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.
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.”
I had no context to recognize this at the time, but I came of age in a golden era of fantasy cinema. Some of my earliest theatrical experiences included Superman II (1981), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Return of the Jedi (1983), Ghostbusters (1984), and Back to the Future (1985). Movies like those were made, by and large, by a generation of filmmakers—notably but not exclusively Steven Spielberg and George Lucas—that had been raised on the sci-fi and fantasy offerings of 1950s B-movies and comics, and later became the first students to major in cinema studies and filmmaking; when that formal training was fused with their pulp passions, the contemporary blockbuster was born: first with Jaws (1975), then Star Wars (1977), and then Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Superman: The Movie (1978) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and The Goonies (1985). That cornucopia of imaginative fantasy—hardly an all-encompassing list, by the way—was my first exposure to the movies. Is it any wonder I was hooked for life?
Back to the Future. Escape from New York. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Saving Private Ryan. Even in a cultural media vacuum, what narrative fundamental do the titles to those movies tell you about their respective plots?
They are goal-driven.
Goals can be an invaluable tool to establish suspense, propel a plot, and create an active protagonist. But, like any storytelling appliance, they are an elective, not a mandate. In the movie business, insecure creative execs will insist on their inclusion in every screenplay—a silver bullet for any plot that fails to effectively engross (which relates to an industry-wide problem I addressed in my first post: the misapplication of craft).
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?