Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Stop Giving MST3K a Bad Name, You Hipsters!

A recent article at L.A. Weekly entitled "Stop Laughing at Old Movies You $@%&ing Hipsters" delved into the matter of how when film patrons make audible mockery of a film, they ruin the experience for others in the audience.

I have to admit, I felt somewhat convicted. I'm not an extraordinary offender, but when I'm seeing a film with the right group of people, I surrender my better judgment. It seems to happen most frequently with trailers; before seeing Signs, of the trailer for the film Death Ship I exclaimed: "The Shining II: Cruise Control!" I was rather proud of that one. I also found myself riffing various scenes in the Matrix Revolutions with my friends; independently of each other, we all began comparing a scene of human ship landing in a cavern to a similar scene in the Empire Strikes Back (and I've since learned many other people have made the same joke). In each of these instances I was probably seeking the approval of my companions because I never talk out when I'm at the cinema alone.

Have I ever been made to shut up? Yes. Last Christmas when I went to see The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies, my brother and I began quietly mocking the film's first five minutes until his wife told us to knock it off. I did store up many of my "witticisms" to share with the family afterward.

When theater patrons do talk loud enough to be heard by others I think it can positive, serving as a form of bonding with each other, especially when what's been said is what other people in the audience are thinking. I have one friend who tends to be very outspoken during trailers. I recall how we once saw a very dramatic trailer for a new Russell Crowe film; the closing audio of the trailer was the announcer intoning: "Russell Crowe - Cinderella Man." There followed brief lull while the next trailer began cuing up, wherein my friend exclaimed (his voice dripping with derision): "Yeah! Cinderella Man!" In the silence of the theater it was loud enough for everyone to hear and it won him some admiring laughter.

The funniest audience moment I observed was when the trailer for Devil played. At the moment M. Night Shyamalan's name appeared, the crowd audibly groaned, then laughed at each other for sharing the same reaction (this is another response seen in many other theaters to said trailer). I didn't groan aloud, but I felt the same way as the other patrons, being a former Shyamalan fan and now quite embarrassed about that fact. The derision Devil's trailer met with is undoubtedly closely related to how much we in the audience formerly admired Shyamalan.

Have I ever had my film-going experience ruined by the reactions of others? Yes, but I don't begrudge them. A couple of years ago I went to see a Halloween double feature of 1931's Dracula and Frankenstein, hosted by TCM. I noticed that many of the patrons (a small crowd to be sure) were younger than I, but hoped the introduction by TCM would help them understand the historical context of the films. However, while no one riffed the film, they did frequently burst into laughter - notably at the films' attempts to be frightening. Scenes in Dracula of Dwight Frye bulging his eyes and hyperventilating were met with giggles. The odd growl Boris Karloff used as the monster in Frankenstein was usually met with a snicker (he does sound a little like a snarling cat, to be honest).

I was most disappointed by the audience's reaction to the monster drowning the little girl, which was historically the most controversial/disturbing scene. And yet, upon reflection, I understood why the audience laughed - they were all experienced film watchers who have been educated to understand certain styles of film language and weren't accustomed to 1930s styles of either acting or editing. When the monster throws the girl into the lake, then sees her drown, he frets about the shore, moving back and forth, then finally runs away - end scene. To contemporary eyes, the scene is shot like a comedy blackout sketch, with the monster's stage left exit the crowning touch. I was disappointed, but heck, audiences back in 1931 were supposed to have been quite raucous as well and unwilling to seriously contemplate what was happening on the screen; why do we expect better from today's patrons? Because we pay so much more money to get in?

I've seen every episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. I have listened to many examples of Rifftrax. And yet, part of what I enjoy about MST3K is the grudging enjoyment the films granted the riffers. On some level, they appreciated the earnestness of a picture like Manos: the Hands of Fate and couldn't bring themselves to hate it. Unfortunately, all too often I find that attitude missing from Rifftrax - there, the riffers seem more willing to tear down a picture just because it's front of them. Hence, when I do purchase a Rifftrax, I avoid the films I genuinely enjoy (I won't even watch preview clips if I truly like the film).

MST3K and Rifftrax have, in some way, encouraged my bad behaviour in the cinemas. I've been conditioned to fit in a riff where there's a lull in dialogue, to voice my opinions of poor line reads/visual effects/editing/choreography. Alone at home, I almost never talk back to my movies; put me in a theater and I'll somehow dredge up the most obnoxious parts of my personality.

And that, I think, is the root of the problem in talking during a motion picture. It's one thing to feel the atmosphere of the room and say aloud what everyone's thinking - but when you're jealous of the film and would rather be the center of attention yourself, you're the problem - and in the moment, it's hard to tell the difference between the two. Tip: if you came to the theater alone then probably no one wants to hear your opinion of the film while it's playing.

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