Week Six: Semantic/Syntactic Approach

Rick Altman points out that genres are usually defined in terms of either signs (semantic) or plots and themes (syntactic). He argues that traditional genre theory needs to keep this distinction in mind if it is to come to terms with issues such as generic evolution and genre hybridity. The single-minded approach, as he puts it, ignores the considerable “cross-pollination” that occurs across genres. Altman suggests a basic model of genre creation using these terms. He claims that genres start out with a set of semantic elements, and only achieve true genre status when they complete a process of evolving an accompanying syntax.

Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop is an interesting example of a classic hybrid, with elements of both science fiction and police crime genres. The figure of Robocop is a classic example of the western gunfighter but in a futuristic setting. The analogy is made even more explicit with Robocop’s western style spinning of his gun before placing it in his holster. Looking at the film’s genealogy we can also identify its influences as well. The police elements of the film are largely based upon Dirty Harry with the western persona and placed it in a contemporary setting. On the science fiction side, we can see the film as a reworking of James Cameron’s The Terminator with the robot transformed to a good guy.

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