Thursday, 5 December 2013

Walk into a dark room without turning the lights on, and other things people only do in movies

I’ve never walked into an unlighted room at night and not immediately searched for the light switch – particularly if it’s a room I’ve never been in before. Characters in films do this all the time. The reason they do it is to increase tension as our eyes scan the dark areas of the screen, and to make us jump when a light is switched on by the baddie, who is invariably sitting relaxedly in a chair, smiling sardonically, with his gun pointed at the hero. But knowing this doesn’t stop me wanting to shout “Turn the lights on, you idiot!”.

I have never stuffed anything into the waistband at the back of my trousers before heading out the door. I don’t do this because the item would either fall out onto the pavement before I’d gone ten steps or slip down into the seat of my pants, giving the impression I’d done myself a mischief. So why do characters in films habitually lodge guns in the waist of their trousers and expect them to stay in place? What happens if they have to sit down or start running? Why aren’t they worried about blowing themselves an extra one?

If, say, you were pursuing a villain who is on foot while you are driving a car, would you deliberately crash the car through a shop or restaurant plate-glass window without knowing who’s inside? Why are characters in action films so certain that they won’t inadvertently slaughter unseen nuns, doctors or women with babies?

Many action films end with the hero kissing the main female character – the woman whose life he has been trying to save, or his ex-wife who, because of his bravery, has forgiven him for being an insensitive dork in the first place, or the bad girl who has changed sides because the hero is just so damned gorgeous etc. These lengthy clinches invariably take place after the hero has been without sleep or food or a shower for at least 72 hours: can you imagine what his breath must be like? What about the stink of stale sweat? Surely any gentleman would clean themselves up, brush their teeth and suck a breath-freshener before indulging in any face-sucking with a woman they're fond of?

Is there even the remotest possibility that you could get into the front seat of a car without spotting that someone – other than an extremely malnourished dwarf – is crouched in the back waiting to make an appearance in your rear-view mirror the instant you start driving? No: unless you suffer from severe tunnel vision – which very few characters in films do - it is impossible to get into any normal car without noticing that somebody is already inside it.

If one man were pitched against ten or more brutal assailants (WWII German soldiers, drugs cartel gangsters, Bond villain henchmen etc.) would you expect them to attack you en masse or to line up in an orderly fashion so they can attempt to overcome you in a series of one-to-one encounters? 

If you’re eating in a restaurant or drinking in a bar and you’re suddenly called away on some fairly routine pretext (another body’s just been discovered, the missing girl has just walked into a police station etc), would you simply leave the plate of food or  large Scotch that’s just been placed in front of you, or would you – like 99% of the rest of humanity - drain the drink or try to gulp down at least two humungous forkfuls of food (or at least call for a doggy-bag) before answering the summons, no matter how urgent?

Films have developed a series of behavioural conventions over the years which bear absolutely no relation to what happens in real life. Spotting them has become one of the many pleasures to be derived from watching movies: if the film is sufficiently dire, it is often the only thing that makes watching them bearable.

The examples of illogical cinematic behaviour in the above list have been driving me mad and making me laugh ever since I first became aware of them approximately half a century ago. Most of them are to be found in an extremely entertaining – and very funny – Kindle book entitled Ebert's Bigger Little Movie Glossary: A Greatly Expanded and Much Improved Compendium of Movie Cliches, Stereotypes, Obligatory Scenes, Hackneyed Formulas, Shopworn Conventions, and Outdated Archetypes by the legendary American film critic, Roger Ebert, who died earlier this year. It costs a mere £3.29 and can be downloaded here.

Two-thirds of the entries were supplied by members of the cinema-going public
(and a few film-makers and critics), so it’s one positive example of the “wisdom of crowds” at work. A copy of this marvellous work – which I can’t recommend enthusiastically enough - should be required reading for all scriptwriters, directors and actors.

I leave you with a few enticing examples lifted directly from the book (and if you don’t own a Kindle, I apologise – there doesn’t appear to be a paperback edition available):
If a character dies in a car crash, he will do so in a way that causes the horn to blare continuously.
All movie bartenders, when first seen, are wiping the inside of a glass with a rag.
Any character who says, “I can’t tell you over the phone…” doesn’t have long to live.
Any head of a large organisation who speaks with perfect, condescending diction and wears elegant, custom-fitted suits is the villain.
Whenever an inexperienced or reluctant public speaker steps up to the microphone, he is greeted with a shrill blast of feedback when he begins to speak.
Movie characters have an amazing ability to turn on the TV precisely at the moment when a newscaster begins a report on something directly relating to them.
All leaders of the Roman Empire have British accents. 
Villains being chased at the end of a movie inevitably disregard all common sense and begin climbing up something - a staircase, a church tower, a mountain - thereby trapping themselves at the top. 
No disease is incurable for the elderly doctors or medicine men of third-world cultures, who always produce a secret powder or herb. The medicine’s action is triggered by the simple poetic philosophy which accompanies the treatment.
The closer together Steven Seagal’s eyebrows are, the more violent the next scene.
Night watchmen in horror movies have a life expectancy of twelve seconds.
Whenever movie characters are shot with a gun with a silencer, they co-operate by dying quietly.
A detective can only solve a case once he has been suspended from duty.
Any lock can be picked with a credit card or a paper clip in seconds – unless it’s the door to a burning building with a child trapped inside.
Honest and hard-working policemen are traditionally gunned down three days before their retirement.
If being fired at by Germans, hide in a river – or even a bath. German bullets are unable to penetrate water. 
My wife has spent years amazing me by correctly identifying the murders in whodunnits by what I now recognise as her own version of Roger Ebert's Law of Economy of Characters:
Movie budgets make it impossible for any film to contain unnecessary characters. Therefore, all characters in a movie are necessary to the story - even those who do not seem to be. Sophisticated viewers can use this law to deduce the identity of a person being kept secret by the movie's plot. This "mystery" person is always the only character in the movie who seems otherwise extraneous.  

1 comment:

  1. What do you call a person who personally recommends a book [which you immediately download to your cherished Kindle - £ 3.29 extracted from your state pension] and then proceeds to write a dirty great post about it full of quotes? I'm off to the small claims court.