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Transcending the Genre. Or–How To Get There From Here.

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It’s a dark morning and I have too much to do today, but I had a very good time last night, and that was because I ewatched a truly terrible movie.

In fact, due to the marvellous inclusiveness of modern cable television, I watched two really terrible movies yesterday.  The first, in the early afternoon, was an oldie but goodie:  Reefer Madness, released in 1936.

Back when  I was in college, that movie was something of a cult classic.  Sudents would get high and go watch it in one campus showing or another, and then laugh so hard they’d fall off their chairs.

The laughter had a lot to do with content, which portrayed marijuana as something more like what we’d know in methamphetamine today, and marijuana smoking as something you could do without actually inhaling.  

But the reason that that movie is truly terrible isn’t the message–which we today, unlike the students of 1971, would find unexceptionable–but the acting, which is so screamingly awful it defies description.  One of the “hop heads” goes insane in the end, and he looks and behaves sort of like Renfield in the Bela Lugosi Dracula.

The truly terrible movie  I watched last night is much newer.  It’s called, I think, Megashark vs. Giant Octopus, or something along those lines. Both the megashark and the giant octopus were in the title.

Some of the awfulness was of a kind I’m inclined to excuse–whoever made this thing had a budget of $12.99 or so, so that several sequences of frames are used over and over again over the course of the film.  And it’s not subtle.  We see the army guy in camo in sunglasses with the rifle a good four times overall, always standing in the same place and always overwritten by the words “Treasure Island” and the theoretical name of a naval base. They couldn’t have erased the words for the second or third or fourth time through?

Some of the awfulness as a matter of cluelessness, as when we are at one point told that we are looking at “the American naval fleet,” and part of my head kept thinking:  which one?   Maybe I’ve got this completely screwed up, but I seem to remember something called “the Sixth Fleet” being parked outside Athens, which seems to indicate that we have more than one.

Then there’s the acting, which could have been done better by any high school drama class.  I mean, there’s bad acting, and then there’s this, which is sort of breathtaking in its unrelenting awfulness.   The Irish scientist has a Scots accent, the heroine seemed to think she was taking part in a truly awful sitcom, and the navy guys all sounded as if the closest they’d ever come to anybody actually in the military was watching the guys run around in camo in the Dukes of Hazard movie.

But the real kicker in this thing was the cliches.   And this movie was very careful to make sure it touched base with all of them.

We got the “man is getting his comeuppance” enviro speech.  We got the “now we’re going to have to learn to live and work together” speech.   We got the military guy who was just itching to explode an atomic bomb on the things.  We got the scientist who didn’t want to kill the creatures–no, no, they’re a great discovery, we’ve got to study them!

And on and on and on.

Including, by the way, the really bad science, which claimed to explain how two animals roughly the size of the Chrysler Building–each of them, mind you–had been frozen during the last ice age and thawed out because of…global warming!

I’m not kidding about the supposed size of these things.  One of them leaps into the air and snatches a jet in its jaws. 

No.  That was not a typo.   That was the shark.  A little later in the movie, he jumps out of the water and snaps the Golden Gate Bridge in half.   The octopus manages to get its tentacles around one of those big floating oil rigs–all the way around–and smash it into little pieces. 

Robert complained to me at one point that he didn’t know what “transcending the genre” meant, and I can tell him-it means that in the opinion of the publishing company or the reviewer, the book in question is well written.

The assumption, in publishing and criticism, is that genre novels will be cliched ridden and probably poorly composed, with lots of cliches, stock plot bits and stock characters.

And for a long time, good writers did not go into the genres.  Why should they?  Until the post war period, genre novels did less well, commercially, than mainstream ones.  You’d make more money as Faith Baldwin than as any but the top two or so mystery writers, and than any of the writers in other genres. 

Besides, you got no respect–the major organizations for professional writers wouldn’t take you, mainstream reviewers wouldn’t review you, and you often had trouble just coming out in hardcover in world where coming out as a paperback original meant “not a real book.”

A lot of that prejudice remains in the business today, even though lots of good writers go into the genres these days, and at least some of those genres have loosened up to allow a few more surface variations than used to be the case. 

