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Tuesday, Jan 29, 2008


The bad movies. That’s all anyone ever wants to talk about. Manos. Mitchell. The audacity of taking on a pseudo classic like This Island Earth. The creative constitution it must have required to endure the aesthetic horrors of Time of the Apes, The Castle of Fu Mancho, or Attack of the The Eye Creatures. But there remains so much more to Mystery Science Theater 3000 than Arch Hall Jr., Coleman Francis, and Merritt Stone. As a matter of fact, one of the first things critics latched onto where the sensational skits, in between bits that often commented directly on the film being shown. Yet there were also times when the material was merely “inspired” by the work being presented, said muse mutated into wit that transpired the sloppy celluloid circumstances. It’s these boffo blackouts that deserve reconsideration and concentration. SE&L, confirmed MiSTies, will highlight 10 of the best forays into funny stuff the Satellite of Love and its occupants ever attempted. 


There are a couple of caveats when diving into this list. First, we purposely avoided anything where music was involved. Mystery Science Theater 3000 was famous for its satiric songs, and trying to pick 20, let alone 10 would have been impossible. Therefore, only atonal humor will be discussed. Also, we’ve also stopped the reflection at Season 7, the non Sci-Fi Channel version of the series. There’s no real reason for such a barrier, except that more people are familiar with the updated concept of the show, and some of the older material needs its day in the sun. Finally, supporting characters like Dr. Clayton Forrester, Dr. Lawrence Erhardt, TV’s Frank and the Mole Men have also been excluded. They’ll get their moment sometime in the near future. With all the stipulations in place, let’s begin in chronological order:



Crow’s Thanksgiving from K03: Starforce: Fugitive Alien II


Back when the series was still being broadcast across actual antenna airwaves by local Minneapolis station KTMA, a special holiday edition of the show featured this fabulous history lesson from everyone’s favorite “bird dog thing”. From the pilgrims arriving in a van and taking turns “starving”, to the Indian’s spraying their guests with mace (don’t ask), the robots get the spirit of the occasion, if not the factual certainties. An important discussion, if only for finally explaining the connection between Turkey day and the reason people start Christmas shopping the day after.

 


Sidehackiing Terminology from 202: Sidehackin’


As with any new sport, descriptive phrases and jargon are mandatory. They help reporters explain the action and bolster color commentators ability to earn ESPN highlight reel airtime. For this Ross Hagen rehash of every competition oriented cliché ever conceived, Joel and his automated pals provide such expressive lingo as the ‘Hickory Dickory Die’, ‘Fruitful Snootful’, and the ‘Tension Envelope’ routine (popularized by Nutsy the Clown). It’s enough to knock competitive darts, Ninja Warrior, and all other non-mainstream athletics off the pop culture radar.

 


Klack Foods Commercial from 211: First Spaceship on Venue


Anyone old enough to remember single company sponsorship in television will smile at this remarkable riff on Kraft and its long-form infomercial breaks that championed their various faux foods and cheese spreads. Here, a spot-on Tom Servo (channeling Ed Herlihy) describes how Klack Industrial Saladoos-based snack and snippets can be used to make mouth watering family favorites like Skin Mittens, Cooter Cakes, and the traditional Gut Whistle Pie. Just don’t forget the Flesh Button dressing, or a heaping platter of Creamy Crust Puppies. Now that’s fine eatin’.



Crow vs. Kenny from 302: Gamera


After an onslaught of giant monster madness, Crow can no longer stand the whiny goody two shoe-ing of everyone’s favorite short-panted pint size. So he lets his aggressions out in the most fruitless display of childish chiding possible. Taking the opportunity to do the same, Servo joins in. Joel tries to help his pals have a more positive perspective on the friend to all oversized beasties. It only lasts for a little while before the bile begins rising all over again.




Winter Sports Cavalcade from 311: It Conquered the World


It’s icy chills and snowbound thrills as Joel and the ‘Bots describe the frostbitten pleasures of training, Alpine style. We experience the gory goodness of the latest craze - speedskating combined with kickboxing. Then there’s cat snapping, where kittens are taken to absolute zero and cracked like Turkish taffy. And let’s not forget “shi-ing” which is also referred to as playing ping-pong or badminton with a Barbie doll frozen in a bucket of ice. And you thought snowmobiling and hokey were the best things about the months of November to February (or August to May, if in Minnesota).

