Neil Calloway is fed up with being told exactly where the action is taking place…
There is one thing that can guarantee me to let out a disappointed sigh in the cinema before a word has been spoken on screen. It’s the appearance of a caption telling us where the action is taking place. After that, the film-makers have to work hard to regain my trust and get over my contempt for them. It’s even been creeping into Star Wars, with a couple of appearances in Rogue One, as if it matters which made up planet we’re on now.
Most recently it’s been depressing me while I watch the BBC’s new drama McMafia. Of course, a show about globalised gangsterism is going to jump all over the place, from London, to Mumbai, to Tel Aviv, to Cairo and to Prague. The thing is, we’re intelligent viewers; we don’t need to be told exactly where we are, especially when we’ve just seen a shot of the pyramids. We can work it out, or if we can’t, we know we’re somewhere else and it doesn’t really matter, just don’t talk down to us. James Watkins, the director of McMafia called it “state-of-the-nation treatise on globalisation masquerading as a slick thriller”, when really it’s a slick thriller masquerading as a state-of-the-nation treatise on globalisation. That’s if you’re being kind, when it might be better described as James Norton auditioning for Bond. I’d be surprised if, after seeing Tom Hiddleston in The Night Manager, he didn’t demand his agent find him something similar.
It’s not that location isn’t important to a film’s story – often it’s one of the most important elements; a film set in New York City might not work in rural Somerset, and a movie like The Wicker Man would be pretty rubbish if it took place in London, but we don’t need to be spoon fed where we are all the time. Show us a shot of the Seine and the Eiffel Tower and we can work out we’re probably in Paris. If you can’t, then you’re probably struggling with the film anyway.
The worst offenders are when characters tell us where the action is heading and then we see the caption on screen confirming that. Luc Besson’s Lucy springs to mind, (the decline and fall of Luc Besson’s career needs to be looked at – where did it all go wrong?) where we are told that characters are going to Berlin, Rome and Paris, before cutting to those cities with the captions “Berlin, Germany”, “Rome, Italy” and “Paris, France” popping up, just in case we weren’t sure were we are and didn’t know which country those cities were in. If you don’t know, it doesn’t matter, but if you do know you feel patronised by having it rammed down your throat.
You hope film-makers think of their audiences as intelligent, and having on screen captions telling us where the action is just insults that audience. If you’re insulting people who have paid to see your movie, you’re going to have to work hard to impress them. There are worse issues in film, I know, but nothing raises my hackles more than this.
Neil Calloway is a pub quiz extraordinaire and Top Gun obsessive. Check back here every Sunday for future instalments.