Category Archives: Theory

What Is an Exploitation Film? Most People Are Wrong

What Is an Exploitation Film? Most People Are Wrong - Sweetback Eats a Lizard

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song launched the genre known as blaxploitation (can anyone explain that term to me?), which brought a slew of heroic black enforcers and sexy black women to the screen for the mass consumption of a large, previously ignored black audience.Marilyn Ferdinand

I can! But first we have to discuss what an exploitation film is.

I feel silly even discussing this issue because it seems so obvious to me. But based on many conversations with normal people (that is: people who aren’t psychotronic freaks like me), I know that most people think exploitation films are films that take advantage (exploit) the people in them.

What an Exploitation Film Is Not

It isn’t surprising they would think that given the years of nudie cuties and their followers that seemed mostly thin pretenses at showing off naked women. But even that is absurd. Do these people think the naked actors were kidnapped and made to perform in the films?

As I mentioned in Troma and Economic Inequality, the star of the film made half as much money as his female co-star because she did a number of topless scenes. That was true then too. I’m all in favor of trading in our capitalist system for something more humane, but the system is what it is. Don’t blame the people who have no choice but to live under it.

What an Exploitation Film Is

So what is an exploitation film? It’s a low-budget film where the filmmakers exploit whatever they can to make their film’s successful (often to get them made at all). It’s like Babes in Arms, “My pa’s got a barn; let’s put on a show!” The filmmakers are exploiting, as Herschell Gordon Lewis put, “Something the studios couldn’t or wouldn’t do.”

So if you have a thick forest in your backyard and friend who owns a gorilla suit, you might be able to make something like Bride of the Gorilla (which is a really good film). Or if you’re in a biker club (I don’t think they call them gangs anymore), you could make a biker film. Or whatever.

The Best Thing to Exploit

But the best thing to exploit is your own creativity. Certainly that’s what Lewis and David Friedman exploited in Blood Feast. It wasn’t the gore that made that film half almost a 20,000 percent return on investment in its initial run. It was that no one had seen anything like that before.

And that’s what brings us to Ms Ferdinand’s question about blaxploitation.

What Were the Blaxploitation Films Exploiting

Perhaps no other form of exploitation filmmaking has as bad a rap as blaxploitation. This goes back to the bare chested women in the nudie cuties. People tend to think that black people were being abused.

Quite the opposite was happening. In the late sixties filmmakers started thinking that just as sex and gore appealed to people in the southern drive-in circuit, films that focused on black heroes just might appeal to urban blacks. And they were right.

Blaxploitation Never Ended, It Went Mainstream

It’s funny that people talk about blaxploitation films ending by the mid-1970s. That really isn’t true. They were simply taken over by Hollywood, which began making movies targeted directly at blacks. True, those films have no political resonance, but then the Black Panthers are long gone and Black Power is more quaint than threatening. (That’s not to say that whites aren’t still terrified of blacks; just look at the hyperbolic denunciations of Black Lives Matter.)

Another Idiot “Critic” Doesn’t Know What “Exploitation” Means

Interestingly, Roger Ebert wrote that Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song wasn’t an exploitation film. As people who have read me a long time know: I hate film “critics.” They’re idiots who watch a film once and then presume to judge the work that was the result of at least dozens of people and months of work (more likely hundreds of people and years of work).

But Ebert was always held up as somehow a good critic because, I don’t know, he wrote a middling screenplay for Russ Meyer and read a book on film history? His claim that Sweetback isn’t an exploitation film is betrayed by almost every sentence in the article (it’s a “review” of Baadasssss!). He had a 13-year-old son he could use for a sex scene (that I think could have been a lot shorter — it is disturbing), so he did. He had black friends so his crew could be all black, so he did.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song Was Exploitation Filmmaking

The truth is that Sweetback simply as cinema is an art film. (It has almost no transitions; little plot; and is mostly interested in experimenting with the interaction between music and visuals. It is also brilliantly edited, but in a way that will confuse and annoy most viewers.) But it is an exploitation film because of the way it was made, why it was made that way, and how that affected the audience.

