Rick Altman’s “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre”

In 1984 Rick Altman set out to “scratch” an itch that he claimed no one working in the field of film genre criticism seemed to even feel (6).  In his essay “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre” he claims that the field is befuddled with uncertainty, confusion and contradiction because it lacks an adequate theory, an adequate means of reconciling the differing opinions which were then stalemating advancements in genre study.  Fortunately, Altman himself offers a solution, a unifying theory which he claims will, unlike the semiotic and structuralist approaches he critiques, diachronically consider historical context while reconciling the field’s contrasting opinions.  In his essay, Altman strategically shows his proposed semantic/syntactic theory, an inclusive, dualistic approach, to neatly solve the three sets of problematic contradictions that he explains are hindering genre studies, believing that such an approach will supplement “weaknesses of current notions of genre” while also productively raising “numerous questions for which other theories have created no space” (6, 17).

Altman’s essay is exceptionally well organized, straightforward and clear; he firmly establishes a lack in (what was then) current genre studies and then plainly shows the ways in which his proffered theory corrects that lack, all in a pleasantly conversational tone and with plenty of illustrative examples.  Altman initially outlines the three main “contradictions” which he claims plague genre criticism because of the way that their seemingly oppositional points of view have allowed no common ground or universally accepted definitions of genre; and since no rapprochement between the two sides has been yet established, the field has been left irreconcilably divided and bereft of a cohesive guiding theory (6).  Firstly, Altman explains that there is no single agreed-upon way of determining a genre’s corpus, which can be defined by either an inclusive or an exclusive means of selection, depending on your position.  The inclusive list, such as would be found in an encyclopedia, defines genre in a broad, tautological sense, while the exclusive canon is determined by more abstract qualifications.  In this latter category, a definition is given based on “attempts to arrive at the overall meaning or structure of a genre” and tends to encapsulate films that critics feel somehow “represent the genre more fully” (7).  These two types of definition ultimately correspond to Altman’s own dual semantic and syntactic approaches, respectively, and his proposed theory thus unites the two canons and two types of definition which he here shows to be contradictingly and competingly disparate.

Altman’s second contradiction pertains to genre history and theory and the apparent, or at least accepted, incompatability of the two schools.  Clearly favoring a diachronic, historical and developmental view of genre, Altman briefly explains the synchronic, ahistorical semiotic approach that has dominated genre studies from the 1960’s until the 1980’s when he is writing.  He posits that such thinking tends to conceive of genres in terms of timeless Platonic ideals and completely ignores their historical development as well as the very fact that they do develop and evolve.  This section of Altman’s argument becomes a little muddled in his eagerness to discount such a synchronic view while also trying not to bog down his relatively direct and concise essay with burdensome theory and history.  Still, the fact that genres do develop over time, as do genre theories themselves, as Altman illustrates, seems a simple enough truth upon which to accept his assertion that the theory of genre should consider history rather than exist in diametric separation from it, as he claims is currently the case with this second contradiction.

Thirdly, Altman compares the so-called ritual approach to genre with the ideological approach, explaining how they, like the inclusive and exclusive definitions and like genre theory and history, have been viewed as opposite, incompatible positions which then leaves the field of genre criticism with no clear course of study.  He writes that the ritual approach, stemming from Levi-Strauss’ examination of the role of myth in genre, essentially attributes ultimate agency to audiences, who pick the movies they want to see and thus compel Hollywood to accommodate their desires.  On the other hand, the ideological approach denies all audience agency and describes genre as merely a vehicle for the rhetoric of Hollywood, as their means of “luring” audiences in and then manipulating them for their own commercial motives (9).

After thus clearly establishing three sets of contradictions, three sets of theoretical binaries, Altman calls for a theory that will not only consider historical context, but will also, without denying any of these past positions, offer a “critical methodology which encompasses and indeed thrives on their inherent contradictions” (10).   His proposed semantic/syntactic theory here offers a “dual approach” whose “slash” component promises to resolve the seemingly insurmountable fissures he just established by combining their contradictory view points (12).  In categorizations that parallel those of the inclusive and exclusive canons of genre, Altman differentiates between genres defined by their semantic elements and those by their syntactic organization.  Semantic definitions, he explains, use “a list of common traits, attitudes, characters, shots, locations, sets,” i.e. the genre’s “building blocks themselves.”  Syntactic definitions, on the other hand, stress the “constitutive relationships between undesignated and variable placeholders,” or the “structures into which [the building blocks] are arranged” (10).

Altman’s entire semantic/syntactic argument is predicated upon his belief in a diachronic approach to the study of genre, or of any text.  Most clearly introduced in the context of his second stated contradiction, Altman directly asserts the need for such an approach throughout his essay while also indirectly confirming its validity and necessity through the inclusion of examples which reveal the historical developments of genre.  For instance, he outlines the development of the musical in which the original use of music to melodramatically convey sorrow later developed into associations with the joy and pleasure of “coupling, the community and entertainment” (13).  Also, in establishing the contradiction between genre theory and history, Altman indirectly describes the development of genre theories themselves, explaining the way in which previous citations of the industry’s own generic terms were suspiciously replaced by a “self-conscious critical vocabulary” after the work of semiotics rose to popularity (7).  Furthermore, aware of the change and evolution of not only genres but ideas of theory as well, Altman consciously avoids the trap of synchronicity by historically situating his own semantic/syntactic theory as a response to the dominating influence of semiotics over the twenty years before he is writing, as one more step in the history of genre theory.  By thus conveying that historical development does occur, in genres as well as in theories, Altman cleverly shows all of these single-theory approaches, each half of his three “contradictions,” to be inherently incapable of explaining a genre’s big picture.  The logical extension of this idea, which supports the rest of Altman’s argument, is that since theory alone cannot tell the whole truth of a genre without the insight gained from considering history, so too do his two other contradictions also fail to fully convey a genre when they do so from only one side.

