Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

In praise of the cinematic baguette

with 68 comments

Tom Wilkinson in Michael Clayton

You’ve seen this baguette before. In any movie or television show in which a character is shown carrying groceries, a big loaf of french bread is invariably seen peeking out over the top of the bag. On the few occasions when it isn’t there, a similar role is assumed by a leafy bunch of carrots, or, in exceptional cases, celery. As the comically detailed TV Tropes entry on the subject points out, you’ll see the baguette among groceries carried by the unlikeliest of characters, like Liam Neeson in Taken, who carries not one, but two. (He’s in Paris, after all.) And given how often this loaf of bread turns up, it was only a matter of time before a clever screenwriter, in this case Tony Gilory in Michael Clayton, gave us a grocery bag full of nothing but baguettes. In this instance, it’s partially intended as a reflection of the unstable mental state of the character played by Tom Wilkinson, but it’s also a nod to a cinematic convention that, over time, has come to seem like a particularly ludicrous visual cliché.

And yet that baguette is there for a reason. For one thing, it’s a convenient prop that is unlikely to wilt under hot studio lights or after hours spent on location. It’s also a handy bit of narrative shorthand. If we see a character carrying a paper bag without any clues about what it contains, we immediately start to wonder what might be inside. The baguette poking out over the top is a visual flag that, paradoxically, actually makes the bag less visible: as soon as we understand that it’s just a bag of groceries, we stop worrying about it. (Thomas Harris, a shrewd exploiter and creator of narrative tropes, even utilizes it as a plot point in Red Dragon, when Francis Dolarhyde, the killer, uses a big bunch of leafy celery as camouflage in his escape from a crime scene: “He stuffed his books and clothing into the grocery bag, then the weapons. The celery stuck out the top.” And when he passes the police a moment later, carrying what is obviously just a bag of groceries, they don’t give him a second glance.)

William Goldman

Most clichés, after all, start out as a piece of authorial shorthand that allows the reader or viewer to focus on what really matters. William Goldman, who is close friends with Gilroy, makes a similar point in his wonderful book Which Lie Did I Tell? He ticks off some of the most notorious examples of how the movies depart from real life—the hero can always find a parking space when he needs one, the local news invariably happens to be talking about a necessary plot point when a character turns on the television, taxi fares can always be paid with the first bill you happen to grab without looking down at your wallet—and goes on to make an excellent observation: all of these clichés are about saving time. In a good movie, everything that isn’t relevant to the story goes out the window, which is why we see so many ridiculously convenient moments that allow us to move on without pausing to the next important scene. That baguette serves a useful purpose. If they gave awards to props, it would at least merit a nod for Best Supporting Actor.

The trouble, of course, is that as soon as a narrative device proves its usefulness, it’s immediately copied by every writer in sight. And it’s easy to understand why: such tricks are worth their weight in gold. In my own novels, I’m constantly trying to find the right balance between advancing the plot and avoiding story beats that seem too obvious or convenient. (For example, in both The Icon Thief and City of Exiles, there’s a scene in which a suspect cracks a bit too easily under interrogation, just because I wanted to get on to the next big thing. I try to disguise such moments as best as I can, but I can’t claim the effect is entirely successful.) And whenever a writer discovers a novel piece of shorthand, or a clever spin on an old cliché, it’s like stumbling across a new industrial process. You’d like to patent it, but once it’s in print, it’s there for anyone to use. So the search for new tropes goes on, as it should. Because a baguette, as we all know, doesn’t stay fresh for long.

Written by nevalalee

December 13, 2012 at 10:08 am

68 Responses

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  1. Brilliant post! I think for most people (myself included) not only do we overlook the bag of groceries once the baguette has revealed that that’s all it is, but we also overlook our own overlooking. It tells us all we need to know without ever really entering our consciousness. Also, I can’t believe I watched Michael Clayton and missed that entire bag of baguettes! When I saw your image I assumed it was Photoshopped. And now I want to watch it again especially…

    debbiedoesdoodles

    December 14, 2012 at 10:20 am

  2. Thanks! The best narrative devices are always the ones that guide—or deflect—our attention without our being aware of it…

    nevalalee

    December 14, 2012 at 11:08 pm

  3. This is an extremely well-written post. Great reading that also provides something to think about- for film lovers and writers. Really enjoyed it.

    runoffwriter

    December 15, 2012 at 2:24 pm

  4. Thanks! It was a lot of fun to write.

    nevalalee

    December 15, 2012 at 2:41 pm

  5. If and when the baguette gets stale it’s our task to transform it into another form….perhaps, bread crumbs, which although less glamourous, serve a very good purpose.