 




Catching Ross from 315: Teenage Caveman


Ross Allen was a well known animal trapper who violated several ethical, moral, and PETA inspired values with his raping of the Florida Everglades. As protest, Tom turns the tables on the great blight hunter, subjecting him to many of the same humiliating outdoor tortures that Allen himself employed to make his living. With Joel along for visual illustration (he uses a small action figure to simulate the pain being inflicted), we get the kind of pointed payback that only a fire hydrant like puppet and a stand-up comedian trapped in space can dish out.




Art Therapy from 507: I Accuse My Parents


Hoping to gain some insight into how his robot pals think, Joel asks them to visualize their own fantasy families. For Tom, it’s a portrait of his father, Gigantor, and his two moms - Haley Mills and Peggy Cass. For Crow, it’s an oversized deadly dynamo of a dad, who combines homespun wisdom with lasers that fire out of his chest (“pyeww, pyeww”). Of course, Gypsy only envisions a world filled with nothing but Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea‘s Richard Basehart. Why? To quote the cast: “I dunno.”



Chick Flick Fight (Really Femmie Movies) from 517: Alien From LA


A post-apocalyptic Kathy Ireland inspires this brilliant breakdown of Mike and the gang’s feminine side. Over the closing credits of this crappy film, Tom chides Crow over his copy of Places in the Heart and his complete Sally Fields collection, while the little gold guy gives his human buddy a Six Weeks, Dying Young, and Irreconcilable Differences combo. Between a Herbert Ross festival, Savannah Smiles, and the mere mention of Madame Sousatzka, there’s not a male chromosome left in the Satellite of Love. Just remember to quote freely from Rich and Famous and everything will be okay.




Ingmar Bergman Tells a Joke from 617: The Sword and the Dragon


The late, great Swedish filmmaker is lovingly spoofed when Mike and the ‘bots take a break from this horrible foreign fantasy film to offer up a moody monochrome gag. Though there is probably no more than a page of actual dialogue, the entire skit is filmed at a pace that makes snail’s nervous over how slow it proceeds. The payoff is well worth it, however.





The Edge of the Universe (2001 Spoof) from 706: Laserblast


This was it - the supposed end of the series. Comedy Central had failed to renew the contract, and even worse, a typical season of episodes (12 to 24) was reduced to seven. So how do you send off the greatest TV show ever? Easy, you mimic the greatest film ever. This classic 2001 lampoon, complete with pointed visual cues and recreations of classic moments, left fans free associating for days. It’s all here - including a final image that summed up how special Mystery Science Theater 3000 was to fans and cinephile’s worldwide.


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Monday, Jan 28, 2008


It’s literally like going back in time. Three voices, long silenced, have returned from entertainment exile to remind us of why we fell in love with Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the first place. When a local Minnesota TV station took a chance on comic Joel Hodgson’s unique vision for a combination matinee movie/satiric space take-off, five now familiar faces were there, establishing the foundation for what would end up being the best TV show in the history of the medium. Along with the famed stand-up, young J. Elvis Weinstein, the snarky Trace Beaulieu, and two station employees - Kevin Murphy and Jim Mallon - they honed a rather scattered scheme to make fun of really bad movies. Establishing such soon stalwart ideas as The Satellite of Love, robots Servo, Crow and Gypsy, and a pair of mad scientists running the show, these MST makings would remain solid memories for die hard devotees.


That’s why the first few minutes of the new Hodgson created enterprise Cinematic Titanic are so spooky. Hearing the talented man and his former collaborators (minus Murphy and Mallon) is like a late night on the Comedy Channel back in 1991. It’s like standing in the doorway of your one bedroom apartment’s kitchen and craning your ear to hear what wonderful quip was going to come next. Announced last winter as a return to form, Hodgson has paired with Weinstein and Beaulieu, and with the additional help of talented ex-MSTerions Mary Jo Pehl and Frank Conniff to bring the fine art of movie mediocrity back to the masses. While Murphy, along with Bill Corbett and Mike Nelson have carried on the defunct series’ traditions via their Rifftrax and Film Crew DVDs, this was the first time many in this group had participated in the format for over a decade.


