Laughing Matters: MST3K, “Here Comes the Circus”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

When I was in college, videotapes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 may as well have been bricks of gold. Airing on Comedy Central (including a couple years in its initial guise of Comedy Channel, ahead of a merger with rival network Ha!), the ingenious elevation of bad movie heckling into delirious art spoke to our snide, ironic sensibilities. The cable network wasn’t available on our local systems, and most us couldn’t afford the hook-up in our rundown apartments anyway. We knew of it, we read about it, and we even took a local pride in it (creator and star Joel Hodgson was born in our college town of Stevens Point and played one of his last standup gigs at the university before taking MST3K national). But we usually couldn’t watch it.

Then, in 1991, a small miracle happened. Comedy Central turned over a huge chunk of its Thanksgiving Day programming to Hodgson’s endeavor, airing a marathon of MST3K episodes. Invariably, some fellow student would go home for the holidays and return with a stack of VHS tapes, loaded down with MST3K episodes, probably recorded in some basement rec room as the rest of family gorged themselves on turkey and football upstairs.

From then on, even as the show became more readily available through a variety of means, my warmest memories of it are accompanied by thoughts of eagerly sitting before one of those screenings, with wavered tracking and the breathless insistence to maybe watch just one more before closing out the evening. It almost felt illicit, which matched perfectly with the sharpened insolence of the comedy.

The first time I saw Here Comes the Circus, it played off of one of those videotapes. Over two decades later, it’s still hysterical.

 

From the Archive: Jesus Camp

jesus-camp

Writing about Alex Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God the other day got me thinking about this earlier documentary that shows another side of the way religion and zealotry can be leveraged into callous exploitation of youth. This was originally published at my former online home.

The freakiest moment in the new documentary Jesus Camp comes right at the beginning. We see a sort of performance, seemingly in some church’s multi-purpose room. There’s a young boy whose face is painted with camouflage makeup stomping rhythmically atop a riser, beating together long batons in time with a soaring, anthemic song plays and a little battalion of girls in leotards before him match his movements. It’s like something out of “Lord of the Flies: The Musical” as staged by Julie Taymor. It sets the tone perfectly. These are children being trained for war. That’s metaphorical, but just barely.

The film is about Evangelican Christians and their overt efforts to drag America towards being a Jesus-loving nation in accordance with their belief systems. It frames it all with the efforts of Becky Fischer, a cheery zealot who focuses on indoctrinating the youth (because they’re giving kids hand grenades in the madrasahs in Pakistan, after all), running a bible camp where the kids are brought to hear scary (to me) lectures about the sinners that need saving, the genocide brought on by Roe v. Wade and the evils of Harry Potter. It’s a place where the pre-teen campers are worked into such emotional frenzies over their love of Christ that they start sobbing and speaking in tongues. They cheer joyfully when asked if they’d be willing to lay down their lives for their saviour. Jesus sucker-punched me and it felt like a kiss.

The film posits that this is a concerted effort, a tactical assembling of Christian soldiers to march ever onward. To a degree the film makes a compelling case, if only because the glassy-eyed stares of the most fervert proselytizers seem so impenetrable. The greater this clan gets, the more problematic it’s going to be for us heathens.

And yet the film’s not wholly successful, largely because it follows that current trend of documentary filmmaking that involves gathering plenty of footage on a fascinating topic and slapping it together into something shambling and shapeless. It remains fairly effective when it focuses on the camp itself, but the film falters when it heads down (admittedly relevant) sidetracks to a mega-church or a Washington demonstration. These stretches may help the film reach feature-length but they don’t deepen the story, even if there are some scattered telling details that the camera captures. There’s good material, but it doesn’t really serve this film.

Even more problematic is the inserted footage of radio personality Mike Papantonio sounding off on Evangelicals on his show, the camera prowling the studio, catching the bright green modulation waves on a Cool Edit Pro computer screen in a desperate attempt to make the broadcast visually exciting. The bigger issue (albeit the one that doesn’t give me a chance to snarkily show off about recognizing the radio station’s audio software) is that Papantonio’s editorializing seems stagey and forced, a cheaply calculated way to insert a dissenting voice into the film. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady are experienced enough (they made the much-admired The Boys of Baraka) to let the material they’ve filmed unspool without added commentary. The voices that are already in the film are speaking loud and clear.

