Coffee cups in movies

In Robert Benchley’s collection of essays titled My Ten Years in a Quandary and How They Grew there is a piece called “Movie Boners,” in which he describes what we now call “film flubs.” He wrote:

For example (Fr. par example) in the picture called “One Night Alone—for a Change,” the Prince enters the door of the poolroom in the full regalia of an officer in the Hussars. As we pick him up coming in the door, in the next shot, he has on chaps and a sombrero. Somewhere on the threshold he must have changed. This is just sheer carelessness on the part of the director.

In “We Need a New Title for This,” we have seen Jim, when he came to the farm, fall in love with Elsie, although what Elsie does not know is that Jim is really a character from another picture. The old Squire, however, knows all about it and is holding it over Jim, threatening to expose him and have him sent back to the other picture, which is an independent, costing only a hundred thousand dollars.


In “Throw Me Away!” the street car conductor is seen haggling with the Morelli gang over the disposition of the body of Artie (“Muskrat”) Weeler. In the next shot we see Artie haggling with the street-car conductor over the disposition of the bodies of the Morelli gang. This is sloppy cutting.

Last night I tossed a thought along these lines into the Facebook scrum, and a response or two that came in made me think more on the subject. Right from the start, let me be clear that I’m not so much concerned – not so much – with the more mundane editing mistakes. By this I mean when, say, two people are in a restaurant eating a meal (though diners seem to be more common movie settings than what we in the trade call “fine dining establishments”) and one of them lifts a forkful of food to his mouth, and on the reverse angle his fork is several inches lower. That, to quote Mr. Benchley, is merely sloppy cutting.

On Facebook I mentioned empty coffee cups, which really grate on me. Here is a still from the scene in American Gangster where this particular peeve was born.


Mr. Washington is seen lifting his cup and pretending to drink from it, yet when he sets the cup down we hear only the distinctive, hollow tap of an empty cup. Cups can of course be empty at times, but if that were the case then Mr. Washington would have tilted his cup at least 90 degrees from vertical instead of the ten or so degrees he had just tilted it, at the same time sipping gingerly as one would do with a very hot beverage.

That scene in American Gangster, an otherwise excellent motion picture, sparked a hypervigilance on my part about coffee cup irregularities in cinema. Sometimes the camera angle is such that we can’t see whether there’s anything in the cup (that’s the smarter approach) but other times it’s as clear as can be that there’s nothing in the cup.

Strictly from a theatrical standpoint there are cases to be made, either that people do sometimes carry empty coffee cups around or that the level of liquid in them is just below the view of the camera, except for two things.

First, there’s the sound. When you set a paper cup onto a table and the cup is empty, there’s a light, hollow sound – a “bop,” I’ll call it. When you set a paper cup with any liquid in it at all onto a table – or any hard, flat surface, really – then an altogether different sound is produced. This I’ll call a “thum.” Bops and thums are animals of different phyla, and if filmmakers are going to go to the trouble of generating a look, then it’s only fair to expect them to include sounds appropriate to that look. (There are equally different empty and full sounds regardless of the container holding the coffee. Ceramic, china, Styrofoam – all of them. I will not take the time now, however, to assign names to those various sounds. I think you get my point.)

The second problem with empty coffee cups in movies (television, too, to be fair) is that actors’ lips never get wet. They’ll sip, sip, sip through a scene, even at times acting like they’ve just swallowed some liquid, but when they lower the cup from their mouth there’s not the slightest sign of moisture. It’s understandable not to expect the so-called “talent” actually to consume great quantities of anything while performing their scenes, but is it too much to ask that they at least carry a little liquid in their cups and allow it to touch their lips, however briefly?

Do movie people think we don’t notice this stuff?

And then there’s the issue of the all-too-prominent sounds of footsteps in movies. I suspect that the sound technicians’ union has some sway in Hollywood, otherwise why the constant clump, clump, clumping? If a character really is walking briskly in clogs on a wood floor in a closed room, then a clump here and there is appropriate. But when we hear that clumping or tapping, only to see a moment later that the character is in his stocking feet, then something’s out of whack. But don’t get me started on footsteps.