What is cinematic merit? I am searching for a word or phrase that indicates how readily something is to be cinematic. Perhaps a more precise term would be “cinematic inclination,” or the likelihood of an entity possessing attributes of or carrying out actions that are cinematic. The term, cinematic, itself means “relating to” or “having qualities of motion pictures,” according to Google.
So, what are some important, dare I say universal qualities of motion pictures, also known as film or cinema? I would argue the primary or inherent function of a cinematic project is to convey meaning and/or narrative through visual means. However, this broad definition could include any of the visual arts, from paintings to theatre to sculptures to dance. A more accurate definition of the adjective “cinematic” would be the ability to visually convey meaning and narrative through a recorded medium. For a visual theme or story to be recorded, it must also have the ability to be edited, and for the literal framing (capture) of its narrative and themes to be adjusted in situ.
How I define the cinematic merit or cinematic inclination of an abstract project or story, then, is a concept’s predisposition to convey visual meaning and/or narrative through some recordable format, the framing or capture of which can be adjusted in situ and then edited ex situ. Everybody still with me?
With this still broad yet cohesive definition, I ask myself which common genres of film have the most and least cinematic merit? To better frame this question still, I must also acknowledge a concise definition of a “genre.” Genres are, according to Google: Categor(ies) of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.
As a thematic followup to my essay on film snobbery and genre film (re: non-dramatic film, science-fiction, action, comedy, etc.), where I discussed the merits of evaluating films based on preconceived biases of their popularly defined genres, I will rank my assessment of how well inclined a given film category is to be cinematic. I will be playing devil’s advocate to my stance in that aforementioned piece, attempting to evaluate the predisposition of certain genres to be effective motion pictures — the likelihood that certain genres will birth good movies, essentially — based on my understanding of the popular definitions of those genres on film. I will do my best to avoid subjective biases toward or against certain genres, though based on the premise of this essay, I will almost certainly fail.
Here goes, then, my oh so hallowed evaluation of the cinematic merit of ten common genres of film:
10.) Drama Films — So much for objectivity! The broadest definition of dramatic film, at least according to most encyclopedias, is a fictional narrative “intended to be more serious than humorous in tone.” Because this definition is so broad as to be unhelpful, if not confusing, I would further specify dramatic film, or drama films, as stories told through non-aestheticized blocking of characters. Though elements of these stories may be humorous or violent, the focus within these stories is on character or thematic drama (… it’s in the name) conveyed through non-aestheticized (re: non-embellished, unexaggerated, minimally choreographed) actions of the characters on-screen.
Because popular conceptions of film dramas tend to focus narratives on everyday situations or the ordinary actions of individuals within extraordinary settings, most tend to be dialogue-driven. The problem with this conception of dialogue as drama is that dialogue is an inherently literary or verbal tool, not a visual one. Therefore, while great directors can take the most boring of typical dramatic settings and make them cinematic, most anything less than considerable auteur talent will generate what Alfred Hitchcock described as,”… photographs of people talking, and bares no relation to the art of the cinema.”
9.) Comedy Films — I just returned from taking my objectivity behind the woodshed… anyway, most film comedies suffer from the same or similar problems as film dramas: An overreliance on dialogue or sound in general, which disfavors cinema’s inherent visual strengths. Feature-films seem more inclined to overemphasize dialogue-based humor (e.g. punchline jokes, pop culture references), crude sound FX (e.g. fart noises) or simplistic visual gags (e.g. a fat person falling down with no context) than other cinematic media like television or even commercials, simply because unimaginative filmmakers run out of ideas for visual humor over 90-120 minutes of running time.
What makes comedy more inherently cinematic than drama, in my assessment, is that even the crudest, most simplistic visual gag (e.g. a pie in the face) is more visually stimulating than your typical serious monologue. Moreover, effective visual humor can be produced by the simplest of editing (e.g. hard cuts, matching scene transitions), cinematographic (e.g. an awkward zoom or pan), or blocking (e.g. characters entering and exiting the frame in amusing ways, spiking the camera) techniques.
8.) Thriller Films — Movies often described as “edge of your seat” or otherwise dependent on suspense, anticipation, or narrative twists to drive their visual storytelling, thrillers seem the most haphazardly labeled to me, as well as the most likely to be hybridized with other genres. On the one hand, thrillers’ dependence on plot allow them to be more easily adapted from other media than purebred dramatic material, and they rarely depend on superfluous dialogue. On the other hand, this dependence on plot can emphasize screenwriting over direction of photography even with minimal dialogue or limited overacting.
7.) Fantasy–Adventure Films — These movies deal with the supernatural, the magical, the mythological, the psychedelic, and the super-weird. While this genre’s use of extreme escapism can push filmmaking to its visual limits, too often it can reduce the medium to special FX showcases at the expense of meaningful imagery. Adventure films more grounded in reality and with lighter fantastical elements, such as Indiana Jones (1981, 1984, 1989) or The Mummy (1999, 2001) may avoid these excesses, but also tend to limit themselves thematically with an overreliance on stock characters.
6.) Musical Films — Their use of moving bodies, dynamic choreography, and blurred fourth walls allow for a cinematic style quite unlike any other genre of film; their use of music and dance, their defining attribute, is a reference point for music in film when used in conjunction with fluid cinematography and well timed editing.
