Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Eyes Wide Shut

The tip of the spear

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Over the last couple of days, mostly by coincidence, I’ve been thinking about two sidelong portraits of great directors. One is Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now, the diary by Eleanor Coppola that was later adapted into the unforgettable movie Hearts of Darkness. The other is Filmworker, a documentary about Leon Vitali, who served for decades as the assistant to Stanley Kubrick. By approaching their more famous subjects from an angle, they end up telling us more about Francis Ford Coppola and Kubrick than a more direct engagement ever could, just as we arguably learn more about Sylvia Plath from Janet Malcolm’s oblique The Silent Woman than by reading volumes of the poet’s books and letters. Major artists, especially movie directors, can be overwhelming to contemplate, and they’re hard to view objectively, as Eleanor Coppola notes in her journal:

[Francis] started talking about how lonely he was. How essentially there are only two positions for most everybody to take with him. One is to kiss his ass, tell him he is great, and be paralyzed with admiration. The other is to resist him. That is, show him that no matter how rich and successful and talented he is, they are not impressed. Hardly anyone can just accept him, say, “That’s great, and so what?”

That’s equally true of biographers and critics, which is why it can be so valuable to listen to the memories of family members and associates who were close enough to see their subjects from all sides, if never quite to take them for granted.

Between Eleanor Coppola and Vitali, it’s hard to say who had the more difficult time of it. In Notes, Coppola hints at what it was like to be married to a director whose fame in the seventies exceeded that of any of his contemporaries: “When I am cashing a check or using a credit card, people often ask me if I am related to Francis Ford Coppola. Sometimes I say I am married to him. People change before my eyes. They start smiling nervously and forget to give me my package or change. I think I look fairly normal. I wear sweaters and skirts and boots. Maybe they are expecting a Playboy bunny.” But that level of recognition can also cause problems of its own. Coppola has a revealing passage about the aftermath of her husband’s birthday:

His gifts were unloaded onto the table in the hall. This morning I was straightening up. I couldn’t help reading some of the cards. “Thanks for letting me participate in your greatness. Love…” Some days I am tried and just want out. It seems hopeless. There will always be a fresh crop of adoring young protégées waiting in the wings. This current situation stated during Godfather II. I was on location with Francis, away from San Francisco, my friends and the things that stimulated and interested me at the time. I was so angry with myself, angry that I couldn’t just get totally happy focusing on Francis and the making of his film. Someone else did.

That last line is left hanging, but it speaks volumes about the difficulty of maintaining a marriage in the face of so much outside adoration.

In Kubrick’s case, much of this tension seems to have been unloaded onto Vitali, who was the director’s right arm for the last quarter century of his life. Vitali was a promising young actor who made a strong impression as Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon, but he became fascinated by Kubrick, whom he approached with the offer to work for him in any capacity whatsoever. Kubrick took him up on it, and Vitali found himself testing five thousand children for the role of Danny in The Shining. For the next twenty years, they were inseparable, as Vitali saw after everything from casting and coaching actors to checking the foreign dubs and transfers for every film in the director’s back catalog. He was on call seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, and he was the perpetual object both of Kubrick’s unexpected tenderness and his sudden wrath. (Vitali also appeared on camera one last time, his face unseen, as the figure in the red cloak who asks Tom Cruise for the password for the house in Eyes Wide Shut.) Serving as a director’s personal assistant can be a hellish job in any case, and it was apparently even worse in the service of such a notorious perfectionist. Vitali lasted in that role for longer than seems humanly possible, and Kubrick had no compunction about using him for such unenviable tasks as informing the actor Tim Colceri, who had been cast eight months earlier as Sgt. Hartman in Full Metal Jacket, that he had lost the role to R. Lee Ermey. And the work continued even after Kubrick’s death. Before the release of Eyes Wide Shut, Vitali personally checked one out of every five prints, or over five hundred in all, by screening them nonstop for thirty-six hours. Occasionally, he had to ask someone else to watch the screen for a few minutes so he could leave the room to throw up. Speaking of this period in the documentary, Vitali, who is otherwise so candid, says after a moment: “I don’t think I want to talk about it.”

