Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The MST3Konundrum: A trash film aficionado at the crossroads

I can’t say for certain when I first became a fan of “bad” movies. There were a lot of potential gateways back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, from the vintage Bela Lugosi clips spliced into Muppet Babies to the release of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood to the sci-fi sampling of bands like Man or Astroman? Heck, even Seinfeld had an early plotline about a screening of Plan 9 from Outer Space. But the real keystone for me and most of my generation was Mystery Science Theater 3000, or as it was frequently known at the time, “That cable show where the little shadow guys on the spaceship make fun of old movies.”

My family didn’t have cable, so MST3K was something of a forbidden fruit to be gobbled up on trips to my grandparents’ house or in stolen moments in friends’ TV rooms. When Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie unexpectedly turned up for a brief engagement at a movie theater 45 miles from my house, I cleared my weekend schedule and made it to three out of four late-night screenings. I was excited moving into my college dorm because I’d finally have a cable hook-up on which to watch MST3K, then crushed when I discovered my college’s cable package didn’t include the Sci-Fi channel.

I’ve always been passionate about my favorite art, but not many shows spurred me to that kind of dedication. What was it about MST3K that inspired such fervor? Well, for one thing, it was funny as heck. It was a kind of funny I’d never seen on TV before, yet it seemed oddly familiar. When I learned that MST3K was a Minnesota production, it all made sense. On its surface the sense of humor embodied by Joel Hodgson and the show’s writers was gentle, laconic and borderline corny, but concealed just beneath the surface was the melancholy acidity of a darkness that dared not speak its name. That was the same Minnesota sensibility I’d been drinking in at family gatherings my entire life. It was amazing to see it channeled into something so strange and singular and broadcast for an international audience.

It was the comedy that drew me into MST3K in the first place, but it didn’t take long for me to develop an appreciation for the movies that made the whole thing possible. Much like the sense of humor, the movies mocked by the crew were unlike anything else on my television. MST3K was my first exposure to the weird world of low-budget filmmakers like Bert I. Gordon, Coleman Francis and even Roger Corman. The La Crosse, Wisconsin area didn’t have a “midnight movie” host like Svengoolie, but even if it had, the MST3K repertoire went beyond the usual public domain monster movies and mad scientists, pulling in Italian apocalypsploitation, Japanese kaiju, educational film strips, James Bond knock-offs, biker flicks, kiddie Christmas movies and much more.

At some point I realized I was getting as much pleasure out of the movies themselves as I was from the riffing. Eventually that led me to start seeking out “bad” movies on my own. At my current stage in life, a solid 90% of my cinema intake is stuff that the average viewer would understandably shut off five minutes in. In the past couple of years, I’ve discovered a number of groups of like-minded people both online and in real life. It’s been a lot of fun swapping trash titles with oddballs on Letterboxd, keeping tabs on the Weird Wednesday lineup at Alamo Drafthouse and ducking into my local Trash Film Debauchery and Tape Freaks screenings. As I’ve gotten to know more of these z-movie devotees, I’ve discovered a curious phenomenon: quite a few of them hate MST3K.

I have to admit, I sort of get where they’re coming from. If you’re a fan of something, it’s understandable that you’d resent it being known primarily as the butt of a joke shared by thousands of philistines. In a particularly heartfelt review, for example, Letterboxd user pd187 declares Coleman Francis’s much-maligned The Beast of Yucca Flats “evocative desert noir” that’s “close to a masterpiece for real” before concluding that “mystery science theater is garbage for idiots.” My pal Joe, a sometime MST3K fan and as dedicated a cinephile as I know, recently punctuated a rave review of Rondo Hatton’s The Brute Man with “I don’t know what the inhabitants of the Satellite of Love had to say about this movie and I don’t want to know.”

I haven’t seen The Beast of Yucca Flats or The Brute Man minus the riffing, but I do appreciate many if not most MST3K targets on their own terms. Even the legendarily bad Manos: The Hands of Fate stands as a uniquely realized piece of outsider art. If someone knocked, say, Gamera or Bloodlust or The Crawling Eye as objectively bad films in private conversation, I would be quick to leap to their defense. Yet somehow, I don’t have a problem with them being lampooned on MST3K. I think that’s largely because I sense a genuine affection behind the mockery.

