To all the loyal fans of The B-Movies Podcast, I bid you welcome, and entreat you to read yet another installment of B-Movies Extended, where, this week, William Bibbiani and I will be spewing a hot, wrathful, putrid stream of bilious annoyance directly into your unsuspecting eyeballs. If you recall, on this last week’s episode (our proud 25th) Bibbs and I touched briefly on film details and clichés that really bugged us. As we are professional film critics, and full of no small amount of bile, we have decided to codify and explain some of our bigger pet peeves from films in this week’s article. Gird your loins. We’re gonna be mad about little things that you may not have ever noticed.
Without any rhyme or reason, here is a brief list of little things that just piss me off.
WHEN MOVIES MAKE UP COUNTRIES
I know this America, and we’re not exactly known around the world for our stellar awareness of other countries’ geography, but I really hate when filmmakers try to exploit that by inventing a new country for the express purpose of a film. There are many countries on this globe of ours, is it really so hard to research the history and details of a specific location, and set your movie there? I have seen movies that take place in countries like Motobo, Kreplachistan, and Sengala. Making up fictional characters for the purpose of a film is common, but when you begin to make up countries, it’s blatantly broadcasting (a lot like phone numbers that begin with “555”), that what you’re seeing is fictional. It’s hard to suspend my disbelief when my fifth grade geography education is being violated.
WHEN LIGHTNING CRASHES AT THE SAME TIME THUNDER CRACKS
As kids, most of us probably played the game once depicted in Poltergeist: When you see a flash of lightning, you begin counting seconds. When you hear the thunder crack, you stop. The longer you count, the further away the lightning strike. In movies, however, even in big-budget, classy, professional studio releases, the lightning always strikes at the SAME TIME that the thunder cracks. Always. Without exception (Poltergeist notwithstanding). If this actually happened, the lightning would be dangerously close to the character. The thunder would be deafening. The ground or building would shake a little. It would be surprising and shocking. Thunder and lightning can be atmospheric enough with their natural behavior. Why compress them? Only to bug me, that’s why.
WHEN PHONES HANG UP AND YOU IMMEDIATELY HEAR THE DIAL TONE
We’ve all used telephones, and we all know how they work. When someone hangs up, there is a click, and then silence. A few seconds must elapse before the dial tone begins. In movies, I guess to clarify that the off-camera person on the other end of the phone has indeed hung up on our on-camera hero, the foley artist immediately cuts in with the dial tone. Wrong! Wrong wrong wrong! We all know this is wrong. Why bother to do it? Make the click more audible, and we’ll know what’s going on.
WHEN LOS ANGELES STREETS ARE MISIDENTIFIED
This is actually a pet peeve that has evolved into a fun game, but it only works with natives of Los Angeles. A lot of movies (and even more television shows) are filmed in and about Los Angeles. Many films, especially those about the making of movies, bother to show iconic L.A. streets, and actually know how and where the characters get about. It can be that when someone says they’re on Sunset Boulevard, they’re actually on Sunset Blvd. But in other films, especially those with car chases, filmmakers tend to go for good looking streets and corners rather than actual geography, and the savvy native can immediately spot when a car swings around a corner, edits to the next car, and they’re suddenly 14 miles across town. When my mom and I used to watch reruns of Hunter together, we actually began to have fun trying to identify how many street corners were used in an average five-minute car chase. The total was rarely more than three or four. This game will work for anyone who lives in the town where the film in question was shot.
WHEN CYRILLIC CHARACTERS ARE USED AS SUBSTITUTES FOR ENGLISH
This one is petty, of course, but please stick with me. When I was 12, my old sister took part in an exchange student program to the USSR (which became Russia that very year; a lot of socio-political drama in our household), and to help her prepare for the trip, we all decided to learn a few phrases of Russian. I have only retained a few completely useless phrases, but I have still managed to recall the Cyrillic alphabet, and I can, if given a moment, pronounce Russian words. A note to graphic designers: The Russian letter that looks like "R" [EDITOR'S NOTE: Cyrillic letters don't make nice with our CMS, sorry] is pronounced “ya.” The Russian letter that looks like "A" (like the Borat poster above) is pronounced like a “d.” When I see someone spell out something like “Russia” in some in-film Cyrillic graphic design, all I can see is “Yachssid.”
