May 23, 2012

Does Genre Matter? Sould It?

Let me tell you about a movie I watched recently . . .

It’s about a 17-year old girl, A, who is on the verge of big things, about to go off to a very prestigious college. She makes a grave mistake, driving drunk and causing a car wreck that leaves a man, B, in a coma and kills his wife and young son. A few years later, after A is released from prison, she seeks out B in order to atone or apologize or . . . well, maybe she doesn’t quite know herself. B, a shell of his former self due to the accident, doesn’t know who she is (juvenile records are sealed, remember). Predictably, yet improbably, they bond, until the awful truth is revealed. A makes one last gesture seeking forgiveness. The end.

If I asked you what genre that film would fit in, what would you say? Drama, broadly, and possibly tragedy, in the classic Greek sense. It’s also a small indie film, of the kind that focuses on only a few characters and their relationships with each other. So far, so good.

Now, let me add a little twist.

The story of A and B play out against the backdrop of a superbly improbable event – the appearance in the sky of a second Earth that, by all accounts, is just like ours (down to having the same people on it). And the last act of forgiveness A does for B is to give up her spot on a spaceship to the other Earth to B, so that he might find his alternate wife and son there.

OK, now what kind of genre are we talking about? It sounds like science fiction, except that the movie almost goes out of its away to avoid any “science,” ignoring the real world calamities that might arise if another planet suddenly appeared very near to ours. Fantasy then, maybe? Or maybe just the general rubric of “speculative fiction” – a simple “what if?” story, without any grander world building ambitions?

The film I’m talking about is Another Earth, a low-budget indie that took Sundance by storm a couple of years ago. It’s very good – the slow dance of the two main characters, although fairly predictable, is very well done – but I’ve seen more than one person up in arms that it dares to call itself sci-fi. Not just in a “this isn’t marketed the right way” sense, but in a “this isn’t sci-fi, therefore it’s crap” sense. As if they feel they’ve been duped. Does that make any sense?

In one way it might. If something is presented to a reader/viewer/listener as “science fiction” or “progressive rock” (to use another genre with hotly contested boundaries) that triggers some particular expectations in their mind. If those expectations aren’t met, they’re disappointed. I understand that. I’ve got albums in my collection that came out of the prog world but don’t really fit the genre, if we’re honest. It took me a little while to let go the “but they’ve got the wrong label!” observation and just get down to the music.

Similarly, while Another Earth is sold as sci-fi (by some, at any rate), it’s pretty clear early on that it isn’t really interested in any of the scientific ideas or problems raised by the sudden appearance of the additional Earth. It’s more of a big blue metaphor, hanging in the sky promising a second chance for our characters. I could understand the frustration if they had tried to deal with the scientific stuff and did it badly, but where that is so clearly not the focus of things, why get hung up on it?

At the end of the day, however, a movie, book, or album stands or falls on its own merits, not how its described, packaged, or sold. To say negative things about a movie because it doesn’t conform to your preconceptions of what you thought it was going to be is awfully closed minded. That doesn’t mean you have to like it – art is subjective, after all, and what moves some people will seem pointless to others. Fair enough. But unless you reach that conclusion with the blinders removed, it doesn’t really count.

At best, genre labels and descriptions are signposts that might guide you to art you would like. If you’ve seen movies X, Y, and Z and they fall under the heading “film noir,” you might want to explore other movies with the same label. But that label doesn’t guarantee quality. Sturgeon was right (or perhaps too generous) – 90% of everything is crap – even within your own pet genres.

I’ve written before about how frustrating it is when writers from outside the genre dip their toes into the speculative fiction pool but furiously deny that’s what they’re doing. It suggests that they have negative preconceptions of what science fiction or fantasy is – pulpy, poorly written, simple escapism, etc. – that they don’t want linked to their work. It’s unseemly and reeks of snobbery. Readers or viewers who do the same thing, and link genre purity with quality, aren’t any better.

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