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What Is Genre And Why Should I Care?

There are terms that always seem to come up when talking about films: director, actor, plot, theme, score, etc. These terms are all self-explanatory; no one ever asks, ‘what’s a director?’ However, there are other terms that are equally common but less clear: genre, sub-genre, auteur, oeuvre, etc. These terms are more abstract then ‘director’ or ‘actor.’ It is entirely likely that someone will ask, ‘what is genre, anyway?’ This question specifically is what I will be answering with this paper.

The answer to the question ‘what is genre,’ is multi-layered: genre is a means of classification. Genre is a means of communication. Genre is a means of understanding films. Genre is a means of relating to films. To one person all movies rated “PG” are a genre – possibly one also known as “children’s movies” – while to another all movies with similar topics treated in similar ways are a genre: i.e. movies dealing with frontier life depicted in a nostalgic manner are a genre often known as “western.” There are as many definitions for genre as there are individuals using the term, making genre an enigmatic and intimidating concept. As David Bordwell states:
One could… argue that no set of necessary and sufficient conditions can mark off genres from other sorts of groupings in ways that all experts or ordinary filmgoers would find acceptable.(1)
The complexity of genre is paramount to its definition; the beauty of genre is that many individuals can interpret the concept differently yet still come to a similar usage of it. Academics throw around the word genre, comfortable in the knowledge that other academics will understand what they mean when they say it. Within popular culture – outside the realm of academia – the word genre gets thrown around just as often and with the same comfortable knowledge. The interesting part is that all these people, academics and ordinary filmgoers, can all talk about genre and understand one another despite their individual understandings of what genre is. The nuances of genre don’t end there, though. Thus a ‘complete’ analysis of genre is difficult; it is an enormous concept – much like the interpretation of dreams. Like the fable of the dog who loses his bone to his own reflection, a genre theorist can easily feel that everywhere she looks she is faced with a bigger, better theory about genre; one that makes better, more viable points. Things get even more difficult when we bring the ordinary filmgoers into the picture: because genre depends so heavily on common, communal audience experience and the task of surveying, calculating, and reporting mass audience experiences with genre is a daunting operation. It is difficult to maintain a singular perspective when the concept of genre has an unlimited number of connotations.

When I undertook studying genre I don’t think I realized exactly how big a topic I was looking at. Surveying the prominent theorists is not necessarily the way to determine what genre is, but was a good start for me. In developing my own critical interpretation of genre and its importance, I have incorporated many aspects of others’ theories. I have concluded that genre is a means of communication; it consolidates all the visual, emotional and thematic readings of a film into a simple package – or common language – that people use to talk to one another about films. Genre is a kind of tool that audiences use to relate to films but also to relate to themselves and their society. But genre also carries meaning to filmmakers: be they directors, producers, editors, etc. This meaning is significantly different than the meanings genre has for audiences. While on the surface it may seem cynical I am unashamed to argue that genre is a kind of ‘monetary marker for success’ for filmmakers. Aside from any artistic passions, filmmakers go into the film world in order to make money and genre is a sure fire way to insure profits; if a particular film sells well, say a horror film, other filmmakers then know that making similar horror films themselves will earn them money as well. In a consumer's paradise like Hollywood, it might be more accurate to phrase this assumption as the films that audiences ‘buy’ dictate what films will be made. Steve Neal explains the equation, says Neal, “profitability is an index of popularity and popularity an index of significance.”(2)

The remainder of this paper is set up in three sections: the first is a condensed history of genre including a quick overview of pre-existing genre theories I have found useful in developing my own theory. The second is my theory of what genre is and how it works. The third is an application of my theory of genre to the western genre with specific focus on A Fistful of Dollars (hereafter reffered to as Fistful), and its director Sergio Leone.

What I will be doing with this final section is exploring how genre and an auteur can work together; I will be looking at how Leone can work within the confines of the western genre while still displaying his individuality and even altering the entire western genre with his aesthetics. I will be dealing with how the western genre and the Leone’s interpretation of it affect Fistful’s story, characters, plot, etc., but also how they affect the audience’s interpretation and understanding of Fistful.

A condensed history of genre

gen*re : 1. A type or class. 2. An established class or category of artistic composition, as in literature or film. (3)

The word genre is French in origin and means simply ‘kind’ or ‘class’ when translated. Genre is also derived from the Latin word genus, a term we most commonly associate with biological categorization, and thus it is no wonder that the earliest applications of genre - to literature and film - parallel our biological class system. While this is a logical first step in employing genre, it is a reductive and limiting step. This scientific philosophy of genre theory stems from Aristotle and many following theorists, including early film theorists, perpetuated his ideas until the later part of the 18th century; these early theorists are the Adam and Eve of genre theory: they went forth, put all films into groups, and named them.

The underlaying principle to this biological theory of genre is that every film in a genre is the same. This idea is both true and false. Assuming the idea is true, why would anyone continue to see films within a genre? Why would anyone waste their time making more genre films if they are all exactly the same? They wouldn’t. Assuming the idea is false, how could people identify films as similar to one another if they aren’t overtly the same? Is it actually possible for people to make movies that aren’t the same? They couldn’t. Therefore the idea must hold some level of truth, even if that truth is not identical to the idea itself.

To further clarify I’ll give you an analogy:
“Every film in a genre is the same”
is to
“Every fruit is the same”

Every fruit is the same as every other fruit – by definition fruit carries the seeds of a plant within their flesh – but not every fruit looks, tastes, or grows the same way. Similarly, ever film in a genre carries the ‘seeds’ of the genre within them but they don’t all have the same plots, characters, etc. as one another.

These ‘seeds’ of a genre are what audiences’ use, on a superficial level, to individuate genres and identify which films belong to each of those genres. The most widely used ‘seed’ is an iconographic subtext. An iconographic subtext is a collection of props, sounds, character types, lighting techniques, musical scores, plot lines, etc. Audience members easily and immediately recognize these ‘icons’ and upon seeing them, are cued as to what else to expect from the film. (4)  These expectations are based on previous experiences with other films from the genre. The western, for example, has guns, horses, wide-open country, 10-gallon hats, Indians, railroads, sheriffs, lone gunmen, twangy music, etc. With a tool as powerfully concise as iconography it seems impossible to have difficulty categorizing films.