Contrary to what a lot of people think, Sweetback was not the first blaxploitation film. But to my mind, it is the most true blaxploitation film: a film by blacks, for blacks. Many blaxploitation films were made by whites. But white, black, or green, these filmmakers were exploiting the fact that a significant part of the country had been largely ignored by the film industry, because the Big Brains in Hollywood were too stupid or bigoted to realize that blacks might like to see movies that reflected their lives and dreams.

Exploitation Is a Good Word In Film

Exploitation films are made by people who are smart, creative, and driven. I’ll pick an exploitation film over a Hollywood film any day. That’s a big part of what this site is about. Hollywood has the money to buy all the professionals they need to make a film. Independents have to live by their wits. Hollywood just makes what it’s made before. And it depends upon the exploitation filmmakers to add some new DNA to their commodities — by stealing it.

So to answer the original question simply: “blaxploitation” is a genre of film featuring black heroes, made explicitly for black audiences, who had been ignored by the studios.

Blood Feast and the Brilliance of Paucity

Blood Feast and the Brilliance of PaucityI recently bought a fantastic book, Regional Horror Films, 1958 – 1990. The truth is that I’ve been fairly stuck in California. Even when you talk about the films of Ed Wood, they were still made in Los Angeles. They look like Los Angeles. And this is at a time when different parts of the country really did look different. But my interest is more about how these films got made. And as the author, Brian Albright, notes: much of what makes these films shocking is that the filmmakers are making the best of their limited resources.

I’ve noticed this very often in literature. I don’t consider William S Burroughs a great writer. Junkie and Queer show him to be a competent pulp writer — on par with Ed Wood but certainly not as good as Jim Thompson. (I should admit that I’m something of a Thompson fanatic. And I believe that Pop 1280 is one of the great novels of the 20th century.)

William S Burroughs Accidentally Produces Greatness

Then Burroughs comes out with Naked Lunch — one of the great novels of the 20th century. Burroughs was so high on alcohol and opioids that he has no memory writing it. Many of the pages were spattered with blood. And it was a mess. If it weren’t for Jack Kerouac‘s exquisite editing of the manuscript, it would have been nothing more than the ravings of a madman. I personally think that Kerouac’s greatest literary contribution to the 20th century was this editing and not his books, which I find rather dull. (His poetry is better.)

It was Burroughs’ lack of traditional literary skill that made Naked Lunch a masterpiece. I remember my mother (who was only happy when reading) trying to read the book and finding it impenetrable. So I sat down with her and went sentence by sentence explaining exactly what this madman was saying. She eventually grokked it, and was able to read the rest. It’s one of my favorite memories of my mother.

Filmmaking Is Harder Than Writing

The situation is so much worse with film. I am not a great writer. But I can write a competent novel. If you want, I can write in the style of Fitzgerald or Stein. But to make a film — a short one, not even a feature length — is beyond me. I’ve tried. For one thing, making a film is something that is almost impossible for one person to do. And I don’t have a lot of friends.

Blood Feast is, in many ways, an amateurish film. It looks much like the first couple of films of John Waters. Yet it is one of the most important films ever made. It invented the splatter picture. Yet most viewers couldn’t tell that. No violence is ever done on screen. For example, the villain rips the tongue out of a woman. But all we see is (in reality) a sheep’s tongue in the hand of the villain.

Shocking Then, Tame Now

It’s tame stuff by today’s standards, but it was shocking for 1963. And it was the result of a lack of resources. All the filmmakers had that would attract an audience was young women in their underwear and blood. And they used those to the best of their ability. And they scored. According to Wikipedia (no reference), the film cost $24,500 to make ($200,000 today) and made $4 million ($33 million today) without the aid of any home rentals.

The producers also used William Castle style promotion. For example, they took out a lawsuit against it in Florida claiming it was obscene. The point was to get publicity, which worked very well.

Professionalism Can Be Limiting

But after Blood Feast, many imitators came along. In fact, after their third splatter picture, the producers decided not to make any more because the genre was getting too crowded (and thus unlucrative). But the point is that no Hollywood production would have made such a film. They didn’t have to. They had good writers and actors and lots of money. The producers of Blood Feast (basically Herschell Gordon Lewis — a psychotronic icon — and David F Friedman) didn’t have these things. They didn’t even have much talent. But they managed to make a film and create a genre.

