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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Genre Stew (originally published 7/03)

Originality has long been regarded as one of the cardinal virtues of storytelling in general and moviemaking in particular. There comes a time, however, when the ends of certain types of storytelling are best served by a carefully measured dose of predictability. For example, if a filmmaker's primary purpose is to entertain with bigger and better action and thrills, it's convenient to be able to dispose of characterization quickly. As long as everybody agrees that the good guy wears the white hat, the filmmaker can establish the leading man's virtue the minute he walks onscreen, leaving that much more time for chases and shootouts.

The agreement about white hats as a shortcut to characterization, when combined with a whole set of other, similar conventions, constitutes a genre. Studios are particularly fond of genre pictures - detective stories, gangster films, westerns, horror films, and the like - because they tend to have a built-in, pre-sold audience. Naturally, the plot similarities imposed by genre conventions represent a challenge to the ingenuity of filmmakers when it comes to keeping their genre pictures fresh and interesting. One of the more radical ways of attacking that problem is to combine the conventions of two different genres. That's the approach taken by the producers of "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," which is part pirate movie and part ghost story.

If you're intrigued by this kind of genre cross-pollination, there are plenty of earlier examples available on video. Be aware, however, that the blending of genres is a wild and woolly business that most often veers off into the world of midnight movie cult films, where budgets are small and irony runs deep. With that caveat, set your tongue in your cheek and follow me to the back corner of the video store.

"Murder at the Vanities" (1934). This depression-era frolic seeks to merge a musical stage revue ("Earl Carroll's Vanities") with a murder mystery. The murders and subsequent sleuthing take place backstage while the show goes on out front. Prohibition had just been repealed, and marijuana had not yet been criminalized, so the songs in the show include "Cocktails for Two," celebrating the newly restored privilege of drinking openly, and "Marijuana," celebrating the joys of cannabis. It makes you wonder how anyone found time to do homicidal mischief backstage.

"Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter" (1966). The title pretty much says it all. Throw together a horror icon and a western icon and stir well. The main character is actually the original mad doctor's granddaughter, who has relocated to the New World to carry on granddad's experiments. It so happens that Jesse has a big, dumb sidekick who is a perfect subject for a brain transplant, especially since he hardly ever uses the one he has. This picture ran on a double bill with another western/horror combo, "Billy the Kid vs. Dracula" (1966).

"The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula" (1974). By the mid-1970s, England's Hammer Studios had tried just about every variation possible in their long-running Dracula series. Here they tried cross-pollinating with the martial arts genre that was so popular at the time. It sounds like a strange combination, I know, but the result was actually not half bad. This film is also known as "The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires."

"Alphaville" (1965). Remember how "Blade Runner" (1982) combined the hardboiled private eye genre with science fiction? This film by French New Wave bad boy Jean-Luc Godard did much the same thing two decades earlier. But Godard didn't stop there. "Alphaville" is a kind of genre stew, incorporating cultural elements ranging from ancient mythology to comic strips. Lemmy Caution, a detective in the Philip Marlowe mold functioning as a secret agent, infiltrates the totalitarian society of the planet Alphaville, driving there in his Ford Galaxie. It's great fun, but only if you're ready to sit back, stop asking questions, and just let Godard have his way with you.

"Pennies From Heaven" (1981). This adaptation of Dennis Potter's British television series combines the flashy dance numbers of Depression-era movie musicals with a bleakly realistic portrayal of the social conditions from which those musicals provided an escape. The stylistic gear-shifting of this strange little film may give you whiplash, but it's worth the ride.

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