As a self-proclaimed cinephile, I’ll admit that sometimes my standards can be pretty high. My love for film is, ironically, the very same reason I am often so critical of it. Not just any movie can or should be called cinema. And, sure, different people will have different opinions on what makes a movie great. Whip-smart yet realistic dialogue. Devastating portraits of the human condition. Romance! Surely all of these are trademarks of classic films. But are they enough? In my opinion, no. Because a movie is not truly great until it satisfies the most important criterion there is: A scene where one of its characters is carrying three or four coffees.
The magic of film is how much can be communicated with so little. An expression. An intonation. Think Anthony Hopkins’ wry smile in Silence of the Lambs. A glance from Bette Davis. The way a character carries three or four coffees: Where are they going? Who are those coffees for? Do some of them have cream, and why? The mere fact that a character is given the job of purchasing and delivering a coffee to two or three other people suggests an entire universe much like our own, one where there are at least three or four characters who sleep for eight or fewer hours a night, wake up in the morning and go to work but need coffee first. It brings the characters down to our level. It humanizes them. They’re not machines that run on solar beams or who plug themselves in overnight. Because if they were, why would they need coffee?
Of course, the question of “What is human?” is itself one of the great mysteries of existence that cinema hopes to explore. And so it is no coincidence that a completely fictional character who could be carrying anything from a big crayon to a cool gun instead carries something quite mundane. (Or, should I say, three or four of them…?) Because audiences are no dunces. As much as we enjoy spectacle, our souls must also be nourished. We must identify with the characters. We must know their hopes and dreams. There must be something at stake. And for that to be so, the characters must be believable. “Give them a cool gun, sure,” the audience thinks, “but please, let me know they’re real first. And show me, don’t just tell me. Show me so I know that they’re humans like me and not robots. Let me relate to them, please!”
Indeed, a film that fails to satisfy the audience’s craving for even a morsel of verisimilitude will suffer at the box office — or worse, in our collective memory. Perhaps one reason the much-maligned 1995 film Waterworld failed to live up to its blockbuster hype is that none of the characters lived in a world even remotely recognizable to our own. Admittedly, this is in part due to the overwhelming presence of water and the absence of dry, traversable land.1 But that can’t be all, since movies with equally bizarre settings have been rendered instantly recognizable through the insertion of a few coffees in a greyish paper takeout tray. Would audiences have flocked to the 1980 classic Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back had 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope not grounded its zany, out-of-this-world characters by having a young Luke Skywalker bring Obi-Wan, Solo, and Chewy their morning brews? I think not.
Admittedly, things have changed since 1977. Modern audiences spend most of their time looking down at their phones, not drinking coffees, and many directors are racing to catch up. Old tricks of the trade won’t work with today’s audiences; they’re just too skeptical. Show a character carrying three or four coffees these days, and you risk someone asking, “Hey, that’s great and all, but how can they text or go online if they’re carrying all those coffees?” It wouldn’t be unfair for the audience to then assume that the movie must take place either in the late ’90s or in some alternate reality where the internet was never invented, or at least not as popular.2
Of course, some of today’s savvier directors have already adapted to this new standard by incorporating cellphones into the plot. For instance, every character in Christopher Nolan’s new psychological thriller Tenet owns a cellphone. In one scene, Robert Pattinson even uses his phone to text another character, a decision that will likely be met with equal amounts of skepticism by film purists and relief by eager, young moviegoers. Knowing Nolan, however, I’d be surprised if we didn’t catch a few of the main characters drinking a latte or two, in a nod to films before.
Hitchcock knew that there were some things the audience didn’t want to know. That the essence of suspense was information withheld. When it comes to the future of cinema, we are much like Hitchcock’s audience: captivated, but uneasy. What will the classics of the future look like? How will audiences know who is a robot and who isn’t? And what happens when robots become characters in movies?3 As much as we’d like to know now, we’re gonna have to wait. But until then, we can always look back and say, boy, now that was a classic movie!
1 Obviously, this isn’t the fault of Costner, who’s charisma somehow transcends the quality of whatever film he’s in, likely because audiences immediately recognize Costner as a scraggly everyman and can safely assume he’s human and not an android.
2 A good director would get this exposition out at the beginning of the movie to avoid confusion, either through narration ala Goodfellas or rolling text, a la Star Wars, though perhaps now it would be more like a rolling text message.
3 The introduction of a coffee drinking android would be fascinating, though confusing for some.