Genre Grandeur: Galaxy Quest (1999)

Lately, I’ve been mostly enjoying the new TV series The Orville, a spoof of Star Trek by Seth McFarlane. But it’s frustrating in a way, because something always seems a little bit off.

I think my niece hit on the problem: “I wish they would dump the spoof part and just make a straight space opera, because it only works on that level.”

Spoofing beloved pop culture phenomena is HARD.

And yet the 1999 film Galaxy works as a great spoof of both Star Trek and its fandom, while at the same time managing to be an effective space opera. It also finds ways to tweak the franchise and its devoted fans while still respecting both.

That is an amazing accomplishment.

Seventeen years after the cancellation of the TV series Galaxy Quest, the cast still appear at conventions and other events trading on the popularity of their characters. Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen), the star of the show, consistently upstages the rest of his castmates. After hearing some attendees trash him and the show, Jason gets massively drunk. Waking up the next day, a group of what he thinks are fans pick him up for what he thinks is just another fan event. Turns out they are aliens—who believe he is really the character he plays on Galaxy Quest and their only hope to defeat a villain who wants to destroy them.

Galaxy Quest pokes fun at many things we know about Star Trek, both in front of and behind the camera. Alan Rickman is brilliant as Alexander Dane, a Shakespearean actor who resents that he’s only recognized as Dr. Lazarus, the alien member of the crew in the weird makeup. (Rickman stays in the Lazarus makeup for the entire film.) He seethes with jealousy over the recognition Jason gets as the star. It is well known that Leonard Nimoy, who portrayed Mr. Spock on Star Trek, had trouble adjusting to the notion that he would always be best known for that role.

The movie also zeroes in on the way women are often portrayed in these kinds of series, with Gwen DeMarco, who plays the show’s sex object, Tawny Madison. (I love that Sigourney Weaver was 50 years old when the film was made.) Her character does nothing but repeat what the ship computer says. When one of the other actors complains, she says, “I have ONE job on this ship! It’s STUPID, but I’m going to do it!”

Then there’s Guy Fleegman (Sam Rockwell) who was an extra on one episode of the show and tags along from the convention. With his character they satirize the “red shirts”—non-speaking characters who would inevitably die during away missions.

As hilarious as the crew’s adventures are in the film what I love most about it is its theme of the power of storytelling. Even if stories seem silly to some, they can still inspire those who love them to greatness. Not only are the alien Thermians inspired by the “historical documents” (the show, which they do not realize is playacting), so are the actors, who become the heroes they once played on TV.

Somehow, the makers of Galaxy Quest found that magic sweet spot where parody and love for a genre converge.

This post originally appeared on MovieRob‘s site as part of his Genre Grandeur series.



Nature’s Fury Blogathon: The Stand (1994)

This post is part of the Nature’s Fury Blogathon, hosted by Barry at Cinematic Catharsis. Read the rest of the posts in this furious event HERE!

Film and television have a long tradition of showing us how nature will one day turn against us, and most likely with help from human beings.

Stephen King’s epic apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic novel The Stand is a tale of how government manipulation of the flu bug for militaristic purposes accidentally escapes from a lab and wipes out most of the population.

Continue reading “Nature’s Fury Blogathon: The Stand (1994)”

Fairy Tale Blogathon: Fractured Fairy Tales (1959 – 1964)


This post is Part 2 of my contribution to the Fairy Tale Blogathon, hosted by  Movies Silently.

Fractured Fairy Tales was a regular animated segment on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. (Do a search on Youtube. Many are available to watch for free.) The tales were narrated by Edward Everett Horton and voiced by June Foray (who also voiced Rocky the Flying Squirrel and Natasha Fatale), Bill Scott, Paul Frees and Dawes Butler.

When I was a little kid, I would watch Rocky and Bullwinkle now and then but never liked it. I guess because it was animated, network executives thought it was for children, so they would program it with other children’s shows and cartoons. It took me a while to figure out it really was for adults. The Rocky and Bullwinkle segments were a dead-on satire of Cold War politics. I had to grow up to get the jokes.

