Film clichés are numerous and stubbornly frequent, but there are a few that stand out as clear symptoms of laziness and cowardice. Whenever one of these clichés finds its way into a film, it’s a sign that the writer resorted to recycling narrative tropes that are either glaringly unconvincing or massively overused.
Character A meets character B, orders a drink or food, they speak a few lines and Character A leaves before the order is served
The frequency of this cliché is deeply disappointing; even otherwise outstanding films, such as Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, failed to avoid it. What gets me is that I just don’t see what greater problem is being avoided by resorting to this tired trope.
I contend that this cliché is easily avoidable with a modicum of imagination without compromising the content or flow of the scene. Here as some possible alternatives:
- characters are already eating and talking when the scene starts, so Character A has already nibbled and sipped a little before rushing off;
- the character refuses to order anything because s/he knows the meeting will be brief.
Character A threatens Character B with a gun; as Character B refuses to comply, Character A cocks the gun
The most charitable explanation I can offer for this cliché is the writer’s desire to modulate the escalation of tension in the scene. The problem is that cocking the gun after having threatened another character with it for a good length of time is truly stupid: if the gun is fully automatic, it doesn’t need to be cocked; if it is a single-action pistol, cocking it so late in the confrontation tells us that the initial threat wasn’t serious. The character might as well say “I was just bluffing at the beginning, but now that I’ve cocked my weapon you had better believe I mean business.” This implicit admission of having bluffed ruins the scene.
Again, even outstanding films like Road to Perdition are guilty of this. It is a formidably stupid mistake to make, considering how easy it is to correct: make the character cock the weapon immediately or not at all, depending on the type of gun.
No goodbye at the end of a phone call
I accept that in a minority of very hostile or tense telephone exchanges the conversation might be terminated without some form of acknowledgement, but in all other instances, doing so goes against the interests of both parties and is therefore generally not believable. No matter how superior a boss may feel, after issuing those stern orders, is it not worth waiting to ensure that they don’t pose an insurmountable difficulty that might save the boss considerable grief? What if the subordinate was about to provide critically important information? Come on.
When this happens between two neutral or friendly parties, it’s even worse, because in addition to the problems outlined above, it also constitutes unwarranted rudeness. Friends, lovers and colleagues simply don’t treat each other this way, and when I see it on the screen, it screams “movie telephone call” instead of “real telephone call.”
Embarrassingly predictable setup in Act 1
When I saw Schwarzenegger showering with a child in Collateral Damage, I knew that this was a pitiful attempt at contextualizing the father-son relationship and that the boy was not long for this world. Admittedly, there is more than one issue with that scene, and in all honesty they ought to have found other ways to establish that relationship.
An example of a tasteful and convincing setup of a father-son relationship is the first act of Road to Perdition.
A lecture is interrupted by another character and it just so happens that it was close to the end
Another cliché made all the more annoying by the fact that writers remorselessly and insensitively recycle it with no sign of fatigue.
Examples: Good Will Hunting; Indiana Jones.
Possible alternative: the lecturing character is interrupted mid-lecture and signals the other character to come back later; cut to the conversation after the lecture. At least this would give us the impression that it was a genuine interruption rather than a carefully choreographed entry timed to coincide with the end of the lecture. It could be argued that deliberately showing up at the end of the lecture is in fact the polite thing to do, and that is undoubtedly true, but we have seen this too many times for it too be convincing. It worked the first couple of times; now we ought to think of alternatives.
Complementary pairs of police officers
One young, one older (Se7en), one conscientious and one reckless (Lethal Weapon), one American and one non-American (Black Rain), one male and one female (X Files); the list goes on. The intention here is to add texture to the script by weaving inter-personal and inter-cultural conflict into the narrative. I will concede it can work well, but it is has become a standardized narrative device and is therefore by definition a cliché. It needs to be given a long and well-deserved break.
Spaceships making noise
Sound needs a medium through which to travel: air, water and solid metal all work, albeit with different results. What does not work as a medium is the vacuum found in space. No sound can be heard in the empty void of space. Therefore the sound made by spaceships in deep space is nonsense.
This cliché is borne of the assumption that the audience’s attention will be lost if the spaceship majestically transiting past the camera does not make a satisfying roar. This assumption is not supported by empirical evidence.
A related excuse is that the audience “expects it.” This might be true now, but only because the assumptions made by weak minds have etched this expectation in movie goers’ minds. I am willing to bet that if a sci-fi film is sufficiently compelling and the right tone is established, a completely quiet shot of a spaceship will enthral the audience and earn their respect for having done something tasteful and thoughtful. Music is acceptable. Any other sound is not.
Rock-steady binocular and telescope views
Binoculars and telescopes use a long focal length to offer a magnified view of a distant subject. The downside is that if a long-focal-length viewing device is handheld, the view will be shaky. Therefore a rock-steady binocular or spyglass POV shot is fundamentally incongruous. The proper way to do this would be to film the shot with a hand-held camera on which a very long lens has been mounted. The POV shot would be rather jittery, which is more or less what the viewer would really see in such a situation and is more consistent with our personal experience of using binoculars and telescopes.
Instead, they keep copping out with those ridiculous sequences in which we see a character with massive binoculars and then cut to a rock-steady POV. This is either ignorance or cowardice and I will be delighted when I see it done properly for the first time.
Choreographed fights in which hitherto unconnected opponents just so happen to have specialized in the same style
The chances of two mortal enemies having specialized in the same fighting style are vanishingly small, and if they graduated from the same course, that’s just one more cliché. Real fights are messy. In a real fight, there are no rules and anything goes, because it is a life-or-death situation, not sport. When I see these movie fights all I see is a thoroughly artificial dance consisting of carefully rehearsed numbered moves. All one can do is endure it and wait for the good guy to win.
By contrast, a fight scene I found very convincing is the final confrontation in Cronenberg’s A History of Violence: messy and undignified, like most real-life unplanned fights.
Smash the mold!
These clichés are annoying because, in addiction to depriving the film of real-world texture, they induce a sneaking suspicion that watching this film is not affording us a glimpse into the writer’s and director’s thoughts on the world, but is instead simply re-heating and re-seasoning the same stale meal that has already been inflicted on us by dozens of other films.
Why do these clichés still thrive like successful parasites in a bloated host? One possible reason is the insidious tendency we all have to re-hash scenes and tropes we saw in films throughout our lives, often without even remembering which specific film it was. It’s almost as though independent thought is inhibited as soon as the screenwriting software icon is clicked.
I encourage screenwriters to try to avoid these clichés and treat us to fresh and surprising scenes that awaken us from our film-induced stupor, giving us hope that cinema has not run out of steam.