3/14/2012

Top ten things we shouldn't still be doing onscreen

Women don't faint much in movies anymore, but we still have a long way to go...
Things we shouldn't do onscreen anymore
As cinema-goers have evolved more sophisticated sensibilities in the hundred years since celluloid went mainstream - and sixty since the cathode tube made its counter-attack - their willingness to suspend disbelief has diminished decade-on-decade. Narrative tricks that once served as useful short-cuts to advance the plot have had to be gradually jettisoned for lack of credibility. For instance, there's not much fainting to be seen anymore in movies and TV - well, not of women, anyway; a truly passionate kiss is rarely tongue-free these days; and there's a hell of a lot more cross-talk than there used to be (thanks, Howard Hawks and Ridley Scott in particular).
For sure, all the dated acting-remnants outlined in this list are withering away, but they're still to be found as narrative cheats in new movie and TV output, treasured by writers as exposition-killers; or maybe just out of nostalgia for the older product that the writers, actors and directors loved so much. Here they're rated on how prevalent they are in current movie and TV output…
10: Not saying goodbye on the phone
Here in Brit-land, those of us unacquainted with America might well get the impression that our transatlantic cousins were born in a barn as far as phone manners are concerned. Valedictions take time, and since the average US police procedural is chock full of phone calls, the little niceties get jettisoned faster than a rancid donut.
I don't know about you, but if someone was to hang up on me without saying goodbye, I'd be there saying 'Hello…? Hello…?" Best case, I'd presume a network or line issue and call right back to make sure that the conversation was actually finished.
Bryan Cranston forgetting his manners in Breaking Bad
This is utterly epidemic both in movies and TV, and - to be fair - is nearly as common in UK as in US shows and movies.
Brits that still doubt that Americans do say goodbye on the phone can hear them defending themselves on this subject here.
9: The 'telegraphed' sucker-punch

It's vanishing, but if you can still see it in something as high-profile and respected as Breaking Bad (check out the end of the first season finale), the 'feint' is still very much alive. Gene Hackman also performs an 'obviously coming' sucker-punch in Unforgiven (1991), just before he really lays into Richard Harris. Little wonder, as that film's director, Clint Eastwood, is the all-time 'telegraphed sucker-punch' king, and his fondness for this dated gimmick was being lampooned on US TV in the likes of Sledge Hammer even back in the mid-eighties. But no-one has spoofed the 'feign' better than Zucker & Co in 1982's Police Squad TV show.
8: Absurdly indiscreet surveillance
Anyone who can't spot a 'tail' in the average movie or TV show either deserves to be caught or isn't worth catching. And yes, that includes The Wire. Creator David Simon talks several time in commentaries about the need to get both 'cat' and 'mouse' in the same shot, and how this dramatic imperative needs to override how the set-up would realistically play.
William Friedkin gives us some seminal, genre-defining tail/surveillance scenes in The French Connection, but the truth is that Gene Hackman (Popeye Doyle) was on more credible ground with the incredibly elliptical surveillance techniques that he was master of in Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation
Popeye Doyle keeping inconspicuous in The French Connection
7: Repeating something for dramatic emphasis
I have never heard anyone 'echo' a significant statement for dramatic effect - except in the fictional worlds of TV and movies, or from someone who was parodying them. This is strictly for Fu Manchu and his cardboard pantomime friends.
Of course, it's not necessarily the sign of a bad movie or of bad acting. The person doing it might just be a complete looney, or drunk on phantom booze. Or both…
Jack Nicholson doing it again in The Shining.
But surely we won't be thought wankers for assuming that the person we're talking to didn't hear us the first time, or fully understand the gravity of what we said the first time…will we, Yoda?
This hasn't yet disappeared from movies and TV, sadly. Not at all. Not at all…
Newt. Mostly.
6: Receiving information too quickly on the phone
People who are able to receive gigabyte-sized databursts in a ten-second phone call. Such on-screen incidents were actually slipping down the list until the late 1990s, when the utter ubiquity of mobile phones quadrupled the number of phone calls that needed to be portrayed onscreen. It's a director's and actor's nightmare, since 75% of all onscreen phone calls are expositional in nature, and, to boot, a private event that we can only barge into with split-screen or other hokey techniques.