The invective hurled by Joel, Mike, Tom and Crow, especially in the show’s Comedy Central years, feels rooted in an appreciation of the oddness and ambition that got these movies made. You don’t come up with a sketch like “Peter Graves at the University of Minnesota” if you don’t love Peter Graves movies on at least some level. The sheer breadth of knowledge that went into the average episode of MST3K, with non-stop references to pop culture history, scientific ephemera and barely scrutable in-jokes, pegs it as a labor of love.

Still, I’ll acknowledge there are some legitimate knocks to be made against the show’s handling of its movies. Probably the biggest is the editing. Even though the show aired in a two-hour block, making time for commercial breaks, host segments and short films usually meant that the feature’s run-time was trimmed down considerably. In some cases that was arguably doing the movies a service - if you’re not a regular viewer of trash cinema, you have no idea how much mind-numbing padding got stuffed into the movies of the drive-in era. Often, though, that meant cutting material that might be important to the film. Most notoriously, the MST3K version of The Sidehackers deleted a brutal rape and murder scene that was the catalyst for everything else that happened in the movie. It feels somewhat dishonest to mock a movie’s incoherence when you’ve actively made it less coherent.

And then there’s the meanness critique. As much as I think MST3K originated from a place of love, sometimes the barbs got pretty harsh. There are multiple accounts of the Satellite of Love crew drawing the ire of their riff targets. It’s one thing to hear possibly apocryphal stories about big fish like producer Sandy Frank or actor Joe Don Baker grumbling about being ill-treated by TV puppets, quite another to learn about the genuine hurt feelings at a cast screening of MST3K’s take on the homemade dorkery of Time Chasers. Kevin Murphy says no less an icon of empathy than Kurt Vonnegut once gently upbraided him for belittling the efforts of artists just trying to do their best.

I absolutely don’t want to start yet another Joel vs. Mike argument (for the record, I prefer Joel by an inconsequential margin), but I do feel like the show got meaner once Mike moved from the writer’s room into the host’s jumpsuit. As I said before, even when he bared his sardonic teeth, Joel always gave the impression of being a genuine fan of these films. Mike, on the other hand, seemed more interested in putting them in their place. It’s no accident that the motto of Mike’s post-MST3K project Rifftrax is “Because some movies have it coming.” I hold that Michael J. Nelson is the most purely funny person ever involved with Mystery Science Theater, but having read his Movie Megacheese book, I came away with the impression that the guy just doesn’t much like movies unless they’re Jackie Chan vehicles or Roadhouse.

To me, the difference between Joel and Mike is the difference between gently chuckling at a sad-sack friend and pointing and laughing at the neighborhood weirdo. I can certainly see why you’d take issue with that, especially if you happen to be fond of that weirdo. I know I’ve cringed when Rifftrax has taken on movies I genuinely dig, like Death Promise or Attack of the Puppet People. On the other hand, some of the films pilloried on MST3K come awfully close to being objectively bad. Watching The Creeping Terror on its own is a painful slog (although I still have a certain affection for it), and I don’t know if I could even bring myself to attempt the confounding mess of Monster a-Go Go un-riffed. There’s almost zero artistry to a dreary, uninspired Jaws cash-in like Devil Fish, but Mike and his robot friends manage to mine whatever fun there is in the thing.

As a genuine lover of low-grade cinema, I think it’s possible to appreciate both the films and the mockery thereof. I may enjoy the heck out of something like Beginning of the End, but I can’t pretend there’s nothing funny about Bert I. Gordon attempting to pass off grasshoppers crawling across a Sears Tower postcard as a giant insect attack on downtown Chicago. And then there’s that gateway effect I mentioned earlier. Given my general proclivities, I probably would have stumbled into the world of trash cinema sooner or later, but MST3K gave me an easier in-road than I ever would have found poking around the dustier corners of my local video shop.

