Roger Ebert’s Glossary of Movie Terms
This article was originally part of the Insider Cinema guide to Hollywood, a website from the mid-2000s. We are reposting it here as both a writing sample and a guide for those seeking to get their foot in the door in Hollywood.
Ali MacGraw’s Disease
Movie illness in which the only symptom is that the sufferer grows more beautiful as death approaches.
Antiheroine Skin Rule
In a Horny Teenager Movie, the “bad girl” who is the object of the hero’s desire will always expose more flesh than the girl whom he ends up with at the end of the film, despite the equal sexual activity. If the “good girl” is shown topless in a love scene, it must be accompanied by slow music. In a Dead Teenager Movie, the girl who exposes the least skin is inevitably the only survivor.
Dependable genre in which a mixed bag of characters is trapped on a colorful mode of transportation. Examples: AIRPORT (airplane), THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (ocean liner), MAROONED (space satellite), THE CASSANDRA CROSSING (train), ALIENS (outer space), THE HINDENBURG (dirigible), THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE (subway train), ABYSS (undersea station), and of course the best of them all, STAGECOACH.
Auto Audio Rule
The sound a vehicle makes in a movie chase scene will in no way correspond to any sound made by the same vehicle in real life (i.e., tires squealing on dirt or around corners at low speed, etc.).
Automatically Arriving Automobiles
Whenever cars in a chase go through a four-way junction, unrelated cars must appear from each direction and skid into the center. These cars may either stop unharmed or crash into each other in the center, upon which all the drivers will get out and shake fists at each other. No cars actually involved in the chase are ever involved in the crash.
Back Seat Inviso-Syndrome
Film characters are invariably unable to see a person crouched in the back seat of a car (even a convertible) when, in the real world, it is an impossible place for a person to hide.
Bad Smoker Rule
In any cop movie made since the mid-’70s, the bad guys smoke, while the good guy is trying to quit.
Baked Potato People
The nice, good, sweet little people who form a chorus in the hero’s background, especially during any movie set in a mental home (cf. THE DREAM TEAM, CRAZY PEOPLE). The lesson is always the same: It’s the real world that’s crazy, and the crazy people who speak the real truth. (Inspired by a sign seen on a baked potato in a steak house: “I’ve been tubbed, I’ve been robbed, I’ve been scrubbed. I’m lovable, huggable, and eatable!”)
Good movies rarely contain a hot-air balloon. Most egregious recent use of a hot-air balloon: MEN DON’T LEAVE, where the heroine is cured of clinical depression by a ride in one. (Readers keep writing in with exceptions to this rule, including WITNESS, but the general principle still applies.)
Barroom Bum Slide
Most bar fights in the movies end with the loser being pushed so hard he slides halfway down the bar. In real life, this is impossible.
Because They Are There
The top ten lines you can always count on in a mountain-climbing movie:
1. “We have to move fast. We’ve started late in the season. But if we leave behind the oxygen and most of our equipment and travel light, we can get up there and back before the winter storms.”
2. “I know they’re still alive.”
3. “Leave me here. I can’t walk. My legs are broken. By yourself, you have a chance.”
4. “Just let me do this one last climb. Then I’ll settle down with you and the baby.”
5. “Tell them they’ll get an extra 50 rupees a day, in the end, if they complete this part of the march.”
6. “Sahib! The fresh snow has covered up the crevices! The men say they will go no further today!”
7. “Every previous expedition along this route has had trouble with the porters.”
8. “I’d trust him on the other end of my rope.”
9. “Take me along. You know I’m a better climber than those guys.”
10. “Because it’s there.”
Word used in the titles of sequels to movies in which everyone was killed at the end of the original movie, making an ordinary sequel impossible. Explains to knowledgeable filmgoers that the movie will concern, for example, what happened in the AMITYVILLE house before the Lutzes moved in.
Other examples: The First Chapter, The Early Days, etc.
Best Play of the Game Rule
Every bad sports movie ends with the hero making an extraordinary catch/play/hit in slow motion to win the game at the final gun/bell/buzzer.
