Saturday, 11 October 2014

New Cliches

I remember ages ago watching Steve McQueen in something or other and realising that I'd seen similar scenes in many movies over the years. He was in a carpark at a supermarket and he was carrying a brown paperbag in the crook of his arm.

For a longish period, films regularly featured characters elbowing their way out of stores and into front doors, full brown paperbags clutched to their chest. There were scenes where they dumped their paperbags on benchtops, there were scenes where they gratefully unloaded them onto backseats. There were scenes when they accidentally dropped them and consequently met other characters.

And then the brown paperbags disappeared.

I assumed that in America plastic bags with handles had replaced them and somehow there wasn't quite the panache to be had from the look of a polythene sack dangling at knee level from a hero's fist.

Anyway, watching Gone Girl yesterday (follow this link for more about that), I realised that a new visual cliche has taken the brown paper bag's place. It's the take-away coffee cup. I can't think why I haven't noticed it earlier. It pops up several times in the film - and it's ubiquitous I suddenly realised in telly programmes from the US, especially cop shows.

It's funny though, because it only works visually. Whereas a cigarette long ago used to be a good prop on screen and also in writing - "she took a drag on her cigarette before speaking. 'I don't know', she murmured, knocking the ash onto the carpet as she spoke ..." - surely a takeaway coffee cup could never be used to pad out a written scene.

(Incidentally, since we mentioned - oh, all right, I mentioned - car parks, should you want to read a really beautiful poem set in a car park, there is one here.)


  1. The other big cliche was the obligatory French baguette sticking out of the brown paper bag, just so that there was no room for doubt that the character had been food shopping.

    1. Re French bread, I remembering hearing someone ponder whether anyone has ever managed to get home with a loaf without eating off the crusty end. I haven't, but I still hope to one day

  2. Brown paper bags are hanging on here. The plastic bags are now looked down on, I think for their way of blowing into trees or generally becoming a persistent eyesore.

    The takeaway coffee cup is ubiquitous. People will walk down the street for blocks with one in hand. I see people out for a walk in Rock Creek Park with them. I don't see much TV, but if the cups are there, the shows are faithfully reflecting reality. And surely you can punctuate with a sip of coffee as easily as a drag from a cigarette. And for that matter one can spill it.

    1. I went to see Jon Ronson give a talk at Frieze the day before yesterday and was intrigued to see that he used a takeaway coffee cup as a kind of prop or confidence booster for the first bit of his turn.