Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Saving the Cat from Itself: On Deconstructing “Game of Thrones” and a Troubling Pattern of Misanalysis

The folks over at Save the Cat!, which does not include the program’s late innovator Blake Snyder, offered an object lesson last week on the misapplication of craft.

It’s common practice for Save the Cat! to break down a current or classic movie and illustrate how it conforms to a story’s fifteen major narrative “beats” as Snyder identified them (Blake himself published an entire book dedicated to this skill-building exercise, which I recommend—certainly over any of the recent analyses on the STC! blog).  This is what a sample “beat sheet” (of my own authorship) would look like (click on it for a closer look):

Raiders of the Lost Ark beatsheet

Simple enough, right?  The entire story summarized at its most basic, macrostructural level.  That’s the kind of plot overview I’ll painstakingly compose before I begin Word One of my screenplay or novel, so I know the plot is always tracking in the right direction.  It’s an indispensable application to help a writer “break the back” of his story, as well as an excellent learning tool:  By reverse-engineering well-regarded movies, you can teach yourself the fundamentals of mythic structure.  That is ostensibly the reason Save the Cat! offers sample deconstructions on a near-weekly basis.

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The Exodus Is Here: On Saying Goodbye to the Who

There was a lot of contentious shouting in our apartment throughout my childhood, so much so that it could be heard the moment I stepped off the elevator—I’m talking thunderous, mean-spirited bickering.  All of it—every word—was filtered through the tinny speaker of the AM/FM radio that sat atop our refrigerator.

My father listened daily to The Bob Grant Show—at top volume.  He didn’t particularly agree with Grant’s conservative politics, but he loved a good argument.  (I wonder if he’d feel the same today, in this era of ‘round-the-clock cable-TV squabbling masquerading as news?)  When he wasn’t listening to Grant in the kitchen, he had it blasting from the radio in our Plymouth Duster.  I didn’t understand much, if any, of what was being debated, but I laughed every time Grant hollered, “Get off my phone, you jerk!”  (He did so often.)

The endless caterwauling from Dad’s favorite station prompted an antithetical reaction in my mother (whether intentional or unconscious I do not know):  When she had control of the radio, we listened almost exclusively to 106.7 Lite FM.  Up till the age of ten or so, “easy listening” was effectively the only genre of music, save classical, I was aware of.  It was probably upon hearing Ambrosia’s “Biggest Part of Me” for the thousandth time (or maybe it was Journey’s “Open Arms”—like it even matters) that I finally asked out of both frustration and genuine curiosity, “Doesn’t anybody sing about anything besides love?”

My mother considered that for a moment.  “Love is what makes the world go ‘round.”

It wasn’t a particularly satisfying answer, and perhaps on some subconscious level she herself recognized that, because the following Christmas—this was in ’86 or ’87, I think—she gave me a cassette copy of the Who’s 1978 album Who Are You (which I recently rediscovered while cleaning out my childhood closet).

I’d had no awareness of the Who before that; Who Are You was my crash course in progressive rock, a style that came to speak to my more philosophical and intellectual proclivities throughout high school, college, and beyond.  I didn’t always understand what the songs meant—many of Pete Townshend’s lyrics, I suspect, are a mystery to all but (perhaps) himself—but that was exactly the point:  The music of the Who is a Rorschach—a receptacle into which you can pour you own feelings and experiences, and from which take your own meaning and catharsis.  The lyrics—and the narratives of the band’s operatic concept albums—are so specific to Townshend’s particular imagination, but the broader themes are universal.  Take any given Who song, and I doubt it means the same thing to any two people.

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This Is 40: On the Goals I’ve yet to Attain and All the Friends I Haven’t Made

“The future disappears into memory

With only a moment between

Forever dwells in that moment

Hope is what remains to be seen”

—“The Garden,” from Clockwork Angels (2012); lyrics by Neil Peart

2112, the trippy sci-fi concept album and breakout opus from enduring Canadian prog-rock band Rush, turns forty this month.  The music of Rush has had a profound influence on my own art and worldview, so the occasion of 2112’s anniversary—and what’s an anniversary but an acknowledgment of the future’s disappearance into memory?—is one I am compelled to observe with no small degree of private rumination (meaning I won’t bore you with it here).

Rush 2112

Consider for a moment, though, some other things turning forty this year, in no particular order:  Richard Donner’s horror classic The Omen.   Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.  Apple, Inc.  NASA’s first Mars landing.  Ebola.  The laser printer.  The Toronto Blue Jays.  The Muppet Show.  The Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

I’m sure I’m forgetting something…

Ah, yes—me.

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On Tap: What to Watch This Saint Patrick’s Day

I grew up an Irish Catholic kid in an Irish Catholic Bronx neighborhood, the northern half of which was so heavily populated with off-the-boat immigrants, in fact, brogues were commonplace.  I spent half my childhood in the bars along Broadway while Dad and I were ostensibly out “running errands,” and it was only upon the unforeseen revelation of his alcohol addiction when I was eleven that all those afternoons spent in the company of middle-aged men with apparently nowhere else to be but some dim, smoky watering hole under the intermittent rattling of the el tracks took on new, illuminating context.