Unfortunately, musicals often suffer from lackluster blocking, cinematography, and editing in between their song-and-dance set-pieces, and this inconsistent pacing feels akin to the start-stop rhythm of lesser action films. The genre’s limitations are related to its ancestral stage counterparts, which didn’t have to worry about things like editing or framing to convey meaning. In other words, while musical mise-en-scène is unparalleled compared to other types of film, its inconsistent cinematography, particularly outside of its song numbers, holds the genre back. Indian filmmaking remains the last stronghold of the on-screen musical today.
5.) Science-Fiction Films — As in other media, science-fiction (sci-fi) film uses speculative (re: not fantastical) scientific concepts with some basis in reality to illustrate narrative and thematic content. The strength of sci-fi movies is their ability to straddle a conceptual middle-ground between fantasy and dramatic filmmaking, utilizing imagery and FX that would be out of place in the latter, but visuals not so over-the-top they would blend into the former. Sci-fi’s ability to use speculative but relatable fictional plot devices, settings, and diegeses expand its dramatic power beyond more “vanilla genres” without requiring much suspension of disbelief from the audience.
More to the point, these imaginative yet restrained concepts lend themselves to visualization over, say, literary description. A picture is worth a thousand words, no? And what of pictures in motion? Sci-fi filmmaking lends itself to these cliches better than most genres.
4.) Western Films — The original “genre” film (i.e. non-drama film), and one of the few types of narrative fiction popularized primarily through film rather than literature or theatre, Westerns are a staple of early cinema history in general and classical Hollywood filmmaking in particular. This genre is based on life or parables of the American Frontier, most commonly that of 19th century expansion and exploration of United States settlers west of the Mississippi River.
Characterized by lawless, violent desert landscapes consumed by sectarian conflict and roamed by charismatic anti-heroes, the mythic Wild West is a near perfect setting for the visual medium of film. The genre’s popularity during the silent film era (1894-1927) says much about the genre’s inherent cinematic language. Like the musical, however, the Western has declined in modern times since the 1960s, which may have more to do with its dated character archetypes and depiction of ethnic stereotypes than its actual cinematic merit.
3.) Horror Films — One of the most versatile genres on this list, horror is so at home on the silver screen precisely because of film’s adaptable, versatile framing. Martin Scorsese describes cinema as “a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s not in the frame,” which fits nicely with horror’s use of fear to convey or imply something worth dreading. A cliched saying describes the unknown, or what one can’t see as more disturbing than the known, or what one can see, but a more accurate description of human fear is a detailed illustration of some undefined, yet certain threat…
The visualization of implied danger, of assumed dis-empowerment, is what makes horror filmmaking so powerful; it also references the horror genre’s near mastery of lighting to portray these nightmarish concepts, as well as its more defined, surgical approach to portraying the abstract compared to, say, fantasy or science-fiction.
2.) Action Films — When it comes to genre preference, no category of films has been more simultaneously adored and disregarded than the action movie. These films are defined, more than any other genre, by moving bodies and the use of physical action to drive their narrative. Most action films necessitate the use of violence, or at least the threat of violence in conjunction with their physically mobile characters and set-piece driven story structure.
Given how the supposed original appeal of the motion picture was its ability to capture and record movement, action movies represent the purest distillation of cinematic purpose. I’ve remarked to film professors that cinema’s ultimate catchphrase is, “Lights, camera, action!” … not, “Lights, camera, talk!” They’re called motion pictures, not talking pictures, God damn it.
In all seriousness, action films’ dependence on cinematography and mise-en-scene to portray such a variety of movements that would be impossible in any other visual medium, yet articulate them far more explicitly than any literary one, are what make the genre so readily cinematic. Its lone consistent weakness is the tendency for lesser films to revert to dramatic filmmaking in between set-pieces a la the musical, but unlike that close genre cousin, it is easier and more satisfying to create a “non-stop” action film (e.g. The Raid , Fury Road ) than a “non-stop” musical (e.g. Les Miserables ). Actions speak louder than words.
1.) Crime Drama Films — While classifications such as “romantic dramas” or “athletic dramas” arguably belong as subgenres under #10 above, the crime drama, like the Western, has achieved a critical mass of respected, studied, and hybridized filmography that it deserves its own category. The crime drama is the peak of cinematic narrative formula because it blends the cinematic violence of the action film with the suspense of thrillers and the understated patience of good drama.
Though action filmmaking is arguably “the purest” form of cinema, crime drama filmmaking is cinema at its most unpredictable, versatile, and, well, dramatic. Crime dramas utilize violence, or the threat of such, to illustrate characters, themes, and story progression in ways subtler than action, fantasy, or horror, but more striking than regular dramas, comedies, or thrillers. It is this delicate balancing act of suspense, violence, and tone that require all facets of filmmaking to work in tandem, and yet doesn’t require millions of dollars in equipment, special FX, or set-design to execute them. Though crime dramas didn’t break out until the Film Noir movement of the 1940s, they are as strong as ever today, and remain the sole genre to be universally respected by critics, academics, and mainstream audiences past and present. The crime drama is cinema.