A fair number of the movies spotlighted on the show would likely have remained in obscurity if not for the exposure they got from their MST3K roastings. Perhaps movies like Manos and Pod People and Space Mutiny would have found tiny cult audiences somewhere down the line, but they certainly wouldn’t have become the iconic items they are today. And somewhere down the line, we cross over from laughing at these films to laughing with them. Ask any MST3K fan for an opinion on Zap Rowsdower, the mullet-sporting, denim-draped anti-hero of The Final Sacrifice, and you’ll get not scorn but genuine affection. We love Rowsdower in all his bizarre Canadian glory. Heck, we even put him on our t-shirts. Even the MST3K haters would have to admit that’s a far better fate than languishing unwatched and unloved in the VHS bin of some resale shop.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Five times awful rock audiences improved live recordings

Few things in life bum me out more than having a show by a band I love ruined by a jerky audience. (Looking at you, dude who loudly sang along with every Bonnie "Prince" Billy song at Logan Square Auditorium. You too, drunk bros who heckled Cloud Cult at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds last summer. And don't get me started on every crowd with whom I've seen Wilco.) I have to admit, though, that sometimes a poorly behaved audience can help to create some memorable music moments. Most of the time that doesn't become evident until after the fact, but when it does it can be something kind of special. Here are a handful of occasions when boorish, clueless or just plain inexplicable crowd conduct yielded historic (or at least momentarily pretty cool) results.

Antagonistic New Yorkers at a Lou Reed show
Take No Prisoners is the rare concert album that puts as much emphasis on the banter as it does the music, and for good reason. This is a perfect pairing of Lou Reed and a hometown New York City crowd circa 1978. Both are cranky, combative and ready to start swinging at a moment’s notice, but only one has quick wits and a microphone. The running narrative of the album reveals that Lou showed up late for the set, giving the crowd plenty of time to get drunk and resentful. New Yorkers, if you aren’t aware, don’t have a reputation for dealing with disappointment quietly.

There are too many incredible interactions for me to enumerate here, but a few highlights include Lou threatening to stop singing until everybody shuts up (the crowd calls his bluff), Lou demonstrating to a heckler how easily he can be drowned out with guitar feedback, and Lou pre-emptively quoting Yeats at the interlopers: “‘The best lack all conviction and the worst are filled with a passion and intensity.’ Now you figure out where I am.”

The best part is that most of this isn’t between-song banter - Lou’s fighting the crowd right smack in the middle of his songs, and neither he nor his band ever misses a beat. Heck, the opening track alone, a splendidly greasy, eight-minute rendition of “Sweet Jane,” yields a tour's worth of memorable quotes:

  • “You ever put a quarter in those machines, man? Y’know, like the bear that plays basketball… I guess they never put a quarter in me, huh?”
  • “Where were you on the list when they called you for Vietnam?”
  • “We’re just here to make out. You bend over, we’ll put the head in. You don’t like it, then we’ll talk about it.”
  • “Fuck Radio Ethiopia, man, I’m Radio Brooklyn. I ain’t no snob, man.”
  • “If you write as good as you talk, nobody reads you.”
  • And of course, a vicious “SHUT UP, YOU!” wedged seamlessly into the “Villains always blink their eyes” segment.

Some of the annoyance is doubtless genuine, but at the same time Lou clearly relishes the back-and-forth and the songs crackle with nervous energy. Any which way, it makes for some compelling listening.

Stage-diving Nazi punk at an SNFU show
In 1991 venerable Canadian punks SNFU put out their purported farewell album Last of the Big Time Suspenders, a mix of rarities and live cuts that serves as a solid document of what turned out to be the band’s mid-life rather than its finale. Near the end of their atypically anthemic cover of Eddie Money’s outlaw ballad “Gimme Some Water,” lead singer Ken Chinn stops singing for a beat to point out “That asshole jumping off the stage is wearing a swastika on his t-shirt, obviously too young to understand the serious connotations of such a fuckin’ stupid thing.” There’s a brief pause while the audience begins to buzz, then Chinn launches right back into the chorus. The electricity of the moment is undeniable. You almost feel sorry for the dimwitted Nazi kid getting his ass handed to him so succinctly, but mostly you just want to cheer on Ken Chinn’s righteous indignation.