One for Friday: NirVincent, “Lithium”

st-vincent-nirvana
(Image credit: CHARLES SYKES/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Based on the albums Annie Clark released under the name St. Vincent, I thought she was an incredibly impressive and intricately creatively musician. Then I saw her play live — during the tour to support the utterly magnificent St. Vincent — that I realized she was a bona fide rock star. I’m not sure anything Clark has ever put on record fully prepares a person for the experience of seeing her nonchalantly create sonic genius with her guitar.

If I had any hesitation whatsoever about Clark’s talent (and I didn’t), the doubt would have been erased by her appearance at the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Nirvana was among the honorees, and they adapted to the sad absence of lead singer Kurt Cobain by inviting a series of women to handle lead vocal duties during the obligatory live reunion performance. The other guests were fine, but Clark absolutely owned “Lithium,” respectfully celebrating the original while added her own icy intensity to it. If the performance had been immediately followed by a spontaneous announcement that Clark, drummer Dave Grohl, and bassist Krist Novoselic were taking their newly-formed trio on the road, I would have followed them like a vintage Deadhead who never lost site of the tailpipe of Jerry Garcia’s tourbus. In my fantasy, they called the group NirVincent.

I tap out these memories as prelude. I’m seeing St. Vincent perform live tonight. I couldn’t be more excited. It’s not often in this day and age that I get to see a real, vital rock star on stage.

Listen or download –> NirVincent, “Lithium”

(Disclaimer: To the best of my knowledge, the above track has never been officially released in a way that it can be purchased, at least not in a manner in which the original performers and the proprietor of your favorite local, independently-owned record store both make a reasonable amount of money. The track is shared in this space with that understanding. Even so, I know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

Playing Catch-Up — Now, Voyager; The Three Faces of Eve; Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God

now voyager

Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942). Based on a novel released the previous year, Now, Voyager casts Bette Davis as Charlotte Vale, a miserable heiress who comes under particular abuse from her domineering mother (Gladys Cooper). Charlotte is taken to a sanitarium by Dr. Jacquith (Claude Rains, who’s wonderful in the role), who helps her overcome the feelings of inadequacy that have been instilled over the years. The prescription includes a six-month pleasure cruise following her discharge. It’s on that global jaunt that Charlotte meets Jeremiah Duvaux Durrance (Paul Henreid). Although he’s married, the two begin a romance. Things are further complicated when both return to their respective homes and then their paths cross again, in quietly heartrending fashion. Director Irving Rapper handles the proceedings with aplomb, preventing the melodrama from swamping the film. He certainly benefits from pointing the camera straight at Davis, one of the most no-nonsense stars U.S. cinema ever produced. Davis gives herself over to complex character work needed to play Charlotte while showing the thread of hard intelligence that will lift the woman out of her misery. There’s also some cracking comedic work by Mary Wickes, in a small role as a nurse employed in the Vale household.

 

eve

The Three Faces of Eve (Nunnally Johnson, 1957). Any movie exploring heavy-duty psychological issues that bears a copyright date around or before the middle of the last century is going to automatically have some issues. Based on a real case that was turned into a nonfiction bestseller, The Three Faces of Eve is an early cinematic depiction of the mental state now known as dissociative identity disorder. Despite attempts to present the story in a resolutely serious and informative manner — exemplified by Alistair Cooke providing an introduction and narration with journalistic sternness — the particulars are stiffly unconvincing. As is likely expected, the redeeming component of the film is the performance by Joanne Woodward in the title role. A relative newcomer at the time, Woodward took on the part after several other major actresses passed, an almost inconceivable circumstance given the way the challenge of playing a women living with a trio of completely different personalities practically guarantees awards glory. Sure enough, Woodward claimed the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role, and it was completely deserved. It’s a role that invites showboating, but Woodward opts for piercing honesty, finding an engaging vividness in subtle shifts rather than sweeping gestures.

