Tuesday, August 23, 2016

In defense of riffing good films.

RiffTrax has really been upping their game repeatedly. Never mind the MST3K reunion earlier this summer -- the quality and quantity of their movie choices have been escalating rapidly. Thanks to crowdfunding, they're having a lot more opportunities to do really great shows that they probably only dreamed of doing back in the day.

Their most recent, Mothra (plus a short involving a giant sentient bar of soap), was a fun night out yet again. Mothra and classic kaiju movies are near and dear to my heart, so I couldn't wait to see what they did with it. Notice I said 'so' and not 'but' -- as dear to my heart as it may be, I'm aware that there is plenty of humour to be gleaned from it, especially from the pros.

For the most part, the kaiju-loving contingent of my friend circle agreed with me and were excited about the show. But I did see a few who were cross... fortunately not protest-level cross, but the was a small degree of dissatisfied murmuring.

'Why would they do this? Mothra is good! It doesn't deserve this treatment!'

And I've heard this said about other flicks, too. Starship Troopers among them, and a lot of the big-budget movies that get riffs (such as the entire MCU and Harry Potter catalogues). I've even heard people protest the riffing of campy old favourites like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. It's not okay.

Here's the thing, though. 25 years ago, when Mystery Science Theater 3000 was what it was, I might have agreed. Then, there could have been such a thing as a movie you 'couldn't' or 'shouldn't' riff. Why? Two reasons. One, it was a new, untested medium. Sure, we've all yelled things back at movies on a Saturday afternoon (as many people are more than ready to remind me whenever I say I've spent money on tickets to a RiffTrax show). But the idea of it being a scripted piece of performance art was a new idea.

The second reason was the frame story. The conceit of the show, the reason for this happening, directly referenced the badness of the movies being seen. And I mean, honestly, it makes sense. Why would you talk over a good movie? Thus, the concept of riffing has been, for many years, that it makes bad movies palatable.

But then, seven years ago, Rifftrax did something kind of shocking: they took on Casablanca.

Sure, it's easy enough to make hay out of a bear-suited Nicholas Cage, but what really tests one's mettle is to see how he reacts when he's staring down the business end of THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER MADE. Yes, our respect and admiration for Casablanca is unbounded, but if our motto—We Don't Make Movies, We Make Them Funny—is to have any meaning at all then it must be tested by fire.
Sadly, I've not had a chance to watch it yet, but I've seen a compilation of 'best of's... and yes, they are severely robbed of low-hanging fruit. But what I saw was still damned funny.

In 2014, they went on to do The Wizard of Oz, too. Not a perfect movie, but a mainstay of cinema and of family entertainment. Honestly, the only 'bad' side of it is the potential for wearying of seeing it on every channel around the holidays. But again, I've seen bits of it, and some of the jokes from it are top-tier riffing.

The concept of what riffing is, what it entails, and what's 'okay' has changed. There are riffing classes now, which Joel Hodgson himself has guest-taught. There are indie riffing groups that tour the convention circuit. It is a style of comedy now, tried and true, with its own standards, its own aspiring artists, and its own 'rock stars.'

Too, riffing has given life to movies that would never have seen a penny -- albeit potentially for obvious reasons. The Room and Miami Connection already had a cult following of their own, but the idea of Birdemic or Time Chasers packing theatres was frankly unimaginable until recently. And yet they did... and people who worked on the movies attended the performances.

So with that evolution, and with the style not tied to the conceit of MST3K by necessity (especially considering the show will be coming back very soon indeed to cover that particular niche)... perhaps it's about time that we stop seeing a movie getting riffed as a punishment against that movie.

At its best, riffing a movie can be a labour of love, as it was with Mothra: an acknowledgment of the goofy side of a well-loved monster flick. And in 2016, at its absolute worst, riffing a movie breathes new life into failed projects. That's money those producers never expected to see, and eyeballs on something they may have well been satisfied to sweep under the rug. It takes a lot of guts to hand your movie over to a group of people who are there to mock it for two hours, but also bear in mind these guys spend weeks with these movies, adding a layer to it to make people want to be there.

There's a reason I love the use of 'riff' over 'MiST' (though call it what you will) when describing what's being done: it's evocative of layers of music, of musicians sitting in and creating new harmonies. It gives the idea of the comedians working with the movie rather than against it. I mean, let's face it. No amount of riffing will save a genuinely bad movie, no matter how hard they try; everything they riff has to have some spark of humour, no matter how unintentional, if it's going to succeed.

I can't think of a single movie I love that I wouldn't want to see the boys tackle, because I don't see their tackling a movie as an insult. Within the framework of MST3K, where the movies the Mads send are generally assumed to fall under some sort of human rights violation? Sure. But outside of that? It doesn't matter. It shouldn't matter. And we shouldn't be ready to take up arms against a bunch of Midwestern comedians just because we happen to enjoy the thing they're talking over this month. If anything, that should be an impetus to get out and support it.

Am I saying we should really just relax?

... I was attempting not to, but I suppose I am.
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