And it was well worth the wait. Cinematic Titanic’s first offering, the horribly dull Al Adamson splatter stiff The Oozing Skull, is vintage MST filtered through a slightly more adult ideal. Like Nelson’s download only offerings, the jokes can get a bit ‘blue’, but never venture into territory that would insult the intelligence, or the sense of age appropriateness, of the established fan base. Without much initial context (there’s no setup, no ‘us vs. them’ villainy, or sketch comedy insert material - at least, not yet) and an unusual construct that finds five people interacting with the film (two standing, three sitting) there’s an initial adjustment period that lasts about 10 seconds. Then we hear the sonorous tones of our former heroes, and the hilarity comes reeling back.


This is outstanding stuff, the kind of rapid fire revelry that sends a satiric chill down your funny bone. While it’s hard to top the artistic triumph that was Mystery Science Theater 3000, what’s clear is that none of the former participants have lost an ounce of their wonderfully witty edge. The ‘all over the map’ spirit is still intact, jokes running the gambit from unusual references to the very essence of lowbrow. Unlike the original show, Hodgson has incorporated a small amount of physical comedy, letting Conniff take point for a glitzy guest star showcase (all done in silhouette). Beaulieu also gets a make-over moment for Skull‘s leading lady, and on at least two occasions, a wheelchair bound individual comes in and cracks wise, Stephen Hawking style. It’s all very wacky, but within a controlled entertainment environment.


As with most MST product from the past, an episode of Cinematic Titanic will more than likely be judged on the success or failure of the film being mocked - and in the case of The Oozing Skull, they couldn’t have picked a better slice of schlock. Al Adamson, as bad a Z-movie maker as the often mocked (undeservedly so) Ed Wood, steps up and spews his aimless point and shoot stool sampling all over the audience. When the benevolent dictator of a small fictional Middle Eastern empire is diagnosed with a terminal disease, he resorts to a rather extreme backup plan to stay in power. With the help of his peroxide blond gal pal Tracey, the experimental brain transplant operations of Dr. Robert Nigserian, and the protection of attending physician Dr. Lloyd Trenton, Abdul Amir will get a new body. Unfortunately, it turns out to be Gor, an acid scarred retard whose brutish strength hides a baby’s mentality.


So corny that hominy grits are jealous of its maize like properties and so hackneyed that a picture postcard of an Indian Taj stands in for a real location, The Oozing Skull is all gory head surgery and undeniably illogical plot pointing. Adamson, who never met a sequence he couldn’t shatter with his innate lack of mise en scene, delivers his standard 80 minutes of mediocrity, lots of close ups substituting for coverage, and insane ramblings replacing ideas. Dogs dying of rabies-induced dementia are more cogent in the ways of science than this operation-oriented dung. During the first act dome cracking, we get a nice amount of scalpel to fake flesh bloodletting. And the finale is fun in a fumbling, drunken uncle sort of incomprehensibleness. But for sheer boredom and genre junking, this is some very dumb dread.


Luckily, the CT squad is around to address the dilemma. Punching away at all the story chasms, reasoning quagmires, and pizza dough quality effects, the quintet’s quipping is masterful. There is never a missed opportunity, no one performer overriding or dominating the proceedings. Conniff gets off a couple of classic drug jibes, while Hodgson occasionally calls on other cast members to give their talented two cents. The movie is actually paused four times - once to introduce a nauseous Al Hirt, another to let Trace touch up bimbette Regina Carrol’s clown-like face, then for a discussion of battery acid, and finally to hear Weinstein croon a plaintive ballad (kind of) - and during these moments, we instantly recognize the brilliance of these comedians. Even when faced with the daunting challenge of making a sloppy ‘70s drive-in exploitation turd manageable, they are consistently clever and right on the money.


