SDG’s Very, Very Little Movie Glossary
My sometimes obscure review tagging system — explained!
By Steven D. Greydanus
Yes, I really have two different terms named after Aragorn. No, I have no excuse for that.
Roger Ebert’s Little Movie Glossary is a minor classic of meta-criticism and an entertaining skewering of movie foibles. We’ve all seen the Climbing Villain, the Nerd Rule and the Waterfall Rule in action, and maybe we were willing to overlook them before, but once a name has been put to them, we start hooting and eye-rolling as soon as we see them coming.
This little essay is barely a footnote to Ebert’s book. Still, in the dozen or so years that I’ve been writing movie reviews, I’d like to think I’ve come up with a few witty, possibly even useful terms — Everything Picture, Medieval Grunge and Mythology-Bound among them — that might contribute to movie discussion.
Anyway, they’ve been useful to me. Not only have I used most of these terms in reviews, in recent years at Decent Films I’ve taken to tagging or labeling reviews with hyperlink tagging groups based on these terms, among other things. (I’ve put in a fair bit of time on my tagging system, so if you haven’t checked out my tags, or haven’t checked them out in awhile, have a look.)
Tagging reviews is potentially a form of meta-criticism in itself. Of course tags can be used for all kinds of grouping, not all of critical interest. I have tags for certain filmmakers or studios (e.g., Hayao Miyazaki & Studio Ghibli), franchises (e.g., All Things Star Wars) and subject matter (from Saints & Beati to Superheroes & Comic Book Movies).
Sometimes I give a whimsical name to a commonplace phenomenon, such as Antisocial Aliens (i.e., hostile aliens, as opposed to the friendly, Spielbergian kind). Other times I create tags just for fun, like Bad Denzel (movies in which Denzel Washington plays a bad guy). And sometimes the tag describes the review rather than the movie, like Reviews in Verse (Written).
But there are also tags that carry some kind of implicit commentary on the film, on elements or themes in the film … such as the tags below. (The hyperlinks, of course, take you to the list of reviews I’ve tagged with that term.)
This list is of course a work in progress. If you think something’s missing here — a characteristic phrase or observation from one of my reviews that ought to have a place here — let me know in the comments. Or if you notice reviews that haven’t been tagged as they ought, let me know that too.
SDG’s Very, Very Little Movie Glossary
Some dystopian or apocalyptic movies are so painful, the actual end of the world might be preferable. The archetypal example, of course, is Battlefield Earth, a movie that is about as bad as it’s possible for a movie to be, in almost every way that a movie can be bad — at least, without accidentally being original in some way.
Other times, even if it’s not that bad, a potentially promising apocalyptic movie leaves one’s hopes for it in ruins, along with everything else.
Either way, when dystopian or end-of-the-world movies go wrong … Apocalypse Ouch.
(Not to be confused with: Aragorn Effect)
Contemporary Hollywood no longer believes in rock-ribbed, confident, heroic leaders, such as Charlton Heston’s Moses in The Ten Commandments. The Moses of DreamWorks’ excellent The Prince of Egypt — self-doubting, conflicted, reluctant — is much more in keeping with our more skeptical view of heroism and leadership.
The archetypal example, of course, is Peter Jackson’s Aragorn, whose virtue, complexity and all-around worthiness to lead the filmmakers telegraph by vastly punching up the themes of reluctance and self-doubt in Tolkien. (Moses in Exodus also initially resists God’s call, but the DreamWorks film goes way beyond Exodus in this regard.)
(Not to be confused with: Aragorn Complex)
The Aragorn Effect refers to a mysterious debilitating pressure that a central hero sometimes exercises on characters around him. It occurs when supporting characters must be rendered ineffectual in order to enhance the hero’s status, as if the filmmakers feel that the hero can’t be properly heroic if other characters are allowed to contribute.
