by Adam-Troy Castro
Okay, so here are a couple of things that knock me out of any movie, and leave me blinking in my theater seat or home couch with the audience equivalent of the bends, having been propelled from deep immersion back to the real world:
First, I am bothered by films that clearly think I’m an idiot when it comes to geography.
I am not talking about the sin so many films are guilty of, the montage that purports to show us the protagonist’s taxi ride from the airport that happens to show us multiple local landmarks, but presents them in a ridiculous order suggesting that the cabbie drove a little way into town, then retreated, circled the region, entered the city from the opposite atlas direction, then retreated again, then went back the first way, only to continue stuttering around the city in what must be the most expensive quick drive from the airport that GPS ever suggested. This can be irritating in the extreme, but let’s face it: only if you are from Manhattan and know it well will you really be bothered by a sequence in which the main character who has never been to New York before lands at JFK, hails a cab, drives in from what appears to be Jersey, then passes the Empire State Building, the UN, and the Village before dropping him off at the Marriott in Times Square. Sequences like that are bullshit and make natives roll their eyes, but let’s face it; narratively, the point is that the protagonist has just landed in New York and is dazzled by the sights on his way to wherever he’s staying. This is no different than montage scenes involving first dates where the happy couple indulges in activities all over an entire metropolitan area, which suggest an itinerary less like a quiet romantic getting-to-know-you-over-an-afternoon and more like The Amazing Race. It is poetic license. I’ve gotten to the point, as a moviegoer, where I’m more or less willing to forgive it.
No, what bothers me is an establishing shot of a world-famous location paired with text that tells me the movie makers have no faith in my ability to make simple logical leaps. For instance, any number of movies introduce London by showing us Parliament and Big Ben. Parliament and Big Ben. I can deal with that. I get what you’re saying. You’re telling me that this movie takes place in London. If you then cover this with big floating letters that identify the setting as “London,” I die a little inside, irritated that the movie makers had no faith in my ability to identify London; and if they go so far as to say “London, England,” I spend the next five minutes missing all the critical information because I am thinking about that, no doubt, undeniable percentage of the audience that needed this literally spelled out for them. I think about how it seems that not all that long ago, when the movie showed us Parliament and Big Ben, the audience was damn well expected to fill in the blank that this was London; and how after a while the word “London” started showing up in all those globe-trotting thrillers; and how now we get the entire phrase, “London, England,” because movie makers have encountered too many test audiences who were incapable of making that leap. What will we get twenty years from now, I wonder. The caption, “London, a city in England, a country in the North Atlantic, just off the coast of Europe, which is a continent.”
The more famous the landmark, the more damaging I find this fleeting moment, to the success of any film. Parliament and Big Ben are pretty much up there, but I have seen a number of movies of late that showed me the White House and had to explain: “Washington D.C.” It hurts. It honestly does.
What also hurts: dialogue where characters who should know the geography refer to it in ways that also reflect a belief that the audience has never, ever looked at a map. I won’t track down the precise quote, but there is a moment in Independence Day where somebody advises the President of the United States of the latest world cities destroyed by the alien blitzkrieg, and identifies two of them using a phrase like, “the capitols of England and France.” It hurts me immeasurably that the guy didn’t just say “London and Paris,” and I am knocked out of the narrative in a way that I honestly wasn’t by the same film’s decision to place the Empire State Building in the center of Fifth Avenue, blocking traffic, and not alongside it, the way it actually behaves. Watching the film, even now, I notice that the building has been moved in order for the shot to be framed a certain way, I think, “Okay, artistic license,” and move on, without friction. Hearing “the capitols of England and France,” a weird and ungainly way to say such a thing, I think, “Okay, the makers of this film think that if they said London and Paris, a sizable portion of the audience will not know what locations are being talked about,” and that’s a little bit like the guy on stage singling me out to make jokes about me being fat.
Of course, I can’t really blame movie makers for this, as what also throws me out of any film is the commentary of any fellow moviegoer who needed such an advisory even when he shouldn’t have. The one that will ring in my ears for the rest of my life is decades old, and involved a movie with shiny cobble-stoned streets, classical European architecture, two guys in Nazi uniforms standing guard in front of a building, the arrival of a long black staff car flying a pair of little swastika flags, the emergence from that vehicle of an officious little prick with a monocle and an old dueling scar, and I swear to Gawd the guy in front of me subtitled it all with an excited exclamation of, “Vietnam!”
That happened. I shit you not. It happened. Some of you people, I swear to God.
So. Enough of that. What else knocks me out of a film?
