Oh, we piss people off.
The schedule for the next few months is posted on flyers outside the theater, and on December 15, we’re doing It’s a Wonderful Life. There was already some internal conflict about it, and some anonymous wag wrote on one of the flyers: “It’s not a bad movie, you S.O.B.s!!!” With three lines under S.O.B.s, so we’ll know they mean business.
Yeah, some people don’t like Bad Movie Night so much.
Me, I do. It’s my baby. I didn’t create the showthat honor goes to Jim Fourniadis and Ty McKenziebut I was there on the first night: Red Dawn, March 27, 2005. Coincidentally, I broke up with my girlfriend of seven years earlier that afternoon. As a result I almost didn’t go to the show at all, but I was looking forward to it, and the point of the breakup had been (among other things) so I could go do the stuff I wanted, and Bad Movie Night was very much the stuff I wanted to do. I became a frequent co-host, eventually
weaseling working my up to de facto curator. It’s still the most fun thing I do on a regular basis.
Held every Sunday night at 8pm at the Dark Room (2263 Mission between 18th and 19th in San Francisco), Bad Movie Night is easily described as Mystery Science Theater 3000 live: we heckle a movie. Three hosts sit in the front row with microphones, and the audience is invited to participate as well, to hoot and holler and shout their own comments. I’m the primary host on the first, third and occasionally fifth Sundays, introducing the movie and working one of the mics, and Jim handles the second and fourth.
The great personal irony is that I fracking hate loud audiences at movies. Cannot stand ’em. If one other person is in the auditorium, it ruins my night. It partially accounts for why I go to maybe a half-dozen mainstream movies over the course of a given year, and even then I try to wait until I’m fairly confident the crowd has thinned out. Vash and I waited until after The Simpsons Movie had dropped out of the Top 10, and we went on a Sunday morning, when we figured that most people would be going to see the newer, shinier movies. There were all of two other people in the theater, and they did exactly what I hate having to deal with when I’ve paid ten bucks for a ticket: they repeated dialogue in a dull monotone (“you can’t kill him if he’s wearing people clothes”) and commented on the action (usually thrilling recaps along the line of “He got hit on the head.”). At least the IMAX 3D showing of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, also on a Sunday morning after the show had dropped out of the Top 10, was in a theater large enough for me to pretend that the few other patrons didn’t exist.
And, in fairness, that isn’t just the case with mainstream movies: I no longer see Alfred Hitchcock moviesor just about any American movie made before 1993at the Castro Theater. Which is a damned shame, because the Castro is a gorgeous old-school movie palace built in 1922, with a gigantic screen and beautiful architecture and a guy playing a Wurlitzer before most shows. It’s quite possibly the most ideal environment for watching a movie, especially a classic movie which was intended to be shown in such an ornate setting. Problem is, the rest of the audience goes to these old movies to laugh at the old hairstyles and clothes and gender roles and how everybody smokes and drinks all the time, and by god they do not shut up. After the second time I saw Vertigo there and the audience giggled through the part where…oh, hell, though every part, I’d had enough. The rooftop chase which opens the movie was treated like it was the funniest thing since the mirror scene in Duck Soup.
For Bad Movie Night, though? The rowdier the crowd, the better. Context is everything.
Two of our best nights in terms of audience participation were Snakes on a Plane and the Medialoper favorite Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Okay, yeah, Snakes on a Plane was a gimme, but Sgt. Pepper? Who would have guessed? Packed house, and they had a blast. We encourage brown-bagging, and a good half of them were thoroughly drunk by the time of the “ahhh-ahhhhhhh-ahhhhh” singalong in “A Day in the Life.” When they chanted “Jump! Jump! Jump!” at the climax of the song (as Peter Frampton’s character tries to commit suicide before being saved by Billy Preston and his magical gold-lame suit), it was one of the proudest moments of my life. I tend to think of myself of as a writer first and a performer second, but it arguably all falls under the subtext of entertainerwhether someone is reading my writing or listening to me read it aloud or I’m acting in a play or hosting a show or even if they’re enjoying someone else that I’ve introduced, the last thing I want is for them to be bored, and little makes me happier than people having fun on my watch. Pleasure is too damned fleeting, and I like facilitating it.
Since Mystery Science Theater 3000 is one of my favorite teevee shows, getting to do Bad Movie Night involves no small amount of wish fulfillment. I try to work in as many running gags from MST3K as I can, even if most of the time the audience doesn’t know it’s a reference. During mundane actions, for example: “Nobody will be admitted during the thrilling parking scene!” Okay, so it loses something in the transition, kinda like the jokes on the covers of Rhino VHS editions of the series (a design motif they wisely abandoned for the DVD editions). It helps if you imagine it in a Tom Servo voice, I suppose.
We’ve developed our own share of recurring jokes in the two years and change that the show’s been running. There’s the obscure “Skull Films!”, born when we watched an episode of Quincy as part of Bob Crane Double Feature Night, or “Boing…boing….boing,” which harkens back to the endless credit sequence of Tanya Roberts riding horseback in Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. (I’ll let you do the math on that one.) For no reason whatsoever, Jim Fourniadis saying “la pelicula es rojo” cracks me up every freakin’ time. Existing lines like “Dick Laurant is dead” from Lost Highway and “I wish I could quit you!” from Brokeback Mountain are also popular.