Problems arise, however, when we become aware of the fact that not every western has every iconographic element we can list. We then have to make exceptions or stretch the rules so that they will still apply to every film, thus further confusing the definition of genre. Thankfully, audiences are adept at interpreting the underlying messages in films and use those to identify what genre a film belongs to.

There is also some difficulty when we realize that not all genres have an identifiable iconography. To maintain the theory of common characteristics theorists tend to ignore hybrid films, or films that intentionally break ‘generic conventions.’ They also tend to focus only on genres that display a noticeable iconography. The result of this method of genre interpretation is a completely static understanding of genres; so static, in fact, that films from different time periods cannot be fit into established genre classes and therefore form a new class/category. If we accept the statement that all genre films are the same many new genres would have to be created every year – practically one for every new film.

By the dawning of the 19th century genre theorists like Friedrich Schlegel and Henri Stendhal realized the limits of a strictly Aristotelian approach to genre, and as time passed the use of the term genre matured and adapted. In 1902 Benedetto Croce wrote an essay entitled “Aesthetic as Science of Expression and General Linguistic” that paved the way for the hybridization theory. Croce had not intended to create a postmodern ‘movement’ in genre criticism; he sought to “sweep away all generalizing critical discourse,”(5) however, his groundbreaking essay started into motion a new dialectic. At the time of its printing the ideas in Croce’s work were radical: not every theorist was ready to accept the idea that genre was not static.

Take Abbott and Costello for example. Does one call Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) a horror film or a comedy? Clearly it has elements of both genres in it. It is a hybrid of the two genres. Within a system where genres have solid boundaries, this film exists somewhere outside genre convention and thus cannot be understood or identified by audiences; yet in reality, audiences seem totally secure in accepting the film as part of the horror/comedy genre.

During the early 1950’s another hazy term emerged and began competing with genre for importance within film theory: auteur, another term borrowed from French theorists. An auteur is literally an ‘author,’ and in film theory most commonly directors are considered auteurs. Some film scholars in the 50’s segregated genre theory from auteur theory; however, it has become apparent that this division may not be as etched in stone as it was once perceived to be. Much as experience has taught theorists to allow hybridization of specific genres – the horror/comedy genre for example – they have also learned to allow some hybridization in sources of a film’s meaning; when the two ideas were individuated theorists thought that a film could best be understood as part of a genre or part of an oeuvre. Theorists now believe a film can be understood as both part of a genre and part of an oeuvre – broadening the scope of a film’s potential meanings. In fact, often an auteur’s style is so unique that their oeuvre acts as a genre itself. This can be seen in the case of Alfred Hitchcock, whose films can be placed in various genres (Psycho in the horror genre, Vertigo in the suspense genre) but are more commonly considered as the works of Hitchcock.

Obviously audiences are smart enough – and flexible enough – to accept subtle variations in story, theme, character, etc. within genre rendering the ‘solidity’ of genre theory unnecessary. What can be salvaged from this theory is the idea that films within a genre contain similar elements to one another. While films within a genre do share iconography they are not necessarily identical films. As Robert Warshow explains:
For a [genre] to be successful its conventions have imposed themselves upon the general consciousness and become the vehicle of a particular set of attitudes and a particular aesthetic effect. One goes to any individual example of the [genre] with very definite expectations, and originality is to be welcomed only in the degree that it intensifies the expected experience without fundamentally altering it. (6)
If one takes the idea ‘every film in a genre is the same’ at face value then genre can be understood as the defining elements of a body of films; the ‘seeds’ or facets of a genre can be said to categorize films. From this vantage point the concept of genre is as simple as its definition: it is a kind or class. In the realm of theory this idea is essential to relegating specific films into a genre family to be analyzed. For someone struggling to examine and explain what genre is and what it does, this concept is refreshing and even carries with it some tools, an iconographic subtext for one. With concept and tools in hand, the western, the gangster film, and the horror film suddenly step out of the general category ‘film’ and fall neatly into separate and distinct genres. However, one must remain open to ‘variations’ so as not to become to limited in one’s understanding of genre.

Establishing the fluidity of genre opens doors to a braoder understanding of genre. However, some theorists have still written about genre as though it is essentially static; they have speculated that a genre’s development can be mapped out to a predicatable ending. Under this theoretical umbrella genre is removed from any historical context and is left hanging in timelessness. If we assume that genres can be mapped out in logical ways, we also assume that genres are static; their functions never change and we can depend on them to mean and do the same things forever. While this approach may act as a safety net – of sorts – in defining and understanding genres it also curtails genre’s ability to grow and change. For example: in each genre many attitude changes can be seen over time; while one western may focus on the ‘evil barbarism’ of Indians, another may focus on how mistreated the Indians are by the U.S.A. These changes in genre attitude can be attributed to the socio-political climate during the respective time of production for each film. If genre is to be considered static, it is removed from any ‘real world’ context and remains only in the theoretical world of film scholarship. Within the world of theory it is much simpler for critics/scholars to say that genres’ are always the same mainly because this significantly reduces the breadth of options to consider and contains genre within a simple package or definition. When allowed to grow, genre breaks out of the theoretical world and into a realm of unlimited possibilities – something any scholar would be intimidated by. Clearly, genres must have some larger context than can be explained within the scope of a logical progression; however this is not to say that they do not progress. Stated simply my argument is that the progression of genres is not map-able like a mathematical function rather they must be treated in a historical context; the progression of a genre can only be identified after the fact. Thus in order to map a genre’s progression one must treat genre as though it is cyclical.