    Eatsporkjew.com

    December 15, 2012 at 4:47 pm

  6. nevalalee

    December 15, 2012 at 4:54 pm

  7. Reblogged this on rifalarman.

    rifalarman

    December 15, 2012 at 5:17 pm

  8. Are you sure that a baguette doesn’t stay fresh for long? Darn that is news to me. .

    segmation

    December 15, 2012 at 6:54 pm

  9. While continuity errors such as hair-behind-ear-hair-in-front-of-ear and how much sandwich/beverage is and is not left always register when I watch visual texts, I have never paid attention to the omnipresent baguette.

    I am too preoccupied with whether or not characters are wearing their seat belt, have locked the door, have wiped and washed hands post-toilet use, and if off-screen space is sufficient enough an explanation for how characters who’ve just met manage to know where to find the others’ domicile for a first date or business meeting.

    sittingpugs

    December 15, 2012 at 6:55 pm

  10. @segmation: It’s true! I once broke a food processor trying to make bread crumbs from a baguette that had been sitting around on the counter too long.

    nevalalee

    December 15, 2012 at 6:56 pm

  11. @sittingpugs: My wife hates it when two characters meet for lunch at the beginning of a scene, then get up and leave without eating a bite of their food. (This happens a lot on The West Wing. I think it’s a continuity issue.)

    nevalalee

    December 15, 2012 at 6:59 pm

  12. Great post. Something I’d never given a thought to before :-)

    Grubby Goddess

    December 15, 2012 at 7:14 pm

  13. Reblogged this on muhibbuli and commented:
    having wise

    hibmu

    December 15, 2012 at 8:32 pm

  14. Movies leave out an awful lot by changing scenes,occasionally they throw us a bone or a baguette to gnaw on. I suppose that it depends on the genre, but I would have thought that in a novel (most definitely in a short story) the irrelevant gets tossed.

    marymtf

    December 15, 2012 at 8:39 pm

  15. I have to admit that at times, when I see that bag of groceries with the baguette sticking out, I have actually wondered why every bag of groceries in every movie and t.v. show seems to have a baguette. Now I know and it is so logical.

    urbannight

    December 15, 2012 at 10:26 pm

  16. Once you start looking for continuity (an ice cream cone that is half eaten suddenly or back to uneaten mid-scene) it will ruin everything…But I do hate it when people don’t eat the meal they are supposed to be eating in the scene. Little Miss Sunshine has a difficult scene for me in the beginning when they clear the table before anyone eats anything!

    bakingnotwriting

    December 15, 2012 at 10:43 pm

  17. @marymtf: I think novels have slightly more flexibility in that regard, but it only goes so far—a reader is likely to get impatient if the author spends too much time on details that aren’t strictly necessary.

    @urbannight: Now you know! (Apparently, in Japan, the equivalent of the baguette is a conveniently placed leek or two.)

    @bakingnotwriting: Once you’ve noticed a continuity error, you can never unsee it. There’s one speech that Sean Connery makes in The Untouchables that I can barely watch these days, because I keep getting distracted by how his shirt buttons and unbuttons itself…

    nevalalee

    December 15, 2012 at 11:14 pm

  18. This was a really fun post to read. I always noticed the baguette as being unrealistic because its not even standard in a regular household. But completely understand the idea of time unless making it realistic eg cant find parking spot – is part if the plot. My pet peeve is test results eg DNA test CSI stuff for example take an hour or so. In the interest of saving time they made the story completely unrealistic to someone like me (toxicologist/scientist). At least I am a minority.

    LensTHERAPY

    December 15, 2012 at 11:58 pm

  19. uh! Reminds me of my trip to France, when I actually realised that the French DO walk with a baguette under their arm. I had thought it was all about stereotyping!

    thebrightoldoak

    December 16, 2012 at 12:48 am

  20. Haven’t even considered your thoughts before. Thanks for sharing, fun post. And those baguettes..who eats em anyhow? Seems to me they are always brick like.

    themorningmug

    December 16, 2012 at 1:01 am

  21. Love french bread much! nice post…

    Insulation Removal Perth

    Lawyers Perth

    December 16, 2012 at 1:45 am

  22. Reblogged this on robotechku.

    robotechku

    December 16, 2012 at 2:33 am

  23. Reblogged this on Oyia Brown.

    OyiaBrown

    December 16, 2012 at 4:03 am

  24. Now you’re giving away your secrets!

    ophelia

    December 16, 2012 at 4:28 am

  25. I watched Michael Clayton here in Sicily and I noticed the baguettes…even Woody Allen often has baguettes in his movies.