Continue reading “Fairy Tale Blogathon: Fractured Fairy Tales (1959 – 1964)”

Fairy Tale Blogathon: Once Upon a Mattress (2005)


This post is Part 1 of my contribution to the Fairy Tale Blogathon, hosted by  Movies Silently.

For the past couple of years I’ve been writing fractured fairy tales, so when Fritzi at Movies Silently announced the Fairy Tale blogathon, of course I had to have fairy tales of the fractured variety as my subject!

(Shameless plug: you can read two of my fractured fairy tales in the anthology Fairly Twisted Tales for a Horribly Ever After.)

Continue reading “Fairy Tale Blogathon: Once Upon a Mattress (2005)”

My Project REUTSway Runner-up Story is Now Live on Their Blog!

projectreutswaylogoLast November I participated in REUTS Publications’ contest Project REUTSway. Each week, writers were given a prompt to use to retell a fairy tale. Each prompt was a supernatural creature (vampires, zombies, demons and werewolves).

Two out of the three stories I submitted were chosen for an anthology, which will be published at a later date.

My third story was a runner-up. Each week since February, REUTS has been featuring one of the runner-up stories on their blog.

Today was my turn! Continue reading “My Project REUTSway Runner-up Story is Now Live on Their Blog!”

The Great Villain Blogathon: Waldo Lydecker, Laura, 1944


This post is part of the Great Villain Blogathon hosted by Ruth of Silver Screenings, Karen of Shadows & Satin, and Kristina of Speakeasy  — see all the movie baddies at any of these three blogs.

YES, there will be SPOILERS.

“I don’t use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom.” – Waldo Lydecker

When it comes to film noir, the 1944 film Laura is a bit of an odd duck. Most detective noirs widen their scope to the lower echelons of society, including the underworld of organized crime. Rich characters may be revealed as slumming among the lower dregs of society, as drug addicts or other kinds of addicts (i.e. The Big Sleep). The crime may have international and/or political implications (i.e. The Maltese Falcon and Chinatown).

Laura never leaves the upper crust world of its handful of characters. It’s structured more like an English cozy mystery. Instead of a matronly busybody, a professional detective investigates the crime.

The film opens after Laura Hunt’s (Gene Tierney) murder has occurred and is narrated by Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb). He is a newspaper columnist and radio commentator who was her friend and mentor. Police detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) questions him. He also interviews her fiancé, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) and aunt, Anne Treadwell (Judith Anderson). Continue reading “The Great Villain Blogathon: Waldo Lydecker, Laura, 1944”

Black Sails: Starz’s New Pirate Show Really Floats My Boat



(He-he, sorry, couldn’t resist that title.)

I did not subscribe to Starz a few weeks ago. Then I stumbled on a preview episode of their new pirate series Black Sails on the Audience Channel.

I thought, “What the heck, I’ll watch for a few minutes. Michael Bay is an executive producer, I’ll probably HATE it and turn it off right away.”

Within about 15 minutes I was totally hooked and within a few moments of the end credits rolling I was a subscriber to Starz.

Continue reading “Black Sails: Starz’s New Pirate Show Really Floats My Boat”

2014 Starts on a Writing High Note: I’m a Project REUTSway Winner x 2 (and a half)!


As mentioned in a previous post, I participated in Project REUTSway, a short story contest held by REUTS Publications. I found out a month ago that I was one of the finalists. Today the winners were announced and TWO out of my three stories were chosen for the anthology! My third story is a runner-up, which means it will be posted on their blog at some point in the coming year!


Continue reading “2014 Starts on a Writing High Note: I’m a Project REUTSway Winner x 2 (and a half)!”

Are Young Adult Movie Franchises Dead in the Water?

cityofbonesThis past week Publisher’s Weekly linked to an article by Tara Aquino on the web site about the failure of three YA movie adaptations this year: The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Beautiful Creatures and The Host.

While she doesn’t exactly come to the conclusion that young adult franchises are a dead commodity, she does seem to be dismissing the YA movie franchise trend as a passing one.

It’s true the movies she cites have all underperformed at the box office. Yes, it was recently announced that The Mortal Instruments sequel has been put on hold indefinitely—which may be code for “on hold forever.”

