The Art of Cliche

Good day everyone out there and welcome to my little blog project I dubbed Blaak Alley Critic.  I found myself rather enjoying the act of unpacking stuff like movies and shows and thought this would be a pretty good venue for getting all of my thoughts out on those particular subjects.  So to start off what I hope will be a long string of potentially interesting topics of discussion, I wanted to delve into something easily understandable, and more concrete; which is exactly why I’ll be talking about the abstract concept known as cliché.  Aren’t I so nice?

For those of you that don’t know what this term means, or didn’t within the five seconds of me mentioning it immediately go to google and type it in hoping to have a definition spat back at you, cliché is defined as a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought. Really what we’re looking at here is the overused aspect, as this term has a few cultural stigmas that we have so fantastically weighed it down with over the years regarding how we see and go about storytelling.  Cliché in the simplest of explanations is that one action within a story that you’ve seen done over and over and over again.  You’ve all heard em over the years.  Cop gets shot and he’s two weeks from retirement. He’s a strong headed city boy who falls in love with the simple country girl beauty.  Some guy has a really big gun and is pretty much killing everyone while vomiting out one-liners like there’s a part of his brain specifically made for that one purpose.  Stuff like this has been in media since the dawn of time, and they are likely never to really go away, since we eat this stuff up like there’s no tomorrow.  This isn’t particularly a bad thing as a lot of famous cinema revolve their stories around abusing the cliché or even parodying it.  With something like Monty Python and The Holy Grail, we see the daring adventure of King Arthur traveling to Camelot as the original story is pretty much thrown into a fire and replaced with a guy hopping around banging coconuts together (seriously if you havn’t seen this film and enjoy being happy I would highly recommend it).   The entire premise of the movie Last Action Hero is in fact a parody of the clichéd settings and characters we always find popping up in big budget Hollywood films.  In this film we follow Arnold Schwarzenegger starring as your typical gung-ho badass cop who doesn’t play by the rules, drives the cool car, and always saves the day. This right here would be your typical film, if it weren’t for the fact that his character is in a movie, within a movie.  It’s like inception except I don’t have to sit through another rendition of “Watch this not win Leo the Oscar again.” I know he finally won one but it was like waiting for reckoning day it was just not gonna happen anytime in my life.

Regardless of how fun parody and cliché can be, we still have the negative connotations behind this word for a very important reason.  Certain methods of story-telling or literary techniques even, try very hard when attempting to convey emotion to its viewer/reader/whatever form you’re seeing this in.  A good story will explain through visuals and dialogue exactly what it wants you to feel, having usually a creative premise that brings out a well-deserved reaction.  A bad story will use a past method that’s been done to death, trying to win over some cheap emotions to either fill space or make itself look better.  Look at something like absolutely every Mario game ever.  You guys know Mario right? That delightful Italian stereotype that goes around murdering turtles and mushrooms with legs all to save this Stockholm princess who can never stay in one place for more then 5 minutes.  My explanation might be a bit off but you get the picture.  Now with Mario, big bad Bowser is usually the bad guy, and for good reason.  He’s a jerk, he kidnaps the princess and threatens the world yadda yadda.  He’s clearly the bad guy, and Nintendo has no intention of breaking the formula of trying to flesh him out a bit more as to why he’s such a jerk all the time.  But this isn’t a bad thing.  In fact it’s probably one of the best things they’ve decided to do.  In having his motives be barely ever explained they clearly tell us that the plot is about as important as politics is to a duck. . . .it’s not at all.  The real selling point of these games is the style of gameplay.  All Mario games really try to win us over with how we go about playing the game, so spending time on a plot that they know you won’t care about is useless.  It just doesn’t matter, and they don’t bother with trying to upgrade the over-the-top, clichéd cookie cutter story that has worked for all these years to keep us interested.

