Month: April 2016

Book Review – Save the Cat! By Blake Snyder

Screenwriter Blake Snyder opted to take his writing skills to the next level. After successfully crafting and selling 13 screen plays to various Hollywood producers, including Steven Spielberg, he decided to take on the most challenging writing assignment imaginable. Mr. Snyder opted to pen a “how-to” manual for aspiring screenwriters. Those of us fortunate enough to have read Save the Cat! are glad he did. It provided outsiders like me with some key insights as to what A-list entertainment industry producers look for in scripts.

The author came up with a host of neologisms for common screenwriting concepts. By his reckoning the most controversial inspired the book’s title. The expression “save the cat” referred to: “…the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something—like saving a cat—that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him.” (Page xv) However, “save the cat” applies to “bad” characters, too. The author went on to explain:

The adjunct to Save the Cat says: “A screenwriter must be mindful of getting the audience ‘in sync’ with the plight of the hero from the very start.” (Page 121)

I liked the way the author incorporated the unlikely pair of Samuel L. Jackson’s and John Travolta’s characters from Pulp Fiction to illustrate this concept’s universality. Quentin Tarantino found clever ways to get the audience to “like”, or at least, root for their characters in spite of their working as hit men. One such method entailed making their “boss” a worse bad guy than they were. (Page 122)

Of all the tips Mr. Snyder revealed in the book, writing for archetypes impressed me the most. He pointed out that it’s a bad idea to create characters with particular actors in mind. Instead, he suggested thinking about it this way:

…You find throughout cinema history that many of the big stars play one part really well. Think about Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Cary Grant. Now think about Jim Carrey, Russell Crowe, Julia Roberts, and Sandra Bullock. It’s not because these are not good actors who can’t do more than one type of role, only that what makes movies work to a large degree is our need to be shown certain archetypes onscreen.

And the actors who play these archetypes now are just taking the place of actors who played the same archetypes years ago.

Isn’t Russell Crowe Errol Flynn? (Even geographically?)

Isn’t Jim Carrey Jerry Lewis?

Isn’t Tom Hanks Jimmy Stewart?

Isn’t Sandra Bullock Rosalind Russell? (Page 58)

Mr. Snyder included a variety of trenchant thoughts on characterization that would apply to any type of writing. I took away the key concept of how the hero always knows: (s)he never asks. (Page 146) The author added the best way to reveal a character’s essence is through actions, not what (s)he says. (Page 148) I’m thankful to the author for raising the point that often times the “good guy” and the “bad guy” are two sides of the same character. (Page 149).

I always encounter jargon when I read books about craft. Since the author targeted this book to those interested in writing for Hollywood, he included a good deal specific to that market. Fortunately for those of us outside of Tinseltown he added a glossary at the end. This helped me follow unfamiliar concepts such as loglines, promise of the premise and whiff of death. He also defined story ARC which I, embarrassingly, should have already known.

Save the Cat! works as a great primer on screenwriting. It also includes helpful tips that writers of any type of fiction could utilize. I’d suggest those interested make the time to read it now. Don’t wait for the movie.

Book Review – The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s brilliant character crafting made me sympathize with the communist sympathizer in The Sympathizer. This year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction earned the honor for that feat alone. The author didn’t stop there, however. He presented not just a unique take on the experience of a North Vietnamese agent under deep cover as an officer in the South Vietnamese secret police. This gifted novelist also delivered an exceptional character study of a “man of two minds.”

I liked Mr. Nguyen’s atypical choice of character names; or rather, in many cases, the lack thereof. He told the majority of the story through the nameless narrator’s confession; a person whom others in the story simply referred to by his military rank: “Captain”. We also met the “General”, his wife “Madame” and—most memorably—“the crapulent Major.” These unorthodox apellations gave the tale a unique character all its own.

It’s difficult for a novelist to generate reader sympathy for an unreliable narrator. It’s nearly impossible to do so with one who is a traitor and engages in morally objectionable activities to cover it up. I won’t give away spoilers, but several of the Captain’s actions caused his guilt to overwhelm him to the point of making him hallucinate.

