Cheesy Movies

On Mystery Science Theater 3000

(The following article first appeared in issue 91 of Cinema Scope, published in summer 2022)

Let me tell you about a few movies I saw in the summer of 2000, when I was 11 years old, that would become vitally important to my budding cinephilia.

One was Godzilla 2000, the first Japanese Godzilla movie to reach Western theatres since 1985, and a movie I feverishly anticipated. I was a devoted fan of Japanese giant-monster movies at the time, but I’m sorry to say that I wasn’t yet wise enough to appreciate them for the right reasons. At the time, I had only three categories for understanding movies: “good,” “bad,” and “so bad it’s good.” Godzilla and his kaiju friends fell in the latter category. I mean, that’s obviously not a monster, that’s a man in a rubber suit! Do the people who made these movies really think we’re fooled?

Kids are powerless, and haven’t had much time to build identities or accomplishments. One reason why I was interested in “bad movies” was because, frankly, it felt good to feel superior to something that adults had made. Earlier that summer I had also watched Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957) with a friend, and we had a fun afternoon laughing at the toy flying saucers on strings and the cardboard tombstones that fell over. That same friend and I went to see Godzilla 2000 together, and the experience was a revelation. It was a modern-looking movie where the man-in-suit effects were interwoven with CGI. Godzilla’s eyes and body movements conveyed a personality. The miniature cities he stomped through were detailed and beautiful. I realized that in Japan, they get that it looks like a man in a suit. This is not a deficiency—it’s a counter-aesthetic.

The other key movie I saw that summer was Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (1996). It was the feature-film spin-off of a cult comedy show (often abbreviated as MST3K) that had aired 11 seasons between 1988 and 1999, first on a Minneapolis public access station, then on Comedy Central, and then on the Sci-Fi Channel. The premise of the show and film were the same: an everyman (series creator Joel Hodgson first, head writer Michael J. Nelson second) is kidnapped by a mad scientist and blasted into space, where he is forced to watch “cheesy movies” as part of a bizarre world-domination experiment. To retain his sanity, the host endures the screenings with two robot friends, Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, and together they bombard the films with a non-stop running commentary of jokes hurled at the screen within the screen. The bulk of each 90-minute episode is spent watching a condensed version of a real movie from beginning to end, with the wisecracking hosts appearing in silhouette at the bottom-right corner of the frame. Periodically, the film is interrupted for brief comedy sketches around the satellite, in a local-TV horror-host tradition that stretches back to the late-night show hosted by Plan 9 star Vampira.

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The Suspect Video Collection

I’ve been having two kinds of recurring dreams lately. In one of them, my mother is alive, is completely indifferent to the fact that she died in September of 2021, and is very concerned with how I’ve been conducting my life since her passing. I wish I could tell you that I’m pleased to see her, but to be honest, she is stressing me out. She’s telling me that I need to try to get my old job back. Doesn’t she realize I just called every relative to tell them that she had died? Am I going to have to do that all over again in a year’s time? Sorry mom – if you’re reading this from the great beyond, please know I love you.

The other dream involves the closing sale of Suspect Video, a Toronto-based video store that shut its doors at the end of 2016. For 25 years it rested in a little nook in Mirvish Village, a one-block neighbourhood that was attached to local entrepreneur Ed Mirvish’s now-demolished “Honest Ed’s” department store. The Mirvish family were landlords to a row of nifty businesses on that block, including The Beguiling (the city’s best comic store, now relocated to College and Spadina), the Victory Café (a bar where I had some fondly-remembered dates and hangouts, now relocated a few blocks east), David Mirvish Books on Art (Ed’s son’s passion project), Hollywood Canteen (a movie memorabilia shop, now in the east end), and Suspect Video, which ended with the neighbourhood (although it still maintains a web store). Now that it’s been steamrolled to build a massive condo, I’m not sure if “Mirvish Village” really exists anymore, though maybe you can still find the words on a map.

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Notes on Clerks III

  • The emotional high point of this movie for me came in its opening seconds, when Dante (Brian O’Halloran) arrives to open the Quick Stop and Randal (Jeff Anderson) strolls out of the neighbouring cannabis store (formerly, of course, a video store). I loved Kevin Smith’s original Clerks (1994) when I was a teenager and watched it many times. If you show me the guys from that movie looking older, I’m going to feel a little emotional.
  • Kevin Smith’s early films were dominated by scenes in which actors arranged in simple visual compositions delivered reams of dialogue in long, static takes. In the process, he developed a reputation for being a careless and unimaginative visual stylist. The blocking in Clerks III is as basic as before, but one bit of stylistic evolution is that Smith now edits. He is not good at it, but he does it. Many scenes in this movie are shot with two cameras running at once, from slightly different angles, so as characters are talking, Smith will cut back and forth between the two cameras without any sense of rhythm. Smith is the only credited editor on this movie. See this movie and learn what a competent, professional editor can bring to a movie.
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Toronto International Film Festival 2022