Well, if you stage things the same way that a million other recent films have staged them, using the same camera angles, the same choreography, and so on, and it’s a way that really makes no logical sense, I will be knocked out of even the best film, by the reminder that you, the movie maker, are just copying what you saw before, without even bothering to apply a little of your vaunted creativity to a story problem.
Case in point: the jump-scare followed by real scare. A character in a scary place is frightened by something that turns out to be nothing. A cat, maybe, jumping out of the shadows. He calms down. Wow, what a start he just got. Count to three, and the real monster jumps out at him.
This was genuinely effective, the first few dozen times it was done.
The problem is, it became such a go-to moment that I have seen canny audiences do a three-count, waiting for the real monster to jump out. They mouth, or gesture, the one-two-three. They have internalized the trope. It is no longer a clever moment. It is a reflex.
Another case in point: the bad guy isn’t really dead.
When Halloween was released, it was genuinely frightening that when Laurie Strode kills the guy in the William Shatner mask, he is merely quiet for a few seconds, before he gets up again. It was new, then. It is no longer new. For many years after that, it became downright common for any monster or villain who appeared to be dead to get up again… and that, too, became internalized, to the point where knowledgeable filmgoers talk about it being only common-sense, when dealing with any hulking unstoppable threat who has gone done, to then put one in the brain. It has become a joke. It is no longer narratively effective. It is a reflex.
Third case in point: the T-Bone auto crash.
If you’ve seen this scene once, you have seen it a few dozen times. Your protagonist is driving in a car, most frequently, having a conversation with another character. The specific camera angle is either the person behind the wheel or the person riding shotgun, center-of-picture, with the window behind them. It is a relatively quiet moment. The person you’re looking at is talking. Then the car passes through an intersection and a speeding car racing in from the side-street hits the car we’ve been watching, broadside. A stunning jump-scare, horrifying the first few times we saw it; now a distracting occasion to think, “Oh, okay, they’re doing that again.”
It is bad enough when the crash is treated as a genuine accident, of the sort that just happens to afflict us. (It was heartbreaking when it happened to Chris Cooper’s character in Adaptation.) Over the last few years it has become the thing that thugs do to ambush heroic protagonists, so overused that I recently documented an evening where that setup occurred on three separate TV dramas being aired, on different channels, on the same night
The logical problems with such a device are beside the point, even if there are many of them. (Often including: just how did the villains plan this assault with such precision that they knew our protagonist would be passing through that intersection, in that neighborhood, at that precise speed? How did he select a velocity that would enable him to force the other car into a rollover, while escaping injury in a crash that must be just as hard on those behind his own wheel? Since this is often used as a kidnapping tool, how does he know, while racing toward that random intersection, that there won’t be any other motorists inclined to interfere, or at least willing to call the police?)
No; what really makes that moment unforgivable is that we’ve seen it before. Not just many times. Not just recently. But many times, recently.
And what knocks us out of immersion in the story you’re telling is not just its unlikelihood, or its familiarity. It’s the thought we all have, even if we don’t really express it in words: that you didn’t bother to think out the story you’re telling, or try to come up with some way to imbue your tale with novelty. Instead, you put it together from bits and pieces of work by other people, lifted whole from the stories they were telling. You looked at this moment, this problem, the antagonists ambush the protagonists, and out of all the possible ways you could have staged that and moved on to the next bit, you picked a shot-by-shot recreation of a moment that has become an overused trope, in record time. The audience member not versed in critical language may think nothing more sophisticated than, “Oh, this is like that moment from that other movie.” Another might be able to list a dozen movies where it happened, down to every nuance. But in both cases it amounts to the same thing: the single, damning thought, “Oh. That.”
It’s recognition, conscious or otherwise, that you, the maker of movie or TV, were in this moment a shrugger of shoulders: the person who couldn’t wait to quit work for the day.
Oh well, you thought. That’s good enough.
You want to know why it knocks me out of your story?
Well, it instantly puts me in the mind of the kid’s show host who, once upon a time many years ago, wrapped up the latest installment of his beloved after-school program and didn’t realize his mike was still on. Thinking himself safe, he dropped out of character and spoke the immortal, career-nuking words, meant only for his crew: “That oughta hold the little bastards.”
When you go straight to a device like this, beat by beat, without applying any of your own creativity to the task, I may not be able to hear you say it…
…but I can tell it’s what you’re thinking.
In The Magic Lantern, multiple Hugo and Nebula nominee Adam-Troy Castro reviews and reveals under-appreciated films worth talking about. This column will alternate with The Remake Chronicles, in which A-TC examines the stories that movies keep returning to.