Among the many things that the famed movie critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert did for the industry, one stands in mind as the most important contribution. Each season of their television show At The Movies, they would devote an episode to exposing the most egregious and over-used plot devices, cliches, and lazy characterizations currently in films. For them it was cathartic. For the home viewer it was entertaining. For the fledgling screenwriter, it was absolutely essential because it revealed one’s own presumed cleverness and knowing hipness to be what it was: bad storytelling.
(Cue the background music.) Well, both Siskel and Ebert have long since exited to the great screening room in the sky. But that won’t stop us from… (SFX: Record scratch! Music stops! Here comes the punchline!)…doing the same thing! So what are some of our biggest cliche peeves?
Ted Asregadoo: Like the black guy always dying?
Popdose: Yeah, something like that.
Keith Creighton: Any movie entrance set to George Thorogood.
Dave Lifton: By the way, here you go, Keith. (Coincidentally, “Here you go, Keith” and “Bad to the Bone” were both coined by Jeff’s mom during her days on the road with the Stones.)
Keith Creighton: Love it — that’s an awesome post.
Ann Logue: I was thinking of the young and sexy female scientist or engineer. See: Top Gun. (Ed. Or Days of Thunder, or any James Bond movie, or the 1980s in general.)
Ted Asregadoo: An then there’s Van Morrison songs used in films. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Van_Morrison_at_the_Movies_–_Soundtrack_Hits) And this scene from Nine Months with a Van Morrison song:
Scott Malchus: Overused 60s songs! On the same order, part of the reason Watchmen and Flight bugged me were the OBVIOUS song choices. “Under the Bridge” for a sequence about a girl using heroin? Really?
Dave Lifton: “It’s the ’60s. Things are different now!” — something said in every lousy movie about the ’60s, but was probably never uttered at the time.
Keith Creighton: I was thinking, Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” has got to be right up there whenever you need a kick in the emotional nuts to get the waterworks flowing. And ELO’s “Mister Blue Sky” for that go-to whimsical montage.
Another horrible cliche — the maimed villain that just won’t freaking die already. As in Avatar. Best example: Pee Wee Herman in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Worse: I swear I remember a movie where Harrison Ford is revealed to be the villain and suddenly is un-killable and it just keeps going and going and going. He’s dead, no wait, he’s alive — turn around lady turn around!
Dave Lifton: The flip side of which is “Expertly trained, cold-blooded marksman misses hero with multiple rounds of ammunition.”
Ted Asregadoo: And to add to THAT, expertly trained, cold-blooded marksman has hero in his crosshairs for a long time, but doesn’t take the shot.
Dw. Dunphy: The one that always bugs me, and thankfully seems to be on the wane, is when the villain is a foreign spy that has infiltrated the American culture. Could be Russian, could be German, but they all talk perfectly imperfect American English. Then they are found out and they instead talk in their native language…only they don’t. They’re talking English with a thick Churmann accent or Rhooshun accent! I know the reason why is because it is an English language movie so the bad guy has to talk in English, but it would be just as difficult to do it in either way.
Ted Asregadoo: Or how about every ancient Roman has a British accent and is white. (Ed: The clip is a cheat, but it is funny, so screw it.)
Dw. Dunphy: And even in 2016, in a galaxy far, far away, most of the bad guys are Brits…except for Emo Vader?
Keith Creighton: And in the rom com genre, the over the bed shot where the scene begins a split second after orgasm as the couple falls onto their respective pillows, hair strewn, big exhales.
Not to mention, the “sudden amnesia” scene where the hungover couple can’t remember if they even had sex.
Bob Cashill: Before that, the woman being mostly clothed during the sex scene. TV has gotten better about baring more of the naked truth (see Transparent), but the movies are still demure (see Amy Schumer in Trainwreck), where male nudity is weird or comical (another cliche, possibly true, depending on your feelings on the matter).
Dave Lifton: The other cliche of PG-13 sex is when they’re lying in bed afterwards, and she’s covered up to her neck and each movement shows her maneuvering the blanket around when she moves to prevent anything from being seen.
Robert Cass: The new Netflix show Love features several scenes in which women are shown having sex with Woody Allen — I mean, Paul Rust — but despite the two characters being in bed, at home, behind closed doors, the woman keeps her bra or T-shirt or pajama top on. I remember seeing Knocked Up in 2007 and thinking it was odd that Katherine Heigl was shown having sex with Seth Rogen while wearing a bra, and sure, you could argue that these characters have body-image issues, but I don’t think that’s the subtext. More power to any actress who negotiates a no-nudity clause, and there seem to be many who insist on that clause when they agree to appear in Judd Apatow productions, including Love, but it is possible to shoot a sex scene without nudity in which nudity is still implied. Not every shot has to be a medium shot.
Dave Lifton: The fallacy of the Heigl scene was that it was supposed to be this random, wild, drunken hook-up where she made the wrong decision, but was restrained enough to keep her bra on.
Robert Cass: Actually, the scene I’m thinking of occurs after Heigl discovers she’s pregnant and decides to give a relationship with Rogen a try. I can buy a one-night-stand type of scene in which two people keep at least some of their clothes on because they’re self-conscious about having sex with someone they just met. But in the scene I’m referring to, Heigl and Rogen have known each other for a little while. The lack of nudity, or at least the lack of implied nudity, just seemed strange.
Remember when NYPD Blue debuted on ABC in the fall of ’93? Its use of partial nudity made Donald Wildmon and the American Family Association call for a boycott of ABC, but even though NYPD Blue continued to feature partial nudity over the next 12 seasons, the trend never moved beyond that show, as far as I know. Instead, CSI came along in 2000 and put close-ups of bloody corpses on display, because religious groups are fine with simulated gore and violence, but real breasts and buttocks? Mercy! We’re probably going to hear the F word at 8/7c on a network show before we ever see a nipple (Janet Jackson’s doesn’t count).
