We knew Kyle in The Day. He went to high school with me, Shawn, and others of note, and he was on the scene of more than one classic Icicle Thieves performance. A fine magazine writer and a Shotgun and Newsarama veteran, Kyle has long pontificated on film and had his own Shotgun column, Spit Takes.
At what point does cliche cross the line and become a convention? Are conventions just cliches grown so omnipresent we simply lack the energy to bitch about them anymore? There are multitudes of ridiculous contrivances, narrative absurdities and scientific impossibilities on cinema and TV screens that we just accept without question, but there needs to be a statute of limitations on supension of dibelief. Lets call for a moratorium on some of these narrative place-holders. Then we can go about the business of building new cliches so our kids will have tropes to whine about when they’re beaming holo entertainment directly into their brain implants.
Contrary to popular belief, the greatest obstacle facing the forces of evil is not a wronged man with nothing to lose, or a mother protecting her child at any cost, or even the good will of honest men, it’s central air.
How many megalomaniacal cinematic schemes have been thwarted by a conveniently located air duct and a secret headquarters honecombed by labyrinth of ventilation shafts. Air ducts have screwed the eminent likes of Auric Goldfinger, Hans Gruber, and the Galactic Trade Federation. And since turnabout is fair play, air ducts have even screwed the space marines in Aliens. When screenwriters get their heroes confined in a jam they are not smart enough to write them out of, theres always the good ‘ol air duct gag to fall back on,
My favorite recent example of this tired convention showed up in the overcooked 2010 film Hanna, in which the film’s eponymous adolescent assassin escapes an underground base via air ducts so cavernous they put the Mines of Moria to shame. The only amusing thing about the sequence is picturing the massive, death-star size HVAC units the bad guys must have that require such cathedralesque ventilation shafts.
Every time I see this cliche I think of two things: first, that the villain of the piece has never seen any movie ever, and two, that when I take over the world my secret diabolical clubhouse will be climate controlled solely by baseboard heaters and window AC units.
The Steam-Powered Starship:
Between Blade Runner and Alien, director Ridley Scott may hold the record for creating more pervasive sci-fi visual cliches than anyone this side of Gene Roddenberry. The one that has worn out its welcome the fastest can be traced back to the grimy industrial chic of Alien.
Back in 1979 the gritty design of Alien’s starship Nostromo was a brilliant novelty. The Nostromo was not a drywall and chrome enclave of men in jumpsuits and lab coats, it was a clanking, steamy, industrial space crammed with struts and pipes and grated walkways. Not only did it portent a future where blue-collar grunts traveled the stars as frequently as square jawed scientists. It also provided the ideal setting for Alien’s claustrophobic horror tale.
But does every interstellar ship need to look like the inside of a steel mill? For the last 30 years too many filmmakers have fallen back on plumbing and dry ice as visual signifiers for spaceborne vehicles. Spaceships used to have fins and chrome and blinking lights. Now they have...plumbing. In the future we won’t need nuclear physicists to man spacecraft, but guys with monkey wrenches and pants that sag off their butt. Even the remake of Star Trek, a franchise germinated in primary colored visions of utopian technology, plunged into this cliche. The engineering decks of J.J. Abrams’ Enterprise, with its rows of massive steel tanks and serpentine tubes, looked more like an industrial brewery than a wonderland of future technology. Apparently, transwarp travel doesn’t require an antimatter-matter collision, but the precise fermentation of hops, barley, and water. The blue-collar tech of Alien was refreshing for a while, but can we please go back to a future that looks a little bit less like a boiler room?
The Nitroglyecerin Gas Tank:
This one is a perfect storm of tiresome convention components. Sure, once upon a time we could all suspend our disbelief and swallow that shooting a low caliber bullet (or a high caliber one for that matter) into the gas tank of an ordinary automobile would result in a massive explosion. We bought it because it was cool, and, hey, who doesn’t love explosions. But this stinker of a set-piece-short-cut pops up over and over and over again. The exploding gas tank really falls in the area of conventions that are so sublimely impossible even when evaluated within the experience of an ordinary viewer that its amazing anyone ever let it pass in the first place. If we really thought our automobiles were mobile bunker-buster grade bombs just waiting for a primer, we’d all be riding bikes. Anyone who’s ever flooded their car has experienced firsthand the finicky circumstances required to make even a tiny gasoline explosion. A crack shot to a fuel tank followed by a big fireball is so omnipresent on film, that even if it was plausible, it’s no longer impressive or surprising. I guess the ubiquity of the nitroglycerin gas tank just proves the truth of that old adage: if you want to lie, lie big...and try to work in an explosion.
Through a Glass, Dumbly:
Getting thrown or jumping through a plate glass window will fuck you up beyond all recognition. Period. Unless You’re Jackie Chan. Jackie Chan gets a lifetime achievement pass.
