Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Good Time For a Break

Just wanted to drop a quick note that no, this week's Storytelling Engines entry is not late; it is entirely absent. I will be spending the week celebrating the holidays, reading "Sgt. Rock", watching old Dracula movies, and dealing with a minor plumbing emergency; two of those four things will contribute to future columns. You may guess which in the columns section.

There may or may not be a Thursday entry (although my track record lately means I should amend that to "There may or may not be a Saturday entry." Hey, it may be late, but at least I haven't just skipped a week. Well, not without telling you.)

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Sports Fan Responsible For MNF Delay, Says NFL

December 26th, 2008--A spokesperson for the National Football League explained today that the reason for the forty-five minute delay to the opening kickoff of this week's Monday Night Football game has been traced down, and discovered to be a Chicago fan who was insufficiently ready for some football. The final game of the season, which was shown in its entirety, was being played in Chicago, a town which is generally known for its football-preparation acumen, making the delay all the more shocking.

"It's always unfortunate when something like this happens," Hank Williams Jr said of the situation. "The vast majority of Chicago fans are not to blame, and it's truly sad that they all had to wait for one person who wasn't quite ready for some football. But I take my duties as host of Monday Night Football seriously. That's why I've begun asking twice, in order to confirm true readiness for some football. When I asked the first time, 'Are you ready?', I got what seemed to be a satisfactory response, and I expected the evening to go off without a hitch. But when I asked, 'I mean, really ready?', I was not satisfied with the response I got from William Sanderson, on the East Side of Chicago. I had no choice but to postpone stamping on the giant button that launches the enormous football helmets out of the roof of my house until Sanderson could be tracked down and his readiness fully ascertained."

Added Williams, "If I had launched too soon, all my rowdy friends would never have forgiven me."

Insufficient football preparation is rare, but always taken seriously by the NFL. At one point, Cincinnati's Monday Night Football game was delayed upwards of a decade to ensure that the team, as well as the fans, were truly ready for some football, while Dallas fans stage frequent drills to ensure proper readiness. Failure to respond promptly to the question, "How 'bout them Cowboys?!" can result in harsh fines within city limits.

Humiliated and ashamed despite their victory, Chicago fans now feel that they must work even harder to demonstrate their readiness for some football. Some 30,000 fans plan to keep a year-round vigil in Soldier Field, working in shifts, in order to ensure that no matter what time of the day or night, even outside of football season, they will in fact be ready for some football. "We've got a lot to prove," said one weary fan. "It's just...damnit, the countdown to the kickoff had officially started! How could he not know?"

Sanderson has refused all media requests, but a statement released through his lawyer claims that he was merely making an extra beer run, and that his car got stuck in the snow. At this time, no legal action is being taken.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Universal's "Frankenstein"

(or "The Sins Of The Father, Grandfather, Great-Great-Grand-Uncle, Et Cetera...")

When dealing with 'Frankenstein', it's important to carefully delineate which version of the Frankenstein mythos you're talking about in any given discussion. Because while they might all draw on the same source material, Mary Shelley's classic Gothic novel, they definitely don't have the same storytelling engine. The Hammer Frankenstein series, for example, followed Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein as he went through one diabolical experiment after another, descending ever further along a path of perfectly rational madness and calculating viciousness, until he turned into a monster far more inhuman than the ones he created.

The Universal Frankenstein films, though, took a far different tack. They started from virtually the same point: Frankenstein, a scientist with heretical views on artificial life, creates a human being out of an assemblage of corpses and animates it. The resultant Monster (which never gets a name, in the Universal canon) turns out to be a brutish, simple-minded beast instead of the perfect creation Frankenstein intended, at which point the drawbacks of making him eight feet tall with the strength of a dozen men become apparent.

The second Universal film is a pretty natural extension of the first, with Frankenstein being induced to make a female version of his creation (and in the process, creating the very first beehive hairdo.) But it's with "Son of Frankenstein" that the storytelling engine of the series really takes off, and the Frankenstein legacy becomes a key point of the series.

The third movie follows Frankenstein's now-grown son, Wolf, as he returns to his ancestral home, already interested in the reputation his father had and conflicted over his own views of his father as a brilliant man and a great scientist. Despite hearing about the horrors the Monster has visited on the village of Frankenstein over the decades (and yes, that's accurate--if he's the Baron von Frankenstein, it would make sense that the village is the village of Frankenstein), Wolf believes that his father's ideas were fundamentally sound...and when he discovers the dormant Monster, he decides to bring it back to life and cure its defects, fixing what his father made and showing the world what a genius his father truly was.

