Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Essays

Professor Bob’s Least Favorite Movie Clichés

I’d like to start a comment piece here. I invite readers to send in their favorite—or, more appropriately, least favorite—movie clichés. You know, the ones that make you cringe every time you see them, make you wonder what the writer, director, and actor could possibly have been thinking of, and why no one stopped them.

To start off, here is a baker’s dozen of my own least favorites. Some of these were fresh once—clever, funny, or surprising—but have long since lost their edge. Others were dumb the first time, and keep getting dumber with every repeated use. In either case, you wonder why they keep showing up—sometimes even in otherwise pretty-good movies.

Countdown to cliché

Enjoy—or not:

1. A machine with numbers ticking away, or better still, a computer with a human voice, preferably female, repeating some inane phrase like “There are now two minutes and twenty seconds before self-destruct.” Because of course both the characters in the film and the folks in the audience need to be reminded that time is running out.

2. A dream that we didn’t know was a dream ends suddenly with a shot of the dreamer snapping bolt upright in bed, gasping for breath. That’s the way we all respond to frightening dreams, right?

3. And what about slapping a person who’s in hysterics? I’ve always had the sneaking suspicion that this has never actually happened, but was invented for the movies and happens only in movies. Evidently a lot of folks believe in it, though—or want to, just so they can get in a lick or two of their own. Airplane! got that right.

4. People not only staying underwater for longer than humanly possible, but emerging in full breath and ready to subdue an opponent in a fistfight.

5. It’s early in the film, and the audience needs some background on the character they’re supposed to be interested in. So our maverick protagonist has been called in to talk with his boss. Maybe it’s a new boss, to whom he has just been assigned; maybe it’s a guy he’s been working with for years. Either way, we have the boss read the guy’s dossier to him! What can be more riveting and character-revealing than two guys talking about things that they both already know and each one of them already knows that the other one knows. And the guy who wrote the movie got paid how much to come up with this?

6. We’ve only got seven seconds to get out of this building before it explodes, but never mind. Any action hero can outrun an explosion—even one that would devastate an entire city block. The concussion doesn’t even knock him down as he runs toward the camera—preferably with girl alongside—no more than a few yards from the building erupting in flame behind him. Compare that with the news footage of people choking and gasping and collapsing from the smoke and debris of the collapsing World Trade Center twenty blocks away.

7. A gunman sticks his head up over the pitch of the roof, just enough to draw a bead. But that’s time enough for someone on the ground to spot him, take aim, and fire. Now get this: the guy on the roof is shot from the front and below; but he pitches forward and falls spectacularly off the roof. This is, of course, so we can get a spectacular stunt shot. But the stunt is an old one, and no longer worth knocking the laws of physics and ballistics into a cocked hat. All makers of films that feature gunfight sequences should be made to repeat 500 times: When shot in the front, the victim is thrown backward.

8. Say you don’t want to kill this guy, just put him out of commission for a while. What do you do? Whack him on the head with whatever’s handy—usually the butt of a pistol, but sometimes a board or a bottle or a utensil. This always works. The victim obligingly passes out immediately, does not come to until he can no longer be any trouble, and when he does regain consciousness, he does little more than rub his head. First, it’s not that easy to hit a person so hard that he loses consciousness. (Don’t try it.) Second, if you do, you might cause a concussion or even permanent brain damage. Only in the movies can you hit a guy just hard enough to put him out of commission, but not so hard that he won’t be perfectly fine again in a few minutes.

9. Sometimes it’s the bad guy, sometimes it’s the good guy, but somebody in a running gunfight eventually runs out of bullets and, in desperation, throws his gun at the other guy. It always happens, and it never works. If, just once, the gun actually hit the other guy and knocked him out, or at least delayed him a little, that might be reason enough to keep trying it out. But it never does a bit of good, just leaves the guy who threw his gun weaponless. If he’d held on to it, at least he could have used it as a club (see 8, above). And, hey, guns cost a lot of money. What self-respecting desperado, old western or new urban, is going to just throw one away?

10. One character insists to another that there is no way in hell that he is ever going to do what she has just asked him to do; cut to him doing it. Funny the first time, but never since.

11. Something horrible is about to happen, is happening, or worst of all has already happened. Our hero is aware of it and helplessly runs (or sometimes just turns) toward the situs of the action—where the camera is positioned—and screams “No!” The more syllables he can get out of that “No!” the more intensely his desperation evokes audience empathy. And of course just to stress how helpless he is to stop the disaster, we show this in slow motion, right? This was old and annoying long before George Lucas has Annakin Skywalker, about to become Darth Vader, do it in Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith, and if Lucas’s creative bankruptcy wasn’t obvious by then, that moment definitely seals it. You can even see it coming, and you want to try to stop it: Please don’t do that, please God don’t let him do that, anything but that again. And at that moment you know the very desperation that a movie character feels when he just can’t stop what’s happening before his eyes, and you, too, want to run toward the screen and yell, “Nooooooooo!” But you have more taste and better judgment than George Lucas, so you just sit there in disbelief.

12. Someone is looking at a movie character; maybe several people are looking at him; and he sees them looking. No one has said a word. Does he say, “What are you looking at?” or “What’s up?” No, not any more. Now he always has to say simply “What?” All of my life, “What?” has been what you say when someone says something that you didn’t quite hear, didn’t understand, or couldn’t quite believe. It has never been the thing you say when nobody has said anything at all. Except in the movies, for the past decade or so, ad infinitum. This is another one that was cute the first time, maybe the first dozen times—but no more, please.

13. Best for last: This can be a romantic scene or a scary one. Our protagonists come into a large chamber or a church or a cavern or an inviting bedroom, and it is filled with lighted candles. Not a half a dozen or a dozen candles. Hundreds of them. And there’s never anyone around, but the hero never says, “Who the hell lit all these candles? Jesus, there must be a whole army of them, because if it was only a few people, the candles they lit first would have burned way down by the time they got to the last ones.” Or if it’s a romantic bedroom scene (yeah, some of you know the one I’m thinking about), the woman never says, “I’m so glad you could come over—I’ve spent the whole day lighting candles.” It’d be even better if they’re coming back from a date, and she invites him in and says, “Here we are, come right in. I’m so glad the candles I lit six hours ago before we went to dinner are still burning with a romantic glow and haven’t set fire to my apartment.”

OK, what have I left out? Please share your own in our comments section.

© 2011 Robert C. Cumbow