FROM THE DESK OF WILLIAM BIBBIANI:
I’m too lazy to actually look it up, but I believe that “pet peeves” are defined as things which annoy an individual but are generally overlooked by most people. If my failure to provide the proper Webster’s definition bothers you, then congratulations…! That’s a pet peeve. When you watch as many movies as the average American – let alone those of us who watch movies professionally – you start to pick up on recurring gimmicks, conveniences or evidences of laziness that tick you off whenever they pop up on-screen. And they never seem to stop, do they? They might go out of fashion for a while – I can’t remember the last time I saw the ol’ “Woman Watches A Bus Pull Up To Take Her Guy Away, But When The Bus Pulls Away He’s Still There” gag (I think it was the 1994 college comedy PCU) – but they don’t ever seem to die.
Case in point: One of Witney’s picks, “When Phones Hang Up And You Immediately Hear The Dial Tone,” is borderline archaic now that most telephone conversations on-and-off the screen are cellular. Cellular phones do not have dial tones. But movies still use dial tones to clarify that somebody has hung up the phone, most famously when Kirsten Dunst hangs up on James Franco in Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man. In this case, as well as in some of my picks below, the rules have changed but filmmakers are still playing the same old game.
Here then are but a few of my own personal pet peeves, perceived with annoyance and collected with frustration over years of watching, studying and writing about film. I could come up with a hundred of these, but here are five that particularly grind my gears.
WHEN SOMEBODY CAN’T GET A CELL PHONE SIGNAL
Actually, this bugs a lot of people, but I think it bugs me in a different way than most. There are whole YouTube videos dedicated to mashing these moments together, in which a character in a film can’t get a cell phone signal, or their battery dies. Usually this happens when a serial killer is around, or they’re lost. Granted, dodgy cell phone reception is still an issue in rural areas but it’s swiftly becoming a thing of the past. And yet I don’t think movies will ever stop using this annoying little convention, because it will require them to learn how to tell new stories. Here’s a game: whenever a character in a movie says that their cell phone doesn’t work, for any reason, ask yourselves… if the cell phone worked properly, would the movie be over in ten minutes? The answer is almost always “Yes.” The cavalry would arrive and the heroes would be saved, roll credits. Hollywood is having serious trouble adapting its stories to one of the most convenient inventions since the edible conveyance that is the cheese wheel (an analogy that I alone think is funny). Rather than come up with new plot devices to combat this, screenwriters just throw in the “Oh, The Cell Phone Doesn’t Work” scene and proceed with the status quo, writing the rest of the movie like it took place in 1990. It’s understandable, I suppose, but increasingly backward and lazy and it’s only getting more frustrating as time goes on. I’ve only seen one movie that really played with this concept, David R. Ellis’s witty and underrated Hitchcockian thriller Cellular, in which the plot hangs on a cell phone actually keeping reception throughout the entire film.
WHEN THE PROTAGONIST HAS THEIR LIFE STORY READ BACK TO THEM
Here’s another little screenwriting trick that reeks of laziness: a protagonist walks into a meeting with someone in a position of authority, and that person picks up a file and rattles off important information about the hero like their I.Q., where they went to school and whether or not they’re “a loose cannon.” Jodie Foster alone has suffered through this indignity at least twice, in The Silence of the Lambs and Contact, although Ted Tally’s script for The Silence of the Lambs handled it more deftly than most. It’s easy to see the appeal of this little trick, as it allows the writer to get a huge chunk of backstory out of the way at one time without having to organically integrate it into the film. It’s lazy but it’s hardly evil. The only frustrating thing about this moment is its utter prevalence, keeping it from being just another tool in the screenwriter’s workshop and making it instead something that should be avoided altogether.