Big Lie, The
Refers to all scenes where the bad guy paints a beautiful picture and then adds a version of, “One more thing, Benny. I lied.”
Big Nod, The
Comes after the Last Word. After a character is fatally wounded, first he lies motionless and recites an incredibly meaningful statement. Then his head nods to one side.
Body Switch Movie
The brain of one character somehow finds itself in the body of another. Requires actors to confront an actor’s nightmare, i.e., acting as if they were another actor.
Beware movies advertised with a row of little boxes across the bottom, each one showing the face of a different international star and the name of a character (i.e., “Curt Jurgens as the Commandant”). Example: Most films are made from Agatha Christie novels.
“If nothing has happened by the end of the first reel, nothing is going to happen.”
Buddy-Brother Road Film
Three-way combo of buddy movie, road movie, and brothers who learn to love each other. E.g. COUPE DE VILLE, RAIN MAN, THE WIZARD.
Cars in high-speed chases can shift through more gears than they have. Cf. BULLITT, where Steve McQueen’s car upshifts more than 16 times.
All camels in Middle Eastern thrillers are crossing the road for the sole purpose of slowing down a pursuit vehicle.
Caring Blanket Tuck-In
Effective in conveying the soft heart of an otherwise unappealing character. Cf. James Woods in COP. Also used in scenes involving the hero, usually as a set-up for a scene in which tucked-in child suddenly finds himself/herself in great danger. Cf. Glenn Ford in THE BIG HEAT.
Replaces the third act or any other form of plot resolution in the modern thriller. After the hero has left dozens of burning cars and trucks behind him, we never see emergency vehicles responding to the carnage. Despite working under a Wrong-Headed Commanding Officer, q.v., the hero cop is never called on the carpet because yesterday he drove his squad car through the walls of several warehouses.
Cinematic Business Pathology Syndrome (CBPS)
The affliction that causes sociopathic or criminal behavior by officers of a corporation. The malady is characterized by several symptoms.
(1) Company located in a run-down building with a shiny new sign;
(2) Headquarters is a coldly contemporary building on a corporate campus devoid of people;
(3) Company sign is plain, rectangular, and flat, with unimaginative artwork;
(4) Company name includes words like “amalgamated,” “consolidated,” “-dyne,” “-Tron,” or “chem;”
(5) Company name includes word “enterprises” following the name of a man who is bald, is fat, or smokes a cigar;
(6) Company premises are dilapidated while the company’s owner rides in a chauffeured limo.
Classic Car Rule
Whenever a beautiful classic car—usually the prized possession of an unsympathetic father—is introduced at the beginning of a film, that car will be wrecked by the end of it. (See RISKY BUSINESS, FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF, COUPE DE VILLE, etc.)
CLIDVIC (Climb from Despair to Victory)
The formula for ROCKY and all the ROCKY rip-offs. It Breaks the plot into three parts:
(1) Defeat and despair;
(2) Rigorous training, usually shown in the form of would-be MTV videos;
(3) Victory, preferably ending in freeze-frame of triumphant hero.
Villains being chased at the end of a movie inevitably disregard all common sense and begin climbing up something—a staircase, a church tower, a mountain—thereby trapping themselves at the top.
Cole Rule, The
No movie made since 1977 containing a character with the first name “Cole” has been any good. (Exception: DAYS OF THUNDER, which was good but not all that good.)
Cooter Rule, The
When the young good-looking hero goes back to his boyhood farmhouse, he’ll inevitably have a fight at the dinner table with an older, less attractive brother. The fight is usually about abandoning the farm and “Spitting on Daddy’s memory” or the hero’s annoying use of correct grammar. The hero storms out of the house and sits down on a fence in the backyard. He is followed by his sweet, long-suffering sister-in-law. She says, “Trap, you’re gonna have to forgive Cooter/Hunter/Trip/Billy Bob. He loves you. He doesn’t mean anything. It’s just his way, is all.”
Dead Teenager Movie
Generic term for any movie primarily concerned with killing teenagers, without regard for logic, plot, performance, humor, etc. Often imitated, never worse than in the FRIDAY THE 13TH sequels. Required complete loss of common sense on the part of the characters. Sample dialogue: “All of our friends have been found horribly mutilated. It is midnight and we are miles from help. Hey, let’s take off our clothes, walk through the dark woods, and go skinny-dipping!”