This is one of main reasons I love psychotronic film. Professionalism is often the death of creativity. How many romantic comedies have you seen? Is any one of them much different than any others? No. That’s not to say I don’t like them. I’m very fond of It Happened One Night and French Kiss, although those two films are so similar (separated by over 60 years) it’s almost embarrassing.

Even with all the copies of Blood Feast, I’ve never seen a film quite like it. And I’m glad. Because I find it more disturbing than the technically better films that came later. It’s easy for me to laugh along with Dead Snow. Blood Feast seems almost like a documentary compared to it. And that’s why (as much as I like it) Dead Snow will be forgotten, and Blood Feast will be studied by film students fifty years from now.

Afterword

You can find this film on Daily Motion with lots of commercials. I’ve just ordered the special edition DVD and will create a page for it. At this point, I haven’t watched it enough and don’t know enough about it to write a page for it. I’m using it here only as an example of how a lack of resources can produce brilliance.

Film Length and the Death of Entertainment

Robot MonsterWhen it comes to psychotronic films, you will often find short films. For example, Robot Monster, which is just 62 minutes or Bride of the Gorilla, which is 70 minutes. But this is unusual. When The Reduced Shakespeare Company got their first contract, their act was one hour long and the company that was going to be booking them told them that they had to make the show at least 90 minutes. That’s the key. If people are going to pay for a play, they expect at least an hour and a half.

But things used to be different at the movies. You go into the theater. You see a newsreal. Then there’s a cartoon. Next comes the B feature and then the A feature. That’s entertainmaint! That’s perhaps three hours of entertainment. It sure beats what you get today: one or more commercials, as if you hadn’t paid $8.50 to get into the theater and then paid $7.00 for some stale popcorn. Then you get a bunch of trailers for movies you don’t want to see. And finally, the “feature presentation” — as if there were any presentation other than ads.

So in the 1950s, you could get away with an hour long film, because there would be two of them. Today, you just get one film. And it isn’t just one and a half hours long. Sometimes it is two and a half hours. Sometimes it is four hours.

Okay, sometimes it’s worth it. Schindler’s List was over three hours long, and that’s not even counting the ten minutes you sit in the theater seat sobbing. Long films can be great! But usually it is something more like Marvel’s The Avengers, two and a half hour green screen action that is hard to follow and pointless if you do manage.

Brief Introduction to Dramatic Structure

Regardless of how you chop a film up, it has three acts. (Forget Shakespeare and five acts; they could all be divided into three acts.) The first act sets up what’s going to happen. The second act is just wasting time because you don’t want the story too short. And the third act resolves everything.

In an hour and a half film, that comes down to this:

  • First act: 20 minutes
  • Second act: 60 minutes
  • Third act: 10 minutes

I’m sure you see the problem. That second act is way too long. A good writer will make it interesting. But generally, a whole hour to fill is dull.

But look at how it is for an hour long film:

  • First act: 20 minutes
  • Second act: 30 minutes
  • Third act: 10 minutes

Now you only have a half hour to fill with the characters running around looking for an ending. You sit in the theater and before you know it, the film is over! Something goes wrong, the characters have to overcome it, and the film ends. With the hour and a half film, there has to to be two, three, maybe even four unbelievable conflicts that have to be overcome. If you came to the theater tired, you slept through at least a third of act two. And if you’re unlucky, it was the last third and you missed the end of film. Hopefully, you came to the film with a friend who can explain the whole thing.

I love short films because they get on with the story. Longer films go on for no reason. Especially in an action film, I don’t need to see another fight scene. And I certainly don’t need to see a 15 minute fight scene when a 2 minute scene would do. (I’m talking to you John Woo!) Because I like a little reality in my films.

Usually, in real life, something goes wrong, you deal with it, and then you move on. Real life isn’t: something goes wrong, you deal with it, but then something else goes wrong, so you deal with it. But then something else goes wrong. That kind of writing is designed to justify the ridiculously large budgets of modern films that you don’t want to see anyway.

A New Movie Experience

If I had my druthers, I would go back to the old days. Start with a 10-minute documentary on something — anything. Then a cartoon — maybe one with that animal and an acorn (those never get tired). And then a low-budget hour-long film. And then an hour long film with some stars. I’d pay $15.00 for that. I’d certainly pay $15.00 for it before I would Avengers: Infinity War in 3-D.

