Cliché, cliché, go away
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If you could permanently wipe one cliché—character, plot, anything—from the future of culture, what would it be? —Erin Anderson
This is a topic we’ve been kicking around for years as a potential inventory, so it’s about time we tackled it head-on. And most of the time we’ve been talking about it, I’ve had the same one in mind: The loyal, loving wife and mother who suddenly turns into a screaming shrew midway through the film/book/whatever, for the express purpose of trying to get her husband to drop the court case or stop chasing the criminal or stop investigating the evil corporate types or whatever, either because he’s putting too much time into it and has become obsessed, or (more often) because his efforts are bearing fruit and the situation has gotten dangerous. Some variation on the phrase “You’re tearing this family apart!” is often used. What irks me about this is that the wife is never a character, she’s just a pressure-adding device, used to show the transition from the man’s previously idealized life to a state of everything falling apart. As such, she generally turns on him so quickly that she comes across as a faithless, shallow, needy, psychotic bitch, which is usually presented in stark contrast to his devotion to justice, the truth, etc. I think of this character as John Grisham Whiny Wife, though the psychiatrist’s wife in Watchmen is a particularly egregious example as well.
In the same vein, I could really go the rest of my life without seeing another movie about a family man whose wife and possibly children get killed, turning him into a stripped-down vengeance machine who has to hunt down and brutalize all the bad guys remotely responsible. But I know for sure that one isn’t going to die out any time soon; the latest one, the Gerard Butler vehicle Law Abiding Citizen, is already gearing up with a heavy advertising push.
I guess it’s too much to say “all of them”, isn’t it? Even narrowing it down to a few dozen is agonizing. I could pare away hundreds of the trite and stupid bits that make viewing and reading such a painful chore, and I’d still be left with making up for decades of shitty parenting with one grandiose, pointless gesture; people who get hit with the butt of a gun and end up pleasantly napping for 15 minutes; the concept of high school as the best years of your life; the idea that neurotic people are inherently interesting; and Tony Shalhoub, the only good Arab in America. But if I have to pick one, I guess I’ll push the button that makes the idea that stupid people possess some form of superior wisdom go away forever. Always a pernicious notion, it’s made a roaring comeback in the last decade or so, at a time when we desperately need people to embrace smartness. America is already good enough at anti-intellectual nonsense without movies and TV shows reinforcing the belief that true happiness belongs to the dumbest among us.
I’m not sure where this originates, but I’ve always been annoyed by the family movie dilemma that pits Dad’s Big Meeting against his neglected kid’s Big School Concert/Play/Soccer Game/whatever. It requires audiences to feel that yes, it’s horribly unjust that someone would choose to preserve their career rather than jeopardizing it every time their kid is about to have a Kodak moment. Maybe that speaks to my lack of parental status, but it’s just a false dilemma; you can be around all the time and still be neglectful, you know? The fact that movies still pull this crap in the face of an economy where responsible parenting would mean hanging on to your job by any means necessary is kind of incredible. Least favorite recent manifestation: In the Eddie Murphy vehicle Imagine That, where the big meeting is scheduled for Saturday, of all days, just to trump up extra drama. Really?
Also, in Planes, Trains, And Automobiles, when Steve Martin’s wife gets all teary-eyed that he might not be home for Thanksgiving? IT’S NOT HIS FAULT. WINTER TRAVELING IS HARD.
My original suggestion was glasses as an easily removeable signifier of dowdiness, but since we seem to be at a low tide for teen-type movies where this is often employed, I’ll go with a clichéd bit of editing that needs to be retired: camera tilting and slow motion to signify badassery. It struck me recently how silly it is that the bad/cool guy is often shot slowly from the feet up, often emerging from a car. In real life, when someone emerges from a car, we don’t stare at the feet and then ever so slowly raise our heads to scan up the body. Similarly, the use of slo-mo as a dramatic device needs to go away for a while, especially when someone sets off a bomb and walks away without looking at the resulting explosion. I just can’t imagine anything more imaginative going on in the editing room than “How can we make him/her look cooler? Slo-mo? Okay.” It's all right when used ironically, however, like in the first season of 30 Rock, when Liz Lemon walks down the hall all sexy in her new dress, then stops in the writers' room, where everyone starts laughing at her.