When the cold heart of a villain softens and he turns into a good guy, the plot will quickly require him to be killed, usually after maudlin final words.
Del Close’s Rule
Never share a foxhole with a character who carries a photo of his sweetheart.
In any thriller, it is an absolute certainty that every road detour sign is a subterfuge to kidnap the occupants of a car. Cf. Camel, Slow-Moving, “Hay Wagon!,” etc.
Dirt Equals Virtue
In technology movies, a small, dingy, cluttered little lab and eccentric personnel equal high principles; large, well-lighted facilities mask sinister motives.
TV term for the extended-length program which stars a disease or social problem and co-stars performers willing to give interviews on how they experienced personal growth through their dramatic contact with same.
Down Under Rule
No film set in Australia is allowed to use the word Australia in its title where “Down Under” is an acceptable alternative. For example, we don’t get THE RESCUERS IN AUSTRALIA or QUIGLEY IN AUSTRALIA.
Engine Equalization Law
Movie phenomenon which allows a 100hp Escort to outrun a 300hp Corvette, or vice versa, and allows large, lumbering Cadillac stretch limousines filled with bad guys to keep up with heroes in exotic sports cars.
Fallacy of Elaborate Death Techniques
Any method of attempting to kill someone in a movie that is more complicated than shooting, beating, strangling, etc. will inevitably fail. Cf. JAMES BOND’S many escapes.
Fallacy of the Predictable Tree
The logical error is committed every time the good guy is able to predict exactly what the bad guy is going to do. For example, in FIRST BLOOD, law enforcement officials are searching the woods for John Rambo. A cop pauses under a tree. Rambo drops on him. Question: Out of all the trees in the forest, how did Rambo know which one the guy would pause under?
Fallacy of the Talking Killer
The villain wants to kill the hero. He has him cornered at gunpoint. All he has to do is pull the trigger. But he always talks first. He explains the hero’s mistakes to him. Jeers. Laughs. And gives the hero time to think his way out of the situation, or be rescued by his buddy. Cf. most JAMES BOND movies.
Falling Villain, The
At the end of virtually every action-adventure movie, the villain must fall from a great height onto a hard surface. If possible, the villain should crash backward through a plateglass window and land on an automobile.
Far-Off Rattle Movies
Movies in which the climactic scene is shot in a deserted warehouse, where far-off rattles punctuate the silence.
Every time anyone uses a microphone in a movie, it feeds back.
Fifty-five Gallon Drum Rule
Fifty-five-gallon drums are a culturally-rooted symbol of evil because they usually contain a substance with a long name that we can’t identify. The more drums, the eviler.
First Law of Funny Names
No names are funny unless used by W.C. Fields or Groucho Marx. Funny names, in general, are a sign of desperation at the screenplay level. See “Dr. Hfuhruhurr” in THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS.
First Rule of Repetition of Names
When the same names are repeated in a movie more than four times a minute for more than three minutes in a row, the audience breaks out into sarcastic laughter, and some of the ruder members are likely to start shouting “Kirsty!” and “Tiffany!” at the screen. (Cf. HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II.)
Five Minute Class, The
No scene showing a class in session ever lasts more than five minutes. Even the most stimulating session is invariably interrupted by the bell.
In every scene where actors carry luggage, the luggage is obviously empty. They attempt, with pained expressions on their faces, to pretend the bags are heavy, and yet they can flick them around like feathers.
The dialogue which replaced “Westward ho!” as American movies ended the long frontier trek and began to look inward for sources of inspiration.
An expletive used by knowledgeable film buffs during any chase scene involving a foreign or ethnic locale, reflecting their certainty that a fruit cart will be overturned during the chase, and an angry peddler will run into the middle of the street to shake his fist at the hero’s departing vehicle. (Of all the definitions in the glossary, this has become the most popular. It has been gratifying to be part of an audience where people unknown to me have cried out “Fruit cart!” at appropriate moments. The movie SKI PATROL even contained a “Siskel and Ebert Fruit Cart.”)