The first two movies are, of course, excellent cinema, but it's here that the series shows its true potential as a generational saga. This allows individual Frankensteins to progress along different character arcs--some redeeming themselves, some being destroyed, some taking the Hammer tack and becoming human monsters--while preserving the general theme of "scientist tries to do good, but creates evil." The Frankenstein Monster becomes a tangible symbol of a family secret, something that both repels and lures in successive generations of Frankensteins as it endures, eternally. It may fall into a pit of burning sulfur or get entombed in glacial ice, but it's always there, waiting for the next generation of Frankensteins to find and wonder about...and eventually bring to life once more.

Arguably, it's the abandonment of this theme, as much as anything else that led to the demise of the series (and there was quite a bit of "anything else", including random cast changes and a growing insistence on shoehorning in Dracula and the Wolf Man into the films.) And decades later, it was this theme that Mel Brooks returned to in his homage/parody "Young Frankenstein", a film that works as well at being a continuation of the Frankenstein story as it does at being a parody of the series. Frankenstein's grandson might do everything he can to deny his legacy, but, well, "Destiny, destiny, no escaping, that's for me!"

A reboot of this series might very well be warranted, in fact. If the original is set back at the time of Shelley's story, that gives writers a potential two hundred years of successive generations to play with, and all sorts of permutations to bring into the story. Perhaps a World War II era story, where a refugee Frankenstein works with the American government to make an atomic Monster? A Women's Lib Frankenstein who's tired of the lack of respect her female mad scientist ancestors have gotten? Frankenstein in the Great Depression, cobbling together a lab without the family resources? And at the back of it all, the original Monster, always there, always returning...it seems to be a storytelling engine ripe with possibilities, even beyond the ones already explored. And more than likely, it's one we'll see someday. Like its central character, people are always resurrecting the Frankenstein concept.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Not Quite As Good As Scented Candles

Just a note to explain that posting might be light for a bit, as my computer now gives off a scent somewhat like burning plastic while running, and that can't be good.

December of 2008 seems to be out to get me...

Monday, December 15, 2008

Storytelling Engines: SOAP

(or "Confused? You Won't Be, After This Week's Column")

When it comes to needing a storytelling engine, there's nobody quite in the same position as a soap opera. I've talked in the past about the volume of stories needed for a monthly comic or a weekly TV show or a series of movies, and how a good storytelling engine can help provide ideas to a writer who desperately needs them (because deadlines don't wait for inspiration)...but a soap opera puts all of them to shame. Sixty minutes a day, every day, every week, every year for decades. (There are some soap operas that actually predate television.) Even granted that most soap operas will stretch out a plotline over multiple episodes to keep people tuning in tomorrow, that's a heck of a lot of ideas.

When you realize that, it's not too surprising that soap operas get so bizarre, so quick. Evil twins? Alien abductions? Affairs, cults, returns from the dead, ghosts and hypnosis and amnesia and murders? Some soap operas have all of the above in one episode. The soap opera is the storytelling equivalent of mulligan stew, where everything and anything that can be used will be used.

And it's that approach that forms the basis for the series "SOAP", which ran for four seasons in the late 70s/early 80s. It's kind of difficult to call it a parody, since parodies are generally over-the-top versions of the source material, and it's frankly impossible to be more over-the-top than a typical soap opera. Let's call it a soap opera with jokes. But whatever you call it, "SOAP" tried to consciously emulate the chaotic, borderline absurd atmosphere that soap operas have adopted more or less out of necessity. They crammed as many soap opera standards into the opening set-up as they could (a rich family, a poor family, marital infidelity, impotence, mob connections, and a gay son, although "SOAP" decided to be more open about that one than any of the soap operas that preceded it...which means that "SOAP" actually gave soap opera writers a whole new area to be convoluted in. Wow.)

Then it was just a case of grabbing whatever soap opera tropes came to mind and slotting them in as fast as the plot would allow. Demonic possession? Got it. Amnesia? Got it. Alien abductions? Got it. Long lost secret sons and missing mothers? Got it. Characters having affairs with convicts on the run from the law while on the rebound from their affair with a married congressman? Got it. Distilling the forty years of traditional soap opera plotlines into a single half-hour weekly series gave the writers of "SOAP" more to do than they could ever fit into four years of their series, which may be why "SOAP" ends on a cliff-hanger. (Or it may just be time-honored tradition; a good soap opera never wraps everything up. You have to end it on a shocker to keep people coming back.)

