Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The turkeys have escaped

If you found yourself chuckling at the above, I've got good news for you. 

There's this TV programme called Mystery Science Theater 3000, from which the above graphic was taken. In every episode they screen an entire movie, usually but not always American low-budget horror or sci-fi from the fifties, sixties and seventies. Meanwhile the cast, permanently silhouetted at the bottom of the screen as if in the front row of an auditorium, constantly crack wise to ensure you never get a chance to enjoy the film as its makers intended.
If, however, you knew exactly what the photo represented and found yourself grinding your teeth at the very memory of the thing, I've got bad news for you.
Much as we feared, the programme's influence has been permanent.

Though I was surprised to learn it has not been produced since 1999, MST3K (as it is popularly known) remains a touchstone for an entire generation, and the ultimate source of validation for people who think that the only possible means of engaging with low budget genre films is in snorting derision. It’s for people who think it’s hilarious whenever a set wobbles, or you can see the strings on the devil bat.
You can only imagine the trouble these poor souls must have with live theatre: “How was Hamlet, honey?” “Terrible! Hilarious! Some of the dialogue was good, but no way was that set a real castle!”

This sort of myopia is nothing new of course: what bothers me specifically that it is a regression.

Like most of my generation, I was first exposed to the likes of Ed Wood and Herschell Gordon Lewis by the Medved Brothers, whose hugely popular books – most famously The Golden Turkey Awards – first unveiled that whole lost continent of low budget, off the wall movies that the standard film encyclopaedias either ignored or skipped over in a sentence or two of derisive guesswork. That they did so even more derisively is much to be regretted, but they were pioneers, nonetheless.
My friend Mykal Banta – author of the peer-free blog Radiation Cinema! – shares my detestation for MST3K, and is equally ill-disposed towards the collected works of the Medveds. But the latter – though of no use to anyone now – can be at least partially excused for a number of reasons.
They were trailblazers, and however regrettable their superciliousness, they at least had nothing better or more substantial to compare themselves to. At times, their commentaries were genuinely witty (though most often they were not). And best of all, every so often they abandoned the attitudes of the schoolyard bully and went after films that could actually hit back. Their Fifty Worst Movies Of All Time finds room for brave parries at The Omen, Ivan the Terrible and Last Year at Marienbad, while The Hollywood Hall of Shame – focusing on the film world’s most expensive flops and by far their best book – includes among its uncharacteristically in-depth and seriously researched essays a forensic account of the Heaven’s Gate folly that is among the most enjoyable skewerings of cinematic pretension I have ever read.
But most of the time, I'll admit, Mykal's right. They were a disgrace.

But then, suddenly and wonderfully, everything changed. Instead of the binoculars with which we were expected to view these films, at safe and disdainful distance, we were suddenly handed a microscope by a wonderful and equally influential publication called Incredibly Strange Films, edited by V. Vale and Andrea Juno.
I discovered it in my teens a few years after it was published and it instantly became my bible, one of that handful of movie books that changed the way I looked at cinema and without which I would truly be a different person today. I used to carry it to and from school every day, and read and re-read it every spare minute I had.

From the introduction:

Most of the films discussed test the limits of contemporary (middle-class) cultural acceptability, mainly because in varying ways they don't meet certain "standards" utilised in evaluating direction, acting, dialogue, sets, continuity, technical cinematography, etc. Many of the films are overtly "lower-class" or "low-brow" in content and art direction. However, a high percentage of these works disdained by the would-be dictators of public opinion are sources of pure enjoyment and delight, despite improbable plots, "bad" acting, or ragged film technique. At issue is the notion of "good taste," which functions as a filter to block out entire areas of experience judged - and damned - as unworthy of investigation.

