October 12th, 2011 / 11:56 pm
Craft Notes & Film

Cliché as Necessity (Birthing Innovation)

Not entirely an unexpected situation.

Every time I’ve said something nice about Drive, someone has responded by calling the film “clichéd.” Well, I intend to keep saying nice things about Drive (as well as other artistic genre films), so let’s take some time here and now to address that criticism, demonstrating how even when certain material or situations might be clichéd, the artist can still find occasions for artistic expression. Indeed, I want to go so far as to suggest that clichéd situations often provide artists with some of the best opportunities for innovation.

First, let’s define terms. To call an artwork clichéd is to call it overly familiar, commonplace, trite; the word comes from the French term for a printing plate bearing a stock phrase or expression. So the accusation of “cliché” is that an artist hasn’t done anything new, but has rather copied something commonly used—a phrase or expression, or also a device or set of devices.

And artists should always innovate, right? The problem here though is that while art certainly depends on innovation, it also depends on adherence to inherited forms. If the artist doesn’t do anything familiar, then he or she isn’t working in a tradition, or in a form, and the work may not be relatable to other artworks, let alone comprehensible. To write a poem, for example, means to adopt at least some of the conventions of writing poetry; it doesn’t mean to go outside and kick a tree a few times.

Art, then, engenders a constant struggle between innovation and convention (expectation). Any new poem, to be worthwhile, has to be recognizable as a poem—it must exhibit “poemness”—but so too must it bring something new to our understanding of poetry (even if it’s just the feeling that we haven’t read that particular poem before).

I hope you can see by now how cliché fits into this: stock situations, which one always inherits with genre, can be considered as formal constraints. To try making an artistic genre film might in fact mean to be faced with as many formal challenges as Georges Perec was when he sat down to write La disparition.

For instance, a common scene in television and cinema is one in which our heroes encounter a bomb that’s about to go off; we know it’s about to explode because it comes bearing a large red digital timer that’s in the process of ticking down. The heroes must then disarm or dispose of the bomb in the time allotted. Here’s one example of just such a scene, from the 1997 movie The Peacemaker:


(See in particular minutes 6–11.)

This is as familiar as it gets, and there are numerous ways in which this clichéd situation can be handled in clichéd fashion. (The Peacemaker provides a perfect example; there’s nothing interesting in it.) But let’s be artists. Is there some way in which we might make this stale scenario fresh?

Consider the formal possibilities. How can we reconcile the story time (the five minutes on the bomb’s timer) with the movie’s presentation time (aka, its running time)? There are, as it turns out, at least three possibilities:

  1. The five minutes of story time can pass in less than five minutes of running time.
  2. The story time and presentation time can be exactly equal.
  3. The five minutes of story time can take longer than five minutes of running time.

Let’s see how The Peacemaker handles it. Again, the relevant portion is between minutes 6 and 11.

TIME          TIMER
07:47         2:54 (our baseline)
08:01         2:48 (1-to-1 so far)
08:19         2:30 (still 1-to-1)
09:09         1:52 (the timer’s sped up some, losing 38 secs in 49 secs running time)
09:26         1:30 (roughly 1-to-1 again)
10:22         0:39 (roughly 1-to-1, though the timer’s running a little slow)
10:31         0:29 (1-to-1)
10:45         0:14 (1-to-1)
11:00         0:01 (1-to-1)

So, in the end, Kidman and Clooney get a little extra help from their director: the 2:54 of story time elapses in 3:13 running time. But, overall, it’s roughly 1-to-1. Which, if we think about it, is pretty much always the case in movies like these.

But that being the commonplace case, the cliché, we immediately realize that this convention might make fertile ground for formal innovation. To choose one obvious example, we might try pushing the discrepancy between running time and the timer. We could make the timer much slower, or much faster. (At some point, this would probably get pretty weird and/or funny.)

But that’s just one pair of options. What if the timer were incorrect? Or ran out without causing an explosion? Or what if the bomb went off before the timer finished?

What if our heroes disarm the bomb, but the bomb still goes off? What if the timer stops and restarts a lot? What if it displays random numbers every time we see it? What if the timer weren’t a red digital display, but something more ingenious? What if it played scary music instead of chirping?

Here’s how I might have handled the Peacemaker scene. It’s a mainstream commercial movie (it was the first Dreamworks film!), so I’ll accept the challenge to keep it both plausible and suspenseful. I’d make the timer and running exactly time 1-to-1, and shoot the scene in a single shot; I’d position the camera right over Kidman, focusing on the timer and the bomb and her arms and hands as she struggled to disarm it. (Clooney could keep talking from off screen, but I’d cut most of Kidman’s expository dialogue. Maybe she could yell at him to shut up as he yammered away?)

