How Buñuel and Dali Avoided Tropes

In the winter of 1929, Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel created one of the world’s most notorious works of cinematic art, Un Chien Andalou. At sixteen minutes, the film is a series of indelible images, most famously a woman’s eyeball (actually a cow’s) sliced with a straight razor. Charlie Chaplin owned a copy of Un Chien Andalou, the Pixies wrote a song about it, and it has spent decades on film course syllabi.

Dali and Buñuel wanted to make a movie utterly freed from narrative convention. As they crafted their script they pushed each other to reject every obvious idea. The result is a movie that looks and feels like a dream and is one of the masterpieces of surrealism.

Some years ago, when I was teaching creative writing courses, I devised an experiment based on the process these two Spanish surrealists employed. I had my students take out a piece of paper and have their pen poised, ready to write at a moment’s notice. Then I’d lecture awhile about something, lulling my students. Suddenly I’d smack the table and announce, “Complete the f0llowing sentence: A woman walks into a detective agency and says… Hurry! Come on, come on! Write quickly!”

When my students set down their pens I’d ask for a show of hands of who used the words “husband” or “missing” in their sentence. This invariably got a few sheepish chuckles out of everyone, and lots of raised hands.

What I hoped to demonstrate is that creativity is like an employee who wants to do the minimum amount of work required to get the job done. This usually means reaching for something that has been done before. We’ve seen countless noir scenarios in which a smoky femme fatale asks a laconic detective some question about her husband. When I asked my students to complete that sentence, their brains, acting like lazy employees, reached for the trope that was closest at hand.

Nurturing creativity means training that employee to go above and beyond. In a variation of this exercise, I had my students complete the sentence three times. And what happened then was quite remarkable. All the students’ first sentences tended to share many of the same words–husband, missing, murder, robbery. By the second iteration, my students’ imaginations had started to kick in and their sentences started to become more different from one another. By the third iteration, their wildest and most interesting ideas came out. A woman walks into a detective agency and says this cow named Henry ate my car. Or, A woman walks into a detective agency and says I can’t stop smelling onions.

One of the problems with tropes is that they can be reliable money makers. This explains the Marvel Universe, a sort of TV show we now watch in movie theaters and via our various streams. I keep wanting the Marvel movies to be better than they turn out to be, but invariably, I find myself bored out of my mind by the frantic third act with the big fight in the urban environment.

We’re going to endure a lot of crappy tropes as they get imported into VR. We’re going to get iterations of things that have succeeded in Hollywood. Some of it will be great, most of it will probably suck, and then there will be the breakthroughs that change the game. VR affords artists with the opportunity not to be the next something, but to be the first something. And in order to be the first original thing, one must first reject the obvious ideas.