- American Film Cycles: Reframing Genres, Screening Social Problems, and Defining Subcultures by Amanda Ann Klein
Film genre studies has been a reliable marker of the field’s overall concerns for decades, with emerging theoretical paradigms frequently finding influential expression within genre criticism. From the structuralism of the 1970s through the psychoanalysis of the 1980s to the cultural studies paradigm of the 1990s, genre scholarship has served as an adaptable site at which theoretical models meet specific film texts to be tested, applied, and nuanced. While most genre studies zoom into a particular case study to explore how a genre like horror, musicals, or romantic comedy might be understood through a specific theoretical lens, some genre scholarship operates at a broader scope, looking across multiple genres to offer more generalizable models and theoretical tools. The last major work of such broadly applicable genre theory was probably Rick Altman’s 1999 Film/Genre, [End Page 175] an essential book that reframed our understanding of film genres as historical phenomena.1 Although it would be hard to identify a dominant theoretical paradigm for film studies today, certainly historical and empirically grounded criticism seems to be a more prevalent method than the sweeping theoretical schools that dominated previous decades.
Post-Altman, genre studies reflect that historical emphasis of material analysis over the more abstract realm of generalization and argumentation that typifies what we call “theory,” and thus Amanda Ann Klein’s American Film Cycles is less a work of genre theory per se than a resolute example of genre history grounded in the specific evidence of films and their related documents of production and circulation.2 However, it does offer a host of “detachable conclusions,” Louis Mink’s evocative phrase for what historical writings can convey beyond the specificities of their subjects, and such extrapolations might be a valid replacement for broader theoretical models.3 Klein’s case studies are an eclectic bunch of briefly popular but now forgotten cycles of films, including 1920s melodramatic gangster pictures, 1930s Dead End Kids films, 1950s juvenile-delinquent teen pics, and 1990s ghetto action movies. Certainly, film scholars with interest in these specific cycles will learn much from her insightful readings of films and analyses of their cultural and industrial contexts, which draw on a range of research materials, including corporate documents, press coverage, critical discourses, promotional materials, and the films themselves. But I wish to focus on what such histories can teach us beyond the particular case studies, especially for readers who might not be particularly interested in or even aware of her specific examples.
Klein is openly indebted to Altman’s “pragmatic” turn in genre studies, shifting from interpretations of what film genres mean and toward excavations of how genre categories mean, looking at the production, promotion, circulation, and reception of genres and their subset of film cycles to highlight the practices of both Hollywood and American film cultures without offering totalizing claims of deep structures or symptomatic readings. Klein takes Altman’s pragmatic approach to a more microscopic level by focusing on short-lived cycles rather than long-lasting genres, as she demonstrates how film cycles offer “small, detailed snapshots of [a] culture at a single moment of time.”4 Anyone who has studied genres knows that scholars must frequently marginalize conflicting examples or gloss over variations to create a more coherent picture of a corpus, but Klein’s microattention to cycles allows for more careful attention to differences between films and the regularities that emerge over the course of a short-lived set of movies, and it offers a convincing repudiation of traditionally linear models of genre history and evolution. Additionally, the cycles Klein studies are overtly commercial and often exploitative enterprises, looking to cash in on a successful [End Page 176] innovator through crass imitation rather than subtle distinctions within a larger corpus, and thus her studies of cycles shine a brighter light on the strategies of film producers and marketers, and are more directly responsive to the whims...