Invite Surrealists, Absurdists, And Sci-Fi Buffs To Your Brainstorm

November 27, 2018

A scene from Tarkovsky’s surreal masterpiece, Stalker.

“Think outside the box.” “Anything is on the table.” “Bring fresh thinking.”

The list of clichés goes on, and they imply the same thing: Abandon conventional parameters, which produce predictable results, and approach problem solving in an unfettered manner, with hopes of producing creative (and, ideally, unexpected) ideas.

Somewhere along the line, we created a new box just inches outside the old one. It contains its own predictable tactics, which resurface in brainstorm after brainstorm. How do we break out of that box?

I’m drawn to art that expands the limits of my imagination. Not necessarily outright “fantasy,” but stories, songs, and films that exist in a mostly familiar world – freely flowing in and out of this realm, overtly subverting the “rules” of reality. They are a treasure trove of creative thinking.

If you’d like to immerse yourself in the minds of absurdists, surrealists, magical realists, and sci-fi storytellers before stepping into your next brainstorm, here are suggestions for getting started.


Stalker – by Andrei Tarkovsky

Stalker somehow creates (and maintains) a purely dreamlike state. Mixing science fiction and deeply philosophical themes, Stalker has influenced countless other films in its wake (including, most recently, Annihilation). As you watch its protagonists meander through a green, rolling, otherworldly landscape, your thoughts might just meander into a different dimension too.

Songs from the Second Floor – by Roy Andersson

Described as a “film poem,” this film is part black comedy, part tragedy, part exercise in how much meaning can be packed into a single frame if you set a camera on a tripod for a wide shot and let the choreography unfold. You’ll see an arsonist burn his building down. A magician saw someone in half. A tobacco company force customers to walk the plank. As Roger Ebert put it: “You have never seen a film like this before.”

Spirited Away – by Hayao Miyazaki

I’ve read theories that Japan’s polytheistic worldview, which is wildly different than our own typical good-vs.-evil tropes, results in more imaginative narratives. I believe that Miyazaki’s animated films beautifully support that theory, and they prove that you don’t need to watch dreary Russian sci-fi films to stretch your imagination. All of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s films are great, but Spirited Away truly shook my understanding of storytelling.

Werckmeister Harmonies – by Béla Tarr

As IMDB describes it: “An innocent young man witnesses violence break out after an isolated village is inflamed by the arrival of a circus and its peculiar attractions: a giant whale and a mysterious man named ‘The Prince.’” This film is admittedly slow and drab, but it takes a unique approach of using time and movement to create atmosphere and elicit emotion.

Other directors to explore: Guy Maddin, David Lynch, Edward Yang, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Luis Bunuel.


The Hearing Trumpet – by Leonora Carrington

Aptly described as “the occult twin to Alice in Wonderland,” this book is an absolute trip. Written by a British-born Surrealist painter who lived in Mexico, the story follows a 92-year-old woman who ends up in an institution with buildings shaped like birthday cakes and igloos…and by the end, there’s an unforgettable scene involving a gateway to hell.

The Master and Margarita – by Mikhail Bulgakov

Written during Stalin’s regime and banned until after the author’s death, this Russian novel weaves in talking cats, atheism, Pontius Pilate…and much, much more. It’s equal parts thought-provoking, satirical, hilarious, and politically poignant.

The Age of Wire and String – by Ben Marcus

This is easily the most “challenging” (read: frustrating) book on this list. Fellow writer Robert Coover called it “the most audacious literary debut in decades.” The author uses familiar English vocabulary, but words take on entirely new meanings, and Marcus opts not to provide a dictionary for digging up the new definitions. The book elicits feelings and paints pictures more than it strings together a coherent narrative. But those willing to go along for the ride will find it rewarding.

Kafka on the Shore – by Haruki Murakami

Kafka on the Shore masterfully dances between Oedipal curses, fish raining from the sky, the “entrance stone” to an alternate reality, and an unlikely meeting between a runaway kid and an elderly man who lost most of his mental capabilities during a war. The result is a complex puzzle, whose pieces might not all fit together perfectly, but that’s what makes it all the more magical.

Other authors to explore: Neil Gaiman, Thomas Pynchon, Philip K. Dick, Han Kang.


If anyone has read this far, I’ll spare you longwinded explanations and just include artists and albums. Each is included for its unique approach to bending genres, incorporating surprising instrumentation, or otherwise forging outside the realm of “normal” music.

Ambrose Akinmusire – Origami Harvest

DeJohnette, Grenadier, Medeski & ScofieldHudson

Palm – Rock Island

MitskiPuberty 2

King CrimsonLarks’ Tongues in Aspic 

Circuit Des YeuxReaching for Indigo