Pretty Picture

Film genres are an industry mechanism used to dictate viewer response to movies. In the early days of cinema, there were no explicit genres. This led to widespread audience confusion over whether to laugh or cry in reaction to what was on the screen. Recognizing the problem, the studios invented film classification, and movies have had genres ever since.

Although audiences are now trained from birth to respond to films in specific ways, genres remain important. For instance, they're useful when you require a certain type of movie, such as a comedy to cheer up your wife after revealing that her "wait until marriage" husband actually doesn't have a penis, or a horror film to terrify your child as punishment for wetting the bed. If films weren't explicitly categorized, you might have to spend a night on the couch or raise a mentally healthy child. That's obviously unacceptable, so you can see why genres are so important.

Below is a handy guide to the various cinematic genres. Included for each entry is a comprehensive description of indisputable accuracy. Let the defining commence:

Action: Supplants storytelling and character depth with explosions and bigger explosions. The best action films are able to sneak in some plot and character development, but the main goal is always maximizing your heart rate. At its best, this genre is pure exhilaration; you may require hours to completely calm down. Though many directors believe that rapid-fire combustion is sufficient for thrilling the audience, the good ones recognize the importance of buildup and dramatic tension. Some even do it the hard way and omit explosions entirely, but this approach is strongly discouraged.

Adventure: This genre aims for excitement, often featuring a protagonist who traverses exotic locations, courts beautiful women, and generally gets the most out of life. In short, all the things you want to do but never will. These films are appealing because it's fun to spend two hours imagining yourself with the characters and pretending your life doesn't completely suck ass. The effect vanishes once the end credits roll, but there's still that bottle of Scotch waiting for you at home. If that fails, you can always buy a revolver.

Biography: Chronicles the life of an actual person who may or may not deserve cinematic immortality. However, this is irrelevant; great films have been made about assholes who deserve to be forgotten (Bonnie and Clyde, Raging Bull, Gandhi), and great people have inspired terrible films. What's important is not whether the subject is worthy of a movie, but whether such a movie can generate profit. Please note that this principle applies to every genre and is actually the film industry's fundamental guiding philosophy.

Chick flick: Cinematic arsenic. Avoid at all costs.

Comedy: Primarily intended to stimulate laughter. This genre forces the characters into awkward or dangerous situations so the viewer can laugh at their expense. When comedies succeed, they're highly enjoyable and even cathartic; when they fail, the audience dies a little inside. On average, terrible comedies cause more pain than terrible dramas, as the latter at least have the potential to accidentally become good comedies.

Crime: Focuses on characters who commit illegal acts, often for a living. A quick glance at the current IMDb Top 250 indicates this genre's modest popularity:

IMDb Top 250

That's 80 percent of the top five films, and I almost counted number four (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, for you uncultured fucks) because its protagonists are outlaws, and because it was filmed in Italian—the language of crime. Hell, even number six is about that traitor who employed illegal workers in defiance of his party. The six most popular movies on IMDb are at least tenuously (four of them irrefutably) related to this genre, proving that people love watching criminals. Way to stick it to the man, I guess.

Drama: A serious genre that tackles serious subjects with relentless, uncompromising seriousness. The goal of some dramas is simply to tell a powerful story with the weight it deserves, but many have messages of varying subtlety meant to spur the audience to action. If you think a two-hour film is incapable of changing the world, you are wrong. These movies depict important social issues that nobody knows about, and it's imperative that absolutely everyone on earth see them as soon as possible. Message-driven dramas are usually made by delusional filmmakers who don't realize that movies only rarely advance societal progress; most "important" films are limited to sparking pseudo-solemn discussions no longer than the car ride home.

Epic: Greek for "fucking long." Epics tell extravagant stories often based on history or legend, and they're incapable of doing it in a reasonable amount of time. This is fine when the movie is good but becomes unbearable when it's not. Unlike films in other genres, epics almost always strive for greatness; a merely good epic can rightly be considered a failure. Directors of less-than-great epics ("epic fails") spend most nights crying into their pillows, devastated that the project they spent years obsessing over wasn't received as a masterpiece.

Family: This genre consists of two main categories: children's films and genuine family films. Children's films are produced by cynical movie studios who hate you but still want your money. These movies have dull plots, cookie-cutter characters, and dire attempts at humor, as well as the occasional pop culture reference thrown in "for the adults." The idea is that so few movies are appropriate for young kids that you'll take your children to anything without sex and violence, even if it totally sucks. True family films, on the other hand, are appropriate for children but also entertain their parents. Certain elements elude younger viewers, waiting to be discovered when they rewatch the movie later in life. Family films appeal to all ages; children's films appeal to shareholders and hacks.

Fantasy: These films premiere at midnight to theaters packed with fanatics dressed as their favorite characters. Of the people in attendance on opening night, there may be one or two who aren't virgins. Several more might have heard of sex, but only a few could tell you what it is. Fantasy gives life to imagined locations and impossible scenarios, cementing the genre's popularity among those for whom touching another human has always been a distant dream. Even fantasy's less obsessive admirers can appreciate its greatest gift: escape (however brief) from the reality we have to face every day.

