Last week, we talked about clichés we’d desperately like to erase from the future of culture. This week, Zack suggested that we turn it around: What story clichés do you actively enjoy, or at least usually find effective?
I love the big speech scene, when the hero takes center stage and delivers this brilliant monologue that just kills everybody else in the room. I’ve always been infatuated with the idea that if you could just get the chance to explain everything—if everybody would just shut up for long enough for you to lay it all out—then you could fix any problem, win any argument. Sometimes this works in movies; Atticus Finch’s closing statement in To Kill A Mockingbird is pretty impeccable, and has the added bonus of being futile as well as beautiful. (Maybe the futility is part of what makes it beautiful.) But I’m a sucker for it no matter how cheesy the movie around it might be. Pacino’s “coward” speech in Scent Of A Woman? I’m there. I have no idea if Sam’s talk about stories at the end of The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers is good or ridiculous, because it just gets to me in a way that renders me useless as a critic. I love the illusion that, given the chance, we could all find someplace inside ourselves that’s eloquent enough to meet the demands of any moment.
Cheesy, hackneyed, overused, and effectively-mocked-in-Team America: World Police as it is, I still have to admit that I find the classic training montage pretty rousing. Montages are almost invariably eye-rolling, and I don’t think any movie should have more than one, but I really can’t personally think of a more efficient or effective way to convey someone working hard, fighting against disappointment and despair and setbacks, and getting good at something with devoted effort over time. Also, all that montage-mockery guarantees a little kick of ironic amusement with every montage, and most filmmakers these days seem to get that, and manage to find tongue-in-cheek or at least cliché-conscious ways to pull the idea off. But even taken completely straight, there’s something appealing about the idea that the energy and focus of a single song could carry through weeks or months or years of hard work. It isn’t how real-world training works at all, but that streamlining drive, where everything non-essential to the story is pared out, is often part of the appeal of cinema.
I had a hard time coming up with my answer last week because, unlike with champagne, the perfume from Spain, or the bop-like refrain, I get a kick out of clichés. It’s probably a symptom of a postmodern, pop-culture-damaged mindset, but I greet most clichés not with a shaking fist, but with a hearty guffaw. The journalist out to get the big scoop? Love ’em, especially if they say the words “big scoop.” The reality-show contestant who’s “not here to make friends”? Who is? The pep talk that rallies the team to a come-from-behind victory? I have three words for you: “Ducks fly together.”
The source of that little nugget of third-period inspiration, D2: The Mighty Ducks, is also the source of my all-time favorite cliché: the evil rival team, as embodied by D2’s Team Iceland. (Yes, renowned sporting superpower Iceland.) Their insults are always the most cutting, their methods of winning the most illegal and devious, and their uniforms the darkest shade of bad-ass black. That latter rule is often broken when we move from youth sports to the pros, but the others remain intact: Witness Rookie Of The Year’s New York Mets, whose power hitter, Tom Milanovich, has no qualms about constantly taunting the film’s titular rookie, who just happens to be a child. These teams usually lose in the end—if they don’t, like the Yankees in The Bad News Bears, they’re at least put in their place by a foul-mouthed shortstop—but before they do, they’re the perfect, 100 percent black-hearted villains, and the only reason to root for a rag-tag bunch of losers like the Ducks.
I wouldn’t say I like any clichés. In fact, I hate them. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, if there’s something I hate about a movie, it didn’t arise from incompetence, but from laziness and predictability. That said, I will cop to highly enjoying something that isn’t quite a cliché, but is at least close kin to it: big, obvious pieces of visual shorthand that people don’t actually do in real life, but that they do all the time in movies. I’m talking about gestures (usually holdovers from the theater world) like shaking one’s fist at a young whippersnapper, or shuffling one’s feet to denote shyness, or throwing one’s hat down on the ground out of frustration. They can even have an audio component, like sputtering. I have yet to hear anyone in real life say “Why, you!” or “Bah!” in an unironic fashion, or roll their eyes and whistle nonchalantly in order to prove their innocence, but I am inexplicably delighted when people do it on the big screen.
