods, film is porous to outside influences: in others, it is attempts to be hermetically sealed from them. I want to know why this is. It is not just down to personnel, or to accident or luck.


Genre can be conceived of as  an industrial category, of course.  Those of us who have trawled through Kineweekly will be familiar with this argument – that some genres are more suitable for “the lower-class halls”.  Viewed thus, genre is an economically determined structure which exemplifies a neat match between audience pleasure and production profit. 

This model can never work for long, though. In the first place, certain genres are critical rather than industrial (no mogul ever gathered his associates round a table to discuss  making a film noir). And in the second place, the “industrial” model has to be rigorously historicised for it to be of any use. Even five years in cultural history is a very long time, and generic shifts can take place at breakneck speed. Consider the thriller genre. In the post-war period in British cinema, films such as Odd Man Out and Mine Own Executioner shared a visual rhetoric and view of trauma. The genre was pretty homogenous as a whole during the period from 45 to 50. But right through the 1950s and into the early 1960s, the thriller genre became bewilderingly diverse: it could be bifurcated between black and mild, between fascinated and repelled,  between liberal and repressive.  It is possible to argue that the multiplicity of the genre is due to the unease in the period about transgression and taboo. The thriller  genre could be seen  in this period as responding, in an indirect manner, to the lack of  consensus about the outsider in society. In the 1970s, with films such as Gumshoe, the thriller genre became a site of irony and disavowal.

But more is at issue. It is imperative to combine the study of genre with attention to questions of agency.  Agency is the organisational procedure which determines the hierarchy of authorships. In any given genre, a text is produced by the relationship between competing authorships.  In some  costume melodramas (say), the dominant discourse will be the language of the clothes. In others, such as thrillers, it can be the lighting. Is this because the producer has intuited, in his wisdom, that  it is his task to inhibit the free play of agencies in production? Is it his task to orchestrate them, privileging some and downgrading others?  In that case, attention to the means whereby  ideas get into texts will be an important part of the film historian’s repertoire. That’s likely, but it doesn’t get us far enough. We need to ask ourselves about the cultural tasks which specific genres perform.

To do that, we need to raise the issue of consciousness: of the audience and of the text’s progenitors. It seems to me that all generic texts – thrillers, westerns, costume dramas – rely on the  energetic but finite excersise of audience creativity. That is to say, there must be a dynamic relationship between what the audience knows and does not know: there must be the right proportion of what is  familiar and what is fresh. Too much predictability  and it will be stale: too much innovation and it will be puzzling. Audiences will, it seems to me, use genre  texts as a way of refining their own sense of cultural competence. But with the rider that audience requirements alter drastically according to social factors. For example, I showed in my work on the Portsmouth Regent (pubished in the HJRFTV)  that the taste for “bad women” was very short-lived. Films which celebrated them ceased to be very popular after 1947. That was because, during a period of sexual consolidation,  transgressive females in thrillers and melodramas needed to be summarily dealt with, if  audiences were to like them.

In some periods (but not beyond 1970), each genre evoked a particular emotional landscape. This was achieved only when film-makers had the confidence to slice away  everything extraneous and flag up the unambiguous markers or icons of their genre. In order to assess the emotional  landscape  of a genre film, we have to look at the way it deals with anxiety. Is the text itself poised between stasis  and anxiety? At what stage does the resolution take place?  If it is early on in the film, then anxiety will be reduced. And does comfort matter? In some ways, a solidly generic film can operate like a pair of old slippers: eased on with a sigh of pleasure, but worn with a degree of embarassment.

And this brings me to the issue of genre and class. I  do think that  firmly generic texts have, perhaps, very clear class boundaries in terms of their representation, mode of address and appeal (and these cannot easily be accomodated within  standard explanatory models of low-and- middle-brow). And the converse might be the case too: that cross-generic texts, which push against existing formal boundaries, have more fluid class arrangements. This will help us to dispose once and for all of  the issue of “reflection”. It is not the genre text’s job to tell us how the world is, in class terms, but to allude to both the real and the imagined worlds, with  varying degrees of intensity, and to encourage the audience to think it knows the difference.

