A Night with Cinematic Titanic


Before DVDs existed and brought us the director commentary track, this group of men and women were providing an alternative audio track to movies that perhaps didn’t even deserve to have a primary audio track — or to even exist. But, then again, if these B-movies, C-movies, and Z-movies had not existed, a pop cultural phenomenon wouldn’t either.

Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (or MST3K to its fans) gave voice to how audiences were already engaging with films that, on some level, were fundamentally flawed. Perhaps the special effects were bad. Or the acting. Or the directing. Or the sound editing. Or the cinematography. Or the script. Or the editing. Or, perhaps all of them, in those movies whose existence alone are causes for wonderment. For many people, they are the movies they would not watch, or, if they did, they would mercilessly take them apart, pointing out all their flaws and wondering why they had justed wasted their time.

But when Joel, or later Mike, and his bots, Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo, interjected into the film with their witty quips, they gave voice to observations we were making but perhaps didn’t know how to say. For 10 (plus) seasons, the boys were hounded by a Forrester and a cadre of supporting characters; trapped in the “Satellite of Love”, our three main characters were forced by a Forrester to watch a horrible movie. In ostensibly a scifi narrative, the interaction between Joel/Mike, the bots and their captors served mainly to frame and react to the horrible film of the week, termed “the experiment”. How the boys survived the experiment was to crack jokes.

While perhaps some fans cared primarily for the framing material — and of course all fans cared for the characters — it was how the boys reacted to the movies that was the main reason for watching the show. And it proved a very powerful reason: even with pop cultural references that can feel dated, the show continues to find young audiences. And after a decade of being off the air, the men, and women, who made the show continue to provide tremendous comedy experiences with some of the worst, and best, that has ever come out of the world of movie-making.

Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, who would be the boys when the series ended, went on to create RiffTrax. Part of their output is to provide their riffing on a movie, including current Hollywood hits, as an audio track that you can download and sync to the movie. Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein, Frank Conniff, and Mary Jo Pehl (the first three being the boys when the series began) have been working together to produce Cinematic Titanic. Their products include putting out DVDs of the same types of films that were riffed on MST3K.

However, another part of Cinematic Titanic’s output are the live productions, such as the one I attended last night at the Pabst Theatre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The following image wasn’t from last night’s performance, where they riffed on the 1975 “horror” film Rattlers. But this image, provided by brianorndorf.typepad.com, shows the basic layout of these live shows. All five actors appear live on stage and perform, off their scripts, the quips and observations as the movie runs.

I first started watching MST3K when I went to college, and finally got cable. The SciFi Channel was my media mecca in those days. While I didn’t get all the jokes (I still don’t, but I’ve gotten better), I became hooked. For awhile, without access to reruns on cable or DVD, I lost touch my the “Mistie” in me. Then my boyfriend, a huge Mistie, reignited my love for the series when we found episode after episode to watch online and wile away the hours in Denmark (you can find many episodes via Google Video and YouTube). Watching an MST3K with pizza became something of a Friday night special for us.

Last night, watching Cinematic Titanic and the original cast of the series riff on a truly horrible movie, being surrounded by hundreds of Misties — well, it didn’t matter if our laughter drowned out the movie, or even one of the actor’s quips. There is something magical about having so many fans together in such close proximity to their objects of affection, and all sharing in those perfect moments of meaning-making. It was like being with the Star Wars fans, anticipating the opening fanfare that would precede Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace — only without the deflating of those positive expectations as the event progresses. It was even better than being with my family, devout Green Bay Packers fans, when the Packers won their latest Super Bowl: that game was full of tension and drama and the great potential for heartbreak.

Last night there was no let down from the high of positive emotions. There was no real potential for heartbreak. There was just sustained connecting — actor connecting to actor, actor connecting to audience, fan connecting to fan. It was a celebration of humor and fandom where each moment fed into the next to somehow make things funnier and funnier. And in a week in Wisconsin where friends, family members, and perfect strangers were yelling at each other over politics and a state budget, it was a night of positive emotions that the audience needed.

Perhaps that is why the connecting between everyone was so strong. That despite our differences — and some anti-Scott Walker (governor of Wisconsin) jokes did arouse boos from several in the audience — we all shared a profound love for these actors, their comedy, and what they have brought into our lives. Last night, our fandom trumped our politics and ideologies. And all that was left was our laughter.

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