A cyclical theory, again, leads us into a scientific approach to genre; treating genre as though it travels through a cycle is like saying a genre is born, matures, then dies – giving it some kind of life. This theory is useful when trying to connect genre with the actual history of the world. If we assume that a genre is born, we can identify what it means within its societal context by calculating a birthday. The maturation – or maybe better said, the mid-life - of the genre will allow us a look at how long a sociopolitical environment lasted – culminating with the genre’s death, which marks a period of social reform or re-thinking. Brian Taves adds another dimension to this life-cycle in talking about a genre’s self-awareness and subsequent self-destruction; a genre – to him – does not just grow and then die; it becomes “actualized” (or self-aware/satirical) and thus burns itself out. After a genre has existed for some time - this transformation happens at different time for every genre, it is impossible to predict when it will happen – the conditions of that genre become so well known that they become clichéd. At that point films being made within the genre become less serious, more postmodern; genre conditions become overt. Characters and dialogue actually mention the genre conditions they are subject to instead of simply falling subject to them. This is when Taves considers a genre ‘dead.’ This is a very powerful theory that turns a blind eye to the inevitable fact of sharing; genres don’t just die -they pass on their qualities/elements, as an inheritance, – to other genres. In this way generic elements can keep a genre alive forever within a different genre.

Many genres, as time passes, adopt elements of other genres. For example the science fiction genre has adopted much from the western to create films like Star Wars. Once we open our eyes to the trading within genres we can see that a life-cycle metaphor cannot rationally be applied; sharing allows genres to continue on indefinitely. This is not to say that genres do not go through peak periods and low periods – clearly the number of westerns produced today is significantly lower than the number produced in the early 1900’s – however, it is true to say that a genre never entirely vanishes. This gives way to the idea that genres are cumulative; they build upon one another – and themselves – in a kind of self-perpetuation. Genre is a continually shifting and enigmatic concept that is added to and subtracted from as time passes and more films are made. Genre is not limited to previously established bodies of work, but is able to accommodate each new film produced over time. Genre is not so much a static thing as it is a vehicle, continually in motion - picking up films as it rolls along, moving films from the theoretical realm into the ‘real world’ experiences of the audience.

With this in mind, we can safely say that a scientific theory of genre – if modified – can accurately be applied to genre and should not be entirely disregarded. So what do we need to modify the scientific theories with? In common conversation most people think of religion as the opposite to science and that isn’t too far from what we need to compliment our understanding of genre. Let me clarify before I go any further: when I say religion I’m not referring to a specific religion but to a religious style of thinking – specifically an openness to the existence of things greater than ourselves, things people did not create. What if genre exists outside of the films it is applied to? This would elevate genre onto a plane of existence with Divinity. Some theorists believe that is the case. Genre is seen in this view as something greater than a mere mortal creation.

To understand this kind of theory one must picture genre as a nebulous concept, floating around out in space, that some scholar randomly grabbed one day and declared – this applies here (to film!). Bazin and Altman both utilize this philosophy to rationalize the enormity of genre. If genre somehow exists outside of film, then the films themselves cannot limit or control it; genre precedes film, it exists outside of it and before it. While it is tempting to agree with this concept, because it echoes the fact that genre appears to be totally intangible, it totally disregards the ‘real life’ of genre – in the hands of audiences and filmmakers. It also ignores a possibility of cumulative genre effect; limiting genre to the earliest of films and the luck of whatever early theorist plucked genre from the air and slapped it across films. Under this theory genre cannot grow past its roots – and remains completely unintelligible to the majority of film viewers. Neale describes the downfall of this theory as such:
One of the implications is that a film like The Great Train Robbery (1903), often retrospectively hailed as an early example of the western, is unlikely, in fact, to have been perceived as a western at the time the film was made. (7)
This takes us right back to the problems of mapping out a genre’s development; the western genre has progressed in so many ways from when it began that what we consider today to be westerns were potentially considered something else when they were made. When those early films were made it probably wasn’t suspected that they would be considered part of the western genre at a later date.

Despite its imperfections, this idea does offer an interesting – and useful – take on genre; one that makes room for the important observation that genre is inevitable. Lifting genre up to a level above humanity paves the way for further ‘religious’ argument, that Genres are a function of ritual: This view asks us to look at genre as a manifestation of humanity’s need for order – which is founded on ritualistic behavior.

Following the path of Altman and Cawelti we see genre as a function of ritualized behavior. Audiences become the ‘creators’ - as well as the purveyors – of genre. They have a special investment in genre because, as Rick Altman explains, genres “constitute the audience’s own method of assuring [their] unity and envisioning [their] future.”(8)  But following an alternate path we see genre as a function of intellectual/entrepreneurial manipulation. Audiences in this view essentially become zombies; corporations who produce movies feed them information. Each genre becomes a distinct set of goals that a society’s entrepreneurs want to be disseminated through the masses.

Both of these views are equally important and valid - one must not be favored to the point of excluding the other. It may seem, at first, entirely impossible to treat ritual as a mechanism of both intellect and ‘spirit.’ However it is shortsighted to condemn something as impenetrable as genre to a simple life in one role or the other. While Warshow insists that genre is an important manifestation of a psychological aspect of mass culture, Steve Neale’s assertion that ‘film is no longer the product of a self-contained industry but one of a range of cultural commodities produced by large multinational conglomerates’ is equally as true. (9)  Genre is complex and therefore must be seen and treated as such. As a totally subjective concept, genre should be allowed to fulfill its various implications to each individual viewer.

So what do we know about genre so far? Above all else we know that genre is fluid; like an ocean it ebbs and flows with the movememnt of the world. Genres reflect the sociopolitical times they exist in while, at the same time, reminding us of past sociopolitical ideals. Genres move through cycles – from emergence to a point of burning themselves out – at which point their important conventions are passed on to other genres, however the time frame for this transition is unpredictable; Genres build upon each other and themselves. Most importantly, for my paper, we know that genres create order for audiences. We know that genres are, in many ways, greater than the films they are applied to.

My interpretation of genre is a conglomeration of the useful bits of each theory I discussed above. I have tried to piece together what works from each of them while avoiding what doesn’t work. I believe genre to be influenced by consumerism while also being a function of ritual. I believe that genres have flexible boundaries but that films within a genre all share some common elements. Above all else I believe that genre is what collapses the boundaries between the audience and the filmworld. Taking these various interpretations of genre into consideration I believe that fundamentally, the source of genre is common – cumulative – human experience, however clearly swayed by the monetary involvement of production companies.