The New Hollywood genre tries to bridge the generation gap by creating movies that will appeal to teenagers at the box office and to adults at the video rental counter. Typical plot device: An adult becomes a teenager, or vice versa (cf. LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON; HIDING OUT; PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED; VICE VERSA; 18 AGAIN!; BIG). Also sometimes masquerades as a movie apparently about adults, but with young actors in the “adult” roles. Cf. NO MAN’S LAND, THE BIG TOWN.
In many Hollywood action pictures, the woman characters are incapable of fleeing from danger unless dragged by a strong man, who takes the woman’s hand and pulls her along meekly behind him. This convention is so strong it appears even in films where it makes no sense, such as SHEENA, in which a jungle-woman who has ruled the savage beasts since infancy is pulled along by a TV anchorman fresh off the plane.
A rural version of “Fruit cart!” (q.v.). At the beginning of chase scenes through colorful ethnic locales, knowledgeable film buffs anticipate the inevitable scene in which the speeding sports car will get stuck on a narrow country lane behind a wagon overloaded with hay.
Hey! Cody! Rule
The bad guy has dropped on the good guy. Can pull the trigger and kill him. Inevitably shouts “Hey! Cody!” (fill in name of the good guy), after which good guy whirls, sees him, and shoots him first.
Looks like a normal automobile, but backfires after being purchased from used car lot by a movie heroine who is starting out again in life and is on her own this time.
Hollywood Cop Car
Driven by the slovenly member of the team in all police versions of the Opposites in Collision plot (q.v.) Always unspeakably filthy, dented, rusty, and containing all of the cop’s possessions in the back seat, as well as several weeks’ worth of fast-food wrappers. Usually, but not necessarily, some kind of distinctive make or model (Gremlin, old Ford woody wagon, beat-up Caddy convertible, 4×4 van, etc.).
Hollywood Grocery Bags
Whenever a scared, cynical woman who never wants to fall in love again is pursued by an ardent suitor who wants to tear her wall of loneliness, she will go grocery shopping. The bags will always break to (1) symbolize the mess her life is in, or (2) so that the suitor can help her pick up the pieces of her life and her oranges.
Where people go to die. The victim checks in doesn’t check out, because screen time is too valuable for characters to go into the hospital only to recover a few scenes later. Dialogue clue: When any seemingly able-bodied character uses the word “doctor,” especially in a telephone conversation not intended to be overheard, he/she will be dead before the end of the film.
Horny Teenager Movie
Any film primarily concerned with teenage sexual hunger, usually male. Replaced, to a degree, by Dead Teenager Movies (q.v.), but always popular with middle-aged movie executives, who like to explain to their seventeen-year-old starlets why the logic of the dramatic situation and the teachings of Strasberg require them to remove their brassieres. Cf. BLAME IT ON RIO, SHE’S OUT OF CONTROL.
Any plot containing problems would be solved instantly if all of the characters were not idiots.
Impregnable Fortress Impregnated
The indispensable scene in all JAMES BOND movies and many other action pictures, especially war films. The IFI sequence begins early in the picture, with long shots of a faraway fortress and Wagnerian music on the soundtrack. Eventually, the hero gains entry to the fortress, which is inevitably manned by technological clones in designer uniforms. The sequence ends with the destruction of the fortress, as clones futilely attempt to save their marvelous machines. See THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, etc.
In any movie where the heroine catches her boyfriend dancing in public with another woman and makes a big scene, the other woman invariably turns out to be the boyfriend’s sister. Cf. MYSTIC PIZZA, etc.
In most movies, “all that separates us from the apes.” In SHEENA, Queen of the Jungle, what we have in common with them.
Invisible Protective Shield
Protects characters during fight scenes. They get hit by fists, chairs, bottles, etc., and thrown through walls, doors, glass, but wear only a small bandage in the next scene, and later have no marks, although they should be black and blue for the rest of the movie.
Joel Silver Rule
All women in action-adventure flicks are extraneous to the plot unless naked or dead.
