Exploring how political sentiments, popular desires, and social anxieties have been reflected in movies from the Dead End Kids serial to the ghetto action flicks of the 1990s, this book offers the first full-length study of the American film cycle and its relation to film genres and contemporary social issues.
A series of movies that share images, characters, settings, plots, or themes, film cycles have been an industrial strategy since the beginning of cinema. While some have viewed them as "subgenres," mini-genres, or nascent film genres, Amanda Ann Klein argues that film cycles are an entity in their own right and a subject worthy of their own study. She posits that film cycles retain the marks of their historical, economic, and generic contexts and therefore can reveal much about the state of contemporary politics, prevalent social ideologies, aesthetic trends, popular desires, and anxieties.
American Film Cycles presents a series of case studies of successful film cycles, including the melodramatic gangster films of the 1920s, the 1930s Dead End Kids cycle, the 1950s juvenile delinquent teenpic cycle, and the 1990s ghetto action cycle. Klein situates these films in several historical trajectories—the Progressive movement of the 1910s and 1920s, the beginnings of America's involvement in World War II, the "birth" of the teenager in the 1950s, and the drug and gangbanger crises of the early 1990s. She shows how filmmakers, audiences, film reviewers, advertisements, and cultural discourses interact with and have an impact on the film texts. Her findings illustrate the utility of the film cycle in broadening our understanding of established film genres, articulating and building upon beliefs about contemporary social problems, shaping and disseminating deviant subcultures, and exploiting and reflecting upon racial and political upheaval.
- Introduction. Love at First Sight
- Chapter 1. Real Gangsters Do Cry: A Cyclical Approach to Film Genres
- Chapter 2. Real Gangsters Do Cry: Understanding How Film Cycles Change over Time
- Chapter 3. I Was a Teenage Film Cycle: The Relationship between Youth Subcultures and Film Cycles
- Chapter 4. Not Only Screen But the Projector as Well: The Relationship between Race and Film Cycles
- Conclusion. Love, Disdain, and the Future of Cycle Studies
- Appendix. Selected Filmographies
The John C. Rice–May Irwin Kiss (1896, William Heise), later known simply as The Kiss, is believed to be the first sex act captured by the cinema (Linda Williams, Screening Sex, 27). For most of the film's brief running time, the famous actors build anticipation for the embrace promised by the film's simple title. They press their cheeks together lovingly and utter what appear to be "sweet nothings." Then, in the final seconds of the film, Rice pulls away from Irwin, twiddles his mustache, grabs her face as she turns toward him, and kisses her on the mouth. The Kiss is hardly an erotic spectacle; indeed, its stars seem to be more amused than amorous as they cuddle and then kiss. But the film was unprecedented in offering audiences an opportunity not just to see a man and a woman kiss, but also to see this act in a medium close-up, a viewing position that would have been improper in real life. The Kiss's strategic use of the medium close-up allowed for what Linda Williams has described as the "anatomization" of the sex act; the film provided voyeurs with a socially acceptable venue for examining the previously intimate, hidden act of kissing (Screening Sex, 27). It should not be surprising then that The Kiss was one of the earliest films to generate calls for censorship of the medium (Lewis, American Film, 24); one Chicago journalist, Herbert Stone, described the film as "absolutely disgusting" and demanded "police interference" (quoted in Dave Thompson, Black and White, 21). The moral outcry over the film is also one of the reasons why The Kiss was the most popular film produced by Thomas Edison's company that year (Auerbach, "Valentine Day's Feature").
The success of The Kiss spawned a series of imitators, each offering its own unique variation on the subject of kissing, including The Soldier's Courtship (1896, Alfred Moul and Robert W. Paul), The Amorous Guardsman (1898, British Mutoscope and Biograph Company), and Tommy Atkins in the Park (1898, Robert W. Paul). Once the financial viability of films depicting kissing was proved, early filmmakers capitalized on this successful subject by finding more creative ways to stage on-screen kisses; The Kiss is merely the image of a man and a woman kissing, while Hanging Out the Clothes (1897, G. A. Smith) stages the same events among drying garments. The proliferation of these kissing films highlights how the representation and display of sexuality was an important aspect of early cinema and its appeal (Linda Williams, Screening Sex, 27). In addition to kissing films, early cinema audiences also enjoyed short films that captured the movement of trains entering and exiting the film frame, such as Arrival of the Train at La Ciotat (1895, Auguste and Louis Lumiére). Filmmakers also mounted cameras onto the sides of moving trains in order to capture the movement of locomotives through space. These "phantom rides," as they were called, placed the viewer in the perspective of a passenger on a train. Films depicting trains and train movement brought together two emblems of modernity—mass transportation and the cinema. These symbols of modernity—like the city itself—were simultaneously frightening and fascinating to audiences of the time.
Given the success of on-screen kisses and phantom train rides as subjects in early cinema, it is not surprising that in 1899, the British filmmaker G. A. Smith decided to unite these two very popular, though seemingly unrelated, short film subjects in The Kiss in the Tunnel. In this brief film, a man takes advantage of the darkness created when the train enters a tunnel in order to kiss his female companion. The Kiss in the Tunnel established a viable new formula in early cinema, with imitators like The Kiss in the Tunnel (1899, James Banforth), Love in a Railroad Train (1902, S. Lubin), and What Happened in the Tunnel (1903, Edwin S. Porter) released in response. This new formula was so successful that one British film distributor, the Warwick Trading Company, offered film exhibitors the brief shot of a couple kissing inside a train car, which could be spliced into footage they had already purchased of trains exiting and entering tunnels (Gray, "The Kiss in the Tunnel," 57). By adding one new shot to their existing reels, exhibitors could update an overworked formula and generate more revenue with little financial or creative investment.
