How do the first five minutes of Shane and Bram Stoker’s Dracula establish genre and narrative?
A genre is a specific form of media commodity. It has characteristic qualities that are familiar to audiences because the same method is applied repeatedly. A genre functions like a language and is used by film producers to ensure an audience can identify and predict what is likely to happen. Genres can offer comforting reassurance in an uncomfortable situation; the conventions are recognisable usually through iconography, familiar narrative, mise-en-scene, actors and style of representation. These sets of conventions are constantly renegotiated between industry and audience.
Genre can also be a way of working through important myths and fear by the use of repetition, variation and resolution and can be thought of as “tidying up” the mess of life.
Narrative involves a basic structure (beginning, middle and end) and a basic decision on the genre of story being told. It can imply the use of various codes to create or to reveal a character, to generate suspense, to provide setting and to further the plot.
Through narrative we become aware of the fact that each genre contains certain common elements but have different characteristics. They might be told in different ways, styles, or from different points of view. It is important to know and understand the difference between narrative and story. A story is a sequence of events known correctly as the plot and narrative is the way in which those events are put together so they can be presented to an audience. Narratives involve the following; Technical codes, Verbal codes, Symbolic codes, Structure, Characters and conflict.
Twentieth Century theorist Claude Levi Strauss suggested that all narratives had to be driven forward by conflict that was caused by a series of opposing forces. He called this the theory of Binary opposition, and it is used to describe how each main force in a narrative has its equal and opposite. Some examples of these opposing forces are as follows: good/evil, light/dark, right/wrong and poverty/wealth. He believed that if this strategy was used, a balance or resolution could be achieved. Narratives, in short, have to be about change, disturbance and disorder.
Commonly narratives will feature the following structure: Establishing a problem, Elaboration of the problem and resolution of the problem. The nature of the problem and how it will be resolved depends on the genre or form of the narrative, whether it involves solving the mystery, punishing the wrongdoer or obtaining the desired object or person.
This brings me to the opening sequence, which can be the most important moment in a film. This is because they are the first images the audience sees when the lights go down. These quick segments form a contract outlining the filmmaker’s intentions and setting up the expectations of those watching.
The opening sequence can be the most action-packed part of a film; it creates suspense and gets the audience asking questions. This is what the director aims to achieve, by getting the audience to unconsciously ask questions he has gained their attention for the remainder of the film.
This can also be a chance to give the audience a taster of what’s to come by introducing characters and setting up themes. The audience will now be aware of the genre they are going to watch.
The Western genre is widely popular with audiences around the world simply because its an easy genre to recognise, we know that westerns are fictional. They are set in west America and are centred on a particular period of American history, the years between 1865 and 1890.
“The Great Train Robbery” is a 1903 Western film. The film is only ten minutes long, but is a high point in filmmaking and is considered the first American western to tell a fictional story. The film used a number of innovative techniques, these included parallel editing, camera movement and location shooting. The film also employed the first pan shots; almost every shot was a static long shot confining the action to the perspective of the camera at eye level.
The plot was inspired by a true event that occurred on August 29, 1900, when four members of George Leroy Parker’s ‘Hole in the Wall’ gang halted the No. 3 train on the Union Pacific Railroad tracks toward Table Rock, Wyoming. The bandits forced the conductor to uncouple the passenger cars from the rest of the train and then blew up the safe in the mail car to escape with about $5,000 in cash. This can be related back to the western genre because it includes the villain; hero and the general setting you would expect to see a Western film in it is relevant because it tells a fictional story this is what Westerns should do.
Directed by George Stevens the film Shane was made in 1953, the idea for the film was taken from a novel written by Jack Schaefer. Jack Schaefer was an American journalist, whose best-known novel Shane (1949) has been considered the ultimate achievement in creating a mythical western hero with a shady past.
The story followed the pattern of a classical Greek tragedy, in which there is no escape from fate. As a writer Schaefer made his breakthrough with Shane (1949), a tale of a gunman’s involvement with a homesteading family in Wyoming. Schaefer had never been west of Cleveland, but his vision of the West was so clear-cut, that his novel Shane was awarded the best western novel ever written in 1985.
Alan Ladd who was born in Hot Springs, Arkansas plays Shane. Other main characters include Jean Arthur who plays Marion Starett, Van Heflin who plays Joe Starett and Brandon De Wilde who plays Joey.
The titles are old fashioned and are in traditional techni colour. “George Stevens a production of Shane” appears on screen shortly followed by “Shane” in a deep red/orange colour. This is typical of the period of 1953 in which these orange colours were fashionable. The music used to accompany these opening titles is strong with a joyful feeling.