While the narrator may have had misgivings about his dubious conduct, he didn’t allow them to influence his behavior. The author, therefore, humanized the character through his recollections of his departed mother. While consulting on a film regarding the war, the Captain painted her name on one of the prop gravestones in a cemetery. He explained why:

At least in this cinematic life she would have the resting place fit for a mandarin’s wife, an ersatz but perhaps, fitting grave for a woman who was never more than an extra to anyone but me. (Location 2589)

Most authors insert clever uses of language into their works. Nguyen included more than most. Here are my favorites.

Besides my conscience, my liver was the most abused part of my body. (Location 1934)

What was it like to live in a time when one’s fate was not war, when one was not led by the craven and the corrupt, when one’s country was not a basket case kept alive only through the intravenous drip of American aid? (Location 411)

Before the communists won, foreigners were victimizing and terrorizing and humiliating us, now it’s our own people victimizing, terrorizing and humiliating us. I suppose that’s improvement. (Location 2554)

One only needed to ask why the idealist was not on the front line of the particular battle he had chosen. (Location 3536)

And the most notable: “We would all be in Hell if convicted of our thoughts.” (Location 3368)

I was suffering from an eye injury when I began reading The Sympathizer. Because of that, I opted to listen to Francois Chau’s audio narration of the book. While I thought it excellent, I did catch one mistake. The line in the text read, “Innocence and guilt. These are cosmic issues.” (Location 1756) During the narration, Mr. Chau said comic as the penultimate word. I point this out because the error altered the sentence’s meaning.

The author set the pace and delivered tension exceptionally well through most of the book. The most noteworthy example occurred towards the beginning when the Captain and General evacuated South Vietnam. In one of the most outstanding passages in modern literature the aircraft came under enemy fire. Between scenes like this and the various tense conversations the sympathizer had with other characters the novel held my attention.

This is why the Captain’s interaction with the Commandant and the Commissar disappointed me. At this point the book became heavily philosophical. While relevant to the story it froze the pace. This section reached its climax when the captors placed the Captain under duress and forced him to answer the question, “What is more precious than independence and freedom?” I remembered that issue coming up earlier in the book. The drawn-out interrogation caused me to lose interest in the answer.

In spite of this one shortcoming I’d still recommend reading the novel. Mr. Nguyen found creative ways to keep the story interesting. During this portion of the narrative the author wove in a surprise plot twist. In addition the Commissar expressed his concurrence with Ayn Rand’s observation that those who support communism never lived under it.

In the opening of the book, Mr. Nguyen wrote, “After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you.” (Location 173) The brilliance of The Sympathizer shows how both can influence the same author.

Civil Rights in the Toilet

In his apotheosis of the American experience, historian Daniel Boorstin marveled at how our nation “democratized the bathroom.” On March 23rd of this year the state of North Carolina took a different tact. The General Assembly passed the so-called Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act. Governor Pat McCrory subsequently signed it into law. Ironically, a measure designed to foster “security” has germinated much insecurity in the Tar Heel state due to the controversy it engendered.

It seems odd to compare this statute to the Emancipation Proclamation, but it does share an unusual similarity. It’s one of the most discussed, but little read documents in American history. To clarify its content: it codified that in all public buildings in North Carolina a person is required to use the bathroom of his/her “biological sex.” The statute defined this gender as the one “stated on a person’s birth certificate.” An individual who violates the law is not subject to arrest, however. It is a civil act, not a criminal one.

This makes the outcry against the law seem disproportionate. In civil rights terms, it’s certainly no Dred Scott decision. It doesn’t impact people on the scale of the Boston bussing desegregation ruling of 1974. When one explores the matter more fully it does lead to some troubling observations.

The law’s reference to “public buildings” applies to schools. It seems to me this is where the main impact of this ruling will fall. Transgender teens who’ve been living openly as one gender will now be forced to use the same locker rooms and rest rooms as the gender on his/her birth certificate. One has to irreverently salute the North Carolina General Assembly for this one. They found a way to make the most awkward years of a transgendered person’s life even more uncomfortable. That’s not something any legislative body could accomplish.

