Thursday, February 17, 2011

Cliches and Lazy Filmmaking

Recently, I was drawn into a conversation with a friend about this idea of “cinematic shortcuts” or “film cliches.” These are some highly visual devices used in storytelling in movies and on TV fairly often. Like all cliches, they were at some point effective in communicating an idea. But now they have been over-used. And savvy audiences roll their eyes and grow tired of seeing these cliches time and again.

Want an example? A couple in a movie gets into a fight. As the fight reaches its climax, they storm off to separate rooms and slam doors. Cliche. How many times have we seen people slam doors in movies? Sometimes it can have its place, especially if the filmmaker works out a way to make this not a cliche but something new and fresh because of how its playing out on screen.

Another classic cliche of the action movie is the crashing vehicle that blows up into a big ball of flames as if the entire body of the car had in fact been made out of C4. Its visual, it’s cool looking. So I get it. I understand the temptation to do this. But we’ve seen this now so many times that it has in fact lost its impact.

But what I really want to explore here are the unique cliches that I would suggest become cinematic shortcuts because they are visual means of conveying a deeper idea, but they have also been over-used. My objective as a filmmaker is to find fresh and creative ways to communicate without the use of cliche or tired shortcuts. But to do this, I need to first figure out what are cliches and how they have been used.

The Kiss

The first one that comes to mind for me is kissing. We see it in movies all the time. And there’s a reason for this. It is visual, which works perfectly on-screen. And don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of a good movies kiss!

But often characters kissing is used a a shortcut for showing that they are attracted to each other or that they are now in a relationship. I’ve seen it in many movies, and often feel like it looses its power and impact because too often it feels like a shortcut, like lazy storytelling. Could there be another way to get the same idea across, even a very visual way, without it having to be the stereotypical kiss?

Now, if you build up, and the kiss in your film becomes a true moment of catharsis, a release of emotion as we’ve been waiting for these two characters we know are in love with each other to finally and openly express their love, then the kiss has its power again. Though here to we have to be careful. Far too many movies have also relied on a big emotional kiss at the climax of the movie where the music swells and the lover embrace. So, obviously, it becomes a question of how unique and fresh the story is over-all. Can we make such a scene with a new sense of life and excitement, or will it feel like a rip-off of dozens of over films with the same climatic kiss scene?

Throw It Out

Another shortcut I’ve seen a lot in TV shows and movies goes something like this: Man is in love with woman. He plans to propose to her. At what feels like the right moment to him, he pulls out the ring box and pops the question. But woman, while professing her love for him, breaks his heart and says no. They part ways, because how could their relationship remain the same now? In his heart-broken state, needing to move on, the man stands near a body of water. He takes ring box and throws it out into the water. Splash. The ring, and with it, the relationship is gone.

It’s visual, right? Absolutely. In fact, the above scene I just described is directly from a recent episode of the TV show Bones. As I watched it, and I saw the character look at this ring box post break-up, I began to mutter something along the lines of, “Oh no. Don’t do it. I feel a cliche coming. Oh. There it is. There it goes. Damn it! Had to go for the cliche, didn’t they?”

This type of scene takes on many forms, but specifically the throwing out of a engagement ring is quite common. The trouble is, often times the characters that perform these acts don’t strike me as the types that would do this. In all other areas of their life they seem to behave pretty pragmatically. This is certainly the case with the above mentioned character from Bones. So suddenly to toss this expensive and powerful item out seems a wee-bit melodramatic for an otherwise level-headed character. In other words: out of character. But I get it. It’s a visual shortcut. A quick way to show that this is definitively the end of this relationship. Nonetheless, I feel it is lazy writing.

Another manifestation of this type of scene is one where a character is angry with another character who calls them on their cell phone. And what do they do? They throw their cell phone over a cliff, or into a poll, or off the peer. Again, it’s visual. I get it. But I guess the beauty of being a fictional character is that you don’t have to be concerned about buying a new cell phone and making sure you get all those phone numbers and contact information off the old phone you just tossed off that boat or into the deep-end of the pool and into a new phone.

Sometimes this scene is about freedom. A character chooses to divorce themselves from their workaholic life, even if just for a while, and so they toss that ever-ringing phone. Again, great visual picture. I understand why movies have used scenes like this in the past. But I’ve seen it too many times now. So I’m hesitant to use it in my own films.


The final cinematic shortcut I want to address today is sex. Lets take a moment and acknowledge that movies and sex are pretty good fit in many ways. Let’s face it, movies and TV are visual mediums, and what could be more visual than sex, right? And contrary to what some of my Christian friends might suggest, I do believe there is a proper place, use, and context for on-screen sexuality. But our topic today is how sex has become a movie cliche, so I won’t get into that right now.

Two characters are in love. Their relationship is becoming more intimate. So how do we show that? How do we show they’re really in-love? Or that their relationship is moving into deeper waters? Here comes the sex scene.

