The other afternoon I had the delight, courtesy of a friend of mine from London, to watch a video which compiled what they called the top 10 biggest movie cliches. It was a keen, humorous look at some of the staples which have proliferated through modern moviemaking to the point of becoming that much-maligned but oft-enjoyed beast, the ‘cliche’. But as much as I enjoyed watching the video (linked below and recommended) it did set me thinking about the nature of something taking that journey from conventional to stereotypical to downright unoriginal, repetitive or derivative, and additionally questioning whether or not a cliche within the realm of film viewing is necessarily an intrinsically negative thing as is implied.
Firstly, this blog isn’t intended to be any sort of thesis or academic document, nor is it an extensively researched or supported piece of journalism, it’s just my own personal opinions and mind farts on whatever is intriguing or distracting me at the moment, be they good or bad. It’ll no doubt fluctuate from being slightly more considered (as hopefully this article may be) to more random and less coherent gushings or rantings on music, art, television and possibly even my own personal life, heaven help you all!
Anyhow, getting back on subject, the best place to start seems to be trying to define exactly what a cliche is. Everyone seems to be able to bandy the term around nowadays, but it seems the more the terminology seeps into the mainstream and into our cultural lexicon, the more it becomes simplified and distilled, or just used as a de facto label for elements of film-making that may actually be otherwise intended or deliberate. Is that even a problem or an issue? Probably not, and it’s probably only due to my having studied film and communication and theories of interpretation to degree-level that it bothers me, but I still think it’s intriguing to take a gander at how the state of the word cliche, and what it implies, currently stands.
Now obviously it’s important to acknowledge that the notion of a ‘cliche’ is by no means limited to the realm of film-making, in fact it isn’t even confined to the arts and entertainment. It’s one of those beating sticks that can be applied to almost anyone or anything if they are executed in a decidedly unoriginal fashion, but clearly it’s prime raison d’etre is being an ingredient of critique for the arts. Let’s take a look at it’s dictionary definition:
1. A trite or overused expression or idea.
So it’s fair to say, by definition alone, that a cliche is assumed to be a negative, underwhelming, hackneyed thing - nobody ever really uses the word to connote anything positive, for instance, or not at least without prefacing it if so (i.e. ‘charmingly cliche’). Even the dictionary definition begins by using ‘trite’ as a descriptor, meaning ‘to lack power or evoke interest through overuse or repetition’. Everybody knows and is comfortable with this, but is its application always necessarily that fair, or even always that negative?
Now I couldn’t begin to list or detail all the exhaustive number of cliches that prevail in modern moviemaking. In a sort of postmodern self-referential blur, the very idea and notion of identifying and acknowledging cliche’s in film has become something of a derivative cliche in and of itself - youtube and the internet as a whole are absolutely saturated with such articles and videos, and getting even more meta, this article itself now falls into that particular kaleidoscope. However.... I do firmly believe that this exercise of identifying cliches has become overly simplistic and narrow-minded, and hopefully this article will be a smidgeon more illuminating and considered.
Take for instance, the aforementioned video. I’m going to link to it now and if you have the time (it’s about 10 minutes long) feel free to watch and enjoy:
The Top 10 Worst Movie Cliches by cinemassacre.com
Now it’s certainly entertaining and there is a wealth of truth in so much of what is presented, but even in such a focused, succinct video I can’t help but feel there’s some over-simplification at work, not just in that video, but in our attitude to moviemaking cliche’s as a whole. It’s certainly an unusual attitude to adopt - and I’m certainly not defending any use of uninspired cliche’s as dramatic or technical devices, but I think there’s mileage in my point that they are not always unwelcome, and sometimes something identified as a cliche can contextually be missing the point...
