Previously, we examined one of the tools used by visionary filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, Orson Wells, Park Chan-Wook and Martin Scorsese – the long take. Today, we will look at one of the most prominent tools in the hack filmmaker toolbox – the recycled cliche. A cliche is something that is trite or overused, and according to our definition of a hack filmmaker, one of the primary things that make a filmmaker a hack is the creation of dull, unimaginative, mediocre or banal work.
Why do hacks utilize cliches in filmmaking? They use cliches because hack filmmakers do not possess the storytelling ability to properly set up their scenes and hence, must resort to using shortcuts.
Example #1 – Talking to Tombstones in the Cemetery
Notorious hack director Michael Bay, the man as responsible as any for bringing low grade music video-making skills to the big screen, thanks to hack producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, opens the feature film that really put him on the map, THE ROCK, with the classic example of the cemetery cliche scene. In this scene we see the military man, played by Ed Harris, talk to dead wife’s tombstone. Why did Bay begin his film with this scene? Obviously, he wanted a quick way to establish why the villain of his film, a man who appears to be a proud and dedicated military man, decided to threaten the city of San Francisco with annihilation WMD-style. A talented filmmaker would have set up the villain using a scene that utilizes imagery and/or dialogue to “show not tell”, as Christopher Nolan did in The Dark Knight or Quentin Tarantino did in the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds. However, Bay is generally in a hurry to get to his set pieces and as a result, is reduced to serving up melodrama and familiarity.
Example #2 – The Ticking Bomb Timer
Another example of a tired, old movie cliche is the ticking bomb timer used as a plot device to ratchet up tension. Like in the previous example, this cliche provides the filmmaker with a lazy way out. Instead of using superior pacing and scene sequencing to maintain tension and suspense, the filmmaker simply edits in repeated closeups of something that looks like a LED timer to add “urgency” to his film. In television, the series 24 rode this concept to massive commercial success, but in the world of feature films, we also have numerous examples to choose from. Here, I have selected John Woo’s 1996 film BROKEN ARROW, because the idea of putting a kitchen timer on a nuclear bomb is so embarrassingly ridiculous for a once-great filmmaker. Ain’t it cool? Not really.