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 on their own, 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.