(Warning: contains some light spoilers)

The last time I had a press pass for the Toronto International Film Festival was in 2010. I was 21, was entering my fourth and final year of undergrad, had just become the arts editor of my university newspaper, and found nothing more exciting than the prospect of wearing a lanyard and seeing movies a few weeks early. I still remember picking up my pass at the press office in the Park Hyatt hotel, where I had a stupefying conversation with some Oscar blogger about whether or not Michael Douglas’ cancer diagnosis would help his chances for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

2010 was an exciting year for the festival. TIFF’s year-round corporate headquarters and screening space, the Lightbox, was newly open, with a utopian vision of year-round film culture to rival the Cinémathéque Française. As for me, I was enjoying my last few weeks of childhood before grad school applications were due and I would have to start making some decisions about my life. A lot has happened to both TIFF and me in the 12 years since, which is why it felt strange and uncanny to roll into Park Hyatt and find it looking almost exactly as it did in 2010. It felt like travelling back to a moment in time with all the knowledge I’ve accumulated since. For one thing, I’m proud to say that I’ve learned to derive self-worth from places other than a lanyard. That said, the appeal of TIFF in 2022 is, for me, largely the same as it was in 2010: an opportunity to experience a full-body immersion in the present-tense of international cinema.

My goal this year was simply to get the best possible sense of where the zeitgeist is. To do this, I wanted to balance my personal interests with a healthy quota of this year’s big-ticket items, while also not driving myself insane (unlike in 2010, I now have a long-term girlfriend and a dog, and I wanted to still see both of them). TIFF is vast and multifaceted, and since no two festival experiences are identical, I didn’t feel the need to spend time on such hot tickets as Hillary Clinton’s on-stage interview or the Knives Out sequel. Possibly these things were wonderful, but I felt I already knew the gist of them, and I wanted to see things that might surprise and delight me, and maybe even give me some hope for the future of cinema.

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No Future

Summer 2022

When the first Top Gun was becoming the highest-grossing movie of 1986, it was criticized in some quarters as Reaganite military propaganda. You could probably say the same about 2022’s undisputed box office champion, Top Gun: Maverick, but I haven’t sensed much resistance to it even from lefties. What happened in the 36-year interim? Maybe Reagan’s vision has so completely won that he hardly seems worth bickering about when a movie otherwise offers so much pleasure. Maybe it’s also because the American empire, Tom Cruise, and the movies – three things that Top Gun: Maverick takes as interchangeable – feel unmistakably different in 2022. They’re still number one, but they’re on borrowed time.

Something I like about Top Gun: Maverick, and that I’ve also heard other people say they like about it, is that it feels like a movie. That probably shouldn’t be such a novel thing, but here we are. It’s a very fun movie, and I’m glad so many people enjoying it and helping their local movie theatres live another day, but if this is the zeitgeist-catching movie of 2022, then I think something is wrong. Rather than try to expand on that directly, I’d like to take you on a tour of some of the movies I’ve seen this summer and try to get a sense of what the atmosphere is like right now in cinema, my favourite art form.

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Histoire(s) du Cinéma

In 1960, Jean-Luc Godard revolutionized cinema with Breathless, but for the true heads, his summative achievement was Histoire(s) du Cinéma, the eight-part, 266-minute video essay that he chipped away at between 1988 and 1998. It’s only well known to serious cinephiles, but to serious cinephiles it has a reputation akin to that of Finnegans Wake in literature. It’s long, dense, difficult to understand without a deep and lifelong engagement with its artistic medium (and even then…), and an unquestioned masterpiece. I’ve seen Histoire(s) du Cinéma twice now (most recently last week, for an episode of my blockbuster podcast The Important Cinema Club), and am ambivalent. I enjoyed watching it, because I enjoy seeing images from classic movies and hearing classical music. Sometimes I even liked trying to follow Godard’s half-formed arguments. I’m unsure that I agree with some of his major ideas or fully respect his way of expressing them. I’m hoping we can maybe work through this together.

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Or We Could Just Stay Home?

The Films of 2022

My local multiplex, the Yonge-Dundas Cineplex in Toronto, has a mural in its lobby featuring many of the icons of film history: Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name… Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life… Antonio Banderas as Zorro… Catherine Zeta-Jones from the same movie… the angels from Charlie’s Angels (2001)… Chris Tucker in Rush Hour 2… Halle Berry in… hang on, can it be? Yes, I looked it up – that photo is from The Flintstones.

