Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Tag: John Carpenter

Won’t Get Fooled Again: “The Last Jedi” Incites a Fan Rebellion against Disney’s “Star Wars” Empire

Well ahead of the release of The Last Jedi, I’d made a private resolution to stop being so goddamn grumpy about Star Wars and superheroes moving forward.  That’s not to suggest, mind you, I rescind my cultural criticisms of them, merely an acknowledgment that I’d said my piece, have nothing more to offer on the matter, and have no wish to spend 2018 mired in negativity.  There’s enough of that going around these days.

And yet here I find myself, first post of the New Year, compelled by fate—just like Obi-Wan, I suppose, and, more recently, Luke Skywalker himself—to crawl out of hiding.  Here’s what happened:

The week Last Jedi hit theaters, I was preoccupied with last-minute errands and arrangements for my trip home for the holidays, and Star Wars, frankly, was the last thing on my mind.  I was peripherally aware the movie was “in the air”—reviews were near-universally hailing it as “groundbreaking,” the best of the series since Empire—but altogether oblivious that it had already opened.

Until Saturday, December 16.  That’s when unsolicited text messages start pinging in rapid succession from friends and colleagues, decrying it as “the worst Star Wars ever,” “a betrayal,” “the death of the franchise,” etc.  (One old friend even suggested I stay away from the movie at all costs if I wanted to preserve any fondness I had left for Star Wars.)  I couldn’t quite reconcile any of that with the glowing critical notices, so I went to Rotten Tomatoes, and, sure enough, an overwhelming plurality of the audience was hating this movie.  Not strongly disliking it, mind you—despising it.  Some excerpts:

“I will pass on IX and it won’t make any difference in the grand scheme of things, but there is nowhere the plot can go in the final movie that I particularly would care for.  I have no investment in the characters, plot or universe anymore.”

“Steaming pile of bantha poodoo.”

“Easily the worst in the Saga.  Lifelong Star Wars fan.  It’s now all over.”

“Worst movie EVER.  I can’t begin to find the words that express how bad this was.  Guess it’s hard to say much without spoilers.  Just be warned it’s not the star wars you know.”

“You won’t fool me, nor my money, ever again.”

And then there was this succinct four-word review:

“Fuck you rian Johnson”

How to explain such opprobrium?  (Note:  There are those that suggest a vocal minority of haters has merely created the misleading illusion of substantial backlash—possibly that’s true—but the sampling of direct responses I’ve fielded for the most part range from faint praise at best to seething vitriol.)  I mean, these were the movies that were supposed to “redeem” Star Wars after creator George Lucas’ best malignant efforts to ruin all our childhoods with the prequels, right?

Epic fail—”Episode VIII” turned out to be something other than the glorious return of the Jedi many fans anticipated

So, what’s gone wrong? I wondered.  Were fans simply being oversensitive?  Or did filmmaker Rian Johnson, making his Star Wars debut, indeed deliver a credibly bad movie—a “franchise killer”?  How exactly did things reach such an extreme, fevered pitch a mere two years after Disney’s much-anticipated brand-relaunch of Star Wars?

It’s a complicated answer with more than one determinant, but I can get to the heart of the problem for you.

Hold that thought, though.  We’ll get back to Star Wars shortly.

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Writers Groups—the Pros and Cons

From 2010 through 2014, I participated as one of the founding members of a writers group that met every other Tuesday at restaurants around Hollywood to trade script notes and war stories.  There were eight of us in total, all with representation, though none had yet experienced what they would’ve defined as their “big break.”  We had genre screenwriters (including yours truly), drama and sitcom scribes, and even a comedic playwright, of different genders, ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds.  Everyone brought a distinct skill set and perspective to the table.

That was nothing if not an interesting time to be a screenwriter in Hollywood.  The disastrous 2007–08 Writers Guild strike left the once-robust spec marketplace decimated, bringing about permanent systemic changes to the industry:  Studios were no longer—with very rare exception—buying and developing original materials any longer, opting instead to aggressively franchise their vast libraries of branded IPs (hence the endless Star Wars and superhero movies retarding our culture at present), and since those jobs only go to screenwriting’s top one percent, the lion’s share of screenwriters out there could neither find work nor make sales.

While screenwriters picketed, the studios cleaned house

But in 2010, the full impact of that paradigm shift hadn’t yet made itself undeniably evident, so everyone—screenwriters, agents, managers—were still operating, however futilely, under the old model, in which spec scripts were churned out by writers under the developmental “guidance” (read:  marching orders) of their management, then shopped by agents lured out of hiding only by the dangling carrot of their 10% cut.  “Spec’ing” is a demoralizing practice in the best of times, and those were hardly the best of times.

