[22 April 2014]
From our fear of the culture industry emerges a new sense of self—a negative self to be sure, created from the fear of being hypnotized by one’s inferiors, yet a self less likely to get lost in the dark.
At the height of its popularity in the mid-‘90s, Mystery Science Theater 3000 transcended its status as marginal cult phenomenon and became, for a few years, an emergent subject of serious academic inquiry. In cultural studies journals, articles analyzed the ways in which the show turned the “sadism” of cinematic gazing on its head: the hero was no longer the farcical actor of a mythic screen but the spectator himself, now resisting rather than complying with the command to “forget oneself” in cinematic fantasy.
Semioticians hailed MST’s scattershot streams-of-consciousness and exploitation of the mise en abyme—the frame within a frame—as deconstruction for the masses, a working illustration of how meaning is created in the rebounding rapport between a historicized object (the film watched) and multiple subjects (the show’s triadic watchers). Film historian Harry Benshoff’s Monsters in the Closet, a survey of queer horror cinema, even championed MST’s snarky gay sympathies as a coy way to queer the blindly heteronormative films of pre-liberated eras.
Though readymade for postmodernist navel-gazing or rendering instantly nostalgic the fleeting present tense, the frame-within-frame had long been a staple of earlier modernism. Ludwig Tieck’s Puss in Boots, written in 1797, opens with a brilliantly satirical prologue in which audience members debate the merits of the play they—and we—are about to witness. Some members of Tieck’s audience find the very notion of something called Puss in Boots insulting and infantile, and mock the play before it has begun; others wonder if the drama might be a secret, revolutionary allegory about catlike politicians and Freemason plots.
Prokofiev’s opera The Love for Three Oranges, written in 1919 and inspired by the 18th century satirist Carlo Gozzi, likewise begins with the audience as part of the drama. In this case, three warring choruses, arguing for their favorite genres—tragedy, farce, or sentimental romance—intervene in the proceedings at critical junctures to foster the preferred outcomes of their respective causes. In ensuring that comedy wins out in the end, Prokofiev mobilizes every ridiculous dramatic contrivance possible, suggesting that tragic improbabilities are more or less indistinguishable from comic ones.
The growing awareness of the frame in the late 18th century mirrored the growing awareness of a post-revolutionary modernity, one coming to terms with not only democracy and the so-called public sphere, but also the constant surveillance that attends institutional life. The age of mass media turned the performative life into a spectacular one, now framed in ways apart from the chronological boundaries of life and death.
We alleged postmodernists have done our best to internalize and normalize the structures of surveillance—hence, reality television, that lifeless, formulaic pastime of the surveillance state. Andy Warhol knew that celebrity would eventually become vapidity in a McLuhanite age: everyone is a performer, yet with nothing to perform. The problem of reality television is thus its groundless assertions of drama, signified by pounding music, obscene close-ups, and clockwork revelations of the trivial. Warhol celebrated life’s unavoidable boredom—reality TV improbably denies it.
Commercial cinema pretends to be a spectacle, but in a larger sense, cinema itself is always the overlording watcher, commanding audiences to spectate in the most passive ways. MST’s answer, of course, is to make spectatorship not merely active and skeptical but argumentative, cynical, even anarchic. The three protagonists’ male bonding becomes a bulwark against cinema’s alleged magic—the show would be horribly depressing with a single hero—and serves as a small unit of human security against the larger security state. The bonding extends to a mass audience of closet dissidents who are too aware that shadowy spectatorship, rarely eliciting the “pleasures” about which academics always prattle, more typically engages the boredoms, stupidities, and bathetic failures of human ambition. Heckling becomes an art form and a necessary defense mechanism, a valid form of protest against culture’s unwarranted stupefactions.
Though mockery and derision proffer fleeting pleasures, MST is more accurately scopophobic, not scopophilic, understanding that the spectacles we receive are seldom the spectacles we want. From this fear of the culture industry emerges a new sense of self—a negative self to be sure, created from the fear of being hypnotized by one’s inferiors, yet a self less likely to get lost in the dark.
If critics have long (and accurately) talked about the “sadism” of manipulative montage, it is high time the audience appropriates that sadism and directs it back at the unfeeling screen, whose deafness to our little jokes constitutes a grand, master joke. At last, it is not the omnipotent auteur who is heroic, nor the technique of film, nor even the audience as an abstract idea, but a particular audience of dissolute rebels, who find in the rejection of cinema the medium’s true power—the rediscovery of the self.
Hercules and the Captive Women (1961)
A recent DVD edition of MST offers new opportunities to examine why the showed worked and how its humor manages to stave off the movie theater’s mesmerizing darkness. As with many MST box sets, the present (29th) edition offers three adequate adventures and one genuine masterpiece.
