Genre Mutation and The Film Noir

Collins English Dictionary defines genre as a ‘kind, category… of literary or artistic work’, but the modern day concept of genre is vaster than ever. A genre was defined by specific characteristics which set said genre apart from the rest – the lines were clear cut, black and white. As soon as the concept of genre began drawing its lines in the sand, filmmakers instinctively began to see the potential in crossing them. From this filmmakers could invent new genres and revise old genres in ways unseen by the public. Naturally, this begs the question of the value of genre in contemporary filmmaking – whether a genre actually holds any worth in defining a film by the standards of today. This essay will explore evolution and mutation of genre, specifically using the example of the Film Noir, over time. Using this exploration as a criticism of genre theory, debating the idea that the contextual understanding of a genre gives meaning to a genre film, like a gangster film, Noir or Western. On top of this, this essay will discuss the concept of genre’s value in the industry of Hollywood.

‘Genre’ as a word is widely considered to simply mean the conventions of portions of plot, the iconography within and such drawn out by the films that came before – the characteristics of a film, in order to categorise it with similar ‘types’ of film. As an example, in the case of the genre this essay will scrutinise, Film Noir, there are a prominent set of characteristics which define a film as a Noir. In terms of plot, a Noir will always focus on an investigative character who is usually separate from the law, in order to maintain honesty and hold a darker edge to the character. This character is traditionally a man, who is seduced and toyed with by a femme fatale – a deadly woman – who eventually causes the demise, or at least demise in part, of the detective or his values – corrupting the incorruptible. Most characteristics of Film Noir come from its radical visual style, causing much debate on whether Film Noir is actually a genre at all, or just an aesthetic. Visual conventions include low key lighting with an emphasis on the light and the dark, as opposed to the grey in-betweens, as explored by Renaissance artists, dubbed ‘chiaroscuro’. Unnatural compositions and mise en scène made to jar and confuse the viewer (Place and Peterson, 1974), and insequential, confusing plotlines also come hand in hand with Film Noir. The iconography of a Film Noir is one of the most recognisable – silhouettes, fedoras, glamorous seductresses, cigarettes, and the neon signs glaring through the darkness of the mean streets that lie ahead of the detective. Nowadays it doesn’t take a Noir detective to deduce a film’s genre – genre conventions are deeply rooted at the very least in the subconscious of any moviegoer, but are less so than semiotics. The reason an audience will feel, for example, that there is an underpinning darkness to the image is not necessarily due to the genre itself, but more the idea that, say, a silhouetted man against a window is threatening by nature due to the mystery of the identity of the man. This is where the simplified definition of ‘genre’ begins to blur, as many critics have begun to point out the formulaic nature of genre films. To some, genres are more than a method of an audience identifying the film, they are a formula for a storyteller to follow in writing, to design the film based on this conventional context. To deny the mutualistic bond between producer and customer would be completely false. Film, just as every other medium has, found the most effective method of delivering to its target market; categorisation of films allowed audience members who enjoy a specific ‘type’ of film to easily find and separate this type. The producer tailors the film to that specific audience, and that specific audience, in return, gain a quick and easy way to find where they will gain the most entertainment – they sort themselves into their target groups. Tom Ryall eloquently summarises this equation of audience and filmmaker together:

The ‘rules’ of a genre – the body of conventions – specify the ways in which the individual work is to be read and understood, forming the implicit context in which that work acquires significance and meaning. Genres were seen in social terms as institutions implying a bond, or contract, between producers… and audience relating to the significance and meaning of what was on the screen. (1998:328)

This summary of many critics’ opinions rather cynically points towards the idea that genre films, without the context of the genre, would somehow be less substantial or be harder to grasp for the audience, suggesting that the genre film potentially lacks a level of originality due to its reliance on previously laid out conventions. This interpretation while holding an extent of value when applied to semiotics certainly in more recent years begun to degrade due to the flowing, ever changing nature of the modern genre. The consideration of evolution and mutation of genres is key to the understanding of what genre actually is and how it actually affects the both the creation and reception of film separately from semiotics.