The Aragorn Effect is most obvious, of course, in the latter two Lord of the Rings movies, in which King Theoden, the Ents, Faramir and even Gandalf are all made to stumble or fail so that Aragorn can be the sole pillar of strength in Middle-earth.
Broken Family Films are family films about broken families, made by and for a culture of divorce and remarriage. The first modern broken family film was probably E.T. The Extraterrestrial.
Some of these films deserve to be called Broken Family Films in a further sense, i.e., family films that are broken. A family film is broken insofar as it minimizes or glosses over the tragedy of divorce, presenting it as a necessary part of life, or simply the way things are (see Mrs. Doubtfire, The Santa Clause, Zathura).
(See also: Squelched Girl Syndrome)
The Corset Lament is a semi-obligatory scene in a European-set period piece with a soulful young heroine. The purposes of this scene is to remind us
how cruelly constrained women have been by patriarchal expectations, how roped in and squeezed into society’s mold.
It’s the scene where women say things like, “Of course it’s unfair! We’re women. Our choices are never easy.” Or, “If one cannot breathe, one cannot eat.” (Like it was a good thing.) Or, “You like pain? Try wearing a corset.” (source)
Corollary: Corsets are only an intolerable burden to the heroine. Nasty female characters are likely as not to embrace them (see: Mirror Mirror).
The Corset Lament may or may not be a symptom of Squelched Girl Syndrome (which see).
In 2003, a lame, trashy crime comedy called Kangaroo Jack was cynically marketed to family audiences with posters and trailers touting an anthropomorphic talking CGI kangaroo. (In the film, the kangaroo only briefly appears to talk in a fleeting dream sequence.) From the makers of Coyote Ugly, an R-rated film in PG-13 clothing, Kangaroo Jack was at best a PG-13 film in PG clothing.
In honor of Kangaroo Jack, any lame, trashy film, cynically marketed to family audiences because it isn’t good enough for adults, is a Coyote Ugly Family Film.
(See also: Medieval Grunge)
The Middle Ages get a bum rap in our post-Enlightenment world (as French historian Regine Pernoud has helpfully documented in her book Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths).
Many movies perpetuate or even exaggerate this bum rap, depicting the Middle Ages as a suffocatingly bleak, oppressive, anti-humanistic nightmare world, a vision of “constant brutality, hypocrisy and debauchery all but unmoved by beauty, serenity and humanity” (source).
Medieval religion, in particular, is often seen solely as a locus of ignorance and superstition, guilt and fear, oppression and persecution. In a contemporary Hollywood film, a medieval cleric is always corrupt, hypocritical, fanatical or all three.
Basically, any time you’re watching a medieval-set film, and you find yourself wondering why everyone in such a world wouldn’t just kill themselves already, that’s a Darker-Than-Dark Ages movie.
Debilitating Sequelitis is my tongue-in-cheek term for the all-too-familiar condition affecting sequels (or prequels, which are really just a special class of sequels) that notably fail to live up to the original — especially when the franchise never recovers.
Unfortunately, this condition has long since metastasized from individual film franchises to the Hollywood system as a whole. In its metastasized form, Debilitating Sequelitis is chronic and progressive, and there is no known cure.
Like an everything pizza, an Everything Picture simply piles on every ingredient filmmakers can think of in an effort to appeal to all possible demographic sectors.
The quintessential Everything Picture would be an action-comedy-romance about two guys and a girl who are black, white and Asian in some order, with odd-couple and fish-out-of-water gags, car chases and explosions, and at least one scene in which the girl gets semi-naked, although there is no explicit nudity.
An Everything Picture is always rated PG-13. There is only one known exception: Kangaroo Jack, rated PG (see: Coyote Ugly Family Film).
Compare to: Ebert’s Wunza Movie.
This odd term was inspired by the first sentence of Roger Ebert’s review of Memoirs of a Geisha: “I suspect that the more you know about Japan and movies, the less you will enjoy Memoirs of a Geisha.” By extension, a Geisha Movie is any movie that you enjoy less the more you know about its subject and movies.