As both David Kertzer and Mircea Eliade explain, people need ritualized behavior in order to comprehend their universe. This ritualistic behavior can be seen reflected in genre’s repetitive and clichéd nature. The constant regurgitation of formula represented by genre is not due to a lack of creativity, but to an inescapable human instinct to maintain and perpetuate order.

While the audience, and here I include anyone who has ever seen a movie, perpetuates generic conventions and ideas, it is basic human psychology that founds genre. While film theorists and scholars have debated for decades over the meanings and uses of the idea of genre, one thing can be surmised; genre is complex and flexible. It is easy to trace the history of the term genre but it is almost entirely impossible to trace the history of the concept of genre. An interestingly paradoxical feature of genre is that the application of the term and the birth of the concept do not coincide, as with the discovery of a new species and the subsequent naming of it. Genre possesses a more ‘common sense’ element than a ‘scientific’ element, which brings us once again to the difficulty of defining it. If science is learned then genre is assumed to be inherent. It is a function of humanity’s need to explain the unexplained and to understand the un-understandable, similar to the function of myth; genre is an aspect of storytelling, which is humanity’s way of conveying and coping with its greatest, most basic, fears and desires. Similarly, genre is related to the innate human need to make order out of chaos; in order to understand and manage the immensity of all aspects of life, humans seek to make order through categorizing, labeling, and reducing things to their most basic forms.

Following the work of Cawelti, Altman, and Bizan, I will be considering ‘genre’ as a concept similar to ‘myth’ or ‘legend.’ My goal is to explore how genre works within, reflects, and affects society. Specifically I am concerned with how audiences influence and interpret generic elements. To this end I will begin by making a comparison between genre and the act (or art) of storytelling for the application of genre to film has considerable parallels to a specific dimension of storytelling. This comparison will allow room for an exploration of why storytelling is an intimate part of human existence and the subsequent importance of genre films to society. The parallels between narrative theory – specifically the art of storytelling – to film theory - specifically genre - are particularly striking. When one examines both in conjunction it becomes easy to classify genre theory as an extension of narrative theory.

Within the narrative umbrella there are three key elements: the story, the storyteller, and the listener/audience. When surveying genre theories the same three elements dominate them all although they are called by different names: the film, the auteur, and the viewer/audience. Narrative theory is concerned with a story being told to a listener and the implications of that listener’s interpretation of the story. This can be taken a level deeper to explore how and why a certain ‘kind’ of story emerges, why it is told, and how it affects the listener’s life or gives them greater understanding of the world in which they live. Film/genre theory can therefore be seen as concerned with: a film that is made by an artist and shown to an audience and the audience’s interpretation of that film. But it is also concerned with the expectations the audience gathers, from the film, about other films they may see. Taking this to a still deeper level, we begin to explore how and why genres come into being, how they reflect society’s needs, fears, and inhibitions as well as how genre affects the audience’s greater understanding of their culture and world.

Narrative is an inherent necessity in human culture. People use stories – be they myths, legends, folk tales, novels, films, etc. – to resolve problems metaphorically that are rendered unsolvable in actual daily life. Narrative offers a safe and sacred space in which to identify, cope with, and resolve basic human needs, wants, fear, etc. (10)  Narrative essentially acts as a world outside of the real one in which humanity’s most intangible ideals are tangible. As Jill Nelmes says of genre:
Genre allows us to take the actual world in which we live and transform it into something much more controllable, much more rule-bound, in which imaginary solutions can be offered for real problems. A “genre world” is one in which there are limited and predictable ranges of features; where characters and events are more predictable and where our expectations are more likely to be fulfilled. (11)
Moving one step away from broad theory and closer to specific aspects of the theory I will look as the connection between genre and storytelling, two specific elements of film and narrative theory respectively.

Because storytelling is meant to allow its audience some form of release it must also create some kind of connection to its audience; if the audience feels too alienated from the story the story fails to fulfill an emotional, spiritual, or intellectual function for the viewers.

The foundation for the art of storytelling rests on details. These details – time, location, weather, sounds, smells, what characters are wearing, what color their eyes are, etc. – create a realistic element that listeners can grasp onto and relate to their own lives and experiences. Once the audience has absorbed these details they are able to do two things: find some kind of solace and pass the story on to others. This is where genre comes into play.

Within film/genre theory, genre is the equivalent to the specific details of stories. With iconographic subtextz the audience is able to make a connection to the film they are seeing – therefore understanding it – and they can utilize genre as a means of communication. Genre is the common language of film as details are the common language of stories. With them audiences are able to converse about what they have seen/heard and consequently understand about the story/film and themselves/their world.

Understanding genre in these terms places the bulk of its importance on the audience. In an amusing way we can – at this point – look at the audience’s importance to genre in the form of a riddle: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? If genre ‘exists’ and there is no audience to interpret it, does it still actually mean anything/exist?

The audience is – under this argument – in part responsible for genre, not in terms of ‘creation’ but in terms of perpetuation and signification; genres that audiences like continue, and more movies are made. In this respect the audience perpetuates the genre. Audience interpretation and understanding of generic elements – as well as their recognition of them – makes those elements and the genres they come from significant. Without an audience to watch and understand generic films, the genre means nothing.

We cannot deny that we live in a consumer society. The basic principles that maintain our daily life are founded in monetary negotiations; money buys the essentials of life as well as the luxuries. Because of this we cannot ignore the involvement of money when looking at films. A filmmaker needs money to make a film but also needs to make money from the finished film to support themselves.

In the past – the early years of Hollywood – what we now call ‘genre films’ were called either ‘A’ or ‘B’ pictures. B pictures were westerns, comedies, musicals, and horror films made for little or no money at a very rapid rate. Many B pictures were ‘serials’ – something like the soap operas or sitcoms of today – where each film was a continuation of the last. Because these films were virtually insignificant – meaning Hollywood considered them trash compared to the big budget, star vehicle, ‘A’ pictures - they often relied on identical plot lines, similar characters, re-used sets, and whatever cast and crew were available.