Film noir: Depicts a world devoid of light, hope, and happy endings. Common elements include locations shrouded in shadow, a guy who falls for the wrong girl, and characters who smoke so much the cancer would kill them within a week if the movie didn't do it first. For classic noirs, black and white is a must. Though the last of the original noirs were made in the 1950s, the genre later resurfaced as the neo-noir, a more self-conscious take on the concept. In both incarnations, the audience is denied any shred of optimism; if the film ends and even one character isn't miserable, you're not watching a noir. But the genre permits danger its natural allure, and instead of depressing, it entices. Noirs drain you of your will to live in the most seductive way possible.

Horror: Characterized by idiots in the audience shouting things at the screen. Horror seeks to shock, unsettle, rattle, repulse, disturb, and frighten the viewer; pussies are advised to avoid. The genre also has an ugly habit of spawning terrible franchises. Even good films aren't exempt; the epidemic of a great movie yielding absurdly inferior sequels has afflicted Psycho, The Exorcist, Alien, Jaws, Halloween, The Silence of the Lambs, and the Universal classics Dracula and Frankenstein (though both Alien and Frankenstein managed one worthy sequel before succumbing to the curse). That list excludes the many horror series that started as shit and never looked back. No genre is immune from pointless sequels made only for cash, but the greed evident here is horrific enough to fuel a franchise of its own.

Musical: Features people singing at times and in places where people wouldn't normally sing. The musical numbers can be plot-related or completely fucking random; it doesn't really matter. This genre necessitates an especially strong suspension of disbelief, as in real life, the entire town breaking into song and dance to celebrate your engagement is depressingly rare. Despite what you've heard, homosexuality is not a prerequisite for enjoying this genre, though it helps.

Mystery: Something has happened, no one seems to know what, and the protagonist is going to get to the bottom of things if it kills him (which it may). The protagonist is usually a detective, and the something is usually a crime. In bad mysteries, the detective is often too smart (he solves the puzzle using cryptic clues no human could understand) or too dumb (the audience deduces the answer long before he even begins to suspect). Good mysteries require a logical, surprising, and satisfying solution that unfolds realistically, becoming gradually more evident to the characters (and the viewer) as the film nears its end. They must be difficult to write, because they're fairly scarce; most "shocking" endings are predictable or contrived, making the real mystery why anyone would give a damn in the first place.

Porn: An interactive genre rarely granted the respect it deserves. Though only sporadically acknowledged during award season, these films showcase strong performances, with eruptive intensity from the women and sustained acting from the men. Especially popular among single males and committed ones who don't give a shit.

Romance: Essentially porn with the boring parts intact. The primary conflict in this genre results from tension between characters who are in wuv. If the focus is on comedy, the couple is almost certain to end up together; if the focus is on drama, it could go either way, though their ending up together is still probable in accordance with the Hollywood Law of Happy Endings. Romances can be powerful, touching, and even hilarious, but far too many devolve into hollow, saccharine mush. Bad romances should be stringently avoided by recovering bulimics and everyone else.

Science fiction: The realm of time travel, parallel dimensions, high technology, outer space, and anything else fans would describe as "totally neato." Science fiction creates hypothetical versions of our reality, and its devotees admire its fusing of science with imagination. They're also the only beings in this or any galaxy who can make fantasy fans look like overbooked hookers. Not that they mind; for sheer ejaculatory exhilaration, sex can't compete with aliens, robots, spaceships, and wickedly rad-to-the-max metaphysics. Just thinking about all that is enough to get me stiff.

Sports: Attempts to wring drama from the outcome of a stupid game. Though there are good (and great) sports films, all of them are actually about something other than sports, using the game to explore a deeper subject. I hold my breath every time little Billy or Danny or whoever scores the game-winning basket just as the buzzer sounds, but movies that strictly tell a story of athletic success are shit. The Disney Channel premieres about ten of them a year. They're all the same. Nobody cares.


That's the basic idea. Suspense films (also called thrillers) aim to minimize audience seat usage. As with action, the goal is to give you a heart attack, but suspense emphasizes tension over payoff in its quest to kill you. It's also fond of killing the characters, who spend most of the movie actively evading death. Strong villains, sustained tension, and constant cliffhangers contribute to a heart-pounding experience that has you anxiously wondering what will happen in the ne

War: The worst periods in human history packaged for your entertainment. War films show us that violence is actually fun, exciting, and badass, unless the director decides to be a killjoy and portray it as "horrifying" and "tragic." The latter approach is, of course, ridiculous; if wars were really so horrible, we wouldn't start them so often. But logic has little effect against the pansy-ass peace-mongers in the industry, who seem determined to ruin the fun for everyone else. If you ever see an anti-war film in the theater, feel free to laugh through the "somber" parts to let everyone know what you think of their pathetic agenda.

Western: A genre set in the untamed American Old West. Shootouts, saloons, and outlawed vagrants abound, as well as cowboys kicking evil Indian ass. When racism suddenly turned bad in the 1960s, such depictions became unacceptable (i.e., unmarketable), and Westerns began portraying Indians Native Americans more sympathetically. This trend eventually culminated in white people making several "we're sorry our ancestors slaughtered your ancestors, please accept this film with our sympathies" Westerns of varying quality. It's unknown how many such films are necessary to atone for rampant genocide, but industry experts usually place the number around 15.

This concludes my exhaustive guide to genres. Any genres not listed above either do not exist or are unimportant. I have nothing else to say here, so I'm just going to stop.

By James Beardsley | November 30, 2009

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Copyright 2009 by James Beardsley