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.

 

Now Playing — Lady Bird

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Greta Gerwig has officially been a film director previously, sharing that role with indie film stalwart Joe Swanberg on the 2008 feature Nights and Weekends. Her writing credits are more extensive, ranging from her breakthrough in the low-key breakthrough Hannah Takes the Stairs (directed by Swanberg) through to fruitful collaborations with  director Noah Baumbach. Hell, Gerwig’s IMDb page even lists her as a contributing writer on the infamous, aborted How I Met Your Mother spinoff in which she starred. So when Gerwig’s Lady Bird is positioned as a directorial debut, it’s somewhat technically accurate, but also highly misleading. Lady Bird is only the latest evidence in the compelling argument that Gerwig is a brilliant filmmaker. The real difference is that Lady Bird is so good, it becomes the equivalent of the smoking gun in this particular case.

The new film follows roughly a year in the life of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a high school senior in Sacramento, beginning in 2002. Lady Bird attends a Catholic private school, straining the bank account of her parents (Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts, both stellar), but they insist because of the violence her older brother (Jordan Rodrigues) witnessed at the public high school. As is common with individuals on the verge of adulthood, Lady Bird is trying on different identities — dallying with theater and tiptoeing into different friend groups — all while pining after the erudite promises of East Coast colleges.

There’s nothing all that novel about the basic mechanics of Gerwig’s story (she also wrote the original screenplay). Variants of this coming of age tale have been told repeatedly on the screen, including the swerve away from trusted pals in favor of the popular kids, the inevitable disappointments delivered by dreamy boys, and the heated conflicts with parents. In execution, though, Gerwig makes the film sing with perfectly calibrated humor and deeply authentic observation. For one thing, Lady Bird features an uncommonly real depiction of the late teenage years, when adulthood beckons, but there’s also a familiar, automatic comfort in being a chattering, giggly kid.

Ronan, unsurprisingly, works wonders as Lady Bird. She shows the yearning behind the petulance and the vulnerability that is armored by bravado. She deploys the wry comic lines with crack timing and is especially strong in showing how arguments escalate through the use of long-stored verbal weapons, the latter best showcased in her acting duets with Metcalf. Lady Bird is smart, but cursed by still having so much to figure out, a common ailment at her age. Importantly, she is stubborn, but she learns, finding the graciousness to understand those who’ve caused her pain, such as her boyfriend Danny (Lucas Hedges, even better here than in his Oscar-nominated role in Manchester by the Sea).

Gerwig’s writing is strong, and her directorial skills are a gratifying match. The pacing is exemplary, and Gerwig has a striking yet unfussy visual sense. She knows how to let a scene build and how to cap a moment with just the right note, be it funny or melancholy or moving. Lady Bird holds an obviously personal story, but Gerwig presents it with a level of specificity that expands it into the universal. Of course Gerwig delivers on that front. That’s what great filmmakers do.

From the Archive: Jesus Camp

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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.

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

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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.

 

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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,

From the Archive — Henry V

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As the latest directorial effort from Kenneth Branagh is greeted with fairly grim reviews, let’s remember a better time — artistically, anyway — for the knighted titan of the British arts. I wish I had a Henry V review written upon its release, but that was a year before I flung my opinions around on the radio. This was written several years later. It’s also fairly brief, but it gets the job done. I’ve gone ahead and changed the timeframe noted in the opening line, which only makes the parenthetical gulp more accurate.

Even if this wasn’t one of the more robust classic readings of Shakespeare in the past (gulp) thirty years, this rendering of the most stirring of the history plays would be worth watching solely for Derek Jacobi’s inspired effort as the Chorus that introduces individual scenes and segments. It’s giddily engaging enough that he is striding through historically accurate battle scenes aloof from the mayhem in his modern dress, a conceit that makes a world of sense given the role, but Jacobi tears into the thick, resounding words with uncommon zest. It’s as if he brings a career of Shakespearean training to bear on every line. There’s a similar quality throughout as Branagh populates the film with great actors who seem exuberant over this ever-more-rare chance to tackle the Bard on the big screen. It makes for a splendid retrospective argument that Branagh shouldn’t have abandoned his reliance on the most seasoned residents of the British stage in favor of the distracting stunt casting that followed.

The Art of the Sell — “Goodfellas” trailer

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

In the summer of 1990, I worked in a video store. One the perks of such a gig — at least in the small, independently-owned the cut me a biweekly paycheck — was picking the tapes (only VHS tapes back then, friends) that would play on the store television. Ostensibly, it was promotional, but mostly it provided a chance for me to watch movies while patrons wandered aimlessly among the shelves, complaining that everything they’d hoped to rent was already checked out.

That summer, the tape I slipped into the VHS player more than any other was Hard to Kill, starring Steven Seagal and Kelly LeBrock. To be clear, I never watched the main feature contained within that plastic block. Instead, I repeatedly returned to that tape because I knew that the batch of advertisements preceding the action flick included a trailer for an upcoming release entitled Goodfellas.

Although my devotion to Martin Scorsese is by now exceedingly well documented, I can’t say his name prompted the same automatic response from me at the time. (The nineteen-eighties, with one highly notable exception, wasn’t the director’s strongest.) But something about the trailer grabbed me tight. I found it mesmerizing, its editing and use of music precisely perfect all the way through. It didn’t make me want to see the film so much as it inspired a strange sensation that I’d already watched something special, a self-contained piece of art.

The trailer isn’t novel or daring. It follows the normal cadences of the time, right down to the narration opening with the phrase “In a world….” Yet, the trailer somehow signaled to me that the film it touted was something truly special, a monumental achievement. And it did so without betraying some of the most memorable moments: the tracking shot through the back passages of the Copacabana, Joe Pesci’s “I’m funny, how?” scene, the storytelling ingenuity of narrator switches and other similar feats of creativity. The trailer makes small promises, and the film delivers a feast.

I’m so glad our video store always had a copy of Hard to Kill on hand.