But you also see why he stayed with Kubrick so long. As another interview subject in Filmworker notes, Vitali wasn’t just a spear carrier, but “the tip of the spear” in one of the most complex operations in the history of filmmaking, and that position can be very addictive. (You could compare it, perhaps, to the role of the White House chief of staff, an awful job that usually has people lining up for it, at least under most presidents.) Kubrick and Coppola were very different in their directorial styles, as well as in their personal lives, but few other filmmakers have ever managed the hat trick of being simultaneously brilliant, independent, and the beneficiary of massive studio resources. Coppola only managed to stay in that position for a few years—he was personally on the line for millions of dollars if Apocalypse Now was a failure, and after he miraculously pulled it off, he threw it all away on One From the Heart. Kubrick hung in there for decades, and he depended enormously on the presence of Vitali, who served as his intermediary to Warner Bros. According to the documentary, Kubrick would often sign his assistant’s name to scathing letters to the studio, and after his death, Vitali bore much of the repressed rage from people who had felt slighted or mistreated by the director during his lifetime. Eleanor Coppola’s position was obviously very different, and she shared in its material rewards in ways that Vitali, who was left in borderline poverty, never did. But if they ever meet, they might have a lot to say to each other. Coppola closes her book with an account of reading the journals of American pioneers during the westward expansion, of which she writes:

I particularly identified with one account in which a family in their journey reached the landmark Independence Rock. The husband described scaling the sides and the remarkable view from the top. The woman wrote about trying to find a patch of shade at the base where she could nurse the baby and cook lunch for the family.

My alternative canon #7: Vanilla Sky

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Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz in Vanilla Sky

Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. For the rest of the week, I’ll be looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different. You can read the previous installments here

I’ve always been an unabashed Tom Cruise fan, less for the actor than for the world’s finest producer and packager of talent who happens to occupy the body of a star, and after Edge of Tomorrow and the last two Mission: Impossible films, there are signs that the overall culture is coming around to the realization that he’s simply the most reliable brand in movies. Over the last decade, though, he has shown signs of diminished ambition. Cruise seems increasingly content to be nothing but an action hero, and there’s no question that he still delivers great entertainments. But for a while, starting in the late nineties, there were tantalizing hints of something more. Between 1999 and 2004, he made a series of movies that were essentially about being Tom Cruise, beginning with Eyes Wide Shut, a grueling experience that seems to have catalyzed his interest in pushing against his own aura. Stanley Kubrick always knew that he wanted a married couple to play Bill and Alice Harford, and the result is a movie that only becomes more complex and intriguing—at least to my eyes—the more we learn about how that marriage unraveled. Cruise never quite managed to pull off the same trick again, but his performances in movies from Magnolia to Collateral feel like a series of exploratory maneuvers, played out for an audience of millions. After War of the Worlds, the effort faded, and he spends most of his time now leveraging his history and presence in ways that are more obvious, which isn’t to say that they aren’t effective.

But I miss the Cruise of the turn of the millennium, a peerless creation that received its definitive statement in Vanilla Sky, which I still regard as criminally unappreciated and misunderstood. It feels like a snapshot now of a lost moment, both in history—you can see the Twin Towers looming in the background of a crucial shot—and in my own life: I saw it just before moving to New York after college, and it’s my favorite portrait of that city as it existed in those days. I’m not sure what drew Cruise to attempt a remake of Abre Los Ojos, or to recruit Cameron Crowe to direct it, but the sheer impersonality of the project seems to have freed Crowe, who transformed it from a straight thriller into a pop cultural phantasmagoria. It’s really an allegory about how we all construct ourselves out of fragments of songs, album covers, and old movies, and it captured something essential for me in a year when I was building an adult life out of little more than a few precious notions. (I ended up seeing it four times in the theater, a personal record, although it was mostly just so I could listen again to the first five notes of Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place” as they played over the opening cut to black.) And it wouldn’t work at all without the presence of the world’s biggest movie star. Cruise plays much of it in a mask, a visual device that appears in films as different as Eyes Wide Shut and the Mission: Impossible franchise, but as time goes on, Vanilla Sky feels like the movie in which he comes the closest to revealing who he really is, even if it’s nothing more than the sum of his roles. But isn’t that true of everyone?

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June 14, 2016 at 9:00 am

My ten great movies #4: The Shining

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For most of the past decade, the Kubrick film on this list would have been Eyes Wide Shut, and while my love for that movie remains undiminished—I think it’s Kubrick’s most humane and emotionally complex work, and endlessly inventive in ways that most viewers tend to underestimate—it’s clear now that The Shining is more central to my experience of the movies. The crucial factor, perhaps unsurprisingly, was my decision to become a writer. Because while there have been a lot of movies about novelists, The Shining is by far our greatest storehouse of images about the inside of a writer’s head. The huge, echoing halls of the Overlook are as good a metaphor as I’ve ever seen for writer’s block or creative standstill, and there isn’t a writer who hasn’t looked at a pile of manuscript and wondered, deep down, if it isn’t basically the same as the stack of pages that Jack Torrance lovingly ruffles in his climactic scene with Wendy.

