Pazar, Kasım 11, 2007

Making Fun: Mystery Science Theater 3000

In 1990, I was unreasonably (and inexplicably) excited about a new cable channel that was finally coming to our Waukesha county cable provider: The Comedy Channel, alongside its rival the Ha! Network, had been heavily hyped--at least in my issues of TV Guide--and I actually remember turning to the channel where this "comedy" was supposed to be appearing, checking in on that placeholder screen and waiting for the network to be switched on. At last The Comedy Channel materialized, and I was initiated into the scrappy beginnings of what would later become the hugely successful Comedy Central. Mostly it was clips of stand-up comedy--Rob Schneider, Adam Sandler, Larry Miller, Paula Poundstone, Dana Gould--packaged with Monty Python and Kids in the Hall clips in a program called Short Attention Span Theater, hosted by a nobody called John Stewart. There was a lot of original programming, but all of it exceptionally low-budget: Rich Hall's Onion World, The Higgins Boys and Gruber, and Late Night with Allan Havey. I actually become devoted to these shows long before finally catching an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which I'd seen advertised; I believe I was babysitting the neighbor kid when I caught episode 203, Jungle Goddess, a 1948 programmer with plenty of stock footage, cheap sets, and the racist chestnut of a white woman being revered as a goddess by African savages. At the bottom of the screen, in silhouette, series creator Joel Hodgson, with two handmade puppets named Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo, mercilessly skewered the film.

I would have watched the show even if the jokes weren't funny. As a macabre kid whose parents never let him watch R-rated horror movies, I became well-versed in old Universal horror and fantasy pictures, as well as B-movies of the 1950's: the MST3K specialty. It was a two-hour program, and the main feature, sometimes preceded by a short, played from shortly after the opening credits to the end. It was just the sort of entertainment I usually sought out on Saturday nights; and in fact I had already seen, on my local TV station late at night, many of the movies which the show chose or would choose to "riff," such as The Mole People, City Limits, and Laserblast. But the jokes were funny, even if many of the references went right over my head, and I quickly came to love Joel and the 'Bots, who interrupted the movie for short, low-rent comedy sketches, as well as the mad scientists who forced them to watch these bad movies--Dr. Forrester (Trace Beaulieu, also the voice of Crow) and TV's Frank (Frank Conniff).

The show became The Comedy Channel's first success, and when Onion World and the Higgins Boys dropped from sight, MST3K received a cushy contract to produce expanded seasons. Each Thanksgiving was "Turkey Day," and the network would show a full day's worth of MST3K episodes. The cult following became large, they won a Peabody Award, and the show was met with generous critical acclaim, most vocally from TIME's film critic Richard Corliss. Although Joel left the series midway through the fifth season, he was replaced by head writer Michael J. Nelson; despite some allegedly intense Joel vs. Mike fights on the "internet" (an entity of which I was barely aware at the time), the show's success continued to build with barely a hiccup. Conventions were spawned, and the cast and crew began to riff on movies live to an enthusiastic response. A feature-length film was financed, to be distributed by Universal, and featuring a slightly shortened version of their film This Island Earth. In the Bantam tie-in book published around this period, there's only the slightest hint that things were about to go sour--a few ominous paragraphs by writer/performer Mary Jo Pehl: "Since January of this year, Jim Mallon, producer, has said at least three times a week, 'The channel deal for Season Seven should be coming through in a couple of weeks.' It has yet to happen. Frankly, I'm losing hope and I have to face the fact that I don't even have a cat." Comedy Central (which it was now called, having since merged with the Ha! Network and having been sued by Canadian television for their brief use of the moniker "CTV") had grown sour on the show, whose ratings were good, solid--but also reached a plateau. The show also ate 120 minutes of air time, a good thing in the early days of the Comedy Channel, but now, not so much. The show was canned, only to be revived the next year, following a fierce campaign from the fans, by a different fledgling network: The Sci-Fi Channel. Sci-Fi had already gone through its growing pains, and had cut much of its original programming in favor of cheaper reruns like The Six Million Dollar Man, Dark Shadows, and The Incredible Hulk. It was looking to invest in a few select, cheap-to-produce nuggets of original programming, and MST3K, with its built-in audience, seemed like an attractive bargain.

