This week’s AVQ&A was inspired by a viral Twitter thread from a few weeks ago:
What is a movie cliché you don’t hate to see?
A speech about hope in the face of adversity—especially when set over a sappy, swelling score—gets me every time, be it from Bill Pullman in Independence Day, Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator (especially the version set to Hans Zimmer’s Inception theme), or the student in Coach Carter (Rick Gonzalez) reciting a quote we used to all think was Nelson Mandela’s but is actually from a Marianne Williamson book. This blatant play at my emotions most recently succeeded while I was watching Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers for the first time. “They kept going because they were holding onto something,” says Sam (Sean Astin) as the battle rages around him. “That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.” Excuse me now while I get this dust out of my eye. I mean eyes. There’s something in both of them.
In a fight, there’s often one person you know not to mess with. One person who is going to wait until the moment you underestimate them and then eviscerate you. I call this person the sword guy. The John Wick movies have made it clear that nobody with a gun can touch the Baba Yaga and he can easily clear out a building of goons with a gun of his own, so how do they raise the stakes in Chapter 3? The villain is a sword guy. How do you know Darth Vader’s a bigger threat than Stormtroopers? He’s a sword guy (goes double for Darth Maul). Raiders Of The Lost Ark hilariously undercuts this cliché, but my favorite example comes in The Matrix Reloaded. I’ll give you one guess why spooky ghost twins should think twice before fucking with Morpheus.
As a horror fan who has often bemoaned the perfunctory, checking-off-the-boxes feel of an unfolding narrative in many an ostensibly scary movie, I can assure you there is one seemingly obligatory scene I will never get tired of: the ominous warning from the old gas station attendant/checkout clerk/concerned local. You know the situation: Some earnest protagonists are venturing out into a remote or an unknown area for purposes that likely have to do with partying (though this element is flexible, such as when it’s a family moving into a new property), and when they stop for gas and/or directions, the elderly townie fixes them with a eerie gaze and tells them they best not go where they’re going, if they know what’s good for ’em. I think my first experience with this came from good ol’ Crazy Ralph in Friday The 13th, but Cabin In The Woods’ postmodern twist probably does the best gloss on it, reveling in the stereotype while sending it up—especially in the delightful speakerphone scene that follows.
The hero has been pushed to their limit. Faced with an overwhelming show of opposing force, their back is now well and truly up against the wall. But wait. Why are they still smiling? That’s right: They’ve been holding back, for no conceivable reason other than a finely honed sense of dramatic timing, and now it’s time to decide to suddenly win. Executed—like so many movie clichés—to perfection by The Princess Bride, this particular plot device is undeniably artificial and stupid, the sort of thing that would get any fighter in a real-world situation murdered in roughly 14 seconds. And yet it always works on my easily manipulated child’s brain, whiplashing my emotions from despair all the way back to triumph in one fell, dopey swoop.
Probably because they combine two of my favorite things—conversation and fancy footwork—I love dance scenes that involve pivotal dialogue in non-musical movies. Many times these key talks will occur during a dramatic tango, like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt checking each other for weapons mid-dance in Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Or Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy tentatively beginning their lifelong conversation at the Netherfield Ball in Pride And Prejudice. You can also find Sean Connery’s James Bond escaping death yet again via dance floor in Thunderball, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman eluding Nazis in Hitchcock’s Notorious, and Ralph Fiennes wooing Kristin Scott Thomas with a close dance in The English Patient. It’s not enough that you have an elegant setting, lovely evening clothes, mesmerizing music: It’s the addition of scintillating dialogue that transcends these scenes for me, making them even further removed from the banalities of real life.
Their outcomes aside, most trials and other courtroom proceedings are fairly dry affairs, all procedure and precedents (which is probably for the best, given that there are enough biases to deal with). That is, unless they’re happening in a movie or TV show, and the lawyers are played by Tom Cruise, Sam Waterston, or Christine Baranski—then every big revelation is delivered via a grandstanding speech in a packed courtroom, a thunderous statement that’s interrupted, but not dampened, by equally vociferous objections from opposing counsel. It’s such a common occurrence in film and TV, from ...And Justice For All to A Time To Kill to every thought Dick Wolf has ever had, but it still moves me to this day. You disagree? Then you’re out of order! This whole list is out of order!
In terms of delicious clichés, a resignation being rejected is like when a queen takes off her wig to reveal another wig on RuPaul’s Drag Race. First, you have the righteous fury against a corrupt institution that led to the resignation in the first place; slamming your badge down on a superior’s desk is of course the quintessential version of this concept, but a strongly worded letter angrily ripped from a printer works just as well. (For mobsters, super spies, and other forms of hired killers, it’s neither; like The Bride in Kill Bill, more often than not they just disappear.) And one doesn’t just leave a job that seems glamorous in the movies, whether it’s because you know too much or because you’re too goddamn good at what you do. I prefer the latter, as it serves as a welcome escape from a world where no one, it seems, is irreplaceable.
I’ve been bullied and I’ve been a bully, and as a result, I’ve found myself fascinated by the archetype as an adult. But, as much as I love nuanced explorations of what drives kids to become one, I’ll never not laugh at the stereotypical portrait of the average schoolyard monster. I’m talking about bullies who shove bespectacled dorks into lockers and trash cans, or make fart noises during someone’s class presentation. I’m talking about the bullies on shows like Parker Lewis Can’t Lose and Saved By The Bell, or the O’Doyle brothers in Billy Madison. Drew in Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp is a great example of a self-aware version of the stereotype. I suppose it’s a coping mechanism of sorts, a way to defang more insidious manifestations of bullying; most people, I imagine, would have preferred being shoved in a locker than endure what they did.
I will always make time for a decent heist or superhero ensemble film (no matter how many capers either of the Ocean siblings endure, I’ll be there for each one)—not for the action but for the inevitable “getting the band (back) together” sequence. Charge it to my paper-thin memory when it comes to names and individual functions within a very complex mission, but I do enjoy (and greatly benefit from) watching each individual navigate their own environment before they become engulfed by a larger plan. It’s the most straightforward of tropes, honestly—not largely symbolic or especially difficult to decode, but rather “Here is a very literal roll call of the characters you will see for the next two or so hours,” and I eat it up every damn time. Extra points if the introductions come with campy graphics, like in Birds Of Prey.