Even better, the movie seems to inspire a kind of chemistry and camaraderie that’s been missing from other MST-styled offerings. Taking nothing away from the radiance offered via Rifftrax and the Film Crew, but seeing all five together, outlines contrasted against Adamson’s bile like cinematography, is morphine for the memory. It reminds us of that classic trio, sitting at the bottom of the screen, providing enjoyment where there definitely was none, smiles where only depressive tears once appeared. Some may think this is nothing more than trading on the past for the sake of a quick buck. But there is much, much more to Cinematic Titanic than traveling back down bad movie memory lane. And with mysterious elements like the Time Tube and other mythology left to explore, the series can only continue to grow.


While we all tend to bark at technology for making life a lot harder than it needs to be, science should be snogged for allowing one time talents, stifled by bumbling broadcast feebs unable to see their inherent value, to take control of their own creative destiny and deliver amazing experiences like the Cinematic Titanic. It will be disorienting at first, a pro-MST mentality unsure of how to react to the satiric specter of the former masterwork. But after a while, after the novelty wears off and the intelligence sinks in, the spirit is lifted and the soul assuaged. The Oozing Skull is just another of those long festering celluloid sores that should have been lanced with some manner of corrosive and cast aside. But in the capable hands of the CT crew, it stands as the start of something wonderful indeed.

DVD


 



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Sunday, Jan 27, 2008


It was an announcement of seismic proportions. The members of MiSTie Nation could barely contain themselves. After 14 years away from daily production on the series, and eight years since his last appearance on the show, Mystery Science Theater 3000 creator Joel Hodgson was coming back to the comic format he helped establish - and he was bringing a few friends along for the return trip. Under the auspices of a new bad movie mocking setup - given the clever name Cinematic Titanic - our sleepy eyed hero, along with former MST Cast members J. Elvis Weinstein (the original Servo), Trace Beaulieu (the original Crow T. Robot), Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl, were back. The plan - create original installments of this new project for direct to DVD download and/or distribution. For most, it would be their first foray back into in-theater riffing since the original ceased production in 1999.


Of course, there was a catch. Instead of bringing Mystery Science back totally, Joel was forced to create the new entity. It was a problem facing other cast members Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett when they started their Rifftrax experiment for Legend Films in 2006. While the overall concept was easily recreated, the naming rights were another story all together. With Best Brains Incorporated in legal limbo, and some slightly sour feelings remaining between the original creators, it seemed like the best way to go was with a brand new identity. With a successful catalog of audio-only comedy tracks (for such major releases as The Matrix, Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier) Nelson and his pals had kept the concept alive. They had also started their own set of DVD releases under the Film Crew label.


What Hodgson’s reemergence meant to the reinvigorated trio was a question further complicated by the simultaneous announcement that BBI was bringing back an official MST3K website with old school content and new animated “skits” from everyone’s favorite automatons. Naturally, none of the original actors were involved save Jim Mallon (producer and voice of Gypsy) and writer Paul Chaplin. So, where once there was a dearth of MST-styled material to enjoy, where all a fan had was VHS copies of the original show, the occasional Rhino DVD release, and tape trading, there were now three separate entities planning on the goodwill inherent in the product and the demographic. At first, everyone was ecstatic. Even with the usual apprehension regarding quality, the more MST, the merrier. But as joy was replaced by judgment, the arrival of three competing creative outlets raised more feelings of unease. 


Primary among the concerns were surface issues like ego and old rivalries. Fans have long been aware of minor animosity between the Joel and Mike camps, leftover bitterness founded on the Season Five switchover and the resulting Comedy Central/Sci-Fi Channel falderal. When the Rifftrax/Film Crew started up, old timers wondered if the lack of certain participants - namely Joel, Trace, and Jim - meant that there would never be a full blown MST reunion. And then there was the belief that any revamp of past success would barely compete with the legend already in place. Even worse, The Satellite News, at one time the official Mystery Science Theater 3000 site, lost its ability to call itself that, and had to switch over to “fan oriented” content. It wasn’t because of anything they did. In essence, three separate entities are now vying to carry on a cult tradition that, five years ago, everyone considered more or less dead.