Unruly Englishmen at the Isle of Wight Festival
The infamous 1970 Isle of Wight Festival has long been a standard-bearer for badly behaved audiences. Reports vary on what exactly caused the crowd's discontent and on exactly how ugly the scene really was, but by most accounts a bunch of angry young Brits made life miserable for everyone assembled for good chunks of the festival. The crowd was especially hard on several acts who had the temerity not to rock. Joni Mitchell famously told the audience they were “acting like tourists” before breaking down in tears and leaving the stage.

Kris Kristofferson took a different tack, responding to the deafening boos with his trademark laconic acidity. Kristofferson sounds both exasperated and amused as he assures the crowd that nothing short of rifle fire will stay his musicians from making their appointed rounds. His band, playing what was only their fourth gig, then ambles into a particularly low-key rendition of “Me and Bobby McGee.” There aren’t many contexts where Kristofferson’s classic sketch of lost love and misspent youth could be taken as an act of passive-aggressive defiance, but that’s absolutely what it is here. Punctuated by the songwriter’s parting bird-flip to the crowd, it’s a perfect rebuttal to a bunch of ingrates.

Ironic loudmouths at Built to Spill shows
Built to Spill is the kind of band that tends to take a little time between songs, largely because they’re top-flight musicians who care about sounding their best on every number. Unfortunately, plenty of concert goers interpret pauses in the set as an invitation to yell out song requests, and anyone who’s been to a show in the past four decades knows that means someone’s gonna yell out “Freebird.” During their 2001 tour, the band opted to respond to that ubiquitous holler by going ahead and playing “Freebird.” And not just a tease or a sarcastic nod - the whole damn song, note for note. As a guy who unabashedly loves both Built to Spill and “Freebird,” getting to see that live stands as an all-time highlight of my concert-going career.

Devil Girl at a Rolling Stones show
I don’t know how close to the stage the young lady captured on the Get Yer Ya-Yas Out! album could have been standing, but her voice comes through clearly enough that she almost seems to have a mic of her own. And what a voice it is: flat, toneless, devoid of passion yet somehow frighteningly insistent. “Paint it black,” she drones. “‘Paint it black. Paint it black, you devil. Paint it black.” 

Now, you might think she’s just requesting her favorite Rolling Stones song, but there’s a grim imperative in her delivery that convinces me that she’s actually demanding that the devil (which could be any of the Stones, but I presume to be Mick Jagger because c’mon) paint the intangible “it” black. The Stones pay her no mind, although they do break into a spectacularly inspired rendition of “Sympathy for the Devil.” Her spooky doggedness is perfectly in keeping with what was simultaneously one of the band's darkest and brightest periods. (The performances captured on Get Yer Ya-Yas Out took place just weeks before the Stones' fateful Altamont concert.) The woman is never heard from again. I understand some fan journal tracked her down a while back, but I'd rather not learn the details of her real-life existence. As a mystery interloper on a classic performance, she’s one of my favorite people ever.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Why I wallow in trash: A manifesto for loving unlovable art