Movies such as Speed and Phone Booth make telephone conversations a central pivot of the drama, but for the most part, screen phone calls are dead time; zap fodder; bo-ring. As any book-loving commuter knows. If anything, 'accelerated' phone calls are becoming endemic in film and TV, and rapidly rising up this list.
Now try explaining all of that in four seconds.
5: Exiting on a 'zinger'
Unless you're in the early stages of a particularly ugly divorce, you probably aren't going to find yourself performing too many Dynasty-style 'exit-lines', with your hand on the door-handle. In fact, it's only in an argument that this behaviour ever crosses over from screen-life to real-life, and in that context one must admit that it's fairly credible.
No, I'm talking about something far more common in movies and TV, and far more unbelievable - imparting significant information in a Columbo-style valediction. When you say something important in the real world, you can expect a reaction, and not sticking around for it either makes you look like a control freak or a total dick. Or just someone who watches too many movies.
Don't think I'm knocking Clint Eastwood, by the way. I love Clint, but his work remains a masterclass of classic anachronisms.
It's not just low-rent or dated output that suffers from the exit-zinger; you can see the great R. Lee Ermey performing one on Morgan Freeman in Se7en, and the same phenomenon in any number of great films, old and new. Turn the TV on and you're never more than fifteen minutes away from a door-zinger. Turn a soap on, and you can make that fifteen seconds.
4: Giving in to "Last Supper" syndrome
This covers a variety of cinematic sins, all involving the fact that conversations are intimate by nature and often difficult to penetrate with a camera in anything other than a desk set-up. Cafés, bars and diners are easier to handle, with their open booths and casual seating, but restaurant group scenes remain a bitch. The likes of Tarantino overcome the problem with a circling motion, as in the beginning of Reservoir Dogs, but not everyone has the time or money to lay track.
Our Lord leaving room for the camera
Thus there's no end in sight for the camera-friendly tableux of diners/talkers who have conveniently left a big space for the camera. Unless you're going to do it Jonathan Demme/Stanley Kubrick style with a first-person POV…
Jodie Foster breaking the fourth wall in Silence Of The Lambs
…during conversations (and more violent interactions).
Having said that, and with a welcome return to the subject of the legendary R. Lee Ermey, even the great master Kubrick couldn't find his way out of this bit of blocking in Full Metal Jacket
R. Lee Ermey accomodating Stanley Kubrick in Full Metal Jacket
This is a classic nose-to-nose confrontation in military training, but Mr. Ermey has to bark his way in at 45 degrees so that Kubrick can linger on Matthew Modine's passport-photo discomfort.
This isn't a problem that new technology can solve; it's just one area of fiction where books will always have an advantage over movies, and the least-clunky cinematic solution wins.
3: Continuing a conversation on a scene-change
Narrative teleporting: continuing a conversation in a new scene that is distant from the previous scene temporally, geographically, or both…
What happened in the intervening time? Was everyone just whistling Dixie while you got in a cab to show your friend the secret alien lair in Area 51? Tell the truth, I actually like this technique a lot in comedy, but it raises too many questions in any other genre, and tends to crop up a lot, maybe too much, in thrillers and sci-fi.

2: Lying badly
The new wave of 'double life' dramas and comedies like Breaking Bad, Dexter and Hung depend on their main characters being able to lie convincingly in order to cook crystal meth, commit murder, become a pimp, sell their bodies et al. But there are two problems in having them do it with the utter conviction of the inveterate bullshitter: in the first place, it makes them unsympathetic to the viewer. Secondly, the audience might by now be so enmeshed in episode-spanning sub-plots that a lie needs to be obvious in order to remind the viewer that it is a lie.
Dexter telling it like it isn't
The first point has less relevance for Breaking Bad, since Walter White has got a lot better at deception over three seasons, and is in many aspects turning into a fascinating 'bad guy'. But in a show like Dexter, telegraphed lies from Dex are not only a fatal betrayal of the pathology of the main character, but make anyone he's lying (badly) to - such as Rita or his work colleagues - look like a complete idiot for not noticing the hesitations and faltering.
The second point is a lost cause as far as any remedy is concerned, since not even HBO ever lost money underestimating the attention-span of its audiences.
The glaring effect of bad onscreen lying is doubled if you're having a DVD marathon with a 'double-life' show.
1: Hiding our naughty bits in intimate situations
Producers love a bedroom scene, even without nudity, but putting one in a movie or show is a minefield.
For directors, it's an easy two-shot; and sensitive actresses and actors can take comfort by letting gravity give them a cinematic facelift while they lie back. The problem comes when you have to pay off the setting of an intimate scene by showing two people being comfortable enough to be naked in front of each other.
James Bond keeping it clean in Goldeneye
People can make love and still be shy about their bodies - hell, lots of folks even think 'leaving the light on' is kinky. But needing to wrap a sheet around yourself to get up and go to the bathroom qualifies as pathology, whether the sheet is there to keep the rating kid-friendly, hide cellulite, or because the star's fee fell shy of the 'full monty' pay-band. And not even targeted satire seems able to make a dent in the trend.
The modesty bedsheet is still a bit eighties, admittedly, and is gradually giving way to the equally absurd 'magical underwear' that seems to crawl its way back onto the body after coitus, depending on the actor's indispensibility to the show.
Jane Adams hiding her modesty after sex with Thomas Jane in 'Hung'

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