Kinetic Energy Amplification Phenomenon
In scenes involving gunplay, the kinetic energy of the bullets will be enormously amplified as they strike the victim, enabling him to be hurled great distances and through objects. This phenomenon is particularly common around windows and balconies, especially in high-rise buildings.
Kinetic Energy Distortion Phenomenon
When someone is shot while standing near a window, balcony or ledge, the kinetic energy will always be distorted so as to throw him outward, regardless of the direction the bullets came from. This enables victims to be hurled out a window and into a spectacular plunge even if the shots came from outside to begin with.
Name for a large sheet of cardboard or plywood with holes in it, which is moved back and forth in front of a light to illuminate a character’s face with moving light patterns. Popular in the 1930s; back in style again with the movies of Steven Spielberg, who uses a kookalouris with underlighting to show faces that seem to be illuminated by reflections from pots of gold, buckets of diamonds, pools of fire, pirate maps, and radioactive kidneys.
Land Boom Rule
In any movie where there is a cocktail party featuring a chart, map, or model of new real estate development, a wealthy property developer will be found dead inside an expensive automobile.
Law of Canine/Feline Superperception
Household pets can unerringly detect and react to the presence of ghosts, aliens, or other nonhuman entities. Their warnings are invariably ignored.
Law of Economy of Characters
Movie budgets make it impossible for any film to contain unnecessary characters. Therefore, all characters in a movie are necessary to the story—even those who do not seem to be. Sophisticated viewers can use this Law to deduce the identity of a person being kept secret by the movie’s plot: This “mystery” person is always the only character in the movie who seems otherwise extraneous. Cf. the friendly neighbor in THE WOMAN IN WHITE. (See also Unmotivated Closeup)
Law of Inevitable Immersion
Whenever characters are near a body of water, the chances are great that one of them will jump, fall, or be pushed into it. If this does occur, it is inevitable that the other character(s) will also jump, fall, or be pushed in. See SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (swimming pool), LA DOLCE VITA (Roman fountain), TOM JONES (pond), A ROOM WITH A VIEW (rural stream), SUMMERTIME (Grand Canal), etc.
Law of Movie Brand Loyalty
Thanks to product placement, all characters in a movie, no matter how heterogeneous or geographically dispersed, drink one brand of beer, use one brand of sporting equipment, drive cars produced by one company, etc.
Law of Take-out Chinese Food
Take-out Chinese food is eaten in one of only two situations: Communally by a large, multi-ethnic group enthusiastically working on a common project (REVERSAL OF FORTUNE), or in bed by two post-coital lovers (ANNIE HALL). In the former case, the meal predicts success; in the latter, that the couple will break up.
Law of Video Box Caricature, The
If you’re trying to pick out a video and the actors on the box are cartooned caricatures that are not recognizable, pick another movie.
“Lawyer With One Case” Scenario, The
In nearly all legal dramas, the lawyers involved have only one case—the case that the movie is about. They are never distracted by other cases, clients or causes.
Named for the gentle giant in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, this rule dictates that if a film character is of less than normal intelligence or ability, he or she will inadvertently get into serious trouble during the film.
Long-haired Woman Seen from Behind
When approached by the hero, inevitably turns out to be a man.
Ma Bell Rule
Whenever a telephone is seen in a movie, the telephone will eventually ring.
Mad Slasher Movies
Movies starring a mad-dog killer who runs amok, slashing all of the other characters. The killer is frequently masked (as in HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13TH), not because a serious actor would be ashamed to be seen in the role, but because then no actor at all is required; the only skills necessary are the ability to wear a mask and wield a machete.
Marathon Hero, The
A heroin pursuit of a purse-snatcher or getaway car can run for many blocks, even up the hills of San Francisco, without getting winded.
Any character whose wife and/or kids are introduced more than an hour into the movie and who hugs and kisses any or all of them will be dead within the next 20 minutes. e.g., “Goose” in TOP GUN.
Miracle of Available Parking Space
When a character needs a parking space, even on the busiest streets in the busiest cities, one is quickly found. For example, in LOST IN AMERICA, Albert Brooks finds space for a Winnebago directly in front of an office building at midday in New York City. Corollary: When a character needs to pull into traffic, there is always a break.