And so forth and so on. We could no doubt find endless solutions, some better, some worse, if we really thought about it. (Feel free to post suggestions in the comments!) And of course we could instead take a few steps back and eliminate this scene entirely—one is always free to write free verse, and not a sonnet.

But the fun (especially in genre art) lies in engaging with the cliché, and reinventing it to the point where it becomes art.

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  1. Corey Zeller

      I agree with you on this last line.

      I watched it last night and took it in as a kind of neo-noir.  Actually, it reminded me of the action movies I used to watch with my dad in the 80s and those gritty, neo-noir movies of the early 90s.

      It was fucking candy and I loved it.  Took me back.

      There was something about the end part with Albert B that I didn’t like though.  It reminded me of the worst parts of 90s noir. 

      The rest, however, was pretty solid.

  2. Corey Zeller

      not sure why anyone would bother calling the movie “clichéd” here though.  That is part of what makes noir great…it’s fucking pulp!  It is aware of itself and where it came from.

  3. Corey Zeller

      This movie actually fits in well with: Romeo is Bleeding, The Professional, Reservoir Dogs, Thief, The Last Seduction, The Usual Suspects, Red Rock West, etc.

  4. MJ

      Man, Thief really has had some legs, right? Or am I thinking of Assassination Tango? I think I’m thinking of Tango…

  5. Corey Zeller

      Thief is the 81 Cann one, directed by Mann (who is present in nearly every shot of Drive).  AT is the Duvall one.

  6. A D Jameson

      re that end part, do you mean the fight? I liked the way Refn treated that, though you’re right it’s very 90s—very Soderbergh. I have to say I love it, though, when the one shadow straightens up, and you can tell who it belongs to due because the racing gloves are dangling from its back pocket…

  7. A D Jameson

      You’d be surprised. Not to mention dismayed.

      (I agree with you, of course.)

  8. jesusangelgarcia

      The lines:

      “If the artist doesn’t do anything familiar, then he or she isn’t working
      in a tradition, or in a form, and the work may not be relatable to
      other artworks, let alone comprehensible.”

      “To write a poem, for example, means to adopt at least some of the
      conventions of writing poetry; it doesn’t mean to go outside and kick a
      tree a few times.”

      “But let’s be artists.”

      “What if our heroes disarm the bomb, but the bomb still goes off?”

  9. Corey Zeller

      Haven’t read the posts but I am positive they aren’t worth reading…if people are really going around calling noirs “clichéd” then they obviously have no reference and are misguided as hell. 

  10. A D Jameson

      Thief deserves those legs, though, cuz it’s great!

      Part of what I love about Drive is that Refn has come along and said, “I, too, love Monte Hellman, Walter Hill, Michael Mann, and Steven Soderbergh (among others), and as such I’ve decided that I, too, want to make an existential driving movie. And I know a way to make one that’s as good as theirs—just watch…”

      (By “as good as” I mean a part of that tradition and yet also innovative, and that deserves being mentioned in the same breath as its predecessors. Obviously one can debate the individual merits of each film in that subgenre, as well as have particular favorites… I myself wouldn’t want to try ranking Two Lane Blacktop, The Driver, Thief, The Limey, and Drive—though I’d probably start by putting Two-Lane at the top…)

      (The Limey is less obviously a part of the existential driving movie subgenre than the others, but I think it gets points for its inclusion of Peter Fonda, who is obviously meant to be read as The Captain America Who Lived.)

  11. A D Jameson

      Perhaps the debate, then, is over whether pulp can be (great) art? I myself think it obvious that it can, though I guess there are those who would disagree.

  12. Corey Zeller

      I did enjoy the use of the shadows…and I enjoyed the final scene of him driving…but there was something about the few seconds of them standing in the parking lot together that bothered me.  It is certainly not a big deal, considering I loved 99 percent of the movie.  But just that one scene of them standing together bothered me. 

      It seemed sort of cheap.  I loved the polish and shine of the film and something about that few seconds seemed…flimsy?

      I really loved the helicopter scene.  It really spoke of the world we live in today as opposed to the seedy underground of yesterday that we see in the rest of the movie.

  13. Corey Zeller

      The Limey is great…as is Public Enemy Number One

  14. Anonymous

      Excellent post. Noir comes with a collection of tropes — or cliches, if you will — and the fun is in how one chooses and combines them and subverts them. “Drive” is right in the middle of that tradition. 

