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Film scene tropes turned clichés, etc.

By ALFRED A. YUSON, The Philippine STAR Published Jan 16, 2023 5:00 am

Despite the pandemic closing down movie houses for long seasons, at no other time have films enjoyed as much eyeballing, thanks to Netflix, HBO, Amazon Prime and other video streaming sites, as well as pirate apps and digital shareware.

With so many new and revived films, TV series and special mini-series inundating our private screens, one can’t help but note how certain film scenes have become so recurrent that the imagistic tropes repeatedly sink into unforgiving clichés. It’s one thing to pay homage to an earlier director’s memorable output, but another to keep copying the same overdone showcase.

My personal list of peeves includes the following seemingly unavoidable scenes that characterize action movies, in particular:

Extended car chases, especially those that show police cars being wrecked at random, or an assortment of vehicles exploding to fiery smithereens.

Crashing cars, Ronin

A chase on foot that winds through a large kitchen populated by surprised cooks and staff.

Similarly, a chase on foot that involves scrambling up a wall and landing on various backyards, with or without barking dogs, or which features rooftops and daunting leaps between buildings.

A chopper zeroing in on potential targets, often the hero who thinks he’s already safe on a deserted island, usually with a female partner in tow.

A crowded disco hall where some antagonist is found and confronted, even eliminated.

A manhole cover suddenly lifted up in the middle of a dark street, with the sewer as egress point, hiding place or escape route.

Duct tape as a ready adjunct to strap down and silence captives. 

A couple tearing off each other’s habiliments and banging away against a wall, within some abode where bedrooms are apparently light-years away.

In thrillers, rom-coms and everything else, conversations among principal characters are often disrupted by a pulsing mobile phone, giving the chance to advance the narrative or afford a quick change of scene.

In fact, the mobile phone, laptop and computer have become frequent production design props over the past few decades. As narrative staple, they’ve almost turned into irreplaceable characters on their own, without which no plot can unravel.

Only with the usual yearend listing of what are supposed to be the evolving best films of all time is the absence of such visual tropes highlighted. But while we’re at it, if you ask me, these lists often appear to be an elitist snob affair conducted among cineastes who are proud to claim universal viewership of relatively unknown films. Sure, they’ve watched Japanese, Indian and Korean films as much as other cinematic forays into philosophical and psychological Mobius strips and Fibonacci loops.

As I recently suggested to a friend impressed by such lists, they’re all essentially subjective, so that our own can also qualify as the best, unless we let on that they’re simply our favorites. Of course this is all subject to whether we watch movies for philosophical cum aesthetic gratification or to simply be entertained beyond ordinary measure. Our favorite films are usually those that have left us with indelible scenes so that we enjoy watching them time and again.

Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

A recent list cited a critic’s laud of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West, based primarily on the opening sequence. I got a chance to re-watch the classic spaghetti Western soon after, and was disappointed to find that sequence so unnecessarily slow and tedious. Of the other memorable opening sequences cited, I can agree with those of Federico Fellini’s masterful La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 1/2 (1963), both of which involved unique aerial activities—one with a Christ statue being ferried by helicopter over Rome.

The Godfather 1

I’d also accept the defining tension presented in the opening dialogues of The Godfather 1 and Inglourious Basterds, and the cinematic masterpiece of the Omaha beach landing in Saving Private Ryan. But I’d have to add the signature opening sequences in all Bond films, and the start of 2001: A Space Odyssey, till the femur as weapon thrown up by a caveman turns into a space ship. 

Oftentimes the unforgettable scene happens midway, as when a riverboat bearing an opera crew and equipment is hauled up a forested hill in Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982), or when Cal Trask (James Dean) pushes his brother Adam down a brothel’s hallway with the resounding cry, “Say hello to your mother!” in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden (1955).

Robert De Niro in The Mission (1986)

Memorable endings are a dime a dozen, but tops on my list would be those of Roland Joffé’s The Mission (1986), with Robert de Niro’s character gunned down in a colonialist massacre as finale; Kazan’s Viva Zapata (1952), with Marlon Brando gunned down by scores of Mexicans; and Jim McBride’s Breathless remake (1983), with Richard Gere finally surrounded in the middle of a street, to be gunned down by his pursuers—this even without Jean-Luc Godard’s original French New Wave jump cuts.

There’s something about heroes failing to overcome the odds and turned into martyrs through sheer numbers, I guess. To each his own brand of indelibility. 

Now here are my own 10 favorite films, for now: Mars Attacks (directed by Tim Burton, 1996); Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise, by Marcel Carné, 1945); Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941); The Searchers (John Ford, 1956,) Edo Porn (Kaneto Shinzo, 1981); Farinelli (France Gerard Corbiau, 1994); From Dusk Till Dawn (Robert Rodriguez, 1996); Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998); Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976); and The Legend of 1900 (Guiseppe Tornatore, 1998).

Also-rans would include the Lord of the Rings trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003); The Godfather trilogy (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972-1990); Dr. Strangelove; Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964); The Mission; Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959); Once Upon A Time in America (Sergio Leone, 1984—cuz I’m a sucker for both De Niro and Elizabeth McGovern); and Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox, 1956—with my adolescent crush Anne Francis and Robby the Robot).

Seven Samurai (1954)

Oh, okay, if I have to include more Japanese classics, I’d toss in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) and Ran (1985), plus Tampopo (Juzon Itami, 1985).

A Filipino one? Anak Dalita by Lamberto V. Avellana, 1956, as it’s the first local movie that made an impression on me, shortly before Lo’ Waist Gang by Pablo Santiago in the same year. 

As you can see, I’m partial to films with madcap humor, followed by realistic drama and strong, original, stylistic narratives. Also to those with actors I like, love, or have lusted after, though I didn’t include any with Romy Schneider or Natalie Wood.

Edo Porn isn’t porn at all, its original, non-clickbait title being Hokusai Manga—a fictionalized part of the life of the famous ukiyo-e and woodblock artist. I caught it at Imelda’s First Manila International Festival in 1982, and can’t forget a sequence where art is presented in contrasting minimalist to maximalist styles. 

As for Farinelli, this 1995 Golden Globe awardee for Best Foreign Language Film fictionalizes the life and career of the 18th-century Italian opera singer Carlo Broschi, who is considered the greatest castrato singer of all time. A virtual rock star of his time, he sings Handel’s aria Lascia ch’io pianga so beautifully that Handel faints. But the most memorable scene for me is when he sings for King Philip V of Spain, coincidentally during a solar eclipse—so that the audience on a public square believes it’s his enchanting voice that blots out the sun.

The Belgian director used state-of-the-art computer technology to create an artificial human voice that could span 3 1/2 octaves, by digitally fusing the voices of American countertenor Derek Lee Ragin and Polish soprano Ewa Mallas Godlewska. The result was “a man’s vibrancy and power combined with the delicacy and emotion of a woman’s high notes.”

Well, if James Cameron now does wonders with his tech noir for the Avatar series, back in 1994, Corbiau made history by re-creating the castrato’s “richness of tone, expression and range.”

I never got to watch this film on the big screen, only via a VHS tape that I kept championing possession of, until the future National Artist for Literature Bien Lumbera borrowed it. Now I’m too old to remember if I ever got it back. But I suppose that’s what helps make the film so memorable.