This brief history of the kissing film and its later iterations reveals that just a few years after the invention of moving pictures, filmmakers had already developed a production strategy resembling the modern film cycle. Like film genres, film cycles are a series of films associated with each other through shared images, characters, settings, plots, or themes. However, while film genres are primarily defined by the repetition of key images (their semantics) and themes (their syntax), film cycles are primarily defined by how they are used (their pragmatics). In other words, the formation and longevity of film cycles are a direct result of their immediate financial viability as well as the public discourses circulating around them, including film reviews, director interviews, studio-issued press kits, movie posters, theatrical trailers, and media coverage. Because they are so dependent on audience desires, film cycles are also subject to defined time constraints: most film cycles are financially viable for only five to ten years. After that point, a cycle must be updated or altered in order to continue to turn a profit.
A film cycle will form only if its originary film—the film that establishes the images, plot formulas, and themes for the entire cycle—is financially or critically successful. That is, the originary film must either draw a large audience or become a subject of discussion in the media. The buzz (financial or critical) surrounding the originary film convinces other filmmakers to make films that replicate the successful elements of that film, thus forming a cycle. The "kissing cycle" of the 1890s was formed because producers identified the most successful element of The Kiss—the chance to ogle two people kissing—and repeated or updated that formula in other films. The kissing cycle continued to grow as producers combined the successful kissing formula with other audience pleasing formulas (such as phantom rides). These later films exploited contemporary interests in train movement, images of illicit behavior, and the burgeoning language of the multishot film. These subjects were chosen based on the desires (and anxieties) of the moviegoing audience rather than on the filmmakers' desire for artistic expression. Therefore, even in these early years of cinematic experimentation, when distributors like Edison Motion Pictures and the Warwick Trading Company were still determining how best to exploit the new invention of cinema, a basic truism of the industry was established: if audiences enjoy a film, it is wise to copy all or part of that film in another release.
This brief case study also indicates that film cycles predate film genres, the cycle's more establis hed, better-understood relative. Indeed, there are countless books, articles, and college courses devoted to genre theory and film genres—taking approaches from the psychoanalytic to the anthropological to the ideological—but nothing substantial has been written or theorized about the nature and function of film cycles. It seems that film cycles receive critical attention only after they "grow up" to become stable genres. In this book, I argue that film cycles are not subgenres, minigenres, or nascent film genres; they are their own entity and a subject worthy of their own study. The study of cycles offers an important complement to traditional genre studies by questioning how generic structures have been researched, defined, and understood. Cycle studies' focus on cinema's use value—the way that filmmakers, audiences, film reviewers, advertisements, and cultural discourses interact with and affect the film text—offers a more pragmatic, localized approach to genre history. The various case studies in this book also illustrate the utility of the film cycle in broadening our understanding of established film genres, articulating and building upon beliefs about contemporary social problems, shaping and disseminating deviant subcultures, and exploiting and reflecting upon racial and political upheaval.
The Absent Cycle
The film cycle is a relatively unexplored topic of study. Although the term "cycle" appears in books devoted to film genres, it is generally referenced as an afterthought; a particular cycle of films might be mentioned, or "cycle" might be used interchangeably with "genre." Many film and television scholars have conducted in-depth studies of select film cycles, including blaxploitation films, biker films, and gross-out comedies, but only a few books discuss (however briefly) what the film cycle is, how it functions, and how it is different from the film genre. For example, in Genre and Hollywood, Steve Neale offers a concrete definition of film cycles as "groups of films made within a specific and limited time-span, and founded, for the most part, on the characteristics of individual commercial success" (9). But this definition represents the extent of Neale's engagement with the film cycle and its function. The editors of Mob Culture: Hidden Histories of the American Gangster Film define cycles in their introduction as "small, nuanced groupings of films that are not transhistorical and often only operate within one or two seasons of production, whereas trends are broad and inclusive categories made up of interconnected cycles" (Grieveson, Sonnet, and Stanfield, 3–4). The volume goes on to analyze the gangster genre through the lens of its production cycles, but does not engage in any further definition of film cycles. In Film/Genre, Rick Altman offers the most detailed account of the film cycle. He defines the film cycle as a group of films that are associated with a single studio and that contain similar, easily exploitable features (61). According to Altman, genres develop out of cycles only when they are able to establish a "balance" between a stable syntax and a stable semantics. He adds that film cycles serve as "adjectives" to the genre's "nouns": "Just as Kleenex tissues were soon referred to simply as Kleenex, and eventually reduced to the 'generic' term kleenex, so musical comedy became the musical" (62). Here and elsewhere, cycles are generally understood as messy structures in flux, poised either to become stable genres or to disappear quickly. As a result, film cycles have proved to be a difficult object of study. Nevertheless, film cycles are fascinating precisely because they resist neat categorizations and have the potential to disrupt or complicate the discrete categories frequently generated by genre studies.
Another reason film cycles have not been studied is because they are so transparently associated with commercialism and artlessness. Arthur Asa Berger has suggested that works of narrative art form a continuum: at one end of this continuum are works of "absolute originality and uniqueness," and at the other end are works of "slavish repetition" (Popular Culture Genres, 46). He adds, "Genre works tend to be conventional; works of elite art are often closer to the inventive pole" (47). Indeed, filmmakers who associate their craft with high art avoid making films that simply repeat the plots, characters, and themes of previously successful films, or that appear to pander to the audience's every whim. Unlike works of elite art, the film cycles discussed in this book are all examples of "slavish repetition." They were not created for the purposes of elevating public taste but, rather, to provide audiences with versions the same images, characters, and plots that they enjoyed in previous films. Because the motives of the film cycle are so seemingly transparent—to cater to audience desires in order to turn a profit—they are rarely subject to critical analysis. Film cycles are simply cultural ephemera cranked out to capitalize on current events, trends, fads, and the success of other films.