All modern narrative is, in some way or another, re-imagining. We’re all familiar with Audre Lorde’s adage that ‘There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt.’ I’m not going to dare venture into the minefield of exploring classical narrative structure, Jungean archetypes et al as it would turn this discussion into a bible-beating epic, but to massively generalise, most learned individuals who look at the notion of creative writing, be it prose, screenwriting etc. tend to agree that the very nature of storytelling has become a pool of re-imagining and re-working, an extremely derivative creative method, and in a purely inevitable and not a negative way. Now clearly I don’t include the recent boom in remakes and 3D re-releases in this excusing as I believe that mimicry is an altogether different beast that can be explored at a later date - but more that storytelling as a whole is drawn from a pool of traditions, conventions and archetypes that are crafted and moulded into new plots, arcs and characters; fundamentally if you find something you enjoy in a painting or a play or a book or a film, chances are you can find something fundamentally similar, even if just at a conceptual, moralistic or philosophical level, in some other work of art elsewhere.
So, at a stretch, it could be argued that all art is inherently cliched - reliant on a pre-existing set of ideas, techniques and narrative templates which can be moulded and given a shiny new exterior but ultimately it’s the same beast lurking under the paintjob. We pluck our plot and narrative ideas, character types and all the other threads of making a story from a pre-existing boiling pot of ideas which have been circulating for as long as stories have existed. Essentially the very nature of making a film, telling a story using the visual medium of cinema, is one long process of adapting and applying a bundle of cliches into something vaguely original.
The same is true not just of narrative and characters but also of craft and technique - film-making is an extremely technical art with a firm set of practical laws in regards to shot composition, framing, editing, duration etc. etc. For all of the artistry that a cinematographer and their director may accomplish, they too are subservient generally to a pre-existing set of filmmaking rules, traditions and, indeed, cliches if you wish. We all readily accept, for instance, the use of the traditional shot, reverse shot method of filming and editing dialogue scenes with characters as illustrated below.
Shot, reverse shot... the traditional method of shooting character interaction
You could argue then, that the shot, reverse shot method of shooting is one of film-makings biggest cliches, and could then say the same of a film running approximately 90-120 minutes, or generally introducing the main cast within the opening 20 minutes etc. etc. but we don’t, because these things have become staple conventions of the moviemaking process, and as an audience they are part of the accepted language of film - familiar and comfortable.
The point I’m making is that so much of what we know, accept and enjoy from film, and indeed art as a whole, is reliant on a foundation of accepted norms and conventions - it’s an undeniable fact, and something we as viewers or readers or participants happily accept - these conventional rules and guidelines are exactly what allow us to watch, understand and enjoy a movie without becoming confused, disorientated or detached. The point this leads me to is that in some circumstances then, a cliche can do a similar thing, and so the notion that the label ‘cliche’ is an inherently negative or unwanted thing is not necessarily true. I would even go so far as to say some of the cliches lambasted in the video I linked you to, likewise, are not as unwelcome as you may first presume and they too may in fact be born of comfort, familiarity and deliberate application of convention.
So let’s explore that...
Firstly let’s look at one of the most prolific moviemaking cliche’s, and a case of when logic is sacrificed in favour of artificially increasing tension or allowing for some exposition or plot explanation.... I’m talking, of course, about that old chestnut, the ever-monloguing villain. It’s certainly a staple - our hero is trapped or otherwise merciless at the hands of our stereotypical villain and instead of instantly disposing of our main character as logic would dictate, (s)he instead rants on, seemingly forever, about what their plan is, why they are doing it, how much they’re going to enjoy seeing our protagonist die, and in doing so they end up allowing or even creating a window of opportunity for our hero to escape or defeat them.