Early on, I suggested movies which MST3K would have done if they could have. One of our first features was Starship Invasions, referenced in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide as a possibility for the seventh season, though they were never able to get the rights. It was also obvious that they wanted to do Road House so bad they could taste it, and while it wasn’t an option on their budget (which was limited to movies in the Comedy Central or Sci-Fi Channel libraries), it is on ours. We fear no copyright.
(Of course, we respect and admire and fully support copyright and think it’s swell and wouldn’t want to steal food from the artists’ mouths by showing movies we don’t own the rights to, because that would be wrong, and I certainly don’t mean to imply that we charge people five dollars a head to watch Little Man without the Wayans clan being properly compensated. And, in fact, that’s not what they’re paying five bucks for at all. They’re paying five bucks for the popcorn, or to hear Jim play the banjo on the nights that he’s hosting, or to watch whatever the dancing monkey act is that I do on my nights. That we happen to project a movie is just one of those things done for…um…texture. Yeah, texture. Are you going to tell me there’s a copyright on texture? What kind of fascist dictatorship is this? Smash the state!)
For as much fun as doing the show itself is, sometimes making the schedule is just as fulfilling, especially lacking the constraints that MST3K faced. Mike Nelson’s gotten around those issues nicely with his Rifftrax series, and not coincidentally, one of his first movies was Road House. I had the good fortune to see Rifftrax Live earlier this year, featuring Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett riffing on the Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling epic Over the Top. It was like going to church. Nah, that analogy’s no good, since I hated going to church as a kid. It was like seeing God. I’m an atheist, but still, it fits.
I’m mostly left up to my own devices when making the schedule, though Jim often gives me suggestions; this Sunday’s feature, Electric Dreams, was his idea, as well as Elvis month in February. My criteria for choosing movies tends to be based on how well-known they are, how much they cost, how recently they were made, and whether or not I can shoehorn them into a theme.
Like, this month’s theme is “Vaporware Cinema: The Way Computers Never Were.” We started off with Hackers, and the last two movies of the month will be WarGames and The Net. None of these were made after 1997 nor were all that expensive, but Hackers drew a large crowd (aided by the presence of geek icons Annalee Newitz and Charlie Anders as my guest co-hosts), and WarGames is getting terrific buzz. Say what you will about the Boomers, but my fellow Gen-X’ers are no less nostalgic for our youth, and I’m more than happy to exploit that.
But, really, what I like doing most are recent, big-budget movies. Why? Because they’re recent, big-budget movies. That’s enough of a crime. They’re product, they’re commerce, and they’re inescapable. Millions of dollars are wasted on making them and even more are wasted on promoting them. I find that offensive. I don’t watch commercial teevee or listen to commercial radio, and yet when I went to work every morning this past Summer I couldn’t not be aware of Transformers or Spider-Man 3 or Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End because of the ads plastered everywhere. (All three of those movies are being covered in January for “Summer Megabudget Movies” month, along with our annual kick-off showing of Snakes on a Plane.) I highly resent being unable to go about my daily life without having these fracking gazillion-dollar videogames shoved down my throat. (Don’t even get me started on the posters for Mr. Woodcock which recently blanketed San Francisco. Just…don’t. And, Susan? The crush is over. Seriously. You lost me with this one.) So the only possible recourse is to ridicule them at Bad Movie Night.
Of course, I suppose I could just not watch them at all, not do them at Bad Movie Night, but…naah. That’s crazy talk.
Occasionally people will suggest cult movies like Repo Man or Forbidden Zone. To me, that’s missing the point. I have a lot more respect for a weird, low-budget movie that at least tries to be different and original than a big Hollywood blockbuster. And sometimes there are movies that I don’t want us to do; Velvet Goldmine recently found its way onto the schedule despite my objections, and the second movie we did was Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls, a film which in spite of its nonexistent budget achieves everything it set to out to do and which I admire a great deal.
The thing is, we’re doing the movies in question no harm whatsoever. I know that. One night of being mocked at an obscure black-box theater with a seating capacity of forty-nine is not exactly going to topple Michael Bay’s empire, nor cause irreparable damage the art of cinema. Hamlet survived being done during the final season of MST3K, after all, so Lady in the Water is fair game.
Some people got persnickety about us doing that movie, calling it “personal” and “misunderstood.” Yeah, right. Lady in the Water cost seventy-five million dollars. Frack it.
Believe it or not, I love movies. I consider myself a film buff, a film geek, and I even have an otherwise useless piece of paper in a box somewhere which proves I receieved a Bachelors Degree in Cinema from San Francisco State University, 1997. Among the reasons I chose to major in Cinema was that I knew it would hold my interest and that I’d be able to complete the damn degree, because I like reading and writing and thinking about movies. In recent years I’ve read The Man Who Heard Voices (the book about the making of Lady in the Water) without having seen the movie, as I also did with with Final Cut (about the making of Heaven’s Gate), The Devil’s Candy (detailing the production of the The Bonfire of the Vanities, which as far as I’m concerned was doomed when an executive declared Melanie Griffith to be sexier than Uma Thurman), and so on.