While in college, I worked at an Irish deli on Mosholu Avenue for a married couple, a former cop and housewife with grown children, who eventually sold the business and retired to—you guessed it—Ireland.  (Wish I knew whatever became of them.)  Scenes from the Harrison Ford/Brad Pitt IRA thriller The Devil’s Own were filmed at a nearby neighborhood bar (a friend of mine even took video footage from his apartment window of Pitt exiting the establishment), presumably for the kind of authenticity no amount of Hollywood set dressing can properly replicate.

Most people I know genuinely hate the sound of bagpipes—was it Frank McCourt who said they sound like dying cats?—but, for me, they are a reminder of my own heritage and upbringing; I recall the muffled wail of them every Saint Patrick’s Day from behind the door of 2C, the apartment in our building occupied by my dad’s best friend, when we’d come home through the second-floor service entrance adjacent to the garage.

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Challenge of the Super Friends: A Scholarly Counterpoint

For those who read my recent analysis of the state of superhero culture—or perhaps, given its uncalled-for length, you’re still reading it—my friend J. Edward Ritchie, whose debut novel, Fall From Grace, was studied here on the blog, just this morning published a friendly, thorough rebuttal to it on his website.  Jeff has been an avid comic-book consumer for most of his life, and spent many years in Hollywood pitching, developing, writing, and selling screenplays to major studios, so he comes from a background comparable to mine, yet brings a perspective to this matter all his own.  I encourage everyone to take a few minutes to read his take and leave a comment (just so long as you make sure to agree with me!).

Upon reading “The Great Escape,” my wife suggested I change the blog’s tagline from “Writer of things that go bump in the night” to “Highly academic discussions of really dumb shit”!  My thanks to J. Edward Ritchie for being my kind of discourser—for engaging in exactly the type of highly academic discussion I think this really dumb shit deserves.

Fall From Grace is available through Amazon.com.

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The Great Escape: What the Ascendancy of Comic-Book Culture Tells Us about Ourselves

Lest anyone doubt the real-world superheroic capabilities of a fictional character, let me state for the record that Batman taught me how to read.

For in watching the syndicated reruns of the Adam West series in the late seventies—the kitschy opening credits, specifically—my not-yet-literate mind eventually recognized a correlation between the splashy title-card logo and repetitive choral chant that accompanied it, and “Batman” became the first word I could read and write.  Absolutely true story.

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A Los Angeles Crime Saga/A New York Love Story

Twenty years ago today, I went to the movies and the course of my life changed forevermore.

To be certain, that is not an intentionally provocative overstatement—it is simple fact.  The film was Michael Mann’s Heat, and the three hours I spent watching it that afternoon represent a temporal juncture, if you’ll permit the fanciful notion, between the me that was and the me I became thereafter.  Heat is not my all-time favorite movie—though it certainly ranks high on the list—but I’d be hard-pressed to think of one that carries more emotional weight for me.  I don’t even revisit it all that often; it’s a bit like a photo album that you cherish—that you’d be devastated to lose—yet seldom take down from that high shelf in the closet:  You needn’t thumb through it regularly to appreciate what it represents; you simply take solace from the knowledge that it’s up there, safe and sound—a mnemonic repository where nostalgia can be compartmentalized lest it keep you from the necessary and inevitable business of forward motion.

I did re-watch Heat, however, in preparation for this post, and it’s as searing and suspenseful as ever.  Maybe more so, in fact, as age and experience have allowed me to appreciate its emotional nuances and masterful storytelling in ways that were impossible in 1996.  (I also got a thrill out of recognizing many of its L.A. locations—places I’ve passed more times than I can count in the fourteen years I’ve lived out here—some of which have changed considerably in two decades, and some that are frozen in time.)  For those who may not remember, Heat was quite a big deal upon release for its on-screen pairing of two legendary thespians, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, in what was essentially a grand-scale cops-and-robbers epic drawn from copious real-world research writer/director Mann had conducted over the course of his career.  By the nineties, action was already taking precedence over characterization—and that’s only worsened in the CGI era (I don’t care how many esteemed year-end top-ten lists they make, those Fast & Furious movies—all seven of them—are beyond dreadful)—but Heat stands, both then and now, as a testament to the power of old-school storytelling by a master of the craft:  It takes its time to bring us into its morally complex universe of deeply flawed, empathetic characters on their inevitable—and tragic—collision course with one another.  As a director, Mann’s stylistic flourishes have occasional tendency to date his films (he’s responsible, after all, for that pastel-infused Miami Vice aesthetic that defined the color palette of the eighties), but, save for perhaps a few oversized flip phones, Heat exists in a timeless world unto itself; to spend an afternoon there is to visit a Los Angeles unlike the one you can actually visit, and unlike the one you’ve seen in other movies.  Heat is, very simply, something spectacular to behold—every bit the classic both history and the culture have come to deem it.

