Here are a few cinematic subjects and contrivances that we might consider obliterating:
Car Chases: Of course, we see cars and trucks racing and dodging and exploding every day on the street, especially in rush hour traffic. We especially love to see patrol cars flipping over or crashing into parked cars. When I watched the bizarrely polymorphous collection of vehicles chasing Mel Gibson’s truck-driving Max through the desert in The Road Warrior, I thought it was amazingly cool. Now all I can think about are injuries, body work and insurance premiums, plus lawsuits from victimized motorists. We already know at the start of the chase who will triumph / get away / find a hiding place / dodge the truck / run out of gas, and who will go airborne / smash through a store display / be stopped by a train / crash / burn / plummet off a cliff / plunge into the ocean / get shot through the windshield. Unless you’re doing a movie that’s one long car chase, like Fast and Furious, I’d say thirty seconds is enough to devote to a chase scene.
The Choir: We are all deeply affected by the rush of sustained collective vowels, from the “Ahh!” of male choirs to the “Ooh!” of female voices. This device is equivalent to the APPLAUSE sign flashed to TV studio audiences, shoving us in an emotional direction. Why not just rely on powerful images, eloquent dialogue and cogent characterization instead? (Oh, wait—see “Cult of Beauty” and “Dialogue” below.)
Cult of Beauty: I cannot hope to assail the cinematic citadel of “beauty above all.” There are many, many pretty people with incredible talent. And there are a lot of babers (masc.) and babettes (fem.) with—not so much talent. I have trouble telling the members of the latter category apart. Unfortunately, we must endure films with strong male leads, bonded with a “female interest” that makes you ask, “Didn’t anybody else show up for the casting call?” Of course this situation operates in the opposite direction (but I’m blinded by sexism). If we could just have a few rules? One: tough chicks should only be played by tough (i.e., strong) chicks (e.g. Michelle Rodriguez, Jennifer Lawrence and Jane Lynch—and I apologize for calling you “chicks”). Two: bitchiness does not equal strength. Three: don’t give us prolonged close-ups of the hero/heroine gazing into the distance while expressing no discernible emotion. After a minute, we start checking our inboxes. Four: makeup, costume and special effects can’t supersede craft (remember Spencer Tracy in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?). Five: I won’t even start on the unequal standards for men and women, especially for “mature” women (how did that word become so derisive?). Six: maybe we could adjust and expand the standards for “beauty” a little?
Dialogue: If we’re surrendering dialogue for explosions, then let’s just trash conversation completely, O.K.? Don’t waste time on lame one-liners. Examples abound: referring to weapons as “Christmas presents”; asking the savior, “What kept you?”; answering the taunting “That gun’s not loaded” with “But this one is”; the “denouementic” exchange—“You call that an army?” “No, I call this an army!”; and etc., etc., ETC.!!! The ripostes are trite and predictable and often completely irrelevant (when the characters that utter them have not been developed at all). And please don’t tack a moral lecture on the rear end of the film. Nobody believes it, and everybody is uncomfortable with the awkward insincerity of the message.
Length: Who establishes the trend for short films versus long films? The best films have been ruthlessly chopped up, while lesser films seem to expand through time like balloons. I do have to admit that I was incapable of movement during the 177 minutes of Braveheart or the 207 minutes of The Seven Samurai.
Musical Score: Enough with the orchestra! Can you please let us be deeply moved on our own? And stop dropping random 21st century limp-voiced singers into the credits of films about the Middle Ages and the Depression!
Nudity: Who can pay attention to what naked people are saying? I think we understand by now that there are, in general, two types of human bodies, and I’m relatively certain that we can remember the difference. If you’re in terrific shape, terrific! Let’s just accentuate your positives with cloth, shall we? OK, sometimes nudity is realistic, or metaphoric, or poignant, but mostly—not.
Paralyzed by Fear: The character stands irresolutely and illogically inert, rather than saving another character from death, pushing the button on the bomb that will destroy the villain, ringing the bell, lighting the fuse, alerting the rescue team where they are, and so on. This is supposed to create tension. It is exploitative; it is masochistic; it is overdone.
Sex: We get it! We get it! We get it! The couple can’t seem to get through the front door without grappling and panting and tearing away their clothing. A passionate kiss would be sufficient. The truth is that repetitive couplings on screen quickly become tiresome. What we usually get are shots of flesh, gymnastic flips, melodramatic strings, and tantric postures, such as the classical “inverted T” configuration, which is supposed to be more erotic than the prone-supine arrangement. (By the way, and I don’t mean to be crude, but exactly how does “intercourse against a wall” really work?) Remember the old saw: “It ain’t a spectator sport!”? And this faux-lovemaking can be extremely confusing and embarrassing for kids (remember?).
Shooting: Are we overstocked with ammo, is that the deal? I don’t think it takes that many bullets to kill someone. Of course, the mansion, warehouse, parking garage, construction area or other site of the “exchange” must be completely razed. Who doesn’t love to watch bullets spurting through wood, glass and plaster? We’ve also been forced to accept that assault rifles, shotguns, semiautomatic pistols, etc. have no recoil, never require more than one hand to operate and can be fired accurately while the shooter is dangling from a cable. But why do they keep shooting at an alien or superhuman that is obviously completely unaffected by the firepower? Dude, give it up! Time for magic weapons or transdimensional technology!
Slasher / Torture Porn: WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU???
Slow-Mo: Why is it that we don’t have time for character development, but we have lots of time for repeated slow-motion shots of aerial flips, sword fights, and absurd acrobatics? Don’t get me wrong. I loved Bruce Lee, and he could use all the time he wanted for his moves, as far as I was concerned. The same license is extended to Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and other masters. But, with those exceptions in mind, I would suggest that portraying a life-and-death struggle by barely trained actors as a dance is unrealistic, tedious, pretentious and silly (did I mention tedious?).
Stop and Turn: A and B are talking. A turns to leave the room. B says something poignant or provocative. B halts at the threshold, then slooooowly turns. A hundred years ago, somebody decided that was really effective. But—c’mon! Nobody really does that!
The Stumble: The agile heroine (usually) stumbles just as the danger is greatest. Aren’t we more likely to trip and fall due to inattention, rather than to hyperactivity? Do we no longer have adrenalin? I understand that this is intended to build tension in the viewers. In me it builds annoyance.
Time Dilation: Villain puts 9 mm. to head of Heroine. Hero is running toward building where Heroine is being imperiled. Villain laughs. Heroine grits her teeth. Hero runs. Villain’s index finger curls around trigger. Heroine is stoic but apprehensive. Hero finally reaches door of building. Villain lightly tugs on trigger. Heroine cringes. Hero runs up stairway. Villain. Heroine. Hero. Villain. Heroine. Hero. STOP! STOP! STOP! Dude! Time doesn’t slow down until mass approaches the speed of light—or at least five miles an hour!
The last punctuation in the equilibrium of cinematic consciousness occurred during Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indiana Jones, played by Harrison Ford, is faced with a scimitar-wielding giant. He retrieves his revolver and dispatches his assailant with the irritable affect of one whose concentration is disrupted by a phone call. This response short-circuited the audience’s expectations of a predictable and tiresome display of stage combat, and advanced the evolution of film by a century. Time now to rid ourselves of other arcane, inane, manipulative devices.