Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Overused words in film writing: "gorgeous"

There must be hundreds of synonyms for the word "beautiful" in the English language.

However, as film critics, we seem to be aware of only one: "gorgeous."

I don't know how there came to be this unspoken agreement, but far and away the most popular word to describe the lush cinematography, costumes or set design of a film is "gorgeous." And I'm not just attacking this proclivity in others, though I have become hyper-aware of it. I myself have fallen back on this word more times than I can count.

A film like The Handmaiden, which I watched on Saturday night, certainly deserves such an assignation. It is gorgeous. It's also intricate, fascinating and narratively dynamic. Oh, and incredibly sexy. So combine all that with the gorgeousness and we're talking about a helluva good movie.

But we must find another way of expressing its surface beauty, mustn't we?

When I googled "The Handmaiden" and "gorgeous" I got 383,000 results. Now surely, many of those would be duplicates or unrelated, in some cases only happening to find those things within 100 words of each other touching on two separate topics. I started going through seeing if I could count the separate relevant instances, but around 20 decided it was a fruitless exercise.

And I guess I can't empirically prove my theory of this word's overuse, as when I google "The Handmaiden" and "beautiful" I get 525,000 results. Maybe suggesting that "gorgeous" is the word we all opted for when we decided "beautiful" was too commonplace.

I'm wondering if we so readily use the word "gorgeous" to describe a thing as a reaction to our repressed desire to use it to describe a person. You can't call a person "gorgeous" anymore -- not in print, anyway, unless you want to be accused of objectifying him or her. If I must discuss the beauty of a woman, I'll objectify her in more objective ways, as it were. I'll make reference to her "striking presence" or even her "ethereal beauty," as possessing beauty seems to be an objective observation of someone whereas calling her "beautiful" makes it subjective. Or, you can call a member of your own gender "gorgeous," because then you can't be assumed to be objectifying him or her because you presumably do not want to sleep with her, if we are assuming a heteronormative default for the writer.

In any case, we feel liberated to use the word "gorgeous" to describe a cinematic sunset, or an ornate castle, or a blooming rose garden, or a rich robe worn by the main character. Preferably, all four together.

I guess I don't know what our other best options are, if we want to avoid "gorgeous" as well as, more obviously, "beautiful." I find myself sometimes opting for words like "lush" or "exquisite," but after a while I almost feel like I'm getting into thesaurus territory. Constantly seeking new words just for the sake of variety is not great. I give you the example of the writer who believes it's bad writing to repeatedly use the word "said," so he/she peppers the text with "exclaimed," "noted," "yelled," "smiled" and other increasingly inexact synonyms for "said." Just say "said." That word alone does not determine how good your writing is, though its synonyms can determine how bad.

But am I maybe not as bad an abuser of this term as I think I am?

I did a quick search of my documents on my computer to call up the uses of the word "gorgeous" in my own reviews, and found only 20. I've written over 1,300 reviews that are stored somewhere on this computer since I first started saving them nearly 20 years ago. (Not initially saving them on this computer, mind you, but steadily moving them down through the computers over the years.) And one of those is a synopsis I wrote ages ago for Revenge of the Nerds, in which I refer to the sorority sisters as "gorgeous." And then one of them, weirdly, is my review of Something's Gotta Give, in which I cannot actually find the word "gorgeous" at all. How it came up in this search I have no idea, which tends to severely undercut the value of these results.

The results do tell me that I've used this word in four reviews written within the past two years, which tells me either a) this is an increasing phenomenon in recent years, which is why I never noticed it before now or b) that a word appearing four times within two years is actually a pretty low occurrence.

But I invite you to listen for this word in the podcasts you listen to, watch for it in the reviews you read, and note it in yourself as you describe movies that look particularly, well, gorgeous.

Maybe we don't have to actively avoid it, if it does do the best job of describing something of any word available to us. Maybe it's like "said" in that way.

But if the quest as a writer is to ever be improving your craft, I know I personally will be seeking synonyms going forward.

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