But some movies based on YA books not attaining the popularity of the Harry Potter, Hunger Games and Twilight franchises doesn’t mean all, or even most, YA franchises are doomed to failure. This would be like saying that superhero movies are on the way out because The Green Hornet and The Green Lantern bombed.

Even more to the point, YA is not a genre the way that superhero movies are a genre. YA is simply a category based on the age of the main characters. Young adult books can be any genre—sci-fi, fantasy, contemporary, historical, suspense—there are very few genres that are not represented in YA fiction.

It’s obvious Aquino has a condescending attitude towards young adult fiction. She compares YA books to mediocre pop music bands, and assumes that the success of Twilight and The Hunger Games is at least in part due to audiences being obsessed with the real-life love lives of their stars.


Is every YA book a masterpiece? Far from it. The Twilight series is the Da Vinci Code of the YA world—wildly popular yet also despised by many.

But there’s a reason why so many adults are reading young adult fiction—there is some serious talent writing some terrific books. Assuming most are cheesy, poorly-written romances exposes a serious ignorance of the subject.

However, Aquino has a point when she says the aforementioned box office failures were rushed into production. This is the way of Hollywood. It latches onto what it thinks is the craze of the moment and starts buying up books to make into movies, and sometimes the results leave a lot to be desired.

One theory I have for why The Mortal Instruments and Beautiful Creatures flopped is because they fall into the urban fantasy genre, which seems to do much better on television than on the big screen. True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, Teen Wolf all flourish on TV. The newly-minted TV series Sleepy Hollow, though not YA but definitely in the same general category (real world meets fantastical elements) just achieved outstanding ratings for its premiere.

Other reasons they may have failed? The same reasons any movie might fail: poor execution, casting mistakes, badly thought-out marketing campaigns, openings scheduled at less than optimum times of the year. It’s really quite easy for movies to fail.

And even though all three movies cited were based on best-sellers (the Mortal Instruments just completed two years on the best seller list), unlike Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and Twilight, none of them were pop culture phenomenons in the way those three series were even before they hit the screen.

My predictions for the movie adaptations coming down the pipeline? I think Divergent, based on the series by Veronica Roth, will do very well. Divergent has a lot of crossover from The Hunger Games fandom and an excellent cast. Dystopian/sci-fi tends to attract larger audiences than urban fantasy and its love story is more of a subplot, so it will probably attract more male movie-goers.

It’s harder to say with the other two projects Aquino mentions, The Maze Runner series, based on the books by James Dashner, and the Chaos Walking series, based on the books by Patrick Ness. Personally, I think the Chaos Walking series (the first book is called The Knife of Never Letting Go) faces a lot of challenges going from page to screen. That’s not to take anything away from the books, but not everything translates from one medium to the other that easily.  With a director and screenwriter the caliber of Robert Zemeckis and Charlie Kaufman, it stands a good chance of overcoming the challenges. Also, Lionsgate is the studio behind it. They have done a stellar job of marketing and making fans happy with The Hunger Games—they should do as well here. The Maze Runner should have no trouble translating, and it’s a series that appeals to both boys and girls.

Should Hollywood be pickier about which YA books to adapt? Absolutely. Should they take more time to carefully nurse book adaptations into outstanding movies? Sure.

But we’re talking about Hollywood here.

When everything shakes out, and they realize what most of us already realize (that not everything should be made into a movie) they will become pickier and more successful YA franchises will be born.

It just takes Hollywood a little while to learn.

Are Soap Operas Poised To Make A Comeback?

Valentine background with heartsIt’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when the revenue generated by daytime soap operas paid for nighttime programming on the major networks. This past decade and more, soap operas were not just on the wane, but an endangered species. With only four currently left on the air, the demise of this once popular genre seemed to be less a question of if and more a question of when.

There have been a lot of theories proposed as to why soaps have declined so rapidly and so entirely. Of course, a big part of it was the large numbers of women entering the work force over the past three decades. Some point to the televised O.J. Simpson trial as the beginning of the end of soaps, but the advent of cable and satellite television services, with the huge increase in programming choices, probably had more to do with it.