So little thought went into each film that little thought was required to watch them; audiences must have suffered great bouts of déjà vu when attending these films. Somehow, audiences became fond of these trashy B pictures. Although they didn’t have big stars, fancy effects, and exciting new plots, they did offer easy entertainment. They also offered a degree of comfort; knowing that the B picture you were about to see would be – essentially – the same B picture you had seen before, your expectations would undoubtedly be fulfilled. For example, say you had seen a B western two weeks ago and this week would be seeing another. Whatever you expect from the film, you are guaranteed to see; the good guys will defeat the bad guys in a shoot out in the final moments of the film. Just as people have ‘comfort foods’ they also have ‘comfort entertainment.’ Why is that, you ask? Because audiences use narrative – be it films, books, or folk tales – to relieve their fears, metaphorically solve problems they cannot solve in real life, and to generally ‘confront’ the pressures of their mundane existence.

For professional artists (filmmakers, in this case) the most pressing conflict is not so much how to produce each piece, what subject to tackle, or even the time frame it is produced in – the conflict is something much more personally distressing; staying true to one’s self must be balanced with the issue of making money – a truly unfortunate conflict. The depressingly cynical fact of the matter is that filmmakers working within mainstream Hollywood must sell their work and that clearly affects how much individuality and creativity goes into the film. An ‘auteur’ can only fully realize ‘auteurship’ to a limited degree because they have a paying public to cater to. The reasoning behind this leads us into a cyclical debate: An auteur can only be so original because otherwise the film will not sell and the audience will only buy certain things that they are ‘sure’ of: the audience is ‘sure’ of these things from previous experience, these previous experiences consist of films made under the same directorial limits as the future ones, therefore, auteurs can only make films that are similar to previously made films.

Interestingly, these ‘similar films’ are the body of works currently lumped into genres taking us back to the auteur/genre hybridization. Through this lens we can see the auteur theory actually fostering and perpetuating the genre theory.

In conclusion narratives are a fundamental building block to our society as genre is a similar building block for films. Storytellers are both confined and freed by genre; they can be only slightly more original than those storytellers who came before them however, if they use genre to their advantage they can significantly change the direction a genre is growing in.

From here I will move into a discussion of Fistful, which comes from an easily recognizable genre but has a well-known auteur for a director. My goal in choosing this film is to open it up exploring how it is a genre film but also looking at how an auteur director affects that.

A Fistful of Dollars – A look at what the western genre/spaghetti western sub-genre means contrasted with how an auteur affects generic conventions:

While the history of the western genre is essential to understanding any particular western film, I will assume, for this paper, that the reader is film savvy and is familiar with the elements and iconography of westerns. The only distinction I will make before beginning is that between westerns and spaghetti westerns; this distinction is mainly based on where the film was made, and less on the content of the film or meaning of it. A spaghetti western is different from a western in both meaning and content but not so much so that a viewer cannot identify a spaghetti western as being related to a western. The clearest evidence of this difference is observation of the Film Code, a set of standards and rules of film content self-imposed by Hollywood in 1934. Spaghetti westerns break many – if not all – film code rules as the filmmakers are not American and are not bound by the Code.

The generic qualities found in Fistful mark it as a part of the western genre, interestingly they are not the qualities associated with genre at the time of Fistful’s production. Let’s look briefly at the history of the wetern genre:

A quick history of the western genre

In 1903 Edwin Porter directed a one reel, fourteen scenes, ten minute long film called The Great Train Robbery (GTR). Film theorists almost unanimously hail GTR as the first western, thus beginning a genre that has produced nearly 8000 films in its time. (12)

During the early 1900’s through the 1920’s westerns were, obviously, silent films. Because there was no sound these films had to rely on their visual elements to convey stories thus the early westerns developed visual styles, which eventually became iconographic conventions for the western films to follow. The common themes of early westerns concerned a kind of ‘conservation’ or ‘preservation’ of the natural beauty of the land; the West was treated as natural and beautiful. The stories of these films emphasized a re-connection with nature. Often these films focused on an Eastern, urban character moving to the West to be ‘redeemed’ or to recover from their urban lives.

Then, in the 1930’s and 40’s things began to change. This was the time of the Hollywood studio system; the bulk of western films were ‘B’ movies and serials. The main focus of these films was to draw in audiences, not to convey and ‘conservationalist’ ideals. There was less of a ‘move to the West’ and more of a sense of simply ‘existing in the West.’

By the 1950’s the studio system had collapsed and morality returned to the Western in full force. The western films and tv programs of the 50’s came coded with ‘Americaness;’ a distinct set of moralistic values teaching the value of comman man, the distrust of government, and above all else, as adherence to a strict ethical code of ‘good behavior.’

By the time the 1960’s rolled around people were ready to return to paradise and the westerns of the time reflected that; there was a distinct underlying theme of pining for a lost, better, world that people wished to return to. The 60’s also saw a move away from men working together to lone men working for themselves. From 1969-1972 is considered the peak period of the westen genre.

By the early 1970’s the western genre had begun to die out, and seemed to completely vanish until a kind of revival during the 1990’s.

While the westerns of the 60’s depicted the West as a better world to be pined for, Fistful depicts the West as a raw, gritty, violent place where the strong pray upon the weak; a dog eat dog kind of world where every man is for himself. However, there is some underlying moral code similar to that found in the 50’s westerns. This underlying code is a manifestation of the Fistful’s director’s own personal code; since he comes from a Roman Catholic background there is an underlying sense of respect anf adherence to Roman Catholic beliefs.

Fistful – directed by the father of spaghetti westerns, Sergio Leone – at its most basic level can be seen as a remake of Yojimbo, a film that oddly twists genre itself. Choosing Yojimbo as source material was actually Leone’s first instance in crossing genre lines; Yojimbo is a Japanese samurai film, a genre unto itself, which he them blended with early American westerns. But Leone also blends these elements with ones straight from the Bible, again crossing generic boundaries.

On the surface the plot of Fistful is simple: a stranger rides into a town that is suffering the menace of two rival gangs. The stranger devises a plan to make himself some money while ‘cleaning up’ the town; he sets the two gangs up and they kill each other off. The few remaining survivors face the stranger in a final showdown, in which the stranger kills them as well. In the end the stranger rides away. In disassembling the film into pieces – characters, themes, and setting/look – it becomes simple to see how Fistful fits into the western genre, but also how it altered the genre.