Again, I get it. And in some movies it makes perfect sense that this would be the next natural action the characters might take. But in a lot of movies, its a lazy, lazy, lazy shortcut. It is a means for quickly trying to say, “See, they’re really in love.” Two characters meet at the start of the movie. They flirt right away. Fifteen minutes into the movie, they’ve kissed. And before the end of the first act, they’ve slept together. And what’s more, these people who have only known each other a short while, somehow seem to manage having mind-blowing and amazing sex. They seem to innately know how to perfectly please their partner. Yeah right. My BS detector just went off the charts just now.

Things like this sure look like lazy storytelling to me. The challenge I embrace for my own writing is to seek out other means of showing that two people are in fact growing closer together. What other visual means can I come up with to communicate the idea that they are becoming more vulnerable with each other? That they are becoming more committed to each other? It is my drive and hope to do something new and fresh, not just come up with an excuse for another sex scene.

What Else?

So what other cinematic shortcuts or movie cliches do you see? What do you try to avoid in your own storytelling? Or what just bugs you when you see it in a movie? Feel free to share. Who knows, I might have to write a follow-up blog entry with some of the most notable examples.


Patty said...

It always bugs me when the bad guy falls off the top of a tall building or through a plate glass window, or off of a bridge. You know the routine, he and the good guy are fighting, when suddenly God intervenes and gives him what he deserves! That's my choice for the most overused cliché.

Good blog Mike.


Randi Gipson said...

Probably my biggest pet peeve is when there are two people in a scene. They're talking and all of the sudden, the camera is only on one person for a long time and they are rambling on. Then when they're done talking for a half hour, they realize the other person isn't there anymore or has fallen asleep. This is PAINFUL when I see it every time. Especially because it's not usually a very chatty character who ends up being the one talking a mile a minute, oblivious. As soon as I see the camera go from a 2 shot to a closer shot of one character I feel this coming and am instantly annoyed.

Anonymous said...

For me it's the 'single character talks so long they don't realize the one they're talking to has walked away/fallen asleep' gag. Really? You just did a soliloquy and didn't notice that the person you're talking to hasn't said a peep for the last 1/2 hour (bit of an exaggeration). This annoys me 10x more when the character doing the talking has asked a question and when they don't get a reply says something like "Oh, so you're not talking to me now?" Seriously?! This serves no purpose, other than to annoy me because I see it coming 50 miles away.

-Katy P

Pete said...

A good friend of mine once left me a sheet of common movie clichés.. the main character commits suicide at the end of the movie, the good guys have some miraculous second wind that causes them to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds, the whole movie being a dream and the protagonist wakes up and has a chance to change his entire life, etc... What constitutes a cliché is not the act itself but the context and usage in the movie.

I think the point Mike made about the Bones episode is a perfect example of this. The cliché is not the act of throwing away the ring. The cliché is that the act is not inherent in the character. One could argue that the director was attempting to express the strong feelings that the character was having by doing something uncharacteristic, but what was chosen was trite and cliché so it becomes a distraction.

Another argument is that audiences expect certain clichés and are actually left with a sense of cognitive dissonance when the scene does not play out the way they believe it should in their minds. In the case of the kiss or even sex, we find that these clichés are expected by the audience after heightened emotional segments... a climax to all of the foreplay of them divulging their feelings for one another, or someone rescuing someone, or hell maybe they're all alone and there is nothing else to do.

The fact of the matter is that film is a visual media and some things just look good on screen. As filmmakers, we try to hold each other to higher standards. We know that the kiss is a visual shortcut to show a connection between two people, but we expect our peers to try and show this connection by other means instead of the "easy" way. But many times, the allure of the obvious is too strong. The thinking is that the audience expects it and they want to see it, so why not show it?

I was doing a read-through of a script I'd written a couple years back. I had my friend reading for the lead and afterwards I asked for comments and suggestions and she said that she felt that the use of the words, "I love you" was overused. Not overused in the story, just overused in general. I thought about it and I decided it would be interesting to try to convey the feeling of love without simply using the shortcut scene where the characters gaze into each others eyes and one of them says in a soft and sultry voice, "I love you..."

In the end, I had to add scenes, rework others, and a whole boatload of other things that were time consuming and involved a lot of staring blankly at the computer screen completely lost as to what to write. But overall, it worked. It made the story and the connection between the characters stronger. Also I was able to be more specific about the relationship as well as avoiding using stereotypes to convey character convictions.

As artists, our work is more than just work. Our work is self-expression of ourselves and what we stand for. Using clichés and being lazy will get the job done at the cost of one's own integrity as a true artist and filmmaker. Plus, it's much more fun to find alternatives to the norm that haven't been used before.

Mikel J. Wisler said...

Very well put, Pete! Some very good observations there. Finding new ways to express ourselves without using cliche after cliche is a lot of work, but it is ultimately much more rewarding too.

I also love the connection between Randi and Katy's comment. Yeah, that's definitely annoying. I'm with you on that!

Anonymous said...

The biggest cliche I can think of is rain representing sorrow and despair. There's so many movies where it's a bright and sunny day and something sad happens and it starts raining out of nowhere. I think it plays out a little better if it's already raining, but it's still a lazy move.