Vale and Juno approached the same films as the Medveds from the exact opposite angle. By presenting them as the uncompromised products of unique creative imaginations they sought to assign them a more dignified place in screen history. It was a revelation, and it was exhilarating.
It was also embarrassing, because like all great critical writing it showed us things we should have been able to see for ourselves, yet somehow could not or did not. Those brilliant, damning quotation marks - "standards", "bad", "good taste" - exposed the inadequacy of mockery as a means of addressing whole worlds of cinema, simply because they have the audacity not to conform to the boring standards of consensus Hollywood, and the sheer silliness of critics whose paltry imaginations were affronted by low budgets and non-mainstream ideas and effects. In these pages, films like Plan Nine From Outer Space, hitherto regarded as good only for sniggers, re-emerged as the unique visions of some of the most cherishable eccentrics who ever picked up a movie camera.

So what makes films like Herschell Gordon Lewis's The Wizard of Gore or Ray Dennis Steckler's The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies worthwhile? First of all: unfettered creativity. Often the films are eccentric - even extreme - presentations by individuals freely expressing their imaginations, who throughout the filmmaking process improvise creative solutions to problems posed either by circumstance or budget - mostly the latter.

Bad movies are uninspired, dull, derivative, conveyor belt movies. These ones, by contrast, are wild and imaginative and unlike anything else - and it really doesn't matter much if the space ship is cardboard and the actors recite their dialogue in a manner that doesn't happen to match whatever the consensus is on naturalism this week.
These are films to be enjoyed, not guffawed at by people who probably think Star Wars is the greatest film of all time. (Perhaps the biggest indictment of MST3K is that it exposes these movies to kids who might otherwise have never encountered them,and then simultaneously and knowingly crushes any enthusiasm they might have discovered for them before it has a chance to bloom, rather in the way that generations of British schoolchildren have been turned off history by Terry Deary's idiotic books.)

Vale and Juno went further still, however. They exposed not only our gestures but also our motives. They pointed out that far more than revealing deficiencies in the object of our scorn, we were boasting of the limits of our imaginations, and also, obliviously, revealing distinctly unsavoury aspects of ourselves. Their genius was to make the Golden Turkey approach to these films seem not just wrong, not merely silly and pointless, but also positively shaming:

The concepts of "good taste" are intricately woven into society's control process and class structure. Aesthetics are not an objective body of laws suspended above us like Plato's supreme "Ideas"; they are rooted in the fundamental mechanics of how to control the population and maintain the status quo... The power to literally create desire, fashion, consumer trends, opinions and even one's very identity is expressed through film and video. This force - power through persuasion - reaches deep into the backbrain, rendering more brutal, physical control tactics obsolete.

Why do so few of us sense the irony in laughing at the fashions we wore in previous decades as if they are objectively absurd, while studiously keeping up with those of the present day (only to laugh at them just as heartily when their time comes)? Because cultural conformity's a powerful beast, that's why.
The forces that govern our reactions to the hairstyles and trousers of thirty years ago - the hairstyles we willingly sported and the trousers we happily wore - also condition our judgement of ‘bad’ acting, ‘bad’ special effects, ‘bad’ writing, or ‘inadequate’ technical standards.
Of course taste is subjective, but, just as surely, consensus is arbitrary.

Now, this is not to say that objective standards do not exist, or that there are not works of art that are greater and lesser than others; at least, that is not a position that I would ever endorse myself. Certainly Tolstoy and Bach and Fellini offer deeper, richer, more considered artistic experiences than Ed Wood, as Wood himself would be the last to deny. But it does not follow from that there is no place for Wood, or that he should be pilloried simply for being different, or for having the energy and invention to attempt to recreate his ideas without access to the resources and technology to which we are lazily accustomed. (It's the guilty, self-loathing lament of many a lofty critic: How dare he try?)

