Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Mystery Science Theater 3000: 25 Episodes for 25 Years

“It’s all based on this simple idea,” explains show creator Joel Hodgson. “That people say shit when they’re watching movies.” That simple idea led, 25 years ago, to one of the most endearing and enduring cult favorites on TV: Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Prop comic Joel Hodgson had bailed out of Hollywood by the late 1980s, and returned to his native Minnesota. Finding a home for both his hot-glue gun wielding gizmo construction skills and his concept of a show where people talk back to movies, Mystery Science Theater 3000 debuted Thanksgiving Day 1988 on KTMA, an ultra-low budget Minneapolis TV station. The premise: two mad scientists send a regular guy into space, the focus of an evil experiment to gauge a lone human’s capacity to withstand an endless barrage of bad movies. Stranded aboard the “Satellite of Love,” Joel maintains his sanity by building a couple of wisecracking robot pals, and together they mercilessly heckle the movies that are screened before them.

At first ad-libbed, then carefully scripted, Hodgson, along with a growing stable of writers, perfected the art of real-time verbal abuse of bad movies. Called “riffing,” the jokes (somewhere around 700 per episode) can range from crude bathroom humor to obscure cultural references, anything from Jiffy Pop to Pinter plays. All delivered in silhouette superimposed on the bottom of the screen. In between movie segments are “host segments,” a platform for various skits (sometimes movie-related, sometimes not) musical production numbers, as well as a glimpse at life onboard the ship, and the curious relationship between the castaways and their Earthbound overlords.

The show’s local popularity led to a shot the following year on the fledgling Comedy Channel, which was to later become Comedy Central. It was a hit there too, and the cable outlet, hungry for programming, quickly made MST3K its centerpiece. Thus began an impressive 10 year run that encompassed nearly 200 episodes (at 2 hours apiece), an unceremonious cancellation followed by a full-blown resurrection thanks to The Sci-Fi Channel, and a complete turnover of on-screen talent, including Hodgson’s own exit halfway through the show’s run, replaced by head writer Mike Nelson. Despite many changes and challenges, the show never once jumped the shark. For 10 glorious seasons, Mystery Science Theater 3000 was never not funny.

And once new episodes were gone for good, it quickly became apparent that the show’s rabid fan base wasn’t going anywhere. A vibrant tape-trading community gave way to a fiercely dedicated online presence -- there are countless MST3K fan sites, offering meticulously detailed episode guides and deep background on the most obscure minutia, and pretty much every episode resides copyright challenge-free on YouTube.

I write for one of those fan sites, by the way. Annotated MST is slowly but surely isolating and defining each and every cultural reference made in the show’s 10 year run, one episode at a time. Here’s one of the episodes I annotated.

The MST3K alumni have branched off into two rivalry-free factions: Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic, both of which continue the riffing tradition in slightly different formats. Both groups have performed live (Cinematic Titanic recently retired) and both noticed a key demographic in their audiences: people far too young to have been original fans. Yep, turns out MST3K is a family tradition, handed down from generation to generation.

And this year, in the glow of MST3K’s 25th Anniversary, Joel Hodgson announced he’s exploring the possibility of re-booting the series. Stay tuned.

So – with that hopeful thought in mind and in honor of the 25th Anniversary, I humbly present 25 MST3K episode suggestions. These pretty much cover the arc of the show’s evolution, and the full range of fare that MST3K dug into over the years, from rubber monsters and plastic ray guns, to 1950s teensploitation movies and pre-Apollo trips to the moon, to 1970s made-for-TV stink-bombs.


                                                                            Joel Era 
Episode 104: Women of the Prehistoric Planet
This episode features the final appearance of one of MST3K’s founding Mad Scientists, Josh “J. Elvis” Weinstein, as well as head writer and future host Mike Nelson’s first speaking role (the voice of a killer satellite), and the origin of the MST3K uber-catchphrase “Hi-Keeba!” The 1966 movie is a deeply racist space opera wherein deeply white Earthlings lord it over the backward savages of a distant planet. Spoiler alert: turns out the planet is actually Earth! Damn you all to hell!

Episode 201: Rocketship X-M
A new season begins with the introduction of writer Frank Conniff as Mad Scientist Dr. Forrester’s new assistant “TV’s Frank”, and writer Kevin Murphy as the new voice of robot Tom Servo. The movie is a 1950 standard issue sci-fi adventure that plays fast and loose with astrophysics and plenty of stock footage to tell the story of a bunch of guys and a pretty gal who embark on an expedition to the moon (eXpediton Moon, get it?) but wind up on Mars instead. Whoops. They spend a night camping, clash with the locals, then scamper back home to Earth, where their rocketship crashes and everybody dies. Lloyd Bridges rounds out the cast.