The Yonge-Dundas Cineplex opened in 2008, which I remember because the first thing I saw there was Leatherheads – a forgotten movie that is still only barely less iconic than some of the ones in that mural. It was the first theatre in Toronto to show exclusively digital projection, which was the first of many bad developments in theatrical exhibition it has helped pioneer. For example, it’s also the first Toronto theatre I can remember that didn’t bother to project movies with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio on 1.85:1 screens without masking the dead space. It’s a small thing, but it’s one of many things that accumulate to cheapen the theatrical experience. You see a movie that doesn’t fit the screen and then you walk out into the lobby and see that picture of Antonio Banderas as Zorro and you wonder if this whole moviegoing thing isn’t just a little bit passé. I mean, if the theatre isn’t putting in an effort, why should we?

Pandemic restrictions have more-or-less fully lifted, but theatrical movie attendance has not recovered to the 2019 status quo. Why is this? Maybe at one time a sizeable number of people still didn’t want to leave the house during a pandemic, but now that Spider-Man: No Way Home has become the #3 domestic moneymaker of all time, this is no longer a convincing excuse. The more likely explanation is that months of lockdown gave people time to re-evaluate their spending habits, and they’ve concluded that spending $20 per month on Netflix is more enticing than spending $17 for a single movie ticket, plus however much more it costs for parking and snacks. I also persist in believing that the switchover a decade ago from 35mm to digital projection has played a massive subconscious role in the devaluation of the theatrical experience. On some level, we all knew once that a movie looked different in theatres – the image had different texture, depth and weight. But now, the image on the Yonge-Dundas Cineplex screen is exactly the same as the one at home. In fact, I just got a 4K TV – it probably looks a little better. Movie theatres have been fending off the threat of television since in the ‘50s, but now a lot of what’s on TV really is exactly the same or better, then what’s the point?

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Midlife Motern

(Originally published as liner notes to the Gold Ninja Video release of Metal Detector Maniac. For more information about the Motern Cinematic Universe, see this introductory essay)

For those of us deeply invested in the work of Matt Farley and Charlie Roxburgh, their story represents a triumph of art, friendship, community, and creativity over the cold indifference of commerce. Beginning with 1999’s The Paperboy (the hourlong comedy they made while still students at Providence College) and culminating with 2016’s Slingshot Cops (the buddy-cop pastiche that is their most ambitious production to date), they created 11 wonderful feature-length films in the forests and suburbs of New England, far from the contaminating influence of any mainstream film industry. With no one to answer to but themselves, they developed a unique style that combined the aesthetic of low-budget regional horror films by outsider artists like Don Dohler and Bill Rebane; a dryly absurdist comic sensibility informed by Pee-wee Herman, Chevy Chase, Woody Allen, and Chris Elliott; and the let’s-put-on-a-show spirit of the monster movies that kids make with their parents’ camcorders. They assembled casts of friends, relatives, acquaintances, coworkers, and well-wishers to help them play make-believe, and over time built a repertory company as consistent and recognizable as Robert Altman’s. Increasingly elaborate but always charmingly handmade, the Farley/Roxburgh movies ask: What if we could keep making monster movies in our backyards forever? What if we combined the raw creative energy we had as kids with everything we’ve learned since? What if we made the best homemade movie of all time? What’s stopping us?

There are a lot of possible rejoinders to that last question. In his cinematic self-portrait Local Legends (2013), Farley tells us that the budget of a typical Motern Media/ShockMarathons production like Freaky Farley (2007) or Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! (2012) is roughly the same as a used car – and while none has come even close to making a profit, “I’d rather have a bunch of movies than a bunch of used cars.” That spirit still burns inside Farley and Roxburgh, but it’s one thing to make The Paperboy when you’re living in the same dorm; it’s another to make Freaky Farley when you’re living on opposite coasts and filming on your vacation week, and it’s another when you’re making Slingshot Cops after your life has grown to include newborn babies and houses with mortgages. And then add to that the stress of wrangling a huge cast of nonprofessional actors with their own lives and obligations, all of whom have been asked to give up a weekend out of the goodness of their hearts. Farley and Roxburgh have said that coordinating Slingshot Cops’ centrepiece party scene, in which nearly all their regular actors were present, was a breaking point for their traditional methodology. The truth is that Farley and Roxburgh really do live in the real world, and really are only human, and whatever they were doing was no longer sustainable.