To unequivocally prove not only that his two new categorizations of semantic and syntactic can successfully define a genre but also that the two elements need to be combined in order to optimally characterize genres, Altman uses the example of The Western.  He explains both the semantic and the syntactic elements of this familiar genre, thus concretely clarifying his two categories while also proving that they can sufficiently define a genre.  However, he then cites the problematic subcategory of the “Pennsylvania western” which has clear “affinities” with the western genre but lacks some of the established semantic requirements.  In a succinct affirmation of his dual theory, Altman neatly removes the “problem” of this exception by removing the mono-ideological approach; combining semantic and syntactic definitions means sacrificing neither wide applicability nor the identification of meaning and the “Pennsylvania” films can be thus unproblematically grouped within the Western genre where they belong (11).

From this rather convincing example, Altman clearly and systemically returns to his original three stated contradictions to show in each how the application of his semantic/syntactic theory adroitly solves the problems posed by a faithful adherence to just one ideology.  Thus, by neatly aligning his dual approach with the two means of defining a genre’s corpus and by making it clear that the use of only one such definition ignores the complexity, individuality and varying “levels of genericity” of each film text, Altman proves that his dual approach offers a “more accurate description” of genre.  Secondly, he forgoes the synchronic division between genre theory and history that he so clearly disapproves of and offers his own “working hypothesis” of the two paths of generic historical development, in relation to his chosen semantic and syntactic categories: “either a relatively stable set of semantic givens is developed through syntactic experimentation into a coherent and durable syntax, or an already existing syntax adopts a new set of semantic elements” (12).  This not only reaffirms the fact that genres change and proves the previous synchronic approach to be inadequate, but also confirms that his own chosen means of definition are capable of bridging the gap between theory and history and of accounting for a genre’s historical development.  Finally, Altman compares his “dual approach” to the space wrought between ritual and ideological approaches.  His justification here comes from his claim that genres need a “special bilingualism” to exist and thrive; they are comprised neither wholly of audience agency nor Hollywood rhetoric, but instead exist in the “common ground” between audience desire and Hollywood motivation that is arrived at through a genre’s “process of accommodation,” that is, its historical development (14).

Altman concludes his very convincing essay by returning to the beginning, so to speak.  Having proven the existence of a lack in genre studies and that his dual approach offers a successful means of ameliorating that lack and of reconciling those contradictions, he returns to the “general theory of textual signification” that provided the basis for his new genre theory in order to offer further corroborating support and explanation (15).  He cites the literary theory which differentiates between the “primary, linguistic parts of a text’s component parts,” his semantics, and the “secondary, textual meaning which those parts acquire through a structuring process internal to the text or to the genre,” his syntactic category (15).  Examples of the western, again, and the horror genre show that this original literary delineation is just as effective as his own semantic/syntactic approach and Altman confidently concludes that his selection of these two classifications is ideal “because the semantic/syntactic distinction is fundamental to a theory of how meaning of one kind contributes to and eventually establishes meaning of another” (16).

The essay, which was so clear, well organized and well proven, starts to get a little convoluted here at the end as Altman returns once more to trying to convey the historical development of genres, explains the ways in which genres become established.  After having stressed the importance of both semantic and syntactic categorizations and outlined two parallel ways in which genres develop, Altman here, in returning to this literary model, has to overtly privilege the syntactic as the primary way in which meaning is produced.  Because this literary theory stresses the idea that meaning is created through “internal” structuring, it ignores external factors like the commercial and ideological motivations of Hollywood and the agency and expectation of audiences themselves.  Altman tries to address this latter element, tries to recognize the “interpretive community” which he claims semiotic genre theorists ignored, by cursorily crediting these audiences with a level of determining agency not present in his original literary theory.  However, he cannot address this aspect at length, and so wraps up his essay by placing the majority of a genre’s meaning-creating power in the texts which preceded it, in the repeated application of a syntactical system to a set of semantics, which thus establishes the genre.

And though Altman’s essay is well structured and set up to succeed, though he uses convincing rhetoric and organization to prove his theory, there are a few issues which are missing from his compact argument.  First, though he does an amazing job of applying his semantic/syntactic theory to genres like the western, the musical and horror films, he does not adequately address the less clear-cut, more slippery genres of melodrama and film noir.  Much harder to define and to assign to a single set of identifying factors, these genres might simply have been harder to use as evidence in this short essay, but it stands to wonder whether Altman’s dualistic approach would have been able to accommodate these more amebic genres as well.  Secondly, though his proposed theory does a nice job of uniting the apparent chasms of genre study, they are slightly vague in and of themselves and would not necessarily generate useful definitions of specific genres.  As Altman shows, it neatly combines previously asserted definitions, both semantic and syntactic, such as Jean Mitry’s with Jim Kitses’ or Marc Vernet’s with John Cawelti’s for the western, but it doesn’t seem to define a genre on its own (10-11).

And finally, it must be reasserted that the theory which Altman has based his entire approach on is literary in nature, and thus, though obviously applicable to and useful in relation to cinema, still creates a slight issue of variable mediums.  And if Altman found such troubling insufficiencies with the application of semiotics to the study of genre from twenty years before he was writing, then his own use of a literary theory might also ultimately prove unsatisfactory, especially given his own stress on the importance of historical development.  Still, even if there are a few issues left unanswered, Altman has proved his proposed theory to be a productive addition to genre studies, if not solving every problem then at least “raising questions for which other theories have created no space” and making it potentially possible to answer those questions in the future (17).



Works Cited

Altman, Rick.  “A Semantic/Syntactic Theory of Genre.”  Film Theory and Criticism:

Introductory Readings.  7th ed.  Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.