The visual, aural, and visceral experience of The Shining is so overwhelming that there’s no need to describe it here. Instead, I’d like to talk about the performances, which are the richest that Kubrick—often underrated in his handling of actors—ever managed to elicit. (Full credit should also be given to Stephen King’s original novel, to which the movie is more indebted than is generally acknowledged.) At one point, I thought that the film’s only major flaw is that it was impossible to imagine Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall as a married couple, but I’m no longer sure about this: there are marriages this strange and mismatched, and the glimpses of their relationship early on are depressingly plausible. Duvall gives what is simply one of the major female performances in the history of movies, and as David Thomson was among the first to point out, Nicholson is great when he plays crazy, but he’s also strangely tender in his few quiet scenes with his son. “You’ve always been the caretaker,” Grady’s ghost tells Torrance, and his personality suffuses every frame of this incredible labyrinth.

Tomorrow: A masterpiece in six weeks.

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May 19, 2015 at 9:00 am

The adaptation game

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Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “Have you ever had a movie (or other media) experience enhanced by a lack of familiarity with the source material?

There was a time in my life when I took it as an article of faith that if I wanted to see a movie based on a novel, I had to read the book first. When I was working as a film critic in college, this policy made sense—I wanted my reviews to seem reasonably informed—so I devoured the likes of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Bridget Jones’s Diary mere days before seeing their adaptations in theaters. Later, I tackled the original material out of a vague sense of guilt or obligation, as I did with Watchmen, a comparison that did Zack Snyder’s movie version no favors. In almost every instance, though, it meant that I watched the resulting film through a kind of double exposure, constantly comparing the events on screen with their equivalents, or lack thereof, on the page. It’s how I imagine fans of Twilight or The Hunger Games regard the adaptations of their own favorite properties, the quality of which is often judged by how faithfully they follow their sources. And it wasn’t until recently that I gave up on the idea of trying to read every book before seeing the movie, in part because I have less free time, but also because my attitudes toward the issue have changed, hopefully for the better.

In fact, I’d like to propose a general rule: the priority of one version of a story over another is a fact, not a value judgment. This apples to remakes and homages as much as to more straightforward adaptations. After enough time has passed, the various approaches that different artists take to the same underlying narrative cease to feel like points on a timeline, and more like elements of a shared constellation of ideas. I saw The Silence of the Lambs long before reading Thomas Harris’s original novels, later added Manhunter to the mix, and have been having a hell of a good time going back to the books with the cast of Hannibal in mind. I don’t know how I’d feel about these characters and stories if I’d read each book as it came out and watched the adaptations later, but I’d like to think that I’d have ended up in more or less the same place, with each element sustaining and enriching every other. The same is true of a movie like L.A. Confidential, which is less a faithful translation of the book into film than a rearrangement of the pieces that James Ellroy provided, an “alternate life,” as the author himself puts it, for the men and women he had imagined. Would I feel the same way if I’d read the book first? Maybe—but only if enough time had passed to allow me to regard the movie in its own right.

Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs

Ultimately, I’ve come to think that out of all the ways of experiencing works of art with a common origin, the best option is to absorb them all, but to leave sufficient space between each encounter. I watched Infernal Affairs long before The Departed, but the earlier movie had faded almost entirely when I saw the remake, and now I find that I can switch back and forth between the two films in full appreciation of each one’s strengths. (The Departed is less a remake than an expansion of the tightly focused original: its bones are startlingly similar, but fleshed out with an hour’s worth of digressions and elaborations, all of which I love.) Occasionally, of course, the memory of one version is so strong that its alternate incarnations can’t compete, and this doesn’t always work to the benefit of the original. A few years ago, I tried to read Mario Puzo’s The Godfather for the first time, and I found that I just couldn’t finish it: Coppola’s movie is remarkably faithful, while elevating the material in almost every way, to the point where the novel itself seems oddly superfluous. This isn’t the case with The Silence of the Lambs, which I’m reading again now for maybe the tenth time with undiminished delight, but it’s a reminder of how unpredictable the relationship between the source and its adaptation can be.