Tired old cinematographic trick in which we think we are seeing a character, but then the camera pans and we realize we were only looking in a mirror.
In movies made before 1985, any character named “Murphy” was a cop, a priest, a drunk, a tough guy, or all of the above. MURPHY’S ROMANCE was the first to break with this rule. Prior to TV’s Murphy Brown, all Murphys were male. Any character named Murphy will sooner or later be shown in a saloon or drinking heavily.
Little girls who wear glasses in the movies always tell the truth. Little boys who wear glasses in the movies always lie.
Mysterious Object Antecedents Myth
Whenever a movie involves time travel, there will always be an object that travels between the past and future without ever having actually come from anywhere. For example: at the beginning of SOMEWHERE IN TIME, an old Jane Seymour gives the young Christopher Reeve a pocket watch. He travels back in time to find her, taking the watch with him, and accidentally leaves it there. She keeps it, grows old, and—voilà—the cycle repeats itself. But where did the pocket watch come from in the first place?
The myth of the Seemingly Ordinary Day
The day begins like any other, with a man getting up, having breakfast, reading the paper, leaving the house, etc. His activities are so uneventful they are boring. That is the tip-off. No genuine ordinary day can be allowed to be boring in a movie. Only seemingly ordinary days—which inevitably lead up to a shocking scene of violence, which punctuates the seeming ordinariness.
The character sees someone but can’t believe his eyes, so shakes his head and says “Nah.” Inevitably it is the person it couldn’t be.
Near Miss Kiss
The hero and heroine are about to kiss. Their lips are a quarter of an inch apart—but then they’re interrupted.
Newton’s Laws Repealed
In which action becomes mysteriously decoupled from the reaction, usually in connection with a firearm. Typically, a bullet from the hero’s handgun lifts the villain off his feet and hurls him backward (often through one of those ubiquitous plate glass windows that cars like to drive through) while the hero doesn’t budge a millimeter. (Action equals reaction, right? The hero should be hurled backward with equal force.)
Noble Savage Syndrome
Thrown into the company of a native tribe of any description, the protagonist discovers the true meaning of life and sees through the sham of modern civilization. Wisdom and sensitivity are inevitably possessed by any race, class, age group, or ethnic or religious minority that has been misunderstood. Such movies seem well-intentioned at first glance, but replace one stereotype for another; the natives seem noble, but never real. They may be starving, but if they’re noble and have a few good songs, why worry?
Odd Couple Formula
Seemingly incompatible characters are linked to each other in a plot that depends on their differences for its comic and dramatic interest. Cf. TANGO & CASH, HOMER, AND EDDIE, LETHAL WEAPON, LOOSE CANNONS. Essential that one member of each team be a slob, as revealed by the presence of fast-food wrappers in the back seat of his Hollywood Cop Car (q.v.).
Odds on Edge Rule
The odds that a car in real life will be able to travel any appreciable distance balanced on two wheels: 1 in 7 million. The odds that this will happen during a chase scene in a movie: 1 in 43.
One-at-a-time Attack Rule
In any situation where the hero is alone, surrounded by dozens of bad guys, they will always obligingly attack one at a time. (See any Schwarzenegger movie.)
Pass Bypass Principle
Any theater that accepts passes will invariably exclude their use for any movie worth seeing.
Pops Principle, The
In movies with teenage characters, there is usually a character named Pops who runs the local hang-out or dance club.
Principle of Evil Marksmanship
The bad guys are always lousy shots in the movies. Three villains with Uzzis will go after the hero, spraying thousands of rounds that miss him, after which he picks them off with a handgun.
Principle of Pedestrian Pathology
Whenever a character on foot is being pursued by one in a car, the pedestrian inevitably makes the mistake of running down the middle of the street, instead of ducking down a narrow alley, into a building, behind a telephone pole, etc. All that saves such pedestrians is the fact that in such scenes the character on foot can always outrun the car.
Principle of Selective Lethality
The lethality of a weapon varies, depending on the situation. A single arrow will drop a stampeding bison in its tracks, but it takes five or six to kill an important character. A single bullet will always kill an extra on the spot, but it takes dozens to bring down the hero.
