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5/18/2018 Rick Altman’s “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre” « Cinema, Etc.

Cinema, Etc.

Rick Altman’s “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach


to Film Genre” by Jackie
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
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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
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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,

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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.

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This entry was posted in Film Theory and tagged "Symantic/Syntactic approach to film genre",
Film genre, Genre studies, Hollywood, Levi-Strauss, Rick Altman, Semantic, Semiotics, Syntactic,
Syntax.

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