As it happened, the show ran for three more seasons on the Sci-Fi Channel. I watched it as periodically as ever, a fan who didn't have much time to watch two-hour episodes of a TV show, and usually just caught it in bits and pieces. By the time Sci-Fi cancelled the show, when I was already in grad school, I tuned in to watch the last episode (#1013, Diabolik) and got a little nostalgic in the end, as Mike and the Bots finally returned to Earth. I hadn't watched the show in a year or two, but it was still bittersweet: the show had run for ten years, and I'd grown up with it. Yet, in many ways, the show hasn't really died. Rhino Home Video had begun releasing episodes on VHS a few years before the end, and has persistently cultivated the MST3K fan community by continuing to release DVD box sets of the show, at least two a year. Although there are only four episodes in a set, this is no small gesture, as Rhino negotiates the rights to each individual "experiment" (feature film) in that episode, barring the public domain ones of course. Sometimes the rights lapse, and episodes go out of print. Sometimes a mistake is made, most notably with Godzilla vs. Megalon (#212), which Rhino released without securing Toho Studio's permission--and that whole box set is now an eBay collector's item (a shame, as it was the best set released, and a good "starter package" for new fans). Because of the labyrinthine rights entanglements for so many episodes, it looks like MST3K full-season sets will never be released; but the show was designed with little continuity anyway, so not much is lost by the random order these sets contain. Most volumes now are split evenly between the Joel and Mike years, and Comedy Channel/Central and Sci-Fi. It's easy to get into, and an addictive show to collect.

Still, while MST3K is easily one of my favorite shows and "comfort foods," I always feel a strange ambivalence toward its cultural impact, as well as its philosophy as a whole. The reason I entitled this blog "Kill the Snark" was because I was tired of the kind of cynicism which pervades so much online critiquing--the mentality in which (1) the critic steps on one film in order to elevate another, but crudely, without properly appraising the merits/demerits of the former film; (2) the critic dismisses a film entirely without providing real criticism; (3) the critic makes the piece more about his/her own writing style, hangups, or whims rather than the actual qualities of the film, in a kind of minor form of gonzo journalism in which the writer is the star of the piece; (4) the critic succumbs to snarkiness, in particular with films that require a greater patience or openness to originality. I sometimes wonder just how influential MST3K has been upon this lower level of critical discourse. Naturally "snarkiness" and dismissive criticism has been around since the dawn of the newspaper, but MST3K makes it an art, just as it gives a bit of respectability to the risible act of talking loudly in the theater. Naturally the writing, directing, and editing of an "experiment" are ruthlessly torn to pieces, but there can be a mean-spirited angle: actors are often bashed for their appearance, and certainly for their talents (and lack thereof). With hundreds, if not thousands, of jokes crammed into a tightly-written 92-minute episode, the skilled writers and former stand-ups of MST3K have produced an astonishing comic machine, but also a behemoth of take-no-prisoners criticism that essentially leaves nothing in its wake intact. When directed toward a completely incompetent piece like The Creeping Terror, Manos: The Hands of Fate, and Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders, it's exhilarating to behold. So exhilarating that it's difficult, if not impossible, to then immediately watch a respectable film without the urge to tear it to pieces. For a little while, Everything Sucks. And indeed, there's hardly a film that can't get a severe hole or two punched in it somewhere, when watched with that slant. It should also be noted that I've heard many complaints, in online forums and elsewhere, from movie buffs dismayed at inappropriate laughter from members of the audience during revival screenings of classic films. I've witnessed this many times, most depressingly during a should-have-been-great screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Some now avoid revival screenings--and the theatrical experience in general--preferring to watch their serious films at home, where they don't need to worry about wannabe Tom Servos.

