I’m living in this movie
But it doesn’t move me
– The Buzzcocks, BOREDOM
I used to have an eight-band radio as a kid and I’d twiddle the knobs with care, searching for Jean Shepherd on it. I was outside Philly, Jean’s radio station was in New York, so it was a weak signal, with his voice fading in and out as if it were some alien broadcasting from another planet. But he’d tell his amazing stories about Wanda Hickey, his dad’s leg lamp and Ollie Hopnoodle. You’d know Jean as the narrator of the beloved 1983 movie “A Christmas Story” which is based on his writings. (And you should seek out his work, like “Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories And Other Disasters” and “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash” – go now, look on Amazon, order them. You’ll thank me later.)
There’s one broadcast that I’ll never forget. Jean was ending up some typical New York story and he said something along the lines of “have you ever walked down the street and said to yourself ‘What am I doing? Why am I doing this?’ Well you can’t do that, because that way madness lies.” And my immediate response was “Why the heck not?” Why not ask why you’re doing what you do every day? Why not question all your actions? Why just accept everything as ‘given’?
Course I was a kid, so I could question away till infinity, but I couldn’t really do anything about it. I lived in my parent’s house and they set the rules and that was that. If I wanted to eat and get some meager allowance, well I did what I had to do to survive. (Ummm, I guess I didn’t really obey everything. Now that Mom’s gone, I can finally admit to the world that I didn’t go to 7:00 Mass every week; no, I actually skipped Church regularly and snuck over to the train station to read H.P. Lovecraft, Anthony Burgess, Kurt Vonnegut, John Brunner and Harlan Ellison. At 7AM, there were no trains, so I was on my own. Sorry, Mom. But honest, those books were better for me.) Still, I remembered walking up a hill overlooking a main highway and seeing all those box-like cars, their red lights on, stuck line upon line in rush-hour – and I said to myself: “No, I do not wish to be one of those.” I wasn’t going to do what everyone else did, I wasn’t just going to accept the route of: school/job/marriage/kids/live-for-your-grandkids that everyone else did. So once I got out of school, I moved away from the family (which I advise everyone to do; guess what? There are things called trains, planes and automobiles if you want to go back and visit, but leave your childhood behind) to Los Angeles. And within a few months I was in one of those box-like cars stuck in rush-hour traffic, just like everyone else. But you do what you have to do in order to survive.
I say all this as a contrast with what most movies do (and so you can get to know me, since we just started going out and I fibbed on my online profile; yes my picture is photo-shopped). Movies usually go for the familiar, the tried-and-true, because they want you to identify with the story, pay your money, sit your ass down and get involved with what you see onscreen. (Or in the case of TV, make you watch commercials so you’ll buy what they sell, thus paying for the television shows. But none of us watch the ads when we record the shows, I’m here to say. I’m sure the companies are shocked! Shocked! But them’s the breaks.) That’s why so damn many sitcoms are about families. Because we all have families, so certainly you want to watch a funny show about a family, right? (Short answer: no.)
Now I get that movies and TV shows can’t get esoteric much of the time, telling stories about people and things that we can’t identify with, asking difficult questions that make our brains hurt – that’s for art films and public broadcasting. But the problem is that some things are done so often that they become trite and clichéd. And we get bored. So I’m compiling a helpful list of things I’ve seen too much of. (Like ending sentences with a preposition; take that, English teachers!) Please, for all our sakes, stop doing these things. As much as you plead and beg and grovel, we don’t want ‘em. Take your ball and go home. Come back with something shiny and new to distract our little minds. I hope that some of these things take their place alongside rapping grannies (or skateboarding and/or swearing and/or hip old people), Confucius-like 5-year-olds and hot-but-lonely-single-moms-who-never-get-hit-on in the trashbin of pop culture history.
Here are a few of those tiresome things:
AMNESIA — forget it! It’s done as a plot device. Sure, I accepted it in “Memento” and some 40’s films. But have you ever met anyone who suffered from amnesia? Crops up on TV episodes all the time. Does it seem likely that it could occur and then just block out that crucial part you need to know to stop a murder or something? Figure out something more current, more relevant, more believable please.
