Cliché as Necessity (Birthing Innovation)

Posted by @ 11:56 pm on October 12th, 2011

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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