Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Tag: Institutionalized

Monster Hunting: Some Recent Movies Worth Watching This Halloween

The spooky season is once again upon us—my favorite time of year—so I thought I’d share a few horror-movie recommendations.  Despite my curmudgeonly assertion this past spring that I don’t enjoy movies anymore, each suggestion below gives lie to that.

In compiling this selection, I tried to choose A) relatively recent movies, from the last few years, that B) you’ve likely never heard of, hence the reason worthy entries like Get Out, Split, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Conjuring, and The Witch didn’t make the cut.

What all of the following lacked in budget they more than compensate for in creativity; they remind me of what I found so exciting about filmmaking in my youth, before corporations controlled all of our popular entertainments, and Hollywood was ushered into our ignominious Era of the Endless Reboot.

As always, I’ve included each movie’s Save the Cat! genre classification.

 

It Follows (2014)

Genre:  Monster in the House (“Supra-natural Monster”)

This one you may have already heard of (it isn’t quite as obscure as some of the titles to come), but I had to include it for the simple reason that it’s the most terrifying horror film I’ve seen since I was a kid.

After a one-night stand, a college student finds herself afflicted with the mother of all STDs:  an invincible supernatural entity (which can shapeshift to appear as anyone:  an old woman, a middle-aged man, etc.) that follows her ploddingly but relentlessly—night and day, wherever she goes, however far she runs—and will kill her upon catching her.  The only way to rid herself of the demonic fiend?  Pass on the “curse” by sleeping with another person!  Of course, if the wraith kills that unlucky fool, it reverses course to work its way back up the vectorial chain—meaning there’s no way to permanently outrun the malignant spirit pursuing you!

Just like an STD, It Follows leaves a stinging sensation you just can’t seem to shake once exposed.  (I’m actually looking over my shoulder as I type this at 12:45 in the afternoon.)

Continue reading

Foundations of Storytelling, Part 1: The Logline

This is the first post in an occasional series.

With the Second World War looming, a daring archaeologist-adventurer is tasked by the U.S. government to find the Ark of the Covenant—a Biblical artifact of invincible power, lost for millennia in the desert sands of Egypt—before it can be acquired by the Nazis.

On Christmas Eve, an off-duty police officer is inadvertently ensnared in a life-or-death game of cat-and-mouse in an L.A. skyscraper when his wife’s office party is taken hostage by a dozen armed terrorists.

Over the Fourth of July holiday, a resort-island sheriff finds himself in deep water—literally—when his beach is stalked by an aggressive great white shark that won’t go away.

All of the above story concepts should sound familiar—that’s why I chose them.  Yes, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Die Hard, and Jaws are all popular—now classic—works of commercial cinema.  But they are also excellent exemplars of storytelling at their most basic, macrostructural levels, as demonstrated by the catchy summaries above, known in Hollywood as “the logline.”

When a single image, let alone a single sentence, imparts the essence of a story, the underlying concept is a powerful, primal one

 

THE LOGLINE AS A SELLING TOOL

The logline is a sales pitch:  In a single compact sentence, it conveys the protagonist (respectively:  the adventurous archaeologist; the off-duty cop; the beach-resort sheriff), the antagonist (the Nazis; the terrorists; the shark), the conflict and stakes (possession of the Ark for control of the world; the confined life-and-death struggle; the destruction of a man-eating leviathan), the setting (1930s Egypt; an L.A. skyscraper at Christmas; a summer resort), and the tone/genre (action/adventure; action-thriller; adventure/horror).  You can even reasonably glean the Save the Cat! category of each:

  • Raiders as Golden Fleece (Subgenre:  “Epic Fleece”)
  • Die Hard as Dude with a Problem (“Law Enforcement Problem”)
  • Jaws as Monster in the House (“Pure Monster”)

A cogent synopsis like any of the above allows a prospective buyer to “see” the creative vision for the movie, ideally triggering the three-word response every screenwriter longs to hear:  “Tell me more.”

Note what isn’t included in the logline:  The names of any of the characters.  Thematic concerns.  Emotional arcs.  Subplots.  Descriptions of particular set pieces.  That’s the “tell me more” stuff, and none of it is necessary—it is, in fact, needlessly extraneous—for the “elevator pitch,” so called for the brief window one has to hook to an exec before he steps off onto his floor (read:  loses interest).  The point of a logline is to communicate the story’s most fundamental aspects, and to capture what’s viscerally exciting about the premise.

I mean, if you’d never seen Raiders, Die Hard, or Jaws—if you knew nothing else about them other than the information contained in those loglines—you’d already have a sense of why these are, or could at least make for, gripping stories.  Pitch any one of them to a movie executive, and he can immediately envision the scenes—or at least the potential for them—suggested by the central premise.  Each one piques curiosity and, one step further, inspires the imagination.

The Raiders logline is so compelling because it takes (what was at the time) an arcane scholarly discipline, archaeology, and credibly applies it to an action-film archetype, typically the province of superspies like 007.  It also features historical elements that don’t seem like they should belong together—Nazis and Biblical relics—to envision something simultaneously smart and thrilling.

The Die Hard and Jaws loglines are exciting because they take their police-officer protagonists and essentially reduce them to “everyman” status (unlike Raiders, which features a specialist as its hero) by putting them in overwhelmingly harrowing situations that play to some of our most primal fears:  terrorism and sharks.  In short, they have that compelling What if? factor.

That’s how those stories got sold, and how the movies themselves got made.  We don’t need any information beyond what we get in those loglines to want to see the finished product.  As such, condensing a story to its logline is an absolutely essential skill for any screenwriter.

Let me amend that:  It is an essential skill for all storytellers, novelists included—perhaps especially.  And its applications are far broader than simply marketing.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

“Grace” Notes: How Novelist J. Edward Ritchie Rediscovered a Fertile Lost Paradise

Last month, prolific television producer Greg Berlanti (Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl) secured a pilot commitment from NBC for a dramatic series about the brides of Dracula.

Intrigued yet?  I sure am!  You can already picture it:  Without knowing thing one about Berlanti’s take—based strictly on that eight-word rundown at the end of the previous paragraph—visions of something sexy, Gothic, atmospheric swirl like mist through the imagination.  Bedsheets and bloodshed.  Seduction and the supernatural.  It’s the kind of pitch in which the creative possibilities are so self-evident, a network exec—and, ultimately, an audience—is sold on the project without a further word of elaboration.

Why?

Because we all know the brides of Dracula—from Stoker to Lugosi to Coppola—but what do we know about them, really?  The pitch hooks us because it capitalizes on something about which we’re already aware… only to make us consider how much of it we’re probably (and inexcusably) unaware, and how curious we’d be—now that you point it out!—to get some of those blanks filled in.  (And that Dracula is in the public domain is all the more appealing, because no one has to shell out big bucks to secure the rights to the property; in that sense, it is almost like a natural resource waiting to be exploited by those with the wherewithal to dig it out of the ground.)

Continue reading

“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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

© 2017 Sean P Carlin

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