Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Category: Genre

Classifying the “Star Trek” Movies by Their “Save the Cat!” Genre Categories

Star Trek turned fifty this year (something older than me, mercifully), but you needn’t be a fan to appreciate some of the lessons writers of fiction can take from its successes and failures during its five-decade voyage.  I mean, I probably wouldn’t myself qualify as a “Trekkie”—I simply don’t get caught up in the minutiae.  What I’ve always responded to in Trek is its thoughtful storytelling and philosophical profundity.  “Even the original series, for all its chintziness,” someone told me when I was thirteen, “it was still the thinking man’s show.”

I recall watching The Original Series in syndication, and being swept away by the classic time-travel episode “The City on the Edge of Forever”; finally I understood that Trek was about ideas, and those could be just as thrilling—more so, in fact—than set pieces.  Anyone who was around for it certainly remembers the excitement when The Next Generation premiered, unknowingly kicking off perhaps the first major-media “shared fictional universe” two decades before Marvel got there.  I watched the pilot with my father—which was a big deal, since television wasn’t his thing (the nightly news excepting)—and I haven’t forgotten his lovely, two-word appraisal of the first episode when it was over:  “It’s kind,” he said, with no further elaboration.

It took some years to fully appreciate that assessment.  Having grown up on the adventures of James T. Kirk, the original captain’s renegade spirit and cowboy diplomacy appealed to my juvenile worldview; Picard, on the other hand, seemed like a high-school principal in comparison.  But over time, I came to identify with Picard’s genteel, introspective mindset, and every line he uttered—even the technobabble—sounded like poetry from the mouth of Patrick Stewart, who endowed his performance with such dignity and conviction.  For me, the best part of Star Trek was getting Picard’s closing takeaway on the issue du jour.

The franchise continued to grow as I did, and my wife, whom I started dating at nineteen, was as much a fan as I was, it turned out, and we looked forward every few years to the next feature film, until the series finally, against all expectation, sputtered out with Nemesis (2002) and Enterprise (2001–2005).  Among other reasons for that, Trek had been eclipsed by a new sci-fi franchise—The Matrix—that spoke to the ethos of our new Digital Age.  Perhaps more than any other genre, science fiction needs to reflect its times, and times change; finality is something to be accepted—embraced, even—not feared.  The Enterprise, thusly, had been decommissioned.

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Going Fishing: Classic Movies for the Summer Season

It’s the dog days of August here in L.A., and I thought it might be fun to share some of my favorite summer flicks—the ones set in or somehow about the sunny season.  Like my St. Patrick’s Day compilation, this only reflects my personal preferences, not the Best Summer Movies Ever.  As a bonus, I’ve included each film’s Save the Cat! genre classification.

 

The ‘Burbs (1989)

Genre:  Whydunit (“Personal Whydunit”)

Burbs

It didn’t get a particularly warm critical or box-office reception upon initial release, but time has bestowed much-deserved cult status upon Joe Dante’s stylish, quotable horror-comedy, starring Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, and Carrie Fisher.  Hanks is a Middle American suburbanite who begins to suspect, over the Memorial Day holiday, that the peculiar new neighbors on the block may in fact be satanic murderers.  Dante managed quite a tonal balancing act here in a movie that’s aged remarkably well, and the chemistry and comedic interplay among the cast is aces.  It’s the perfect movie to cozy up to with “a couple hundred beers” when, like Hanks’ hapless protagonist, you’ve opted for a holiday-weekend staycation.  The ‘Burbs is in some respects about the trouble we get into when we have too much free time on our hands—one of three movies on this list to tackle that subject, and all, oddly enough, co-starring Corey Feldman.

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He Said, She Said: Lessons in (Buddy) Love

For as long as there’s been literary analysis, there has been an effort to determine just how many variations on plot there are, and to codify them accordingly.

Your high-school English teacher no doubt taught you that all conflict can be boiled down to four types:  “man versus man,” “man versus society,” “man versus nature,” “man versus himself.”  Remember that one?

French writer Georges Polti asserted there are Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations (1916); more recently, English author Christopher Booker argued for Seven Basic Plots (2004).