    magentmama

    December 16, 2012 at 6:37 am

  26. brilliant! i never even really thought about the move baguette or celery until this point. PS i love michael clayton

    restless wanderer

    December 16, 2012 at 6:46 am

  27. I have nominated you for the “Blog Of The Year 2012” award
    http://fluxnews.wordpress.com/2012/12/16/17731/

    fluxnews

    December 16, 2012 at 6:47 am

  28. It is a very well-observed and amusing post, and let’s not forget the potential of leeks. But the bag itself is not well-observed. At least in a European context it would have to be a plastic carrier bag with handles, not a kraft paper one that you tuck photogenically under your arm. Or, in these more ecologically conscious times, a good old-fashioned reusable fabric – jute maybe – shopping bag.

    cooperatoby

    December 16, 2012 at 8:49 am

  29. @cooperatory: Good point! Which only makes the identifying baguette all the more essential, at least to American audiences, who are bound to wonder why in the world someone would be carrying a jute bag…

    @LensTHERAPY: Very true—although if CSI were more accurate about the timing of forensic science, it wouldn’t be nearly as popular. (This is something I occasionally struggle with in my own writing.)

    And thanks, everyone, for reading!

    nevalalee

    December 16, 2012 at 8:59 am

  30. Reblogged this on Breakfast and commented:
    Reblogged the post below – I loved that bit in Michael Clayton with the baguettes.

    kellycosby

    December 16, 2012 at 9:11 am

  31. I wrote a post a while back, whining about how all of the zombies on the season 2 premiere of “The Walking Dead” had such nicely tied shoes. A good many readers didn’t share my agitation, and seemed to miss the point of how it took away from my enjoyment of the show. I realize that my gripe was more along the lines of continuity than about convenient props. Regardless, I envy those who can watch TV shows and movies without being irked by such minutae.

    Great post topic, very well written.

    1pointperspective

    December 16, 2012 at 9:37 am

  32. These are awesome things that are hard to find and I agree it’s one of those things that are going to be over used until people won’t want to see them at all.

  33. This is a great post. Writing like this is hard to find! Congrats on FP! http://mccrackenlove.wordpress.com/

    McCracken Love

    December 16, 2012 at 11:48 am

  34. @1pointperspective: Thanks! I have the same reaction when I notice how characters in period films inevitably have excellent grooming and good dental hygiene. (Although when movies go in the opposite direction, as in the later Pirates of the Caribbean installments, that can be distracting as well…)

    nevalalee

    December 16, 2012 at 11:49 am

  35. Very interesting. Something I have always seen, but have never taken the time to look.

    Katrice Bee

    December 16, 2012 at 12:16 pm

  36. I really like your blog and would love you to feature on mine, http://www.5thingstodotoday.com. All you have to do is write five suggestions along with a link back to your site. Please check out the blog and see the sort of things people have written about.

    5thingstodotoday

    December 16, 2012 at 12:26 pm

  37. Wasn’t there a scene in “The Return of the Pink Panther” where Clouseau carries a bag of groceries, and a woman takes out the baguette and hits him with it?

    48colorrainbow

    December 16, 2012 at 4:43 pm

  38. @48colorrainbow: I haven’t seen it, but I really hope you’re right.

    nevalalee

    December 16, 2012 at 4:46 pm

  39. Thank you for sharing this. It is helpful to know certain things and I am learning as I go. I enjoyed reading it.

    Julia Garrison's blog

    December 16, 2012 at 5:39 pm

  40. And the baguettes are mainly in paper bags! I’m not sure how it is in other countries but over here in Aus, we’re only given plastic bags.

    philofelinist

    December 16, 2012 at 6:17 pm

  41. In the U.S., I tend to either get plastic bags or paper bags with handles. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the sort of classic paper grocery bag we tend to find in movies.

    nevalalee

    December 16, 2012 at 6:28 pm

  42. Great Post! This is something I never gave a thought about, until reading your post.

    RJ

    December 16, 2012 at 6:34 pm

  43. Reblogged this on little birdy kate.

    katemmack

    December 16, 2012 at 9:37 pm

  44. Reblogged this on Stenton J.

    stentonj

    December 16, 2012 at 10:35 pm

  45. Great post. Simple thing that I’ve seen repeatedly and never given a second thought. Which I suppose is the whole point!

    littlebirdlittlebee

    December 17, 2012 at 1:50 am

  46. I love the concept of using a grocery bag full of only baguettes to signify that the character may be a bit unbalanced. I strive to describe my characters in terms of the one thing that distinguishes them from any other character who, for example, has blue eyes and blonde hair. It is the third button down on a shirt left undone and the bag of all baguettes that really captures who a character is. I don’t know why it takes so many examples to help me solidify certain practices in my own writing but, it does. So thank you for adding baguettes to my list of reminders. :)