One of the most quintessential examples of the evolution of genre, or genre revisionism, is the direct comparison between the classic Marlowe Noir Murder, My Sweet (Dmytryk, 1944) and the post-modern, reworking of the Film Noir genre featuring the same character: The Long Goodbye (Altman, 1973). In the 1944 Marlowe adaptation, we see all the tell-tale Noir conventions being met. The film follows an insequencial narrative, just as other noirs do, as evidenced by the opening sequence triggering a flashback. The following scene, set in Marlowe’s office, is particularly useful for direct comparison to The Long Goodbye. Immediately we see the iconic chiaroscuro effect, with a harsh edge light on the side of Marlowe’s face as he sits smoking his cigarette, while the rest of the shot is plunged in near complete darkness. The iconic voice-over narration, combined with the cluttered composition of elements in the frame are also textbook. The plot begins to be introduced, with a dark storyline waiting to unfold, thanks to the semiotics of the scene previous. Nearly every aforementioned convention of the Film Noir genre is checked off the list just moments into the film. Supporting the interpretation set out by critics, an audience will, thanks to this conventions, now understand that this is of the same calibre as other Film Noirs and at the very least make this subconscious link.

Jumping ahead to The Long Goodbye, we see an opening scene that is directly comparable. Set in Marlowe’s apartment this time, he awakes in a scene filled with focused light and darkness, as per cinematographic convention. He then leaves his bedroom and enters the darkness of the hallway, plunged into the shadows. It is not until the following shot, of his cat running across the floor, that the audience are broken out of the traditions of Film Noir. While comedy is not necessarily a complete break from Noir, with Marlowe being somewhat of a wisecracking Private Eye from conception, to toy with the focus of the plot and sideswipe the audience into a somewhat ridiculous and seemingly irrelevant scene is newfound territory. The Long Goodbye certainly doesn’t break entirely from convention, it just radically churns the genre out into something new. The iconography fully present once again – with Marlowe striking another cigarette maybe every five minutes of screen time, the neon lights of the city surrounding his apartment, and alike. Meanwhile, composition and mise en scène are much tamer than in classic Noir. We can see fairly normal cinematography and production design for the time. Within the film, however, the ‘jarring’ composition remains, but has been changed into a new form. Instead of a convoluted image, the elements of sound within the film are now convoluted and jarring, with an unconventional method of recording sound – using lavalier mics, in order to have dream like, ethereal dialogue, which while coming out of the actors mouths in relative space, emitting to the audience at a consistent, spatially nonsensical volume – the sound stays the same volume, regardless of whether the character is two or ten feet away. This is a revision to the chaotic composition of images recycled into sound, keeping the necessity of in depth audience perception but in a new way. This recycling also allowed another revision to the typical Noir convention of voiceover narration. Instead of a direct narration, the audience is presented with an external monologue, with Marlowe’s ramblings about cat food feeling like a narration of events, poking fun at these Noir clichés. Another radical twist from tradition is in terms of plot, with Marlowe killing Lennox at the end of the film, which harms the honor of the detective that fans knew and loved. Robert Altman’s character description explains why this radical decision suits Marlowe, but breaks the boundaries of the Noir genre: ‘ I see Marlowe the way Chandler saw him, a loser. But a real loser, not the false winner that Chandler made out of him. A loser all the way.’ (Spicer, 2010). This is uncommon in the Noir genre, as the credibility and integrity of the detective character is usually a primary factor in the story – for example, with most protagonists being lawfully good, but separate from the Law Enforcement, to steer them away from corruption – The Long Goodbye’s ambiguous standpoint is a long step away from the norm.

Detective stories are often about a personal code; even when the character explicitly tells us he does not have “a code,” the role of the operator is to attempt to tilt the scales toward a form of justice he can live with, whether it is selfish, altruistic, cruel, or magnanimous. Marlowe’s last act in this version can be seen as justice or as selfish. (Pluck, 2013)