Some, including myself, point to how soap operas lost their way when they were at the peak of their popularity. During the late 70s and early 80s, General Hospital changed soaps from familial and romantic relationship stories to adventure, mystery and even sci-fi and fantasy stories. While they were fun at the time, and there had been soaps with these elements before (i.e. Dark Shadows and The Edge Of Night) these kinds of stories were pretty much the antithesis of what soap operas were about. Some of the fall-out from these changes were  increased production values, including expensive location shoots. As they became more mainstream pop culture icons, the most popular soap opera stars began to demand and get million dollar salaries.

The outstanding success of General Hospital with college students at the time (I was one of those) forced other soap operas to attempt to replicate their success. Most could not get the high ratings needed and soon began disappearing from the air as the expense to produce them did not justify the ever-decreasing revenue they generated. Networks began to realize they could make more money from a talk or game show, since they cost far less to produce.

When ABC cancelled two of their once-popular soap operas, All My Children and One Life To Live, that seemed to be the beginning of the end. But soon there was talk that the two shows might find new life as web series. This quickly fell apart as the production company, Prospect Park, failed to make deals with the actors unions.

The two shows, which were believed to be dead-dead over the past year, are now in the process of a resurrection, as Prospect Park ironed out deals with the unions. They have now secured several actors and some executives for the new productions. There are even rumors that these may turn out to be television series again (most likely on a cable network) and not just web series.

Whether or not these shows succeed in their new incarnation remains to be seen, but it may be the right time now for them to return. Nighttime soaps are having a resurgence, as shows like Revenge, Scandal and the reboot of Dallas are finding appreciative audiences. They’re doing so well the networks have several more nighttime soaps in the development pipeline. The stunning success of Downton Abbey, which takes the staid British historical drama and livens it up with more suds than ten soap operas, also seems to indicate that audiences are ready to revisit the genre. (An American version, called The Gilded Age, is currently in the works.)

I’d like to think that forced to pare down their production values, All My Children and One Life To Live could return to the glory days when soaps were about characters and relationships. One thing that gives me hope it might actually happen is the news that Agnes Nixon, creator of both shows, has been hired by Prospect Park as a consultant. It will be exciting to see if this experiment breathes new life into a genre thought to be almost over and done.

5 Things That Bug Me About Post-Apocalyptic/Dystopian Fiction

First, let’s define post-apocalyptic and dystopian:

Post-apocalyptic refers to a work of fiction that deals with a global disaster so profound there are few survivors. It may include a period of time leading up to the disaster, or it can take place years afterwards, but mostly it’s about the immediate after-effects of a disaster–war, environmental disaster, plague. The disaster can have a fantastical element, like zombies or vampires, or a sci-fi one, like an alien invasion.

Dystopian usually takes place far into the future. It may be post-apocalyptic or not. Society has in some way changed profoundly, most noticeably the system of government.

There is some disagreement over the definition of dystopian. Some believe it should only be defined as societies where people believe they are living in an ideal society, when in truth it has some oppressive or horrific element to it.

I think it’s O.K. to expand the meaning to societies where citizens know darn well they are oppressed. 1984 is a famous example, as is The Hunger Games series.

I love post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, but there are some things that run through even the best examples that annoy me:

1. The world collapses too easily. Having lived through several hurricanes, and of course seeing what happened with Hurricane Sandy and other disasters like Katrina, earthquakes, volcano eruptions, etc., something strikes me each time: we are a resilient species. It is remarkable how human beings bounce back after a profound disaster. They rebuild, they renew, they find a way to get back to some semblance of normality.

It’s true that a wide-spread disaster could conceivably bring down a system of government, but it’s not easy, and it’s unlikely to happen quickly. Rome fell, sure–but it was in decline for centuries before it happened. The Black Plague claimed one third of the population of Europe and threatened the feudal system, but the population eventually came back, and real changes to the feudal system took centuries.

The point is, it’s not believable if everything collapses within weeks or months or even years. Some semblance of society would probably remain. If it doesn’t, there had better be a really good reason why.

2. What the heck happened to religion?  This has nothing to do with my personal religious beliefs. This has to do with a major component of society that is glaringly absent in many of these stories.  This is more the case with dystopians, but it can be true of post-apocalyptic stories, too. There’s no religion. Of any kind, never mind what exists now.