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Solitary Consignment: A Christmas Story

Movies, it should come as no surprise to learn, were an absolutely critical part of my formative experience.  It wasn’t merely that my first exposure to them was during the wondrous Lucas/Spielberg heyday of the early eighties; no, we didn’t have a VCR in the household till the very end of that decade (like color TV, they were deemed by my parents to be “just a fad”), so seeing a movie meant going to the movies.  To this day, the very whiff of butter-steeped popcorn time-shifts me back to those magical days, like one that occurred precisely twenty-five years ago, when a little Christmas-themed film with absolutely no brand awareness or marquee stars whatsoever created an unforeseen sensation—it was the must-see movie of the season, and I was eager to oblige.

The perfect occasion to do so arose on one of those barren Saturday afternoons in New York—too cold to be outside for any length of time, too hard to hear yourself think over the hiss of the monolithic prewar radiator.  Well, it would’ve been perfect, anyway, if not for one small hiccup:  Nobody was around to join me.  I called everyone in the Rolodex (and that isn’t just an archaic figure of speech—these were the days of actual Rolodexes), but came up empty.  Where the hell was everybody?

There was no real precedent for this scenario.  There’d always been someone around to meet on short notice—that was the benefit of living in a building full of young families, after all.  Hell, my best friend, Chip, lived one flight below us, and was always available to team up to save the world with me by way of a spirited (read:  profane), two-player game of Contra.  But, not that afternoon.

My problems, it seemed, were rapidly compounding:  What was I going to do for the rest of the day?  Go to the movies by myself?  It was really only through pure desperation, having exhausted every other avenue, that I finally asked, “Why not?”

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Signals in the Noise: Finding Meaning through Storytelling

It’s a strange thing, really, as anyone who knew me way back when can attest, that I now find myself in the predominantly solitary profession known as novelist.

Now, I don’t think any of them would find it the least bit surprising that I’m a creative, it’s only that I preferred to exercise my creativity as an agent of fellowship:  I was the kid who organized weekend games of “Christopher Columbus,” a large-scale, rough-and-tumble variant of hide-and-seek played on the streets of New York (its origins, so far as I know, derive from an obscure teen comedy from the eighties that I haven’t watched since, on the hunch that it’s likely better off remembered than revisited); I hosted annual “murder parties” along with my best friend, Chip, inspired by our love for Clue:  The Movie; and in senior year of high school, we enlisted half the neighborhood in a quixotic production of Lost Boys II, a handmade, feature-length sequel to one of our favorite horror films, itself a kind of ode to teamwork, that we shot on a state-of-the-art VHS-C camcorder.  To this day, I think we did a reasonably credible job of passing off the Bronx as Santa Cruz:  The Palisades along the Hudson River doubled for the coastal cliffs of the Pacific, and a cavernous subbasement I’d discovered beneath a 1970s luxury high-rise served as the vampires’ cave—not a bad bit of on-the-cheap production value, if I do say so!  (The acting and cinematography, on the other hand, from the limited footage that still actually exists, seem somewhat… unpolished.)

In retrospect, the Lost Boys project probably represents an inexorable turning point in my life:  Not only had I finally found a creative outlet that felt like a natural fit (after guitar lessons didn’t pan out and my enthusiasm for comic-book illustration somewhat outweighed my talent for it), but filmmaking would allow me and my friends to do something truly special—make movies!—and, more importantly, to do it together.  Of all the arts, this one embodied the spirit of fellowship I so cherished like none other.  It became one of the great loves of my life, and an obsessive—even tumultuous—twenty-year affair with it ensued.

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Pop-Culture Digest: Musings on Annalise Keating, Postnarrativity, and “Twilight”

Readers of this blog (I trust I’m not being quixotically presumptuous by my use of the plural form) have come to expect in-depth, long-form essays here, but today I’d like to try something different:  I thought I’d offer brief commentary on three unrelated pop-cultural developments that are directly relevant to articles I posted this past summer.

 

MURDER!

In my analysis of the first season of How to Get Away with Murder, I concluded by asserting that series creator Peter Nowalk left himself little choice but to reconfigure protagonist Annalise Keating’s psychological profile (yet again) on account of how carelessly he exhausted her backstory in the initial fifteen-episode run.  And, boy, he did not waste any time proving me correct.

Right in the season premiere, we learned (via one of several clunky pieces of exposition) that Annalise has a “wild-child” side (who knew?), and later we saw her partying the night away under the strobe lights of a dance club—with her students, no less!

No, sorry—that doesn’t play.  Here’s why:  It is a complete violation of one of her core traits (and a defense mechanism, at that)—“publicly composed and guarded.”

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