The question then arises – with such radical changes to genre, is The Long Goodbye even a Noir? The trick in this question  provides suitable evidence of an ambiguity in genre; this is one of the main hurdles one must overcome in order to understand modern genre and one of main considerations that punctures the previously mentioned theory. Genre is not as clear cut as the theory makes it out to be – as in that one must understand the context of the genre in order to understand the film. One may argue that to fully appreciate all the rules the film toys with and revises, an audience must know these rules. At the same time, however, if the rules are being broken in the first place, then the rules needn’t be understood by the audience, as they are witnessing something new, no matter how derivative it is. This creation of something new is precisely what is meant by ‘genre mutation’; definable exactly as mutation in biology is: ‘a sudden departure from the parent type in one or more heritable characteristics’ ( In terms of genre, this cannot only be explained in the context of The Long Goodbye’s revision of its genre, but also in the context of multi-genre pieces. An archetypal example to draw upon is Blade Runner (Scott, 1982). Blade Runner welds together the (neo-)Noir with cyberpunk science fiction into something entirely new – dubbed ‘technoir’. While the whole film fits snugly in both the conventions of science fiction and neo-noir, an exemplary moment is the scene in which Deckard interrogates Rachael, using the Voight Kampff machine. The scene’s lighting reminisces on the chiaroscuro effect of the traditional Film Noir, with harsh edge lights and dark shadows causing strong contrast in the scene. The inclusion of colour is emphasised in a science fiction way, with strong saturation – vibrant skin tones, deep oranges and sharp, punchy blues. On the one hand, the inclusion of colour in such an expressive obviously breaks from the classic Noir aesthetic – due to the iconic black and white look being caused by the film stock used – one could argue that it stays within the realm of the noir and adapts it to more modern technologies; the constant inclusion of neon lights and sharp contrast in noirs, one could argue, would have been met with intense saturation of colour, could the technologies of colour film have been viable in the age of the genre. This is a key point when thinking on the idea of mutations in genre – adaptations like these, while drawing upon audience expectations are still so radical and new that without the context of the genre (or in this case genres), the film, arguably, would still work.

To summarise, genre is an incredible flowing entity that cannot be defined – or to an extent – confined to a black and white summary. The lines of genre blur more and more as time goes on. To understate the value of the genre system within the industry would simply be a falsity, but to say that the original theory of genre and lines in the sand hold as prominently in modern film as it did in the era of the Noir and the Western. These ambiguities in genre are fatal flaws in the argument presented by such critics as Lawrence Alloway, summarised by Tom Ryall. At its base level, even if genre films and genre itself were as cynical as this, genre should not be a factor of criticism of a film – the film in isolation, due to simply what we perceive as the language of film and the conveyance of the art, should – with the better films managing to – establish everything contained within its opening and closing titles, without the necessity of the stabiliser wheels of genre conventions to help it out. On the other hand, ingrained human semiotic response being relied upon by an artist is one that is fundamental in any art piece. To set aside film – specifically Hollywood genre films – as something of less value due to its reliance on this, clumsily labelling it as reliance on genre is failing to distinguish that semiotics and genre are separate entities.



Alloway, L. (1971). Violent America: The Movies, 1946-1964. New York: Museum of Modern Art.

Metz, C. and Taylor, M. (1974). Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema. New York: University of Chicago Press.

Place, J. and Peterson, L. (1974). Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir. Film Comment, pp.30-35.

Pluck, T. (2013). Reconsidering Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973). [Blog] Criminal Element. Available at: [Accessed 21 Mar. 2018].

Ryall, T. (1998). Genre and Hollywood. In: J. Hill and P. Gibson, ed., The Oxford Guide to Film Studies. Oxford University Press, pp.327-337.

Spicer, A. (2010). Historical Dictionary of Film Noir. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, p.108.



Blade Runner. (1982). Directed by R. Scott. United States: Warner Bros.

Murder, My Sweet. (1944). Directed by E. Dmytryk. United States: RKO Pictures.

The Long Goodbye. (1973). Directed by R. Altman. United States: United Artists.


