The Cult of Action: On Genrefication
A look at genre classification in film. Punk, post-punk, and New Wave music are also discussed, naturally.
Published on May 16, 2014 | Filed under The Cult of Action
Star Wars

Genre is a funny thing. When we talk about “genre film,” we mean particular genres. Action movies. Horror movies. Westerns. Sci-fi. We don’t mean crime films or romantic comedies or courtroom dramas. Those are all genres, too, but we know that they’re not “genre film.” And, really, that’s generally fine. The genre junkies know what they’re talking about. What I do find odd is films getting labeled as something they’re not, or, perhaps more to the point, not getting labeled as something they are.

When punk rock exploded in the mid to late 1970s, record labels started grabbing up bands and commodifying them. This is the natural reaction, but it wasn’t all bad. Some of those labels put out records by some incredible bands. However, in the process of doing so, they started calling them something else. New Wave. Now, yes, I know that by and large, New Wave is something different from punk. It’s post-punk, it’s keytars, it’s all of that. And that’s great. But it was also a convenient term to soften the blow of “punk.” See, Punk Rock was dangerous and kind of scary to middle America. But New Wave wasn’t. So when bands like the Talking Heads and Blondie found their way to major labels, they we referred to as “New Wave.”

What does this have to do with genre film? Well… everything and nothing. When we talk about “action movies,” what are we talking about? I speak mostly for myself, but I bet a few of you agree when I say that the first thing I think of are the big, bloated swingin’ dick action movies of the ’80s and early ’90s. Commando, Cobra, Predator, First Blood Part II, you get the idea. I think of other things, sure, but that’s the first thing that pops into my head. And it’s correct. Those are certainly action movies. You know what else is an action movie? The Avengers. Yeah, it is. It’s got all the beats, and it ends with a thirty minute action sequence. You know what else? Star Wars. Sure, it’s sci-fi, but so is Gattaca, and that film has way fewer swordfights.

Animated Rambo

Movie studios do the same thing that record labels did in the 1980s. They market films so they’re perceived a certain way. And, really, they’ve been doing it for much longer. I mean, Star Wars. I get it. Kids don’t have bedsheets and toys and all of that from “action” properties. It’s business. It’s the same thing that makes every movie PG-13 now. Sure, there was a time when we marketed Terminator 2 toys to kids and made Rambo cartoons, but that era is over now (and will be the topic of a future column). And that’s mostly fine. We still get Expendables films, we still get Ninja II, and we still get The Raid. Hell, even horror films deal with it. Silence of the Lambs won Best Picture. And, yeah, people like the fine folks who read this site will categorize it as “the first horror film to do so.” But what did the studio and the press call it? “Suspense.”

I’d like to round this out with some tirade about corporate greed, and just calling a thing what it is and blah blah blah, but… I can’t. I get it. Action movies don’t move at the box office the way superhero movies do, even if they’re in effect the same thing. I mean, if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a fucking duck. What I can say, though, is how glad I am to live in the era we do. Crowdfunding and on demand and the internet give us so much as genrephiles. Films that would never have been made even 10 years ago get made now because the market works differently. I talked about this at length when I discussed VHS, but it bears repeating. Now is a great time to love film. Enjoy it. Even if they deny us the name “action,” action films are in more places and more diverse than ever.

Joe is the co-creator of the Action Cast!, a biweekly podcast about action movies hosted at OnTheStick.com, along with his other podcasts. He's also a film school dropout, a former pro wrestler and a struggling actor. He moved to Washington, D.C. in 2013, and so far has spent more money in D.C. on revival screenings than first run films.
Joe Drilling