HOWEVER. For something where the main objective is not interaction, or to provoke thought, and is just solely about story and character development; clichéd writing is a death sentence.  My all time favorite example, or least favorite I guess since I absolutely hate scenes like this with every fiber of my being, comes from a recently popular (unfortunately) animated show called Sword Art Online.  For all of those out there that don’t bother with watching nonsense kids shows from japan, Sword Art Online was an anime about a community of people that were trapped within the virtual world of an online video game. The premise of the show was that these people needed to band together and beat the game to earn their freedom.  The constant shadow over this story however, was that if you died within the game, you would then die in real life.  The fear of losing it all within a brief moment was terrifying, and within a few episodes we were really coming to terms with this as many of the players started dropping like flies. Main characters were being mapped out before us but we would always wonder if they would soon get the axe too as the threat was real.  Unfortunately that idea is waaaaay too interesting to happen to something like Sword Art Online, because as the story went on you realized no one important ever died.  Whenever someone did die on screen, they were a completely minor character we had just met, or in my absolute least favorite case, they were brought in simply to make the main character, and in relation the viewer, feel sad.

My example of course, comes from the third episode, yes the third episode, three goddam episodes in the show and they’ve already set up nonsense clichés.  Our main character is something of a loner.  A teenage boy playing the game for fun and gets trapped inside it unfortunately just like everyone else.  The episode starts off happy, everything is great.  Kirito, our main dude, who is Japanese cus this comes from Japan, has met a rag-tag group of adventurers who have about as much fleshed out character as moss growing under a rock.  He seems to be having a good time for once and they do a wonderful job of showing him getting along with his new pals, montaging every little bit of their teamwork and bonding while continuing to ignore the fact we still barely know who these people are.  Can you tell how I feel about this yet? Do you understand what’s going to happen to them?  That right there is the power of the cliché.  We meet these characters and immediately not even the show cares about delving into their traits or backstories. This should paint such a lovely picture of where they’re gonna end up because they’re all just so important.  If you couldn’t tell they die.

While the episode carries on and I continue to not even remember if three of these five characters even had names to begin with, we see a new development appear with the token female of the group and the main character.  We learn slowly that she has incredible issues with self-confidence, worrying constantly that she will die in the game because she can’t handle the pressure.  Kirito then reassures her that he will protect her throughout the episode, constantly showing us images of her opening up to him and becoming a brighter and happier person.  Oh man everything is looking up from here.  The group wants to go and buy a base of operations, they’ve been doing a lot of training and getting stronger.  Everything’s just all around sunshine and rainbows.  Thankfully something goes terribly wrong and everyone dies except for the main character. Only half way in the episode actually which is pretty interesting.  After the commercial break we come back to see that the world has gone to CHRISTMASSSSSSS. YAYYYY ITS CHRISTMAAAAS!!! But Kirito is sad. Well of course who wouldn’t be you just saw all your friends die.  I mean you can’t remember any of them past the token female but neither can we so you’re in the clear. We learn later on that there’s a special Christmas event going on where certain players could fight to find an item that has the ability to BRING A DEAD PLAYER BACK TO LIFE.  Clearly he’s going to bring back tokemale (I combined token and female here, it’s very clever) because he is distraught over her deaths and seeks atonement for not being able to protect her.  Long story short, he fights demon santa clause and gets the item, which unfortunately doesn’t work. Kirito goes back to his hotel room, sad and discouraged, and we generally feel bad for him.  And this right here, is where it all goes to hell.  Upon coming back to his room, he finds a secret message left by Tokemale (yes I know she has a name but I’ve already made the joke I’m too far gone I can’t go back) that could only be unlocked during Christmas.  The message is pretty much a recorded voicemail of her explaining to Kirito that she predicted she would not be able to handle the pressure and would eventually succumb to death, which is what actually happened, causing Kirito to become even sadder.  At this point he’s delving into sad puppy dog levels so you can’t help but feel bad for him.  I did too I swear I’m not completely heartless.

