Monday, 19 November 2012

A few words on clichés

There is a scene in the Argentinian film The Puzzle (2009) where a couple is seen in bed at night, husband and wife lying side by side, apparently sleeping. I thought to myself "She will open her eyes ... now." And she did. It is such a well-established convention that I might have been tempted to make a bet, had I watched it with someone.

In the beginning of the first Bond film with Daniel Craig, Casino Royale (2006), Bond has had a fight with a man in a public toilet, and apparently killed him. But as he catches his breath after the fight the "dead" guy suddenly wakes up and reaches for his gun. This is a well-established cliché, although it may or may not be used so I would not have made a bet, unless I was a gambler.

Complaints about clichés in films is almost as old as the medium itself. Yet even though most would in all likelihood say that clichés were a bad thing more or less all films are filled with them, and it could not be any other way. Our lives and our speech are based on clichés, and consequently so is art. The trick is to learn to separate the invisible and necessary clichés from the bad and annoying ones. Or, as has been suggested, separate the clichés from the conventions, where clichés are just bad conventions. But I am not sure that all clichés are bad.

If I say "You broke my arm!" to someone, that is not a clichéd thing to say. If however I say "You broke my heart." that is a cliché. This is partly because "You broke my arm!" is literally true, the person did in fact break my arm. But the person who betrayed my love did not literally break my heart, my heart is pumping away oblivious of any emotional agony I might have. It is a metaphor, one that is used over and over again, and thus a cliché. However, few would get upset and say "Oh please, must you be so clichéd?" to the person who used that metaphor. It is acceptable. Similarly, to say "I fell in love with you." is not clichéd, to say "You stole my heart." is, but again perfectly acceptable.

I recently went to a photography exhibition and according to the curators the exhibition challenged and changed our conceptions of what a photo exhibition is. Obviously the exhibition did nothing of the sort. Also, I am not sure that those who went to see it had strong prejudices as to what a photo exhibition is anyway, besides it being an exhibition containing photographs. What the curators had done was writing down an art gallery cliché, and of the kind which is used regardless of its relation to the actual exhibition. (I suppose the only kind of photography exhibition that would be really challenging would be one without any photographs at all.)

But in order for a person to notice this that person must have been to many exhibitions and frequently come across that expression (such as I have). Repeated exposure is an essential aspect of clichés. That is why we are much more likely to condemn Hollywood films for being clichéd than films from most other countries, whereas a indigenous audience, or an expert on a particular national cinema, might find it just as clichéd as Hollywood cinema. Only different clichés. (Personally I feel that modern Danish cinema and so-called American independent cinema are about as clichéd as cinema gets.) You are in a much better position to judge the number of clichés in Swedish or Hungarian or Thai cinema if you are really familiar with their cinema and culture. What somebody might feel is a fresh approach is to another a boring cliché.

Often-times clichés are used because it is convenient. If instead of saying "She broke my heart!" I said "She strangled my ankles!" nobody would understand, even though both statements are equally nonsensical on a basic level. Many clichés pass by without being judged, or even noticed. But some stand out, and often annoy. I think one thing that is needed for a cliché to become annoying is if it is meaningless exactly because it is a cliché. That is the case with the killer who appears dead but is not really, as in Casino Royale. Something unexpected becomes expected after it has become a cliché. And they are so easy to avoid. It is the same as when some unexpected family secret is suddenly revealed by some drunk member at a wedding (which seems to happen in most, if not all, Danish films for example). What would be unexpected is if the wedding was an event of pure joy with not a single misstep or embarrassment.

Clichés come in all shapes and forms. A style of acting can be clichéd, a type of lighting can be clichéd, a twist in the plot, a setting, a title, an ending. In all kinds of films these different kinds of clichés are being used, even in much of avant garde cinema. And that is as it must be. A common mistake is to deliberately be anti-cliché, something which is often even more annoying than the original cliché because it is obviously made to be anti-clichéd, which is a bit of a cliché in itself. But, if it is good, and works, it can only be used once, or else it just turns into a new cliché. In North By Northwest (1959) Hitchcock wanted Thornhill (Cary Grant) to be attacked in the most unlikely and unclichéd of places so he sent him out in the countryside in broad daylight, to an immense flat field on which corn is grown. There, completely alone, he was attacked by  assassins. But that scene can not be repeated, because it would immediately be considered a copy or at best an homage to Hitchcock. It is too much of an anti-cliché as to be unusable thereafter. But there will always be scenes where people are attacked in dark alleys in the city.

A collection of essays and criticism by Martin Amis is called The War Against Cliché, but I do not think it is possible to avoid clichés, at least not if we want to make ourselves understood. What we should do is avoid the clichés that only draw attention to themselves as clichés.

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