And in retrospect, I’m grateful that I experienced certain works of art without any knowledge of the originals. I’ve enjoyed movies as different as The Name of the Rose and Lolita largely because I didn’t have a point of reference: the former because I didn’t know how much I was missing, the latter because I realized only later how much it owed to the book. And if you have the patience, it can be rewarding to delay the moment of comparison for as long as possible. I’ve loved Eyes Wide Shut ever since its initial release, fifteen years ago, when I saw it twice in a single day. A few months ago, I finally got around to reading Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, and I was struck by the extent to which Kubrick’s movie is nearly a point-for-point adaptation. (The only real interpolation is the character of Ziegler, played by Sydney Pollack, who looms in the memory like a significant figure, even though he only appears in a couple of scenes.) Kubrick was famously secretive about his movie’s plot, and having read the novel, I can see why: faithful or not, he wanted it to be seen free of expectations—although I have a hunch that the film might have been received a little more warmly if viewers had been given a chance to acclimate themselves to its origins. But that doesn’t make him wrong. Stories have to rise or fall on their own terms, and when it comes to evaluating how well a movie works, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

The logline game

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Al Pacino in Cruising

In an interview he gave a few years ago to The Paris Review, James Ellroy told a memorable story about the origins of his novel The Big Nowhere:

I was influenced by a bad William Friedkin movie from 1980, Cruising. It has a great premise. There are a string of homosexual murders in the West Village and Al Pacino is a young, presumably heterosexual cop, who goes undercover and is tempted by the homosexual world. What an idea! Hence, The Big Nowhere. A cop in LA in the fifties gets assigned to a homosexual murder case and becomes aroused by the men he’s investigating.

I love this story because it illustrates a point best expressed by a modified version of Ebert’s Law: “A story isn’t about what it’s about, but about how it’s about it.” A movie that bungles an intriguing premise can serve as a source of inspiration for a better storyteller, and if you’re able to exploit the underlying idea more compellingly, it isn’t plagiarism, but a kind of literary transmutation. Ideas, as I’ve said before, are cheap; execution is king.

As it happens, Ellroy’s example is just one of two I’ve recently encountered of authors quietly lifting an idea from another source. The other night, I watched the classic Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok” for the first time. While reading about it afterward, I came across a story about Doctor Who writer Russell T. Davies. When the episode first aired, he liked its logline—the brief summary included in the day’s television listings—so much that he deliberately didn’t watch the episode:

I love the idea so much, I’d rather think about it. Forever. The episode is called “Darmok,” and the synopsis simply says that Captain Picard is trapped on a planet with an alien who can only talk in metaphors. Wow. That sounds brilliant. How does that work? What happens? How does it end? I’ve got no idea—not seen it! But it keeps resonating with me…I’ve been thinking about that story and its potential for almost twenty years!

And while I haven’t seen the Doctor Who episode, “Midnight,” that “Darmok” inspired, I don’t have any doubt that the story is profoundly different from its inspiration. Even if we start in more or less the same place, we end up in an altogether different neighborhood.

Paul Winfield in Darmok

I’ve started to take a particularly keen interest in examples like this because the novel I’m writing now originated in similar ways. Fifteen years ago, before Eyes Wide Shut came out, there were countless wild rumors about its plot and content, many of which—Tom Cruise wears a dress! Nicole Kidman shoots heroin!—were absurdly off the mark. (In fact, Eyes Wide Shut is an almost scene-for-scene adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s story Traumnovelle, which Kubrick had been hoping to film for decades, so anyone interested in the plot could have read it in the original novel long before the movie’s release.) Early on, however, there was a widely circulated plot summary that ended up in a lot of places, including Entertainment Weekly and the New York Times, saying that Cruise and Kidman played married psychiatrists who have affairs with their patients. Needless to say, this isn’t what the movie is about at all. But that inaccurate logline has stuck in my head for a long time, almost for as long as Davies thought about “Darmok,” and I’m currently writing my own version of it.

And if I’m not particularly concerned about revealing this detail here, it’s because I know that whatever story you—or anyone else—would write from this prompt would have little in common with the one I’m working on now. I’ve sometimes thought that if I were a writer looking for new ideas, I’d browse through the television listings to look for a logline that seemed interesting, and then deliberately not watch the movie. Here are a few culled at random from the thrillers section on Netflix: “Moving to a new town proves even more stressful for a teenager when she learns that the house next door was the site of a double murder.” “Convinced by a mysterious woman that a death row inmate is innocent, two brothers investigate and discover a case marred by betrayal and deceit.” “A detective plunges into a murky sea of corruption when he probes the connection between a rash of murders and a notorious New Orleans mobster.” These are intriguing ideas that could go in any number of directions, and the films themselves represent only one of a huge range of possibilities. If you’re curious, the movies in question are The House at the End of the Street, The Paperboy, and The Electric Mist—but if you haven’t seen them, why not make them your own?

