Several years ago, I wrote about recurring problems in mainstream filmmaking that are a constant source of irritation for cinephiles like me. This burgeoning “series” of blog essays is thematically related to my Things You Like That I Don’t (TYLTID) posts, in a way, an expansive yet not exhaustive list of cinematic annoyances that reduce the fun of my filmmaking lifestyle. I don’t anticipate this collection of essays to ever become comprehensive given the evolving state of arts and entertainment, but I hope for it to be a decent summary of what I perceive to be unfortunate trends in modern filmmaking. Over time, as trends ebb and flow, perhaps these ongoing summaries may document how controversial techniques in filmmaking stand the test of time. That’s what I hope these essays can provide, at least, in addition to giving me further opportunities to rant.
- So/many/unnecessary/ju -mp/ — Cut —/s… = Jump cuts were first popularized in mainstream filmmaking with Jean-Luc Goddard’s Breathless (1960) and the French New Wave, an editing technique that has since proliferated to every genre and movement of cinema due to its ability to imply the passage of time, emphasize character mood or erratic movements, or just to fuck with audiences. In numerous contemporary media, however, jump cuts are used to condense the overall running time of movies or television shows, one notable example being American Horror Story (2011-present). My first time watching the show was almost as jarring as my initial viewing of Breathless, the latter of which also utilizes the jump cut to such an extent that its overall running time is significantly reduced. With American Horror Story (AHS), though, its jump cuts are so inconsistent and hyperactive as to make the viewer feel caffeinated. This technique is used so haphazardly that camera movement and the blocking of the actors don’t match the rhythm of the show’s editing, reproducing the now much parodied tone of the Taken (2008, 2012, 2014) movies.
- But AHS is just an extreme example. I’ve seen countless movies and television series misuse the jump cut, whether through sheer overuse, mistaken context, or confusing rhythm. This technique almost never ruins a given scene, save for extraordinary cases, but it can weaken the power of a scene as when an editor truncates a sequence before its natural conclusion. In my experience, all scenes need room to breathe so that audiences can soak in their tone, meaning, and theme without having to rewind the damned movie. Emotions take time to build, so sequences should edited with that purpose in mind. If a project’s overall running-time needs to be reduced, reducing that project’s number of scenes is usually the safer option as opposed to choppy editing within scenes. Usually.
Unconvincing Blood Squibs = Since the early 2000s, so many have complained about the excess of digital FX in movies that it’s almost not worth whining about, anymore. Complaints regarding digital FX used for blood and gore, however, are often the exclusive pastime of action fans and/or cinephiles; gripes related to digital gore first rose with the increasing ubiquity of computer generated imagery (CGI) and then fell somewhat after CGI technology improved. Unsurprisingly, filmmakers who take the time and effort to perfect special FX in post-production, including those for blood and gore, get the most out of their efforts; nobody complains about digital trickery in those cases because most don’t even notice them — the ultimate compliment for special FX artists. Perfectionists like Gareth Evans make such frequent use of digital blood on such chump-budget films (e.g. The Raid ) that I find it unacceptable for distracting CGI blood squibs to exist in modern Hollywood blockbusters. Experienced veteran filmmakers like Sylvester Stallone, Robert Rodriguez, and Alex Garland have no excuse for this.
- Then again, even practical blood squibs leave much to be desired when they’re used too often or made from the wrong ingredients, a problem of which countless horror films are guilty. Well regarded classics like Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead (1981) or Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) utilize “blood” that appears the color and consistency of acrylic paint or Whataburger’s spicy ketchup. It goes without saying that sloppy practical squibs can ruin a scare as well as sloppy digital squibs can undercut a great action stunt. I don’t understand how filmmakers believe their audiences will overlook laziness in certain areas because of maximum effort in others, especially when it comes to filmmaking’s technical aspects. The only remaining question is this: Are poor blood FX worse than a distracting lack of blood FX?
- Self-Righteous Screenwriting, also known as “Soapbox Filmmaking” = Using movies as political bully pulpits from which to yell one’s socioeconomic grievances is nothing new (see every Marxist documentary filmmaker ever, various Oscar-bait throughout the decades, etc.), but pandering, major studio-funded blockbusters both at home (e.g. The Day After Tomorrow , Avatar , Ghostbusters ) and abroad (e.g. Rang de Basanti , Simmba ) have become trendier with the rise of movie budgets, digital FX, and franchise intellectual property (IP) brands. As cross-cultural studio collaborations become more common and international audiences become further intertwined, overt political messaging in high-concept filmmaking has become broader, blander, and toothless, while at the same time feeling more heavy-handed.