It works well in Shawshank Redemption (as in, works always for Morgan Freeman), but I’d be thrilled if we did away with almost all narrators or voiceovers in films. Why? Well, I took a musical improv class at Second City once—stay with me—and the instructor told us that songs in pieces of theater are meant to be the ultimate expression of emotion, when simple dialogue will no longer suffice. Only then. I feel that way about narrators and voiceovers, too—they have to be crucial to the story or mood of the piece. I get why people use them—films are stories, stories need telling, since the beginning of time people have told stories this way. But 90 percent of the time, I’ve seen narrators who don’t even advance the plot, let alone provide any of the insight I was desperate for; really, they serve no purpose. I recently caught two films, The Great Buck Howard and (500) Days Of Summer, that were particularly egregious offenders: The narrators simply restated what the characters were thinking, neatly summing up the lessons learned at the end of the film for those viewers too distracted to pay attention, which is no one. I’d venture to say that if you eliminated both those narrator parts, the films wouldn’t change in the slightest, and they’d have been a hell of a lot better. (In Buck Howard’s case, it needed all the help it could get.)
Carry a cell phone on the streets, on the subway, in your car, and around your home, and you’re just an ordinary person going about your daily business. Carry one in the movies, and you’re an unctuous, business-minded go-getter too tied to the fast track to realize that you’ve forgotten the things that are really important in life. The cell phone remains a lazy shorthand to indicate a character with misdirected priorities, even now that nearly everybody has one and landlines are disappearing as quickly as newspapers. Lately, the movies have been adjusting the cliché a bit: Instead of barking into a cell, city slickers in need of redemption are accessorizing with Bluetooths and other headgear, distracting themselves with their smartphones. Trouble is, the culture at large eventually catches up, and a movie looks embarrassingly dated after a few years.
One of my biggest cinematic pet peeves is the scene of a character flipping vacantly through TV channels as shorthand for the emptiness and superficiality of consumerism and Western society. It's an incredibly lazy, overly familiar way of establishing a character's soul-sickness and disengagement from himself, nature, and the world around him. If characters are flipping glassy-eyed through increasingly ridiculous television shows and commercials in the film's first 15 minutes, odds are good they'll undergo a spiritual epiphany or two by the times the credits roll. Possibly the first known instance of this cliché can be found in Skidoo, but I associate it more with Warren Beatty in Bulworth. Once Beatty spends some time discovering for himself that he's got 57 channels but nothing's on, all that's left is for him to adopt a bizarre new hip-hop persona and "rap" his way into renewed political and cultural relevance. Sigh.
Here’s something I’d be happy never to see again, but I know I will: Poop jokes in kids’ movies. Now, I fully understand that kids love poop jokes, and always have. No doubt I did too. And maybe I’m turning into an old fuddy-duddy, but back in my day, we had to make our own poop jokes. The rules of propriety kept them out of movies under the logic that kids don’t always know what’s best for them. I mean, kids will eat a whole package of Twizzlers, too; that doesn’t mean they should. And, honestly, would Fantasia be improved if Mickey Mouse tripped and fell on a turd while a chorus of dancing brooms pointed and laughed? I think not. Hrrumph. Now where’s my monocle? Where’s my ever-present glass of scotch?
This feels kind of slight and inconsequential, but when I think of all the ill-advised stabs at humor in Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen—the Decepticon testicles, the shuck ‘n’ jive Autobot twins, the part where Michael Bay channels his id through Wheelie by making the little guy hump Megan Fox’s leg—the sequence that gets most on my nerves is the one where Shia LaBeouf’s mom eats a pot brownie and goes on a magical rainbows-and-lollipops journey through the Ivy League scenery. It’s not because the scene is borderline reactionary and wouldn’t look out of place in an after-school special; it’s because I’m bored with “square’s first accidental high” being used for an easy laugh. Especially when the filmmakers opt to do a little heavy winking at the movie-goer, like at the end of the Taking Woodstock trailer, when Demetri Martin says “You gave them the brownies?” You mean the brownies laced with bludgeoning the movie-goer with a pot joke? Then yes, transvestite Liev Schreiber gave them those brownies.
I grew up in a small town. We didn’t have our own zip code, and whenever people asked me where I was from, it was always easiest to say “15 minutes outside of Biddeford.” (Or, for non-Mainers, “30 minutes south of Portland.”) It wasn’t a terrible place to be a kid, but it was pretty dull, and I don’t look back fondly on all the deep life lessons I learned while fishing by a creek and being too innocent to care about all those big-city things like money and success and cultural diversity. Clearly, I’ve missed out; judging by far too many movies, the small town is a bastion of serenity, an oasis away from the tormented, soul-crushing despair of your typical urban hellscape. I don’t regret my childhood, and there are lots of benefits of growing up near the woods and not having to worry about a crime rate or pollution. I just really wish we could kill this notion that some place with three churches, two general stores, and a library full of water-logged copies of Angels And Demons and 2-year-old issues of People is inherently and richly superior to places where things actually happen.