      I also enjoy hearing some praise for “The Limey,” one of the best modern noirs. I recommend listening to the DVD commentary by Soderbergh and Lem Dobbs, the screen writer. One of the best commentaries, from the early days of the DVD commentary, before people became too cautious — now it’s all “he was incredible to work with,” “she’s amazing,” etc. Soderbergh and Dobbs disagree with each other a lot, and Dobbs gets across his chagrin that critics credit the director with things that were actually contributed by the writer. Good stuff.

  15. Corey Zeller

      I think “The Third Man” is a good example of pulp as art…one of the best movies I have ever seen.  In particular, I loved the music!  And that last scene…jesus, beautiful!

  16. Corey Zeller

      speaking of the 60s, what about Vanishing Point…great flick…and really akin to Drive in some ways

  17. Corey Zeller

      sure, it was 71 when it was made…but it was about the 60s ending…and both main character’s seemed only able to express themselves fully through driving

  18. A D Jameson

      I’m seeing it again this Saturday, and will keep an eye out for the moment you mentioned.

      The opening set piece is just so fantastic. It’s one of the best adaptations of a video game ever made.

  19. A D Jameson

      It was comments to my posts. (I like to think the posts are worth reading!) And, yeah, I don’t really get it, either.

  20. A D Jameson

      Oh, god, I love The Limey so much! I should really rewatch it. And, yeah, I remember the commentary track being brilliant. The one for Out of Sight is also really good, if memory serves…

      That said, my favorite commentary track is the one Hype Williams recorded for Belly. It’s the only way to watch that movie, IMO.

  21. A D Jameson

      Vanishing Point is brill. Some of the best car chase scenes ever shot!

  22. A D Jameson


  23. Mark Doten

      i wonder how common it is to hit that 1:1 ratio. from the sometimes clumsy way tv can try to amp up the ticking-bomb scenario, to a “good” example, such as the ostensibly real time film, HIGH NOON, which plays in exceptionally smart and dramatic ways with compressing and dilating time, i think the needle probably moves a good deal on either side of the 1:1. this discussion makes me curious as to what some limit cases might be for how far this can be pushed in a still more-or-less realistic scenario.  the dramatic possibilities of the single take, “actually” real time scene like the one you describe are interesting, too. i feel like there are examples of this, but i’m mostly blanking. The long tracking shot in TOUCH OF EVIL would be one, sort of. I mean, there’s a ticking bomb, but the tension comes from the fact that Heston doesn’t know it until it goes off.

      also, this is something else, but you might be interested, if you haven’t seen it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MHBlYJ-tKcs

  24. Mr. Thanks

      A.D: Thanks for this post. Have you conversed with many people about the romantic connections between Kid and Irene? I ask this simply because it saves and sort of reverses cliche, in my opinion. I kept thinking about True Romance but not because of the violence but what a character compelled to save and be with another will then do with violence. In True Romance it was weightier, all about the lover, but in Drive Kid risks losing the lover to keep her forever safe; unfortunately, he makes a move in that elevator which forever distances him and in turn us from that comfortable courtship of pulses. There is very little needed to get us to understand this attraction and by very little I mean there is a satisfying absence of the “cliches” normally employed in a film to alert the audience that the characters are pretty madly in love. This, more than anything, made the film accepting of its tradition to the point where it utilized tropes but in a subdued manner that itself birthed more innovative shots and actions. It’s the ecstasy vs. anxiety of influence moment. I dug.

  25. bobby

      -Isn’t discounting a work of “art” by calling it “clichéd” pretty clichéd? It signifies very little other than the fact that the person calling it clichéd disparages the work w/ out trying to say anything. 

      -Clichéd or not, if something is fucking awesome then it is fucking awesome and that’s not only okay, it’s great. Sure, I may have been too aware of some of the plot and a character developments during the movie, but I cannot deny that I was thrilled at every shot, that I — as a straight white dude — thought, damn, Ryan Gosling is kind of fucking hot, I could see why girls slip out of their seat for him. That the trailer “spoiled” some of the scenes in the movie (I also think the trailer is dog shit) and yet I do not care, that in the elevator scene I knew he was going to brain that goon, but I did not know how long that kiss was going to last and my expectations of the violence washed away during that long kiss until the violence actually commenced in the elevator, so what, the movie is sick. 

      -Is there a dichotomy of cliched and traditions (or tropes/conventions)? 

  26. Cwinnette

      Cliché seems a necessary part of the whole Reference, Deference, Difference thing Thomas Kinkade talks about, especially for a movie like “Drive,” where the references are to films that established some of the more marked action movie “clichés”.  Maybe something like this was said, I’ve only given this piece a quick skim…I’ll get to work reading, apologies.