Episode 207: Wild Rebels
This 1967 low-budget biker movie attempts to cash in on both the (then current) popular fear of motorcycle gangs, and the 60’s cinematic love of anti-heroes. Real life failed crooner Steve Alaimo stars as failed stock-car driver Rod Tillman, who stumbles into the employ of a bank robbing biker gang and reluctantly turns police informant. He fails miserably in both endeavors, ultimately accomplishing nothing and learning nothing. Heck of a job, Rod!

Episode 210: King Dinosaur
This 1955 quickie is one of eight films in the MST3K canon directed by “Mr. BIG” Bert I. Gordon, famous for his prolific production of B-grade giant-bug and balding high-schooler movies. Relying heavily on footage borrowed from other films, it tells the story of a group of white American astronauts who discover an Earth-like planet populated by giant reptiles. They respond in the classic fifties American fashion: they blow the place up with an atomic bomb.

Episode 211: First Spaceship on Venus
A 1960 East German/Polish space opera based on the novel The Astronauts by Stanislaw Lem, who also gave us Solaris, this one features a multi-racial/national and mixed gender crew who arrive on the planet Venus only to discover it has been pre-nuked for their convenience. After some of the crew die horribly, the others return to Earth to continue their dogmatic, poorly dubbed anti-nuclear diatribes.

Episode 302: Gamera
From 1965, this is the first of the Japanese Gamera movie series; Gamera being a giant, flying, fire-breathing turtle who is “friend to all children.” Gamera also happens to occasionally destroy large tracts of Tokyo, presumably killing thousands of people, including, presumably, children.

Episode 315: Teenage Caveman
A 1958 Roger Corman effort that clearly came in under budget, this one features future Man from U.N.C.L.E. star Robert Vaughn as a rebellious teenage caveman who defiantly questions caveman law, perhaps because he’s in his mid-thirties.

Episode 319: War of the Colossal Beast
This episode features, hands down, the most popular short in MST3K history: Mr. B Natural, wherein a prancing, Peter Pan-ish “man” with boobs and great legs appears in the bedroom of a preteen boy and convinces him to take up playing coronet in the school band. Hello, therapy. The 1958 movie, another Bert I. Gordon epic, is a sequel to Episode 309: The Amazing Colossal Man, and features a diapered 60-foot tall Glen Manning, who, it turns out, was not killed in the first movie, but has nonetheless begun to decompose. He’s also developed a mighty hankering for baked goods.

Episode 320: The Unearthly
This episode begins with a pair of MST3K’s most beloved shorts: Posture Pals, wherein a trio of status hungry grade schoolers achieve social dominance through improved posture, and Appreciating Our Parents, wherein a young lad gets a mildly hallucinogenic awakening to the value of helping out around the house. What are Mom and Dad doing downstairs after dinner is long over? The dishes, that’s what! Wake up, Tommy! The 1957 movie stars John Carradine as a mad scientist who cures depression by turning his afflicted patients into deformed zombies.  But still, the co-pay was only 15 bucks. Also featured is the hulking Tor Johnson, uttering the immortal line “Time for go to bed!”

Episode 322: Master Ninja
This “movie” is actually two jammed together episodes of the failed 1984 TV series The Master, which starred Lee Van Cleef as “the only Occidental American to ever become a ninja,” and, as his young disciple, a nearly incoherent Timothy Van Patton. Van Cleef’s distinctly un-ninjalike gut soon becomes hard to ignore, as does Van Patton’s unsettling predilection for flat-chested extra-petite damsels in distress.

Episode 323: The Castle of Fu Manchu
The MST3K writers have declared this one the most difficult film they ever tackled: “we NEVER knew what was going on.” From 1969, it features a decidedly Occidental Christopher Lee in his final appearance as the decidedly Asian supervillain Fu Manchu, in a decidedly convoluted plot to dominate civilization. Something about opium crystals and/or a machine that freezes Earth’s oceans. And there’s a DIY heart transplant surgery performed with everyday items found around the house. It’s fun!