One of the most essential characters to the western genre is the ‘lone gunman.’ He is the ‘hero’ of the western – even though why he is the hero is not always immediately apparent. The lone gunman is morally ambiguous; however, his virtue will shine through in his actions if not his intentions. The gunman will often save the day but he does it for himself and his own – often unspoken - reasons. He is an existentialist social outcast who rides into the middle of a town and changes the lives of all who live there. His status as a social outcast is either forced upon him by society or – more often – by his own choice. Although he may attempt to act as a member of society at some point during the film, he will always end up leaving again in the end. One can infer that the gunman has been an outcast for so long he no longer knows how to be a member of society. (13)

The lone gunman has a mysterious and implicitly violent past. He either has no family or has lost them somehow. The lone gunman in not only a ‘loner’ but he is ‘lonely’ as well; often it is implied that the lone gunman harbors a secret desire to regain a connection to his society – though he is in no hurry to actually make that connection a lasting one.

A western with a lone gunman needs an ‘all-knowing’ character. A bartender or a whore often fills this role. The all-knowing character is the closest thing to a friend the lone gunman has. This character offers (usually unsolicited) advice to the lone gunman, who will always trust his instincts over their advice. The all-knowing character also acts as the medium between the film and the audience; the character is essentially a stand-in for the audience members and acts as conduit for thematic information.

The villain either acts alone or as the leader of an evil group of criminals. He is the hero’s arch nemesis, the ‘evil twin’ of the hero. The villain wants/needs to defeat the hero because the hero is clearly powerful and unpredictable; the hero represents a threat to the villain’s control - or intentions of controlling – the town. The villain fears the hero because he knows so little about him – often the villain knows only that the hero is smarter and faster than him or his henchmen.

Western women come in two forms – dominant or submissive; generally no balance of the two exists in western women and more often than not they are submissive. There is no realistically drawn female character in the western; they are either pure and good or ‘tainted’ and evil. These cookie-cutter females are either wives/mothers or whores respectively. The hero has no need for women in his life; the hero draws power from his lack of emotion and an intimate relationship with a woman would create emotional turmoil – something he has given up along with his connection to society. But more than that, westerns are concerned with men and male relationships as opposed to being concerned with developing and exploring male/female relationships. (14)

The lone gunman of Fistful is known simply as ‘the man with no name.’ He is morally ambiguous; in fact, when we meet him he is a total mystery to us. He is the stereotypical lone gunman exaggerated to an extreme; He has removed himself from society and has no apparent desire to return to it; he is offered (on three occasions) the opportunity to rejoin society yet he declines each time. The gunman is content to take what he needs from the community (money, in this case) and then ride right back out of town.

When the gunman rides into the border town of San Miguel he meets the villains and shortly thereafter the all-knowing character – the bartender. Although the villains make up two rival gangs (the Rojos and the Baxters) the bartender tells the hero that Ramon Rojo is the strongest/most powerful man in town; he is the hero’s arch nemesis. This is the foundation of Fistful’s character triad; the lone gunman, the all-knowing bartender, and the hero’s arch nemesis Ramon. Although we see women scattering as the hero rides into town they mean nothing to the story – the bartender tells the hero “the women are not women they are widows.” (15)  The only two relevant female characters are the kidnapped wife of a townsman (Marisol) and the wife of John Baxter (Consuela). These two women represent the binary women of westerns: Marisol is pure and good while Consuela is her evil and dominant opposite. Marisol is being held hostage while Consuela is essentially the matriarchal leader of the Baxters – her husband confers with her on all actions and she often gives orders to his henchmen.

Westerns are thought by many film theorists to be a genre of binaries, and nothing is more exemplary proof than the themes therein: Good/Evil, loneliness/community, men/women, urbanization/rural living, self-sufficiency/team work, life/death. Although these are common western themes there other, more basic, themes that appear in all forms of narratives that cannot be over-looked in a genre; themes of love, religion, and death.

In a western with a lone gunman the most pressing theme is that of loneliness vs. community. Directly linked to this theme is that of self-sufficiency vs. team work – clearly present in lone gunman westerns as well.

While Fistful clearly features a theme of loneliness it is hard to identify the corresponding theme of community. If it can be said to exist at all it is identifiable only within the Rojos and the Baxters; although they are bands of criminals they live within a familial (or communal) setting. The Rojos all live within one house and the Baxters in another. No members of either gang live outside those homes. There is no longer an identifiable ‘community’ within the town itself. The town is a lonely place. The few remaining townspeople are completely disconnected from one another – a very lonely existence – especially since they once were members of the same, close-knit community. The bartender tells the gunman how no one gathers to gamble at the saloon any longer because the only thing the men do is kill one another.

Undoubtedly, most stories ever told deal – in some way – with the struggle between Good and Evil which leads us to the most interesting theme of Fistful, religion. There are multiple layers of religious symbolism in Fistful that – when considered together – lend to an overall theme of religion. This religious element to Fistful is a direct auteurial influence; while westerns as a genre are ripe with religious sentiment, Leone is a religious man and thus he brought out the potential, underlying religious themes of the western genre in his film. (16)

The most obvious religious symbolisms are the holy family: Marisol, Julian, and their son Jesus, the Christ figure: the hero/lone gunman, and the three wise men: the bartender, the bell-ringer, and the coffin-maker.

The next most clearly defined religious symbolism is a kind of moral lesson the film provides; essentially its a sermon on not committing the seven deadly sins. For every sin that is committed the sinner is punished with death. And the punisher is usually the hero. If we are to consider the hero as Good, then Ramon is his Evil counterpart. Ramon is filled with pride – he boastfully tells the hero that he prefers his rifle to any other gun because “when a man with a Winchester meets a man with a .45 the man with the .45 is a dead man.” (17)  Ramon is lustful and he envies Julian – he steals the beautiful and pure Marisol away from Julian to keep as his own; she is treated as Ramon’s property. Both the Rojos and the Baxters are greedy – after paying the hero for his help one Rojo brother tells another that he’ll gladly kill the hero and get their money back. Both gangs are struggling against one another to sell more guns and more alcohol to make the most money and be the most powerful gang in town. Each is planning to kill off the other, take over their business, and steal their money. The men of the town are guilty of sloth – as the bartender tells the hero no one works in the town any longer. Consuela is filled with anger/wrath – in the final battle between the Rojos and the Baxters Consuela’s son and husband are shot. As she watches her son die she turns to the Baxters and begins shouting at them. She calls out insults, threats, and even curses. Those who have sinned are all dead at the end of the film as the hero rides away. Those who have not sinned – the bartender, the bell-ringer, the coffin-maker, and the Holy family – are all alive and well.