It’s a narrative device as old as the hills and is quite rightly besmirched by practically everyone when it’s employed. However, is this really the dastardly terrible cliche everyone labels it to be? There’s no denying that it’s fiendishly unoriginal, totally illogical and incredibly predictable. There surely must be a more inventive way of divulging crucial plot information to the characters and audience without depriving the antagonist of logic and menace.... yes yes yes, it’s clearly a screenwriting faux-pas, but could it not be said, particularly in the action-adventure genre, that it’s become something of a comfortable, familiar convention in and of itself? Would some viewers not find the presence of such a series of events actually quite re-assuring and satisfying, knowing that the villain is going to indulge in his soliloquy and ultimately end up being the cause of his own demise by prattling on for too long? Is it not part of our projection and interaction with the movie, part of the process of second-guessing what is to come, our own minds engaging and foreseeing what is to happen? Likewise, does the cliched tripping and falling of a character in a horror film, for instance, not instantly raise the tension or our apprehension because we are familiar with the fate that usually befalls such characters? Yes, in hindsight and reflection we may be able to sit here and nitpick its unoriginality and lack of logic that a character doesn’t immediately get back up, but when we are in the moment watching the film, generally speaking don’t we along for the ride and generally speaking enjoy these deliberately and purposefully orchestrated peaks in the tension and dramatic curvature of a sequence? I remember first watching the scene at Weathertop in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and when Frodo stumbles back away from the ringwraiths as they advance on him, I remember being completely engaged and convinced by a defenceless halfling struck with terror helplessly fumbling back on the ground as ghoulish robed spectres towered over him. I did not sit there yelling ‘get up you dumbass’ at the screen and begin furiously cursing the writers for implementing this age-old ‘cliche’.
My father, for instance, watches the exact same kind of 1980’s macho action nonsense ad infinitum, and they’re all cut from the exact same cloth and I would wager the vast majority all have the same atypical villain showdown as detailed above. And as they entertain him, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that - they are entirely predictable, not remotely intellectually or emotionally stimulating but he enjoys them, and they too are fuelled by the familiar, the enjoyable and don’t profess to be anything else. He’s an enormous James Bond fan who absolutely detested Casino Royale because of how original and non-traditional it was, whilst critics praised it for it’s re-imagining and unconventional handling of the Bond franchise. The same was not true of Quantum of Solace, criticised as it was for regressing back to Bond traditions too much, whilst my father, a Bond enthusiast, thoroughly enjoyed it. See? Conventions can become cliches very quickly, but sometimes I think they can become more welcome than one would first presume.
Another film series I like to analyse in regards to the its use of convention vs cliche are the Scream films. From the very first film back in 1996 the movies were extremely postmodern and self-aware, even containing a monologue on which horror cliche’s you need to avoid (lovingly referred to as ‘the rules’) in order to survive. It was smart, original and held a looking glass up to the industry of moviemaking, in particular as it pertained to horror movies, and took some steps in defying convention. However, predictably, sequels followed, and this sharp commentary became less convincing, and the message and intent of the films began to contrast sharply with their execution, and a whole set of in-universe Scream cliches began to make themselves apparent, and not in an ironic or self-reflective way.
As a fan of the series, I was nonetheless greatly anticipating this years Scre4m, and on reflection I realised how very much I wanted the fourth installment to nestle itself comfortably in a bed of cliches and Scream tradition. I, like many fans of the original films, wanted to see Ghostface (the title given to the robed killer in the series) taunt people over the phone, I wanted to see people get chased up the stairs, I wanted the ‘Red Right Hand’ theme which we’ve heard play in all three previous movies to ring out at some point (it didn’t, to my chagrin), I wanted Sidney’s theme to play over a moment of vulnerability for the character, and even more visual specific cliches such as the inevitable shots of the killer missing his target and instead planting his knife firmly into a door or other wooden surface. And, going back to our previous example, I once again wanted the stereotypical showdown between our main hero Sidney Prescott and the killer(s) as they explain their motives and go through the aforementioned cliche villain’s speech. These ingredients of the series were all cliched staples by the time the third installment was released back in 2000, and yet, 11 years later, I was still wanting to see them present in Scre4m. And again, in a bit of a postmodern headache, I wanted to see some scene of characters discussing the existing cliche’s and rules and how these are apparently changed (‘The unexpected is the new cliche’ to quote directly from the film), which in a bizarre double-level of self awareness is a cliche for the series in and of itself. The fourth film also resonated with fans because of how it continually self-referenced the events of the original film and purported itself to be an in-universe ‘remake’, and then to get even *more* postmodern we have the film-within-a-film-within-a-film opening sequence, which *also* goes on about the cliches currently surrounding contemporary horror films.
