Summer 2006

Bad Sex (And Other Quibbles)

Here are a few things directors should not do anymore.


When a novel idea hardens into a hackneyed device, chances are it's a critic who spots it first. It's the law of averages: we see more movies than paying customers do, and more movies than most filmmakers do, because you're too busy making them. So think of us critics, if you will, as a kind of advance warning system. If there's a cliché looming like a storm cloud on the horizon, we're the forecasters trying to keep you (and all of us) from getting wet. Which is a fancy way of introducing a short list of things that make me wince every time I see them on screen. I wouldn't presume to tell a director how to direct; but given this rare opportunity, I can't resist suggesting a few things I don't want you to do. Ever again.

1. Hold the Applause!

Some 32 years ago, at the end of Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Ellen Burstyn and Kris Kristofferson united in a public clinch, and the patrons and staff at the diner where she’s working burst into applause. It was a beguiling moment, if not entirely fresh even then: Scorsese was consciously riffing on thirties movie conventions. But that may be the last time I witnessed one of those standing ovations without breaking out in hives. Coming, as it almost always does, at the tail end of a romantic comedy, this overused directorial cliché smacks of both desperation and self-congratulation. One might as well hang a flashing APPLAUSE sign above the screen. A moratorium on this shameless, cringe-inducing ploy should be set immediately. (In real life, outside of theaters and concert halls, perfect strangers only clap on airplanes that have just made a smooth landing–less out of admiration, I suspect, than relief.)

2. The Old In/Out

Politicians and professional moralists complain that there is too much sex in movies. Actually there is hardly any: at least not much that an ordinary person might recognize as his own. When well-coifed movie stars get down to erotic business in studio films, the result more often looks like an ad for a facial moisturizer than actual human coupling. Hollywood sex scenes rarely tell us anything about the people who are shedding their clothes and entangling their beautifully lit limbs; all too often they are just generic cinematic shorthand signifying passion. For an example of what real movie sex can be, I recommend the 2001 Israeli film Late Marriage. It contains an extended erotic episode–extremely explicit but far from pornographic–between a young Israeli man and his slightly older mistress that is startling in its frankness, sensuality and realism. No one would ever try to sell perfume using clips from Late Marriage: this sex smells like real bodily fluids, and feels like real intimacy. It would be naïve to assume any studio would allow such a scene to exist in a big budget movie (unless, perhaps, it ended with the lovers chopped to pieces by an axe-wielding psycho). The MPAA would slap it with its most restrictive rating; certain newspapers would refuse to carry any ads; and Blockbuster wouldn’t stock the DVD. But real movie sex doesn’t have to show everyone’s most private parts: I want to it to show their souls, their fantasies, their ids, their idiosyncrasies, their fears and desires. Candlelight, billowing curtains and hands digging into the small of a naked back just don’t cut it any more.

3. Wonderful Music that Should Never Again Be Used in Movies

A) Louis Armstrong (or anyone) singing “It’s a Wonderful World.” Doesn’t matter if it’s intended ironically or poignantly, it’s in danger of becoming as predictable as “Carmina Burana,” which for years seemed to be the only music ever used in trailers for sword and sandal epics.

B) Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Heartbreakingly beautiful, as David Lynch in The Elephant Man and Oliver Stone in Platoon realized. But after 25 years of leaning on those plangent strings, enough is enough.

4. Not So Happy Endings

Just this past year I’ve sat through movie after movie that collapsed in the final reel in a mechanical effort to tie everything up in a neat bow, often betraying everything the movie seemed to be about. Don’t get me wrong: I like happy endings as much as the next guy (OK, I’m a critic, maybe not quite as much). A proper happy ending can bring tears to your eyes, as when Elizabeth and Darcy drop their defenses and confess their love in the latest Pride and Prejudice. The problem is that too many happy endings seem utterly cynical, less an affirmation than a lazy sop thrown to an audience that’s presumed incapable of telling the difference between earned and unearned emotion. Does every lead character have to find redemption? Does every broken family have to forgive each other? Does every life lesson have to be learned at precisely the 120-minute mark? How could anyone not groan in disbelief at the end of Monster-in-Law when Jennifer Lopez and Jane Fonda, after 90 minutes of vicious in-fighting, are willed by the Movie Gods to bury the hatchet and make up? And why should we feel good about this, having been encouraged to cheer for the daughter-in-law’s revenge? The affliction is particularly acute in comedies, which by definition are supposed to end on an upbeat. Just because you’re making a comedy, however, doesn’t mean you can suspend all the laws of gravity, common sense and psychology. But directors aren’t necessarily the guiltiest party in this crime: screenwriters, producers and studio executives share culpability, along with the kind of corporate thinking that doesn’t distinguish between a movie and a plastic mug.

Of course, bad endings have been forced on good filmmakers since the beginning of (movie) time, as have bad love scenes, hackneyed music cues and audience-pandering gimmicks. But maybe one of the reasons that more and more moviegoers are Just Saying No to a night at the movies is that filmmakers don’t Just Say No enough to the siren call of formula.

David Ansen is the movie critic for Newsweek.

Critic's Corner

An open letter from prominent critics to Guild members about the craft of directing from their point of view.

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