Two genres which have always been Hollywood staples are science-fiction and the western. The genres can be seen in films made as early as Le Voyage Dans la lune (Georges Melies 1902) and The Great Train Robbery (Edwin S. Porter 1903). On the surface the two genres are very different, however if one looks closely at them they are similar in many ways. Both genres usually feature uncharted frontiers, strong silent protagonists, frightening savages (played by either space aliens or Native Americans) and damsels in distress. The formula for these two genres was established many decades ago and in recent years it takes a film that defies and subverts those expectations such as Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood 1992) or Alien (Ridley Scott 1979) to receive an enthusiastic critical and box office response. Two other films which subvert the traditional genres of westerns or science fiction films are McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman 1971) and Blade Runner (Ridley Scott 1982). These films use archetypal settings, characters and action in a way which is substantially different from our expectations and the results are extremely memorable films.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller is the story of a man, John McCabe (Warren Beatty) who tries to set up a whorehouse/tavern in a small town in the Pacific Northwest in 1901. He meets an astute madam, Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) who runs his business and shares in his profits. The business thrives and they develop a relationship. A mineral deposit draws powerful mining company men to the town to try and buy McCabe's holdings. He refuses to sell and they retaliate. He ultimately is mortally wounded in a bloody showdown with the mining company's thugs leaving Mrs. Miller all alone.
Robert Altman created a film which Pauline Kael called "a beautiful pipe dream of a movie -- a fleeting, almost diaphanous vision of what frontier life might have been." The film certainly feels different from most Westerns, featuring the distinctively different music of Leonard Cohen and a washed-out style of cinematography which Altman claimed "was trying to get the feeling of antiquity, like the photographs of the time." The cinematography is starkly different from the vibrant colours of The Searchers (John Ford 1956) or Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks 1959...
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...ells him to do but he does it anyway. This is a stark difference from Captain James T. Kirk or Luke Skywalker. Scott is clearly trying to create a film which does not fit into traditional science-fiction formulas and he has succeeded with Blade Runner.
Both McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Blade Runner are excellent films, they manage to succeed in subverting traditional genres in a way that creates fresh and different movies which both critics and movie goers have not seen before. This kind of genre shifting has grown more and more popular in recent years as movie goers have grown tired of seeing formulaic films filled with stock characters. In the future as young filmmakers look to the past for inspiration to create fresh and unique films which subvert genres and defy audience expectations hopefully they will look to the work of Robert Altman and Ridley Scott as prime examples.
Jacobs, Diane. Hollywood Renaissance: The New Generation of Filmmakers and their works. 1977. New York. Dell Publishing.
Sammon, Paul M. Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner. 1996. New York. Harper Collins.
Sklar, Robert. Movie-Made America. 1994. New York. Vintage Books.
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