Some of the creators of the original films handle the MST3K treatment better than others. Sandy Frank, who redubbed and distributed many of the Japanese films from the show's third season, was so angered by the personal ridicule he received on the show that he refused to renew the show's license to air his films. Subsequently, the Gamera movies, among the series' best episodes, remain unreleased on DVD. With Time Chasers (#821), a 1980's low-budget sci-fi film, the creators of the film were actually fans of MST3K and excited to find out that their obscure little movie was going to be featured on the show. Writer Paul Chaplin, in his "Reflections" on this episode written for the Sci-Fi Channel's MST3K website, recalled positive feelings for the film: "We...got a definite sense that the whole project was undertaken by a group of well-adjusted people. That is certainly not true of most of our movies, and they're to be commended. And truth be told--and remember, I'm only saying this in order to be polite--this really isn't a horrible film." Mike Nelson has a more painfully honest account, in his DVD introduction to the episode: "When the show premiered, [the makers of Time Chasers] had a party, and we talked to all the people beforehand, especially one of the characters--the little guy with the mustache, I don't remember his name...and they showed the movie, and we talked to the guy after that and things weren't so good anymore. Apparently they didn't think we would actually savage the film. Maybe they thought we would say, 'Wow, this is a great film.' It didn't happen that way, and apparently the party was kind of a downer, so to all of those people involved in Time Chasers: I'm sorry." On the other hand, Don Sullivan, one of the stars of The Rebel Set (#419), has found a somewhat strange, if philosphical appreciation for the treatment his film received by the show. On an interview included in the recently-released Volume 12 box set, he says, "I've always liked [MST3K] for reasons that most people don't understand... The first time I saw it was The Giant Gila Monster [#402], and the little robots added humor to it. It was a nice film...however, the Science Fiction 3000 [sic] robots added luster to that. And the same thing with The Rebel Set. Here's a good movie, with a lot of interesting interplay of three losers, which, if you really look into it, has a lot of psychological interplay. They added humor to it in a beautiful way, the robots, that takes it...from a 'B' movie to an 'A' movie and that makes it very nice for the actors that are in it. So I love it." Now, perhaps Sullivan, like Chaplin, is just being polite, but his argument seems to be that MST3K improves its films in its efforts to tear them apart. Many fans would agree. On the other hand, he defends the qualities which he believes inherently exist in the original version of The Rebel Set. I admit I can't see much of any "psychological interplay" among the characters of the film--certainly nothing of any depth--but Sullivan clearly invested himself in the picture and continues to feel a natural protectiveness toward it. It's just that he's also managed to reconcile it with the MST3K version in what is either reflexive doublethink or an appreciative serenity which comes with time and distance.

At fan conventions and other MST3K-related events, it's not unusual to see cast and crew from the original films showing up to express their love for the show. Although I've never attended an MST3K convention, on two occasions in Madison I was able to see, up-close, how these subjects of so much "riffing" have reconciled their feelings toward it. The first was very positive, the second very weird. At the 2003 Wisconsin Film Festival, Kevin Murphy (the voice of Tom Servo) introduced a screening of Giant Spider Invasion [#810] with one of its stars, Paul Bentzen, who was very appreciative of the crowd and enthusiastic right alongside them, despite the fact that the film, though presented "un-riffed," was greeted to a roar of laughter that barely abated for its entire length. That's what you call a good sport. The director, Wisconsin-based auteur Bill Rebane, was scheduled to appear, but didn't because he was "snowed in," as Murphy told me skeptically before the show began. A couple years later, Rebane did show, this time for a festival celebrating his films hosted by Murphy and Mike Nelson. My wife and I planned to stay for as long as we could, but after the excruciatingly awful, two-hour-long documentary on Rebane's life as a director, edited incompetently by his wife, we bailed. The real reason we left is that it was just too awkward to be watching a recap of this director's life while every clip is mocked mercilessly by the audience. It was like an episode of "This is Your Life" hosted by Satan. The clips from his films--the "highlights," supposedly--were so awful that at a certain point, despite all my efforts to resist, I couldn't help but join in the laughter. We both did, and I think we felt a little dirty after that.

