Kill the cat

(Don’t worry, cat-lovers. This isn’t the mad ravings of a felinocidal maniac. There are cat people in my family I’d have to answer to, including the one who trained his cat to turn on the lights.)

Have you ever had the feeling that something wasn’t right but you lacked the confidence to mention it to others because you thought it was just you? I had that sense about movies. They’re running together, each one hard to distinguish from another. The only differentiators are the kinds of superpowers the protagonist has, the planet (or dimension) the aliens are from, or the evil-empire-of-the-month whence arise the powers that are going to wipe out the free world as we know it.

It’s deja vu all over again. Same story, different characters. Is it just me?

As a screenwriter, I had a theory. There are dozens of different philosophies out there about structuring screen stories. As the brilliant screenwriter William Goldman (“Princess Bride”, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, etc.) succinctly puts it: “Screenplays are structure.” In his “Poetics”, Aristotle started it all with the simple three-act structure. Some version of that structure has since been applied to stories of all forms: books, plays, movies, fireside ghost tales, and everything in between.

savethecatIn the screenwriting world, there have been dozens, perhaps hundreds, of refinements suggested to that basic structure. I’ve studied many of them – McKee, Vogler, Truby, Field, Hunter, and more. They range from flexible to downright Draconian. The most rigid of all was laid out in a book called “Save the Cat”, by the late screenwriting guru, Blake Snyder. My theory was that too many modern screenwriters had bought his formula down to the last beat.

I was right. At least, I have some agreement out there.

prefabA couple of days ago, I stumbled on this article from Slate. The author confirms my worst suspicions and fears. (Unfortunately, because the article is over a year old, some of the links in it are dead-ends.) According to this article, in complete agreement with my personal experience (and probably yours), many modern movies are actually prefab creations, like 60’s tract houses. The STC philosophy breaks a film into 15 “beats” that must be hit. That’s one predetermined action that will occur every six minutes in a 90 minute movie. There isn’t a lot of flexibility there. You can read the article to get a better understanding and at the same time seal your cynicism.

For this reason, I’ve pretty much stopped viewing Hollywood blockbusters. They’re all as bankrupt as their namesake video chain. The funny thing is that I’m not missing anything. By seeking out smaller, character-driven films rather than tentpole behemoths that measure their budgets in the hundreds of millions, I’m seeing better films.

bynumbersAs someone trying to sell screenplays, it would behoove me to sell my creative soul and buy into this paint-by-numbers philosophy. While I agree that the structure of a screenplay is critical, I’d rather not write at all than churn out plug’n’play, cookie cutter, straight-off-the-assembly-line widgets that will be gone and forgotten in a month anyway. I might be cutting my own throat commercially, but I’ll retain as much of my dignity as any screenwriting hopeful can.

Ice cream murderer

That’s me. I’m an ice cream murderer. (Not to be confused with a cereal killer.) We’re not talking murder metaphorically, as in, “I just murdered a pint of Ben and Jerry’s.” No, I actually kill off products. Think: missing persons, but the person is an ice cream.

My MO is simply to become obsessed with a flavor or treat. As soon as I do, you can count on that item disappearing from the face of the earth. Think I’m kidding? Here’s the evidence against me, admissible in a court of frozen dairy law:

  1. kempsIC-MIAMy first victim was a flavor from Kemp’s called “Northern Exposure”. Really, really good. Mint ice cream (a particular favorite of mine in general) with dark chocolate chunks and a brittle ribbon of fudge undulating throughout the ice cream. That ribbon was what set this flavor apart from every other ice cream I’ve had.
    While Kemp’s is not always the purveyor of the finest ice creams, Northern Exposure was the real deal. Where is it now? Gone. I’ve checked every supermarket from hither to yon (more hither than yon, I admit) and it’s nowhere to be found. I even contacted Kemp’s corporate headquarters. They said it was out there and even pointed me at a few stores. They lied. It’s dead. I should know. I killed it.
  2. doveIC-RIPNext victim: Dove “Give in to Mint”. Another minty selection. The best mint-based IC I’ve ever had. Fabulous Dove dark chocolate chips throughout and a luscious (yes, I said luscious and I meant luscious) chocolate ganache coating the top of the ice cream. That topping alone was worth the price of the pint. Not satisfied with doing away with just this one flavor, the entire line of Dove ice creams, all made with the ganache topping, are gone, finito, vamoose, sayonara, hasta la vista, baby. I’m nothing if not thorough.
  3. "naked" (unchipped sides) Hoodwich

    “naked” (unchipped sides) Hoodwich

    Latest in a long line of late, lamented treats: the Hoodwich. You know what I’m talking about: Hood ice cream sandwiched between two chocolate chip cookies, rolled in a coating of mini-chocolate chips all around the side. These were a tradition for me to consume at a local minor league baseball park. Alas, the Hood Corporation responded to my pleas about where to find these delectables with the unfeeling statement, “We apologize but we no longer produce the novelty Hoodwich.” Little do they know that I’m responsible for their lack of production. They can’t produce them. They’re all dead!

