Is 'Mystery Science Theater 3000' Film Criticism?

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by Matt Singer
June 27, 2012 12:41 PM
3 Comments
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"Mystery Science Theater 3000."
Another day, another impossibly complicated supercut that someone must have spent months cutting for no discernible reason whatsoever. The one that just got passed to me compiles all nine-plus seasons of the seminal movie mocking series "Mystery Science Theater 3000" into one 14-minute montage, a single joke from each of almost 200 movies. Here is that impossibly complicated montage:

Watching (and chuckling at) this video made me think back on the years (and years and years) I spent (and continue to spend) watching "Mystery Science Theater." Out of 198 episodes, I've probably seen half -- and I've probably seen a quarter of that half more than once (and I've probably seen a few of that quarter so many times I could almost transcribe their screenplays from memory). Which got me wondering: is "Mystery Science Theater" a form of film criticism?

Okay, yes, obviously: "MST3K" is not film criticism per se. Joel Hodgson, Mike Nelson, and the rest of the Satellite of Love crew didn't once riff on something from the American Film Institute's Top 100 Movies list. Their thoughts on "I Accuse My Parents" were never published in Film CommentThey never went on lengthy digressions about the mise-en-scene in Bert I. Gordon films or the use of music and sound in Coleman Francis movies. They sat in front of cardboard cutouts of movie theater seats and cracked jokes.

In those jokes, though, I believe there's something like criticism. They teased Bert I. Gordon's mise-en-scene and Coleman Francis' sound, and if you were paying attention -- as all good film critics must -- you would see the way "MST3K" was doing more than transmuting blunders into humor. They were critiquing and evaluating, observing and commenting, preserving and cataloguing. The collective "MST3K" writing staff had as perceptive an eye and ear for cinema as anyone I've ever met. Wikipedia, which has never been wrong about anything ever, says that film criticism is "is the analysis and evaluation of films, individually and collectively." If you add the words "using humor" to the end of that sentence, you've got a fairly effective definition of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" as well.

Granted, if you currently believe that film criticism is suffering through something like "The Snark Ages," you'll want to disagree with me, and strongly. But I think you can learn a lot about how -- or how not -- to make a movie by watching "Mystery Science Theater 3000." I certainly did. But what do you think? I leave the ultimate answer to this question in your hands (of fate).

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3 Comments

  • Chris TMC | July 10, 2012 1:54 PMReply

    Jake, you really do not understand the show at all. If you would like to understand it better from an intellectual standpoint- without actually watching it- you should read a colelction titled "In the Peanut Gallery with Mystery Scoence Theater 3000" by Robert G Weiner.

  • Cody Robison | June 29, 2012 10:24 PMReply

    Honestly it's getting old hearing the "MST3K, just insults the movies they riff on and have no respect for film." Most of the films they've parodied owe a lot to their mockery. Would the world have truly known about Manos, were it not for the boys of SOL or how about Time Chasers or the original version of The Island aka Parts: The Clonus Horror. Mike, Joel and the gang might have poked fun, but only out of a sense of reverence and love of those forgotten "treasures". No film is perfect and no film...no matter how well it's made...can always use a good riffing.

  • Jake Mulligan | June 27, 2012 2:32 PMReply

    I don't know, it's hard for me to commend people as innovators when they would take damn good films (sometimes from great auteurs even - Mario Bava anyone?) and tear them down as trash.

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