POST-PRODUCTION SLOW MOTION
A lot of people are frustrated by post-production slow motion without entirely understanding it. I’ll try to be brief: Movies are shot at 24 frames per second, meaning that over the course of one second a film will show 24 distinct images to create the illusion of movement. Less than 24 would be distracting and choppy. More than 24 would be just fine, and actually looks even better, but the industry decided on 24 at the dawn of sound and has committed to it ever since, although Peter Jackson and James Cameron are trying to change that now. If you set the cameras to shoot more than 24 frames per second, and then play it back to the audience at 24 frames per second, you create a smooth slow-motion effect that filmmakers often use to build suspense, clarify hectic action or dramatize a particular action. You can kinda-sorta recreate the effect of slow-motion in post-production without shooting it that way, but this has a “stuttering” effect because half the frames are missing. Peter Jackson used this effect a lot in his remake of King Kong, particularly when the natives first attack, and many have complained that the effect was annoying (although I suspect Jackson was attempting, mostly unsuccessfully, to create a nightmarish quality rather than just replace old-fashioned slow-mo in this case). Ideally, post-production slow-motion should be, again, just another tool in the workshed, but it’s like using a wrench as a hammer. You can get the nail in, technically slowing down the motion of the film, but it’s not as effective as using the right tool for the job. It’s indicative of poor planning on the part of the director, who should have known ahead of time what moments would call for slow motion and actually shot the scene that way, rather than figure it out in the editing room when it’s too late, and frustrating the audience to no end.
NUDITY WITHOUT ANY ACTUAL NUDITY
We’ve all seen this one: a character, usually female (but always someone we want to see naked), takes off their clothes to titillate the audience, but the film doesn’t actually show anything that qualifies as “nudity.” The prime offender here is the “foggy shower” scene, in which the character takes a shower but there’s just enough steam to obscure any of their naughty bits. Now, not every film has to have nudity, but this is a prime example of wanting to have your cake and eat it too (or as the Italians say, “wanting a full bottle of wine and a drunk wife”). In this pet peeve, the filmmakers want all the allure of actual nudity but are afraid to actually show it and ruin their coveted PG-13 rating. (Although I’ll grant you that on network TV this is as good as nudity generally gets, unless you’re Dennis Franz.) Occasionally, however, we see this trope in R-rated movies too, which makes me wonder why the hell they even bothered. This is largely indicative of mainstream Hollywood’s increasing fear of sexuality, however, which I think we’ll cover another week.
IF THEY’RE KILLED OFF-CAMERA, THEY’RE REALLY ALIVE
This one is mostly annoying because of its consistency: if a character is murdered off-screen, they are inevitably alive. Film is a visual medium. One of its fundamental rules is, “Show, Don’t Tell.” If an action is important enough to be a major plot point, like the death of a major character, then any director worth their salt will film it. If they don’t actually film it, then for all intents and purposes it didn’t happen. It didn’t feel real. And since most directors know this they only do it when the events aren’t real in the first place. I could rattle off a ton of examples but this kind of thing usually results in a third act “twist” so I’ll pick an obscure one – SPOILERS!!! – in The Art of War, Wesley Snipes is on a mission and hears his partner, Michael Biehn, die through his headset, which tells the audience immediately that not only is Biehn alive, but that he is also the bad guy. END SPOILERS. This pet peeve is particularly annoying because not only is it a tired cliché, but by now it’s so familiar that it has the exact opposite of its intended effect, giving the entire movie away when it’s actually supposed to be misguiding the audience. In fact, this trope is so prevalent that on the rare occasions in which a character is killed off-screen and stays dead, it’s even more distracting: case in point, X-Men 3 (although I suspect that if the movie had been more popular the character in question – you know who it was – would have returned in the next sequel).
I have a feeling we’ll revisit the topic of pet peeves at some point in the future, until then…
WHAT ARE YOUR BIGGEST MOVIE PET PEEVES…?