As stated, of course, that line probably applies to some extent to most movies set in the real world, simply because the more you know about anything, the more inaccuracies you spot in movies. For example, the more you know about police procedure, the less you are likely to enjoy police procedurals.
So my threshold is this: Does the movie perpetuate a simplistic, pernicious mythology about some culture, historical situation or notable event, in such a way that an effective critique will include some sort of education or enlightenment regarding the subject matter? If so, you’ve got a Geisha Movie.
Gilding the Dragon
In the spirit of “jumping the shark” and “nuking the fridge,” which commemorate instances of overweening excess that becomes the standard by which subsequent excess is judged, the climactic conceit of the last action sequence in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug — an entire sequence with no basis whatsoever in Tolkien — goes so far over the top that it beggars the phrase “gilding the lily”: Jackson and company literally gild the dragon Smaug, dip his whole draconian body in hot molten gold.
This occurs at the end of an extended, over-complicated, thoroughly pointless action sequence that might be labeled “MacGyvering the dragon,” although I'm not sure how useful that trope would be. I do expect “Gilding the Dragon” to be useful, as a metaphor for the sort of rococo gratuitousness in adaptation characterizing Jackson’s recent work.
When the soulful, rebellious young protagonist of an animated family film has a stern, disapproving parent who doesn’t understand their offspring, and insists that the protagonist conform to domestic or social expectations, you can be pretty sure you’re watching a “Junior Knows Best” family film.
If the movie ends with the humbled, apologetic parent belatedly supporting the vindicated offspring, you know for sure.
See also: Ebert’s Stupid Adult Rule.
(See also: Darker-Than-Dark Ages)
In marked contrast to the brilliant Technicolor palette of Golden Age films like The Adventures of Robin Hood, contemporary Hollywood films with a medieval or fantasy setting often share a dismal aesthetic I call Medieval Grunge. It’s a “generically unpleasant” vison of
muddy roads, grubby villagers, rude wooden structures, chilly stone and iron, dark forests and generally pervasive earth tones. Have filmmakers never looked at any medieval art? They had pretty colors back then, I’m almost certain. (source)
In any fantasy or sci-fi movie franchise, ongoing installments tend to invest the attendant fantasy or sci-fi mythology (with its rules, institutions, artifacts, places and the like) with more and more complexity and importance, until it metastasizes and becomes the end in itself, trapping characters, dialogue and plot like amber.
Action becomes too complicated, and characters stand around explaining the plot to each other and endlessly negotiating next moves (“discussing it in a committee,” a facetious line from The Empire Strikes Back echoed, with ironic literalness, in The Phantom Menace). When this happens, the franchise has become Mythology-Bound.
A debilitating state of Mythological Sprawl, as the condition can also be called, is a potential risk in any sequel — and the more sequels, the greater the danger — but prequels are at significantly elevated risk.
(See also: Corset Lament)
Squelched Girl Syndrome refers to the unhappy condition of a heroine who “embodies the gender feminist narrative of vibrant young girls losing their mojo as they come of age in patriarchal society” (source), a “casualty of a world that won’t let girls be girls” ().
Such heroines start out variously timorous, self-doubting, diffident, repressed, conflicted, shy and/or generally crushed by the oppressive expectations of parents and family, society in general or both. Then, over the course of the story, they discover their true power and inner strength, regaining their confidence and assertiveness and generally becoming the most powerful character in their story. The type of feminism that embraces this character arc can be called Reviving Ophelia feminism.
Villaincentricity is the condition of a current trend in family films (though it also applies to adult fare, like Wicked) in which overtly villainous characters or villain/monster archetypes take center stage, usually as either misunderstood or belatedly redeemed heroes.
Although there is nothing necessarily pernicious about Villaincentricity in itself, it can be seen as a corollary of a troubling decline in archetypal heroes in family films. Villains are the new heroes, in part, because heroes have become something of a joke.