ZOMBIES — I love “The Walking Dead” as much as the next fellow, but after Zomcoms and Zomromcoms, nice zombies, bad and good zombies, sex-zombies, pet-zombies, zombies-as-pets, it’s dead. It’s been done. Leave it for a decade or so till it seems new again. All those zombie films in development? No one’s gonna go. Nor will I personally watch the American remake of the remarkable French series “Les Revenants.” Seen it, lived it, killed it. Stone cold dead, all of it. And speaking of dead things…
I WAS DEAD ALL ALONG! — There are very few cases where revealing a character was actually dead throughout a whole movie ever worked. People don’t want to invest two hours in a character and get involved in their story… to find out they’re not alive. I’m not talking about the current fad of people who are dead and we know it, but they’re trying to help someone or solve something. That’s still got some life in it (but it’s getting moldy). And usually you can tell when someone’s using that silly device. I was the pain-in-the-ass who figured out “The Sixth Sense” about ten minutes in. (Well, the kid sees dead people and Bruce Willis was shot – this seems obvious! Guess it wasn’t. Still liked the movie. But it was obvious.) Since that film, there’s no point in doing it. (I’m talking to you, remake of “Jacob’s Ladder” – I didn’t like the first one, figured that one out early on, don’t need it again.) The subset of IT WAS ALL A DREAM goes here, too. Don’t. It’s just not satisfying on any level.
HOOK-STRIP SYNDROME — All male screenwriters and all male directors must stop doing stories with hookers and strippers in them. Don’t set movies at strip clubs or in brothels. Don’t make your women characters prostitutes or girls just trying to make a living dancing around a pole. It’s adolescent. It’s worse than adolescent. It’s just horny guys letting out their fantasies. We’re sick of it. Guess what? There are many other female characters to write about or to do scenes about. Here’s a suggestion: go to some city or town outside of Los Angeles (I love LA, but most of the ladies are going to be actresses, so it’s best to go elsewhere) and sit down where there’s a lot of foot traffic. Then watch all the ladies that go past. I’d bet that 99.99% of them are not hookers or strippers. Write about them. Direct scenes about them. (Women writers and directors: do whatever you damn well please. I’d love to see your stories about hookers, strippers or any other female characters because those won’t be clichés!) My guess is that many scenes are set at strip clubs or in brothels (or, say, at a beauty contest with girls in skimpy bathing suits like in “Iron Man 3” that had nothing at all to do with the movie) because certain male crew members (I’m not naming names or positions) can then spend the day auditioning the girls who have to be in those scenes (I picture an old Sam Arkoff-type chomping on a cigar, gazing out with pig-eyes, saying “Display the material, sweetheart, we gotta get a load o’ the goods!”). So stop. Find other female-centric locations that aren’t so demeaning. And you should probably stop writing those lesbian scenes as well.
ACTORS PLAYING THE SAME ROLE EVERY TIME — I understand: it’s familiar. But it’s boring. Look, I’ve met and interviewed Morgan Freeman. Wonderful man. Intelligent. Wise. Articulate. But he doesn’t have to play the Wise Old Man every time! While I was snoozing through “Transcendence” I noticed: there he was again! Calm and wise, the voice of reason, the conscience of the film. Just like in the “Batman” mobird. And he’s great at it. But he’s done it too often. And guess what? He’s an ACTOR. He can play other things. That’s why I loved him in “Wanted” where he was a kick-ass villain. And most of us first noticed Mr. Freeman in “Street Smart” in 1987 where he played a pimp. He can do that. Here’s an idea: let Mr. Freeman and Samuel L. Jackson switch parts for a while. Now I’ve also interviewed Mr. Jackson quite a lot. He is whip-smart and witty and can come up with a crack like no one else. (Which you know if you saw his epic takedown of Sam Rubin.) Let him play Morgan’s Wise Old Man roles. And let Morgan play Sam’s wise-ass roles. Just for a while. Try it out. (And yes, we should be doing this color blind, so give Morgan the Robert De Niro roles; give Samuel L. Jackson anything that might go to Al Pacino or Ben Kingsley or Malcolm McDowell. How about it?) Let Judy Greer play a sleazed-up junkie. Don’t make the brainy character an Asian, make him or her Latin. Come on, switch it up!
FAMILY REUNIONS — Especially either at a holiday or at a funeral. How many times have you seen it? I don’t like family reunions in real life, so I’m certainly not going to a movie theater to see one. And most of the time it’s because the writer must exorcise some trauma that happened to them with their family. Guess what? I don’t care about your stupid trauma. Most of these reunions end with people screaming at each other (hello, “August: Osage County”) or with wacky pratfalls. Either way, I’m out. With this one corollary: unless you start killing everyone. If you’re going to knock off weird Uncle Fred, or make Grandma have an encounter with a chainsaw, then I will probably check in. Because who hasn’t wanted to kill family members at one time or another? And if you can do it in cool “Dr. Phibes” or “Final Destination” ways, so much the better.