Film cycles have also been marginalized in critical, popular, and academic discourses because of their often-deviant subject matter. The creators of film cycles lure moviegoers into the theaters by exploiting their interest in licentious, sensational, or even dangerous imagery. Indeed, most film cycles can be categorized as exploitation films. Eric Schaefer argues that classic exploitation films, which developed alongside but separate from classical Hollywood cinema (c. 1929–1960), depicted "unacceptable topics" and images, such as the spread of venereal disease, the creation of leper colonies, or the banishment of unwed mothers to convents. These images, which were normally invisible or covered over within mainstream cinema, were made visible and central in the exploitation film. Audiences went to see these films not for their stars or their high-profile story properties, but because they showcased the spectacle of the unknown and the forbidden ("Of Hygiene and Hollywood" 34). This focus on a forbidden spectacle serves as the classic exploitation film's "organizing sensibility—at the expense of others" (Schaefer, Bold! Daring! Shocking!, 4–6). Several of the cycles discussed in this book—including the juvenile-delinquent-themed teenpic and the ghetto action cycle—likewise base their appeal on the showcasing of forbidden or sensational imagery.
Another defining feature of the exploitation film is its reliance on ballyhoo as a promotional strategy. Eric Schaefer defines "ballyhoo" as "that noisy, vulgar spiel that drew audiences to circuses and sideshows . . . a hyperbolic excess of words and images that sparked the imagination" (Bold! Daring! Shocking!, 103). Ballyhoo promises its audiences something—an image, an experience, or reaction—that it does not necessarily fulfill. The unfulfilled promises of ballyhoo are one of the more striking aspects of exploitation advertising: images and slogans are often an exaggeration—and occasionally, a complete misrepresentation—of what occurs in the film itself. Schaefer explains, "A[n exploitation] film could be completely misrepresented by the advertising and could disappoint spectators, yet the ballyhoo that preceded it was part of the overall entertainment experience, a fact the audience evidently recognized and appreciated and in which they were complicit" (111). Many of the film cycles discussed in this book, particularly the juvenile-delinquent-themed teenpic and the ghetto action cycle, were advertised based on the promise of providing an experience they did not always fulfill. For example, the promotional trailers and theatrical posters for ghetto action films like Boyz N the Hood (1991, John Singleton) and Juice (1992, Ernest R. Dickerson) implied that these films were violent and antisocial. However, both films promoted strong antiviolence messages and condemned the very mentality that their advertising copy promoted.
Like the classic exploitation film, which posed a threat to the mainstream film industry because it was diametrically opposed to "the definition of what constituted a 'better film'" (Schaefer, Bold! Daring! Shocking!, 156), the majority of the films discussed in this book stand in opposition to what is commonly thought of "quality cinema." According to Eric Schaefer, the Production Code Administration was formed in 1934 to "reinforce the conception of Hollywood film as something morally unobjectionable, narratively coherent, plausible, realistic and noneducational" (156). The case studies discussed in this book violate this ideal view of the classic Hollywood film in that they are often morally objectionable, narratively incoherent, or unrealistic. Furthermore, all the cycles I discuss in this book aim to educate their audiences in some way—about the corrupting power of city living (melodramatic gangster films), the plight of the post-Depression street urchin (Dead End Kids films), the power of rock 'n' roll and fast cars to corrupt today's youth (teenpics), and the temptations of gang life for African American youth living in the nation's postindustrial ghettos (the ghetto action cycle).
The film cycle is a commodity to be assembled, packaged, and sold as quickly as possible, not a timeless piece of art. Thus, the contemporaneity of the cycle has also contributed to its marginalized status in the field of film studies. Genre films were once saddled with a similar stigma; up until the 1960s and 1970s, most American audiences and critics dismissed American genre films as cookie-cutter products on a studio production line. But with the development of auteur theory and the application of structuralism to the study of American genre films, film genres took on a greater cultural significance, effectively breaking down "the artificial distinctions between art and entertainment" (Schatz, Hollywood Genres, 8). Genre studies of the 1970s argued that genre films tapped into timeless cultural mythologies, performed the function of mass rituals, or offered their audiences a necessary form of psychological release. As Rick Altman points out: "Likening genre to myth provides clear gains for genre theorists. This strategy provides an organizing principle for genre study, transmuting what might have been a hollow commercial formula into a culturally functional category, and thus lending the prestigious support of cultural anthropology to the heretofore lowly study of popular genres" (Film/Genre, 20). The study of film genres gained cultural capital once they were associated with timelessness—or what audiences are interested in watching for decades to come. Film cycles, by contrast, value timeliness—or what audiences are interested in watching right now.
Although its timeliness links the film cycle with "low culture" and the masses, it is precisely this quality that makes film cycles useful social documents. Because cycles form within a shorter frame of time than film genres do, it is easier to make conclusive statements about their use and function. For example, the melodramatic gangster cycle I examine in Chapter 1 is an intrageneric cycle. That is, it is one of several smaller film cycles that exist within the larger gangster genre. Breaking a large genre, like the gangster film, into its smaller, intrageneric cycles can facilitate a more detailed, nuanced understanding of that genre. While the study of genres reveals the stories that audiences are drawn to over a period of decades, its intrageneric cycles can serve as a cross-section of one specific moment in time, accurately revealing the state of contemporary politics, prevalent social ideologies, aesthetic trends, and popular desires and anxieties. The same can be said of the intergeneric cycles discussed in Chapters 2 through 4. Intergeneric cycles begin their existence as independent entities rather than as part of a larger film genre (though many individual entries within these cycles could also be categorized as belonging to a specific genre). Like intrageneric cycles, intergeneric cycles are able to capitalize on a sentiment or trend, thus offering film historians a time capsule of the cultural moment.
Finally, the accessibility of the cycle—its ability to give audiences exactly what they want—is yet another factor that has marginalized film cycles, since it further separates these films from the world of elite art. The pleasures to be gained from elite art are not instantly accessible—they require work, even years of study, on the part of the art lover. Pierre Bourdieu argues that "the encounter with a work of art is not 'love at first sight' as is generally supposed, and the act of empathy Einfühlung, which is the art-lover's pleasure, presupposes an act of cognition, a decoding operation, which implies the implementation of a cognitive acquirement, a cultural code" (Distinction, 3). This opposition between "love at first sight" and acquired cultural capital necessarily implies a class bias, since only select members of the moviegoing audience have the resources to obtain this cultural capital. Bourdieu argues that the lower and working classes are not predisposed to view art objects with detachment, since their livelihoods depend on a constant, active engagement with the material world. By contrast, "the denial of lower, coarse, vulgar, venal, servile . . . enjoyment, which constitutes the sacred sphere of culture, implies an affirmation of the superiority of those who can be satisfied with the sublimated, refined, disinterested, gratuitous, distinguished pleasures forever closed to the profane" (7). Bourdieu concludes that cultural consumption fulfills the social function of legitimating social differences, famously claiming that "taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier" (6). Designations of taste also work to keep certain ideas, images, and texts in "their place."