    Mo Carole

    December 17, 2012 at 2:42 am

  47. I’m obviously very cinematically unobservant – never noticed the baguette/celery ruse, but the sitting down at table and then leaving before having eaten has annoyed me for years. I have a friend studying screenplay writing and am going to forward your blog to him. I live in Beijing and I am not too sure what the Chinese equivalent of the baguette would be on film here…must ask some Chinese film buffs. Thanks for the fascinating post and congrats on being Freshly Pressed

    herschelian

    December 17, 2012 at 3:48 am

  48. Reblogged this on Ed's Official Blog.

    sabot105

    December 17, 2012 at 3:54 am

  49. This is wonderful! These little interesting tricks that enhance a story are so interesting and of course useful too! Thank you for this post, well done.

    bigblue45

    December 17, 2012 at 4:53 am

  50. Reblogged this on The Blue Notebook.

    bigblue45

    December 17, 2012 at 4:54 am

  51. The baguette has never bothered me as much as the brown paper grocery bag encasing it.

    Notes To Ponder

    December 17, 2012 at 5:18 am

  52. I love this post. This has lead me to look into my practice as a writer to see if there are any parallel “baguettes” in word form.

    originaltitle

    December 17, 2012 at 7:56 am

  53. Reblogged this on Funny Little Pixels.

    pOty.pOtz

    December 17, 2012 at 7:57 am

  54. che meraviglia….
    a beautiful post

    irisilvi

    December 17, 2012 at 8:21 am

  55. @Mo Carole: If there’s one thing I’ve learned from writing this blog, it’s that the little things are often the most revealing.

    @hershelian: I’d be very curious to know what the equivalent is in China!

    And thanks so much to everyone for commenting. I’d love to hear from you again.

    nevalalee

    December 17, 2012 at 8:37 am

  56. A mineral water brand decided to parade its french origin, and they’ve got a bicycle, a beret on the rider, and a bagette in the bike’s carrier rack. After the ad went on air… consumers, who thought the brand was French, began having doubts ) That ‘s a story coming from the MD of the company that was marketing the brand

    artmoscow

    December 17, 2012 at 12:06 pm

  57. If they were really determined to be cool, they’d make an ad with a bunch of characters who visit Paris repeatedly but are too annoyingly hip to see the Mona Lisa or visit the Eiffel Tower, as in my wife’s least favorite commercial of all time.

    nevalalee

    December 17, 2012 at 12:19 pm

  58. Reposted on Perfect Picnic NYC’s FB page — we live for baguette (and the picnics around it).

    cagnyc

    December 17, 2012 at 1:43 pm

  59. Nice article

    divinelawrence

    December 17, 2012 at 7:51 pm

  60. Haha, great post, now I’ll have my eye out :) It is interesting about the cinematic and literary tropes that exist in order to forward the narrative. The really amazing thing is how effective they are, many of the cliches you mentioned would never have occurred to me if you hadn’t highlighted them.

    I would love to see the hero spend 30 minutes trying to find a parking space for a change though lol!

    Rohan.

    rohan7things

    December 18, 2012 at 5:25 am

  61. Reblogged this on 8degreesoflatitude and commented:
    This is a fun piece. And nothing beats a baguette,,,

    8 Degrees of Latitude

    December 18, 2012 at 5:40 am

  62. Great post! I never thought about it before, but that’s perhaps because I come from a place where people buy baguettes every day. I don’t notice them anymore.

    mindfulacting

    December 18, 2012 at 8:33 am

  63. Great piece, who would have thought the topic of baguettes would be so intriguing. I too found times when writing my novel, Entice Me, there were some scene’s or even actions that needed to be cut or a different symbol to highlight the same meaning was required. For instance, even just meeting up with someone and say ‘hello, how are you?’ No one wants to read this every time a person meets another person. Great points to consider for my next novel, Destiny Lane although no brown paper bag appears I wonder what other short cut symbols I will use.

    melanietoye

    December 18, 2012 at 7:54 pm

  64. Great blog post! I never would have thought a baguette would be such a topic of conversation haha. Definitely and interesting read and thanks for sharing it! :)

    Everyone feel free to check out my blog! All follows, likes, comments, and views are all appreciated! :)

    rebeccabartley

    December 20, 2012 at 4:50 pm

  65. Great post- hilarious! Something that always bothers me when watching films or television shows- characters rarely ever are seen to close their front doors when leaving their houses!

    Bev Herscovitch

    December 24, 2012 at 3:22 pm

  66. @Bev: Very true! This may shed some light on the subject:

    http://nevalalee.wordpress.com/2012/10/06/kurosawa-in-the-editing-room/

    nevalalee

    December 24, 2012 at 3:25 pm

  67. brilliant

    kronquillo

    January 21, 2013 at 12:52 am


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