BIG THINGS FIGHTING — A fair portion of comic book movies end up with one large, powerful being smashing into another large, powerful being for what seems hours. We don’t care. It’s no fun if they’re both big and powerful and hard to kill. There’s no sense of danger, there’s no tension. It’s just big things smashing into other things. Like the end of the first “Iron Man” or any of the “Thor” films or “Man of Steel” or even “Godzilla.” Yeah, they were successful. But that’s it. It’s over. Humanize it. “X-Men: Days of Future Past” did it right. They only used the giant robots a little, putting all the fights on a personal level, as it should be.
PUSHING EVERYTHING OFF THE TABLE/VANITY/DESK/WHATEVER BECAUSE I’M MAD — Have you ever done this? Has anyone? Most of us know we’d be crawling on our hands and knees picking up all the broken stuff a little later – we don’t have prop people to clean it up for us. So please find a new thing for angry people to do. You can always tell when things are set-up so neatly on a table – it’s all gonna get knocked off. Be original, please.
DESATURATION — This is particularly true with dystopian, post-apocalyptic stuff, but filmmakers seem to revel in taking out all the color and making things gray and grim. I hereby vote that such actions are clinically insane. You are going to take out anything that is attractive to the eye, that we might like looking at? You’re making it all dark and dingy? Then why should I want to watch your movie? Now, sure, if you’re gonna go all “Wizard of Oz” and start off dark but then bring in color, I get that. But don’t wait too long. Ooh, it’s cold and gritty and real. Yeah, I don’t go to movies to see cold, gritty and real. In stories, sure, there are tons of great, gritty stories. But not visually. That’s why many of us like to look at old Technicolor films where the colors damn near bust off the screen with their vibrancy. Pretty does not equal frivolous. If I wanna see a desaturated, grim and gray locale, well I’ll head to Detroit.
YELLOW OR DESATURATED FLASHBACKS — Why is the past always yellow-tinged or colorless? I sure don’t remember my past that way. I refer anyone thinking of using that look for their flashback to please see my above comments on desaturation. Does the past have to look ugly?
SHAKY-CAM — I’ve addressed this in other blogs, but I hope this trend is over. Shakiness causes nausea. The eye does not jerk around all the time, it settles on objects (and doesn’t then do a smash-zoom into them). Nothing wrong with movement. A beautiful steady dolly-move, a well-staged steadicam set-up. But to shake the damn thing around like it’s in a blender or something, first of all it makes no sense and second of all, it does not promote viewer involvement. Just the opposite. And since I brought up movement….
LONG TRACKING SHOTS FOR NO REASON — I’m sure every long, involved dolly or steadicam or handheld shot is rationalized by filmmakers, but at least half the time, I think it’s just showing off: Hey! Look at me! I didn’t cut, I just kept moving the camera! Cool, huh? I’m a technical wizard! But if it’s not relevant, it doesn’t matter. There are great tracking shots, like the legendary one from “Goodfellas” that follows Ray Liotta into the club – that’s perfection and it makes total sense, we’re going from the outside to enter this man’s special world. I would argue the tracking shots during the opening of “Gangs of New York” do the same, kind of in reverse, coming out from a secret place into the public world. The ones in “Children of Men” seem to work (and yes, I admit it, so does the desaturation). But much as I liked “The Conjuring”, the long tracking shot through the house when the family moves in just seems to be about a long tracking shot. Sure, you can say it’s about showing the space or maybe hinting at the supernatural or about the relationship of the family. But that’s not what comes across – it’s more of an Ain’t This Shot Cool vibe. Similar to the epic tracking shot at Dunkirk in “Atonement”. I’ll bet that took days to set up. And all it did was show off what a big tracking shot it was. The one-take 99-minute “Russian Ark” – which is one long tracking shot – comes across as a total gimmick, a long exercise in tediousness. So yes, please, try to do nice steady long tracking shots when they work. But not just for the sake of doing a long tracking shot.
LIMITED LOCATIONS — Haven’t you ever been in a screening when suddenly you realize the whole movie’s going to take place in one location? Is your feeling joy? No, it’s disappointment. This isn’t theater, this is movies, as in moving pictures. Take us somewhere, don’t lock us up. Sure, Hitchcock’s “Rope” works (and so do its tracking shots) but how many others do? “Bug” and “Devil” might have been nice attempts at tension in one place. But most audience members got bored.
LENS FLARES — Well, just in J.J. Abrams films. You know when light flashes into the camera lens for no reason and it looks like a mistake? It feels like a mistake, too. Somebody should count all the lens flares in both “Star Trek” films and “Super 8”. Even Abrams has admitted he went overboard. Let’s hope it doesn’t infect his “Star Wars” films.
I could keep going, but that’s enough for now. Pick your own Tiresome Things in movies and TV shows. Have drinking contests around them. But producers and directors and writers and executives: PLEASE STOP NOW. We’ve had enough.