Nine Further Underreported Movie Cliches

All coughing is fatal

It's been some time since I wrote my first two lists about movie cliches that are not called out often enough – but finally, I have nine more. Surely you've seen plenty of films in which these nine things occur with regularity.

  1. Anyone who coughs has a fatal disease. Whenever a character in a movie starts coughing, it never means he has a cold or an itch in his throat, which is usually the case whenever we ordinary mortals cough. No, inevitably he will start spewing up blood, and then he will die (from tuberculosis, lung cancer, radiation, etc.).
  2. When a woman throws up, it means she's pregnant. Once in a while, there will be a comedy in which some hot mess gets drunk and barfs. Outside of this context, though, when a female character suddenly vomits, she does not have the flu or motion sickness or food poisoning – she is pregnant. And as movie rules dictate, this is a) right after she has sex with someone for the first time, and b) the means by which she learns of her condition. God forbid, any woman in film uses birth control or knows her own body.
  3. The ignored question. One character asks another something personal or crucial. ("Where did those bruises come from?" "Who were those strange men at the door?") The second character, unwilling to answer, either acts like he didn't hear anything or suddenly changes the topic. For some reason, the first character will abide by this non-answer, never forcing the question that seemed so important just seconds earlier.
  4. "How long before this wretched humping is over?" There's a type of sex scene that is always shot the same way: the camera looks down upon a couple having dull, missionary-style sex. The leading lady stares up at the ceiling, unhappy and bored, while she waits for her partner to finish. Moments later he does, rolling off of her while she keeps staring at the ceiling, dreaming of a more sexually fulfilling life. I don't know how common this situation is in the real world, but the movies would make you think that women are completely passive in bed and have no fun whatsoever... unless it's with Mr. or Ms. Right.
  5. Sound traveling at the speed of light. If a loud noise is made a couple of hundred feet away from you – the crack of a baseball bat, the burst of a firework – you won't hear it until a second later, because sound doesn't travel as fast as light does. But in film, where sound that's out of sync with an image would feel like a mistake, editors will align a distant explosion or gunshot with the boom! it generates, disregarding all physics.
  6. TV news interviewees that stare into the camera. You've watched TV news. When people on the street are being interviewed for field segments, they look at the reporter interviewing them. Not into the camera. Yet the day players in movies, eager to make the most of their thirty seconds of screen time, ham it up directly into the "news camera" as if that's a normal thing.
  7. From drunk to sober in 60 seconds. Films are often shot out of sequence, so one might excuse the actor who forgot how drunk he was playing in the previous scene, especially if said scene was shot a week earlier. In real life, of course, if you're stinking drunk at 10:30 then you're still stinking drunk at 10:45. But on screen, a character will be slurring his words and stumbling over his own feet, until the story demands his attention ("The bad guys are here, grab your gun!"), at which point he is instantly thinking straight, shooting straight, and so forth.
  8. "You should have seen your face!" Take a psychotic criminal – Joe Pesci in GoodFellas is the gold standard – and have him suddenly sour the carefree mood in a room by eyeing our nervous protagonist with menace and suspicion. "You think that's funny?" "Uh... What are you talkin' about, Joe?" "What am I talking about? What do you think I'm talking about?" Tense silence follows. Is our hero about to be whacked? We wait with bated breath... until the psycho breaks the tension with a laugh. "Ha ha, I was just putting you on! C'mere, give me a hug." Everyone is relieved. Seconds after this fakeout, the psycho usually kills or maims a secondary character.
  9. Widescreen for no reason. Letterboxing was introduced as a means of displaying widescreen films in their original aspect ratio on old, standard definition TV screens. But today, HD televisions default to a 16:9 ratio: there's no need for letterboxing anymore, unless you're displaying films shot in the super-wide 2.35:1 ratio, a.k.a. "scope". So what do contemporary filmmakers do with their digitally-shot movies? They add a phony letterbox to achieve that scope ratio and thus look more "cinematic". The irony: whereas widescreen films once lost vital visual information on the left and right to fit TV screens, now HD video is losing vital visual information on the top and bottom, purely for filmmakers' artistic pretensions. This affectation is perhaps more of a personal pet peeve than a cliche, but it's still a cliche.