7 Secret Tricks Movies Use To Convince You They're Mad Deep
Some movies make you think. Other just make you think they make you think, when in reality they're nothing but standard Hollywood fare. There are cinematic shortcuts that are the equivalent of wearing glasses when you don't need them and using fancy words you don't know the meaning of. For example ...
Make Your Character's Problems Look Deeper By Having Them Punch A Mirror
Your movie has begun and things are occurring, but now you need to convey how much these events have created inner turmoil for your main character. Unfortunately, you've been told that having them say, "Goodness, I sure have a troubled inner life!" out loud isn't a good option. How should they deal with the complicated issues weighing them down? Well, according to movies, they should punch the hell out of themselves in a mirror. You know, like adults.
When V from V For Vendetta is upset that Evey doesn't reciprocate his love for her (year-long torture sessions will do that sometimes), he apparently blames his Freddy-Krueger-esque skin condition for it, because he takes all his anger out on an unsuspecting mirror.
It's those bangs, dude. You're not Zooey Deschanel. (We think?)
And how distraught is Tony Stark that his weapons are being used by terrorists in the first Iron Man? Triple-distraught, because when he sees his own reflection, he shoots down three glass windows.
What truly cranks the profundity up to 11, though, is whenever a character looks at themselves in the shattered glass. Naturally, their reflection is all sorts of screwed up, because, like, so is their soul. Right before Brandon Lee assumes his avenging vigilante identity in The Crow, he smashes his mirror ... and probably feels rather dumb right away, because he's gonna need it to put on his Juggalo makeup.
Sometimes they don't even have to hit the mirror to break it. In Carrie (2013), Carrie is struggling with the realization that she's clearly Carrie from the movie Carrie (1976), so she telekinetically breaks a mirror and looks at her messed-up reflection -- just like the other Carrie did. John Travolta does something similar in Phenomenon.
This is Carrie and not John Travolta, if it wasn't clear.
It seems breaking mirrors is much too violent for Disney movies, so they have their own variation: attacking your reflection in water. Tarzan does it because he's a hairless freak, Jasmine does it in Aladdin because she doesn't want to be a Disney Princess, Scar's son does it in The Lion King II because he looks like Lion Hitler, and so on. No wonder King Triton hates the land-dwellers -- they're always attacking his kingdom unprovoked.
Half-Obscure Your Character's Face To Show The Duality Of Man
But what are directors supposed to do if they don't have the budget to buy up and smash a bunch of mirrors? Simple: Turn half the lights off, partially obscuring characters' faces. See, now they're saving money on props and on the electric bill. It's both profound and financially responsible.
The basic gist is that whenever an ostensibly "good" character is forced to wrestle with doing something evil, they'll inevitably find themselves somewhere without adequate lighting. Despite being from a planet with two suns, any time the Skywalker boys are forced into confrontations where they must choose between the light and the dark side, their faces immediately succumb to partial shadow.
"I'm in cliche light, like my father before me."
Meanwhile, Bruce Willis in Sin City gets the half-shadow treatment when he weighs the pros and cons of sleeping with the girl he basically views as an adopted daughter.
"We're living in a place called Sin City ..."
They're usually aping some other, better movie when they do it. When Martin Sheen monologues about how every man has both good and evil in him in Apocalypse Now, he and Marlon Brando are both in shadow, though that may have had more to do with hiding Brando's Twinkie-enhanced physique.
"The cream filling ... the cream filling ..."
But this sort of lighting technique goes back even further. It's a holdover from the classic noir films of the '40s, when Hollywood realized that audiences currently experiencing yet another World War might think less of people than they used to. Films began showcasing characters that were just like that week-old ground beef in your fridge -- neither all good nor all bad. After nearly 80 years, this bit of visual shorthand is still their go-to move.
Yes, Walter White gets mad at a mirror at one point, too
Add Ambiguous Magic On The Last Scene For A Touch Of Mystery
Lots of movies blur the line between reality and fantasy, but nothing quite brings it all home to Profound Town like ending a supposedly realistic movie with a scene which suggests the magic ... MIGHT BE REAL? Note the "might." If you give a straight answer, it doesn't work; it's the ambiguity what sells this.
In Birdman, Michael Keaton's character constantly imagines himself having superhero powers, hearkening back to his days as a big-budget superstar. For each flareup, there's usually a real-life explanation. He thinks he destroys his dressing room with magical Birdman powers, but afterwards realizes his fists are bleeding, and so on.
The subtext here is "He has a brain tumor."