Beau Dure: Hasn’t nudity been waning in films for decades now? When I was growing up, I’d go see Trading Places and get a completely gratuitous topless shot of Jamie Lee Curtis. Now, I can see a PG-13 film with violence that makes me ill, but no, you can’t see anything revealing.
Not that I’m insistent on having my kids see topless women every time they go to the theater, but we’re pretty backwards when it comes to what draws an R and what doesn’t.
David Medsker: As Jack Nicholson said 30 years ago, “Kiss a tit, R. Hack it off with a sword, PG.”
Keith Creighton: If you have yet to see the documentary about the mysterious motives and machinations of the MPAA, I highly suggest you rent This Film Is Not Yet Rated.
Bob Cashill: Sex itself is pretty much out in Hollywood movies. Fifty Shades of Grey released pent-up demand, but even that was pretty tame. In the 70s it would have been steamier.
Keith Creighton: Welcome to New Puritan America. Intimate relations between consenting adults is out. Big guns, fast cars and explosions are in. Men drive the stories. Women are accessories. Gays are a threat to our children and Trans are a threat to our bathrooms.
Dave Lifton: I think a lot of that has less to do with Puritanism than the idea that you don’t need to go to the movies to get a glimpse. The American Pie series was raunchy, but that launched before broadband proliferation.
Keith Creighton: Come to think of it, is Morgan Freeman’s very existence in a movie its own cliche?
Dave Lifton: “The Magical Negro…”
Keith Creighton: And let’s not forget the Scooby Doo effect where people can quickly don and remove incredibly complex prosthetic masks — you have the Mrs. Doubtfire variety and then any movie where two radically different actors play the same role.
Scott Malchus: In time travel movies in which a joke is made about some electronic device. i.e fax machines, photo copiers, computers, cell phones. We get it, things we’re bigger and bulkier back then!
And Keith, as someone who used to work in makeup efx, the whole Mrs. Doubtfire scenario pisses me off. Movie executives actually believe it’s that easy!
Keith Creighton: Ever since they figured out how to make it look like you just got hit by a car, for comedic or dramatic effect, it seems like EVERY movie does it the exact same way. Whenever a character walks into the street, you just know it’s going to happen.
Same with anytime you see a driver filmed from the POV of the passenger street, you just know they are going to get t-boned by a truck.
David Medsker: I second the no-look collision. Alex Cross has one that is just preposterous. Coming full speed out of a parking garage, and boom, someone times it perfectly, even though they at no point could see the car they were targeting until just before they hit it.
I’d also like to nominate the oft-manufactured conflict that splits up the two leads before the climax. So few movies get this right these days.
Keith Creighton: I think that split-up cliche is stock from the Hero’s Journey script playbook.
Scott Malchus: Children’s films (in particular animated ones) and the whole one parent is dead cliche.
Beau Dure: This might be more of a TV trope, but as a D.C. metro resident, I’m always amused by how quickly characters zip around the area. Downtown D.C. to Quantico? Oh sure, that’s a nice 10-minute drive at rush hour.
Dave Lifton: The ultimate example of that is the Vegas montage, where they go from the Strip to downtown back to the Strip to off-Strip to a shot of a hotel that closed shortly after they finished shooting…
Scott Malchus: Living in LA, I laughed my ass off during the episode of 24 when Jack Bauer supposedly drove from Culver City to Valencia (where nuke had gone off) in 15 minutes on the 405. That’s a drive that takes a half hour without traffic , and he’ going to get there in 15 during rush hour after national disaster?
Robert L. Ross: Scenes shot in “New York” look nothing like New York. (Sorry, native bias.)
Rob Smith: I have a single-artist gripe — Spike Lee’s dolly shots, where the character is supposed to be walking, but is obviously being wheeled around on a dolly. It’s one of his trademarks, and I’m sure there’s some aesthetic reasoning and deep postulating that went into the choice to make THAT one of his trademarks, but it drives me crazy. I recall seeing Malcolm X with a couple friends, and toward the end of the film, I leaned over to one of them and said, “It’s been almost three hours, and no dolly!” At which point Malcolm began walking toward the Audubon Ballroom, where he was to be assassinated, only he wasn’t walking; it was like he was on a people mover. My friend let out one of the most inappropriate laughs in the history of film-watching.
Here’s a nice compendium of “Spike and his dolly” scenes:
Ann Logue: Don’t get the Logue family started on The King’s Speech, rated R for a few “fucks” – the word, not the action. Practically G. (It’s unclear if Lionel Logue was a relative. A genealogically inclined cousin is working on it.)
David Medsker: Oh, that was complete and total bullshit.
Scott Malchus: When The King’s Speech came out, I told my then 11 year old daughter my frustration over it’s ‘R’ rating. I explained why the character had to say “fuck.” I then said to her, “you probably hear the same language in the school yard.” She replied, “Oh dad, you won’t believe how much the kids around me swear.”
Ann Logue: Uh, in the school yard? Around here. it’s in the house, the car, the grocery store, I even said it in church last week (and was reprimanded by the minister, as well I should have been.)
Dan Wiencek: Dropping f-bombs in church? Dayum!
Zack Dennis: Keep in mind that most Catholic churches have had a grotesque display of torture as the backdrop to their main stage for many, many years, so at least they haven’t been inconsistent about it.
Dw. Dunphy: Any last words, people?
David Medsker: Screw Flanders.