With that in mind the less immediately noticeable symbolism becomes more obvious. The film’s plot is comparable to the book of Revelations. Before accepting this interpretation it is necessary to understand the symbolic relationship between the film’s characters and the elements of the book of Revelation: the gunman is a melding of Jesus Christ and God, the town of San Miguel is ‘the world,’ Ramon Rojo and John Baxter are equal parts the Devil, and the bartender, the bell-ringer, the coffin-maker, and the Holy family are faithful Christians.

The film begins with the Rapture – the lone gunman appears (rides into) the town. He observes the Evil happening in the town and does nothing: as he first rides in he bears witness to Jesus and Julian being beaten by Ramon’s henchmen. He observes the illegal and immoral dealing of both gangs – but does nothing to stop them. However, when he is tired of simply watching he brings on an apocalypse – beginning with his attack on the Rojos which allows the Holy family to escape and followed by the Baxter’s house being burned down. The Baxters are all killed during the fire. Then the gunman turns his attention to the remaining Rojos. He kills them all. Thus, the gunman ‘cleans up’ the town leaving behind a new town (or a ‘new Earth’). The only people to survive are the ‘three wise men’ and the Holy family; the Evil are punished and the faithful are saved. The wise men each serve the gunman unconditionally: the bartender helps him with countless physical tasks and schemes, feeds him and gives him lodging for free, as well as nursing him back to health after he is severely beaten (symbolic of the crucifixion) by the Rojos. The coffin-maker helps the gunman escape the Rojos – in a coffin - in the midst of the apocalypse. Later he steals dynamite and a pistol belt for the gunman telling him “I think it is time for you to light the fuse.” (18)  The bell-ringer gives the gunman his first look at the town as he rides in; the bell-ringer allows the gunman a kind of upper hand by telling him how the town works.

The only other survivors of the apocalypse are the Holy family – who clearly are of some importance to the gunman. He not only reunites the family and sets them free – he goes out of his way to do so. He then gives them a portion (not all) of the money he has earned from both the Rojos and the Baxters. When Marisol asks the gunman why he has helped them he replies simply, “Because I knew someone like you once and there was no one to help.” (19)  As a Christ/God figure the experiences of the Holy family should be close to his heart; he has had/seen the same experiences himself.

The western is primarily a genre of location… The nature of western locations tends to breed an environment of threat and counter-threat… (20)
The overall initial sense that a film is part of the western genre comes from the scenes of desolate, wide-open country. There are few people and no urbanized areas. The people ride horses and the only thing they ‘drive’ is herds of cattle. The air is dusty because the land is so dry. The people – whether in conflict or not – are often co-dependent on each other for survival; simply by virtue of the fact that there are so few people living on the frontier. Westerns take place in a nostalgic world of the past. The characters have a parallel relationship to the land they live in; if the terrain is rough, the characters will be equally rough. This setting/look is part of our iconographic subtext for the western genre, a subtext created by the early, silent westerns.

Considering here that Fistful is a spaghetti western the location of the story is slightly different from the location in American westerns, the imagery however, is not. Fistful was actually shot in Spain and the story takes place in Mexico - just over the border – but Leone wanted to capture the look and feel of an American western when he shot his film; he wanted to capture the look and the feel of the American West.

Each shot in the film – including the extreme close-ups – seem spacious, uncluttered, barren, and extraordinarily empty. Leone never allows the audience a look at any running water and never once does an animal appear – besides the horses the men ride. The only buildings we see are the five or so that comprise the town of San Miguel. The scenery is so sparse that it creates a kind of surreal landscape upon which Leone plays out his version of the apocalypse.

The landscape is barren and so are the townspeople; the only child in the town in Jesus – which is why in order for him to survive Marisol and Julian must take him to another town/place.

Fistful meets ‘western’ standards; the iconographic subtext is there. But as I have said, it is different than American westerns, particularly those that came in years before it, but it could even be called different than most other westerns from its own time. This ‘difference’ can be attributed to Leone, the auteur. Since Leone did not grow up in the U.S. his view of the ‘wild west’ is not nostalgic in the same way American westerns are; while westerns generally share with their audience a ‘mutual ritual of getting back to the beginning,’ (21) Leone did not have that beginning so he and his work are not affected by that American nostalgia; he was affected by the magic of movies. As Prof. Christopher Frayling, Leone’s biographer, explains:
He was born in 1929, grew up in the late 1930s, and for him American movies were like a religion. He grew up watching gangster films. The films he particularly remembers seeing were the films of James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, and westerns of late 30s, like the films of John Ford and many others. Then in early 40s, many of the films were banned under Mussolini’s regime. Then, like a lot of things prohibited, they even became more magical. When you are not allowed to do anything, it becomes wonderful… The other thing is, when he was a child… he was very lonely person, and movies… almost became the only way for him to contact the world. And then, in the 50s and 60s, the movies he saw coming out of America didn’t have that magic. What he wanted to do is to make films that recapture that magic that he was feeling when he was a child…’ (22)
But there is another aspect to leone’s feelings for America, which comes through in his films; they are about a European's relations with the American dream. As a boy, he grew up watching American films and therefore thinking of Americans themselves in a kind of mystical way but then, in 1944 during the Sicily Landings, allied armies came to Southern Italy. That was young Sergio's first encounter with real life Americans. Frayling describes Leone’s experience as confusing:
They arrived with bars of chocolates, all these Italian girls wanting to hitchhike with American boys. And, it is a very odd way to meet with your heroes that invaded your country. You have this dream of America from Hollywood and the reality of these troops invading your country. Leone said to me that he got very confused because they (American soldiers) weren't like the heroes in the movies, or they weren't like the heroes in the books. They were tough, rough American soldiers, like any other soldiers. From then on he always had this double attitude towards America. He loved it, but he also hated it. (23)
Leone’s personal disillusionment with American people, and their culture, attests to his vision of the Wild West as gritty and violent instead of the nostalgic American vision of a lost paradise.

