High Art

A Little More MST3K

Cinematic Titanic makes waves this weekend.

By John Chandler May 27, 2009

Joel Hodgson, creator of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Cinematic Titanic, materializes in Portland this weekend.

Photo courtesy of The Glen Schwartz Company

OK, here’s my follow-up post about this weekend’s appearance at the Newmark Theatre by Joel Hodgson and his partners in crime from the late, great Mystery Science Theater 3000 TV show. Under their new moniker of Cinematic Titanic, Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Mary Jo Pehl, and J. Elvis Weinstein will once again add some much-needed comic commentary to a pair of craptastic movies; a kung fu blaxploitation flick called East Meets Watts, and Danger on Tiki Island, a low-budget mad-scientist stinker from the Philippines.

In a geeky phone conversation with Hodgson, he told me that tickets for the two Portland shows were selling briskly. “We always seem to do well in cities known for bad weather,” he noted. Makes sense. The nine months out of the year we’re hunkered down with our TVs and Cheez-Its listening to the staccato of rain on the roof are the ideal time to review MST3K classics like Red Zone Cuba, The Day the Earth Froze, or Eegah!

Recalling the show’s humble origins at KTMA, a small TV station in Hopkins, Minnesota, Hodgson’s talent for set construction on a teensy budget came in handy (for those who don’t know, MST3K takes place on a spaceship with a wisecracking robot crew). “I was a big Dr. Who fan, and I figured I could make something at least that convincing out of stuff from the Goodwill. We bought everything that wasn’t clothes or sporting goods. Dish racks, Tupperware, all kinds of toys.”

His appreciation for the “cheesy movies” that became MST’s bread and butter (yikes, a double food metaphor!) came from his childhood in Wisconsin, the highlight of which was staying up late on Friday nights for the local monster movie program. “My world pretty much revolved around Friday night,” he admits. The young Hodgson was especially enthralled by the baffling fluctuation in quality of those Friday flicks. One week it could be a black-and-white Frankenstein film from Universal Studios, and the next week it might be some hippie-vampires-meet-the-Martians corn-fest from the late ’60s drive-in circuit.

Joel readily agrees with my assessment that the randomness of the films was a huge part of the experience. It’s why everyone digs the “shuffle play” function on their iPods—because the next song is always beyond your control. Sadly, this is an element of corporate culture that simply doesn’t exist anymore. Yes, we’ve got hundreds of cable channels, but do we really have more choices if Law & Order is on half of them? Like me, Joel misses the days when local programming made up a significant part of the TV schedule.

After Joel left Mystery Science Theater in 1993, he appeared as a recurring character on Judd Apatow’s much-loved Freaks and Geeks, served as a “magic consultant” on Sabrina, The Teenage Witch, and built gag gadgets for The Jimmy Kimmel Show. But he couldn’t resist the lure of Z-grade cinema, so he reassembled his troops last year for Cinematic Titanic. Eagle-eyed observers will notice that the robots, spaceship, and Tinker Toy sets are long gone, but the incisive patter remains intact. “Yeah, we kind of miss the ’bots and the jumpsuits sometimes,” he says. “But Cinematic Titanic gives us a chance to say what’s on our minds now and to show what we’re like now.”

And that is, a bunch of smart-aleck adults with the same élan for shredding bad movies that they’ve always had. “Trace Beaulieu had the best description for what we do," Hodgson says. "He said, The movies are Margaret Dumont—and we’re the Marx Brothers.”

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