What I learned from Mystery Science Theater 3000
Like a lot of obsessive film fans, I’ve spent much of the weekend poring over the individual critics’ lists at the Sight & Sound movie poll, looking up favorite titles, searching for trends, and pondering inexplicable patterns. (My favorite discovery so far is the fact that of the four critics who included Eyes Wide Shut among their list of the greatest films of all time, three of them also included The Killing of a Chinese Bookie by John Cassevetes, which also received only four total votes. I have no idea why this is the case, and if critics Craig Keller, Adrian Martin, or Stanislav Zelvensky want to enlighten me, I’m all ears.) Yet if there’s one conclusion I can draw from these lists, it’s that there’s something genuinely mysterious about most great works of art. You can’t just disassemble Vertigo or Tokyo Story or L’Atalante to see how they work, and even movies that ostensibly show us their moving parts, like Citizen Kane, become all the more enigmatic with time. As a writer, I’ve learned a lot from great movies, but less than you might think: it’s often in the flawed, the mediocre, and the outright terrible that the fundamentals of storytelling can most clearly be seen.
Which brings us to Mystery Science Theater 3000. There was a time in my early teens when I was convinced this was the best television show ever, or at least the ultimate distillation of the culture of my generation, and I don’t think I was entirely wrong. When I first saw those wisecracking silhouettes at the bottom of my television, I didn’t quite understand what was going on, and the moment when it all clicked into place—it was during Time of the Apes, if you’re curious—still feels like an epochal revelation. Watching this show at its peak, which, as in the case of The Simpsons and Mad Magazine, often means whenever the viewer first encountered it, was like being given the access card to a mad scientist’s laboratory where the building blocks of the culture around us were being taken apart, analyzed, and recombined in surprising ways. Godard says that the way to criticize a movie is to make another movie, but MST3K did him one better, by turning bad movies into commentaries on themselves until the result almost achieved sentience. And it was impossible to watch it without relating to movies on an altogether different level.
What made the show special was right there in its premise: the writers talked back to the screen. They took movies designed for the laziest, most passive of audiences—the exploitation film, the TV movie, the sci-fi cheapie—and engaged them with savage humor and intelligence. Each episode was like a miniature war against shoddiness, cynicism, and cliché, and the moral was that if we can’t prevent bad movies from existing, we can at least confront them on our own terms. The show turned bad filmmaking into comedy in a way that bears comparison to the best of found art, and its ad hoc influence has been incalculable, especially among fans who were inspired to hack the elements of pop culture into something undefinable and weird. The show’s greatest popularity happened to coincide with the rise of Internet fan fiction, which included MST3k-inspired commentaries on other works of fanfic, and much of the show’s spirit lives on, for better or worse, on sites like TV Tropes, in which the layers of commentary on shows like, say, Stargate SG-1 expand into something far more interesting than the original series itself.
That’s why the host segments were so crucial, and it’s the element of the show I miss the most, even as its legacy lives on in successors like RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic. If the show done nothing but made fun of bad movies, it would have seemed arch and disdainful, but the host segments made it clear that the show’s creators were in the same boat as the filmmakers they were mocking: constrained by low budgets, cheap sets, and recalcitrant robot puppets, even if the result was delivered with far more wit and imagination. Much of the show’s appeal arose from the fact that it looked like it had been filmed in someone’s garage in Minneapolis: its funky aesthetic made you want to go out and try it yourself, as a lot of fans undoubtedly did. As a result, there was a DIY sweetness under the snark that made it endearing in a way that a lot of its imitators don’t understand. The show wasn’t just about making fun of awfulness, but about turning it into something better, to the point where, as in the case of The Girl in Lover’s Lane, they rewrote the ending of the movie itself. And the result was undeniably empowering. If life gave us bad movies, the show said, we didn’t have to sit back and take it. Maybe we could even do better ourselves.