Episode 402: The Giant Gila Monster
This episode features a loving tribute to that golden era when public intoxication was funny, celebrating such “funny drunks” as Crazy Guggenheim, Dean Martin, Foster Brooks, and Otis from The Andy Griffith Show. The 1959 movie features teenagers, hot rods that look like bathtubs on wheels, sock hops, a forced perspective giant reptile, nitroglycerine, and of course, funny drunks, one of whom is a “famous disc jockey.” Freshen that up for you?

Episode 403: City Limits
This episode features Joel’s deft use of an umbrella in silhouette to hide a bit of brief nudity on the screen. The movie is a 1985 low budget post-apocalypse saga wherein teenagers, synthesizers, motorcycles and mullets converge upon the aligned low points in the careers of James Earl Jones, Robbie Benson, and Kim Cattrall, to whom Crow T. Robot sings an ardent ode of love.

Episode 404: Teenagers from Outer Space
This 1959 movie is one of eight riffed by MST3K that use Bronson Canyon, in the Los Angeles Griffith Park area, as a location. It’s the story of a group of middle-aged teenagers, sporting v-neck/turtleneck hybrid sweaters enhanced with masking tape and wielding dime-store toy ray guns, who’ve been sent to Earth to scout for grazing land for their “Gargon herds.” Gargons, it turns out, look a lot like lobsters. Just regular old lobsters, too, they didn’t even glue fake wings on them or anything.

Episode 424: Manos: The Hands of Fate
Thanks to MST3K pulling it out of obscurity, Manos: The Hands of Fate now ranks high on any newly forged list of the worst movies ever made. It’s the 1966 work of Texas fertilizer salesman Harold P. Warren, who literally made the movie on a bet, using his own money ($19,000) and however many friends and volunteers he could scare up. Manos is currently enjoying an afterlife most movies of its kind could never hope for. A pristine work print was found – it’s being restored frame-by-frame, thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, to be released on Blu-ray. At comic-cons around the country, people dress up as characters from the film, and there’s Manos: The Hands of Felt, a live puppet show interpretation. Manos has become the Gold Standard for bad movies, and MST3K saw it first. Well, except for a handful of people in Texas in 1966.

                                                                         Mike Era

Episode 512: Mitchell
A pivotal episode that had fans on the edge of their seats: not because of the movie, but because this was the episode where Joel escaped from the Satellite of Love, and was replaced by new host Mike Nelson. All went well, and a new era began. In the 1975 movie, Joe Don Baker is Mitchell, a bloated beer-soaked police detective who plays by his own sloppy baby-oil slathered rules. Rumors circulated that Joe Don Baker was angered by his treatment at the hands of MST3K, and vowed revenge, just as soon as he sobered up.

Episode 515: Alien from L.A.
To fill time during the movie’s lengthy end credits, Mike and Crow engage in a fierce battle to determine who is more into totally femmy movies, such as Fried Green Tomatoes or Beaches. It was a draw. The 1988 white South African movie demonstrates that, as an actress, supermodel Kathy Ireland makes a great supermodel. A halfhearted attempt to 80s up Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, the story involves an underground totalitarian society, which looks very industrial warehouse-y and seems to be populated with a lot of white South Africans.

Episode 610: The Violent Years
This episode begins with another favorite short: Young Man’s Fancy is a prime example of corporate America’s happy willingness in the 1950s and 60s to bankroll thinly veiled commercials that were inserted into high school curriculums coast to coast. It’s the story of teen girl Judy, who’s able to contain her “squishy” hormones only with the help of modern kitchen appliances, and is thus able to cook her way into the heart of the college boy of her dreams. The 1956 movie presents the argument that if parents make the mistake of having a life of their own, they risk driving even an innocent young daughter into a life of violent juvenile delinquency. Point taken.

Episode 614: San Francisco International
The pilot of a failed 1970 TV series, this “movie” rolls out an assembly line of B-list made-for-TV movie actors grappling with just enough overlapping plot points to prop the whole thing up between commercial breaks. Pernell “Adam Cartwright from Bonanza” Roberts plays a smug, strutting airport administrator who does “my job, my way.” When the show went to (short lived) series, his job was filled by Lloyd Bridges, who went on to parody the role in the 1980 comedy movie Airplane!