Now, Mystery Science Theater 3000 as a phenomenon was never officially over. While the familiar had stacks of prerecorded episodes, new DVDs, and online content to dig through, the main thread of Hodgson’s concept - making fun of really bad movies - maintained its popularity. Newbies were also just discovering the show, using YouTube and other personal file sharing protocols to experience some of the best the series had to offer. Anyone with half a brain knew that there was always an outlet for MST3K and it’s style of humor, and with the supported success of Rifftrax, Mike Nelson commentaries on public domain titles like Plan 9 from Outer Space and Reefer Madness, and multidisc volumes, it was only a matte of time before the show - in some form or another - made a comeback.


But things don’t look good in film quipping land these days, especially if initial rumors and messageboard reports are to be believed. While a genial “we’re all friends” attitude seems to have greeted the recent Hodgson/Mallon announcements, little rifts in the riffing are being noted. Joel and the gang have tried to maintain a fan friendly email list approach, using direct communication, blog entries, and other personality oriented propositions to draw viewers to their product. Yet in a recent interview, he seems miffed about people sharing copyrighted material - which Cinematic Titanic and old MST definitely fall into. Mallon has also been closing down online clips and complaining about unofficial sites stealing content. Even Rifftrax has announced an official player making the use of their MP3-only product much easier - at least on home computers.


Sounds like a group of competing claimants circling their wagons and preparing for a long legal haul, doesn’t it? And when you consider the trifurcated nature of the approach, three separate and so-far incongruous and incompatible entities competing for the same share of a dedicated and devoted constituency, it looks more like war than mere friendly fire. It’s odd, at least from an impersonal perspective, that so much would be made out of what the performers considered a “little cow town puppet show”. Yet for those who believe Mystery Science Theater 3000 was, and continues to be, the best thing TV has or ever had to offer, such posturing seems apropos. Never appreciated in its time, this newfound mythos can and should be milked for all the monetary value it can garner. But amongst the creative and compelling cash grab, something less affable is in the works.


Mallon’s maneuvers with YouTube and the recent announcement that Shout! Factory was taking over the MST DVD dynamic from Rhino suggests the days of trading posts and “circulating the tapes” may be over. With 2008 representing the 20th anniversary of the show’s appearance on local Minneapolis UHF channel KTMA and tributes bond to occur, who will take the center stage in the celebration seems shaky at best. BBI may take point, since they officially own the name - yet both Hodgson and Nelson were instrumental in making that happen. And this fails to take into consideration known names - Kevin Murphy, in particular - who were around at the time of the show’s inception, and yet didn’t become well associated with it until they stepped up and started performing.


Early opinions of both Cinematic Titanic’s first offering, the hilarious Oozing Skull (see review in Tuesday’s SE&L) as well as recent Rifftrax takes on Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Transformers indicate the gang are in classic form, yet it begs the question - couldn’t they rule the entertainment world if they simply got back together, ironed out their differences, and offered up Mystery Science Theater 3001? Imagine the excitement, and the anticipation, of seeing the classic casts and all the classic characters banding together to take down the cinematic scourge of bad, bad movies. With so few sure things out there, a studio or distribution company would be insane not to bankroll a return, and rights issues could be cast aside as deals could be struck with both filmmakers and film owners who’ve longed for the day they’d be subject to Joel, Mike and the ‘bots.


Of course, it will probably never happen. We are dealing with artists here, individuals who mix the fear of rejection with the bravery of performance on a daily basis to earn their keep. Trying to convince them to lay aside differences and work together again is probably a Beatles/The Jam impossibility. Since fans are willing to support all three (or at least Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic - the verdict is still out on the BBI revamp of MST3K.com) there really is no reason to play nice…not yet, at least. Here’s hoping that, one day, the powers that be will come together and realize that one flawless presentation of silver screen spoofing is far better than many still amazing examples. If the differences are too deep, however, then it appears we are in for more than one illustration of MST magnificence. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all.