Now all that intertextuality and self-reflectivity has almost threatened to obscure my point, but in fact it’s very simple - my attachment to the Scream series and its staple of very welcome and anticipated cliches shows once more that they are not inherently negative or unwelcome inclusions. Now obviously not everyone shares my opinion on that particular perspective - in fact Scre4m was panned by some for the very reason it is the same formula, characters and conventions recycled out once more 11 years later, but as a fan of the series I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Now obviously there are a huge number of cliches that exist outside of continuing franchises, and can’t be justified as being expected conventions of a specific storyline or series of films. But yet again, let’s not instantly disregard these as being the product of lazy writing or indicative of some creative drought. Cliche’s, particularly visual ones in the world of film-making, can on occasion be deliberate, and may unbeknownst to a viewer be entering into territory of homage, parody, writer/director trademarking or other forms of referencing, even if it’s to ones own work.
Martin Scorcese, for instance, has the tendency to work the image of a ‘X’ sign into much of his work and can be seen in the background of a shot or two in practically every movie he directs. The train station shootout scene in The Untouchables visually references the infamous Odessa steps massacre from way back in Battleship Potemkin. Quentin Tarantino works countless homage’s to both Eastern and Western classics in many of his films, most notable perhaps being the two Kill Bill movies. George Lucas loved littering his prequel Star Wars films with imagery that referenced the original trilogy, for instance the visual rhyming of the Trade Federation control ship being destroyed at the end of The Phantom Menace with that of the death stars destruction in A New Hope, or the burning of Qui Gon Jinn’s body being visually identical to the pyre of Darth Vader, or the viewing platform of General Greivous’ ship in Revenge of the Sith being aesthetically near-identical to the one in the death star in Return of the Jedi, with the same character of Palpatine sat in a near-identical rotating chair in the centre both, with Lucas describing the two trilogies as being like rhyming stanza’s in traditional poetry writing.
Now strictly speaking none of the above are really ‘cliches’, but they still demonstrate usage of imagery which may not be instantly recognised as deliberate application, and there are certainly times when people instantly disregard something as cliche when it’s consciously and deliberately being referential. It doesn’t take an overly educated or cultured mind to necessarily notice or acknowledge when a film is being referential to an existing piece of work, but I have lost count of the times people have chastised a film for including something which they claim has been ‘stolen’ from another, instantly labeling it an unoriginal, uninspired cliche without first stopping to consider that important notion of homage. I remember watching Godzilla (yes the awful 1998 remake) with a friend, who moaned at the use of the heart beat sound effect being used as the titular creature died during the films denouement, declaring it to be ‘stolen’ from the original classic King Kong film. It irked me at the time, even at a young age, because I could concede that this was likely not theft but merely homage and a loving nod to a classic which had clearly heavily inspired the regretful and remorseful tone of the films conclusion.
Moving on from homage/parody/interextual referencing, there’s another key argument for why the existence of cliches within film and narrative can be a useful tool if used sparingly and efficiently - for by applying a character, circumstance or even shot composition that screams ‘cliche’, an audience will instantly pre-suppose how that particularly shot or scene is going to develop, and this can be a powerful method of audience manipulation when a writer or director wants to go in a completely different, unexpected direction. In some cases this might be a fairly cheap means of misleading the audience visually - for instance framing a shot to make you convinced someone will leap out from an open door only to surprise the audience with a completely different outcome, or for example in a horror film when they go to explore a noise and it turns out just to be a cat or the wind, only to have the real threat leap out in the lull, but there are other powerful examples of when our familiarity with cliched story outcomes, characters or sequences have lulled us into a false sense of security and provided plenty of shocks or drama. Back when Jaws was released few expected Quint to be the member of the Orca crew to succumb to the shark, due mostly to his standing as the atypical heroic figure.... likewise jumping back to the Scream series the cliched notion of the hollywood leading lady always surviving was thrown on its head by deliberately having the original films biggest star, Drew Barrymore, be the opening victim. It was a brilliant move that instantly blindsided audiences and made them feel the threat throughout the movie was very real and that none of the characters were safe.