Video Games, Aggression and Audience Theory

vid games

The age old debate “Do Video Games Cause Violence?” is a classic heated discussion of not just a vital medium in the media industry, but also, at it’s base level, a discussion of audience theory. In order to fully understand whether or not video games negatively effect the brains of the players, we have to learn about the way the brain consumes media and how the brain processes emotional responses to said media. In the case of video games, it goes without saying that there is a huge impact on the brain, usually featuring highly brain-intensive situations, whether it be anywhere from a puzzle game to a high octane first person shooter. The brain, as you can imagine, certainly is not short of things to do – unless the game is unnecessarily boringThe brain will be constantly occupied, thinking deeply about solutions to problems, surveying landscapes and understanding new worlds or even triggering high speed instincts, which is what sets video games apart from other media, like film and television for example. This is why video games as a medium are so highly praised, improving hand-eye coordination, problem solving skills and alleviating stress. Essentially by playing games a consumer is training themselves to do many things, which in some cases is an excellent thing, with puzzle games like Picross, KAMI and Portal honing in on puzzle solving skills. On the other hand, there is the side of things like first person shooters, i.e Call of Duty and Battlefield highly training hand-eye coordination, speeding up reflexes and generally getting adrenaline flowing. These two examples have a high competitive factor on top of this, which gives depth and reason to entering the world. With something like CS:GO or DOTA 2 there are incredibly high levels of adrenaline and competitive urge to the extent where it has become a full blown electronic sport and profession to play these games.

Image result for esports

To say that this doesn’t influence the brain would be a complete lie. This does, however, include negatively effect too. It is a well known fact that games can become incredibly addictive for a start. Immersing oneself into a world that is rich in lore and pulls you in just by existing in a satisfying way is more than likely going to negatively effect someone interested in the type of games. MMOs and RPGs are most famous for this, with such games as World Of Warcraft – a game currently 13 years old – still retaining it’s original player-base and causing serious addiction. The world is incredibly realistic, with a full blown economy, a breathing population of real people and hugely social guild features. People were fully able to – and some fully prepared to – lose themselves in this virtual expanse and a huge amount of people did – in fact, the same amount of people as the total population of Germany, Belarus and Sweden combined did. Another big problem – or alleged big problem – in the increase in aggression from playing video games. This is probably the most notorious debate of all video game debates. The debate stems from the belief firstly that video games cause aggression and  more specifically that violent video games are a cause of this. First of all,  it is fact that with a high level of focus comes potential frustration and by nature all tests, activities and puzzles cause this. This means it pretty much goes without saying that playing video games can get intense and frustration can ensue. Does this cause aggression in general however? No conclusive evidence has been found. There are several tests that have checked for a correlation of aggression with violent video games and huge waves of mixed results have come back. There is no conclusive proof that explicit violence affects a gamer’s level of aggression. In fact, there is conclusive proof of the opposite – that higher aggression levels are caused by frustration instead – this was tested on Horizon using a game called Bastet (Bastard Tetris), which will pick blocks based on helpfulness: there’s a 70% chance that the next block you are given is the worst possible block for the situation, a 15% chance it’s the second worst possible block, a 9% chance you’ll get the third worst possible block and a 6% chance that you’ll get a useful block. Obviously being designed to frustrate a player, aggression levels bumped up higher comparatively to players playing regular Tetris. Despite great assumptions and apparent correlations between mass murders and the consumption of violent video games, there is such a high level of conflicting evidence that nothing can be proven, though it’s most likely true for mentally unstable individuals, who fail to form a wall between reality and a game, though to most players appreciating the art form and playing as a hobby, just like watching TV, this notion seems ridiculous and almost completely inapplicable to them. Most of these so called correlations have no real evidence backing them, except for the fact that the person just so happens to play video games as well as being a serial killer – remember that 42% of Americans play video games and in 2013, more than 1.2 billion people regularly played games, so these ties, statistically are no surprise. On the other hand, until we find conclusive evidence, we cannot prove that these ties are not more than just simply a violent individual just happening to own games too. The lack of evidence works against both sides of the debate and truly until this evidence arises, we shan’t know.
But how does any of this this relate to audience theory? Well…

Hypodermic needle

The Hypodermic Needle Model is an early method of understanding how an audience takes in media. In essence, it suggests that an audience consume the media and immediately take in all the messages of the media the same way in one specifically designed way. Many definitions will call this a ‘Passive Audience’, as in, they do not object to anything and are impressionable and that the media is consumed one-hundred percent as intended. I would describe it as a black and white look at the product with no grey areas, but really there isn’t even a secondary colour, it’s the thought that everyone has the same view with no questions. The name is rather apt then; like through a hypodermic needle, the substance (in this case, the product) simply is pushed into the body (or in this case, the brains) of the audience and that’s that. This model is considered bonkers at this point, we know that no human thinks the same way as another, we’re all individuals and not one clump of brains that all are impressionable and open to everything. Each person has different morals and each person will accept or reject certain statements too. Gaging responses wasn’t truly written in detail about until people began to question the plausibility, or in this case, the ridiculousness of the 1920s Hypodermic Needle Model. In 1973, Stuart Hall devised a new model, defining a set of specific responses that audiences can take, which seem like no-brainers to us now.