  27. Emma

      Solid post, especially (as someone said above), the last line about engagement. Reminds me a whole lot of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, which engages artistically and cerebrally with Western movie tropes to spin a story about the gray areas of myth and morality. Which can be head-spinning, I think, if you’re familiar with those cliches. 

  28. Corey Zeller

      very nice point Emma

  29. Dawn.

      But the fun (especially in genre art) lies in engaging with the cliché, and reinventing it to the point where it becomes art.

      So true. Very well-said, A D.

  30. A D Jameson

      i wonder how common it is to hit that 1:1 ratio. from the sometimes clumsy way tv can try to amp up the ticking-bomb scenario, to a “good” example, such as the ostensibly real time film, HIGH NOON, which plays in exceptionally smart and dramatic ways with compressing and dilating time, i think the needle probably moves a good deal on either side of the 1:1.

      I haven’t made a systematic study of it, but my impression is that, in most cases, it’s roughly 1-to-1, with some slippages to either side, like we see in the Peacemaker example.

      But I don’t think there are too many examples out there of, say, 2-to-1, on either side of the spectrum (5 minutes timer, ten minutes running time, or the opposite).

      The long tracking shot in TOUCH OF EVIL would be one, sort of. I mean, there’s a ticking bomb, but the tension comes from the fact that Heston doesn’t know it until it goes off.

      But we do: the timer is set for three minutes, right at the beginning of that shot. And I think the bomb goes off exactly three minutes later.

      Here it is: http://youtu.be/Yg8MqjoFvy4

      Looks like it takes 3:10 in running time. Can’t tell exactly from this copy how much time’s on the timer, but it’s something like 3 minutes.

      Thanks for the Inception thing! Adam

  31. A D Jameson

      A lot of the people who’ve I’ve seen calling the film “clichéd” haven’t really specified what they find clichéd in it. To me, the film is not clichéd because even though it contains things that are familiar, Refn finds way to refresh that material. So, yes, I was aware that the romance in the film was, in some ways a familiar thing, but that didn’t bother me, because it wasn’t as stereotypically presented as the obligatory romance in most action thrillers.

      You’re right of course that cliché serves useful functions beyond presenting formal challenges. There must be some familiarity in the artwork, and shorthand can also be useful.

      I haven’t see True Romance in forever!

  32. A D Jameson

      Hey Cwinnette,

      What’s that Thomas Kinkade thing? Can you point it out to me? What you’re saying here reminds me a little maybe kinda of the hermeneutic model (“threefold mimesis”) that Paul Ricoeur presented in Time and Narrative, which is one of my favorite concepts in contemporary philosophy…

  33. A D Jameson

      I should add that a recent (unpublished) essay I read by Nicholas Brown (“The Work of Art in the Age of Its Real Subsumption under Capital”), and the ensuing class discussion I had with Walter Benn Michaels and my prosem classmates, helped clarify my thinking about these topics (before I wrote this post).

  34. deadgod

      [W]hile art certainly depends on innovation, it also depends on adherence to inherited forms.

      ‘Conventional’ and ‘experimental’ indicate positions on a spectrum–that is, the distance to either notional pole of such a spectrum that an artwork might be reasonably said to fall.  No actual thing lies at either pole, there’s no object that’s completely ‘conventional’ or completely ‘experimental’.  Rather, every artwork is a mixture of being ‘this conventional’ and ‘that experimental’.

      Casablanca and Citizen Kane, for example:  Casablanca mostly conforms to industry (or mass) expectations – ‘Hollywood’, albeit in an unusually expert and (to me) entertaining way – , while Citizen Kane neglects or violates (in a word:  interrogates; in another:  subverts) normative expectations – though not in every way; the acting, for instance, is ‘naturalistic’ – .

      So to call Casablanca “conventional” and Citizen Kane “experimental” is not – except carelessly – to say something absolute about these movies; it would be to say how the mutual implication of conformity to and departure from normalized understanding is disclosed in these two movies–to say, to borrow a now-old-fashioned jargon, how each movie disposes a unique entwinement of ‘tradition’ and ‘individual talent’.


  35. deadgod

      Questions for the blogicle’s championing of the disclosiveness or emotiveness latent or dormant in “cliches” (which would be catalyzed or woken by artful deployment or disposition of those “cliches”):

      Is there no “familiarity” which is over-familiarity?