The particular storytelling engine of "SOAP" gave its writers two key advantages when coming up with stories; one, they were working with source material that had already churned out loads of potential storylines to parody, and two, they were working in a genre that held, as one of its genre conventions, that no plot twist was ever too unbelievable to be used. These two things combined meant that "SOAP" just needed to keep delivering the jokes, because the writers never had to worry about their characters (a man who talks to his ventriloquist's dummy?) or their storylines (Jessica falls in love with a South American revolutionary?) becoming too implausible to fit. It was a godsend for any comedy writer.

But the truly important thing about "SOAP", and by extension about soap operas, storytelling engines, and indeed writing in general, is--

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Strange and Profound Moment

Oddly enough, the quarter I used in the vending machine the other day contained spoilers for the book I'm reading right now.

Okay, I'll explain that one. I'm in the middle of reading 'Team of Rivals', by Doris Kearns Goodwin (which should make my sister very happy if she reads this, because she gave the book to me last Christmas and has been patiently waiting for me to get to it.) It really is every bit as good as my sister told me it would be, a compelling and electric story that seems more relevant than ever right now, and I've been devouring it as fast as one really can devour an 800+ page book at work.

And it's really good stuff. Goodwin makes you feel like this is recent history, not just something out of a dusty old book. It's a chronicle of turbulent, violent times in our nation's history, when you could feel the stormclouds gathering on the horizon every day and the idea of the United States of America seemed to actually be in danger. Just the thought of America collapsing seems alien and terrifying now, but a hundred fifty years ago, it was a real and tangible possibility, and Goodwin explains it in clear and intelligent terms to the reader.

I had gotten up to about 1856 in the book, when Lincoln was running for Senate against Stephen Douglas (when the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates happened.) The pivotal event in all this was the adoption of the so-called "LeCompton Constitution", where a bunch of pro-slavery Kansans got together and drafted a Kansas state constitution that was (surprise, surprise) pro-slavery, and shot it off to the President for ratification without really checking to see with the rest of the state as to whether or not this was actually a good idea. President Buchanan said it sounded like a great idea, because President Buchanan was pretty much willing to say and do anything to keep the South happy at that point, but even guys like Stephen Douglas called shenanigans on the LeCompton Constitution, vowing to fight it and not let it get through Congress.

And that was when I set the book down to go grab a soda. And when I reached into my wallet and pulled out a quarter, it was a Kansas state quarter. Just below the name of the state was the year it entered the Union, 1861. Which meant that the Lecompton Constitution couldn't have been ratified, meaning that Kansas must have entered the Union as a free state. (It would have been nice to get a spoiler warning on my spare change...)

And it just hit me that history really is everywhere around us. We are steeped in the past, so thoroughly that we frequently fail to notice it, but the stories of our lives are intertwined inextricably with those of the people who came before us. The tiny little details we barely notice some days are the stories of triumph and tragedy, of heroism and villainy and blood and sorrow and joy and wonder, the stories of our parents and their parents and their parents before them. The quarter that I spent in a vending machine contained the tale of men and women who moved halfway across the country to fight and die for their beliefs about freedom, if anyone took the time to listen to it. It was almost a little scary to think that everything would be like that if you looked at it from the right perspective.

I think that's part of why I enjoy learning new things so much. It makes the everyday world a lot more interesting.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Storytelling Engines: The Critic

(or "Dumpy Guys Are A Tough Sell")

On paper, the ABC (and later Fox) series "The Critic" seems like it should have run for a long time. The creative team behind it shares a lot of names with the seemingly-immortal "Simpsons", it's got a pretty familiar name as the lead in Jon Lovitz, and the storytelling engine feels remarkably strong for a "workplace sitcom", especially an animated one. Sitcoms set in an office (or a TV studio) that center on the inter-personal dynamics of the (generally quirky) characters who have to work together despite their various dysfunctions, tend to reach a point where it's hard to keep finding things for them to do that aren't repetitive; the good ones, like 'Cheers', work around this problem by having a flow of guest-star and semi-regular customers to keep things fresh, while the bad ones just embrace repetition. (I'll leave it up to you to fill in the blank here with your own most-hated sitcom.)