There are two clichés in particular that really irk me—probably because they’re both staples of one of my favorite genres, science fiction. First is the monolithic, evil corporation that always seems to come complete with a malevolent CEO, a cadre of sadistic scientists, and an army of faceless storm troopers. The most recent example I can think of is the fictional entity Multi-National United from District 9; granted, there is plenty of evil perpetrated by military-industrial contractors, but the world is just way more complex than that. But even worse, cartoonishly evil corporations make for lousy drama: It’s pretty much the same as the mustache-twirling villain, no ambiguity or complexity. Another sci-fi cliché that gets on my nerves is the plastic, antiseptic vision of the future in the vein of Gattaca or A.I.—which, besides being played-out and hard to swallow, seems to stem from some antiquated, Boomer-era paranoia about suburban conformity rather than any plausible prognostication of tomorrow. Human systems and societies are fluid and messy, not the homogenous lumps that writers and directors often sculpt—and even when their creations’ dark underbellies are inevitably revealed, the overall shape is usually far too simple.
I have an Inventory idea that builds on this, but I’d really like to retire the scientist/smart guy who explains everything for the audience. They’re a staple of sci-fi films, where they’re saddled with a lot of expository dialogue so the movie can get on with the action scenes. But they aren’t limited to that genre; Psycho had it, and a “thriller” I saw last year had one of the most egregious examples: M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening ends with some academic type on a TV news show (of course) explaining the stupid reason behind the not-so-terrifying events. And, of course, that scene ends with another well-worn trope, IT COULD HAPPEN AGAIN! Thanks to the overwhelmingly negative response to the film, I think we’ll be spared, Mr. Scientist.
There are a ton of indie-film clichés I’d like to banish, from plaintive, tuneless acoustic-guitar soundtracks to the withholding of key details of characters’ backstories until the final act, at which point their past sexual abuse or manslaughter conviction or dead family members or incurable cancer have been blown up to such a degree that they’re effectively unrelatable. But my most-hated cliché is one that cuts across all genres, nations, and budgets: It’s the college professor as stand-up comedian. In the movies, professors often loom intimidatingly over a lecture hall full of students, or drone on irrelevantly as the kids try to sleep. But if the professor is an actual protagonist in the story—someone we’re supposed to like—then their lectures consist of them dropping pearls of wisdom, then undercutting those pearls with a quick joke, which invariably makes the whole class laugh knowingly. Either filmmakers have forgotten what a college class is really like, or they assume that the average filmgoer can’t relate to an honest-to-goodness seminar. Whatever the reason, movies create the impression that every university should add a cover charge alongside the lab fees.
“He wanted to leave the criminal world behind and go straight… after one last job.” Screw that. It’s just a weak, overused way of gaining audience sympathy for the main character in a heist film, as if the crime the thief is going to commit is okay, since he doesn’t really mean it. It’s such an old, hoary device that I recall novelist Richard Stark mocking it as old and overused in one of his books from the mid-1960s. Like all clichés, it’s been used creatively in some fine films—Sexy Beast would completely fall apart without it, for instance. But too often, it’s a crutch to let the storytellers indulge in depictions of criminal behavior without getting their hands dirty. If you’re going to do a crime story from the perspective of the criminal, I’d rather see you commit. Dare to give us a bad-guy protagonist who doesn’t hide behind false virtue.
I love kids, I really do. They’re so cute and precious, you could almost mistake them for miniature versions of people. But one thing kids definitely aren’t is wise, so can we please do away with the cinematic cliché about children being avatars for insight into the human condition? If you’ve ever seen a movie where Haley Joel Osment or Dakota Fanning soulfully implored the adults around them to be better people, you know exactly what I’m talking about. I’m not saying that kids aren’t smart, or that it’s not equally annoying when the movies depict childhood as a spotless nirvana of talking animals and soft-focus lighting that adults need to protect like an encased butterfly. I just get a little grossed out when our culture’s obsession with youth spills over into full-blown worship of children and the supposed “lessons” they can teach us. Personally, I’ll always take hard-won experience and cynicism over immaturity and “innocence.” Now shut up and eat your vegetables, you little brats!