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The Johnny Duncan Story

One time when I was five years old I wore my Batman costume to the grocery store. I wore it most days around the house, so why not out in public too? It was a pretty exciting afternoon – I still remember adults at the store looking at me and saying, “Hey, it’s Batman!” I knew I was an imposter, but hey, isn’t the whole point of the mask that anyone could be behind it? Later that day I wanted to wear my Batman costume to the library, but my dad decided I shouldn’t. He told me, “If people see Batman at the library, they might think there’s been a crime.” Seemed reasonable enough.

The point telling you this is to make clear the extent to which, for a few years in my boyhood, Batman was the main thing I watched on TV and thought about in daily life. I did not discriminate between various incarnations of Batman, whether it was “the Adam West Batman” (as I called it) or “the Michael Keaton Batman” or “the cartoon Batman.” I knew that certain of these were clearly newer and more expensive than others, but they were all Batman to me.

This included Batman (1943) and Batman and Robin (1949) pair of black-and-white, 15-chapter serials produced by the Columbia Pictures shorts department. These low-budget slot-fillers played in weekly instalments to mostly kiddie matinee audiences, and were easy to find on bargain-bin VHS tapes when the Burton/Schumacher movies were being released. In these films, Batman and Robin keep their costumes in a file cabinet, drive a convertible instead of a Batmobile, and keep getting tangled up in their felt capes during fight scenes. Seen today, they recall a time before the superhero genre was the dominant mode of blockbuster filmmaking, when superheroes were considered merely disreputable crap for undiscriminating audiences. I have a soft spot in my heart for them.

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Screw on the Screen: The Cinema of Al Goldstein

(This article was first published in Weng’s Chop #11 in 2018. Please be advised that this article contains several references to the now-disgraced performer Ron Jeremy. For details on his crimes, check out the 2021 documentary Ron Jeremy: Fall of a Porn Icon)

Before there was Larry Flynt, there was Al Goldstein, and before porn was an industry, there was Screw Magazine. From 1968 to 2003, Goldstein’s scuzzy rag was New York City’s “Consumer Reports for sex.” Porno films, dirty books, strip joints, swinger’s clubs, massage parlors—all facets of the city that the Times never touched were lovingly chronicled by Screw’s roving reporters. Sex-work ads were the magazine’s lifeblood, but political satire was its soul: crude, rude stuff combining the spirit of National Lampoon, Spy Magazine, and bathroom graffiti. Nobody could have better embodied the magazine’s aesthetic better than Al Goldstein—a vulgar, obese, proudly Jewish creature of id who could only get laid if he paid for it. Nobody could have been a starker contrast to the urbane, sophisticated Hugh Hefner. Nobody looked more like a porn consumer.

Goldstein’s legacy is vast. His magazine was the first to review porn films (including a little movie called Deep Throat), and its pages are a time-capsule of a long-gone New York. It employed artists like Wally Wood, Art Spiegelman, Drew Friedman, Danny Hellman, and countless others to illustrate its covers. It interviewed Henry Miller, Terry Southern, Gore Vidal, Jack Nicholson, John Lennon & Yoko Ono, and Salvador Dali, plus innumerable figures from the porn industry. Goldstein testified at the U.S. Senate Committee Hearing on Pornography in 1984 (a/k/a the Meese Commission), and fought 19 obscenity trials, including a major lawsuit in Kansas for transferring obscene materials over state lines (the jury deadlocked; Goldstein celebrated by flying sympathetic jurors to a New York swinger’s club). And Goldstein became a TV star of sorts with his public access show Midnight Blue, where he spewed vitriol at celebrities, politicians, and local businesses in between phone-sex ads, porn-star interviews, and “video centrefolds.”

These days, that legacy is mostly forgotten. Goldstein was never able to expand the Screw brand nationally, and he watched as Larry Flynt rode his template to fame and fortune. By the turn millennium, divorces and harassment lawsuits eroded his fortune (estimated at $11 million), and the changing porn industry forced Screw into bankruptcy. Goldstein spent 2004-2005 homeless on the streets of Manhattan until the magician/comedian Penn Jillette paid for an apartment. He spent his final years in poverty and obscurity, and died in December 2013 at age 77 of renal failure.

In this article, I’d like to consider a small sliver of Goldstein’s career: his contribution to cinema as producer, performer, and documentary subject. Goldstein never produced anything comparable to Roman Polanski’s Macbeth or Monty Python’s And Now for Something Completely Different (as Hefner’s Playboy Productions did); never achieved a success du scandal like Bob Guccione’s Caligula; and never earned a glossy Hollywood biopic like The People vs. Larry Flynt. Even so, he participated in enough films and videos to justify a modest Cinematheque retrospective, and by studying these films, we can observe the remarkable arc of his career.

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