Considering how it survived in countries with Communist regimes that banned religion, how during the Inquisition non-Christians still found a way to practice their religions, how many centuries the major religions have survived–it’s just not believable. Beliefs will endure, no matter what.

There may be new religions, I can buy that. But all of it, disappearing off the face of the earth? That does not ring true to me.

3. Complete isolation of the new societies from the rest of the world.  It drives me nuts when there is no mention of what’s happening in the rest of the world. It’s hard to believe that all kinds of communications could disappear that quickly or that completely. Someone would know how to operate a ham radio, at least. Or get in a boat, or fly a plane and go to another country.

I get that the isolation often ramps up the terror and suspense of the story, but it makes the characters seem somewhat stupid and incompetent.

4. Characters you know darn well couldn’t survive the new circumstances. Humans are resilient, true, but not everyone has the capacity to adapt, especially in an extreme circumstance. There are times when reading a PA or dystopian story when I wonder how certain characters haven’t been eaten by the zombies or captured by the government because they are such easy pickings.

5. Oppressive systems or circumstances that no one even thinks of rebelling against. I run into lots of dystopians like this, where there are things happening that are obviously unjust, and yet everyone accepts them as normal.

Let’s go back to Rome for a moment. Gladiator fighting and throwing victims to the lions were accepted forms of entertainment. But there were people who were against those things, too.

No matter how many people are FOR something, there are always going to be people against it, too. It really bugs me when that is missing from a story.

Book Review: The Twelve By Justin Cronin

The Twelve by Justin Cronin is the second of his post-apocalyptic/vampire trilogy. The first book in the trilogy is The Passage. I wrote a spoilerific analysis of one of the major characters in The Passage a while back. This review will refrain from divulging any major spoilers.

That makes it very difficult to write this review, because, boy, are there some huge surprises in this book.

Most sequels pick up where the last book left off, but that doesn’t quite happen with The Twelve. Cronin finds a clever way to bring readers back up to speed in the beginning (I won’t say how) and briefly lands five years after the events of the previous book.

Then he goes back to Year Zero, when the plague of “virals”–vampire/zombie-ish creatures created in the lab–was unleashed on the North American continent.

The characters he follows are some we’ve met before, including some whose fates seemed a foregone conclusion. Turns out, we were wrong. The new characters in this part of the book seem disconnected from the story so far, but keep reading, because everything turns out to be connected.

That’s not to say this part of the book is boring or a trial to read, far from it. As in the first book, the collapse of this world is incredibly gripping and his characters are fascinating. The reader’s patience–because we waited SO patiently for two years to find out what happens next–is richly rewarded, both by finding out what happens to the characters in Year Zero and by how the story continues 97 years later.

The title The Twelve refer to the original virals who were created by the government as a possible military weapon. They were death row inmates persuaded by FBI agent Brad Wolgast to take a treatment that might be the key to prolonging life indefinitely. A little girl named Amy was given a milder form of the virus and after one hundred years still looks like a pre-teen. She eventually made it to The Colony, a walled village of survivors who assumed they were the last people left on Earth. Some members of the colony, including Peter Jaxson, Alicia Denadio, Sara and Michael Fisher, realized Amy may be the key to finding a way to defeat the virals, so they set out on a perilous journey in the last book to find out how.

After one of the original virals, Babcock, was killed, Amy was able to help all the virals he created with their “passage” from life into death. She and Peter hoped that meant by killing the other original virals, they could reclaim the world for humans again. They also found out there were more human survivors, including a city in Texas with tens of thousands of them.

After five years, to Peter’s dismay, there has been no progress in destroying the rest of the original virals. Now a soldier, he finds himself going AWOL to seek out another rumored enclave of survivors in Iowa.

This turns out to be a place called The Homeland, a fascist dictatorship lead by Horace Guilder. He is a “red-eye”–a sort-of viral–who was a government bureaucrat in the “time before.” The Homeland is populated by survivors who have been kidnapped from other areas of the country and are forced to live in a kind of concentration camp to work as virtual slaves.