Prior to Fistful the western hero was exactly that – a hero. His morals were obvious, his appearance was generally respectable, and his character was essentially very likable. Leone brought to the screen an anti-hero – a dirty, morally ambiguous man with unpredictable actions. The man with no name is not immediately distinguishable as the hero. One is not entirely convinced that there is even a hero in Fistful until he rescues the Holy family – which happens only shortly before the end of the film.

Prior to Fistful violence in westerns was completely unrealistic and strictly regulated by censors; violence was treated in a very choreographed, Hollywood way. The violence of Fistful was shocking for the time of it’s filming. Prior to Fistful when characters are shot the gun and the victim were not allowed to appear in the same scene/frame. Leone – completely unaware of this – framed many of the shootings in such a manner as to imply the audience as the shooter: in the foreground of the frame appears the gun – pointed directly at the victim who is in the background of the frame. As the gun fires it is (seemingly) the audience who pulls the trigger.

After Fistful things changed in the western genre: heroes became anti-heroes. Violence became graphic and extreme as seen in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969). These changes can, in part, be attributed to Leone and his influence as an auteur. Peckinpah himself said that Leone created the context that made his films possible; the new attitude of violence, the Mexican location, the dust, the idea of the ‘anti-hero’, all that was made possible by the success of Leone’s films. (24) Again we can see the affects of an auteur’s vision on an entire genre. With no nostalgic attachment to the history of the western Leone is free to change the rules, so to speak. While most American westerns still upheld a kind of moral correctness about the U.S. Leone freely makes his American hero morally ambiguous. Whereas American westerns treat violence as essentially bad, unless justifiable, Leone treats it as simply essential. Some may even venture to call Leone’s vision more ‘realistic’ than the nostalgic American view. (25)

Fistful is both part of Leone’s oeuvre and part of the western genre. Although there are clearly variations between Fistful and the bulk of American westerns audiences have no reservations about assigning it to the western genre; such is the power of genre. Audiences are adept at picking up on subtle sub-textual messages and interpreting them. Genre speaks to audiences and, in turn, audiences speak to one another with genre. Fistful is, in my view, the perfect example of how genre works: variation on sameness. Fistful is a variation of the same western plots, themes, characters, subtexts that people have seen in the U.S. since the 1900’s. What allows Fistful to be this perfect example is its director. An auteur brings a level of comfortable variation to a genre film.

Although I haven’t said it in so many words, the above discussion of Leone’s experience with American films, his subsequent beliefs about American’s, and his disillusionment when realizing that the reality of American’s is quite different than the filmic portrayal if them, and finally his reformation of an American genre to conform to his new beliefs is also a statement of how audience’s use genre. Leone grew up watching American westerns and therefore formulated ideas of how to make his own westerns, as Frayling says: “What he wanted to do is to make films that recapture that magic that he was feeling when he was a child…”

But Leone formulated other ideas as well from these movies, ideas about Americans as people and ideas about how American culture works. This phenomenon is true of all audience’s in all cultures with all movies. This is not to say that films somehow create cultural ideals, but that films perpetuate and disseminate those ideals. A genre can be understood as a group of films that share similar cultural ideals.

1 David Bordwell, Making Meaning: Infrence and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (Boston: Harvard University Press,  1991), 147.

2 Steve Neale, Genre and Hollywood (London: Routledge, 2000), 209.

3 American Heritage dic-tion-ar-y, 3rded., s.v. “genre.”

4 Jill Nelmes, An Introduction to Film Studies (London: Routledge, 1999), 167.

5 Rick Altman, Film/Genre (London: BFI Publishing, 1999), 7.

6 Neal, 26.

7 Ibid.,44.

8 Altman, 27.

9 Neal, 5.

10 Leslie Johns, “How Narrative Works.” Qualitative Inquiry 7, no. 2  (2001): 131-33.

11 Nelmes, 166.

12 “Film, TV go back west.” Video Age International 14, no. 3 (1994): 16-17.

13 Stanley J Solomon, Beyond Formula: American Film Genres (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), 20-4.

14 Robert D Leighninger,“The Western as male soap opers: John Ford’s ‘Rio Grande.’” Journal of Men’s Studies 6, no. 2 (1998): 135-49.

15 A Fistful of Dollars, dir. Sergio Leone, 99 min., 1967, videocassette.


17 A Fistful of Dollars, dir. Sergio Leone, 99 min., 1967, videocassette.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

20 Solomon, 12.

21 Nick Browne, ed.,  Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory.  (California: University of California Press. 1998), 289.


23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 “A Fistful of Dollars,” in IMDB user comments for A Fistful of Dollars; available from

“A Fistful of Dollars,” in IMDB user comments for A Fistful of Dollars; available from

Film, TV go back west.” Video Age International 14, no. 3 (1994): 16-17.

A Fistful of Dollars, directed by Sergio Leone, 99 min., 1967, videocassette.

Altman, Rick. Film/Genre. London: BFI Publishing, 1999.

Bordwell, David. Making Meaning: Infrence and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Browne, Nick, ed. Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory. California: University of California Press, 1998. (Note: This page no longer available.)

Johns, Leslie. “How Narrative Works.” Qualitative Inquiry 7, no. 2 (2001): 131-33.

Leighninger, Robert D. “The Western as male soap opers: John Ford’s ‘Rio Grande.’” Journal of Men’s Studies 6, no. 2 (1998): 135-49.

Neale, Steve. Genre and Hollywood. London: Routledge, 2000.

Nelmes, Jill, ed. An Introduction to Film Studies. London: Routledge, 1999.

Solomon, Stanley J. Beyond Formula: American Film Genres. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.


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