This model was the Encoding/Decoding Model, which explores the different ways that audiences decode media, as opposed to ‘consume’. The term consume has become increasingly out of date as we begin to understand psychology further, as this refers to the idea of just taking the media in simply. Hall refers to it as ‘decoding’ or ‘reading’ in his theorem, the reason for it has been eloquently summed up in the below quote:

“By the word reading we mean not only the capacity to identify and decode a certain number of signs, but also the subjective capacity to put them into a creative relation between themselves and with other signs: a capacity which is, by itself, the condition for a complete awareness of one’s total environment” – The Cultural Studies Reader. Edited by Simon During. 2nd edn. London, England: Taylor & Francis.

In short, Hall talks about three main hypothetical positions, or stances on interpreting media:

  • Dominant-hegemonic Reading
    • The decoder takes connotations from the media straight up with no questions. Taking in the media “Full and Straight” is how it is described.
  • Negotiated Reading
    • The decoder accepts the connotations from the media, accepting what would be the ‘preferred reading’, though applied differently per person. In essence, modifying the media in order to accept it further by applying it to themselves or by reflecting themselves. An example of this is the many layers of Christianity as a religion – it’s all the same book, but many different people take many different stances.
  • Oppositional Reading
    • Simply put, rejecting the code. The exact opposite of dominant-hegemonic reading.


uses and gratifica

The Uses and Gratifications Theory is one of the leading interpretations of the consumption of media and bases itself around the audience’s reasoning for using – reading/consuming – the product. This is famously explained in a quote from Elihu Katz, where he begs the question of “what media does to people”, as opposed to “what people do with media”. At a base level it states that audiences only consume the media they need in their lives, as in, they aren’t cracking a code – ‘consuming media’ – unless they want/need to. This is once again kicking out the Hypodermic Needle Theory and shutting down the idea that an audience is completely passive to all media. According to the theory, the piece of media must be able to provide one of the following to a reader:
Identification: The consumer can pick apart the product and identify with it and apply thoughts that the product raises to their own lives.
Education: Learning from the product.
Entertainment: Gaining pleasure and enjoyment from the product.
Social Interaction: Gaining conversation points and topics to talk about and discuss with other people – sharing an experience and gaining discussion about it.

(Sources: 1, 2)


What does this have to do with video games and aggression you ask? Well it’s more meta than that. On the side that firmly believe that violent video games cause people to become aggressive and violent, they are essentially applying the hypodermic needle model to games and players. They’re assuming that if a player plays a violent game, they immediately and uncontrollably accept everything within the content as acceptable and the games implant this subconscious urge to replicate in-game content (i.e violence). In thinking this way with no given evidence for why, you are implying that this outdated method is taking effect. There are of course people on this side who hypothesise, as opposed to believe, that violent video games do cause people to become more violent, which are inclined to test their hypotheses, which come out with, admittedly, some results that are substantial. Taking a step further into the meta, the people who firmly believe with no necessary evidence that video games do cause violence and aggression due to their violent nature are reading the assumptive media in a dominant-hegemonic position, whereas someone who is waiting for evidence may be more negotiated or oppositional in terms of their position. You could even argue that hearing the statement that ‘Violent Video Games cause aggression and make people violent’ and believing it outright is the reader succumbing to the Hypodermic Needle method.

video games violence

Overall, then, can we say conclusively that violent video games cause aggression? Of course not, not without substantial evidence. On the other hand, can we say that they 100% do not? Not even slightly, despite lots of evidence being on this side, the only way to disprove or prove this notion would be to get evidence from the other side, as until we know for sure it would be lying to outright state that they do not cause aggression. So why does this debate continue? Because it is about more than just aggression – it is about audience theory, about bias, about fact and fiction and a battle of the in-depth psychology of audiences, not just as a whole, but individually.