Who will be next? I hesitate to eat ice cream now. I don’t want anyone to know about the peanut butter cup flavor at Ben and Bill’s. That will go down for sure. Dare I continue to eat the Moose Tracks at Sully’s? I’m surprised at the resilience of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, which I’ve feasted on ever since its introduction. Could it be invulnerable? Maybe it’s from Krypton.

Beware! I may start eating your favorite ice cream next!

Remember the future

obsoleteNo one needs to be reminded of the transitory nature of this life. Today is a memory before we have a chance to make sense of it. Those times we breathlessly look forward to become vague memories while they are still echoing in our minds.

I’ve written on this topic before, which gives you some idea of how close to my heart it is. The speed at which the highly anticipated future becomes the distant path can be downright frightening. How desperately we want to hold onto those moments in a more tangible form than an elusive and fleeting memory.

Even the title of this blog, “Scribbling in the Sand” speaks to the futility of trying to extend ourselves beyond ourselves. Those scribbles are washed away with the next tide, in whatever form its breakers take.

Look no further than the mundane articles of our daily lives to demonstrate this concept in the most concrete manner possible. Every day, some of our most wonderful innovations are relegated to the scrap heap of history (which is shipped to China to be recycled into future scrap heap candidates).

Here is just a tiny percentage of those once-precious items that have disappeared in my years:

  • Slide rules – Remember those? They were indispensable before they were obsoleted by calculators. Oops! Remember those?
  • Encyclopedias – Not the democratic virtual kind. I’m talking about the honkin’ multi-volume, sold-door-to-door beasts that still sit in the basements of people who can’t imagine tossing such storehouses of knowledge, regardless of how useless and outdated they might be.
  • Dial and corded phones – First we had the hefty black monstrosities that could double as weapons that – in many a noir film – would be used to knock the bad guy into the middle of next week. Can you imagine doing that with your iPhone? Goodbye “Princess” phone, knots in the cord, “Dial M for Murder”, and yanking phones off tables as we reached for a pen to write down the number of the person calling. (Another unnecessary action due to caller ID.)
  • Station wagons – Before the minivan and the (God help us) SUV, extended families cruised the country in comfort in these beauties.
  • Phone booths – What’s a Superman to do? The empty chrysalises of countless phones now unbound can be seen across the land.
  • Civility in public discourse – This is a whole ‘nother story. Let’s hope it isn’t a permanent scrap heap dweller, though I harbor little hope for that in my lifetime.

pocketNo small amount of technology has come and gone over the same period: acoustic modems (I’m old enough to remember when 9600 baud was screamin’ fast), 8-tracks, cassettes, and videotapes all had their brief flicker of utility. In fact, all “tape” is gone – except that of the duct, masking, and Scotch varieties – but the name lives on as we talk about taping TV shows, with no tape is involved.

A few things out there are barely hanging on or have been relegated to the role of novelty. Vinyl records refuse to give up, but they’re only a niche. Virtually all media except various forms of computer memory (increasingly of the solid-state species, though all bets are off if “the cloud” has its way) have no real raison d’etre anymore.

The same can be said of watches, books, newspapers, and writing in cursive. A day may come when the only people who see such relics do so as they scratch their heads walking by museum exhibits.

drive-inAlthough most of them have become land for low income housing, strip malls, and office parks, here’s hoping that a remnant of drive-ins survive into the future. They’d be missed at least as much as any extinct species.

In the “we hardly knew ye” category, you’ll find flash-in-the-pan technologies such as laser discs, Betamax, HD-DVD, and PDA’s.

It’s hard to say goodbye to some things. The GPS, itself now a dispensable technology in its standalone form, eliminated the need to give directions. I say “need” not so much for the recipient of those directions as for the giver. We all know folks who live to provide detailed directions of the best possible route(s) to our destination. When I recognize that craving, I generally allow the speaker the opportunity to give vent to his passion. Then I return to Google Maps or a GPS and find the best route for myself. No endless discussion of the best shortcut, most scenic route, or least traffic.

While I don’t miss LP’s so much, I do mourn the loss of album packaging. Some of that album art was suitable for mounting and hanging on your wall. (I have just two words for you: Roger Dean.) A few releases contained enough junk to overflow a fan’s scrapbook, e.g. The Who, “Live at Leeds” or “Chicago at Carnegie Hall”. Sure they were extravagant and pompous, but so was the music and we loved it.

CD’s never offered such wit and variety. And downloads? Fuhgeddaboudit.

I don’t wish to live in the past, but it would be nice if some of the past still lived here.

[By the way, if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that the smartphone (beginning with the iPhone) is the perpetrator of many in these untimely demises. Not that it’s wrong, just saying is all.]