 

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Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (Alex Gibney, 2012). A product of the inexhaustible Alex Gibney documentary machine, Mea Maxima Culpa ruthlessly examines the grotesque scandal of sexual abuse and cover-up in the Catholic Church. Gibney frames the film with the especially grotesque case of decades of abuse perpetrated in a Milwaukee school for the deaf, but devotes time to as much of the sprawling assault on morality as a couple hours of nonfiction filmmaking can contain. The film is laudable in its scope and density. It stirs outrage and sympathy in equal measure, with a handful of individuals — mostly survivors of the abuse who became brave voices for justice — emerging as true heroes. I would have preferred Gibney excised the creepy, foreboding recreations, but overall Mea Maxima Culpa is vital, powerful filmmaking,

My Misspent Youth: JLA by Grant Morrison and Howard Porter

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

For a little while in the nineteen-nineties, I was prepared to follow writer Grant Morrison just about anywhere. When I made that unstated pledge, it never occurred to me that I’d be following him to the Justice League.

I knew of Morrison’s work because of the writing he did on the fringes of the DC Universe. In a way, Morrison set the template for the publisher’s Vertigo imprint, launched in 1993. He took on authorship duties with characters from DC’s history — most notably Doom Patrol and Animal Man — but brought a whole other creative cunning to their adventures, indulging in devious meta shenanigans and otherwise plunging them into dark, warped stories.

In the mid-nineteen-nineties, after following those wondrously weird tendrils of imagination, Morrison received an assignment that initially seemed perplexing. He was given a revived version of DC’s superteam, branded with the hip acronym JLA.

The Justice League of America had been around for ages, though it had long strayed from the model of bringing together the publisher’s biggest heroes, opting instead for unloved also-rans and then flagrant comedy. Morrison was allowed his own version of a back to the basics approach, with the biggest names in the DC comics stable (although the ever-flailing DC editorial approach occasional left him saddled with bad ideas like sparking blue Superman). I didn’t always gel for me, but when Morrison’s sensibility melded with a perfect story concept, it was irresistible, no more so that the when Starro muscled into the panels.

Starro dated back to the very first appearance of the Justice League of America, published in 1960, making it natural that Morrison would want to use the villainous being at one point. The story also made room for a more recent figure.

JLA sandman

Sandman was already considered writer Neil Gaiman’s comics masterpiece, making it fairly audacious that Morrison took the central figure and plopped him down into a big ol’ superhero story. But by employing the cryptic deep thinking, Morrison had a mechanism for engaging in some of the sideways thinking he brought to his mainstream far, such as Green Lantern having his mind blown by the reference to his tool of choice as a “wishing ring.”

Even better, Morrison back then had a particular skill for honoring the tropes of the superhero mythos while simultaneously extrapolating to get at deeper truths that could be easily overlooked because of the familiarity of the rhythms of a comic book adventure. Villains show up, the heroes fight the villains. Morrison took the time to think about the impressions that might be generated by these strange creatures populating the story. For example, wouldn’t a giant outer space starfish that controlled minds be, you know, pretty scary?

JLA starro

The oddness of Howard Porter’s art could make the more conventional moments a little off, but he was well-suited to bringing the freakiness.

Morrison told dense intricate stories, but working on JLA opened up his sense of grandeur. The scope could be titanic. These heroes weren’t going to spend a lot of time stopping bank robbers. Most of them could comfortably cross out of the planet’s atmosphere and cavort among the stars, so Morrison regularly veered into appropriate levels of spectacle.

jla starro in space

Still, no matter how much mischief Morrison got up to, these stories go the way they go. Starro is bested and the heroes recline in the satisfaction of their victory.

Sometimes, Morrison’s ideas got too big for the comics page, and it seemed he was only able to type out about a third of what he had in mind, leaving sprawl and uncertainty on the page. That was present in JLA (I might argue the flaw first manifested here), but it was energizing to see a creator go big with ideas instead of just spectacle, reversing a dire trend of nineties comics. Even when it got a little bogged down, this take on the Justice League was worth the effort.

jla ending

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.