But how does change come about in genre? It can’t just be a question of one trope becoming tired and audiences becoming fractious and bored. It seems to me that in some periods – the 1970s for example – generic boundaries are acutely at issue due to a widespread transformation in ways of seeing. The ideas of Lefebvre are useful here. He argues, in his Critique of Everyday Life and Introduction to Modernity,  that the status quo in art depends on the idea of wholeness. Once that homogeneity is challenged, then nothing can ever be the same again. Fracture and discontinuities, even of a hairline kind, move things forward. Most useful of all, Lefebvre argues that there is a tipping-point which brings about cultural change. Every time a motif, a phrase or an image is used, its accretions become more heavy and overdetermined, until in the end its weight moves it into a different mode, possibly that of irony. This is fruitful. For now I want to tentatively suggest that the “tipping points” in British film culture have to do with the weight or intellectual heaviness which the film text can comfortably carry.  Genre plays an important role in this process. It provides us with an analytical method and focus.  In literature or painting, the tipping-points have to do with the speed with which the art-work can swing from one discourse to another. In film, the tipping-point has to do with the intensity and weight of the cultural quotations within the  generic text. But different genres may share the same emotional landscape within a period, and that provides some very interesting challenges which I would like to try to meet.


I now want to invent some analytical or descriptive terms which might help us to think about film history. Let’s consider film culture and its social function  in terms of a range of concepts or metaphors: of armature, impedance, porousness, and atavism.


This is a term taken from sculpture. The armature is the structure hidden beneath the surface of the work of art: the wood or metal that permits it to stand and gives it strength. I want to argue that all works of art have an armature: a set of politico-social attitudes which may be incoherent but which are irreducible. These can be either simple or complex. For example, I would say that the armature of A Matter of Life and Death is the following set of ideas: that love overcomes death, that culture has a vital educative function, that history is cyclical in structure, and that self-sacrifice is sometimes necessary. The same armature can be seen in J.W. Dunne’s  An Experiment in Time or the paintings of Stanley Spencer. I am not saying that there is a stylistic similarity here, but that they have the same mindscape (which is not the same as “structures of feeling”). If, by comparison, we think about the armature of the Gainsborough Caravan, it is based on the following precepts: that marginal groups are attractive, that literature is the privilege of everyone, and that high status and pleasure are not necessarily linked. The same armature can be seen in the paintings of Russell Flint and the writings of George Borrow. And Dickens too, come to think of it.

What can we do with the concept of armature? I think we can use it to establish (for example) a film’s place in the cultural field, the nature of its allegiances, the scope of its eclecticism, and its typicality or atypicality in its own period. If a film’s armature is shared with a substantial number of others in its own period, then we can assume there there is an unusual homogeneity in the cinematic field, and we can ask questions about why that is. For example, such homogeneity might, during the war, be ascribed to the films promulgated by  the MoI, which enforced its own attitudes with some rigour. Or it might, in the post-war period, be ascribed to the fact that of a number of artists  were coming to their creative peak at the same time, and with a consonance in their cultural capital. If a film (or group of films) share their armature with paintings or literature, we can assume an unusual fluidity between the media, and ask ourselves why that is. It is crucial not to confuse armature with  the Althusserian  concept of ideology: it is much more complex than that.

Armature can be a useful tool for thinking about a genre’s function and topography. In British cinema of the 1930s, musicals from a wide variety of production backgrounds have the same mindscape: that talent will come into its own, that true love will be consummated after a series of tests, that classical beauty can be outweighed  by charm, and that lowly backgrounds are no bar to success. This armature, interestingly  enough, is shared by the romantic novels of a period slightly earlier –  Maria Corelli and Ethel M. Dell. No other genre in the 1930s has this consistency of armature. The comedies of the period are much more varied in terms of their belief-systems and cultural politics. The types of social anarchy contained within Gracie Fields or George Formby comedies, or the Aldwych farces, are quite distinct from each other. We might tentatively conclude that the task undertaken by the musicals is much narrower, and that the solidity of their shared armature makes their generic boundaries  temporarily impregnible.  The musicals aim for a precision  of focus, whereas the comedies have more of a scattergun technique. This means that the musicals are much more vulnerable in the market-place, and accounts for the fact that they cease to be made during the war. This was certainly not the case with American musicals, which were made and enjoyed throughout the war. But they, of  course, had a different armature.


I don’t mean by this  the external determinants that hinder the performance or structure of the film text  – that would be simple to describe, and would be a matter of assessing the influence of bodies like the BBFC or the MoI or the NFFC. What I mean by impedance is an unevenness within the film – a halting, uncertain quality to its rhythm, structure or style. It is only on very rare occasions that we can ascribe textual impedance to inefficiency or expedience during the production process.

Justin Smith and I commented, in British Film Culture in the 1970s: the Boundaries of Pleasure that, in a very large tranche of films made in the 1970s, there was a textual awkwardness which obtained in work by different directors, production companies or indeed actors. I now want to suggest that this awkwardness can be defined as impedance – a sort of slurring or unevenness in the rhythm of the text. If we analyse the cutting rhythm of Joseph Andrews or O Lucky Man!, the set work of Barry Lyndon or The Duellists, and the costume work in Tommy or Don’t Look Now, or the performance style of The Go-Between, we can see that there are very swift shifts between different styles, and that these are not presented symmetrically.  I want to argue that this phenomenon  – of a sort of drag and bustle – happens in film culture when there are specific pre-conditions. When the boundaries between high and popular arts have been challenged (as they were in the 1970s), and when the symbolic function of objects becomes ambiguous and insecure, then there will be a profound change in the type of anchorage. This can be seen in the way objects appear in the frame (composition) or in their frequency of iteration (editing). In a cinema like the 1970s, the effect of impedance is to present a world of relativism and disproportion, in which resolution is perpetually postponed.