A number of entertainers have expressed their disdain for this law by cancelling gigs in the state. Bruce Springsteen and Ringo Star have refused to play there. Bryan Adams won’t appear in Mississippi because of a similar law passed in that state. Jimmy Buffett has agreed to perform in North Carolina, at least for now. He acknowledged future shows will be contingent on “whether that stupid law is repealed.”

What I find most interesting about this list of luminaries is that only two of them are American; and of them, one is currently going to perform there. This doesn’t surprise me. As a society Americans’ commitment to civil rights has been, well, an abomination.

Many no doubt remember from high school history class the so-called “Wormley Bargain” that ended Reconstruction. After a contested election, Democrats and Republicans struck a deal. The GOP ended up with the Presidency and the Democrats got the end of military rule in the South. The Federal Government would no longer enforce civil rights laws. This resulted in nearly a century of lynching, segregation and peonage.

It took the activist nature of the Warren Court to begin reversing this situation. Let us not forget that the decision in Brown v Board of Ed was not well received in 1954. Even the President said he wished they hadn’t ruled in that way. (Eisenhower thought the South would close their public school systems. He suspected they’d have churches set up their own private educational institutions.)

Three years later Senate Majority Lyndon Johnson utilized a great deal of political wizardry to get the first piece of civil rights legislation passed since Reconstruction. Even contemporaries knew that as a symbolic measure, the 1957 Voting Rights Act lacked substance. The 15th Amendment already guaranteed all men the right to vote in 1870.

Then there’s the apathetic attitude most Americans take towards the shambolic “War on Drugs”. It’s led to the abnegation our Constitutional rights, especially the Fourth Amendment. These days almost any person who wants a job is subject to drug testing. It ensures that any individual suffering from addiction will be unable to secure legitimate employment. This limits their options to either working in the shadow economy or living on the street. Thinking of this minority, I recall Jesus’ words, “Whatever you do the least of my brothers, you do unto me.”

I recently spoke with an acquaintance regarding civil rights. This person doesn’t have any particular interest in the subject. I said, “It’s interesting that today people look back at the civil rights movement, shake their heads and say, ‘I can’t imagine living in a world where people discriminated against others because of someone’s race, creed, color or gender. That’s just stupid.’” I went on to say, “Today the new civil rights frontier involves lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender issues. That makes the same people feel uncomfortable about the LGBT community having the same rights as the rest of us.” My interlocutor looked at me and smiled. “They’re still human,” he said.

I’ve made many negative observations regarding America’s civil rights history. I’m going to conclude with a positive one. Many people don’t realize that the most lucrative industry this nation ever produced was slaveholding. This country chose to abolish slavery not for cynical selfish reasons. We ended this abhorrent practice because it was right. Let’s draw on that example and show our support for our friends in the transgender community. We must facilitate their securing democracy in the bathroom. It’s the right thing to do.

 

Victor Talking Machine Company: South Jersey’s Motown

Our friends in Cleveland, the home of “the heart of rock and roll”, owe the South Jersey area a great debt of gratitude. It turns out that without Camden, New Jersey’s contribution to the music industry that pulse would’ve flat lined a long time ago. According to Victor Talking Machine Company CEO, Graham Alexander, former Moorestown, New Jersey resident Eldridge Johnson and his business partner Emile Berliner gave birth to the modern record industry when they founded the company he now runs. Mr. Alexander referred to these two pioneers as the “Lennon and McCartney of the music industry” in a speech he delivered to the Historical Society of Moorestown on April 7th.

Camden native Mr. Alexander is well suited to his role as a music industry executive. With his black sport jacket, gray company logo shirt and boots, he looks the part. His bushy black hair and vocal inflections bring to mind Sir Paul McCartney. That’s not surprising. He played Sir Paul in a Broadway production of Rain prior to becoming an entrepreneur. Physical appearances aside, his intense passion for what he does truly makes Mr. Alexander fit the multiple roles he plays as a business owner, historian and performer.