Quick Recovery Syndrome
Any person critical to the movie’s sequel (such as the hero’s buddy) can be on the edge of death throughout the film, but by the end of the movie recovers fully. See BEVERLY HILLS COP II, where Ronny Cox is shot in the heart at point-blank range but is ready to leave the hospital within 72 hours, or LICENCE TO KILL, where Bond’s newlywed buddy loses the lower half of his body to a shark but is joking at the film’s end.
No female character in an action film can flee more than 50 feet before falling flat on her face. Someone then has to go back and help her up, while the monster/villain/enemy gains ground.
Rock Candy Postulate
No hero is ever cut by the glass while leaping through windows.
Rule of Chronic Tunnel Vision
In a horror movie, the character being stalked has vision limited to the camera’s field of view. Therefore, anyone coming at any angle not directly ahead will invariably scare the living daylights out of him or her.
The function is performed by most men in Hollywood feature films. Involves a series of shots in which
(1) the man sees something,
(2) he points it out to the woman,
(3) she then sees it too, often nodding in agreement, gratitude, amusement, or relief.
Semi-Obligatory Lyrical Interlude (Semi-OLI)
The scene in which soft focus and slow motion are used while a would-be hit song is performed on the soundtrack and the lovers run through a pastoral setting. Common from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s; replaced in 1980s with the Semi-Obligatory Music Video (q.v.).
Semi-Obligatory Music Video
The three-minute sequence within an otherwise ordinary narrative structure, in which a song is played at top volume while movie characters experience spasms of hyperkinetic behavior and stick their faces into the camera lens. If a band is seen, the Semi-OMV is inevitably distinguished by the director’s inability to find a fresh cinematic approach to the challenge of filming a slack-jawed drummer.
A filmed deal.
In the age of the seven-minute attention span (inspired by the average length between TV commercials), action movies aimed at teenagers are constructed out of several seven-minute segments. At the end of each segment, another teenager is dead. When all the teenagers are dead (or, if you arrived in the middle, when the same dead teenager turns up twice), the movie is over.
Sex-Specific Disintegrating Outfit
When the male and female characters in a trashy action movie go to hell and back, only the woman’s clothing begins to disintegrate.
Applies to prison, war, or police movies, where the hero only has a few more days until he is free, his tour is over, or he can retire with a full pension. Whenever such a character makes the mistake of mentioning his remaining time (“Three days and I’m outta here!”) he will die before the end of that time.
Sorry I Thought You Were Someone Else Rule
Whenever the hero wanders the city streets bemoaning his lost love and sees a woman in the distance (usually from the rear) who looks exactly like his beloved, he will inevitably run up to her only to find a total stranger who will look at him as if he’s demented.
No movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad. An exception was CHATTAHOOCHEE (1990), starring Walsh. Stanton’s record is still intact.
Still Out There Somewhere
The obligatory phrase in Dead Teenager and Mad Slasher Movies, where it is triggered by the words, “The body was never found. They say he/she is…”
“Stranger in a Strange Land” Principle
When a star of a movie shows up in a new town, that person will be famous in that town by the end of the movie.
“90 percent of everything is crap.” (First formulated in the 1950s by the science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon; quoted here because it so manifestly applies to motion pictures.)
An affliction that compels filmmakers and special effects people to depict the malfunction of computers as being accompanied by smoke, flames, showers of pyrotechnic sparks, frenzied flashing lights, and wildly spinning tape drives spewing tape into the air.
Thanks, But No Thanks
When two people have just had a heart-to-heart conversation, as person A starts to leave the room, person B says (tentatively) “Bob?” A pause, turns, and says “Yes?” B says, “Thanks.”
Invisible appendage used by Rambo in RAMBO, in the scene where he hides from the enemy by completely plastering himself inside a mud bank. Since it is impossible to cover yourself with mud without at least one hand free to do the job, Rambo must have had a third, invisible, hand. This explains a lot about the movie.
A nervous disorder that causes an actor to repeatedly pick up and put down an item upon each cut between reverse shots in a scene.
