Five Film Clichés We Blindly Believe or Stuff We Simply Absorb From Cinema

cabin in the woods
What better time to discover the philosopher within yourself than the holidays? Increased alcohol consumption, a relaxed atmosphere, lot of time to think about your life. In that spirit I found myself thinking about ideologies or philosophies that filmmakers knowingly or subconsciously work into the stories they tell. A lot of these world views have become so popular, that they almost became staples of storytelling itself, genre tropes, clichés even. Some of those are easy to detect and unmask, like the famous happy ending. Some are more subtle and insinuate themselves into the film through the back door if you will. 

The thinking film viewer might be aware of the fact many filmmakers pursue a political, philosophical or even religious agenda aside from wanting to create a work of art. A good filmmaker, in my view, however always puts artistic goals above any other personal beliefs. Still, every artist can’t help but put his own values into his art. Even though we know movies to be fiction, they do mirror real life and shape the way we think and understand reality. Life and art continuously and reciprocally influence each other. Films are heightened realities, fantasies, dreams really, so the realities portrayed are always fiction. Just saying that to be clear.

Even documentaries only show one side of reality. Some schools would even argue that there is no such thing as objective reality (constructionism). All that to say that films represent some sort of idealized reality. It’s no surprise that if you take a director’s oeuvre the characters and events happening in his film seem part of some sort of parallel universe. In this regard, the worlds created in art house cinema are just as fictitious as those created in a Hollywood sci-fi or fantasy epic. Art cinema claims to be more rooted in reality and that’s where the film goer might be more tempted to “believe” the narrative presented to them.

My point here is that certain film clichés are so deep rooted in cinema history that going against those narrative devices has become the exception. Even if we don’t believe in happy endings, we tend to be quite stunned when a film ends in a completely pessimistic, not even bittersweet, sort of way. Horror fans might argue that most slasher films don’t end well, but doesn’t the final girl, represent an alternate version of the Hollywood ending? In any case, the five clichés I picked are very personal. To me they’re the most important, but I’m sure there are more, so as always appreciate my dear readers to weigh in.

Chliché I – The Nomen Omen Complex or How Every Single Human Being Can Be Boiled Down To A Couple Simple Characteristics
Often times in films you have a clear situation where the name of the character also sums up his person and personality. It represents their very core, who they are or who they’re supposed to be. This cliché comes from the Jewish tradition, where people believed that a name was more than just a string of letters, but also contained a person’s essence. This is probably the cliché I tend to believe most out of the five. Since reality is so complex we try to simplify things, to do so helps us being more pragmatic, but it also leads to creating stereotypes and being narrow-minded.

In this case my question is: How can you boil down a person to one word? Can a person’s complex personality and all of their life experiences, all of their visible and invisible traits and convictions be summarized in something decided a priori? Doesn’t seem to make much sense, not even if you want to reduce it to a couple sentences. Believing this cliché leads to poor character development. Film’s greatest characters are the ones we can’t fully understand, like say a Charles Forster Kane. If even I can’t fully understand myself (and I’m me all the time) how can anyone else?

Cliché II – Every Long Time Family Issue You May Have Will Magically Resolve Itself In One Cathartic Scene
Festen (1998)
Especially around Christmas time I notice an influx of movies (on TV) about families where people have a lot of personal baggage and unresolved issues with each other. That seems normal. No family is perfect, no matter how happy they may appear on the surface. Often times the biggest problem seems to be the lack of communication, which usually only accentuates and worsens things over time.

What you often see in movies is someone who can’t take it anymore and calls everyone out on their bullshit, then usually gets called out on his own bullshit, which then usually has to make up for being an asshole and ultimately has to apologize, but meanwhile everyone realized they were assholes also. After that everything’s good and everyone’s happy and in peace, like nothing before ever happened.

In real life however, there are some life long issues people have with themselves or each other and they don’t simply resolve over night. It’s just not how things work. Besides, some people carry grudges, even years after you apologized they’ve marked down every word, everything you’ve done wrong and they will let you know that they remember. It’s sad, but it’s also true that sometimes people fuck up and it affects people permanently.

Cliché III – There’s A Soul Mate For Every Lonely Heart Out There And They Will Meet And Fall In Love And Everything Will Be Perfect Forever (The End)
True Romance (1993)
How many people are there on this earth? Over 7 billion, right? Well, the odds are certainly in favor of there being a soul mate for everyone out there somewhere, the problem is just where and will they meet at the right time in the right place etc. Not only that, but will they recognize that they’re soul mates (again, if there’s even such a thing as soul mates)? And if they do: Will it work out? Will they think that happiness and being crazy in love lasts forever? Relationships take a lot of hard work, it’s not always easy.

Romantic comedies certainly do us no favors in presenting us with utterly unrealistic scenarios. A lot of people seem disillusioned and approach love and relationships as something purely rational, almost as a contract where you expect certain transactions to take place and then when it’s not in your interest anymore you leave. Again, sorry to be such a downer, but that’s how I see it. The beauty of this cliché is that it’s the hardest one of disprove: 7 billions, remember? There might still be some hope, right?

Cliché IV: No Matter How Hard It Seems Or How Many Minutes It Takes You Will Find Your Way And Fulfill Your Destiny
Close to the first cliché, but slightly different. In a lot of ways people in movies have to figure out what to do with their lives. From movies we’ve learned that everyone has at least one thing they’re good at. Usually it’s a creative or artistic gift, since screenwriters and filmmakers, who are also artists of course, mostly write about what they know and what they are. Now, I’m not saying that people shouldn’t cultivate their artistic sensibilities, but if we were all artists we’d run into some pretty serious troubles in the long run as a society.