So I'm not saying that the films chosen for MST3K are not worthy of mockery. It's particularly cathartic when applied to the backward and even sexist values imposed by the older films, like the short subjects, many of them meant to be screened in classrooms, instructing young women to take home economics classes while the boys take Shop. (In one short, women are given a very limited array of careers from which to choose, should they--gasp!--actually want one; the most ambitious is being a stewardess.) Hey, snark has its place, and can provide a useful satirical function in undermining the status quo. On the other hand, some of the show's episodes have received vehement objections when the films being savaged are fondly remembered. Kevin Murphy recounts, in the MST3K Amazing Colossal Episode Guide, of encountering a hostile Dennis Miller when the crew was invited to his show: "Dennis mumbled something about us slipping because we had done Marooned on our show and it was a pretty good movie and maybe we'd lost our touch. In a word, he slammed us. Then he just sat there, sweating, staring at us blankly, and we smiled and stared back, then it was time to go." Marooned starred Gene Hackman and Gregory Peck and won an Oscar, so it was an odd choice for MST3K, but it was also the premiere of the fourth season, with the show at a creative peak, and it served as kind of an announcement by the show that they were hitting the big time, getting bigger films, and yes, some of those big-budget blockbusters were pretty bad, too. The objections were much stronger when they chose This Island Earth for use in Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie. I remember being surprised at the choice because my recollection was that the movie was kind of good. Certainly it was a cult classic, thanks to its bright primary-color cinematography, elaborate sets and plotting, and a memorable monster as iconic, in some circles, as Robby the Robot and the Creature from the Black Lagoon (they'd riff a Black Lagoon sequel later). What I--and a lot of other people--had forgotten was just how silly This Island Earth was. It's not a bad movie, it's a silly one, profoundly so: the aliens disguised as humans have suspiciously elongated foreheads, the captain's chair of their spacecraft looks like a toilet, and, well, it's got the Professor from Gilligan's Island in it. If you're in the right mood, you can laugh at the movie while still enjoying it. And while this was the most controversial experiment choice the crew of MST3K ever made, for me, conversely, it is the very justification for why I love this show. In the best episodes, the movies are a lot of fun to watch. They remind me of when I was a kid, watching beaten-up prints of B-movies on tape and on TV, waiting anxiously for the next monster they put up on the screen, just to see if it's going to look good or if it's going to be another lizard in a dinosaur costume. I love how goofy many of these movies are, and I love the movies. That's not doublethink.

In a recent interview with Joel Hodgson on Starwars.com, he explains: "As time went on I began to have affection for all these weird movies we were working with. I don't have the attitude like, 'bad movies suck and I'm going to put my eyes out with a pen because I curse you, bad movie!' I like all movies, good and bad. The good ones I call great, and the bad ones I call horribly great." In the end I think that's the best way to view MST3K. It isn't a savaging, but a salvaging: a way to recycle these ephemeral B-pictures into something entertaining again. Approached in the right spirit, MST3K is a justification for loving movies. After all, the sketches and the framing segments are just a small portion of each episode; the bulk is taken up by the actual film itself, and you're right there, with Mike, Joel, and the Bots, watching them. You wouldn't do that if you didn't have some kind of affection for the genres and the trappings of the drive-in or direct-to-video picture. These are still fun movies. So when you settle down with the latest box set, a bag of microwave popcorn and a beer, go ahead and laugh guiltlessly, but also remember why you're laughing: because deep down you love movies.