Episode 702: The Brute Man
This episode continues to expand writer Mary Jo Pehl’s role as Dr. Forrester’s domineering mother, Pearl. Dr. F’s reaction to seeing her go out on a date is a classic: “Oh, well. He’s not the first oily man that’s taken Mom to the mat.” The 1946 movie is practically an autobiography of star Rondo Hatton. Once voted “handsomest boy in high school,” Hatton was diagnosed with acromegaly, a pituitary gland disorder that causes extreme disfigurement of the head, face, and hands. After a bout of suicidal depression, Hatton was discovered by Hollywood, and went on to play a series of roles as brutish thugs in B-movies. The Brute Man was his final film.

Episode 801: Revenge of the Creature
After MST3K was rescued from cancellation by The Sci-Fi Channel, this episode brought writer Bill Corbett into the role of Crow T. Robot, along with many other new characters and concepts. The 1955 movie is a sequel to the much better Creature from the Black Lagoon, and showcases the standard 1950s B-movie protocol for dealing with breakthroughs in the field of zoology: capture it, enslave it, then shoot it. 

Episode 812: The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-up Zombies
This one has it all: the work of grim and greasy low budget film auteur Ray Dennis Steckler, who turns the camera on himself for quite a lot of this 1964 movie, we get a doughy salesman lured to his death by carnies, lots of incomprehensible dialogue, a roller coaster ride, more carnies, extremely overdressed hoochie-koo dancers, and deformed zombies who may or may not have been carnies. A fatal police shooting in a rustic Pacific coastal setting, and we’re done.

Episode 822: Overdrawn at the Memory Bank
This one presented a challenge for the MST3K writers: the star of the movie was the talented, respected, and recently deceased Raul Julia. They managed to riff away, just the same. Shot on videotape (and it shows!) this 1983 made-for-Public TV movie was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, and was first broadcast over New York’s PBS affiliate, even though, thanks to never actually being finished, there were gaping plot holes.

Episode 902: Phantom Planet
This 1961 movie is practically a blueprint for the low budget Americans-in-space sci-fi epics of the 1950s and 60s. A hunky, thick-headed flyboy and his wormy, philosophical sidekick find their way to a distant planet. The wormy guy dies on impact. After a suitable interim of insulting local customs and wooing local gals, hunky guy hightails it back home, leaving a trail of freedom, democracy, and casualties in his wake. USA!

Episode 1013: Diabolik

In the final MST3K episode, the host segments clearly overshadow the movie, which wasn’t particularly hard to do. It’s a 1968 Franco-Italian 007 wannabe, except the hero is an international super-thief, complete with an underground lair and a girlfriend with an impressive collection of wigs. After 10 seasons on basic cable, MST3K closed up shop with Pearl and her minions finding work elsewhere (“Look, Nelson - move on. I am.”) and Mike and the bots packing up and bracing for a crash-landing back on Earth. Once on the ground, they move into a garden level apartment together and settle in to…watch movies.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Bad Movies for the Holidays

Gene Simmons of KISS was just whistling past the graveyard when he said that the notoriously bad 1978 KISS TV movie KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park would make a great double feature with cross-dressing director Ed Wood’s 1959 Plan 9 From Outer Space, a perennial top entry in “Worst Movies Ever Made” lists. For one thing, if Phantom was such a success at being deliberately campy, as Simmons implied, why did the KISS organization impose a ban on their employees even mentioning the movie’s name out loud, on pain of summary termination?

And besides, the perfect double bill companion for Phantom wouldn’t be some old black and white low budget schlocky horror show from Hollywood’s underbelly. The perfect match would be something that was just as godawful, and for all the same reasons. And that would be another notoriously bad made-for-TV movie from 1978: The Star Wars Holiday Special.
Both films were televised within a month of each other, and both had the same motive powering them: a ham-fisted money grab. Take something that’s a huge success in one medium, drop it into another medium, and see if you can wring some more money out of the thing. Do it quick, and don’t bother with such trifles as having a script that makes any sense, or making sure the people in charge have any clue what they’re doing.

In both cases, we get a finished product that was so bad it was good, and then just kept going until it circled around to bad again, and then stayed there. 

The closer you look, the more similarities stack up on top of one another. KISS had reached the point in 1978 where their success as a recording and touring act seemed limiting. Becoming movie superheroes appeared to be the logical next step. They were promised “Hard Day’s Night meets Star Wars.” Who could say no to that?