I am a sucker for musicals and movies about musicians, as well as the rich, ubiquitous set of clichés and conventions they house. Perhaps no music-movie trope thrills me more than the scene in every music movie where the up-and-coming band listens to their song for the first time on the radio. If they’re in a car, they pull over to the side of a road to call their parents from a pay phone to gush that, gosh darn it, all those years of piano and voice lessons have finally paid off, and they’ve finally made it! Much dancing, celebration, and freaking out ensues. The ascension of the cell phone means the pulling-over-to-a-payphone aspect of this cliché has gone the way of the dinosaur, but we haven’t seen the last of this most glorious of cheesy clichés. Two good examples of this convention can be found in That Thing You Do! and Glitter.
I really go for the “underdog makes good” plot, whether it be in a sports drama, a “plucky teacher” story, or any scenario that has the underappreciated common folk working hard and finally getting their due. There’s something about these stories that works on more than just a wish-fulfillment level; they have the reassuring quality of myth, or religious ceremony. Movies like Rudy or Stand And Deliver are called inspirational, but I don’t know that they inspire people in any specific way. I just think they let us know that maybe we’re not all toiling away in vain. Maybe in some alternate-universe version of our lives, a stadium full of people are chanting our names and urging us on.
Is “snarky friend who gets paired off at the end with secondary love interest” a cliché? It is, right? This is generally the most rewarding part of any formulaic rom-com, the one where the self-loathing writers knowingly grinding out the hackwork get to express themselves. For example, in the upcoming (totally loathsome) I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell, the token bitter nerd friend is pretty much the only tolerable element. Not that I watch that many rom-coms if I can help it, but most of the protagonists are so unbelievably bland (in what universe is Katherine Heigl really America’s sharpest comedian?) that the only way to get some personality in there is in the B-plot. As a cliché of a genre I wish would go away, it’s about the best there is: cf. Seth Green and Lauren Ambrose in Can’t Hardly Wait, a movie that actively wilts whenever it’s supposed to focus.
I’m a sucker for a specific kind of montage sequence, specifically the mid-film melancholy montage set to a great song. It works in good movies, like in Notting Hill, when Hugh Grant mopes through the seasons to the accompaniment of Bill Withers. But it works in lousy movies, too, like the scene in the recent Gigantic set to Richard And Linda Thompson’s “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight.” In short, find the right bittersweet song, and you’ve got me, at least until the song ends.
The whole good-cop/bad-cop cliché has become so threadbare, the characters in movies and TV shows regularly laugh at it whenever it’s trotted out. And yet it still works for me: Whether it’s in the interrogation room or played out on a grander scale, the ethical (and procedural) interplay between law-enforcement partners can be totally thrilling, and when done cleverly, can wind up being surprising or even subversive. Of course, good cop/bad cop has rarely been done better than in The Wire—even if both ends of the equation are usually embodied in each cop to varying degrees, with criminals never knowing which facet of each officer they’re going to wind up dealing with.
It’s a version of the biggest cliché in the history of storytelling—the happy ending—but specifically, I like movies where all the main characters come out okay, even those who were close to being the “bad guys.” A great example is Sixteen Candles, where Caroline Mulford, the pretty blonde who takes hunky-but-sensitive Jake Ryan for granted, redeems herself by being kind to Farmer Ted after they wake up together. Another one is Forgetting Sarah Marshall, where, even though Peter feels tormented by Sarah and her new boyfriend Aldous, you can’t help but sympathize with Sarah and want to hang out with Aldous. Of course it helps that these movies happen to contain their share of bite and pain, so the good feelings don’t feel like one big sap-fest. Perhaps I feel justified enjoying a happy ending if I feel like the director assumed I could handle ambiguous characters as opposed to clichéd archetypes. Or maybe I just want to feel good once in a while, goddammit.