BUT I'M DREW F**KING BARRYMORE, I'm on the frigging poster!!!
Not many cinema goers were expecting this either...
We NEED that original cliche to exist in order for our presumptions to take hold which in turn allows us to be surprised when our expectations are not met.
Now the more specific we are with these examples the more we can label them as cliches being used as a means to manipulative an audience, and the broader we go in scope to character and plot the further we deviate from cliche and more into convention and tradition, but the over-arching idea that the tired and unoriginal can be used to falsely placate or misdirect an audience is another plus point on the tally of support for what may at first be instantly disregarded.
Going back to considering the usage of the word ‘cliche’ itself, another point of contention I have with its contemporary application is how it seems to have wrongly transmogrified into some sort of noun, when I firmly believe, at least in regards to its application as a filmic critique, it should be used in a purely descriptive fashion as a descriptor, an adjective. This is a fairly banal and pedantic point, but one I wanted to include nonetheless. I have a slight issue with videos, articles, magazines etc. labelling, as they do, the ‘top movie cliches’, as though some all-encompassing and irrepressible judgement has labelled something and branded it undeniably a CLICHE and as if that in and of itself connotes and details that thing in its entirety. The notion of a cliche is entirely contextual and subjective - what is cliche to one person may not be to another, it all depends on our exposure to the material we are deeming so, and however many other familiar experiences we’ve had. Likewise, as the video I linked to demonstrated, the term can be applied to an incredibly varied and disparate number of elements of the film-making discipline - characters, dialogue, plot devices, framing, music, editing etc. so to apply such a blanket term to such a diverse and completely separate set of components again seems to purport the idea that many people bandy the term around at a very lazy and entry-level standard of critiquing.
Now, before I conclude, I feel it important to do some leveling of the scales. My biggest attack in this article, to generally summarise, is the overly simplistic manner in which we criticise moviemaking cliches without consideration of the various elements I’ve touched upon in this article - that all storytelling is a compound of pre-existing conventions, templates and archetypes, that sometimes something is not cliched but self-referential/homage/parody and that generally speaking there can be a positive or comforting effect by applying the use of well known staples of a particular genre or film series or even applying them as a means to cunningly misdirect an audiences attentions or expectations. People seem to get some buzz or thrill from being able to instantly disregard something as being cliched or unoriginal and sometimes (see that, sometimes) it is an unfair and overly narrow-minded attitude to take. Now clearly these exceptions are still in the minority, but until we at least acknowledge they do exist and explore their implications then there’s no way we can start being a little more disciplined in the lackadaisical attitude that has developed in handling this particular piece of terminology.
However, with all that having been said, I naturally will acknowledge that there are some inexcusable and putrid films and screenplays out there rotten with creative anorexia - laden with lazy, unoriginal dialogue, utterly derivative in its narrative progression and conclusion, and with all other manner of borrowed and cliched ingredients thrown into the mix. And my biggest qualm, above any when it comes to this particular subject, and one that I shall once again turn my disdain at cliches back on full throttle for, is a most heinous screenwriting crime in particular which I label ‘self-acknowledging cliches’.
By this I mean when a writer or director or whomever applies the use of a tired cliche in one form or another, and then, whether it be an attempt to be ironic, witty or whatever, actively and consciously draws attention to the fact it is using said cliche. It infuriates me beyond compare, because it is the mark of an artist applying something they did not think of or failed to inject with any originality or creativity and so instead of even attempting to work around its unoriginality merely thrusts a big middle finger right up in our collective faces.