- This rise of quasi-political marketing to sell big-budget movies is a function of lesser filmmakers telling their audiences what to think rather than showing them how to feel. I have no a priori reservations against filmmaking as a political tool, but I do have problems with filmmakers corrupting their artistic processes and undercutting cinematic craftsmanship through reductive storytelling or pandering to the lowest common denominator. Whether this involves laughable environmentalist messaging from the likes of James Cameron, Darren Arronofsky, or Roland Emmerich, or cringe-worthy political monologues in Simbba or The Wandering Earth (2019), self-righteous screenwriting is perhaps the most condescending, manipulative form of visual storytelling, perhaps made most dishonest due to its focus-group tested, producer-driven motives. Few things in mainstream filmmaking are more hypocritical than corporate funded blockbusters with social justice overtones.
- On the other hand, self-important screenwriting can be a signature of auteur filmmaking, as evidenced by the aforementioned directors of Cameron, Arronofsky, etc. Great filmmaking talent, especially directing talent, can overcome even the most obnoxious dialogue or misguided voiceover; on the other hand, a defining feature of heavy-handed storytelling is how self-important messaging so often consumes the presentation of those messages. As I have articulated before, filmmaking is principally a narrative medium defined by the “how” and not the “what.” One can screen-write the most blunt message in the world, but if one doesn’t surround that message, however important it may be to people outside the world of film, with effective film craftsmanship, one’s hamfisted preaching will be relegated to the attention of those already converted, or worse, be ignored altogether. The presentation is what matters.
Unnecessary cutaways to audience members during musical numbers = This is a complaint almost exclusively limited to Bollywood and South Indian musical song-numbers. I’m not sure when this trend started, exactly, though I hypothesize it is a relatively modern phenomenon. Regardless whether a song-and-dance sequence is diegetic or not, most contemporary Hindi set-pieces cut to unrelated characters (characters not involved in the singing or dancing, mind you) every couple minutes or so to… capture their reaction? Remind the audience they’re still in the movie? Something? I’m not sure what the point of interrupting the audiovisual flow of a musical number is because the films never seem to know, either!
- Obnoxious Comic Relief Characters = A staple of big, broad, mainstream films in every industry, loud, obtuse, snarky side characters shoehorned into otherwise normal scripts can be found in Hollywood, Indian, and Chinese blockbusters at a particularly high frequency. The bigger the blockbuster, the larger its cast, budget, special FX, etc., the more likely you are to encounter these unnecessary stock characters who either (A) contrast with the primary storyline and main cast, or (B) undercut the dramatic seriousness of a given plot-point, most always to their film’s detriment.
- Complicating matters further are how these comedic roles, typically played by part-time or professional comedians, are often racial, ethnic, gender, national, or physical minorities relative to their main cast, as if that somehow makes them funnier or “wackier.” Whatever the reasons African-Americans in Hollywood (e.g. Richard T. Jones in Event Horizon , Tyrese Gibson in The Fast and the Furious [2001-], Tom Kenny and Reno Wilson’s Skids and Mudflap in Revenge of the Fallen ) and Chinese (e.g. every extra in Wolf Warrior 2 ) movies, or short statured, darker skinned actors in Indian cinema (e.g. Johnny Levor in Hindi films, Kanneganti Brahmanandam, Ali Basha, et al. in South Indian films) came to dominate these roles, they add uncomfortable stereotypes to these actors’ obnoxious performances.
- Too much or too little background soundtrack = This is mostly a problem for contemporary Hollywood (too little music) and Indian (too much music) filmmaking, as older films in most industries feel more adapt at balancing the background score of their films relative to sound FX and dialogue. The sound-design of most modern Hollywood films seem content to have feeble music playing throughout dialogue (either use the music or remove it), while Indian soundscapes blast their overzealous music to the point where much of their dialogue either becomes inaudible or is undercut by what are essentially over-the-top musical stings.
- Texting & the Internet on Film = This phenomenon is best explained by Every Frame a Painting’s short film below, but to summarize, I find the depiction of most text messages, social media interfaces, and “screen-on-screen” action in movies and television problematic. I may elaborate on this in a future installment of Filmmaking Pet Peeves, but for now, let me say filmmakers must decide on a consistent yet versatile format for portraying a universal technique of human communication in visual storytelling. No one, save for perhaps the BBC’s Sherlock (2010-2017) and Ingrid Goes West (2017), has executed realistic yet also cinematic representations of the digital world on film.
- Unlike other items on these pet-peeves lists, this is an artistic problem whose solution is more enticing than the problem is itself annoying. I groan every time a director switches to shot-reverse-shot techniques to shoot a fucking iPhone screen, but also look forward to whatever elegant, efficient cinematographic solution will inevitably solve this artistic puzzle. Digital technology isn’t going away in the real world, so filmmaking must sooner or later decide on the best way(s) to depict them in the visual arts.