Aside from this I don’t like the way sometimes office jobs or non-artistic jobs in general are looked down upon in movies. Not that it’s specifically commented on, but it seems that the belief is that if you’re not doing something creative you’re automatically not happy or satisfied with your life. Once again the reality is that sometimes you have to make money and if that means doing something that is less of a dream job it has to be tolerated as long as it puts food on the table. Now, I understand that movies are escapism, but being an artist isn’t always only fun and games either.

Cliché V: You Will Die Happy, Your Death Will Be Painless And You’ll Know Your Life Meant Something Or Made A Difference
The way most movies deal with elderly people and death is another thing that really bugs me. Dying is a slow and painful process. It’s not pretty. Most people don’t die quietly on their deathbed having resolved everything, said everything and done everything they wanted. It hurts. When a loved one dies, it’s devastating. It’s all emotions at once. Maybe I’m too cynical, but there’s no way to know for sure that your life meant something for most (even if it probably did). Even for those who believe in God and are able to console themselves with that, death remains something uncertain.

Death is scary to even think about. When I see all those people in movies dying with a smile on their faces and saying shit like “It’s okay”-whatever something, I just think: That’s the only thing no writer can know. Nobody knows what death is like, yes maybe some near death experiences, but still it’s not the same as really dying. And again, dying is messy. All sorts of bodily fluids and unpleasant things that we don’t want to see. That’s why the clean death cliché really caught on, to put us all at peace. However the sad truth is that we don’t know. I might die in my sleep, but I also might have to battle some terrible disease that won’t kill me, but only slowly torture me while keeping me alive.

Sorry to go out on such a disconcerting note, but what did you expect? If you read my blog you know by now that I tend to over-analyze stuff and usually it ends up getting depressing. The good news in my opinion is that if you think about stuff, you’re also better prepared for it. Acceptance is what it’s really all about, not ignoring the harsh things in life, but looking reality in the face and not being afraid. It also actively pursue spiritual interests and search for deeper meanings. Never stop searching, never give up and in this new year I hope you’ll get one step closer towards finding true and lasting happiness and inner peace.

Happy New Year, my dear readers!


  1. Anna (Film Grimoire)

    Love this, especially your sensitive exploration of the death cliche in film. Sometimes I feel the representation of death in film is meant to comfort people but ends up paradoxically making people feel more anxious about it. Here’s to more incongruous film cliches in 2014!

  2. confusedalotofthetime

    That’s what I like about the new method of storytelling that’s floating around at the moment ie.Lena Dunham, Ry Russo-Young wrote Nobody walks, where there is no moral consequences to the characters actions, the film simply is, It is also what I enjoyed about Starlet, starring Dree Hemingway which is virtually the opposite of Pretty Woman starring Julia Roberts. There are so many independent films that have been released in the last couple of years that challenge these cliches and are turning the age old fable on it’s head and bringing storytelling into a new era. Match factory girl, persona and more recently Out of the furnace are examples of cliche busting films. Many critics or viewers HAted out of the furnace and accused the writer and director of Nihilism, I have heard similar criticisms of Spring breakers, either viewers simply do not get the film or can not handle it when their “vision” of cinema and storytelling in general is challenged. I applaud these filmmakers for going against the grain and adding a healthy dose of experimentalism or reality to their films, it is a brave notion to go against the grain of dulled audiences who seem to be trained to accept a disney style ending or a black and white view of “justice” or moral consequence. Blue is the warmest color was exactly so enthralling for that particular reason. Like most people she doesn’t end up with her first great love, the relationship dissolves and Adele is left heartbroken for many years after her first romance. Her sexuality also remains ambiguous. What I look for when rating a film is in fact to see if it busts through these cliches to deliver a different or somewhat original story, as much as a story can be original, since almost everything has come before it. I am greatly enjoying exploring experimental film and at the moment the dissolution of age old cliches as independent film slowly erode the status quo and introduce viewers to varied storytelling techniques.

    • davideperretta

      Thanks for your comment! I think that was the point I was trying to make 🙂 Like you of course I tend to gravitate towards indie cinema, but it’s always weird when those films and filmmakers fall into the usual clichés and genre trappings. And surprisingly it happens more than you’d expect.

      • confusedalotofthetime

        Sometimes it’s an easy fall back. And I do suppose that there are many variables involved in filmmaking. Many stories or scripts are rewritten many times due to different interpretations, visions or investors demands.
        I suspect small budget films have the ability to break through barriers due to less commercial interference. BTW what the fuck was up with the last batman trilogy, I never enjoyed it myself but did think it was a serious departure from the batman of old.

      • confusedalotofthetime

        I am having the reverse problem, which I have always had when I try to write a story. There is no formula and I find it so hard to try and stick to any kind of formula, my story writing is all over the place and although I can think of many ideas and events I can’t string a formulaic storyline together to save my life. I am thinking of abandoning that idea entirely simply because I can’t do it so am approaching it in a different way. ie there will be no formula. just a mess at present heehee I keep writing anyway

      • confusedalotofthetime

        I guess that’s also whats so interesting about mumblecore as well, even though it’s disastrously hipsterly It is great because there is no script and the actors develop the story develops as the film goes on, so in actual fact there is an entire genre of film that tries to rid itself of the cliche phenomenon.

      • davideperretta

        Well, experimental storytelling will always be more interesting to me, no matter how messy. At least you can see some effort and creativity. Ambitious failures are always more fascinating than by the numbers approaches and formulas, like you say. With mumblecore I ask myself though if they haven’t created new clichés of their own. It’s always easy to end up into some sort of scheme or structure. I would be happy not to have that problem, exploit it and ake the best of it 🙂

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