The Public Outing:
Stop me if you’ve head this one before..or, actually don’t, because I’m sure you have. It’s a film’s climax, and the evil CEO/politician/military official of the piece is giving some high-minded speech, or broadcast, or whatever, and suddenly the mike cuts, or the TV signal scrambles, and some damningly sadistic off-the-record comments the villain said earlier, come through the speakers, exposing the dastardly villain for what he is while the world is watching. Swelling music crescendoes, and the aghast public immediately turns on the previously beloved public figure. Criminal indictments or spontaneous vegetable tossing ensues. Good carries the day, usually via some expositionary pre-credits intertitles.
The difficulties of hacking a TV broadcast or the logistics of hijacking a PA system notwithstanding, the public outing convention really exists because seeing a film’s hero quietly turn over a surveillance tape to the press or the proper authorities isn’t that cinematic. As such, when this cliche gets trotted out in genre fare like Minority Report or Batman Returns, it’s not so galling. When time-crunched and narratively exhausted filmmakers try to cap off a serious movie with the convention, as in the otherwise excellent The Constant Gardener, it can sink a whole film. In a post-Rodney King, post Rod Blagojevich world, we all know that a damning piece of audio or video evidence, no matter how timely and dramitically deployed it may be, doesn’t guarantee truth and justice will prevail. Sure “truth will out” but that outing, we all know, is often only the very beginning of the battle.
Good Cop, Bad Husband:
“Hi, honey sorry I’m home so late. This escaped serial killer hijacked a bus full of handicapped kids, so I had to commandeer a sports car, race after him in rush hour traffic, shoot out his tires, then chase him by foot through a shipyard, an apartment building, and across about dozen rooftops. I got shot in the arm on the way and, after a ten minute fist fight and six stab wounds, I managed to defuse the bomb he was carrying and uncover a citywide criminal conspiracy that reaches all the way to the mayor’s office.”
“Yeah, well I worked all afternoon on this meatloaf and you couldn’t even bother to be home for dinner. I WANT A DIVORCE!!”
I’d like to imagine that, someday when anthropologists discover the very first detective story scratched onto the walls of some remote cave, there will be at least one set of pictograms depicting detective Ogg of the CSI (Caveman Special Investgations) getting bawled out by his wife for missing dinner. I also like to imagine that even those early troglodytic viewers, upon watching this primeval incarnation of the archetype unfold, greeted it with a hearty australopithicene yawn.
Cops movies always, and I mean always, go out of their way to show the melodramatic toll busting scumbags and running down perps has on a cop’s domestic life. This cliche’s tired ubiquity alone should be enough to condemn it to the cinematic boneyard. Wearing a badge in a film is so associated with multiple divorces and tired domestic subplots, it hardly bears mentioning in a screenplay anymore. When was the last time this trite little time-waster ever actually added anything to a cop drama? This is a convention that unquestionably deserves the death sentence, no appeals, no last minute pardons from the governor, no stay of execution. Strap it in the chair, wet down the sponges and throw the switch.
Beyond sheer triteness, the nature of the cop film makes this convention inherently misogynist. No matter how well written the script, how carefully nuanced the jilted spouse is constructed by the screenwriter, those mandatory scenes of a cop hero’s better half harping at him or her about coming home late for dinner or missing little Timmy’s baseball game, can’t help but cast the good cop’s wife as petty, unsympathetic and usually inhumanly shrill.
The Good Cop, Bad Husband trope is dead weight disguised as character development. Sure, the cop genre is full of cliches, many as hoary as this one, but tired subplots like The Chief Who’s Always on the Cop’s Case, or The Dead Partner Who’s Just 2 Weeks From His Pension are actually move the cop movie plot, even if they are hackneyed. The Disintegrating Marriage trope doesn’t, because, never in the history of this ancient genre has the hero cop ever decided: “OK, I am going to stop this bullet-swapping hot pursuit mid car-chase because I promised to take my wife to the opera tonight.” Never has a hard boiled detective, while cozying up in a candlelit restaurant on their anniversary ever said “you know what, honey? I’m going to shut off my pager. The gang war raging through the city isn’t nearly as important as making moon-eyes at you over the tiramisu.” It never happens, it never will, and the audience knows it. Its beyond formula and fully into the territory of dead air.
Maybe this is a truism, something that really happens to all cops in real life. Fine. But the message has been sent. Put a cop on the screen and we’ve been conditioned to assume his marriage sucks anyway. Filmmakers don’t need to prompt us. So heres a free pointer to screenwriters banging out procedurals and gritty action pics rigt now: we don’t care about your detective’s marital woes. Take your cues form Sherlock Holmes, or, at the very least Columbo, and take a bite out of cinematic crime.