That’s where I have to stop giving an overview of the plot, because as I said, it’s chock full of surprises. Mr. Cronin certainly knows how to keep things from proceeding in a predictable manner.

He also has a remarkable talent for creating characters people genuinely care about. When he “killed off” a major character in the first book (yes, the quotes are there for a reason) it was hugely controversial, mainly because he was such a beautifully conceived character. While the book has some truly evil characters, almost all are given moments of complexity.

I felt a major theme of the first book was how goodness is not always sufficient in battling evil, as good people helped create the crisis by the sin of omission, or by waiting too long to act. In The Twelve, redemption is a strong theme that runs through the story, as several characters try to right many wrongs, including some they helped to create. Another running theme is the relationship between parent and child, as several characters lose or are separated from their children.

Consequently, this is a book populated by many sad and lonely characters, including some of the monsters, who aren’t quite as monstrous as one would assume. Some are going to break your heart. They sure broke mine.

My one quibble with the book is some of the violence (particularly against some of the women characters) is a bit more over-the-top than necessary. Not that I expect little or no violence in such a tale, but it could have been pulled back just a tad and still been just as effective.

Other than that, I found this a more than worthy follow-up to The Passage, and am once again facing a looong two-year wait for the next book, The City Of Mirrors. Can’t wait to sink my teeth into that one.

(I know, I know . . . I couldn’t resist.)

Writing Outside Your Comfort Zone

Zombies as portrayed in the movie Night of the...
Zombies as portrayed in the movie Night of the Living Dead (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No one was more surprised than I was when I ended up writing a zombie story, even though I never much liked zombie stories.

The mantra is usually write what you know, or at least, write the kind of story you like to read.

My lack of zombie love isn’t snobbery–I enjoy many horror sub-genres. Something about zombies, though, kind of turned me off.

My main objection was that as antagonists go, zombies are kind of, well–boring. They don’t think or feel. Their only motivation is a desire to eat brains. It’s not even a conscious desire.

I guess I preferred antagonists who had slightly more complex motivations.

I was thoroughly surprised when I read Max BrooksWorld War Z and loved it. But I think that’s because the global disaster in the book could have been just about anything, it didn’t have to be zombies.

So how did I end up writing a zombie story?

I had just begun writing a fractured fairy tale that I had been thinking about for a long time. Very early on, I felt that something was missing.

I was pondering this problem when I saw the announcement for a special call from Entangled Publishing for zombie fairy tales.

I rarely have those “light bulb over the head” moments, but this is one time when it really happened to me. Ah, I thought–that’s what the story is missing–zombies. I immediately knew how I could fit them in.

I thought since zombies weren’t my thing, I would have a hard time writing it, but the truth is,  I can’t recall a time when I had more fun writing a story. I ended up loving zombies by the time I was done.

The story was ultimately rejected by Entangled, but even if I never sell it, I learned a valuable lesson–that writing something completely out of your comfort zone can be a rewarding and enjoyable experience.

There are other genres and types of stories I’ve been afraid to tackle because they are out of my comfort zone. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up writing that sci-fi epic, after all. I may even thrown some zombies in.

Is Drama Dead As A Hollywood Genre?

We’re just now heading into the fall season, when Hollywood traditionally serves up “adult movies” (translation: Oscar bait) movies. We’re supposedly done with the summer blockbusters and have moved on to the movies adult like.


This past weekend a drama called The Words opened and did so poorly it helped to make the weekend one of the lowest grossing in the past decade.

Luckily, it didn’t cost too much to make, but it’s still dispiriting to think that it sank so fast and so far. I have no idea if The Words is a good movie, but if it’s not, why is it not?

The majority of dramas released by mainstream studios the past few years have come off as tired, pretentious or both. Many have crashed and burned at the box office.

Of course there are exceptions, like The Blind Side, Black Swan and The King’s Speech. But that’s just it–they are exceptions.

Drama seems to be a dying art–on the big screen. On the small screen, it’s a different story. Like many others, I was riveted by this past season of Breaking Bad and can’t wait for Boardwalk Empire to start again. Many viewers make Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy, Suits, Homeland, among others, appointment TV.