George Lucas had a bona fide hit movie on his hands with the original Star Wars in 1977. But no one was clearly seeing the kind of franchise Star Wars was going to become -- the sequels, the licensed merchandise, the books, the video games, the prequels. No one could see it because it had never happened before, Star Wars basically invented all that stuff. So Lucas was easily swayed. Turning over his characters and visual universe to a bunch of smooth-talking TV guys wanting to make a Holiday Special must have seemed rational at the time. Lucas has since said he doesn’t even remember the production company he handed the reins to (Smith-Dwight Hemion Productions), but in retrospect it “probably wasn’t a good idea. But you learn from those things.” And learn he did. After 1978, the only person allowed to wreck George Lucas’ original vision of Star Wars was George Lucas. See: Prequels; Star Wars.

KISS complained that KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park was a huge embarrassment because it made them look cartoonish. It’s hard to figure what other possible outcome they imagined, though, since they signed on with Hanna Barbara to make the thing. That’s right, Hanna Barbara -- the same studio that gave the world The Flintstones and Scooby-Doo. In fact, Phantom is basically just an episode of Scooby-Doo, complete with a vengeful mad scientist building killer robots in a secret lab deep beneath the surface of an amusement park. You know, that old story. And given the members of KISS’s complete and utter lack of acting experience or talent, the result was flatter than any performance Barney Rubble or Shaggy ever turned in. (Ace Frehley’s stuntman shows up on the screen quite a lot. It’s kind of noticeable, too, since the stuntman is African American, and Ace is not.)

There’s a reason why The Star Wars Holiday Special is the grand finale of the 2004 book What Were They Thinking: The 100 Dumbest Events in Television History. Set mostly on Chewbacca’s home planet, the bulk of the dialogue is turned over to Wookie grunts and roars. No subtitles, either (probably just as well). There’s the delightful segment wherein Chewbacca’s father settles in to enjoy some…well, what can only be described as internet porn. That, plus the thing that sure looks like a laptop hooked up to what sure looks like a big flatscreen on the wall, and you have to give them credit – they did a pretty good job predicting the future. Otherwise it’s all quite wrong. Being a TV Holiday Variety Special, of course you have to have guest stars. And who says “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” better than Bea Arthur, Art Carney, and Diahann Carroll?

Besides KISS’s threat to put any member of their crew who uttered the name of their movie on the unemployment line, George Lucas once famously said of The Star Wars Holiday Special that “If I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it.” Since the special was shown only once and never officially released thereafter, the only copies available were homemade videos, tapes of the original network airing. Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia, once cut a deal with Lucas: she’d do commentary voiceover work for Star Wars Blu-ray discs in exchange for a copy of the Holiday Special. She claims she plays it at parties when she wants people to go home.

The KISS project was, of course, meant to be the launching pad for their fabulous new career as superheroes of the big screen. That particular rocket is still on the pad.

Both of these fine features have attained solid Cult Classic street-cred in the intervening years. Once the stuff of legend, those homemade videos have since found their way online. Look no further than YouTube, natch, but for a pristine version of The Star Wars Holiday Special, complete with vintage network TV commercials of the day, check out Rifftrax. Of course, you get the Rifftrax guys mocking the show throughout, which is very helpful. Still, you might want to take some Dramamine first.  And prepare to ask yourself “What were they putting in the water in 1978?”

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Worm's Turn

Earworms. You know them, you love them, because you might as well — you can’t shake them if you try.

Also known as “involuntary musical imagery” or “musical imagery repetition” or, my favorite, “stuck song syndrome,” we’re not talking about genuine auditory hallucinations here. That would be palinacousis, a nasty result of damage to the brain’s temporal lobe that is, fortunately, extremely rare. But earworms — a fragment of a song that repeats in your mind over and over — are extremely common, in case you hadn’t noticed.

Research has revealed a few things we probably could have figured out even without a grant. Earworms tend to be around 15 to 30 seconds long — the range of our brain’s auditory short term memory. People in the record biz won’t be surprised to learn which short part of a tune is most likely to become an earworm: the hook. Men and women get earworms equally often, but they tend to last longer for women and bother them more. Earworms are most common among people with OCD, musicians, and disc jockeys. I can vouch for that last one. As for OCD deejays who play in a band, well, I guess the party never stops.

Researchers at Goldsmiths University of London are compiling a database of songs with a tendency toward involuntary loop-ability, and are particularly interested in the fact that earworms are fairly veridical; meaning the tune that cycles in our head is often a pretty accurate version of the actual song. They’d like to know if this effortless yet accurate form of recall might have some value in understanding learning and memory.