      Is all handling of or ‘by’ “cliche” equally interrogative of its conventionality, equally experimental towards its conventionality?  –or is that “reinvent[ive] engag[ement]” only occasionally – or rarely – achieved?

      Drive being a case in point, or (in another genre) Stagecoach, High Noon, Cheyenne Autumn, and Unforgiven being cases to set beside each other.

  36. deadgod

      There’s an interesting violation of 1:1 real-to-movie timing that’s itself become a cliche (because it’s effective and, in a way, accurate (that is, with respect to how experience feels)):  Peckinpah’s gunfight-action s l o w  m o t i o n .

      I had thought that this was a cheap gimmick–a gimmick employed exclusively to rouse with hypesation.  –and that people were copying Peckinpah (or whomever he was copying, whom I don’t know) just because they didn’t trust their material to convey (or, even more likely, their audience to understand) that violence is dangerous! but exciting!.

      –but, years ago, a war veteran told me, ‘No; in combat–shooting, killing, running, hiding, taking fire–, in the shit, things happen slowly.  –at least, that’s how you remember it, how you process it as a “memory”.’  (Isn’t there talk of this in Dispatches?  Is this accounting for this use of slo-mo a meme?)

      Anyway, the rationalization is, in fact, rational:  one often remembers a car accident or fist fight or purse-snatching in a mixture of blurred and clear slow motion. So, while Peckinpah’s slow-motion gunfights don’t happen in intersubjectively real time, they do represent accurately or conform to the reality of processed time.

  37. deadgod

      “Discounting” something because it’s – or so many of its parts are – familiar is usually mistaken.  –but is there no such thing as “cliche”?  Is no “work of ‘art'” spoiled for you by its being trite in its conventionality??

      [That stomping caught me in two ways:  a) it paid off an otherwise pointless scene (in the diner, when the burglar, whom (I think) we’d scene in the opening sequence, blabs publicly about the driver’s affiliation and the driver tells him ‘to shut up or I’ll kick your teeth down your throat‘–which we learn is no empty threat Do you understand?); and b) the quick shot of the boot in the mashed ‘head’ struck me as a nod towards Irreversible, heel for fire extinguisher.]

  38. paradigm

      i think there’s an element of truth in cliche down well that is lacking in experimental done badly. cliche done well has this real imitation thing that can be missing in more of those experimental done badly scenes. 

  39. Cvan

      Engaging with cliche is a perfectly valid creative route.  I don’t remember who said it in a writing book…Anne Lamott, John Gardner, William Gass, etc…but one of them suggested that in a blocked place, the writer pick a cliche and “uncliche” it.

  40. Cwinnette

      I’m an idiot.  It was Griselda Pollock.  I’ll email you the book/essay where she lays it all out.  

  41. Cwinnette

      Here’s a quote from what I was talking about, re: Reference, Deference, Difference:

      “This trilogy proposes a specific way of understanding avant-gardism as a kind of game play.  In contrast to conventional histories of modern art, which tell its story through heroic individuals, ‘inventing’ his (usually) novel style as an expression of individual genius, I propose my three terms.  To make your mark in the avant-garde community, you had to relate your work to what was going on: reference.  Then you had to defer to the existing leader, to the work or project which represented the latest move, the last word, or what was considered the definitive statement of shared concerns: deference.  Finally your own move involved establishing a difference, which had to be both legible in terms of current aesthetics and criticism, and also a distinctive advance on that current position.  Reference ensured recognition that what you were doing was part of the avant-garde project.  Deference and difference had to be finely calibrated so that the ambition and claim of your work was measured by its difference from the artist or artistic statement whose status you both acknowledged (deference) and displaced.”  (Pollock, 14)

      from Griselda Pollock’s (not Thomas Kinkade’s) “Avant-Garde Gambits…”


      While an argument might be made against “Drive”‘s being an “avant-garde” film – not that I’d make it, (because what she’s saying has less to do with a contemporary view of the “avant-garde” and more to do with a way of viewing modernist agendas toward ‘innovation’) – the tactics employed in “Drive” certainly seem in synch with this method of establish legitimacy and placing a work and its maker(s) within a particular historical context.  

      That’s all.

  42. A D Jameson

      You’re no idiot! And thanks for the article! I’ll try to read it before we see Zizek…

  43. A D Jameson

      Yeah. I draft and revise a lot when I write, and I don’t think much about my first drafts—I just type and type, letting all sorts of stuff come out. I don’t worry about language or anything. As such, my first drafts are just loaded with clichés. But that never worries me, because when I go back to revise, I just highlight them all and say, “Well, here’s an opportunity to try something different.”

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