Cough and Die
Why is it always the left engine of an airplane that starts burning in movies? Why do Hollywood cops always use flashlights, but never a light switch? And why do villains always run upstairs? einestages has collected the largest cliches in cinema history - and explains their background. Sven Stillich
Cinema is a realm of pre-ordered lies. Nowhere else so many people will come together for only one reason - to be tricked. If they aren't, they're disappointed or at least confused. If, for example, space ships in a science fiction movie don't explode in a giant fireball, something's missing - even though something like this would never happen in the vacuum of space. Lightsabers always have to go "bzzzz", every suppressor in a Hollywood movie creates the same, unrealistic "plop". Fisticuffs have - at least since Bud Spencer - to sound like someone running straight into a wall with a mouth full of crispbread. And all bombs need to have digital displays that show to the millisecond how much time the hero has to disarm them – even though the seconds will last ten minutes in the movie.
All this has been learned, the audience has been trained to expect it. More than a hundred years of movie history have created hundreds of cliches no filmmaker can not use – and if they try, the audience knows that it is to be understood as a sign and as a game with their expectations.
A trifle is enough: If someone coughs in a movie, they are going to die. In disaster movies it's always the left engine of an airplane that starts burning first, and if there's an animal on screen it's always going to make a typical sound: Mice and rats squeak, cats meow, and there will never be a mute vulture circling over a western panorama. A clock radio will never wake the hero in the middle of a random song – but always when the host is just saying "Good morning, it's gonna be a wonderful day in LA!" If the hero stranded on some desert island grows a beard, that's already moving the movie into documentary territory – For never will a real hero grow a beard, and medieval heroes never have bad teeth, either (villains, however, do).
Death just before Retirement
All this has to be that way in a blockbuster. Because an audience of millions is expecting it. That's why teenagers going to the attic on their own in a horror movie have to die – just as every movie cop who's just one week from retirement is doomed. If one of them survives that would be a planned surprise, a deliberate turning away from the cliche – and would be recognized as such by the audience.
In a pure action movie something like this would be unthinkable, for action movies are serious. They are cliche collages: If James bond is topless he'll never get hit by a bullet (and he's never got to visit the toilet, either), and none of his movie partners would ever wake up with messy hair. Stars have to remain stars at all times, disconnected from the viewer and nigh invulnerable. And their enemies have to make the same mistakes again and again, too. The movie cliche constantly forces them to tell the hero all about their world domination plan in a moment of false sureness of victory – and its weak point as well. The bad guys' cars always have to be sacrificed to the cliche: While the hero's car can do five flips and still not be ripe for the scrap heap, the villains car is close to exploding if he puts his parking ticket onto the dashboard. And the most important of all rules: If the enemies outnumber the lone hero, they're only allowed to attack him one at a time: Only one punch each, and don't forget to stuff your mouth with crispbread.
All this is good as it is – for the characters in the movies and for the viewer. For only cliches that are so strong that the audience takes them for granted make the heroes seem large, larger, superior. Because cliches make so many things a piece of cake: They load the hero's revolver with a hundred bullets that can be squeezed out without reloading. They make sure that the uniform of any guard the hero just knocked out will fit perfectly and that he can infiltrate the supervillain's secret lab properly dressed and without being recognized. Cliches are friend and helper to the hero - for only with their help they can jump out of a helicopter into the ocean, crawl through the jungle on an island, fight a bunch of elite soldiers with nothing but a hair pin – and still look like they're on their way to their own wedding.
Something for the audience to decrypt
the templates Hollywood flicks work by are a blessing not only for the audience but also for the directors and screenwriters. The audience knows what's to be expected and what they're getting themselves into – and the film makers use those expectations to trigger exactly the right emotions in their audience: Suspense, sympathy, amusement, sadness, excitement, fear.
And the cliches haven't been restricted to the content for a long time now. The viewers have learned in all those years of movie history to interpret even camera angles. Nobody has to tell a moviegoer that something unexpected is about to happen when the camera follows closely behind the hero. Such sequences give the audience something to decrypt and at the same time - despite their scariness and danger - the security that nothing is going to happen to the hero or to themselves.
Perhaps this aspect of security is more important than one would expect looking at modern audiences' enlightenment. For one thing will change as little as the fact that every arch villain will get up one last time after the hero believes him defeated: A cinema will always be a dark room, filled with perfect strangers. And doesn't the cliche say that evil lurks in such places?