Movie Clichés – Visualizing An Obsession


The classic, cliched movie device of expressing a characters obsession by having them stare a photo, or in some cases a big wall of cutout photos

Movie Cliche Wall Chart

A character is being distant. They’re quiet. They’re acting a bit strange and it’s not going unnoticed. It’s obvious they have something heavy on their minds. When questioned about it by loved ones they dismiss their concerns, reassuring them there’s no problem whatsoever. Maybe they’re just feeling a little tired.

But something is definitely brewing here. They’re preoccupied with something. Perhaps disturbingly preoccupied. We watch them go off alone into their hidden sanctuary away from prying eyes and the answer is revealed. Yep, their mind is preoccupied with something – big time!

We behold the obsession that is eating away at them via a huge masterpiece of crazed artwork, diagrams, photos, notes, newspaper headlines and anything else they could tape to a wall. There doesn’t seem to be any pattern to what we’re seeing. It appears to be a huge jumbled jigsaw puzzle that looks hopeless to ever try to make sense of. We’ve arrived inside the characters head and get to visualize their obsession!

I actually got a one-two punch of this movie cliché while catching up on two television shows. Oddly enough two superhero shows – The Flash and Gotham (it takes me awhile to catch up on my TV watching).

In both programs we get two haunted characters. Barry Allen wants to unravel the mystery of his mothers murder and free his dad from prison. Young Bruce Wayne wants to find who killed his parents, plus why and how exactly crime has overridden his hometown.

Gotham Flash Obsessed CharactersThe circumstances and details are not important, the point is that in both instances both characters are obsessed and how else would you show the audience such an alarmingly overpowering devotion to something? Have them make a giant wall collage of their fixation!

This has been ongoing setpiece we’ve run across in many movies and television shows. There’s variations to it, but the point is pretty much always the same. A character has an overwhelmingly intense preoccupation with something. In most cases it’s engrossing them to the point where it has taken over their life.

Just the other day I saw this same kind of visual cue used in the trailer for The Imitation Game. Benedict Cumberbatch is assigned to break the seemingly impossible enigma encryption machine the Germans are using during WWII. This will take a lot of thinking and mathematical genius on his part. So what a perfect way to illustrate this staggering task by having Cumberbatch facing a looming wall  with countless papers with innumerable complicated equations staring right back at him.

I don’t think audiences will miss the idea of the message the shot is trying to convey.

The Imitation Game Benedict CumberbatchIt’s completely different when a character would have one photograph in their possession. That would usually be used as a heart tugging image. Seeing them lovingly stare at it would be all we needed to know.

The photo could be a goal they long to attain. Perhaps it’s a photo of a character they’re in love with. A place they desperately want to visit or return to. The image would be a motivating force behind them trying to get there or see that person again. It’s a simple, unmistakable tool that signals to us their committed to this one particular thing. Thus we start to root for them and want them to achieve their dream too!

Michael Douglas keeping that photo of his dreamboat to sail around the world on in Romancing the Stone. Tom Hanks gazing at the photo of Helen Hunt, having her be the image to keep him going in Castaway. Charlie Chaplin lovingly keeping Georgia Hale’s snatched photo on his pillow in The Gold Rush. That’s actually kind of creepy when you think about it. It seems like a restraining order waiting to happen. But it’s meant to be sweet.

Prison movies would often have a character staring at a photo of a loved one on the wall. War movies would have characters staring lovingly at a picture of their wife’s and kids who they’re anxious to see again.

Eric Roberts Star 80
Eric Roberts disturbingly obsessed in Star 80

In a more sinister way bank robbers and thieves would lay out their maps and photos all over a table. They systematically go over the details of their plan to get it exactly right before pulling the job. If all goes well this table will be the setting later on of sorting out their stolen goods so they can bask in their success.

But have more than two photos around and we’re in the company of a very unstable character.

