Movie-Movies: The Ultimate Genre
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Movie-Movies: The Ultimate Genre

By Daniel Carlson | Think Pieces | February 12, 2014 | Comments ()


Most movies just try to do one thing well. That’s not laziness, either. It’s incredibly hard to do that one thing to the best of your abilities, and movies are composed of a billion moving parts, so it makes sense that even filmmakers with more talent than others would focus on hitting one nail square on the head. For instance, a good horror movie wants to be scary; a romance, to re-create the feelings of falling in or out of love; a drama, to get you invested in the inner lives of its characters; and on and on. The categories aren’t hard and fast, and there’s obviously an element of multiple categories in most movies — action movies will have comic relief, a romantic comedy might bump into a maudlin moment, etc. — but for the most part, movies tend to aim for that one thing, so much so that you can pretty comfortably sum up a movie by talking about its basic genre or goals.

But there’s a hybrid kind of movie that can successfully exist in many of these categories at once. I call them “movie-movies,” because that’s the kind of wordsmith you become with a journalism degree. I’m talking about those movies that feel like full meals, that can deftly encompass action and suspense and humor and romance and character, all with a verve and energy that feels fresh and fleeting when we find it. They aren’t one thing with a hint of something else; they’re totally two things at once, or three, or more. They’re often categorized as comedies, in large part because comedy is a more forgiving genre when it comes to bending the rules. (A comedy that suddenly gets serious can feel like real life; a drama that suddenly turns goofy can feel like a practical joke being played on the viewer.) They’re also often slotted into one main category because it’s easier to get a handle on them that way, but they’re so much more than that.

Here’s a good example: The Princess Bride. It’s genuinely romantic: Westley and Buttercup are players in a quest for true love. It’s genuinely funny: the comedy is handled with a perfect touch, thanks to writer William Goldman and director Rob Reiner. It’s genuinely dramatic: the story is shot through with torment and triumph, anchored by chase scenes and sword fights. It doesn’t quite feel like anything else. You’d never say to someone, “You should see The Princess Bride, it’s hilarious,” even though it is. You wouldn’t call it a drama or a suspense story, though it’s very much both of those, too. It’s a movie-movie, a full-on, all-around piece of American pop cinema.

Or take Sneakers: It’s a geopolitical drama about the power of the information age in the aftermath of the Cold War, and a heist thriller, and a caper comedy, and a character-driven ensemble piece. There’s Bull Durham, which does full duty as a romance, a romantic comedy, an essay about humility and faded glory, and maybe the best baseball picture ever made. There’s Grosse Pointe Blank, a pitch-black comedy, an awkward love story, and a coming-of-adulthood tale that mines the horror of high school reunions for every bit of introspection and depression they can bring. High Fidelity. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Romancing the Stone. Tootsie. (Hollywood in the 1980s was, for a while, a machine at making these.) Half the Coen brothers’ movies. A good chunk of Hitchcock. Midnight Run. Out of Sight. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. You’ve probably got a handful that you’re thinking of right now. These are wonderfully entertaining movies, but what is it that makes them work so well? And why don’t more movies try to be like them?

For starters, movie-movies have the confidence to avoid playing to the broadest possible audience. It might seem like that’s what they’re going for — after all, they bridge multiple genres and appeal to a variety of age groups — but the reverse is actually true. By trying to make the best, most specific type of movie they could, the filmmakers actually created stories with broader appeal. When you mechanically try to four-quadrant your movie, you inevitably wind up with something that feels safe and over-tested, as opposed to something willing to stand on its own and invite viewers to come in their own time. It’s a risk.

Part of that also means movie-movies tend to avoid common or easy stories. On paper, it might not make sense to do a wacky romantic adventure that’s actually a story being told by an old man to his grandson, or to have your leading man spend most of his on-screen time dressed as a woman, or to inject conspiracy theories and farce into an espionage thriller. The concepts feel a little too messy, a little too ready to get out of hand, and it’s true that any one of these movies could’ve gone wrong in one of a thousand ways and wound up a forgettable wreck instead of a memorable feature. You’ve seen dozens of movies about high school reunions; you probably haven’t seen one about an assassin who goes to his reunion and falls in love again. These movies can feel all-encompassing because they’re willing to go outside the lines that constrict almost everyone else.

