Thursday, March 25, 2010

Why I Love Mystery Science Theater 3000

To be strictly accurate, this is "One of the Many, Many Reasons Why I Love Mystery Science Theater 3000". I remember turning on Channel 23 one Sunday evening and seeing some cheesy science-fiction movie, and wondering what that thing was on the bottom. Then I realized it was theater seats, and that the guys sitting there were making fun of the movie, and I immediately knew that this was the Best Idea Ever.

But actually, the words "making fun of" don't really describe what MST3K is and what it does, which is one of the many, many reasons why I love the show (and the one I'm discussing today, just to reassure you.) Joel Hodgson, creator of the series, uses the term "riffing", and I think that describes it better. It's not a process of tearing the film down, although some of the people whose works have been featured have (understandably) seen it that way. The riffer creates a new structure around the film, but it's one that rewards careful viewing of the movie with humor. It doesn't destroy the movie, it preserves it...albeit on its own terms, and not those of the original film-maker. But I'd argue that this is still heaps better than obscurity.

For example, let's take "Manos: The Hands of Fate". This is not a good movie. I don't think that Hal Warren, its writer/director/star, would dispute that. But he went ahead and made it anyway. His goal was to prove that anyone with enough determination and drive could make a feature film, and in the process, he made something truly unique and personal. Good? No. But interesting? Absolutely. Nobody but Hal Warren could have made "Manos", just like nobody but Coleman Francis could have made "The Skydivers", or nobody but Ray Dennis Steckler could have made (deep breath) "The Incredibly Strange Creatures That Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies". These were the visions of people who were sometimes brilliant, sometimes incompetent, but always iconoclastic and determined to bring something of themselves to the screen.

And MST3K rescues those films, in its own way. More people have seen "Manos" as a result of Joel and the bots than Hal Warren could ever have imagined. Many of them have found something to like about the film; not the whole thing, of course, because it is very bad. But during the bad bits, you can focus on the riffing. During the good bits, the film catches your attention. ("Manos" might not be the best example of this, due to the lack of actual good bits. But there are films that work better.) You can almost think of MST3K as a "celebrity roast" for people who won't get celebrated by the usual Hollywood crowd.

The same is true for actors. Peter Graves, before his death, was on record as saying he didn't approve of MST3K. But there are almost a half-dozen of his films that I saw due to MST3K, and I appreciated the sincerity and conviction he brought to less-than-stellar material. MST3K preserved these films, even if it wasn't necessarily reverent about the way it did so. That's what I love about MST3K. It dusts off long-forgotten films that might deserve to be riffed, but don't deserve to be forgotten.


E. Wilson said...

"Manos" is one of the few movies that even Joel and the bots couldn't save for me, mostly because of the incredibly bad pacing. My reaction to the film was perfectly in sync with Joel's infamous "DO SOMETHING!" outburst. The bits of the film where things actually happened were tolerable enough, though.

Take another fan-fave episodes: Space Mutiny. The movie had a cast and a budget, something Manos didn't, but the acting, continuity, and script were just as stupid. But at least stupid stuff was happening at a reasonable rate.

Tom Clancy said...

I've always felt MST3K worked best with movies that had halfway-decent production values/ halfway-professionals involved. I Like "Manos", but it's nowhere near my favorite episode because, as E. Wilson suggests, there are some parts where there's nothing to riff on. The movie's cast & crew need to at least take themselves seriously for it to be a great episode.

John Seavey said...

I'll admit, "Manos" isn't the best example for this, although I do admire the can-do spirit of the film-makers. "Skydivers" probably works better; for all that it's downright insane, it's never boring. :)

E. Wilson said...

"Skydivers'" problem was that it opened with skydiving. Since it's clear that skydiving footage was a crutch for the film's neigh-incomprehensibility, they probably shouldn't have showed it to us right out of the gate.

On the other hand, I do like coffee.

Unknown said...

Every frame of this movie looks like someone's last known photo.

"Manos" will always be my favorite MST3K because it was such an unbelievable train wreck of a movie. So bad, in fact, that the evil geniuses saw fit to break protocol and apologize. Plus I found that more investigation always yielded more entertainment.

For example, the main character was supposed to be the guy from the car who was always making out but he broke his leg just before shooting so Hal substituted himself at the last minute. The girl in the car complained incessantly that his casted leg took up too much room which made it difficult for her to concentrate on her line(s).

And the cinematographer, who was half of the technical staff, said that you can tell which parts of the movie were stock footage because they were the only scenes that were well lit and framed correctly.

The list of funny factoids goes on to the point of obsession, because that is, in fact, whence it came.