Saturday, November 30, 2013

MST3k Month The Final: Conclusions/On Riffing

Well, it's been a fun month here. I got to celebrate 25 years of one of the most fun cult TV series out there. Sure, there were points that hurt - it's amazing how much the riffing numbs the pain of seeing Joe Don Baker have sex - but in general, this was a really enjoyable retrospective for me.

It was really appropriate that I started this month off with catching one of the final shows of Cinematic Titanic's tour. For those who don't know, Cinematic Titanic is one of the two offshoots through which the cast and crew of MST3k continued to do what they do best. Where RiffTrax includes Michael J. Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy, Cinematic Titanic is/was the team of Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Mary Jo Pehl, Frank Conniff, and Josh Weinstein. While RT has the bigger national coverage, part of the tradeoff is that CT is more of a live venue experience. By this, I mean they will actually tour to different theaters, screen the film there, and do the riffs in front of the audience. The reason this was their final tour, and a side effect of the nature of their show, is that it was getting harder for everyone to keep the schedules lined up. Suffice it to say, I was really glad to get the chance to see them before they went (they may come back at some point, but for now, they're treating this as a farewell tour.) It was a very pleasant surprise to see how gentle time has been to everyone - both in terms of the fact they've physically aged well, but also in the fact they're still as entertaining as they were back when the show was on the air. Sure, we had a couple of minor callbacks to the heyday (Joel's bringing back "It stinks!" from Pod People was a nice surprise) but mostly, this was new material that showed they still had it after all this time. It was a great night seeing a team of consummate showmen (OK, more accurately four showmen and a that the term?) in the element where they operate best.

Why am I bringing this up?

Two reasons - the first, the above mentioned conclusions. Between this and the Rifftrax Live performances have seen (care of the simulcasts, admittedly) it's pleasantly surprising to see how everyone from the show's core cast and writers are still at it, even with the show over. They've found new ways to expand on the ideas beyond what they could do in the show format, and still kept the same magic that made the show great coming even nowadays. It makes a very encouraging sight to see all the old cast and crew aren't content to simply rest on the laurels, but rather keep working at what they started with the show 25 years ago.

The second leads to an interesting discussion point I had come to mind during this month. Now, as a general rule, when I watch a film for a writeup, I also make it a point to research what other information I can about it. You know, production history, odd bits of trivia, etc. The kind of stuff which, while it doesn't change how you watch a film, does make for some interesting things to keep in mind regarding certain aspects of it. Naturally, IMDb tends to be a good jumping off point in this regard. This then lead to an odd sidestop while I was looking up information regarding Danger: Diabolik.

I know that, as a general rule, IMDb comments are akin to YouTube comments with the text limiter turned off. That, as a general rule, they're one of those boards where the comments are best ignored, because there is always ALWAYS going to be that one case that leads you to walk away going "No. Really. What the HELL?" In this wasn't really one case. Rather, it was an entire five page debate raging starting from someone's anger that the folks at Best Brains would riff Diabolik as a movie. They saw this as a great personal insult, suggesting that the entire purpose of it was simply to tear down a movie out of some misguided spite - all while either failing to realize, or appreciate, the fact that they were doing the very same thing to the folks of MST3k. But then, the Internet isn't exactly great at the whole self-awareness thing.

Anyway, reading the comments, I was rather struck by the incredibly knee-jerk reaction this seemed to generate. For one thing, a lot of the flak was directed at Michael Nelson, which I found a bit odd, since they seemed to believe he was the showrunner- He wasn't. Even when he took over as host, Jim Mallon was still a big part of the show's controlling process. Further, they seemed to believe Nelson was doing this out of some spite towards Diabolik. This in particular told me they hadn't actually watched the show: if there's one thing about the later seasons I've noticed more on rewatching, it's that when they hate a movie, and I mean REALLY hate a movie, it shows. Yeah, they'll mock a lot in films in general, but certain films - Hobgoblins and Overdrawn at the Memory Bank are two great examples - the writers and riffers really, really, REALLY don't mask their hatred towards when they think they're bad enough. Their riffing of Diabolik was a number of things, but spiteful wasn't one of them.

If anything, the assumption that the show was simply picking on low-budget movies, at least to me, really showed me that those leveling the charge had never watched the show. Especially the earlier seasons, which were in large part carried by the cast and crew's love for the more bizarre of old films. They riffed on these movies because they enjoyed doing so. Yeah, not every movie was particularly loved (Manos, Monster a-Go-Go, Radar Secret Service, for a few examples) but several of the movies they riffed they actually admitted to liking (Gamera, The Magic Sword, and I Accuse My Parents are all examples there.)

The big crux of the problem in this debate seemed to be the idea that riffing is only done out of hate or insolence. That people only riff to denigrate and tear down a movie, and that films don't deserve such treatment. Personally, I disagree. Yes, there are certain films that don't lend themselves particularly well to riffing (if you can riff something like 12 Years a Slave or Schindler's List, you either have astonishing fortitude, or you might be a sociopath. That's for you to decide) but the fact is, there are a lot of good movies that can be riffed. Hell, I'll be the first to admit there are many movies I enjoy that are quite riffable (for some examples: Akira, The Warriors, the Evil Dead trilogy, the films of John Carpenter, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, the Star Wars trilogy...I could keep get my point.) The thing is, I don't see this as hurting the film, as some of these people seem to do (incidentally, one would think if you have the necessary sense of humor/levity to appreciate a 60s spy/theft film like Diabolik, you would be willing to acknowledge it's got a fair number of things in it you can joke about.) For me, it becomes more of a matter of, for lack of a better term, interactivity. It's a means by which one can enjoy a film experience in a way beyond just watching it, and in particular, enjoy it with other people. I'm not gonna try and say it's something everyone should do, it's entirely a matter of preference, naturally, but if you're in a group where everyone's on board with it, I don't see any reason not to. Being riffable does not make a movie bad. It means there's things in it that one could find humor in. Granted, on occasions, it can be used as a means to cope with a film you think is bad, but the act itself doesn't automatically make the movie bad.
It's akin to joking between friends. Yeah, you sometimes let some barbs fly you wouldn't say to a total stranger, but that context, they slide as just good natured joking around. It's the same thing here - if it's done in just casual joking, it's just that - it's not a desire to tear the film down to its foundations and salt the Earth in and of itself. It's just a sign of a more relaxed movie watching experience.

It's strangely appropriate that I find myself remembering the show's opening in my response to the people who are taking the idea of riffing as this great personal insult. I'm paraphrasing, but in the case of the manner of films that tended to grace the screens of MST3k:

Just repeat to yourself 'it's just a film, I should really just relax.'

Fade out. The audience goes fucking apeshit.

...oh damn. You guys are still here.

Well, thanks for sticking with me on this one. It's been a pretty interesting experiment for a month.

Got some promising possible ideas lined up for December. So we'll see what comes of those within the next few weeks.

Till then!

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