In 1984 Donovan released a studio album that included self-covers of his ‘60s classics “Sunshine Superman” and “Season of the Witch” updated with 1980s-style production. Reading that sentence, most people would have one of three reactions: “That’s interesting,” “Who cares?” or “Donovan sucks.” Of those responses, only the third is objectively incorrect. Considering that those re-recordings probably exist only because a weary Donovan realized that revisiting former glories was the most likely path toward getting anyone to care about a new Donovan album in 1984, a curious shrug is about all the response anyone could be expected to muster.
But me, when I stumbled upon the existence of these tracks, I couldn’t get them queued up in my Grooveshark (R.I.P.) playlist quickly enough. They're as bad as you'd expect, but this doesn't bother me one bit. This is my curse. When I learn about an absurd, ill-advised or quintessentially inessential piece of art, I simply can’t help myself. I need to incorporate it into my vocabulary. Zager & Evans followed up “In the Year 2525” with a song about a rapist crucifying himself in a jail cell? One of the guys from Jan & Dean recorded a pro-Vietnam answer track to “The Universal Soldier”? The Royal Guardsmen laid down a decades-late sequel to “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron” in which Charlie Brown and Snoopy hunt down and kill Osama bin Laden? Yes, I am going to listen to these songs. I am going to listen to these songs many times over.
It’s more than just curiosity for me. Knowing about songs like this inspires a peculiar drive in me. The same applies to bizarre film productions like Billy the Kid vs. Dracula or The Rats are Coming! The Werewolves are Here!  I’ll let any number of certified classics and new gems go unheard while I track down a recording of Jim Backus singing “Cave Man.” Given the choice between experiencing something perfect and beautiful and something flawed and inimitably weird, I’m siding with strangeness at least six times out of ten.
This might sound like ironic appreciation, the calling card of the dreaded hipster, but I think it’s something quite different. In my younger days, sure, I’d watch bad movies and buy novelty albums for the sole purpose of mockery, and I’m always going to love Mystery Science Theater 3000 above most things. But as I’ve grown older the irony has ebbed and I find myself appreciating these things in their own right. I’d say I love them for what they are, but that’s not quite it. I love them because they are. Knowing that these things are out there, that someone took the time to create them and shepherd them into existence despite their obvious lack of broad appeal, is a fascinating, inspiring thing to me.

And it isn’t only the weird stuff either. I just finished watching Treasure of Jamaica Reef (aka Terror in the Deep), a very cheap, very boring 1975 movie about a group of divers (including Cheryl Ladd and Chuck Woolery) trying to salvage a fortune from a sunken ship. It isn’t good. It isn’t “so bad it’s good” (a phrase I loathe). It doesn’t even have the same weirdo appeal as the aforementioned novelty songs and trash films. It’s just a movie that exists, badly made and eminently forgettable. There is no reason I should have watched it, and that’s exactly why I did. (If I might digress for a moment, I've had some debates about the term "trash." Some fans of this type of stuff feel that term devalues the art. I suppose it rather literally does, since trash is by definition material of little to no value. But I think it's appropriate, inasmuch as most of the public absolutely regards these songs and films as worthless. Also, a lot of the art that gets tossed under the "trash" umbrella was specifically designed to be disposable - quickie singles recorded by session musicians to cash in on a passing fad, no-budget genre films intended as background noise for teenage drive-in patrons, hasty projects knocked out to fulfill a contract or qualify for a tax break. I'm fine with using "trash." In fact, I consider it a badge of honor.)
I want there to be some evidence that movies like Treasure of Jamaica Reef are out there. I want art to be eternal, no matter how uninspired or poorly made. My Letterboxd account is a hall of low-budget obscurities ranging from the incompetent to the derivative to the inexplicable, most of which are unloved and unknown by the world at large. Obviously not many people want to watch these movies, or listen to late-period Donovan albums, or obsess about the musical careers of Dino, Desi and Billy. Honestly, most people shouldn’t. But I think it’s important that someone does, because these artifacts are a part of our artistic heritage too.
Are they as vital to our shared experience as their canonically classic contemporaries? Of course not. But we do ourselves a disservice if we leave the ugly and the unremarkable to molder in the grave. I feel my artistic life has been deeply enriched by the time I’ve spent in the company of these misfits. I can make a lucid argument for scabrous trash auteur Roberta Findlay being one of the most important female directors in American film history. I can sing every word of The Coasters’ On Broadway album, the novelty band’s unjustly ignored assay into straight-up Southern funk. I know who LeSesne Hilton and Bennie Robinson and William Metzo are, and why each of them deserves a place among the great cinematic villains of the 1970s. I also know that there are many, many worse movies than Plan 9 from Outer Space or The Room or Birdemic or whatever the de facto “Worst Movie Ever Made” is at the moment. I’ve subjected my eyes and ears to a lot of irredeemable, uninteresting, soul-deadening dreck over the years, but I don’t regret a second of it. These things are out there and they need to be kept alive, even if only inside my cluttered brainpan.
All those classics of Western Literature can just slide to the back. We need that space for Shriek of the Mutilated.