In any event, though we can happily argue about aesthetics until forever, there is one other much more important reason for hating the Medved/MST approach, and that is simply that it is irredeemably snobbish and ill-mannered. Clearly, these are not films that are going to appeal to everyone, and if you can't see their peculiar magic, that's not a problem for me. But mockery - an activity which by its very nature seeks not merely to insult but also to advertise one's own greater sophistication in contrast - is a disgusting attitude to take to works that have plainly had to struggle in order to exist, and especially to the individuals who did the struggling.
Whenever I think of Mystery Science Theater, I think of something Ed Wood said to Valda Hansen, quoted in Rudolph Grey's wonderful Nightmare of Ecstasy. Wood was a nut, but he was sincere, he was impassioned and he got off his arse and created. All he wanted was to entertain people with his ideas. When most of us would have given up a hundred times, he kept on trying. He never made it. He thought he would die completely unknown, and he probably thought there was no worse fate. In fact, he was proved wrong. He died well-known - and the laughing stock of the world. He didn't live to enjoy the sensitive reappraisal of his work ushered in by Incredibly Strange Films, but he got to see himself hailed as the worst director of all time by the Medveds.

Did he like that? What do you think?

Do you think I care if I'm a millionaire? No... what hurts me is the cruelty toward me... I'm only trying to do the best at what I feel. All this garbage I see, they praise. And me, they seem to love to deride me.

If there were nothing else, just those few sad, beautiful words, playing in my head on endless loop, would be enough to ensure I reserved my ire and disinterest solely for the corporate cogs turning out their soulless, narcotic multiplex fodder - never for the work of characters like Ray Dennis Steckler or Ted V. Mikels, producing instantly identifiable, genuinely unique and constantly surprising and unconventional cinema on nickels and dimes.
Without Vale and Juno, I would have known Steckler, for instance, only through the Medved prism: as the creator of two of the ‘worst film titles of all time’: The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies and Rat Pfink a Boo Boo. Nothing in their writings would have inspired me to look deeper into the man’s work, and thus to the discovery that he is one of the greatest alternative artists of film history whose works – those two cited especially – have provided me with a decade or two of endless and intense stimulation. (And to glaze the turd: they’re actually great titles too. The worst film title of all time, I think you’ll find, is The Silence of the Lambs.)

I do know - and mean no personal offfence to - people who like Mystery Science Theater, but truly and unapologetically, I wish they didn't. I wish they didn't warm to its tone, to its cynicism, its meanness, its unreflective endorsement of arbitrary and limiting notions of cultural value.
The trouble is that they would (and probably will) read this and protest that their love of MST is in no way incompatible with a genuine respect for Ed Wood and his peers. Some of them might even tell me to get the bug out of my ass, stop applying exactly the kind of sweeping cultural judgements I affect to decry, and lighten up a bit.
But I've gone round and round these issues now for twenty-five years, and I can't see the logic of any position but my own. And if they tell me they can love Wood and Lewis and Steckler and 1950s horror, and MST at the same time, I can't really believe them.
I just can't believe them.


Mykal said...

Matthew: You put it perfectly, over and over. I don't believe them, either. You cannot appreciate the snotty, juvenile, ridiculing approach to film ala MST and actually love the films of Wood and his brethren at the same time ("God, I just love those films" means, in reality, I feel so smart when I laugh at them). If anything, I have become even more hate filled toward MST and their despicable ilk.

I honestly wish I had not learned of Wood's words, quoted in your post, regarding the parasitic Medveds. I have always imagined his brave, wan smile and tragic eyes when hearing about the award. Now I will hear his words, as you do, on an endless loop. All so a couple of heartless kids could imagine themselves clever.

Wood was a better human being, and a better artist, then either shit heel Michael or Harry; yet Wood had to carry their rat tittering to his grave. Fuck them.

As you observe, the Medveds, MST, etc. corrupt the worth of the films they ridicule, poisoning the well with their bile forever.

"I'm only trying to do the best at what I feel." What a perfect epitaph for Wood. He may not have been a good film maker, but he was an incredible man and artist.

Thanks for this, Matthew.

Matthew Coniam said...

Great to hear from you again, Mykal. It's been too long, my friend.
And here's to a cinematic world where imagination reigns supreme and without apology!

Mykal said...

PS: I ordered the Vale/Juno book. How did I not know of this before? It sounds like a godsend. Thanks again.