Mr. Alexander acquired the Victor name during a brand auction he attended while living in New York City. Since he hailed from the South Jersey area he wanted to return. When the opportunity to purchase a piece of its rich musical legacy and bring it back with him presented itself, he did so. In addition to the Victor Talking Machine Company, he also acquired the rights to the Victrola, His Master’s Voice and Camden Records (Little Richard’s original label) brands.

The promotional film for Mr. Alexander’s song “Games” opens with an aerial view from an antique clip of one of the old Camden Victor buildings. The voice over describes “a treasure house of music” where one “gets to see a record made.” Then a sound engineer cues an orchestra. A black and white clip of the ensemble morphs into Mr. Alexander’s 2015 band playing a soulful ballad. This is an excellent metaphor of how he is developing both the old and the new at the Victor Talking Machine Company.

It’s not entirely fair to call Camden “South Jersey’s Motown”. The Victor Talking Machine Company’s talent roster would’ve made Berry Gordy envious. Imagine having the likes of Enrico Caruso, Billie Holliday and Big Bill Broonzy among the label’s artists. Now add to that list Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong. Include Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian, two of the most influential Jazz guitarists who ever lived. Woody Guthrie along with blues legend Lead Belly both recorded their first albums for Victor. (This is only a partial list of the company’s artists, by the way.) Most people don’t realize that these monumental talents recorded in Camden because as Mr. Alexander wittily observed, Victor “got rid of their good musicians before they really got good.”

Music aficionados like me salivate at the thought of listening to the master recordings of these sessions; especially for the great blues men who influenced the British Invasion. (It’s just a shame it took English musicians to introduce Americans to our music.) Unfortunately, many of Victor’s master recordings were lost in the 1960s. Due to an expansion of Camden’s docks an estimated 300,000 ended up at the bottom of the Delaware River. Thanks to the aid of RCA’s European affiliates* and donations from relatives of former Victor employees, the company is recovering some of these “lost” recordings. (* RCA purchased Victor in 1929.)

During his speech Mr. Alexander passed around a visual aid of a metal master recording. Record companies used these silver colored discs the size of a modern record until 1948. The manufacturer would press them into vinyl to make a record. During its prime Victor produced approximately 800,000 vinyl records a day. Mr. Alexander archly explained that it took “Mr. Edison’s company” a month to a month-and-a-half to produce that many.

The highlight of the evening came when Mr. Alexander played an unreleased recording from the Victor archives. It featured my favorite classical composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff, playing “The Flight of the Bumblebee” unaccompanied on the piano. When it concluded, he told the Historical Society of Moorestown that we were the first people outside the company to hear it. Ironically, Rachmaninoff didn’t like the recording. That’s why Victor never released it. “Still, you don’t hear music like that anymore,” Mr. Alexander observed. (For those who are unfamiliar with the artist: imagine a Russian born Keith Emerson; only a much better piano player.)

The Victor Talking Machine Company is currently headquartered at The Vault ™ in Berlin, NJ. Its brochure describes it as “a unique entertainment and educational experience venue.” In addition to housing early recordings of diverse artists ranging from Jimmy Rogers to Duke Ellington, it also contains historic recordings of Presidential speeches, military battles as well as antique comedy performances.

Thanks to the innovations of its visionary founder, Eldridge Johnson, the company has quite a legacy. Under his leadership Victor revolutionized the music industry. It shared the original record patent with Columbia. Johnson understood that records would become the home entertainment industry. He possessed the acumen to recognize Victor wasn’t selling records: they were selling “works of art”, in Mr. Alexander’s words. Hence the addition of liner notes, album art and artist stories to the package.

So what’s next for Victor? Mr. Alexander said that they’re “not putting the company’s legacy behind glass.” His goal is to, “Make a viable company for today without trampling over its history.” Because of that history, it’s wrong to call Victor South Jersey’s Motown. It would be more appropriate to call Motown Michigan’s Victor. Eat your heart of rock and roll out, Cleveland!