So when a publisher has a mystery that’s well written with characters that are rounded out, he declares that the book “transcends the genre.”

But it doesn’t, of course.  A book that really transcended the genre would no longer be a book in that genre, just like a sonnet without fourteen lines isn’t a sonnet. 

And that means two things.  First, that the possibilities in any genre are limited by the conditions that define it. 

And second, that it will always be possible to make spectacularly bad genre novels, or genre movies, just by sticking to those conditions too well.

Written by janeh

August 26th, 2009 at 6:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Transcending the Genre. Or–How To Get There From Here.'

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  1. The description of the Sharktopus movie made me laugh. Did it have the beautiful female scientist/scientist’s beautiful daughter in conflict with the military man who she’s secretly attracted to cliche?? I always like that one.

    My husband and I love watching just such screamingly bad movies and giving them our home-grown MST3K treatment. Our favorite so far is one that has both cowboys and pterodactyls.

    Oddly, I think there may be some value in the worst of any genre. Their very awfulness and the obviousness of their use of the parameters of the genre can be educational, in that it can teach the observer to pick out the use of those same parameters in more subtle fashion in better-constructed genre pieces. Or something.


    26 Aug 09 at 1:00 pm

  2. Don’t miss THE ADVENTURES OF YOUNG VAN HELSING, which I suspect was done by a high school drama class. But the original–and only worthwhile–TERMINATOR movie was done on a budget which might not buy a Superbowl ad today. It isn’t always about the money.

    Genre. If a genre is a small number of closely-related plots, well and good–but I seem to remember being told that there were only a finite number of “narrative arcs” anyway. I’m not quite sure how that meshes with mainstream being where anything can happen.

    But in the belief that clear language leads to clear thought, I’d like to point something out. If genre is defined by plot, then science fiction and westerns are not genres, however teh publishers may do things. They are settings, in which stories of any number of genres may take place. Yesterday Jane pointed out that were “Blindness” a science fiction story, people would actually be trying to solve the problem instead of just cope with it. Actually, it’s very hard to come up with a good working definition of science fiction not met by a story in which a new disease of unknown origin and nature strikes a city, just as it is hard to come up with a definition of fantasy which doesn’t cover the Iberian Peninsula floating around in the Atlantic.

    By “not science fiction” she meant that they were not adventure stories. And so they aren’t. But they are not alone. Asimov’s “Caves of Steel” and Bujold’s “The Mountains of Mourning” are legitimate detective fiction set in science fictional settings, just as Bujold’s “Civil Campaign” and McCaffrey’s “Restoree” are romances–regency and gothic, respectively. Garrett’s “Lord Darcy” stories are detective stories set in a fantasy setting, and we’ve had fantasy romances from the days of the Brothers Grimm.

    A story is what it is. It is not poorly written because it speculates about the future of mankind, nor well written because it refuses to so speculate. And the nature and quality of the story is certainly not determined by the rocket ship the librarian glues to the spine. Critics who think otherwise are false to their craft.

    All of which said, don’t miss the old “Generic Science Fiction Novel” which included a space cadet, a mad scientist (with beautiful daughter), giant ants and a galactic council at which Earth was to be judged. Nor BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS–a shameless ripoff of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN set in interplanetary space. Would you believe Robert Vaughn reprised his MAGNIFICENT SEVEN role? How about George Peppard as an interplanetary trucker with a Confederate flag painted on his space freighter?


    26 Aug 09 at 4:08 pm

  3. that sharkapus movie will probably make Prime Time TV here. I’ll record it and fast forward to the exciting scenes.

    As for genres, I’ve beem reading a lot of “alternate history” novels such as 1632 by Eric Flint and Island in the Sea of Time by S. M. Stirling. Should we classify them as science fiction, fantasy, action, or a genre of their own?


    26 Aug 09 at 10:02 pm

  4. Okay, the pterodactyl/cowboy movie is a Ray Harryhausen classic called Valley of Gwangi starring the immortal James Franciscus.


    Too funny.


    26 Aug 09 at 10:40 pm

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