But our writers group was a tremendous source of comfort and counsel to me during that period.  It was a regular opportunity to get out of the house for a night out, to socialize with folks who understood the particular anxieties, frustrations, and exhilarations of attempting to make it as a screenwriter in Hollywood.  It made the town a far less lonely place.  All of us, not just me, looked forward to those Tuesday evenings.  But more on why they eventually reached their end shortly.

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Different Stages

In the time we’ve been together, my wife and I have taken some of our greatest pleasures from live concerts:  all kinds of acts at all manner of venues—from Aerosmith at MSG, to Chris Cornell at the Beacon, to the Black Crowes at Radio City, to Cher at Jones Beach, to Prince at the Staples Center, to Ray LaMontagne at the Greek, to Pink at the Wiltern, to Billy Joel at Dodger Stadium.

We share a love for U2, and have pretty much seen the band on every tour since we started dating.  So when they came around this past summer to play the Rose Bowl for their thirtieth-anniversary Joshua Tree show, we didn’t so much as hesitate the moment tickets went on sale.

The Joshua Tree Tour 2017

The Rose Bowl, if you don’t know, is an enormous pain in the ass to get to.  (We’ve seen U2 there before, on the U2360° show they recorded for home-video release.)  It’s an outdoor football stadium in Pasadena, tucked away in a morass of winding residential roads where the streets have no name, and like damn near everything else in Los Angeles (Downtown, for instance), you can’t really fathom why this particular location was selected over, say, any other.  And once you’re down there, you’re there to stay for the duration, as the ways in and out are limited whether you’ve come by car, bus, or shoe leather.

This past May 20, the day of the concert, we arrived early, having taken an Uber to the stadium.  It was hot as blazes as we waited on three long lines:  first for T-shirts, which were all several sizes smaller than advertised, then for printed tickets at will call (the concert was “credit-card entry,” but the card I’d used to purchase our admittance months earlier had since been replaced due to fraudulent activity), then finally to wend our way into the sprawling venue itself.

By the time we made it inside, we were fatigued from the adventure, sticky with sweat.  Guzzling our Guinness Blondes—what else?—it was pretty clear we both wished we’d stayed home, and the question on our minds at that moment practically voiced itself:  “Have we finally gotten too old for this shit?”

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“I Heard You Were Dead”: What the Career of John Carpenter Demonstrates about the Nature of Legacy

I write all my fiction to movie soundtracks.  Instrumentals only—lyrics in my ear are too distracting while I’m trying to compose words, and I usually wind up tuning that noise out entirely, in which case:  What’s the point?  At the beginning of a project, I’ll choose a good mix of selections from movies that represent the tone or theme I’m going for, then compile a playlist that cycles in the background—turned up just enough to register but not actively listen to—for as long as it takes to complete the manuscript; that playlist serves as an aural compass, or “temp track,” keeping me in touch with what the world I’m creating should look and sound like at all times.

Just the other week, I finished the first draft of what will be my debut novel, Escape from Rikers Island.  The influences on EFRI are too numerous to quantify, but include novelists Richard Price and Elmore Leonard, as well as filmmaker John Carpenter.  In both title and premise, Escape from Rikers Island owes a great creative debt to Carpenter’s exploitation thrillers Escape from New York and Assault on Precinct 13.  His movies, love ‘em or otherwise, have a look and feel all their own, owed in part to his eerie, synth-driven soundtracks; he is one of very few directors who’s scored most of his own movies, so writing EFRI to his music seemed like a no-brainer.

As fate would have it, right around the time I began the draft, Carpenter released his first album of original material, Lost Themes, so EFRI got a soundtrack of its very own, with music I now almost exclusively associate with my work of fiction rather than any specific film of his.  One of the cuts, “Vortex,” even became, to my mind, the novel’s unofficial theme song:

John Carpenter is touring this summer to promote Lost Themes and its just-released follow-up, Lost Themes II, and I went to see him perform last month at the Orpheum Theatre here in Los Angeles with my friend and fellow horror enthusiast Adam Aresty.  Adam is a burgeoning master of horror himself, having written the literal bee movie Stung (now streaming on Netflix), the chilling short story “Recovery” (which evokes—and I mean this as the highest compliment—Ambrose Bierce’s 1890 literary classic “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”), and the brand-new sci-fi novella The Communication Room.  Don’t take my word for it, though:  Sample for yourself some of the free fiction on his Web site, including one of my favorites, the James M. Cain–style noir tale “Wrought Iron”.  If you like what you read and you live in the Los Angeles area, perhaps consider coming out to Book Soup on Sunset Boulevard on Tuesday, August 2nd at 7:00 p.m. to hear Adam read from The Communication Room.

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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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