Bourdieu's work has two important implications for the films and cycles discussed in this book. First, "bad" or maligned art objects are most frequently those whose pleasures are easily accessed and immediately apparent. For example, special knowledge or training is not required in order to enjoy the slapstick interactions between Huntz Hall and Leo Gorcey in an East Side Kids comedy like Clancy Street Boys (1943, William Beaudine). This film seeks to provide an immediate pleasure to the audience by replicating the images, plots, and conventions of previous East Side Kids films in order to generate a quick laugh or an easy scare. Of course, all films seek to gratify their audiences in some way. Even those films that attempt to deny the audience certain filmic pleasures—such as a coherent narrative or competent acting—nevertheless gratify those viewers who seek out precisely this kind of viewing experience. However, the desire to please and to fulfill audience expectations defines the East Side Kids cycle above all else. These films were made only because producers believed that replicating a previous formula would fill theater seats; they were not concerned with garnering positive reviews or Academy Award nominations. Film cycles exist to please their audiences, and as soon as they are unable to fulfill that function, they must adapt.
Bourdieu's work also highlights how audiences become "classified"—as uneducated, as lower class, or as an Other—by choosing to watch certain films. For example, fans of 1950s juvenile-delinquent-themed teenpics were, more often than not, teenagers. These generational Others, whose tastes were newly acquired and thus ripe for exploitation by producers, were a source of concern for contemporary adults and moral entrepreneurs. Similarly, public discourses surrounding the 1990s ghetto action cycle characterized it as a cycle that attracted dangerous, gun- and knife-wielding Others into safe, suburban movie theaters. This cycle threatened to turn otherwise calm, nonviolent viewers into that dangerous entity. Audiences of the ghetto action cycle were, consequently, subjected to preemptive discussions of the films' controversial content (and occasionally, heightened security measures) in order to contain the (alleged) threat of violence that lurked in the images on screen. In the case of all four cycles examined in this book, these questions of taste are what ultimately contributed to their marginalization in film history or to the limited ways in which they have been documented and analyzed.
Cycle versus Genre
If the relationship between audiences and genre films can be described as a long-term commitment with a protracted history and a deep sense of familiarity, then audiences' relationship with the film cycle is analogous to "love at first sight." There is an instant attraction—represented in concrete terms by box-office dollars, media buzz, or, less frequently, critical success—that leads to the creation of a cycle. But what prompts an audience to fall in love with a particular film or group of films? Usually, the originary film that launches a cycle taps into a subject of contemporary relevance, something in which the audience is already emotional invested. In the 1890s, audiences were titillated by the possibilities of the cinematic medium and its ability to depict an intimate sexual moment, so it makes sense that kissing films would be successful (Linda Williams, Screening Sex, 27). But it is important to keep in mind that not every successful film has the ability to start a film cycle. The originary film must have a set of images that are recognizable enough to be easily duplicated in several more films. Forrest Gump (1994, Robert Zemeckis), to name one prominent counterexample, was a critical and financial hit at the time of its release. Forrest Gump was the top-grossing film of 1994 and won six Academy Awards, including those for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay. The film also generated several catch phrases ("Life is like a box of chocolates . . . you never know what you're going to get") that became a fixture of popular culture. However, Forrest Gump's most successful elements—its folksy, handicapped protagonist and its historical vignettes—could not be easily duplicated in a series of films. Consequently, this successful film did not lead to the establishment of a film cycle.
In order to form, film cycles need a successful originary film with easily reproducible elements. Films within the successful slasher cycle of the 1970s and 1980s, including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, Tobe Hooper), Halloween (1978, John Carpenter), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, Wes Craven), replicate scenes of teenage slaughter and sexual dalliances. Similarly, Judd Apatow's comedies of the 2000s, such as The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005) and Knocked Up (2007), focus on schlemiel protagonists who end up winning over audiences as well as the girl of their dreams. Audiences who regularly seek out these films are paying to see these particular elements replicated in film after film. Of course, early entries in a film cycle are not always created to capitalize upon the success of the originary film. Occasionally, the similarities between early films in a cycle are the result of some sociocultural cue—a new artistic trend, a social problem, a political movement, or a defining world event—that several filmmakers decide to address independently of one another. For instance, although the popularity of Rebel without a Cause (1955, Nicholas Ray) and Blackboard Jungle (1955, Richard Brooks) led to the formation of the 1950s juvenile-delinquent-themed teenpic cycle, the films were not released in response to each other or with the explicit aim of creating a film cycle aimed at teenagers. Rather, both films were marketed to adult audiences as social problem films about youth running wild. As I discuss in Chapter 3, these two films unintentionally tapped into the teen zeitgeist at a time when the teenage moviegoing audience was becoming increasingly important to studios. The films' success with teenagers was a happy accident. Once their success with teenage audiences had been proved, however, the iconography, formulas, conventions, and themes of these juvenile-delinquent-themed teenpics were purposely repeated in new films in an attempt to hold on to the lucrative youth demographic.
Steve Neale labels this process "systemization," or the repetition and exploitation of a film's most marketable elements (Genre, 51). Rick Altman has another name for this process: the "Producer's Game":
1. From box-office information, identify a successful film.
2. Analyse the film in order to discover what made it successful.
3. Make another film stressing the assumed formula for success.
4. Check box-office information on the new film and reassess the success formula accordingly.
5. Use the revised formula as a basis for another film.
6. Continue the process indefinitely. (Film/Genre 38)
Both Neale's and Altman's models are descriptions of how film genres form. However, these models are also appropriate for describing cycle formation, since both structures are dependent on the desires, interests, and belief systems of the audience. So if cycles and genres appear to form in the same way and for the same reasons, how are they different?
