Tuesday, November 2, 2010
A brief comment on the Rifftrax commentary on Twillight
I've been a big fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 since its beginnings in the Minneapolis suburbs. I have a vague recollection of seeing one of the original episodes on UHF television, and watched the show through its full run on Comedy Central, watching it shift from the Joel Hodgson years to Mike Nelson. Like a lot of folks, I didn't see a lot of the episodes on the Science Fiction Channel, but I was pretty excited to hear that the break up of the group led to not one but two new groups, a group with Joel called Cinematic Titanic, and a Mike oriented group which has produced material at The Film Crew or Rifftrax. That group features Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett.
For those who don't know the concept behind Rifftrax, its a revision on the original project set up by MST3K. Rather than offering commentary on a film that has entered the public domain, or is available for very little money, Nelson, Corbett, and Murphy simply offer commentary tracks for sale, which you can sync with your DVD. This allows for the group to comment about contemporary films, rather than old films, so you get material on obvious targets such as the Star Wars prequels and the Twilight films. It's a pretty nifty idea, and the guys get a few bucks for the material.
So far, so good. I saw Cinematic Titanic a couple years ago, and I had a great time. Pretty much my favorite folks are involved in the process, Joel, TV's Frank, and the Dr. Clayton Forrester guy. But more significantly, I enjoyed the entire ensemble. (I had been suspicious of Mary Jo Piehl's role in the later years, but I've had to rethink that prejudice, and looking back at the later episodes, she was really funny). My response to the Nelson, Corbett, and Murphy group has been a lot more mixed. I've seen a number of the episodes through Neflix, and there has been some good material, but the absence of censorship, something kind of nasty has been revealed. This initially came out in the material contained in the commentary on the film, The Giant of Marathon, which slipped into an increasingly tedious series of gay jokes, referring implicitly to the sexual practices of Ancient Greece, as well as the naked and oiled torsos of actors. It became pretty obvious that far from playing with a set of repressed signifiers for comedic effect, that is satirizing the strange repressed, homosocial nature of the film, the guys needed to distance themselves from homosexuality.
When I got the Rifftrax commentary on Twillight, I had hoped that phenomenon had been an anomaly. Unfortunately, I was mistaken. The guys clearly felt the need to distinguish themselves from the audience of the film, through both juvenile homophobic commentary* and often misogynistic commentaries about the teenage girls that make up the audience. The former was marked by tedious 'that's gay' comments as well as mocking several of the American Indian characters for have 'girly' hair, and the latter was marked by both insults and the need to instruct young women the expectations of young men in dating practices. I'm not going to go into further detail than that, but it was notable that many of us began to respond back to the podcast half way through the film because of our frustration with the material. More than anything, it indicated the insecurity of the group. That insecurity translated into a sort of comedy of hatred that I had never expected from a group of artists that I have attempted to follow and support, and perhaps more significantly, have loved over the years. It genuinely upsets me to see these talented artists waste their talents in the service of the hatred of women and gay men, and really puts me in the position of asking whether I want to support such artists.
Before I end, I want to indicate that despite these substantial problems, there were some genuinely funny moments on the podcast. The guys made a number of sharp comments about the abusive dimension of the budding 'romance' between Edward and Bella, the ridiculous dialogue and camera angles, poor acting, etc. It was also clear that the guys had done their homework, and brought some comments in from the books. None of this stuff is meant to excuse the material I discussed above, nor is it meant as a way of leavening that criticism. I mention it because this is the sort of material that makes me want to watch their stuff, a continuation of the quality material found in MST3K, material that didn't legitimate bigotry and hatred. I hope that Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett can return to this tradition, and perhaps more significantly, recognize the phobias that have led to this material. Until then, I guess I still have the work of Joel, Trace, Mary, Frank, and J. Elvis to fall back on.
*I want to make the point that I have no problem with juvenile humor in and of itself. A lot of very funny moments of the show are juvenile, just not homophobic