Now I’ve mentioned the Scream films, and they do this themselves, but they are exempt because that’s always been their modus operandi, and generally speaking they’ve executed it in a quirky, ironic and witty way. However, there are countless other examples when this attempt to be kitsch or clever just makes me want to paper cut the writers with their own scripts. In Twilight, for example, in an attempt to have the initial conversation between Bella and Edward seem somewhat disjointed and awkward, they discuss... and wait for the eruption of brilliance here... the weather! And that’s when it comes, the ‘self-acknowledging cliche’ horror, of Bella saying ‘you’re asking me about the weather?’. Just because you’re acknowledging something is cliched, does not make it any less cliched, if anything it makes the material come across as even more contrived and ridiculous.
I will in fact go back on the parley I granted the Scream films to momentarily illustrate another example - this time from the third instalment, Scream 3, which is generally considered to be the weakest written of the original trilogy. At the end of the film we have the stereotypical showdown between our hero, Sidney Prescott, and the unmasked killer (spoilers ahead.........) Roman Bridger. As they chuck around some of the trilogies least subtle film narrative metaphors and similes, we get to the following line by Sidney:
‘Fine, you’ve got what you what, the hero and villain face to face, well you know what happens now? The villain dies!’
Again, Scream 3, we really didn’t need this degree of blatant cliche awareness... especially when it’s compounded a few moments later with the following line as Sidney then goes on to acknowledge Roman’s cliched villain monologue which the likes of which we as an audience have seen already in the previous two films:
‘God why don’t you stop your whining and get on with it. I’ve heard all this shit before’
If there was going to be some sort of game-changing twist, for example the villain NOT actually dying now they came face to face, then maybe this could be somewhat excused as an ironic preface of what was to come, but Sidney telling Roman, and consequently the audience, that this is the typical hero-villain showdown where typically the villain dies and then, what do you know, a few minutes later that’s exactly what happens... where is the irony or spark or creativity in that line?
Now I shall admit that the Scream 3 examples didn’t enrage me as much as others, I merely used them for illustrative purposes, but they go some way in highlighting the one application of cliches - the self-aware, self-commentating usage, that I personally absolutely cannot abide by, and think it should have the nail hammered into its coffin as soon as humanly possibly. Now this may purely be due to my being rankled by my thinking the screenwriter is finding themselves too clever when they are being the polar opposite, but having spent so much of this discussion in defence of cliches and their application, I wanted to draw attention to the one incarnation and species of cliche I truly cannot excuse or tolerate.
To draw this lengthy ramble to a conclusion, I guess so much of what I have said here can be rendered moot by the fact that, as mentioned, so much of what surrounds the idea of a cliche is entirely contextual and subjective. However, I will re-iterate that I do believe a form of critical rot has set in whereby so many actively critique or assess a movie at a very surface level, and the proliferation of the term ‘cliche’ has become one of its many victims. In some ways I suppose it is an inevitability of the digital age, where everyone and their dog seems to think they are qualified and educated to be a film critic, and like so much of our modern progression, rather than considered, contextually aware deconstructing we are simply making quick, rash, less than 160 characters, less than 10 minutes for your uploaded videos please, status update judgements that there is such a heavy focus on something so ultimately inevitable and trivial, and rarely if ever do we consider the wider contextual picture surrounding these cliches as hopefully I’ve done to some extent here. Does it really matter that so many people are entered by such nitpicking rather than more meaningful deconstruction and analysis? Not at all really, but the subject was rattling around in my head, and if I’d instead spent this article listing my 10 least favourite movie cliches or the like then I’d have just missed my own conscious point entirely and denegrated my own blog to being something of a cliche itself, and that’s the one cliche faux pas I simply refuse to commit.
Next week, something heartier and lighter...
I bed thee all adieu for now!