Bad movies of good stories

inspired by actual eventsRecently I watched what looked, from descriptions I’d read, like an interesting movie. It was a fabricated story “inspired by actual events”, as opposed to “based on a true story” or “inspired by a true story” or “based on actual events.”

According to the blurb on the DVD cover, the film was “Astonishing.” As it turns out, the only thing about the movie I found astonishing was that it got made at all. Surprisingly, the “actual events” that inspired the story were more horrific than the ones actually portrayed in the movie. More often than not, the opposite is true. Otherwise tepid events are typically sensationalized to titillate potential viewers. That should give you an idea of how grim these particular “actual events” were.

There are a number of questions and concerns that films like this raise in my mind:

First, when is a true story not a true story? Is it fair to sell fiction as fact? The Academy Award winning best picture of 2012, “Argo”, brought this question to the fore. It was publicized as, “Based on the declassified true story”, but it was more fiction than history. How discerning is the average moviegoer? From my perspective, not very. Therefore, in a very real way, we’re rewriting history.

Then, is it fair to review a movie’s content versus its quality? I’ve seen plenty of weak movies that tell amazing stories ripped from headlines or history books. Great story, mostly because it was great in real life. The movie, not so much. Still, these are worth watching. One good example was a biopic (probably heavily fictionalized) about Cesar Chavez, a man whose story should be more widely known. The film was marginal, but it was important to see because I regularly need to be inspired by great – and real – men.

That also brings up the question of whether the moral content of a film should be included as part of its review. In today’s political climate, a siskel-and-ebertracist film would almost certainly be trashed, as it should be. Yet misogynistic films and TV shows seem to be proliferating without much resistance. One could legitimately say that the moral judgment of a story is dependent on the morality of the reviewer. But doesn’t the reviewer’s bias come into play in any review? If every reviewer agreed on every movie, we could eliminate personal prejudices as a factor. But then we would never have had Siskel and Ebert arguing about the direction of thumbs. What fun would that be?

So then, of what value are critics’ opinions? Probably none at all, except in those rare cases where all the critics seem to agree. But even then, if I’d listened to that unanimity, I’d have missed out on some films I consider terrific. (Call me weird.) Worse are the films I’ve seen because the cognoscenti decreed them great and they’ve left me feeling like I needed a good scrubbing afterward.

Unless you have a particular reviewer whose opinions always align with yours – Ebert was one who came closest for me – you’re pretty much on your own.

Like me, be your own best critic.

What’s *your* story?

storyI love Jesus. Not just because He loves me and died for me, although that’s pretty cool and would be enough. I also love the fact that He’s a master storyteller. When people ask Him profound theological questions, He usually tells a story. It’s almost as if He’s trying to evade the question. Rather, I think, He’s getting to the heart of it.

Ask a theologian to tell you what the Kingdom of God is and you’re bound to get a tedious multi-volume treatise on the ins and outs of Jewish culture, a summary of a couple millennia of church history, and a detailed exegesis of Greek New Testament passages. Ask Jesus and you get a story about one of the following:

  • Some sad old woman who spends the whole night looking for her spare change in the sofa.
  • A farmer who’s having mixed success with his crops.
  • A sleazy middle manager who makes good by cheating his old boss.

legoparableThe parables (fancy theological word for stories) of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan are more than tales that have become part of the nerve fiber of our culture. They’re great stories.

Why does He tell stories? Because people listen to stories. Sermons? Not so much. Even those of us who listen to sermons don’t always listen. If you know someone who’s heard a sermon recently, ask her what it was about. You’re more likely to hear about the joke the preacher told or the simple family anecdote that illustrated a forgotten moral lesson.

We’re wired to listen to stories. No matter what the era or the dominant philosophy thereof, people love and crave stories. They used to be told around campfires and now they’re seen on a phone or in a cineplex. No difference. It’s the story, the people, the ups and downs of fortune, the clawing after the goal, the battle of good vs. evil, the boy-meets-girl, the life-and-death struggle.

cleaversOne reason I believe stories resonate so well with us all is that we somehow, without even thinking about it, realize we’re in our own story. You might not be a writer, but you’re writing your life story. You’re the lead, the hero. That doesn’t mean you have to be Indiana Jones or Aragorn. It might be enough to be June or Ward Cleaver.

Most of our stories are pretty boring. They’d make lousy movies. Hitchcock was quoted as saying, “Movies are real life with the boring parts cut out.” By that criteria, most lives would make brief movies indeed, more like music videos or even commercials.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

What if your life was interesting enough to be made into a miniseries? Or a sitcom that runs 20 (or more) seasons? What’s to stop it? You’re the writer. You might have no pen, pencil, laptop, or vintage Underwood, but every day you’re writing the story of your life with your words, your loves, your priorities. Some day this volume of that story will end. (Lord willing, there will be a sequel.) Meanwhile, make it interesting, something worth telling. Something people want to hear.

Including you.