–Frank Moraes

The Incredible Hulk as Tragedy

The Incredible Hulk as TragedyI was just over at my sister’s house and so I saw a bit of television. In this case, an episode of The Incredible Hulk episode “The Psychic.”

It was the same as every other episode of The Incredible Hulk: David Banner gets involved in a situation, he turns into the Hulk twice, and at the end of the episode David is walking out of town.

But in this episode there is a psychic who can tell the future of people she touches. At the end, the psychic hugs David before she gets on the bus. And as they hug, we know she sees his future. And she cries. Because David Banner is a tragic character. There is no happy ending for him.

This is interesting because the show implicitly promises that he will eventually find a fix to his problem. But this episode shows that this is not the case. He will be fighting with the Incredible Hulk for the rest of his life. He will die still trying to solve his problem.

There Is No One-Armed Man

This is why The Incredible Hulk is more interesting than The Fugitive. There is no solution. David Banner is a cursed man. And it is tired conceit of the show that The Incredible Hulk will never kill because David Banner would never kill. We all know that under the right circumstances, we would kill. And we would be right!

Time and again, the Hulk doesn’t kill people who deserve to be killed. The show has roughly a Jainist approach to life. The truth is that his id would kill anyone who did him wrong, regardless of how innocent they might be. If a man who worked for Physicians for Social Responsibility and had saved thousands of innocent people sucker punched me, causing me to turn into The Incredible Hulk, I would mess him up — if not kill him. That’s the way the brain works.

This is why Kung Fu works better as a series than The Incredible Hulk.

And don’t get me wrong: I believe in that approach to life. I don’t believe that killing one person will make up for the death of another. But the theme of The Incredible Hulk doesn’t make much sense. Caine is in control. When he fights, it isn’t the result of his id taking control.

The Incredible Hulk Is a Matter of Control

David Banner loses control of his ego and his negative id takes over. But it never kills people who are clearly deserving. Caine would never do that.

So David Banner is a tragic character. The show may always find a way to make The Incredible Hulk (David Banner’s negative id) blameless for any harm (particularly death), it makes no sense. The show must keep up the pretense that The Incredible Hulk would never kill because David Banner never would. You have to ask yourself, “If you didn’t have your ego to stop your id, wouldn’t you kill some people — especially the villainous people that David Banner ran into week after week?”

I love The Incredible Hulk. It was a great show that was a lot of fun. But it was never a show that one should think about too much.

Afterword

In the last television movie of the Incredible Hulk, The Death of the Incredible Hulk, David Banner does indeed die. So ultimately, even the creators knew they were making a tragedy.

The Supposed Blade Runner Controversy

The Supposed Blade Runner ControversyI came upon a short video, The Ending Of Blade Runner Explained. You can go watch it, if you like. I didn’t embed it because I think it is stupid. Basically, it tries to answer the question, “Is Deckard a replicant?”

To start with, this question is very much like the question that most people obsess about after seeing The Conversation, “Where is the microphone?!” The whole point of the story is that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that Harry Caul is the greatest bugger in the world. And it doesn’t matter all that he does to protect himself. If someone wants to track you, they will. The reason most of us don’t have to worry about it is that no one cares about us.

Silly Questions About Movies

In Blade Runner you have the same issue. Deckard could be a human or a replicant, but it just doesn’t matter. The video puts this idea in the mouth of Philip K Dick, who wrote the novel Blade Runner is based on, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The problem is that Dick never said that. Much of his work deals with the question of what it means to be human. But in the novel, there is no question but that Deckard is human.

It is true that director Ridley Scott decided that Deckard was a replicant. I did learn from the video that Harrison Ford (who plays Deckard) believes that the character is human. But as I’ve been writing for many years, meaning does not come from artistic creators but rather from artistic consumers. So Deckard is a replicant for Scott, and a human for Ford and Dick. But I’m going to explain why Deckard is a human.