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Sunday, Jan 27, 2008


It was all the movie business could do. Television was eating into its audience, viewers more eager to sit at home and enjoy limited entertainment on a small 12” screen vs. taking the entire family to their local 1000 seat theater. Even with superior sound, enhanced visual quality (with developments like Cinemascope and Todd-O Vision), and a larger than life overall experience, the novelty of the new living room technology was changing the cultural dynamic. Then some enterprising distributors decided to use the old roadshow roll out. Developed in the days when a simultaneous national release was virtually impossible, these special event presentations saw a film - and various accompanying attractions/actors/advertising - canvas the country, drumming up interest via the mere exclusivity of a city-to-city play date. One of the last mavericks of such an approach was Samuel Bronston, and one of his biggest hits centered on the fabled Spanish hero, El Cid.


There are actually three intriguing stories at the center of the new DVD release of El Cid. The first is the legend of the title character, a sweeping spectacle dealing with important issues like loyalty, courage, and destiny. The next is the tall tale of how Samuel Bronston, a wide-eyed Romanian employee of MGM, branched out into independent production and navigated several epic films to the big screen, El Cid included. He also was famed for using the Roadshow format to maximum early ‘60s effect. This is also the story of Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who’ve used their recent split from Disney (and their signature company, Miramax) as a stepping stone toward their passion for film preservation. Dedicated to their late mother, the new Miriam Collection intends to champion forgotten efforts from the past, hoping that new generations will discover their glories. With the digital treatment of El Cid, they’ve created a product that will make both Mom and the history of cinema proud.

The myth surrounding the title character, otherwise known as Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar begins as all such romanticized history does - with a wedding thwarted and an act of charity leading to charges of treason. After releasing a captured Moorish general and his men, our soon to be conqueror earns the gratitude, and undying loyalty, of his previous prisoners. Naturally, the King and his court are not happy, and Rodrigo is accused of being a traitor. As the noblemen debate his fate, he seeks the solace of his beautiful bride to be Jimena, daughter of the royal champion. Their love is undying and undeniable. But when his own father is insulted, Rodrigo challenges his lady love’s guardian to a duel. The results ruin the relationship with his fiancé forever. As the King’s newest knight, El Cid is sent to negotiate with disloyal factions in the kingdom. He eventual succeeds, and an innate ability to avoid ambush and double cross turn him into a rural icon. Soon, competitive elements within the royal family will challenge his sense of duty, and his love for Jimena…and all the while, the Moors are preparing for all out war.


Anchored by yet another stellar Charleton Heston performance and propelled by director Anthony Mann’s sense of scale, El Cid is the kind of good old fashioned filmmaking that truly satisfies the deepest inner cravings of an aesthetic starved movie buff. Lacking the usual clunky dialogue that dooms such sword and sandal period pieces, and laced with a thread of near religious allusion in its themes, we wind up with the kind of larger then life experience that makes history seem evocative and personal sacrifice the noblest of all intentions. While the story of how Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar is slightly marginalized by the artform’s natural tendency to over-tweak the genre, and some of the supporting players can’t match master thespian Chuck’s mantle, we still walk away feeling drawn in by a monumental experience that does a devastating job of putting us right inside the ideological conflict at play.


Indeed, some may feel an odd sense of déjà vu as the main Moor villain - the incredibly bad Ben Yussuf, portrayed by an unrecognizable Herbert Lom - delivers his anti-enlightenment screeds. It’s all burning books, avoiding knowledge, limiting freedom, and Islamic fundamentalist fanaticism. The notion of a Muslim army overthrowing the rest of the known world via sheer brute force and insane violence is nothing new, but in our current hot button foreign policy pickle, such pronouncements seem prophetic. Some will also recognize a similar Arabs as mannered madmen ideal like the one forwarded in 300. The enemy’s misguided sense of purpose is outlandish and intense. With the exacting costumes and large scale battle scenes, Mann and his mega-sized war machinery definitely leave a big impression.


But El Cid is not all gigantic battles and a cast of several thousand. Some of the best moments are one on one, like Rodrigo’s swordfight with the father of his fiancé. It’s a perfectly paced and performed bit of stunt swashbuckling. Similarly, the jousting gauntlet sequence strikes the proper balance between dread and intended daring-do. Heston handles all his demands with aplomb, grace, and just a small amount of indirect demagoguery. Unlike his work in The Ten Commandments or Ben Hur, there is very little humility in how he plays Cid. Only when confronted by his King does he ever let his guard down. Even playing against a slightly stiff Sophia Loren (who really isn’t given much to do except look stoic), there is a humble hubris percolating at the core of his character’s being. He knows he’s right - he’s just waiting for the rest of Spain to get clued in.