Punishment Aborted

This week Donald Trump guaranteed his place among great leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, FDR and Ronald Reagan. Drawing on the tradition of great American oratory, he expressed a vision for our nation which brought together two divergent groups that had never been able to agree on anything. His eloquence unified both the pro-life and pro-choice movements. Unfortunately for Mr. Trump, opposition to him served as the fillip for this unlikely coalition. It began when Chris Matthews asked the ubiquitous hypothetical question nearly every American politician receives. Whether running for Dog Catcher or President of the United States there’s a good chance someone will ask, “Should the Supreme Court overturn Roe v Wade what should happen to women who have abortions?” The presumptive GOP nominee said that she should face some kind of “punishment.” Outrage followed.

While indignation has tended to become the normal response to Trump’s observations, this one was different. A candidate, who’s avowedly pro-life at least for this week, became the target of scorn and derision for expressing his support of that position. Why? Mr. Trump’s critics have said his response showed that he didn’t understand the pro-life movement. They pointed to the fact that prior to Roe v Wade American abortion laws targeted the abortionist: not the “mother”.

This is where the defenders of the “sanctity of life” lose me. Is referring to someone who is voluntarily terminating a pregnancy as the “mother” really the right word to use? Those on the pro-life side ardently emphasize their commitment to “protecting the lives of the unborn”. If the fetus is “alive” that would mean abortion truly is “murder”, as they claim. If the person having the procedure is the “mother”—their word–, doesn’t that make her guilty of homicide? Based on that logic, if they’re really serious about this, why don’t they want some form of “punishment” for the woman? I find this inconsistent.

This advocacy of “punishment” for victimized women has an ignominious history on the hustings. When Clayton Williams ran for Governor of Texas against Ann Richards in 1990, he drew ire by comparing the crime of rape to the weather. “If it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it,” he said. (1) During the 2012 Indiana Senate race, Richard Mourdoch generated criticism for his thoughts on abortion. “And even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something God intended to happen.” (2) It’s hard to imagine being victimized through such a dehumanizing assault on one’s dignity. It’s more unconscionable to imagine forcing someone against her will to carry her assailant’s child. It’s unthinkable to tell this same woman that God wanted her to get raped.

While the media pounced on Mr. Mourdoch’s comments during the election cycle, I found his views consistent with the position of pro-lifers I’ve known personally. During my thirteen years as a Catholic school student the abortion issue came up numerous times. I recall the question of whether abortion should be permitted in cases of rape, incest or when the pregnancy jeopardized the life of the mother receiving the glib response that “all life is sacred”. On the latter point, I found it intriguing that the Church opposed the death penalty for murderers, yet believed a woman deserved to die for wanting to bring life into this world. I solved my share of geometric proofs in school. They didn’t teach me the reasoning skills to rationalize this concept.

As a precocious youngster I remember asking my seventh grade religion teacher why the emphasis on making abortion illegal. “Won’t people have them, anyway?” I asked. The nun chuckled and said, “Well, there are people who only do things because they’re legal.” What a trenchant observation. That would explain why Prohibition ended alcohol consumption before policymakers abandoned it as a complete failure. It would explain how the “Drug War” through draconian methods such as eliminating privacy, negating the Fourth Amendment and the enforcement of “mandatory sentencing” ended illegal drug use. It would also explain why abortions never occurred in this country until January of 1973 when the word first entered the American lexicon.

These kinds of discussions aren’t constructive. They reduce the excruciating decision to end a pregnancy to a joke. Let us never forget that abortion is a serious matter which affects the lives of all involved. America has too many serious political and economic issues right now for every election to get bogged down over specious arguments regarding abortion. The subject warrants a serious national dialog. Both sides placing more emphasis on education would help. (The ad campaign regarding “Meth Mouth” has undoubtedly deterred more potential drug users than the threat of jail time.) Criminalization guarantees our nation’s return to the era of back alley abortion clinics and unsafe medical procedures. As uninformed as Mr. Trump’s comment was, it showed at least some common ground exists between both the pro-life and the pro-choice camps. Let’s work together to keep abortion rare, safe and legal: not make it a punishable offense.

 

(1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clayton_Williams Retrieved 4/2/16)

(2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Mourdock#2012_U.S._Senate_election Retrieved 4/2/16)