Their real triumph, though, and what gives them the power to connect with us so well, is that these movies operate with the understanding that real life is never just about one thing. Honest, good movies that understand that — the ones expertly weave genres together and acknowledge that the best way to find the truth is to look everywhere you can — are primed to be rewarding in ways that others aren’t. The stories we tell ourselves to frame our experience are always a spiky mix of comedy and drama, veering from sublime to surreal. Nothing’s ever just drama, or comedy, or romance. It’s never that easy.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Bananaranma

    The American President...a full blooded political drama and cracker jack romantic comedy. Plus, it was Sorkin's dress rehearsal for West Wing.

  • I've never watched Bull Durham. But now I've read this and I'm heading to Netflix to fix that immediately.

  • jptaylorsg

    "Sexy Beast"

  • jptaylorsg

    I like that you're not just focusing on "big" or "beloved" films in your list. I would submit "Galaxy Quest." You might expect it to be a genre film if you hadn't seen it, but the genre only serves as thing that the characters react to in real, genuine, often poignant and hilarious ways.

  • Idle Primate

    True Romance is a good example of a movie-movie (hope that term doesn't catch on). It has romance, magical realism, a fairy tale feeling, action, thriller, satire and probably more.

  • Idle Primate

    I find foreign films, especially UK, and commonwealth countries are far more comfortable embracing complexity and using the mood/genre blend as either a narrative tool or method of provoking a more authentic feeling emotional response

  • bokchoi

    almost every John Hughes movie

  • For Love of the Game was 2 movies: A hardcore baseball movie AND a love story movie. There were 2 totally different commercials airing on ESPN and Lifetime targeting the different demos.

    This is probably another reason why these movies are hard to sell in Hollywood because they have to create X times the marketing.

  • John W

    Scent of a Woman was one of those movies to me. It was a drama, comedy, and coming of age tale.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Just recently watched Sneakers and it didn't really hold up for me.

    BUT - this is where Shakespeare in Love lands for me. It hits all the sweet spots, and I never understand the rage against it.

  • mrsdalgliesh

    Isn't the rage all about Gwyneth?

    I love the movie, even The Goop. She annoys the hell out of me now, but I thought she was lovely in that part.

  • jthomas666

    The "rage" against SiL stems from two main sources:

    1. Paltrow's Best Actress win over Cate Blanchett

    2. Beating Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture.

    That said, I agree that it's a wonderful film. Moreover, the Academy should have damn well created a special award for Geoffrey Rush for his combined work in Sil and Elizabeth, cause, *damn*.

  • jthomas666

    Oh, thank you for mentioning "Sneakers"--an overlooked minor gem if there ever was one.

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    "We're the United States government; we don't DO that sort of thing!"

  • Stephen Nein

    I still despair for the youth of our generation - I work in customer tech support, and we periodically show movies when it's slow. The college-age kids that make up the workforce just couldn't get what made that film good.

  • Ley

    So, is this the part where we give out more examples? Hm...let's see: Almost Famous, most of Pixar's movies. Also: Back To The Future, which is my go-to example of a movie where everything (or almost everything, whatever your opinion is) works.

  • Guest

    Not to be that guy but High Fidelity came out in 2000 and you'll need to elaborate on its connection / similarity to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Romancing the Stone. and Tootsie.

  • jptaylorsg

    You're totally being that guy.

  • cruzzercruz

    I'm not sure what your point about the movie's release year is, since it isn't about "classic" era films, nor is it about High Fidelity having any connection to those other movies. They were all just examples of this "movie-movie" genre that the author has coined, encompassing multiple genres fluidly and creating a satisfying whole.

  • This is an excellent articulation. I've often shorthanded what you've more eloquently put as: "what Whedon does".

  • BWeaves

    I usually call it "a classic."

  • I respond badly to that word, despite its dictionary definition. It's too often used as a cudgel in defense of old things I dislike, in order to dismiss my opinion as uninformed or patently false because the item in question is a classic.

  • BWeaves

    I see your point. By your definition, I am a classic. (Where's the sarcasm font when I need it?)

  • BWeaves

    The Princess Bride is an adult fairy tale. It's timeless because it never resorted to pop culture jokes. If anything dates it, it's the bit right at the beginning when the kid is playing his video game and the mother is a little 80's looking in hair and clothing, but that's OK. It places it in a particular time, as opposed to being dated, like when ancient Greeks have "modern" hair and makeup, which looks fine when the movie comes out and looks hilarious 10 years later.

    While most movies try to do one thing well, a good movie does everything well. I don't mean everything everything, but everything they are going for.

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