Cycles differ from genres when it comes to their topicality; a film cycle needs to repeat the same images and plots over and over within a relatively short period of time. A cycle must capitalize on an audience's interest in a subject before it moves on to something else. For example, in 2004, the gory, serial-killer film Saw (James Wan) was a huge box-office hit. Noting Saw's overwhelming financial success, studios seized upon on the formula, releasing films that reused the most successful elements of the originary film: a killer with little plausible motivation for his killings, seemingly random victims, and, most importantly, extended, graphic scenes of torture and violence. These films, including titles like Hostel (2005, Eli Roth), Wolf Creek (2005, Greg McLean), The Devil's Rejects (2005, Rob Zombie), Last House on the Left (2009, Dennis Iliadis), and, of course, the various Saw sequels, were soon collectively referred to as "torture porn," a label highlighting the cycle's emphasis on gratuitous, fetishized violence (Cochrane, "For Your Entertainment"). This cycle formed for two reasons. First, the box-office numbers for these films were high. In 2004, Saw made $18 million its opening weekend, but its 2005 sequel made more than $31 million. The next three installments continued to pull in a $30 million opening weekend. Second, the torture-porn cycle garnered a lot of attention in the press, with critics attempting to pinpoint why audiences were so interested in these gruesome films.
The torture-porn cycle demonstrates how film cycles are created to fit the contours of audience desires in precise ways, responding to audience needs at every turn. The success of this cycle in the 2000s is clearly linked to burgeoning American anxieties over the atrocities committed in, and as a result of, America's ongoing war in Iraq (2002–2010), but also to the availability of images of real-life torture and death, such as the recorded and widely circulated executions of Daniel Pearl in 2002 and Saddam Hussein in 2006, and the photographs of torture and humiliation leaked from Abu Ghraib in 2004. The filmmakers responsible for the early films in the torture-porn cycle might not have been aware of the timeliness of their products. However, as public discourses began to increasingly view this cycle as one addressing contemporary anxieties, such as the torture debate, filmmakers began to insert overt references to contemporary concerns. For example, Saw VI (Kevin Greutert), released in the fall of 2009, depicts the prolonged torture of the CEO of a health insurance company who routinely denies coverage to patients (including the Jigsaw Killer himself). This movie, in which the corrupt health insurance industry is made to suffer for its transgressions, was tailor made to coincide with the nation's heated debates over health care reform, which had been raging throughout 2009. Here we can see how entries in a film cycle both repeat key elements from previously successful films and alter certain elements in order to attract and maintain audience interest.
However, a film cycle can only court the audience for so long. Early entries in the Saw cycle averaged $30 million in their opening weekends, but Saw VI made just $14 million. So what happened? Between 2005 and 2009, filmmakers flooded the market with gruesome images of torture, and this rapid increase in torture-porn films over a short period of time led to a critical backlash. This backlash is best exemplified by the outcry over billboards advertising Captivity (2007, Roland Joffé), a film about the kidnapping and torture of a young woman (Elisha Cuthbert). The billboards, which were placed all over Los Angeles, featured graphic images of Cuthbert bound, nude, or comatose. Los Angeles residents, including members of the film and television community, expressed outrage over Captivity's advertising campaign in a series of editorials. One of the campaign's most prominent critics, Joss Whedon, published an open letter to the Motion Picture Association of America: "The ad campaign for 'Captivity' is not only a literal sign of the collapse of humanity, it's an assault. I've watched plenty of horror—in fact I've made my share. But the advent of torture-porn and the total dehumanizing not just of women (though they always come first) but of all human beings has made horror a largely unpalatable genre. This ad campaign is part of something dangerous and repulsive, and that act of aggression has to be answered" (quoted in Soloway, "Remove the Rating for Captivity"). Whedon's comments are reflective of most of the complaints directed at the torture-porn cycle as a whole. Audiences were likewise disgusted with its imagery, and by 2009, the formula had ceased to be financially viable. The production of torture-porn-style films slowed down the following year; in 2010, the producers of the Saw franchise announced that Saw 3-D (2010, Kevin Greutert) would be the last film in the series (Bowles, "Final Cut for Horror Franchise"). Audiences may fall in love with cycles quickly, but if those same audiences lose interest in a particular cycle, they may become annoyed or frustrated if it continues to be produced for too long.
This frustration with film cycles that overstay their welcome occasionally leads to the appearance of cycle parodies. According to S. Craig Watkins, the appearance of a film like Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (1996, Paris Barclay), a parody of the 1990s ghetto action cycle, "signaled both the popularity and waning appeal of one of the most intriguing film production trends of the 1990s . . . it suggested that the narrative strategies, conventions and formulae that made up the cycle had become predictable, worn and clichéd" ("Ghetto Reelness," 236). The appearance of a parody acknowledges that a particular film cycle's themes and images have lost their ability to communicate with the audience as they once did, even as they capitalize on and profit from the past success of the very films they are lampooning. Both cycles and genres are subject to parody if their images and themes are repeated too often in a short period of time. However, compared with film cycles, film genres can better withstand these interludes of audience apathy, exhaustion, or annoyance. Westerns, to name one prominent example, enjoy periods of intense audience interest as well as more fallow periods, when audience interest wanes. This genre was extremely popular during the silent era. Tag Gallagher estimates that between 1909 and 1915, "there were probably more Westerns released each month than during the entire decade of the 1930s" ("Shoot Out," 265). But with the adoption of sound technology in the late 1920s and the audience's concomitant interest in films with urban themes, major Hollywood studios curtailed their production of westerns. Consequently, throughout the 1930s, the western genre appeared mostly in the form of low-budget, B-serial films or "singing cowboy" pictures. Then, starting in the late 1930s, with the success of films like Stagecoach (1939, John Ford) and Destry Rides Again (1939, George Marshall), the western returned to its former widespread popularity (Schatz, Hollywood Genres, 47). This rise-and-fall pattern has continued throughout the history of the western.