In modern Horny Teenager Movies, performs the same symbolic function as California did for the Beatniks, Marakeesh did for the hippies, and Paris did for the Lost Generation.
Named for the character played by Eli Wallach in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY. It comes in the scene where Tuco is taking a bath, and a guy bursts into the room, promising Tuco how he plans to have his revenge, only to have Tuco kill him. Tuco then advises the corpse, “If you have to shoot, shoot don’t talk.” See also Talking Killer, The.
Turning a Deaf Ear
Movie heroes squeeze off hundreds of rounds of ammo but suffer no hearing loss. For example, RAMBO II, where Rambo enters a metal warehouse and runs an entire belt of ammo through his M-60 machine gun. Afterward, he carries on a whispered conversation with the evil CIA man in another room.
Once a character is knocked down, they just lie there as if unable to get up. Cf. Sigourney Weaver in ALIEN.
In horror movies, whenever the killer is killed, he is never dead. This rule is as old as the movies but was given its modern shape in HALLOWEEN (1978) when the killer arose from apparent destruction to jump up behind Jamie Lee Curtis. Since then, all of the Dead Teen-ager Movies, most of the BOND pictures, and many other thrillers have used a false climax, in which the villain is killed—only to spring up for a final threat. In an ordinary thriller, the cliché of the Undead Dead is part of the game—but its use in FATAL ATTRACTION was unforgivable.
A character is given a close-up in a scene where there seems to be no reason for it. This is an infallible tip-off that this character is more significant than at first appears, and is most likely the killer. See the lingering close-up of the undercover KGB agent near the beginning of THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER.
Despite dozens of movies that think otherwise, a revolver cannot be silenced, because the sound escapes, not from the barrel where they fit the silencer, but from the gap between the frame and the cylinder. Only closed-breech weapons, like pistols with magazines in the grip, can be silenced—unless you wrap them in a pillow.
In every movie with Italian-American characters, one must be named Vinny
“Wait Right Here” Scenario
The scene in a movie where one character, almost always a male character, tells another character, almost always a woman, “Now, you just wait right here in the car. Whatever you do, DO NOT follow me into that warehouse.” Inevitably, the dumb and helpless woman goes into the warehouse, is captured by the villain, and rescued by the hero.
We’re Alive! Let’s Kiss!
The inevitable conclusion to any scene in which hero and heroine take cover from gunfire by diving side-by-side into a ditch, and find themselves in each other’s arms, usually for the first time. Cf. HIGH ROAD TO CHINA.
Weak-Ankled Female Syndrome, The
Whenever a man and woman are on the run, the woman inevitably falls and sprains her ankle. As a result, the man must drag or carry her and their progress is slowed, stalled, or halted.
Wedding Cake Rule
In any movie comedy involving a wedding, the cake will be destroyed.
In Hollywood story conferences, suggested alternative to nude, as in: “If she won’t take off her clothes, can we get her down?” Suggested by Harry Cohn’s remark about swimming star Esther Williams: “Dry, she ain’t much. Wet, she’s a star.”
Wet Road Rule
Any road seen in a film, no matter how hot or dry the day has been, will be wet, slick, and reflecting headlights after nightfall. This is most commonly seen in deserts and drought-stricken cities like Los Angeles.
Wrong-Headed Commanding Officer
In modern police movies, the commanding officer exists solely for the purpose of taking the hero off the case, calling him on the carpet, issuing dire warnings, asking him to hand over his badge and gun, etc. Cf. the DIRTY HARRY series, BLUE STEEL, etc.
Any film using a plot which can be summarized by saying “One’s a…” For example, “One’s a cop. One’s an actor.” Or “One’s a saint. One’s a sinner.”
In many thrillers, the hero crashes his car or truck through the window or wall of a building at the precise time and place to allow him to rescue a victim or kill the bad guys. How can he see through the walls to know exactly where his car will emerge? Why doesn’t he ever drive into a load-bearing beam?
No movie with a hero named “Youngblood” has ever been any good. Cf. YOUNGBLOOD HAWKE, YOUNGBLOOD, etc.
Pronounced “zed” in British movies, something most American audiences do not know.
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