In praise of the cinematic baguette
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.)
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.