All of this leads to one of those amazing real life recreations, complete with a windswept seaside setting, untold extras, and enough found location legitimacy to keep the pomp palpable. It takes oversized actors to carry off Mann’s motives, and Heston is the perfect proto-idol. While not quite Latin in his looks, he is one of the few thoroughly modern actors who appear comfortable, even authentic, in outlandish 11th century garb. It’s easy to scoff at this material, to see El Cid as a throwback to the days when producers provided audiences with the pre-CGI notion of eye candy and figured that this would be enough - and in some cases, it was. But within this rather dense narrative, Mann incorporates enough Shakespearean substance to amplify the ideas projected. It makes the main character’s last act sacrifice, and the denouements surrounding it, all the more memorable.


Long unavailable on DVD - many of these bloated bits of ballyhoo became lost in a quagmire of competing rights once movies went simplistic and post-modern - the Weinsteins should be praised considerably for bringing this movie back from the home video dead. The pristine, almost perfect anamorphic widescreen image captures Mann’s magnificent framing and composition with polish and professionalism. The picture here is just amazing. Similarly, a newly struck Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix bolsters the brilliant score by Miklos Rozsa (Ben Hur, King of Kings). But the best element of this Miriam Collection release is the context. With commentaries, production featurettes and other print-based bonuses, we get a vivid picture of what it took for Bronston to bring this project to life.


On the full length complementary discussion, Bill, the late producer’s son, talks about his dad and his desire to make movies. He’s joined by Neil M. Rosendorf, historian and Bronston biographer. While the latter can’t help but overly praise the film, and link everything back to his Jewish heritage, the overall conversation provides the kind of clarity we need to understand this phase of mainstream moviemaking. Equally insightful are the documentaries, bonuses that concentrate on the movie, Mann, Rozsa, and the difficulty in preserving cinema’s past. Together with a booklet outlining the film and its famous roadshow success, we get a clear picture of what made Bronston tick - and why he choose such a large canvas to tell his tales.

The answer is obvious - in order to battle novelty, one has to be equally unique as well. The roadshow, with its event-like mentality and sense of spectacle, was a surefire way to get audiences back to the bijou. It announced an experience unlike anything they were normally used to, and promised to deliver sound and vision incomparable - especially from a fledgling medium like television. And for a while it worked, and watching El Cid some 48 years later, it’s easy to see why. By combining expert casting, lush opticals, and narratives that span the scope of all human experience, the epic promised the very essence of man’s place within the universe. In that capacity, Bronston and El Cid truly deliver. Thankfully, the Weinstein’s new DVD arm gets such grandeur as well. This new digital package is one of the year’s best.



DVD


 
EXTRAS


 


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Saturday, Jan 26, 2008


One of the more intriguing elements of science fiction is its allegorical ability. Using a fantasy or fictional setting to comment on the current state of society has always been one of the genre’s greatest strengths. It allows the author to discuss subjects and situations that otherwise would result in controversy and/or contention. But when buffered by aliens, future shock situations, and interstellar overdrives, even the most debatable material can be dissected and discussed in a rationale, insightful manner. That’s why so many film fans lament the category’s slip into straight forward Star Wars space battling. Where once serious speculative fiction meant the free exchange of ideas, now it’s all Ewoks and heavy breathing man-machine villains.


Automatons is different. A Super 8mm home movie manufactured in the basement of a Brooklyn building, this war between competing ideologies looks like a child’s toy fair gone nuclear. Filmed in black and white, and using miniatures and other less than special effects to generate its brave new worldview, it’s the classic tale of a post-apocalyptic war between rival factions, each using superior scientific knowledge and an undying vendetta to fuel their fury. In essence, the development of robots allowed political factions (represented by the generic named ‘Girl’ and ‘The Enemy Leader’) on a planet gone precarious to split, and then start using the technology to destroy one another. Eventually, a ragtag group of survivors try to commandeer the remaining iron men and use them to end the hostilities – by annihilating the other side.