[Although the show has been cancelled since 1999, the creators of MST3K have eventually gravitated back toward movie-riffing. Mike Nelson produces a steady stream of podcast movie commentary on his Rifftrax site. (He does the commentary, but you have to go and rent the film.) Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett (the voice of Crow during the Sci-Fi years) have also formed The Film Crew, and started a line of DVDs in which they riff on various bad films from yesteryear. Finally, Joel Hodgson has just reunited with J. Elvis Weinstein (the original Tom Servo), Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, and Mary Jo Pehl for Cinematic Titanic, another movie-riffing project which promises to release DVDs in the near future.]

The Best of the Rhino Releases
Although a few of the episodes have slipped out of print over the years, Rhino has released enough "experiments" to make for a healthy MST3K schooling. Here are the first you should seek out on Netflix or at your local video store.

1. 424 Manos - the Hands of Fate
Appallingly slow-paced horror film from the imagination of a manure salesman, though Joel and the Bots make it hysterically entertaining. Generally considered one of the worst films ever made.
2. 303 Pod People
The ideal combination of Alien and E.T., this is the story of a boy who befriends a "cute," snout-faced, furry little alien, who proceeds to slaughter all of his friends. The best bits involve a band led by a guy who looks like Greg Brady, and sings incomprehensible songs (which Joel expertly parodies).
3. 1003 Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders
Less a film than a tax write-off, this ill-advised "children's film" patches together two grisly horror movies, noticeably produced in different decades, and both coincidentally featuring a household pet being set ablaze. Also, a man dressed in a wizard's costume walks through a park asking people, "Have you seen my monkey?"
4. 506 Eegah!
Richard Kiel (Jaws from The Spy Who Loved Me) plays a caveman discovered living in the hills of a California desert. Listen sharply for the weird, looped line "Watch out for snakes!" which has become something of a catchphrase. Arch Hall, Jr., sings.
5. 212 Godzilla Vs. Megalon
This episode went out of print quickly, but it's signature MST3K, with lots of rubber-suited monsters and one of the best host sketches ever: "Rex Dart, Eskimo Spy."
5. 321 Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
A very special Christmas episode with this notorious children's film in which Santa Claus is abducted by Martians, and, in one disturbing sequence, almost blown out of an airlock by the murderous yet wacky aliens.
6. 820 Space Mutiny
Eighties direct-to-video SF movie features the moving story of a bodybuilder romancing a middle-aged tramp and battling a mutiny with gun-battles on golf carts. A minor character is killed in one scene, and then reappears in the background of the very next scene.
7. 404 Teenagers from Outer Space
The title says it all, except that there's also, inexplicably, a giant lobster on the loose. Edited so incompetently that it approaches avant-garde art.
8. 207 Wild Rebels
Rhino has released about all of the 60's biker and Hell's Angels movies featured on MST3K, and this is the best of them, with a priceless "Wild Rebels Cereal" sketch.
9. 908 The Touch of Satan
This low-key 70's horror film is far from the worst film MST3K ever did, but at one point, while a beautiful young witch shows a hunky drifter a small lake in a field, she points to it and says: "This is where the fish lives." I have spent years ruminating on that line, trying to decipher what exactly the screenwriter meant and how in God's name it ever made it into a motion picture. I don't recommend you do the same: that way lies great agony.
10. 518 The Atomic Brain
Women with poorly-realized foreign accents are abducted by a mad scientist, who is practicing body-switching experiments in the basement of his Gothic manor. These foreign accents are a beautiful thing, fluidly changing in the middle of single syllables. The plot is straight out of a Gilligan's Island episode: another reason I love it.

Do not start here:

1009 Hamlet
: The MST3K writers wanted to prove that even Shakespeare could write a horrible film, but the result is excruciatingly boring.
515 The Wild World of Batwoman: This film is so incompetent that it's hilarious for the first few minutes, but then the "deep hurting" sets in. I find myself physically unable to sit through this movie.

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