When your career depends on the study of film, you begin to notice things—like the fact that sunlight is overrated, that nobody ever chooses to sit in the front row, and that even good films have their flaws.
We might someday reach a point where films have a lower “error rate” than they do now, but the only way we’re going to get there is by drawing a line as audiences. Here are a few long-running flaws we’d like to draw sides against:
Flaw: Unnecessary Exposition
Why it frustrates us:If you’re not familiar with exposition, it’s essentially when a film uses stilted dialogue to try and explain something that can—and should—be shown instead of told: “Walter, you’re my twin brother, and we have known mom for the thirty years we’ve been on this planet. You know she would never kill anyone!!”
Audiences are a lot smarter than some filmmakers might think. They know the dialogue above is not at all how people talk. Ever. More importantly, they’re sophisticated enough to follow plots without over-explanation.
Giving them every detail they need to know via dialogue, without relying on visuals or subtlety, will make your audiences feel like their parents are whispering plot details in their ears: “that’s the bad guy,” “that character feels sad,” “that ring has magic powers.”
How to avoid it: Solve the problem of explanation before you add dialogue by showing rather than telling.
Flaw: Hero Worshipping
Why it frustrates us: Telling audiences someone is tough doesn’t make them appear tough; it makes them appear the opposite.
In First Blood (1982), Sylvester Stallone has no trouble showing audiences that his character, Rambo, is tough without the help of exposition. Scars, muscles, blood, and machine guns do the job just fine.
But the veteran’s old military pals go a little too far in supporting (or taking away from) Rambo’s status as a hero:
“I didn’t come here to rescue Rambo from you. I came here to rescue you from him.”
“I’m just amazed that he allowed any of your posse to live.”
“You’re lucky to be breathing.”
“You don’t seem to want to accept the fact that you’re dealing with an expert in guerilla warfare. With a man who is the best—with guns, with knives, with his bare hands. A man who has been trained to ignore pain, ignore weather, to live off the land . . .”
“We get it, Colonel, you like Rambo—but you’re selling him a little too hard. If he’s that tough, he doesn’t need a hype man.”
How to avoid it: Let audiences figure out how they want to feel about a character on their own. True fanboyism comes from within.
Flaw: Strong Premises, Weak Research
Why it frustrates us: Movie tickets aren’t cheap, and part of the reason is because of the hundreds—or thousands—of people employed across a film. If studios can afford to pay someone to hold up a microphone boom, they can afford to hire someone to hold up their plot, no?
Even in his earliest days as a filmmaker, Tarantino allegedly honored realism by keeping a paramedic on set to make sure Mr. Orange didn’t lose too much or too little blood in Reservoir Dogs (1992). This eliminated the need for audiences to suspend disbelief—and likely armed Tarantino with the knowledge needed to purposely exaggerate blood loss later on in his career.
Audiences generally become more involved when a character is wounded, but less involved when that character is wounded beyond belief and continues on cracking jokes—and this same principle of realism applies to everything from geography to time travel.
How to avoid it: Hire Neil deGrasse Tyson to tear apart your space film (well before you start filming).
Flaw: Music Swells
Why it frustrates us: If a director needs to rely on music to evoke emotion, a lot of people (actors, cinematographers, robotic sharks) aren’t doing their jobs properly.
Often referred to as “Mickey Mousing” because of its role in early animation, the technique of mirroring action with music should have never left cartoons—and directors today have more than enough tools (e.g., CGI sharks) to rely on without taking the delicacy out of music.
How to avoid it: As with dialogue, directors should first make sure a scene is effective before they add score to it.
Brian Platt writes about film theory, screenwriting techniques and filmmaker frustrations for VideoBlocks.