Looking for Clues

The big problem with the “Deckard is a replicant” camp is that they base their arguments on tiny details like the unicorn origami left at the end. And since Deckard had a dream about a unicorn, that must mean that Gaff could somehow read Deckard’s dream. First: how? The technology to do this without touching him doesn’t exist in the film. But more to the point, why does Decker know about the standard memory implants in Rachael, but somehow doesn’t know about them in himself? If he’s a replicant, he can’t think he’s a human.

I’ve always seen the ending in a much more simpler: Gaff left it there as a message to Deckard: he wasn’t going to kill Rachael and he was going to allow them to get away. Unicorns are symbols of freedom and the possible. So it is just a coincidence that the dream has a unicorn and Gaff’s final piece is a unicorn.

Don’t get me wrong: I know that Scott put it in there so he could imply that Deckard was a replicant. But then he leaves huge parts of the film indicating that he’s human. Scott is a good director, but he’s not a writer. So I suspect that Scott had Hampton Fancher and David Peoples (who were both involved in the final rewrites) to cram in little bits to imply this. I doubt seriously that they were in early versions of the screenplay.

The Most Trivial Conspiracy Theory

Consider the scene just before the unicorn scene. Deckard asks Rachael, “Do you love me?” She responds, “I love you.” That’s a far more interesting scene if one of them is a replicant and one a human.

Another thing that the video claims is that Deckard, in his battle with Roy is able to deal with his beating whereas a real human would die. Have they not seen a modern film? What Deckard goes through is pretty typical action star stuff. And Deckard shows great pain. Meanwhile, Roy shoves his head through a wall and doesn’t seem to feel any pain at all.

People who make claims for Deckard being a replicant sound very much like conspiracy theorists. They ignore major features of the film, and focus on tiny issues to make their argument.

Do you love me? I love you.

The Issue of Empathy

The one thing that really distinguishes humans from replicants is empathy. This raises a problem, because not all humans have empathy. Lack of empathy is more or less the definition of psychopathy. And if ever there were a job that would be helped by a lack of empathy, it is a bounty hunter. Whereas a prosecutor is supposed to look for the truth (which they don’t), a bounty hunter is only supposed to hunt down people. It’s like in that great scene in The Fugitive where Dr Kimble says he didn’t kill his wife and US Marshal Gerard replies, “I don’t care.”

And this makes the ending of the film quite interesting. As Roy (Rutger Hauer) gains empathy, he saves Deckard. But if the roles were reversed, Deckard would not have done the same. That gets to the issue of empathy as a continuum. Clearly, when empathy came to Roy, it came in full measure — a measure that probably doesn’t exist in humans. Is it possible that the replicants are destine to be more human than we are? After all, how empathic is a four year old child? And I wonder if the humans who mandate that replicants only live four years don’t do so because it would be only too clear who are the better creatures.

How Do You Know You Aren’t a Replicant?

Regardless of this, the question remains: other than empathy, how would any human know that they were not a replicant? After all, our memories are nothing but chemical storage. The only thing that we can be certain of is that we exist in this moment. Everything else is just a phantom: a construct of what we call time. But I’ve long been suspicious of time. It seems to me just our primitive way of experiencing the totality of the universe. And in that way, Roy is wrong in his final speech:

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-Beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain. Time to die.

There are only two ways to look at it. It could be that time is an illusion. All our memories are effectively implants. There is only an eternal now. The past is a lie we tell ourselves to explain what is happening now. Or it could be that time is just our limited view of a larger cosmos: we are stuck seeing the three-dimensional world from our perspective in Flatland.

I remember reading that scorpions — some of them anyway — have no ability to create memories. It strikes me that memory is a necessary condition for an animal to develop empathy. So I think that the ideas of identity and empathy are really bound up in the notion of memory. Whether memory has some actual basis in past events hardly matters. And maybe this is why Rachael in the movie seems to have empathy: because she was given memories. Roy was not. Imagine what a great creature he would have been with a longer life.

Blade Runner Is a Mess of a Script

And what most annoys me is that the video thinks that Ridley Scott and Harrison Ford and Philip K Dick can somehow better tell us the answer to this question because they were involved in the making of the film (to one extent or another). But this is really stupid when you consider how different the film and novel are.

I like Blade Runner quite a lot. But it really is a mess of a film that you can make anything of that you like.

Is This a Real Snake?