The last scene in the film, however, shows him exiting his hospital room through his window. His daughter then comes into the empty room, goes to the window, looks up, and smiles. Did she see him flying? Probably not, but if this isn't real, then what does it mean that she's the first one to be roped into the visions that used to be reserved for him? BOOM. Profound.
The subtext here is "It's hereditary."
This is similar to the ending of the Peter Sellers movie Being There, about a simpleton who becomes more and more influential in the political world despite only spouting gibberish, because everyone hears what they want to hear (as if that could ever happen). The film culminates with the main character wandering off onto a pond and walking on top of it:
Symbolizing the fact that he is an inflatable decoy person
The whole film, he keeps metaphorically "walking on water," and now he's actually doing it. Or is he? Again, probably not. But then what does it MEAN? Profound.
The end of Big Fish does this too. The main character's father talks about his life while on his deathbed, and all the stories are obviously magical and far-fetched. But then the film ends with the storytelling father turning into a giant catfish and swimming off into the water, followed by a funeral which "versions" of all the witches and giants from his stories all attend. Were those stories true? If they were exaggerated versions of real life, then what is the truth? It doesn't matter. AMBIGUOUS MAGIC, baby! Catch the fever.
Add A Little Chess To Make Any Rivalry Look More Philosophical
Say you want your movie to feature two ultra-intelligent adversaries facing off in a sophisticated battle of wits, but years of substance abuse have killed off most of your brain cells. How do you write smart characters now? Easy: You don't! Simply show them playing chess!
The X-Men movies are a good example of this. With few exceptions, the conflicts always come down to who can shoot the strongest lasers or who has the sharpest claws coming out of their hands (SPOILERS: usually Wolverine). But by showing a bunch of scenes of Magneto and Professor X staring intensely at each other while playing chess, they can make it look like there's a deep philosophical dilemma underneath all the mindless mutant mayhem.
'Have ... have you been reading my mind for moves the past five decades?"
Chess is universally considered a "smart people" game, which comes in handy for action movies looking for a quick "This isn't your typical musclehead action hero!" shorthand. And it's not only movies -- Jack Bauer is playing chess the first time we see him in 24. Meanwhile, the detective played by Forest Whitaker in Taken 3 is carrying a chess piece all the time. Not the board, just a single piece. That's how you know Liam Neeson has finally met his intellectual match.
He's so good that he only needs one piece to beat you.
Guy Ritchie is a big fan of this trope. In Revolver, Jason Statham's character straight up says he's using chess to show he's smarter than someone, while Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows features a dramatically edited Holmes vs. Moriarty chess match (with real moves). How else will we know Holmes is a genius, aside from everything he says and does in every single scene he's in?
Prove Your Characters Have Intense Emotions By Making Them Ignore Rain
In the real world, sudden rain is kind of a pain in the ass. In Hollywood, however, it's an effective little shortcut to show that your character is so overwhelmed by emotion that they've lost the ability to notice the elements raging around them.
Romantic flicks have been doing this since at least Breakfast At Tiffanny's, but the most iconic (and meme'd) example is the one from The Notebook. At first, Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams are ruffled by the sudden showers, but as they open up about their feelings, they gradually become oblivious to it and end up having a messy, rather uncomfortable-looking makeout session.
They both died of hypothermia soon thereafter.
Match Point has basically the same scene, but more sordid. In Cast Away, when Tom Hanks finds out his girlfriend married someone else while he was on his little Gilligan adventure, he's like "Aw shucks, I'll be on my way, ma'am." However, emotion overpowers her natural aversion to the cold rain, and they share an extremely wet kiss.
Blade Runner isn't what you'd call romantic (and if you would, please see a psychologist), but it's a good example of how action movies can use this technique. During the final confrontation, Rutger Hauer doesn't give a crap about the rain because he's a synthetic being and all, but Harrison Ford seems terribly inconvenienced. But then, as Hauer starts telling him his profound cosmic experiences, Ford's so awestruck that the rain fails to make any impact anymore.
That, or this is after the director told Ford he's supposed to be a replicant too.
Long Tracking Shots Are An Almost Literal Dick-Measuring Contest
Congratulations! You've followed all of our previous steps and (somehow) become a famous director. The thing is, now you want more than that. You want to become a respected director. Making films people like is one thing, but is there a way to take your audience out of the movie for few minutes and tell them, "Hey, by the way, the person who directed this is a motherfucking genius"? There sure is! Do a long-ass tracking shot!