I even keep up with movie news. I like to know who’s doing what. When I see a movie poster I always read the credits, to see whose contract specified their name had to be in a box or how many people produced the latest Robin Williams comedy. (License to Wed clocked in with four executive producers, four people simply listed as producer, two co-producers, and one line producer. I’ll bet it was the best-produed movie ever!) That stuff’s like porn to me. I read an interesting article today about the pre-production of the upcoming Disney movie Enchanted. It looks horrible, and I have no intention of seeing it outside of the Bad Movie Night context, but I enjoyed reading about it. Whenever someone says wow, you must have seen every movie ever made! because of my rather vast repository of useless cinema knowledge, I tell them the truth: no, I haven’t seen every movie made nor would I want to, but I’d love to read about them.
What’s lasted with me the most from film school was the concept that, like any other art form, movies are a reflection of the time they were made. Even if it’s a period piece, it still reflects the values and mores of the contemporary filmmakers. (This is among the reasons why I don’t think remakes are a bad thing, but that’s another discussion entirely.) Nicholas Meyer explains this brilliantly in his commentary on the Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan DVD, defending Merritt Buttrick’s preppy sweater-around-the-neck look.
But it’s why I like to do recent big-budget movies, beyond the practical reality that we get a lower turnout for old movies nobody’s heard of: they’re a mirror to our current society. I like to spit in that mirror, to say “Frack you” for making it impossible to live in this country without constantly being marketed to. Yeah, I’d know about these movies anyway because I make the conscious choice to read about them, but that’s a choice. Bad Movie Night, among other things, is my way of taking back just a little bit of that power.
It’s nowhere near as lofty as culture jamming, nor as visible as spoofs on Saturday Night Live or Mad Magazine (they still do movie spoofs, right?), but it’s a great way to spend a Sunday evening.
Some of our detractors, our loyal opposition, say they don’t condone Bad Movie Night because they love movies. To which I say: what’s your point? I don’t doubt that those people love movies (not to mention take pride in their hallowed, self-appointed positions as defenders of cinema), but as I established before, the fact I do Bad Movie Night doesn’t mean I hate movies. If I hated movies, I wouldn’t devote so much time and energy to it, writing up blurbs and resizing graphics and all the other little things I do for the show every week, let alone having to actually watch the movies. Allow me to explain
You know what I hate? Babies and children. Seriously. With all due respect to my readers who have reproduced (because your kids are the exception, of course), I cannot stand those tiny hellspawn. More than once I’ve asked to be seated at a restaurant as far away as I can from people with babies, and as I write this at Borders I’m occasionally hissing at the couple who snagged the table near the power outlet before I could get there. Do they need that particular table? Did they plug in a laptop or even a cell phone? No, and I almost wouldn’t mind except that they also have a baby in a stroller, which means everything they do is intended to piss me off.
I cannot begin to describe the level of stress I’ve felt since a family with a one year-old and a five year-old moved in upstairs last December. My home used to be a place of solace. No more, because of the constant running and screaming and crying and thumping, from seven in the morning onwards. Every day I hope that my landlord will tell me those people have decided to move away. Actually, that’s not true; I’ve abandoned hope, since it was killing me. Now I’ve realized that I have to either learn to accept it, or be chased away from the apartment which has been my home since 1995.
All of which is to demonstrate the originally stated point: I hate kids. And yet, I don’t do a show involving kids, do I? No. Because I don’t like them, and I don’t want to be around things I don’t like. I had to keep reminding myself watching Children of Men (and especially reading the book) that mass infertility would be a bad thing.
I do love movies, though. I hate the theatrical moviegoing experience, I hate the advertising, I hated that in practically every frame of the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre the pretty, pretty people were bathed in golden light like a fracking Gap ad. But I love movies. I get a great deal of pleasure out of Bad Movie Night, and for many movies that’s the only way I’ll ever see them. I otherwise would never sit down and watch Transformers or Basic Instinct 2 or especially The Passion of the Christ. Whooboy, that one ruffled some feathers, lemme tell ya. The turnout was low and a lot of regulars gave me static about for weeks before and afterward, but I consider it one of our best nights. No movie has deserved it more.
In the end, you only bust the chops of those you love. It’s like a Friars Roast, and again, when it’s all over the movie is unharmed. (Unlike kids would be if I had to work with them every week.)
Lofty ideals of spitting in metaphorical mirrors aside, it’s just a good time. Movies are entertainment by definition, whether it’s Friday the 13th Part III: 3-D or Shoah, and Bad Movie Night takes the passive element out of them. The audience is the real show.
One member of our loyal opposition described Bad Movie Night as “making us all that much more stupid.”
Man, if that isn’t the perfect mission statement, I don’t know what is.