Movie Gets Mixed Up With Novel

Consider how the novel gets mixed up in the film. In the book, robotic animals are cheap. The sign of affluence is being able to afford a real animal. In the book, Deckard’s wife is unhappy because they can’t afford any real animals. So when Deckard gets a reward for blowing away a bunch of replicants in a single day, he buys his wife a living goat. And she is distraught when Rachael kills the goat.

In the film, Rachael talks about how expensive the manufactured owl is — implying that manufactured creatures are very expensive. Later, when Deckard confronts the replicant dancer, Zhora, he asks, “Is this a real snake?” She replies, “Of course it’s not real! Do you think I’d be working in a place like this if I could afford a real snake?”

Another example is all the exposition that poor old M Emmet Walsh (Bryant) is forced to spew when Deckard is brought to the police station. Replicants only have a four year life span. But is that all replicants or just this version? If it’s all replicants (which is implied), this is something that Deckard would surely know given that he is such a hot shot replicant “retirer.”

Tears in the Rain

Blade Runner Is a Better Film If Deckard Is Human

Ultimately, Deckard is a human because the film is more interesting if he is. The film ends in a very ambiguous way. What’s going to happen to these two characters who we have come to like? It doesn’t need more ambiguity about who the characters even are.

Blade Runner is an interesting film. I enjoy watching it. But it isn’t some great work of art that has deep lessons to teach us. It’s an action film made for thoughtful people. And that’s more than enough for me to own it and repeatedly watch it.

How I Rate a Film: Yojimbo Edition

YojimboI don’t believe in rating systems. There’s a reason that we don’t use “stars” or whatever on this site. Eventually, I’ll write an article about it. But I do find such systems useful under certain circumstances. For example, Netflix uses the system and it does work well to estimate how much I’ll like a film.

Note that in this case, the rating is for what I like; it isn’t some kind of statement about the film is. When Leonard Maltin gives a film a certain number of stars, he isn’t making a claim about his preferences; he’s making a claim about the film. (This is one of many reasons why film “critics” suck.)

Obviously, if you are going to try to quantify the quality of a film, the larger number of “stars,” the better. I am glad that Netflix uses a five-star rating system rather than a four-star system. It is probably because of the very many films that I think deserve 4 stars; somehow, 3 out of 4 stars doesn’t seem quite high enough, when 4 out of 5 does. This is despite the fact that the numbers are almost identical: 75 percent versus 80 percent.

I almost never give a film a rating of 2 stars, and I can’t remember ever rating a film as 1 star. To do so would reflect badly on me, I think. The filmmaker spent at least a year working on the film and I spent perhaps two hours. If I think it is really bad, isn’t it more likely that I just don’t get it? Even a film as sophomoric as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead is still worth at least 3 stars. And perhaps more, because the film really doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t. Would I have rewritten it? Sure. Could it have been so much better for me? Absolutely. Would doing so have reduced its potential audience by 90 percent? Probably.

Yojimbo and Its Remakes

One of the greatest films ever made is Yojimbo. It tells the story of a ronin who saves a town by setting its two controlling gangs against each other. This may sound familiar because it’s been made at least twice since then in the form of A Fist Full of Dollars and Last Man Standing. And I can think of no three films that better illustrate the difference between 3, 4, and 5 star ratings. Just so you know what I’m talking about, I rate them thusly:

*** Last Man Standing
**** A Fistful of Dollars
***** Yojimbo

All of these films are good. I’ve watched them all many times. But why is Yojimbo better than A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing? There are a few reasons. First, on its storytelling merits, it is better. It is funnier and more exciting. But that in itself wouldn’t cause me to put it into the 5-star category. Yojimbo is also at base a serious film with real characters.

This is not true of the other two film, which are at base comic books. Joe[1] and Rojo in A Fistful of Dollars are superheroes. All the characters are stereotypes. The same thing goes for Last Man Standing. The argument can be made that Sanjuro[2] is a superhero. I don’t think it is very strong, but it doesn’t matter. The people who occupy the town are very real, and the film is mostly about them.

The final thing that makes Yojimbo great is that it is beautifully shot. A Fistful of Dollars really falls down here. In particular, I am thinking of the day-for-night graveyard sequence. Last Man Standing, on the other hand is easily as beautiful as Yojimbo. This is one of the best things about it.