I started to think maybe this big wall chart thing morphed out of old police shows. It used to be we’d see detectives or FBI agents in movies or tv shows investigating some case. It gets somewhat complicated and has a lot of players involved so they start pinning photos of the bad guys they ID onto a bulletin board. They sort of would make a photographic pyramid with the head bad guy sitting snugly at the top with all his underlings making up the bottom.

I suppose this is meant to help keep everybody up to date on the proceedings – along with the audience. It was clean, straightforward and we knew exactly the pecking order of importance of who the bad guys were.

Eventually really disturbed bad guys took this collage building to a whole new level. Our OCD, mentally unstable characters would spend much more time on theirs than just pinning acouple of black and white photos onto some corkboard. They’re a much more creative bunch!

Robin Williams One Hour PhotoThis manic passionate-type of display would be a pasttime used by more dangerous and bad characters. It was meant to express a person who was unhinged and menacing. They have become so immersed in whatever their obsession was it actually becomes frightening. They would never stop until they make that wall of obsession a reality. We knew this was only the beginning of something pretty disturbing coming from them.

Clint Eastwood didn’t feel admiration for John Malcovich’s decorating skills when he wanders into his apartment and sees an assassination mural on his wall in In the Line of Fire? When we spot Robin Williams’ gigantic wall size meticulous photo album in One Hour Photo, he no longer seems like the quiet, extra friendly photo guy at the store.

Now this home decor staple has made its way into the homes of haunted heroes. Today our heroes aren’t just plain, old fashioned good guys. They have to have some personal demons and issues to deal with.

Jamie Foxx Electro Spider-Man 2Poor Peter Parker. He wants so badly to figure out what went down with his parents deaths and untangle the secrets, he just can’t help himself to make his own big crime wall illustration in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. The Wall Crawler becomes a Wall Designer! Ironically, his nemesis Electro (Jamie Foxx) has his own twisted wall mural devoted to Spider-Man.

I wonder if all the characters in that movie have one. Does Aunt May have her own wall devoted to Uncle Ben?

This wall thing is much better than just having a bunch of stuff scattered all over a table too. For one thing the character would be looking down amongst their crap. It would visually indicate that they’re above all this stuff and are in control of it. They might have a bunch of pictures around, but hey it’s nothing they can’t handle.

But having an entire wall of crap – well that’s practically surrounding the character! It’s engulfing them! They’re looking up at it, physically being dwarfed by it. They’re essentially being buried by this obsession of theirs. Not very healthy guys.

I’m sure there are many other examples of this, but I can’t think of anymore at the moment. Feel free to add to the list of what you can think of. It’s not often that this visual shot is meant to convey any kind of levity or humor. This is downright serious business and the characters’ fixation has begun to completely dominate them.

Better Off Dead John Cusack comedyOne use of this that was used for laughs was in Better Off Dead. Not exactly a wall thing, so I’ll have to stretch here. John Cusack is so in love with his gal there’s nowhere he goes where he doesn’t have a photographic shrine devoted to her. He doesn’t have a wall shrine to her, but it’s close.

So keep on the look out for these. I’m sure filmmakers aren’t done using this visual device just yet and we’ll be seeing this used again. I’m betting we’re more likely to see the Giant Wall of Obsession in a characters apartment than just a lone Farrah Fawcett poster adorning the wall.

1 thought on “Movie Clichés – Visualizing An Obsession

  1. All these examples give an insight into the characters' obsessions, but none actually impact on the story in any meaningful way.

    I can think of two movies where the protagonist arranges photos in an obsessive way which actually is vital for the story: "Blow Up" and "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo". In both movies the protagonist arranges photos in order to discover what has gone on. If he hadn't of done it, then he wouldn't have solved it. It's not like he just stumbles on one random photo that reveals all either. By arranging the photos to tell a narrative, the wall of obsession becomes integral to the storytelling and not just visual shorthand to inform us of a character attribute.

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