Untamed Youth (1957)
Untamed Youth (1957) is a sweaty potboiler rife with redneck sheriffs, scandalous skinny dipping, prison catfights, teenagers dazed by their own hipster jargon, and (yes, there’s a plot) buxom Mamie Van Doren sentenced by a kindly judge to rehabilitative agrarian labor. It is also, for some reason, a musical, and whenever we witness the badly choreographed numbers, we become more painfully aware of the frame, for in these clumsily blocked moments the filmmakers are acutely self-conscious of their own attempts to engender “framed art.” Watching a frame (the dance number) within another frame (Untamed Youth) within a larger master frame (MST), we only become more resistant to the mise en abyme’s accumulating mirrors. Rather than swallowing us, the abyss hurls us back into self-consciousness.
The Thing that Couldn’t Die (1958)
Less fun is The Thing that Couldn’t Die (1958), a black-and-white programmer that only intrigues when, about halfway through, a resurrected sorcerer with a detachable head threatens country-folk. Hercules and the Captive Women (1961) is representative of the show’s earlier seasons, which were marked by sternly dubbed peplums and monster movies. The film also provides opportunities for the campy subversions Benshoff identities, as parades of beefy, tunic-clad men lazing on the beach, wrestling lions, and battling bipedal reptile men instigate a barrage of homoerotic jokes meant to disclose the homosexuality conspicuously missing from a movie about ancient Greece. A more typical joke occurs when one of the trio shouts “Altamont!” as leprous outcasts are chased by oppressive soldiers. Though not particularly funny in itself, the joke manages to get by on anachronistic surprise alone.
The Pumaman (1980)
We then come to the genuine treasure in the collection: Alberto de Martino’s The Pumaman (1980), one of many absurd Italian superhero capers made in the wake of Richard Donner’s Superman (1980). The film’s villain is the perennially misused, pear-shaped Donald Pleasence, here indulging a sublimely hammy knockoff of his Blofeld routine and probably wishing he were still working with Harold Pinter and Roman Polanski. His plans for societal domination are opposed by a blandly handsome hero who discovers he is the prophesied heir to Aztec Gods from Space (a la Erich von Däniken) and is thus entitled to the powers of a flying puma—a real-life Puss in Boots.
If Tieck’s meta-audience wondered how a cat might be reasonably impersonated onstage, Italian cinematic technology circa 1980 had few illusions: in the film’s obvious highlights, the hero straps on his enchanted ancestral girdle and is lowered by a boom before rear-projected cityscapes. But here our laughter, not mere schadenfreude, is tinged with pathos: as he dangles helplessly, suspended by unionized technicians, we know the stern superhero is the prisoner, and it is we who are free.
Like the MST versions of The Creeping Terror, Manos: The Hands of Fate, Operation Kid Brother, and the unjustly neglected Invasion of the Eye Creatures, the comic resistance marshalled against Pumaman constitutes one of American television’s greatest achievements. Yet there remains an obvious flaw in MST’s critical perspective—it only engages “bad films”. As a result, the show reinforces normative preconceptions about what constitutes goodness, especially when we judge production values. Simply, badness becomes equated with cheapness and goodness with expense and luxury. Here, MST reveals the insidious conservatism at the heart of much comedy, as it mocks films that fail to conform to conventional, “professional” standards of value.
Doubtless the show’s writers were aware of this problem. In one of the final episodes, the writers attempted an experiment, using as their semiotic springboard not a cheap horror movie or sci-fi fiasco but Hamlet, albeit a horribly dubbed, made-for-German television version from 1961. But the show really had no reason to qualify its experiment with a Teutonic Hamlet’s bad dubbing. How much more fascinating would have been a stream of consciousness skewering of an “acclaimed” Hamlet, if only to deflate cultural pomposities. Certainly, it would be more fun (if cost-prohibitive for MST’s producers) to lampoon Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 Hamlet, a sporadically brilliant film hampered by innumerable cultural missteps (recall miscast Billy Crystal as the Gravedigger and a swashbuckling finalé more appropriate for Errol Flynn).
I’m hesitant to suggest that true greatness should be skewered—to pillory a film such as, say, Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985) would be both reprehensible and probably impossible. But so much “prestige” cinema deserves our derision: it is far more liberating to mock the middlebrow presumptions of Out of Africa (1985) or Merchant-Ivory than to kick cheap failures in the face. Indeed, redirecting our derisions toward higher targets is the best way to turn our small, defensive sadisms into greater, transcendent liberations.
Andrew Grossman is a regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, the editor of the anthology Queer Asian Cinema: Shadows in the Shade (2001), and a contributor to The New Dictionary of the History of Ideas.