God’s Blessings to you on this the fourth day of February in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017. When I was young, there was a TV show I sometimes watched called Movie Magic. It was about special effects in particular, but it could have been a much more general title, because everything about movies has a certain magic to it.
As I write this, I’m watching the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode for the movie The Dead Talk Back. According to Wikipedia, it was filmed in 1957 but never screened. It eventually was found in a warehouse and went direct-to-video in 1993, and appeared on MST3K a year later. I wouldn’t call it a good movie, but I sometimes put it on in the background while I’m programming because I find it works well for that. (I can only watch movies I’ve seen more than once before while programming or I find them distracting. I never do this with really good movies because I don’t want to ruin my appreciation of them.) It’s a murder mystery, which I love dearly, and all of the production elements were decent but not good. The acting was OK, the cameraman filmed it so the people were reasonably large in the shots, it was lit so that you could see what was being filmed, etc. The story itself is, while not great, at least coherent and the pacing isn’t bad. And I’ve found that this is what really makes for the best MST3K episodes; the underlying episode needs to be relatively watchable. (I say this as someone who owns more than 20 boxed DVD sets of MST3K.) I very rarely re-watch episodes where the underlying movie was unwatchable.
I’m going to write more about this in depth some day, but I think that the basic underlying reason for it is that MST3K is fundamentally most enjoyable to people who are—fundamentally—laughing at themselves by proxy. It’s great to people who intuitively understand the magic of movies, and would love to be a part of it in making a movie (or TV, etc.; same basic thing for my purpose here). Those of us who do understand just how willing we’d be to take short-cuts if it meant the difference between coming in under-budget with a movie, versus going over-budget and having to shut down production with nothing. Like is Plan 9 From Outer Space, if you have everything set up and need to get the shot now or give up because you don’t have the budget for another day’s shooting, who wouldn’t just shrug their shoulders at the wrinkle in the blue sheet used to represent the sky behind the colonel giving the orders to shoot? The set used to represent an airplane’s cockpit is absurd, but it does at least remind one, if only a little, of the cockpit of an airplane, and that’s a lot better than (1) nothing in the form of sitting at a desk in a cafeteria or (2) nothing in the form of no movie. B movies might have as their theme song repeating the phrase “don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good” repeated like a mantra. But of course these aren’t good movies. And that’s unfortunate, but in a sense OK. And that’s why MST3K is so funny. Because it is pointing out these two truths which are hard to hold simultaneously: these aren’t good movies, and all being, as such, is good. Also, they’re not really bad movies. If you want truly bad movies, watch wretched things like The House on the Edge of the Park or Slave of the Cannibal God. I learned early that when you want to watch bad movies to make fun of them with your friends, you need to be very careful, because there’s another barrel buried deep in the ground underneath the barrel that Plan 9 From Outer Space at the bottom of.
Anyway, that juxtaposition of truths which are hard to hold at the same time is perhaps the easiest to notice in movies which aren’t good, but are close to good, hence movies like The Dead Talk Back. But I’ve noticed this in other contexts, too. If you want to make fun of things for humor, don’t look for the worst things there are, because no one can stand them even to laugh at them. Pick things that are nearly good but not quite.
And there are exceptions to the rule about B movies, by the way. Gunslinger was on an MST3K episode, and it was actually a good movie. Low budget, to be sure, but a plot worthy of a greek tragedy and with decent enough acting to make it believable. One of the later scenes involves a man and a woman who’ve fallen in love but are on opposite sides of the law professing their love for each other as they shoot at each other, and when the woman hits the man, she rushes over to cradle him in her arms as he dies (which he does). That’s the thing about fiction; no matter what signifiers of quality it comes with, you can never quite be sure what you’re going to find.
Glory to God in the highest.