The opening camera shots reinforce what we have just seen and set up the genre. The first thing we are drawn to is the large open spaces, we are looking out across the plain, deserted area, in the background there are large mountains, these are surrounded by low lying clouds. The camera then sweeps across; this is when we see more of the area. We become aware of a stag in the water surrounded by bushes. We get a glimpse of small boy who is almost completely hidden by bushes. He is holding a rifle and aiming for the stag. He spots a man on horse back in the distance and looks startled. The music turns from joyful to loud and deep this creates a sense of anticipation and this is what the producer aims to achieve when he accompanies a film by different moods of music.
We are already asking questions, who is the man on the horse? , Who is the boy?
It then cuts to a man chopping wood with an axe we can hear a woman singing and catch a glimpse of her. She has blonde hair and a soft singing voice; she’s wearing a white shirt this makes her look pure and untouched. She is in the kitchen preparing a meal for her husband in generic realism we would expect to find a woman in the kitchen and doing the housework while her husband goes out to work.
The man on horseback who we become aware is Shane is wearing a cowboy hat, cream top and beige trousers with brown tassels hanging from them. He is on horseback and around his waist is a belt with miniature horse cartwheels on. The music becomes more mysterious and the scene that follows is full of anticipation as Shane and Joe exchange a few words. Shane produces a gun and the music hits it’s highest point as the problem is resolved the gun is put away and a lighter friendlier music appears.
So far we have the stereotypical family: a small boy, a mum in the kitchen preparing food for her family and a dad chopping wood for his family. Then there’s Shane who fills our ideology. He comes in to disturb this peaceful family but turns out not to be a threat. So what are we missing? The villains. These come in the form of the Ryker brothers.
The Rykers and their posse of gun-toting ruffians ride by and threaten to run Starrett off his farm. The Rykers, are ruthless businessmen, and have been trying to rid the valley of homesteaders so they can expand their ranch. After witnessing this brutality, Shane decides to stay on and help out at the ranch. Provoked by Ryker’s boys, Shane joins the homesteader’s fight, facing off with a hired gunslinger to make the valley safe for civilized folks like the Starretts. While helping Shane falls in love with the wife but he keeps his distance out of respect for the husband.
This brings me to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This is a film, which is true to the original text rather than the hammer house style; the belief in Christianity is under question and the film is centred on Dracula’s relationship with life and after life.
A narrator introduces Dracula this strange and mysterious figure employs us to sympathise with him. We see him as a person whose anguish has affected his bond with eternity.
Dracula represents an apparition of what may happen to us if we happened to be in the same situation as him.
In the opening scene the background is drenched in red and we see the battle of two opposing forces, good and evil. There are close shots of the building and the red skies in the heavens above gives it a threatening look. The titles do not appear until after the opening sequence, this is because Coppola wants to give the responsibility to the audience as to why they believe Dracula is a horror villain rather then a monster.
The music is slow and deep in tone to create atmosphere and suspense; it changes in volume when people begin to talk. There is never silence, the constant tapping in the background is almost like screaming.
When we finally meet Dracula he is covered in orange armour, the rigid lines on his armour flow horizontally and give him a look of strength. He has long brown hair and a large moustache. He looks angry and screams before he drinks the blood from the goblet. Elizabetta couldn’t be more different, she also has brown hair but is wearing a long flowing dress, her pale white skin against the red of the blood is a strong contrast, she looks innocent. The gold surrounding them gives the place a look of importance, which can also be reflected into the clothing.
The story continues with Dracula believing he is an agent of god:
“Praise god I am victorious”
As things progress his wife receives a false message of his death this results in her taking her own life. On hearing about this Dracula is grief stricken; he turns against god because she is in hell and stabs the cross, blood fills the room and Dracula drinks the blood in a parody of holy communion.
This opening scene addresses the audience’s knowledge of the use of conventions. Coppola knows that the audience will have encountered Dracula in many other forms before and plays on this.
The story is told from Dracula’s point of view. Similar to Shane there are Binary opposites and the themes of the genre are noticeable through mise-en-scene and iconography. There are candles and crucifixes, tall windows and dark colours. Again the audience are asking questions even though they will have had some knowledge of Dracula before.
In conclusion we now know that the purpose of an opening sequence is to allow the audience to establish the genre and set the foundations for the remainder of the film. We know that to do this you can use generic texts; this will allow the audience to predict what is likely to happen, although this may seem boring it actually does have some advantages it allows the audience to feel comfortable with the following events that will take place. I have found that generic texts are easier to watch because of this.
The opening of both texts were slightly different, in Dracula the titles were not shown until the end of the opening sequence I found this more exciting because it gives the audience more of a chance to question what is going on. They were very similar in the ways they established themselves as generic texts though. They used similar techniques but fitted it to a different genre. Both films were enjoyable to watch because they followed a plan and had binary opposition.