For my money, none of them quite “cracked the code” until screenwriter Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! identified ten types, or “genres,” and delineated the specific criteria (three apiece) that distinguish one from another—and they’re not what you’d think.  Rather than vague categorizations like “horror,” “comedy,” and “action,” Snyder classified his genres like so:

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Company of Fools: The Genre of “Amadeus”

In a recent podcast, the custodians of Save the Cat! offered a very thin and unconvincing assessment of Birdman’s genre classification, the essence of which was this:  “Look—Michael Keaton’s got a Life Problem!  He goes about fixing it the Wrong Way!  Clearly this is a Rite of Passage!”

In a serendipitously timed blog post, I argued that Birdman is, in fact, a Fool Triumphant, and even held it up for comparison, like two perfectly aligned sketches on tracing paper backlit against a lamp, with a recent (and accurate) example of RoP, Jon Favreau’s Chef, as proof that those stories don’t share fundamental commonality with respect to their genre conventions.

Because that’s ultimately what distinguishes the codified narrative models of the late Blake Snyder from one another:  their conventional criteria—the requirements each particular genre is expected to deliver upon.  A golf cart and a city bus both have wheels and seats and a motor (i.e., a similar fundamental underlying structure), but you’d never mistake one for the other; you’d never expect one to perform the function of the other.

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“Birdman” Triumphant: A Genre Assessment of an Unconventional Narrative

I recently engaged in a friendly e-mail debate with a fellow Save the Cat! practitioner over which genre to classify this year’s Academy Award Best Picture recipient, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).

Any guesses?

It’s a tough one.  Is it a Superhero story?  Protagonist Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton in a welcome return to leading-man stature) seems to display secret superpowers.  (And the film is called Birdman, which sounds vaguely superheroic—certainly no conceptually sillier than, say, Ant-Man.)

Is it an Institutionalized—a story about an accomplished actor transitioning from one institution (Hollywood stardom) to another (Broadway credibility)?

Maybe it’s a Golden Fleece, with the prize being a successful stage production of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”?  Riggan has a lot invested in the show, after all, and Birdman details the tumultuous backstage events leading up to its anticipated premiere.

You could certainly make arguments for any of those, which only demonstrates just how tricky mastering Blake Snyder’s genre principles can be.

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Stoking the Fire: Finding Versatility in Genre Conventions

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy represents cinematic perfection to me:  Batman Begins (2005) was the Batman movie I’d waited my whole life to see; then, much like Batman himself emerging from the cover of shadow when least expected, came The Dark Knight (2008), a gripping thriller à la Michael Mann’s Heat in which the Al Pacino and Robert De Niro roles were assumed, quite credibly somehow, by Batman and the Joker; and just as no artist before Nolan had tackled the early days of Batman’s crime-fighting career (including his apprenticeship and inspiration to go vigilante), no one had authored its concluding chapter, either, until The Dark Knight Rises (2012)—it is, if you take my meaning, the Last Batman Story.  For a character that had been in continuous publication—across multiple media—for seventy years at the time these films were produced, Nolan managed to find new, vital aspects of Batman’s rich hagiography to explore.

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To Survive and Thrive: Strategic Genre Switches in “The Hunger Games”

You sensed it right from the start:  The familiar plot machinations of The Hunger Games series weren’t there to comfort us (in their perversely dystopian way) in the latest theatrical entry, Mockingjay, Part 1.  The world and characters were the same, sure, yet we found ourselves, like the protagonist herself, immediately disoriented in this third go-round; nothing about this adventure, for us or for her, could be deemed business as usual.

So, what changed?

I’ve written a great deal about how indispensable I find Blake Snyder’s ten story models, but have offered little thus far in the way of illustration.  The Hunger Games series, a powerhouse big-studio franchise if ever there was one, provides an object lesson in two distinct types of Save the Cat! genres.

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Monster Mash: When It’s Too Long at the Party

I’m going to venture a suggestion that flies in the face of over eight decades of Hollywood tradition:  Movie monsters are not fundamentally franchisable.

Did the sequels to Psycho or Silence of the Lambs inspire the sheer terror of the originals?  The more we knew about Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter, the more comfortable, oddly enough, we became with them.  What about Jaws and Child’s Play?  Seems to me the shark got faker and Chucky got campier as those went along.  Sure, the body counts were higher and the death scenes more elaborate (a provision of scary sequels so concisely articulated in Scream 2), but did any of that make the follow-ups scarier—or merely distract you from the fact that you weren’t as scared?

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