14 June 2005

Classifying Movies

"”It could easily be accomplished with a computer." —— Dr. Strangelove in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Classifying anything is a hopeless attempt to find order in the chaos of the world. Most things defy neat classification —— there will always be borderline cases. If you create too many categories, to capture all the differences, you end up with an unwieldy —— and ultimately absurd —— system with one item per category. If you lump things into too few categories, what use is it?

Two good examples of classification systems are Library Classification and Scientific Classification (links are to Wikipedia articles). See also "taxonomy" in Wikipedia.

There is a lot of theoretical and philosophical literature on classification. But I think the best way to understand the issues is to explore an example.

Motion Pictures as a form of public entertainment (movies, films, cinema) have been around for about 130 years, and many thousands of films have been made. The Internet Movie Database, IMDb, is a good resource.

Here is my personal, idiosyncratic classification of movie types. It is based on the essential situation or story, not on the setting or style.

(An expanded listing of movies by category, with comments, is found here.)

How To Classify Movies
Warmen bondingTwelve O'Clock High
Epiclots of stars, lots of interwoven storiesThe Longest Day, Grand Hotel
Road MovieepisodicO Brother, Where Art Thou?, Dead Man
Buddy Moviestart hating each other, end lovingIt Happened One Night, The Rookie
Westerngood vs. evilStar Wars, The Fifth Element
Adventurewho will survive?The Poseidon Adventure
10 Little Indianswho is the killer in the group?Identity, Murder By Death, Clue
Old Housethings jumping out at youAlien, Pitch Black
Beat The Clockcan we stop him in time?Twelve Monkeys, The Manchurian Candidate
Biopictriumph or tragedy of one characterLawrence of Arabia, Patton, The Passion of Joan of Arc
Caperplan and executionRififi, The Killing, The Lavender Hill Mob
Coming Of Agefinding the strength within yourself to overcome what the world has thrown at youThe Best Years of Our Lives, Napoleon Dynamite, Brazil
Hero's Taleone sacrifices for allThe Day The Earth Stood Still, The Iron Giant, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc
Thrillerbad guy gets it, good guy (usually) gets the girl/boyGrosse Point Blank, Laura, The Big Hit, Dial M For Murder
Monsterhow will they stop it? (monster has no feelings and bullets have no effect on it)Them!, Godzilla, Outbreak, The Terminator
Hill of Beansthe problems of three little peopleHouse of Flying Daggers, Casablanca, Titanic

Any type can be drama, comedy, spoof (Silverado), historical, science fiction, romance, noir, martial arts or musical (Bugsy Malone). These are differences in style only. Exactly the same movie can be made in different settings or styles (Shoot the Piano Player = El Mariachi).

One thing you notice is that the greatest movies combine these categories in creative ways:

Silverado —— War, Spoof, Western
The Crying Game —— Thriller, Coming of Age
Princess Mononoke —— Road, Monster, Hero
Die Hard — Hero, Western, Thriller
High Noon —— Beat the Clock, Hero
Saving Private Ryan —— Coming of Age, Road, Hero
Ben Hur —— Hill of Beans, Road, Western
The Abyss —— Old House, Thriller

No movie by Peter Greenaway can be categorized. Period. "Creation, to me, is to try to orchestrate the universe to understand what surrounds us. Even if, to accomplish that, we use all sorts of stratagems which in the end prove completely incapable of staving off chaos." —— Peter Greenaway

There is more discussion of the specific categories here.

I'm open to suggestions.

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Betsy said...

So under these classifications, is High Noon not a western? It seems confusing to use a standard genre name like western to describe something that's not necessarily a western, (or to not describe something that is a western) in the traditional sense.

D. Wheat said...

True, but I am only following a tried and true tradition of using existing terms to mean new things, and thus to confuse everybody else.

Would it be better if I made up new terms, "Type W" or "Delta" or "Model of Ford" to describe those movies I call "western", which involve a contest between good and evil, in which evil appears about to triumph, but is thwarted by the actions of seemingly ordinary people who stand up to it? A "western", in this sense, should be seen as a contest between economic or political systems.