Within the context of this blank Buck Rodgers, a desolate landscape visualized via tiny handmade props, we have issues regarding national and personal security, the abuse of power, the mismanagement of science, and the blind faith in violence to resolve all issues. There are hints of the Republican desire for a new world order as well as talk of terrorism and fanaticism overruling reason and rationality. Throughout the course of the plot, as our rogue engineer tries to repair and reprogram her minions, a videolog of her famed father’s rantings (essayed with verve by Phantasm’s Angus Scrimm) play in the background, and it’s during these screeds that we learn most of the narrative backdrop – the state of emergency, the competing philosophies, the Terminator-like takeover of the machines.


Granted, filmmaker James Felix McKenney borrows a lot of his outsized ideas. There are elements borrowed from James Cameron’s classic, as well as The Matrix, Dark City, and any number of human vs. mechanism protocols. The use of grade-Z visuals adds to the disquiet, as well as the grainy, caught on surveillance sense of the cinematography. There are moments of stagnant optical ambiguity, times when we aren’t sure what we are watching and where the action is taking place. During the so-called action scenes, where minuscule monsters shoot animated ammunition at each other in an attempt to create the epic on a very small scale, we wonder if McKenney can pull it off. Once we get to the final confrontation, however, the splatter-oriented stylistic choices actually add to our dread.


There are some very gory, very Tetsuo: The Iron Man inspired deaths toward the end of the film, a collection of killings that suddenly shift our understanding of the title machines. While the wordy, whiny stand-off between the two female leaders adds little to the overall tone, watching a cardboard creature rip the limbs off a person in black blood detail is highly effective. The change of perspective is crucial to Automatons’ overall success. We want to comprehend the horrible world we are dealing with. But if we can’t have that, we’ll take the grue and its resulting reconfiguration of events. All the while, we believe the robots are just bad F/X. The craven desire to destroy comes as a weird, welcome shock.


This is not the kind of film you come to looking for great acting or insightful direction. The no name cast complements the material well, but they add very little from an emotional or creative angle. They are interchangeable, faces featured within scenes where the demons are in the sci-fi details. Also, McKenney tends to use the battle scenes as tension gathering time sucks. There are sequences of inventive composition, moments when the conflict looks like the panel from an early EC comic. In fact, a lot of Automatons recalls old school space operatics filtered through a retro, almost ridiculous conceit. But then the ‘bots bring the blood, and the message gets incredibly, incredibly mean.


For all it accomplishes, for all the imagination and “Robo-Monstervision” it employs to rise above basic camp and cult kitsch, this is a movie that will be judged almost solely on its schlock. With break-dancing extras trying to act mechanical, bodies trapped in large cardboard and tin foil mock ups, it’s hard to rise above the ridiculousness. But McKenney tries, and for the most part, succeeds. Facets Video has released this film on DVD with a wealth of extras that truly highlight the effort put into this production. The Behind the Scenes featurette illustrates the difference between the color world of digital video and the single hue aura of celluloid. We see tests for how the effects will work and overall artistic concepts for the film. While it may feel like the sloppy stumbling of a shoe-string visionary, the extras explain that there is much more to Automatons than meets the candy-less eye.


In fact, it’s safe to say that, decades from now, when cinephiles are looking through the past to find meaning in the otherwise mediocre mainstreams of post-modern cinema, something like Automatons will be rediscovered - and readily embraced. Similar to another mindboggling achievement in no-budget tone poetry - Cory McAbee’s brilliant The American Astronaut - we again have proof that serious speculative fiction can rely more on ideas than optics to make its many points. While some have suggested the film channels Dr. Who, The Twilight Zone, or even vintage Outer Limits, it’s far more original (at least ideologically) to realize such retro aims. In fact, it’s far more original than such hints of homage suggest. The “This is How Humanity Dies” tagline should be rephrased to state “This is how true speculative storylines are handled”. That’s this small film’s greatest achievement.

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