Near the end of the recording, Tokemale states that she has a lot of time left with this recording that she planned ahead of time to make and therefore should be able to control how long it lasts, so she decides to fill the time, with singing.  Yes. . .singing. Kirito’s dead friend’s, final message, is her humming a Christmas tune to him, from the grave, after all of the shit that he went through to try and bring her back.  This right here is the shit frosting, on the already septic tank of a cake this story is.  Now you may say, “Well what’s wrong with that?  It’s pretty sad, yea but that doesn’t mean it’s bad.”  To which I would reply, “Why yes of course.”  This is probably the epitome of sadness.  It’s incredibly sad.  To the point where it’s absolutely nonsense.  We have just spent near half an hour learning about this character and what she means to our hero.  Then we watch as she dies in front of his eyes, we see his journey to try and bring her back to only fail in the end, ON CHRISTMAS NO LESS, to then have this final scene where she does one of the most stereotypically “pure” things to do, just to thrust that final nail in Kirito’s emotional coffin.  Having all of these obviously sad things, piled one on top of the other, clearly makes for a sad story, that’s the intention, the emotion they’re trying to get from you.  But this right here.  This is cheap emotion.  This is something so obviously sad, so incredibly negative you could view it in no other way.  This is the Bowser of story-telling.  This episode is just hammering home constantly blow after blow of depressing scenes within such a short amount of time trying desperately to get you to feel for these characters that you barely even know.  The amount of running time that this person lasted was about as long as I take showers, yet within that time she showed no personality besides depression, anxiety, and general sadness, and the main character held nothing for her besides grief over losing her. And to top it all off, we never hear about her ever again.  She maybe gets brought up once or twice in conversation but the next episode is a happy go lucky romp about helping a little girl save her pet dragon.  The hell am I supposed to get invested in this if not even the show wants to get invested.  So to keep you going, to save time and money, the writers brew up the most depressing story they can think of, jamming every possible sad thing they can within a short window, trying to make you feel as much as possible, by pandering to scenes that are so obviously and deliberately sad it becomes laughable.  I honest to god laughed at this scene.  Not because I’m a terrible person, no that affects other things.  I laughed because I couldn’t feel any worse.  They already pushed the emotional state of the episode to its highest point but tried to milk it for more and more, using stereotypical methods, delving into that taboo cliché.  Everything that conveyed a sadness in this half hour of animation, everything that attempted to brew that emotion within the viewer was basic, absolutely one-sided, and complex to a degree that kindergarteners could point out.  Nothing was unique, everything was pandering and obvious.  The entirety of it was one clichéd mess.

These stories and actions have been repeated for years, making it increasingly difficult for anything “new” to come out and really surprise us.  Anything that comes out nowadays has to fight centuries of stories before it, trying to carve out something that makes it truly unique, or at least does its job well enough to become interesting.  Without this kind of effort and creativity, these bodies of entertainment end up dried out before they even have a chance to explain themselves.  Yet making something exciting and emotional isn’t impossible.  Authors don’t constantly worry about skirting around the line of what is and what is not cliché, they simply work at perfecting their stories, twisting the methods in which they are told slightly, attempting to bring in new life to their ideas.  Cliché in itself is not a bad thing, it often drives a large amount of comedy, and can even be used to tell a pretty dam good action story.   However, when writing becomes lazy, people look to fill their time with repetitive, predictable scenarios.  They shove in ideas that have been done to death, and used solely to try and speed up the process of connecting all the pieces of this story together.  Think of it like using Wikipedia to write out an essay.  Yea I could put some effort into actually making my own carefully worded sentences filled with factual evidence that I researched myself.  Orrrrrrrr I could copy and paste this stuff that’s already written right here and get the easy grade. Cliché is the idea that it’s worked before, so it will work again, and hopefully by knowing more about it, and what makes something clichéd and stereotypical, we can invest some effort into making and supporting some truly amazing entertainment.

Thank you all for reading my first article I pretty much just rolled out everything I felt was necessary to say in discussing my opinions.  If you’d like to see more examples of what makes something cliché, or of a story revolving around the cliché I would definitely recommend watching Last Action Hero, as well as for the anime fans, the first episode of Tower of Druaga, a nifty little tale of adventure and fantasy that has the entirety of the first episode dripping with exaggerated parody.  Of course leave a comment if you have any ideas or particular burning questions you’d like to share on this article or simply the style itself as they will be greatly appreciated.  Thanks again for bearing with my filth and have a wonderful day.

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