Some cinemas will not exhibit textual impedance at all: MoI-backed films, for example, or most British films of the 1950s. These all display a sort of smoothness and textual coherence which cannot solely be ascribed to rigorous production control. Rather, it can be ascribed to the security of a shared set of values (both moral and aesthetic). Irony, as a mode, will only be a prominent part of a film culture when it is “on the turn” – or when the traditional patterns of deference are disrupted for a substantial tranche of artists. Thus textual impedance occurs in late 1950s film culture, in the films of the New Wave or early Carry Ons. High-impedance film texts often attract critical opprobrium, which is a sure sign that something important is afoot.

There is, of course, the phenomenon of impedance in literature- that “drag and bustle” to which I alluded earlier. The best examples I can think of are in high modernism – Ulysses, for example, or To the Lighthouse. In high modernism, the aim is to use impedance to display authorial virtuosity. In more mainstream literature – that which casts a nod in the direction of realism  – too marked a use of impedance would reduce the illusion of randomness and ordinary life. Film culture, of whatever type and period, uses impedance as a signal of anxiety or unease. And  that is why it is rarely seen in films which are firmly located within a genre category.


By this I mean having a discursive openness and flexibility, All artistic texts are porous to some degree. Dickens, for example, was an unusually porous writer, in that his novels are exceptionally open to the languages of politics, journalism and visual art of his own period. Sometimes, as in Hard Times or A Tale of Two Cities, those languages seep through in a way which was (for the readers of the time)  offensively direct.  Some Romantic writers too – Hazlitt, Coleridge, Keats – are at pains to make their work function as a sort of cultural sieve, in which their readings of Chapman, Greek mythology, and political journalism can filter through and be seen working in the text.  The nature of  inter-media porousness in British (or any) cinema is different . It can’t just be ascribed to personal circumstance  or the varying autonomy of film staff. It has to do with the relative strengths and weaknesses of the media – their social centrality or marginality at any given time.

The degree of porousness will have a profound effect on the look of a period, of course.  For example, it seems to me that 1930s British cinema is extremely porous to the realist novel, in a way that the 1940s is not. To be sure, that has something to do with the role and status of scriptwriters, and the relative dearth of original scripts: but it has more to do with the status of realism. Its orthodoxy in literature is more powerful at some times than others. In the 1930s, it seems to me that middle-brow writers like Priestley, Holtby and Cronin  played a dominant part in the cultural scene, and in general the cinema was too insecure to mount a challenge. Film-makers like Korda, who did not espouse the ethics or aesthetic practices of realism, were operating as mavericks, from the edge.  The structure of the 1930s film industry – ad hoc,  ramshackle and entrepreneurial – was particularly susceptible  to the charms of stability, realism  and textual hierarchy.

During the war and the post-war period, however, there was strong competition from non-realist prose writers, who had a different cultural competence. The work of Rumer Godden, Lady E. F. Smith and Norah Lofts was colourful and extravagant and was, perhaps, attractive to a cinema which was quite tightly controlled. This new “porousness” of the industry to more popular and highly-coloured literature doubtless had something to do with changes in literary habits and readership patterns. But when this was combined with an intensified receptivity to Romantic visual style, a transformation took place. The work of German and continental designers, and the rise of film-makers sensitive to the pastoralism and Romanticism of the more traditional British “sublime” school, meant that late war and post-war British cinema had a dominant look which can only be defined as expressionist – cheap and cheerful at Gainsborough, upwardly mobile with Powell and Pressburger and Carol Reed.  The visual style of Odd Man Out or I Know Where I’m Going or AMOLAD is a testament to film-makers’ willingness to receive and recycle British and German painting styles (both pastoral and expressionist) and  reinvent them anew.

Such  cinematic porousness is exhibited  mainly in certain genres: the melodrama (both costume and modern),  very commonly.  It’s interesting to consider the Western in this regard.  This is the genre whose boundaries are least porous of all.  But the clue is that its iconography (horses, space, clothes, Indians) is geographically and  historically very narrow, while its themes (masculinity, territory) are sufficiently broad to permit  some, but not total,  leeway. And so we can conclude that  porousness is an important  precursor to the phenomenon of generic flow. A genre can be friable  – moist and workable –  when its boundaries are not too rigorously defended, and it can then  be sinuous and adapt itself to cultural circumstance. Hence the long shelf-life of the horror genre.