Film genres are equipped to weather such periods of audience uninterest for several reasons. First, film genres are founded on a large corpus of films that accumulates for decades. Westerns were well established, with a corpus of thousands of films, by the time audiences began to lose interest in the genre in the 1930s. Second, the basic syntax or themes of the most established genres—including the gangster film and the western—address a profound psychological need in their audiences. As Judith Hess Wright argues, "When we return to the complexities of the society in which we live, the same conflicts assert themselves, so we return to genre films for easy comfort and solace—hence their popularity" ("Genre Films," 43). For better or worse, film genres endure for decades at a time because they fulfill a need in their audiences. Thus, the mark of an established genre is stability, longevity, and resilience. By contrast, the appeal of the film cycle is based less on its syntax and more on its semantics, including its plots, characters, and imagery. The semantics of the film cycle are crafted to reflect a facet of the contemporary moment—a popular film, a social problem, a cultural trend. Therefore, film cycles are far more bound to the whims of contemporary tastes than genres. Once interest in a particular set of semantic elements wanes, the corresponding film cycle will cease to make money at the box office. Studios will stop making films that replicate those semantic elements, and the film cycle appears to end altogether.
Another difference between cycles and genres lies in the way they communicate with audiences. The longevity of film genres and the vastness of their corpora make them highly informative and allow viewers to formulate decisions about the films they choose to see; describing a film as a "western" provides the viewer with a wealth of information in an instant—about its basic iconography, its themes, and its likely narrative resolution—even if such preconceived notions do not ultimately play out in each individual western film (Kaminsky, American Film Genres, 2). A viewer sitting down to watch a revisionist western like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, Andrew Dominik) has decades of westerns with which to contextualize this new viewing experience. And even if a viewer has not seen a single western before seeing this film, popular culture itself is steeped in western mythology.
Cycles, by contrast, are unable to offer audiences the same kind of knowledge and viewing positions offered by established genres. Audiences approach film cycles with some knowledge of what to expect—based on their viewing of one or two previous films in the cycle or on public discourses surrounding the cycle—but these elements are not nearly as codified as they are in genre films. In hindsight, it is possible to study a film cycle and identify its visual and thematic elements (as I will be doing in this book), but at the time of their release, films early in a cycle are too new to provide audiences with the same class of information that is provided by film genres. Compared with film genres, film cycles are far less stable objects of study.
This leads to another difference between cycles and genres—their perceived "stability." Rick Altman best codified the concept of generic stability in his seminal essay "A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre," which analyzes genre through both its semantics and its syntax. The semantics of the gangster film include the city setting, a minority protagonist, and the spectacular death of the gangster at the film's conclusion, while the gangster film's syntax is the opposition between the needs of the individual and the needs of society (Sobchack, "Genre Film," 110). The semantic approach to genre study creates a large, inclusive corpus for a genre, while the syntactic approach is more limiting, creating a more exclusive corpus. Altman argues that when defining a genre and its corpus of representative films, scholars should combine these two approaches in order to create the most accurate picture. Furthermore, a stable genre, according to Altman, is one that has struck a balance between its semantics and its syntax: "The Hollywood genres that have proven most durable are precisely those that have established the most coherent syntax (the Western, the musical); those that disappear the quickest depend on recurring semantic elements, never developing a stable syntax (reporter, catastrophe, and big-caper films to name a few" ("Semantic/Syntactic Approach," 39). For example, the Dead End Kids films of the 1930s and 1940s (which I discuss at length in Chapter 2) retain a coherent set of semantics (the same troupe of actors, an urban setting, and plots in which the boys cause trouble and get caught) but not a stable syntax (early films in the cycle were social problem films, while later examples ranged from comedies to horror films to westerns to war propaganda). Their lack of a stable syntax characterizes these films as a cycle rather than a genre.
However, Altman later complicated his model of genre study when he argued in favor of a "semantic/syntactic/pragmatic" approach. This revised approach moves beyond the study of a film's surface meanings and its deep structure in order to bring in a third factor, the uses or applications of a film or genre: "Like reception study, a semantic/syntactic/pragmatic approach refuses determinacy to textual structures taken alone, but in addition it acknowledges the difficulty of extracting those textual structures from the institutions and social habits that frame them and lend them the appearance of making meaning on their own. While pragmatic analysis sometimes destabilizes meaning by showing just how dependent it is on particular uses of a text or genre, at other times it succeeds in revealing the meaning-grounding institutions that make meaning seem to arise directly out of semantics and syntax" (Film/Genre, 211). Pragmatics, the "use factor" of genres, demands that we understand genre films not just as sets of images and themes, but as texts that are used—by audiences, producers, exhibitors, and even cultural agencies (Altman, Film/Genre, 210). Indeed, one of the most well-known models of genre criticism is "a triangle composed of artist/film/audience" (Ryall, "Teaching through Genre," 28). Ryall's model implies a give-and-take relationship among the film, those who create it, and those who consume it. He adds that unlike other critical models, genre criticism is useful in that it "conforms most closely to the way in which the popular audience actually views the films" (29). Cycle studies complements the approaches laid out by Altman and Ryall by offering an even more detailed look at the pragmatics of popular cinema. If film genres are a macro view of Ryall's triangle metaphor—providing a broad, generalized view of a culture over time—then film cycles are a micro view—providing small, detailed snapshots of that culture at a single moment in time. Cycles are capable of producing these detailed snapshots because they have such an intimate relationship with the culture that produces them.
As the title of this chapter states, the audience's relationship with a film cycle is one of love at first sight. Once audiences fall in love with the originary film, studios will scramble to replicate its most successful elements. Since cycles exist in order to capitalize upon the success of a particular cinematic formula, their raison d'être is their resemblance to, rather than their difference from, previous films. However, in their attempt to capitalize on audience desires before they cool down, film studios actually hasten the film cycle's demise. Like a lover who is too eager to please, the film cycle eventually bores or annoys the audience, which stops paying to see these films. And the moment that a film cycle begins to falter at the box office, film studios will either heavily revise the original formula or cease making the cycle altogether. Relationships forged in the passions of love at first sight often cool down quickly. Indeed, once the audience tires of a film cycle, they quickly move on to the next love object. Cycles, as microstructures with smaller, more fickle fan bases, are more strongly affected by their audience's whims and desires.