By focusing primarily on one character, film critic Jay Sherman, "The Critic" works around this problem by expanding to his family and romantic life as well as his job, and showing all the ways those intertwine. He has to deal with an egomaniacal boss (who is wonderfully played by Charles Napier as a crazed Ted Turner), a frustrating and emotionally distant family (with the exception of his little sister, who looks to him for guidance), and the fallout from his disastrous first marriage. Each element provides fodder for one or more stories above and beyond the typical "workplace" drama, which is also present (and it helps a lot that the choice of "film critic" as job allows for plenty of gags about the entertainment industry, from brief gag movie clips to whole episodes revolving around a spat between Ebert and Siskel.)

So why, with all the talent behind it and all the opportunities available to it, did "The Critic" fail? Even a spot just in front of 'Home Improvement' couldn't help it on ABC, and even a guest appearance on "The Simpsons" couldn't save it on Fox. (And incidentally, that's not a good question to bring up to Matt Groening. Trust me on this.) What made "The Simpsons" into a huge success, and "The Critic" into an obscure cult series?

We have to consider the setting to be a culprit; unlike "The Simpsons", which takes place in a deranged vision of Anytown USA, "The Critic" sets itself in New York City and is squarely cosmopolitan. From a storytelling angle, this works great. New York becomes a character in its own right in the series, with the atmosphere of the city informing every episode in all sorts of ways that show that more than a few New Yorkers worked in the writing room. But to a non-Manhattanite (yes, we do exist!), these elements worked to exclude potential viewers instead of draw them in. It's sort of like Woody Allen's films, which work well in critics' circles but never seemed to make a ton of money in nationwide release.

A comparison to Woody Allen also brings us to the key point that made "The Critic" a tough sell; it's a self-consciously intellectual comedy about an intellectual character (how many sitcoms are about Pulitzer Prize-winners?) In a country like America, which has a long tradition of anti-intellectualism, that's a tough sell in and of itself. But more than that, "The Critic" is a comedy about failure, about a single guy who stays single due to his lack of confidence (and looks and virility and savoir faire...) Despite the seeming attractions of the concept, audiences don't tend to want to watch the lives of people who are even worse off than they are, especially not one who seems to be mired in failure. The series attempted to fix that when it moved to Fox, adding Park Overall's "Alice Tompkins" character as a love interest, but by then, the tone of the series had already been set in the minds of its potential viewers. And so Jay Sherman, like Woody Allen, remains an acquired taste on DVD instead of an enduring icon like Homer Simpson. (Hmm...so maybe "dumpy" isn't that tough a sell after all...)

Friday, December 05, 2008

Review: The Best of Rifftrax Shorts Volume One

Those of us who are fans of the classic series "Mystery Science Theater 3000" know that some of the best comedy came from their riffing on those old public domain "educational" films, the kind of thing that your teacher would show in class to kill twenty minutes when they needed to grade papers (or were hung over.) These lessons on good citizenship, the virtues of listening to your teacher, and the need to avoid drugs always seemed to be just perfectly deranged in such a way that lent itself to MST3K's commentary. Sometimes it was the bizarre obsessions of the characters in the film, who seemed utterly devoted to springs or workplace safety or watching out for trains ("Why don't they look?") Sometimes it was the worldview of the shorts, which seemed so relentlessly cheerful that dark humor was just about the only defense. And almost always, it was the fact that cheap public domain educational films hired hilariously bad actors.

MST3K has been off the air for almost ten years now, and the last three seasons of the show on the Sci-Fi Channel rarely featured short films. The fine folks at Rifftrax have noticed this gap and have been producing downloadable media files of short films, complete with mockery, but for those of us who like to watch these things on TV, the old-fashioned way, it's been a long drought between goofy short films with built-in heckling.

So it's nice to see Mike, Bill and Kevin returning to the one part of the MST3K oeuvre that hasn't been covered by MST3K.com and Cinematic Titanic by releasing a DVD that collects their available-for-download short films (one that you can buy here, if my review makes you inclined to do so.) This DVD collects nine of their short films, and I gotta say, there are some instant classics in there. "Drugs Are Like That", "Down and Out", and "Patriotism" each proudly carry on the tradition of shorts like "Mr. B Natural" and "Why Study Industrial Arts?" (and trust me, if you're a fan of the old MST3K series those things would mean something to you.) The other shorts are great too, but those three probably make it worth buying right there. And as an additional bonus, the menus play three of the songs that Mike, Bill and Kevin wrote as the Rifftones for QuickStop Entertainment's "Song Fu" competition.