In my last theme, I want to consider the usefulness of atavism as a way of categorising cultural texts. By atavism I mean, pace Lefebvre, the archaic or primal element in culture. This can invoke the magical and the irrational, or it can occasionally  invoke its opposite. But in either case, the atavistic always yearns for something anterior, and is essentially nostalgic as a mode. I don’t want to argue that any work of art is totally atavistic, but that it may have concealed atavistic yearnings or components, and that the proportion of these, either in the individual work of art or cluster, will determine the flavour of the overall culture. For example, it strikes me that in (say) Anna Karenina, there are atavistic yearnings which are so powerful that they dominate the novel  – yearnings for the land, wholeness and a sort of equality under the sun. The same can be said of Middlemarch or (in film) The Song of the Road  or The Good Companions. Or indeed the Gothic movement in literature and film, which is almost wholly atavistic. Everything depends on the intensity with which the atavistic elements are displayed, or whether some energy has been deployed in concealing them.

If we look at some film examples, it seems to me that the proportion of atavistic longings in 1950s British cinema is quite small. I think this is  because it is a cinema which is rigorously constructed, industrially speaking; it is not so much that the studio system was working well, but that the industrial, ideological and economic constraints did not undercut each other. To be sure, 1950s British cinema did often  worry about boundaries and rituals. But it was also preoccupied with modernity, and in an ambivalent way, so that there was little if any space in the culture for the expression of atavistic yearnings. The same was true of the 1960s, but for different reasons: then, the pleasures of modernity were positively embraced, and on the whole the atavistic was relegated to a minor key. With one exception, of course: that of Hammer, where blood, ancient rituals, matriarchal cultures and nature worship were displayed. In 1970s cinema, the re-drawing of a wide range of boundaries, industrial chaos, the loss of cultural confidence and coherence forced into view a whole range of atavistic films, made under a range of production circumstances and by different directors.  Such films would be The Wicker Man, The Rocky Horror Picture ShowZardoz, or  even The Long Good Friday.  They allude, always indirectly, to a prior set of values which are residual but powerful.

Atavistic elements in film must not be confused with conservative leanings – with nostalgia for hierarchical social structures. To be sure, the atavistic in culture tends to come to the fore when there is a challenge to the existing order: but it takes the form of a yearning for pre-industrial forms – for the organic and the tribal. That, actually, is the way we ought to interpret those MoI documentaries about the land. What is notable is that the atavistic tendency does not appear to be generically located. It is pretty evenly spread across the full range of film types, and that leads me to conclude that atavistic yearnings, which evoke the magical, are like ancient tracks which criss-cross the whole  landscape of  film culture and which are most in evidence at certain times.


Much remains to be done.  I suppose that what I have tried to do is to broaden the definition of evidence.  We all know that what lies before, within and after the film text is historical evidence. What I have done here is to argue that what lies beside it is just as crucial.  I wanted to suggest a  way of  analysing films of a particular period without  resorting to industrial or artistic  determinism or naive reflectionalism, and I wanted to be in  a position to explain the complexity of film’s relationship to other cultural forms. We can analyse and measure the relative strengths of some media, and the relative openness of film to them. This will allow us to think about the various ways in which  innovation occurs.  I still think that the “tipping point” is a useful way of thinking through  the issue of innovation. If motifs and tropes are repeated often, they become stale and self-conscious: it is then that they tip over into a new type of practice, through the intensity and frequency of stimulus. Innovation happens, too, when notions of social space undergo a transformation across a range of media. It is for these reasons that I persist in seeing the 1970s as an intensely innovatory period in British film culture. The only one to match it is the period from 1945 to 50. The difference between the two periods is perhaps that the second is more assimilated into critical discourses about quality and industrial control. But that is a larger debate which we must reserve for another time.

Sue Harper is Emeritus Professor of Film History at the University of Portsmouth. She inaugurated the first undergraduate degree in Cultural Studies there. She has published extensively on film history and British cinema and has appeared on radio and television. She is the author of many articles on British cinema, and her books include  Picturing the Past: The Rise and Fall of the British Costume Film (1994) and Women in British Cinema: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know (2000). She  co-authored British Cinema of the 1950s: The Decline of Deference (2003) with Vincent Porter, and British Film Culture in the 1970s: The Boundaries of Pleasure (2011) with Justin Smith. She co-edited The New Film History (2007) with James Chapman and Mark Glancy, and British Culture and Society in the 1970s (2010) with Laurel Forster. She led a major AHRC research project at Portsmouth on the 1970s.


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