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Cliché or Trope?

Robert Altman’s movie The Player opens with a glorious tracking shot that cranes and swoops through the offices of a fictitious Hollywood film studio. Joining the camera on its sweeping arcs, the audience is allowed to eavesdrop on insider conversations that illuminate the Hollywood philosophy of filmmaking. In one office we hear a group of technocrats discussing the longest and most impressive tracking shots in the history of cinema, while in another we hear a writer pitching a new idea to a studio executive. The writer frames his pitch as a high-concept blend; this new film, he suggests, is best imagined as a cross between Ghost and The Manchurian Candidate. Altman wants us to laugh at these scenes, to set the tone for the sharp-edged parody to follow. For we can only marvel at why a writer should want to marry elements from a recent blockbuster romance about a lovelorn ghost with aspects of a grim political thriller about brainwashing and McCarthyism. Altman seems to be suggesting that Hollywood’s love of the high-concept pitch, combined with a ruthless determination to recycle past successes, has led to a cynical dumbing-down of its creative processes.

Samuel Goldwyn, the co-founder of MGM studios, famously summed up Hollywood’s attitude to creativity with the line “Let’s have some new clichés”.  On the face of it, this seems like just another one of Goldwyn’s many memorable misstatements (like “Include me out!” and “The atom bomb, it’s dynamite!”). After all, it’s hard to think of clichés as new, or as something that can be invented on demand. Yet, on closer analysis, one can find real insight in Goldwyn’s remark. Clichés are considered anathema to the creative process because they represent everything that is conventional and jaded about the status quo. However, clichés become tired thru overwork, and are overworked precisely because they prove themselves so useful in so many different contexts. Few creators set out to create a new cliché, but most would like their efforts to become as much a part of the fabric of our culture as the most tenacious of clichés. Even in the early days of the Hollywood machine, Goldwyn understood that movies thrive on cliché. A time-tested cliché provides a tacit map for an audience, allowing a filmmaker to achieve economy of action and dialogue by leaving so many details unspoken. But movies also foster the creation of new clichés, by showing producers and studio executives what works and what doesn’t work for a large audience. By ruthlessly reusing what does work, in new contexts and in new combinations, studios entrench the patterns that will later come to be recognized as clichés. As studio productions become increasingly complex and ever more expensive, the industry demands ever larger and more profitable clichés. Goldwyn’s modern incarnation is now far more likely to utter “let’s have some new franchises”.

The Roman Orator Quintilian defined a trope as "a departure from the simple and straightforward method of expression", that is, as an exceptional deviation from the norm rather than a norm in itself. But successful tropes warrant reuse, and may themselves become new norms if frequently reused. The word "trope" carries less negative baggage than either "cliche" or "stereotype", and so the web-site TVtropes.org, which revels in fictional tropes, defines tropes as follows:

Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations. On the whole, tropes are not clichés. The word clichéd means "stereotyped and trite." In other words, dull and uninteresting. We are not looking for dull and uninteresting entries. We are here to recognize tropes and play with them, not to make fun of them.

So we might view tropes as almost-clichés, or treat clichés as tropes that have already crossed the line into banality through sheer, unimaginative reuse.  Or we might view tropes as clichés that still have some gas in the tank for creative exploitation. Nick Montfort at MIT calls his research group The Trope Tank because of this optimistic view of tropes as useful building blocks in potentially creative products. The master plot themes in William Wallace Cook's PLOTTO might also be viewed as tropes, inasmuch as they represent time-weathered narrative structures that still have the potential to contribute to an original work of fiction.

It is worth remembering that the true enemy of creativity is not familiarity but obviousness. One can creatively use familiar ideas (tropes, stereotypes, and clichés even) in non-obvious ways to achieve a surprising effect.  Successful artists of all stripes, and in all genres, exploit well-known tropes -- only sometimes subversively -- and create new tropes too, new deviations from the norm that may eventually become clichés if successively and successfully reused by many others. Our machines too can benefit from a knowledge of tropes, whether William Wallace Cook's PLOTTO structures or the almost-clichés of TVtropes.org.

 

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