A Fistful of Dollars vs Last Man Standing

So why is A Fistful of Dollars better than Last Man Standing? One reason: Bruce Willis. I don’t generally mind Willis as an actor. In particular, he was excellent in the great film 12 Monkeys. But here, his performance is bad enough to almost destroy this film. Otherwise, I would likely rate Last Man Standing the better of the two.

Beyond the Numbers

I still don’t know what it is that distinguishes a good (4 star) from a great (5 star) film. I’m much more likely to give a film five stars when its intent is serious (and that has nothing to do with it being a drama; I think comedies more often have serious intents). But His Girl Friday is nothing more than a romp, and it is clearly a five-star film.

That’s why I think writing about film is a useful thing to do. It’s helpful to discuss a film — things to watch for; things that didn’t work; how one film relates to another; and so on. But to slap a number on a film is to reduce the film to a single thing. And even the very worst film is so much more than that. That’s why on our film pages, we have multiple articles. It’s easy for the same person to write ten different articles on the same film. Rare is the film that gets an entire book written about it, but I don’t think a film exists that an entire book could not be written about.

The Hidden Complexity

Still, everyone has opinions about films. They like some films better than others. What’s more, their tastes change from day to day. And Netflix does provide a good service in being able to take into account what people who have tastes similar to yours. So there is nothing wrong with rating films. And if you do, it’s probably a good idea to know why you rate different films differently. Behind ever number is an enormously complicated calculation that none of us is fully aware of.


[1] Note: he has a name. He is not “The Man With No Name.” The fact that people know him by this moniker is indicative of the mythic nature of the character.

[2] I believe that Sanjuro means “30-year-old” based upon the translations in Yojimbo and the almost equally wonderful Sanjuro. I highly recommend The Criterion Collection double DVD Yojimbo & Sanjuro. It’s great to have them together. Sanjuro is the name of the character. So the first film can be thought of as, “Sanjuro Goes to the Country.” And the second film would be, “Sanjuro Goes to Town.”

The Good and Bad of Mystery Science Theater 3000

Mystery Science Theater 3000 - Crow T RobotI’ve been a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 since its Joel Hodgson days. But there has always been a love-hate aspect to it. On the one hand, it introduced people to a lot of great psychotronic films. In fact, Trace Beaulieu (Crow, Dr Clayton Forrester) has even admitted that Michael Weldon’s classic The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film was the group’s bible. Just the same, I don’t think they quite understood what people were supposed to take away from the book: the films were weird, not bad — or at least not necessarily bad.

Not a Lot of Jokes

But in that same inverview, Beaulieu goes on to say that Josh Weinstein really wants to do a riff of Life Is Beautiful. Beaulieu then says, “I’d never seen it before so I decided to watch it, and you know what? He was right! I was stunned! It’s terrible, and there’s so much to make fun of.” Is that what the riffing was all about? Making fun the bad in the movies? I don’t think so. In fact, the show was kind of pretentious in making “jokes” that were nothing more than obscure references.

(A good example of this is in the Werewolf episode. A one point this old man shows up with a really long beard and one of them says, “Leland Sklar, survivalist.” The entire joke was that the guy looked vague like Sklar, who is a bass player, known especially for playing with James Taylor. But as a session player, he’s played with an amazing list of people. But it’s only music freaks who know who he is. When I heard the line, I felt impressed with myself that I got it. But I hardly laughed.)

Mystery Science Theater 3000 Riffs on Bad Films?