One final difference between film genres and film cycles lies in their functionality for the film historian. A general tendency when initiating a genre study has been to ignore texts that complicate a genre's accepted blueprint and act as exceptions to the rule. More often than not, a genre ends up being defined by a few central, or "classic," texts, or those texts that conform to one critic's definition of a particular genre. This traditional approach to genre is fundamentally ahistorical, marginalizing texts that could enrich, rather than detract from, our understanding of a genre, its context, its function, and even its aesthetics. Thus, rigidity and discrete categorizations mark the long history of genre studies, despite the fact that "genre is, tacitly, a loose assemblage of cultural forms shaped by social conflict and historical vicissitude" (Browne, Refiguring Genres, xiii). The more established a genre has become, the more that is written about it. And the more that is written and theorized about a genre, the more its history becomes obscured: "Most genre studies cover their traces, erasing all evidence of the constitution of a corpus, the choice of categories, and the development of terminology, thus leaving the reader methodologically where he/she started, able only to borrow other people's conclusions" (Altman, American Film Musical, 126).
However, recent books, like Rick Altman's Film/Genre, Steve Neale's Genre and Hollywood, and Nick Browne's collection Refiguring American Film Genres: Theory and History , attempt to correct this problem by reinserting history into genre studies. These studies employ historical and archival evidence to question and complicate the way genres have traditionally been defined and used, and to recognize the fluidity and mutability of generic terminology and categories. Cycle studies extend the innovative work begun in these books by using the study of film cycles as a way to understand how culture, industry, and economics, that is, how history, affects how and why certain films are grouped and understood together.
Because the majority of the films discussed in this book were released quickly, with small budgets, they were better able to capitalize on the contemporary moment than films that took months or years to go from conception to theatrical release. We can therefore view film cycles as a mold placed over the zeitgeist, which, when pulled away, reveals the contours, fissures, and complicated patterns of the contemporary moment. By revisiting the sites of their release, promotion, and reception, we can not only understand how and why these films fell to the margins (and the ideology and politics behind their outlaw status), but also expand the way film studies documents and theorizes the history of cinema. These kinds of films are significant not so much because of what they are, but because of why they were made, why studios believed that they were a smart investment, why audiences went to see them, and why they eventually stopped being produced. Any film or film cycle, no matter its budget or subject matter, has the potential to reveal a wealth of information about the studio that made it and the audience that went to see it. This aspect of film history, which is so often ignored in traditional genre studies, is illuminated by cycle studies.
Outline of the Book
American Film Cycles is a series of case studies of prominent film cycles: the melodramatic gangster film of the 1920s, the 1930s Dead End Kids cycle, the 1950s juvenile-delinquent-themed teenpic cycle, and the 1990s ghetto action cycle. Although some of these film cycles are more well known (ghetto action) than others (Dead End Kids), I have chosen these four cycles because were all made in reaction to a particular social anxiety, problem, or crisis, and such cycles resonate particularly strongly with their audiences. These films are tied to anxieties about urbanization, crime, and the slow creep of moral corruption from its presumed breeding ground in the nation's cities into the suburbs. Concerns over the supposed threat posed by the American city space date back to the early 1900s, and are also bound up with apprehension over the cinema and its corrupting influence on audiences. Both moviegoing and life in the congested modern city of the early 1900s were indicative of modernity and were thought to create "crowd consciousness," or a loss of individuality, characterized by an individual's inability to distinguish between reality and fantasy. The cycles studied in this book illustrate this enduring fear of cinema's potential to alter its audience in some way. Their alleged corrupting potential explains why these cycles were able both to draw fans into theaters and to repel them. Furthermore, this book addresses not just the films themselves, but also their political, social, and aesthetic function in American culture, as well as their multiple, competing histories. To that end, this book situates these films in several historical trajectories: the Progressive movement of the 1910s, the beginnings of America's involvement in World War II, the emergence of an influential teenage consumer group in the 1950s, and the drug and gangbanger crises of the early 1990s. Traces of these events are immanent in these film cycles. Close readings, not just of the films but also of the films in the context of their cycles, offer new ways of understanding how the popular imagination interprets moments of social change, and how the film industry seeks to capitalize on these interpretations.
In Chapter 1, "Real Gangsters Do Cry: A Cyclical Approach to Film Genres," I build on the work of critics like Rick Altman and Tag Gallagher, who have argued that, as a critical and explanatory tool, the evolutionary model of generic change, based on a fetishization of the genre's so-called "classic stage," is ahistorical, bending history to the needs of the interpretative frame being used and limiting our understanding of that genre. Once a genre, its corpus, and its recurrent characteristics are sketched out (a necessary first step in any genre study), we must step back from the "center" of a genre, where many genre studies begin and end, and instead venture out to the "borders" of its generic corpus, where the films that do not fully comply with the rules of the genre reside. Therefore, this chapter focuses on early gangster films with redemptive endings, including The Regeneration (1915, Raoul Walsh) and Underworld (1927, Josef von Sternberg), which have been marginalized in studies of the genre due to their links with melodrama.
Melodrama has been viewed, historically, as a low-culture phenomenon, belonging to the "masses" and to women. Its visceral satisfactions, which seek to pull in rather than to distance the viewer, are often characterized as being antithetical to the more masculine, tragic structure of the classic gangster cycle. This chapter focuses on an intrageneric cycle in order to demonstrate the significance of cycle studies to the broader field of genre. I argue that the marginalized redemption cycle is actually quite significant within the larger gangster genre and offers an understanding of the many functions served by the cinematic gangster. Though consideration of these "border texts" complicates the traditional, neat generic map, this cyclical approach to genre, which confers as much generic weight on Underworld as it does on the "classic" gangster film Scarface (1932, Howard Hawks), has far more explanatory power than traditional studies. I argue that it is more illuminating to study a genre as a series of cycles rather than as a monolithic entity broken down into discrete stages of evolutionary development.