Fourth time around

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Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut

The other day, for the first time in years, I watched Eyes Wide Shut. It’s no longer my favorite Kubrick film, but I’d definitely rank it in his top three or four, and I still believe that it’s among the most undervalued movies of the last two decades. I’ve loved it ever since I first saw it, or, more precisely, since the first four times I saw it—which is the number of times I paid to see it in theaters. I was there for the very first screening on opening day, and later went back that same night, which is the only time I’ve ever done this. (On my second viewing, I saw it with a friend who disliked it so intensely that she walked out halfway through, and she only came back because she had to give me a ride home.) Since then, I’ve probably seen it, in bits and pieces, another dozen times. And what I found when I watched it again this weekend is that it remains a great movie: undeniably flawed, but rich, intricate, and ingenious in ways that I can still appreciate even if I know every beat or line of dialogue by heart. It was like listening to an album you haven’t picked up since you were in high school, but the moment you press the play button, you realize that you never stopped carrying it around in your head.

And it made me regret the fact that I may never have the chance to repeatedly explore a movie in quite the same way. When I was younger, I’d often pay to see movies multiple times, both for new releases and for old favorites that were returning to theaters: I’ve seen The Red Shoes on the big screen maybe four or five times, Casablanca the same, Blue Velvet at least three, and when they first came out, I saw movies like The Dark Knight, Children of Men, and Minority Report three times each. And, of course, I endlessly rewatched my favorite movies at home. If I had to guess, I’d say that the films I’ve watched most often with a reasonable amount of attentiveness would be Blue Velvet, The Usual Suspects, and maybe Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and I’ve long since lost track of the actual number of viewings—twenty or thirty? Which doesn’t even consider the uncounted viewings of my ten favorite movies. As a result, I tend to think of each of these films as a unified whole to an extent you can’t when you’ve only seen them once or twice: I’ve internalized them the way you absorb a piece of music, treasuring odd little moments and continuity errors, and I can effortlessly relate an image in the first ten minutes to a passing echo near the end.

Danielle Darrieux in The Earrings of Madame de...

Those days, alas, are over. I’ve already mentioned how my moviegoing life has experienced a decisive shift since the birth of my first daughter—it’s hard enough to get out to see a film once, let alone three times—and it’s also affected the way I watch movies at home. We’re trying to keep Beatrix away from screens of any kind, particularly television and movies, for the first two years, and this means that I can no longer just casually pop in a DVD when I’m home alone. Even after the baby goes to bed, there’s more pressure to catch up on the countless films my wife and I have missed than to revisit an old favorite. This means that it’s no longer possible to get to know a movie in the way I once did: I need to content myself with a first impression. Two years ago, for instance, I finally saw The Earrings of Madame de… by Max Ophuls, which blew me away like few movies before or since. If I had a chance to rewatch it a few times, I’m sure it would become one of my favorite films, but as it stands, all I retain of it are a few moments, a handful of images, and that initial sense of discovery.

It doesn’t help that I don’t have the same memory for these things that I once did: aside from a few vivid exceptions, like The Master, I’m lucky if I can remember three or four good scenes from a movie I saw last year. In short, another chapter of my movie life is closing. As time goes on, it’s going to be increasingly hard for a movie to become a part of me in quite the same way; every now and then, an outstanding film may leave a lasting mark, but otherwise, I’ll need to be content with movies that live somewhere outside my head, rather than burrowing in deeply. But there’s one possible loophole. Once Beatrix is old enough, she’ll start watching movies, too, and if she’s anything like most kids I know, she’ll want to watch the same videos over and over. I fully expect to see My Neighbor Totoro or the Toy Story films several hundred times over the next few years—at least if all goes according to plan. (More likely, I’ll end up becoming intimately familiar with the likes of Caillou.) Later, as she gets older, she’ll go through the same phases that I did, and I like to think that I’ll see her cueing up Singin’ in the Rain or Mary Poppins to watch yet again. Clearly, then, all I need to do is show her Madame de… I’m sure she’ll love it.

Written by nevalalee

October 29, 2013 at 8:58 am

What I learned from Mystery Science Theater 3000

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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 curiousstill 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.

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