The DVD also includes an all-new short done exclusively for the DVD, and while "Shake Hands With Danger" is just as funny as the other eight (and probably funnier than "The Trouble With Women", the weakest of the nine), my only advice to the Rifftrax crew would be to go ahead and leave off the "digital avatars" when it comes time to release a Volume Two. (Which I, for one, would love to see...) They're pretty much unnecessary (the first eight shorts don't have them, and I didn't find myself missing them) and they were actually a little distracting, since the short had to be resized and played on a smaller screen-within-a-screen so that we could see the CGI riffers. Nice idea, worth trying, but it's not needed. Next time just have a brief live-action introduction from the actors, and call it good.

But trust me, that minor quibble doesn't in any way compromise my basic point: Great DVD, well worth buying.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Storytelling Engines: George Romero's "Dead" Films

(or "The Purest Example Ever")

Normally, when I talk about a series' storytelling engine, what I'm really doing is trying to take a look at a long-running (or occasionally short-running) series from a different perspective. Instead of just seeing the elements of the series as part of the story the writer is telling, I'm looking at them as story-generating components--the supporting cast fulfills this function, the setting adds this potential, the protagonist moves the plot this way, and so on. But it's very rare that I think that writers consciously consider their status quo as a machine that generates plots.

In the case of George Romero's seminal zombie movie series ("Night of the Living Dead", "Dawn of the Dead", "Day of the Dead", "Land of the Dead", "Diary of the Dead"), though, that's pretty much exactly what they are. Romero starts with a set of postulates that function as his "engine", and then takes other stories and runs them through the engine to see what the result will be. It's a storytelling engine that takes the world as it is, applies a major change, and observes the logical result.

The change is, of course, the dead coming back to life. Romero postulates an event (never explicated, but hinted as some sort of radiation wave released by a returning satellite) that causes every recently-deceased corpse in the world to re-animate and seek out living humans with an instinct to consume their flesh. (Their bite is invariably lethal, although Romero never makes it clear whether this is an effect of their status as zombies, or just due to the normal infections that would result from being bitten by a septic, rotting corpse.) They retain traces of their former personality, but generally have limited intelligence and diminished physical capacity (they're slower, but stronger.) Being dead, they're pretty much immune to pain, and the only way of permanently killing them is with damage to the head. But more importantly, the event affected living humans as well, even if it doesn't show. Anyone who dies in the series re-animates within minutes of their death as a zombie, unless that death is due to head trauma.

Romero's movies (and the various comic and novel spin-offs) focus on the consequences of this event for different groups. He never returns to the same set of protagonists (which allows him a lot of freedom when it comes to killing off characters), but the world is always the same. Humans find ways to survive the zombie apocalypse, some of which are co-operative (as in the small community of survivors in "Land") and some of which are competitive and counter-productive (as with the nihilistic end to "Dawn".) Different people cope with the psychological stress of the event in different ways (most of which aren't good--if Romero's movies have a common theme, it's that people tend to come unglued in crisis situations.) And the zombie horde always gets larger--in fact, with the span of time separating the movies, the size of the zombie horde provides the only definitive timeline for the series. "Diary" might look like 2005 and "Night" might look like 1968, but the two both occur early on in the zombie plague.

Romero's "zombie rules" provide a very interesting storytelling engine, precisely because they're the only real element of an engine with very loose continuity from installment to installment. This faithfulness to the rules has meant that the entire zombie sub-genre of horror has found itself defined by Romero's rules and the ground-breaking films that provided them, to the point where many zombie movies are essentially Romero movies in all but name. Some of them are loving homages, like "Shaun of the Dead", others are rip-offs, like "The Dead Next Door", and still others are deliberate reactions against or alterations of the Romero rules, like "Return of the Living Dead" or "28 Days Later" (or, for that matter, the James Gunn/Zack Snyder remake of "Dawn of the Dead".) But the Romero rules now provide a practically inescapable framework for everyone following in Romero's footsteps, a storytelling engine that has escaped its creator and run wild throughout the genre. Its simplicity is also its strength, something that is constantly proved with each new zombie movie, comic, or book that comes out.