Then there are genre TV shows that are given the distinction of also being smart dramas, like The Walking Dead, Game Of Thrones, Fringe and now-defunct shows like The Sopranos and Deadwood.

So it’s not like the talent for creating drama has disappeared. It’s just shifted over to TV.

I love TV dramas, but also miss going to see a great dramas at the movies. I think what’s happened is that blockbuster movie-making has become so much the norm that that’s what we expect at the movies. We’ll make an exception for comedy (though notice most movie comedy now is of the broad variety) but other than that, we want spectacle on the big screen.

I don’t object to spectacle at all. I rather enjoy it. But it does seem like something is missing from movie line-ups today. There are independent films, of course, but I’m old enough to remember when Hollywood made dramas that weren’t stuffy and arty.

A few years ago when I was in New York, I visited the Film Forum to see Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. I fully expected to watch it with an audience that skewed older. While there were one or two people in the audience older than me, the majority of audience members were in their 20s and 30s.

The audience totally ate that movie up. I can’t recall seeing a movie with a more engaged audience.

I was stunned, and it made me wonder if they made smart, engaging dramas (with adult romantic storylines) if people might actually go to see them. I wondered if they actually might become hits.

Of course, if they don’t, I can always get my fix from TV. But there’s something special about a big screen and having that communal experience. Like the one I had at the Film Forum, watching a movie over 50 years old with a modern day audience loving every minute of it.

What The Coen Brothers Teach Us About Keeping Genre Fresh

The Big Lebowski
The Big Lebowski (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A while back I was participating in a discussion about The Big Lebowski on a screenwriters message board. Someone claimed the movie was of no particular genre. In fact, that the Coen brothers never made genre movies.

I disagreed with that, of course. I pointed out The Big Lebowski most certainly fits into a genre, and not just a general one like comedy. The Big Lebowski is a detective noir in the tradition of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald.

What’s that, you say? How can that be when the protagonist is a burned-out hippie whose only discernible activity is bowling?

That’s a big part of the genius of the Coen brothers.

Ethan and Joel Coen co-produce, co-write and co-direct their movies. From their first film they have been making genre films that don’t feel at all like genre films. Here are some examples:

Blood Simple – updated cowboy noir.

Raising Arizona – caper, with a baby taking the place of money or jewels as the object being stolen.

Miller’s Crossing – gangster movie.

The Hudsucker Proxy – screwball comedy in the tradition of Frank Capra’s Everyman Hero movies.

Fargo – police procedural. This movie is structured almost like an episode of the TV show Columbo. The first forty minutes are devoted to the crime. Then we’re introduced to the cop who is going to solve the crime.

O Brother Where Art Thou? – genre mish-mash of road movie (based on, of all things, Homer’s The Odyssey), 1930s social issue movie and musical. (Yes, MUSICAL. Just because the songs weren’t written for the movie doesn’t mean it’s not a musical. Most of the songs in Singin’ In the Rain were not written for the movie.)

Burn After Reading – spy thriller.

It’s no surprise that the Coens would do an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy‘s No Country For Old Men, as McCarthy writes novels with his own personal spin on genre, i.e. the serial killer, Western, and post-apocalyptic genres.

What the Coens do is keep their stories structured very closely to what one would expect in the respective genres. We expect a detective to investigate and solve a crime. We expect a caper to be about a group of people out to steal something (and for it to go terribly wrong at some point). We expect gangster movies to be about violence and betrayal.

Where they diverge from them is in the details. A hippie instead of a professional detective. An optimistic, pregnant police chief from a hick town, instead of a seen-it-all urban policeman or private detective. A drunken CIA operative writing memoirs nobody cares about instead of a spy on the run because he knows too much.

Aside from giving us unexpected characters, they use setting almost like a character. From how the characters talk, to the set pieces in the movies (desert in Raising Arizona, winter in Fargo) to where the characters hang out or work (the bowling alley, the gym, the cowboy bar) these elements help make something unique out of something very familiar.

The next time you’re feeling like genre stories all have to be the same, I suggest throwing a Coen brothers movie into the DVD player. Then think about how you can let your imagination help you take genre to a whole new place.