5 Strange Movie Terms—Explained!
Do you call yourself a movie buff? Here are five storytelling terms to store away for movie trivia night.
1. Chekhov’s Gun
Once upon a time, Anton Chekhov—the famous Russian writer from the 19th century—wrote the following advice:
If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.
Years later, the term “Chekhov’s gun” has taken on a life of its own. It now has come to mean “an insignificant object that later turns out to be important.”
A favorite Chekhov’s Gun is from the beginning of the movie Men In Black when Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) and Jay (Will Smith) are driving in his 1987 Ford LTD Crown Victoria. Jay asks about the little red button in the car, and Kay responds: “Oh, the red button there, kid. Don’t ever, ever touch the red button.”
Later in the movie, Jay and Kay are speeding to Queens to kick some alien butt. Kay turns to take the Midtown Tunnel. Jay questions why Kay would want to take the tunnel, since it’s going to be crowded with traffic. Kay then says, “You remember the little red button. Push the little red button. And you may want to put on a seatbelt.” The button then catapults the car to the ceiling of the tunnel and bypasses all of the traffic below.
Alfred Hitchcock first popularized the term “MacGuffin” with the following explanation:
In crook stories it is almost always the necklace, and in spy stories it is most always the papers.
In other words, a MacGuffin is any object that motivates the plot of a story. Without the MacGuffin, the plot would grind to a screeching halt. It is usually some sort of mysterious package or artifact that everyone in the story chases around or tries to steal.
Remember National Treasure with Nicolas Cage? The Declaration of Independence is the MacGuffin of that film. It could be interchanged with any government document or fossil or whatever; it wouldn’t change the plot of Nicolas Cage trying to steal it.
Another favorite MacGuffin? Pulp Fiction's mysterious suitcase. In one scene, Vincent Vega (John Travolta) opens the suitcase and is bathed in a bright orange light; the contents of the suitcase are never revealed—in true MacGuffin style. Many Pulp Fiction fans have dissected the movie to determine the suitcase’s contents.
3. The Icebox Scene
The “icebox scene” is another term coined by Alfred Hitchcock. When questioned about some of the impossible inconsistencies in his films (specifically Vertigo), he responded by saying the scene was one that “hits you after you’ve gone home and start pulling cold chicken out of the icebox.”
An “icebox scene” is a scene that is inconsistent with the plot and that the audience somehow accepts while watching the movie, only to realize later that the scene was illogical. Let's look at Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: After the kids get zapped and shrunk down to a size smaller than ants, why can't they see or hear the giant Szalinskis searching for them in the backyard? Or the rules in Gremlins: You can't feed a Mogwai after midnight ... but technically, the entirety of each day takes place after midnight of the day before, so when can you feed a Mogwai? If you need something to keep you occupied on a rainy day, here is an entire forum dedicated to discussing the numerous icebox scenes in many, many movies.
4. Deus ex Machina
A “Deus Ex Machina” refers to a situation in which a character gets into a seemingly unsolvable predicament, only to be rescued in a sudden, unexpected, and sometimes illogical way. In many cases, it creates more confusing questions about the plot.
For instance, in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Gandalf the Grey falls to his death when the gang runs into the Balrog. Later, without any real explanation, he reappears as Gandalf the White.
“Tsundere” is a Japanese term that refers to a character whose personality alternates between two extremes: “tsuntsun” (which means “irritable”) and “deredere” (or “lovestruck”).
One of the most famous American examples of a tsundere is Helga Patacki from Hey Arnold!. In the animated series (which was later turned into a movie), Helga is often conflicted about her feelings toward Arnold: “Oh, Arnold, how I love you. And yet I hate you! And yet I love you. And yet I hate you! And yet I love you.”