All directors people give a shit about have to have at least one "oner" -- a long, continuous shot that makes you wonder how the hell they put the camera through that tiny bathroom window or whatever. Scorsese has them. Tarantino has a bunch. Kubrick loved them. Spielberg too, though he doesn't call attention to them, so it almost doesn't count. Tracking shots go back to the early days of cinema, but like with Spielberg, you wouldn't notice them unless someone pointed them out. Transformers: The Movie's Orson Welles was one of the first to make them as elaborate and ostentatious as possible, as seen in the impressive three-minute opening shot of Touch Of Evil:
It's so crazy that you even forget this movie stars Charlton Heston in brownface.
Marvel as the camera follows several minutes of carefully choreographed action! Film buffs blew their loads, and directors have spent the last 60 years trying to make longer, more complex "oners" of their own. Brian De Palma topped Welles with a four-minute opening shot for Bonfire Of The Vanities. Robert Altman topped that with an eight-minute opening shot for The Player. De Palma (again) topped that with a 12-minute opening shot in his Nic Cage tour de force Snake Eyes. The rest of the movie is a turd, but who cares?
And then it got really crazy. Alfonso Cuaron's Children Of Men has 16 "oners," including the pants-shitting car scene and the also-pants-shitting war zone sequence. How the hell do you top that? A full movie that happens in one uninterrupted shot? Well, yeah. Sort of. That's pretty much what Birdman is. Alejandro Inarritu one-ups his old pal Cuaron by making a movie that (through the magic of editing) looks like it was shot in one take, practically forcing Hollywood to shower it with Oscars. Now that movies can't take this trend any further, it's probably TV's turn. You heard it here first: Season 4 of True Detective will be a single eight-hour tracking shot broken up into chunks.
Give Your Superhero Movie Some Gravitas By Shoehorning In Christ Symbolism
Making a profound movie is hard. Making a profound superhero movie doubly so, which is why most directors don't bother. But if you do want to make a movie that will at least look like it's deep as hell, then religion is your one-stop shop. Specifically, the Christian faith (most of the audience isn't going to understand your allusions to Eckanar). Just add a little Christ imagery with vague allusions to self-sacrifice, and POW! You're an auteur now. No matter how dumb your movie is.
Superman films are the worst offenders. At the end of Superman Returns, our hero falls from orbit in a perfect Christ pose after narrowly escaping being killed by a chunk of kryptonite the size of Utah.
Jesus favored somewhat less tight clothing, though.
The Zack Snyder movies continued and expanded this tradition. In Man Of Steel, he at one point makes Superman look like the traditional image of Jesus (minus the long hair), and then frames him in front of an church window depicting the real JC. Yes, Snyder thinks you're a moron.
DC Comics banned long hair on Superman after the '90s.
Then, in Batman v. Superman, an entire montage is dedicated to Superman slowly descending from the heavens to help people ... which just makes him look like an asshole for taking so long. The Christian symbolism is so blatant it's hard to call it symbolism.
"Five more minutes, this backlighting is too good to pass up."
But at least the character sort of fits the profile. He is an all-powerful being full of goodness sent by his father to save humanity. So what's the excuse for shoving the same symbolism into Spider-Man 2 (the first one)? Late in the movie, Spider-Man fights Doc Ock on top of a train. One thing leads to another, and Spider-Man has to stop the runaway train while contorted into a particularly Christlike pose:
"Uncle Ben, why have you forsaken me?!"
Just so you don't think that's a coincidence, the next scene shows an exhausted Spidey being carried through the train by its passengers, all while maintaining excellent cruciform, before being laid down. The passengers gather around him, fearing he is dead, but rejoice when he awakens. Self-sacrifice, crucifixion, death, and rebirth all in one scene -- it's efficient, at the very least.
Good thing this movie takes place in the early 2000s, or Peter's face would have been Instagrammed 150 times.
All of this "Superhero as Jesus" analogies wouldn't be so insulting if the rest of the films weren't spent rendering it pointless. In Superman Returns, Clark Kent abandons Lois Lane and his sick son, Spider-Man 2 makes it very clear that Peter Parker is some dopey kid who can't even deliver a pizza on time, and Superman in the Snyderverse is responsible for so much destruction that he has more in common with the Angel of Death than the Lamb of God. You know, it's almost as if they didn't think through the symbolism at all beyond a couple of cool shots. Weird!
Saikat Bhowmik can't stay indifferent whenever it rains. Follow him on Twitter, and visit his channels Amuzic II and Amuzic. Jordan Breeding also writes officially for Paste Magazine, unofficially on Twitter, and sits perpetually in half-shadow. Follow William Ash on Twitter.
When you're done with your cinematic moments in the rain, maybe have one of these umbrellas nearby for when things settle down.
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