Anyway, as we’ve seen with RiffTrax, The Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment can be applied to any movie at all. But I don’t even know what Beaulieu means when he says “bad” anyway. Here’s an extended quote:

I do like bad movies. I have a fondness for them, and right now I’m finding that I love Netflix because they’ve got so many bad movies for streaming. Netflix right now is sort of like that bad VHS store every neighborhood used to have. You’ve watched all the good stuff so you find yourself going through the back catalog of a lot of people’s so-called careers. In fact I just watched Solar Crises. It’s an early ’90s forgotten sci-fi movie. And it’s kind of epic. It stars Charlton Heston, Tim Matheson, Jack Palance… and it’s stunningly bad. The special effects are awesome, but the movie… it’s got a great pedigree. But my poodle has a great pedigree and it still craps everywhere…

The Show Itself Wasn’t Well Made

But I do think that there was a lot of confusion about the films by the crew. If any group should appreciate movies done quickly on a shoestring, it should be the people making Mystery Science Theater 3000. For one thing, they are stealing most of what they do. Their own set design was not all that good. And the fact that they had an excuse for it doesn’t matter. They weren’t capable of doing any better. (Note how much better their film looks — with lots of professional studio help — even though it’s some of their weakest work.)

What’s more, their hosted segments were generally terrible. They made no effort at character consistency. And despite that, they were only rarely able to create comedy of a high level. What’s more, Michael Nelson’s extreme right-wing politics found their way into the show, like when Crow’s newspaper column gives Antonin Scalia a grade of B+. Could they have picked a more polarizing figure? It passes by because most people watching the show don’t pay attention to politics. But really!

It all works because it’s charming. But in purely technical terms — if you take into account resources — there was almost no film they featured that wasn’t better than they were. And their first season (KTMA) are far more enjoyable than the later episodes on The Sci-Fi Channel.

Kurt Vonnegut

And then there is The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide. I ordered the book with great anticipation. The book is terrible. There’s almost no inside information. There are season introductions which have nothing interesting to say. And even though the book was produced just after Joel left the show, he isn’t in the book. He should have at least been brought in to write a substantial introduction. It’s possible that couldn’t be done. I suspect that the break-up of the show was far more acrimonious than anyone wants to admit in public.

The one good thing about the book is that Kevin Murphy tells the story of meeting Kurt Vonnegut. On their first encounter, it takes a while for Vonnegut to place the show. Finally he gets it:

Why, yeah, he’d seen the silhouette while channel-surfing. Yeah, we were the guys with the old bad sci-fi films and such. Then he said that we should try to appreciate the fact that many of those writers were struggling and turned out scripts for those movies virtually overnight.

When I read that, I thought, “He gets it!” I already had a high opinion of Vonnegut, but that was really nice to hear.

The Second Conversation

Later, Murphy tries to get Vonnegut to go out to dinner with the group. Here is Murphy’s memory of the conversation they had:

“I’m Kevin Murphy. I met you yesterday.”
“Oh, sure, with the shadows. You were up for an Ace Award…”
“Yeah. My partners and I were wondering if you’d like to have dinner tonight…”
“It’s really difficult to get good fiction on television, isn’t it?”
“Boy, yeah. Now, if you’re not busy tonight…”
“…Those old movies, some were mighty laughable…”
“Exactly. If you and your wife…”
“…I’m here with the Showtime people, you know…”
“…We could eat right here…”
“…They have this thing I’m supposed to do…”
“…We’d be flattered if you could…”
“I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t have the time.”
“Well, thank you all the same, it’s been a pleasure meeting…”
“Mm-hmm. Say, did you win an award last night?”
“Um, no, we lost.”
“We won.”

It turned out that Vonnegut didn’t have anything to do. He just didn’t want to have dinner with them. But in the second encounter, you can tell that he’s still processing. He clearly thinks that what Mystery Science Theater 3000 is doing is wrong.

But notice where he ends: he points out that he won and they lost. I don’t think Murphy got the significance of that. Vonnegut wasn’t saying that he was better and they were worse. He was making a broader statement about taste and what is considered good and what is considered bad.

My Experience

Over the years, what I found was that I liked any given episode more or less based on how good the film was. I often found myself getting annoyed that these guys were talking while I was trying to watch a film. I remember that specifically with Devil Doll, which is a damned good movie. Another was the excellent Phase IV, although in those early local television days, they all talked a good deal less. But I’ve always found it necessary to assume the best from the crew in order to enjoy the show.

Regardless, I have to give Mystery Science Theater 3000 credit for introducing a lot of people to a lot of great old psychotronic films. Whether or not their intent was to mock the films, they did them a great favor. And I think a lot of people who enjoy laughing at these films are just covering. They actually like them. It just isn’t hip to like them as enjoyable works of art. So they laugh. And that’s fine.