Though Chapter 1 abandons the concept of generic evolution, Chapter 2, "A Dying Serpent: Understanding How Film Cycles Change over Time," recuperates this model by theorizing what cycle evolution might look like. I argue that while generic evolution ultimately fails the test of history, we can accurately trace cycle evolution, since cycles are local, time-bound structures. I analyze the social problem film, looking at the Dead End Kids cycle (1937–1939) and its B-movie spin-offs in order to theorize how cycles originate, flourish, and change over time. The chapter takes a historical-materialist perspective on the film cycle—tracked primarily by how public discourses issued by the press, the studios, and critics reacted to each new entry in each cycle—in order to paint a picture of the social and cultural context on which a viewer's reading of these films is at least partially predicated. I discuss how the original Dead End Kids cycle successfully exploited real and media-generated concerns about the contemporary plight of urban youth. Over time, this cycle became less effective at generating sympathy for this pressing social problem, and the various spin-offs of the Dead End Kids films ultimately adopted the syntax of other genres, like the comedy and the horror film. Thus, the same images that had induced viewers to cry in the original Dead End Kids cycle generated laughter in later cycles. The chapter addresses how and why certain images or tropes, no matter how far they stray from their original context, never disappear from popular culture, despite the common use of the word "death" in genre studies.
While Chapter 2 investigates how and why cycles grow in reaction to the audience and contemporary politics, Chapter 3, "I Was a Teenage Film Cycle: The Relationship between Youth Subcultures and Film Cycles," investigates a particular type of audience interaction—the synergistic relationship between subcultures and their parent cultures—and its manifestation in a film cycle: the 1950s juvenile-delinquent-themed teenpic. This successful cycle, which includes entries like Teenage Doll (1957, Roger Corman) and I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957, Gene Fowler, Jr.), exploited fears about contemporary controversial topics, which eventually snowballed into widespread moral panics over the newly emerging concepts of the "teenager," "juvenile delinquency," and rock 'n' roll music. Building on the work of Dick Hebdige, Thomas Doherty, and Stuart Hall, among others, the chapter traces how deviant subcultural signifiers come to be exploited for profit and how they lose their subcultural appeal once they become too identified with the mainstream. While many models of subcultural theory—building on the work of the influential Birmingham school—argue that subcultures are intrinsically resistant to mainstream culture and that there is a definitive line between a subculture and its parent culture, film cycles confirm that there is a constant exchange of elements between the two. An analysis of teen-targeted magazines, advertising strategies, and the teenpic cycle reveals that the producers of these films were invested in maintaining, rather than dulling, each subculture's authenticity as a way to keep their exploitative hook sharp. Mainstream culture was therefore integral to the definition and formation of this deviant youth subculture, with the economic motivations of the former acting as a catalyst, rather than a deterrent, for the growth of the latter. The study of film cycles reveals another way that subcultures and so-called mainstream culture are highly dependent upon each other.
Chapter 4, "Not Only Screen but Projector as Well: The Relationship between Race and Film Cycles," examines the fraught relationship between African Americans—on the screen, behind the camera, and in the audience—and American commercial cinema by looking at how race and contemporary fears over the relationship between race, urbanity, and violence led to the formation of a highly successful film cycle. Much has been written about the ghetto action cycle, so I focus on how these films were conceived, packaged, distributed, and recognized. By understanding the motivations of the films' producers and the politics of the films' audiences, we can get a clear picture of the racial climate of the early 1990s. In particular, this chapter analyzes the highly publicized outbreaks of theater violence at the screenings of ghetto action films like Boyz N the Hood and Juice, as well as the studios' skill at incorporating the media's inflated coverage of this violence into their advertising campaigns. The discourses surrounding these films consistently linked this violence with the films' "authenticity" and their presumed ability to tell the truth about the "real" experiences of urban black youth. This ability to generate violence—both on the movie screen and outside of it—accounts for the formation and, later, the destruction of the ghetto action cycle. This final case study aptly illustrates the intimate relationship between film cycles and their audiences.
American Film Cycles approaches genre studies through a pragmatic, historically grounded methodology. Therefore, the scope of my work will be necessarily small. Cycle studies are local studies, and so each chapter accounts for only a brief period of time and a small corpus of films. However, studying film production and reception through the lens of individual cycles offers a comprehensive, historically accurate, and, I believe, critically incisive understanding of their form and function in popular culture. American Film Cycles tackles basic, broad questions about film cycles, including how and why they form, why they thrive, and why they disappear. Ultimately, this book advances a cycle-based approach to genre theory, illuminating the significance of the film cycle, its function within popular culture, its relationship with its audiences, and its centrality to genre studies.
“One sign of a successful work of scholarship is, oddly enough, that it inspires readers to think about other things, drawing connections from the book’s topics to issues that might be more within the reader’s own frame of reference and research interests. Thus American Film Cycles is a great book to think with, making a convincing case for the importance of cycles in film history beyond just her particular case studies, and highlighting how the study of cycles can strengthen our understanding of a range of issues, including cultural representations, taboo topics, censorship, production strategies, and fan subcultures. In short, Klein’s engagingly-written book should become a must-read for scholars and students interested in film history and the role of genre, and will hopefully inspire further explorations of cycles as a vital aspect of understanding film and media.”
“But as a work in its own right, American Film Cycles is plenty compelling….It is Klein’s achievement to not only suggest a new evolutionary model for the way topical movies operate, but also to sketch a plausible symbiosis between movies, studios, and audiences that offers fresh insights into both the film industry and the larger society. It remains for other writers to pick up her example, and apply to it additional film cycles, moving beyond the current author’s necessary limited focus on films dealing with the fears and fascinations of American urban life.”
““As one of the first scholars to directly confront the phenomenon of film cycles, Klein makes a compelling argument for other scholars to continue to address the subject head on.””
The Velvet Light Trap
““The strength of American Film Cycles is its precise and thorough intervention in genre studies with a new form of taxonomy and analysis.””
The Velvet Light Trap