Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer
Mystery Science Theater 3000 might go down in history as the ultimate “Why didn’t I think of that?” pop culture concept (followed closely by The Truman Show). The conceit of the show is absurdly simple: find the worst movies ever made, and air them while making the kind of sarcastic comments you’d make to your friends if it was you in that theater (or at least, the kind of comments you wish you’d be smart, funny and fast enough to think of while in the moment). Creator Joel Hodgson came up with all sorts of absurd premises to set the show in motion – such as his character’s ongoing space imprisonment, and his joking around with several robot companions – but the real stars of his show were the movies, and it was clear that he and his writers loved as much as loathed them.
I remember a sense of shock and bafflement when Joel Hodgson left the show in 1993; why would someone walk away from what, to my teenage eyes, had to be the greatest job on the planet? Over the years, several reasons for his departure have emerged, including a reluctance to be a featured on-camera performer as well as a feud with co-creator Jim Mallon over the direction of the show. However, be that as it may, the fact remains that Hodgson made a good living making fun of shitty movies. There might be life after MST3K…but it just can’t be as fulfilling, can it?
It looks like those questions might have been answered. Hodgson – along with most of the creative team behind MST3K – has re-entered the bad-movie-mockery arena with Cinematic Titanic, a new venture that he and his team have self-financed and self-produced. The cosmetic changes from one show to the other are minor – the three silhouettes at the bottom right are replaced with five silhouettes up and down both sides of the screen – and the flavor and tone of the show are nearly identical. In fact, as soon as I wrote that Joel Hodgson and company have begun mocking bad movies on camera again, you probably envisioned exactly the kind of experience you’d be in for…and you’d be right.
So, how does Cinematic Titanic’s first effort – “starring” a film entitled The Oozing Brain – match up to its predecessor? Let’s take a look:
On-Screen Presence – When creating Cinematic Titanic, Hodgson was smart enough to realize that, as unimportant as those little silhouettes might have been at the bottom of MST3K’s screen to the overall success of the show, they were also iconic and familiar. We grew to love those little faces in shadow, and at time went on, the performers learned to play with their positioning on the screen to “interact” with the movies and their characters. It was simple, and fun. (It could also be disorienting; while watching Manos: The Hands of Fate with a friend, he revealed to me that he has always seen Crow as facing us, rather than the movie. I pointed out his mistake, but could also easily see how he made it.)
CT recreates this experience as best as it can, adding two more performers and replacing robots with risers and props. While I confess that I miss the bizarrely shaped heads of Tom Servo and Crow, I was pleased that the new set-up allows for new and different gags as the movie runs. Two of the performers stand throughout the film, while the others are seen in full-body profile. This allows for a whole new range of visual gags, and seeing the outline of everyone’s face creates a more personal and intimate touch that was in retrospect lacking in the original.
Inter-Movie Gags – For reasons never explained, each episode of MST3K (in the Joel era, at least) began with an “invention exchange” between Joel and the bots in space, and Dr. Forrester and Frank down on earth. On top of that, our protagonists would “leave” the theater at various points during the screening to engage in silly skits designed to make fun of that episode’s feature. While one often got the impression that these interstitials were included to jump unfunny chunks of the movie more than anything else, they offered a brand of humor almost completely different from the rest of the show, and for that reason alone they seemed fresh and cute.
CT is at a real disadvantage here, and it seems to know it. They clearly see the need to be able to stop the film at various points as they always have, and yet they really can’t use the on-camera devices they employed in MST3K, for fear of looking even more like their predecessor than they already do. Something new is called for, and CT answers this problem by intermittently having one of the viewers ask the projectionist to pause the film, and then performing a gag or sketch in silhouette over the frozen frame. The results – as you might have guessed – are hit or miss. The premiere episode featured a dead Al Hirt playing trumpet before throwing up into a barrel, and Stephen Hawking wheeling out and extolling the virtues of brain transplantation. It’s not great comedy, but then again these bits never were. If the purpose of the mid-movie bits was hilarity, then neither Cinematic Titanic nor MST3K would ever have done it correctly. However, if their purpose was instead simply as a tonal shift, meant to offer a brief respite from the somewhat relentless format of the rest of the show, then both techniques are equally effective.
The Obscure Jokes – When I was growing up, MST3K and the stand-up comedy of Dennis Miller represented the two benchmarks of arcane pop culture references. In both cases, I would gladly allow hundreds of jokes to pass over my head without a care, because in the rare instance that I caught one, the joy I felt more than made up for it.
The same might be said of Cinematic Titanic…by our grandchildren. For my money, the single most satisfying aspect of CT was the fact that the pop culture references were rooted in the here and now. Throughout The Oozing Skull, jokes are made about Amy Winehouse, Mapquest, Lindsay Lohan’s jail sentence, Kid Nation, and Second Life, among dozens of others. Given how fast our society burns through pop culture these days, these things will all be utterly obscure just five years from now…and won’t we feel smart then?
(Now, for those people who loved MST3K for the feeling of cultural illiteracy that resulted from the jokes that flew over their heads, CT also has what you crave. Not only did The Oozing Skull make mention of Jackie Susann, Irving Mansfield, and something called “The Bates Method,” but – as though expecting that the modern audience would be watching them with laptops sitting next to them – there was even one joke that ended with a plea for the audience to “look it up.” And you’ll need to. Luckily for us, there is a Wikipedia.)
The Verdict – Remember how you felt when you learned that Spielberg and company were making a new Indiana Jones movie? Initial skepticism and fear of the new not living up to the old gradually gave way to a mounting excitement that comes from having the dream team working together to give you another dose of what you love. The end result might not be quite the same as the original, but you’ll still be there with chills down your spine when the theme music kicks in.
Forgive the grandiosity, but that is what it feels like to watch Cinematic Titanic. We have all sat in front of bad movies and offered up our best mockery as it unspooled, but no matter how funny we could hope to be in those situations, we were never as good as Joel Hodgson and company. Cinematic Titanic is not perfect, but it does serve as the triumphant return of a dream team once more doing what they do best. The background looks different and the wackiness has been removed, but as soon as those familiar voices begin their relentless riffing banter, so too does the feeling that you’re about to have a great time amongst old friends. Welcome back guys…and let’s keep them coming!