It would be easy to assume that earworms are just another proud achievement of our 24/7 electronic distraction-based modern culture. In fact, they have a long history and a rich and varied presence in literature. Earworms have been studied, written about, and theorized upon by Freudian analysts, neurologists, and philosophers.

The word itself is borrowed from the German word ohrwurm, which means… earworm. Mistakenly believed to refer to some kind of actual worm that likes actual ears, the word ohrwurm’s true origins are equally delightful to ponder. It refers to ancient medicinal remedies for ear infections, which involved dried and ground up bugs, the same bugs we now call “earwigs,” and…well, you get the idea.

Possibly the earliest literary reference to earworms pre-dates the phonograph. In an 1845 short story, “Imp of the Perverse,” Edgar Allen Poe wrote:

“It is quite a common thing to be thus annoyed with the ringing in our ears, or rather in our memories, of the burthen of some ordinary song, or some unimpressive snatches from an opera. Nor will we be the less tormented if the song in itself be good, or the opera air meritorious.”

“The Supremacy of Uruguay” is a 1933 short story by E.B. White about fleets of unmanned airplanes (pre-drones!) armed with record players and powerful speakers, which blanket the land with an irresistible, maddening earworm, and thus conquer humanity. And one of the fathers of science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke, published “The Ultimate Melody” in 1957, which describes a melody that so perfectly synchs up with the electrical rhythms of the brain that the listener becomes forever enraptured, and ultimately catatonic. This is also pretty much how my son describes attending a rave.

Is there a cure? Not really, no. Some medical research suggests that OCD medications can at least turn down the volume of earworms. Wow, who saw that one coming? Imagine the disclaimer at the end of that TV commercial. It better not have a catchy tune. Other researchers found that engaging your mind in tasks that make your short term memory do a little heavy lifting, such as working a puzzle or reading a novel, can help.

Or maybe Mark Twain figured it out back in 1876, when he came up with the cure we all kind of suspect is the one true cure anyway. In Twain’s short story “A Literary Nightmare”, he describes an earworm in terms of a virus, and the only way to rid yourself of the virus is to “infect” another person with it.

So — next time you have an earworm, don’t suffer in silence. Tell a friend.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Hi. My name is Sean, and I'm an Ikeaholic

Hi, Sean.

Well. I guess it all started out the same as for anybody. You know. It’s just a little TV stand, no big deal, I can handle it. And this stuff really is versatile for small spaces, and very inexpensive. Pretty soon you’re putting up some of those simple metal shelf things for DVDs in the closet of the TV room. And they work great. So then you figure, why not put up some real shelves in the office? OK, so these are bigger and you have to take some measurements and you’re supposed to secure them to the wall in case of an earthquake, but it’s really not that complicated, lots of people do it, it’s not like that makes you a junkie or anything.

Then you wake up one morning and realize you just spent the entire weekend putting together a chest of drawers with eight frosted-glass fronted drawers on heavy duty roller slides that’s so heavy two people can barely move it and that’s when you realize that you are not in control of this thing, it is in control of you.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing

It’s been almost 35 years since Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope took American pop culture by storm in late May of 1977, and when it comes to nerdy Star Wars fan boys, I was right in there with the best of them. I’ve calculated that I saw the original film somewhere around 45 times. And I’m not talking about home video, either. I’m talking about buying a ticket and standing in line to see a movie in the days of one-theater, one-screen per city -- so if a movie was popular you had to get there early.

I wasn’t just a hard core fan, I was an early adopter. A reluctant early adopter, at first. A couple of weeks before Star Wars was released nationwide it had a premier run at the Coronet theater in San Francisco. This was supposedly George Lucas’ preferred venue, what with its huge 70 millimeter print friendly screen, massively amped sound system, and comfy high backed rocking seats up in the loge. I was visiting some friends in the city, and they asked if I’d heard of Star Wars. “You mean that Starsky and Hutch in rocket ships thing?” I replied. I’d seen the trailer, and wasn’t impressed. To my mind, space movies had to be slow moving, dull, and full of ponderous fake Zen elitism. Think 2001: A Space Odyssey or Silent Running. The Star Wars trailer just made me think that some yahoo in Hollywood had gotten the idea of putting car chases in space, and I wanted no part of it.

“Yeah, well…we’re going anyway. Again. Tonight. We’ll just see what you think later,” my hosts said. The “again” part should have tipped me off right there.

The mob scene awaiting us at 3575 Geary Street told me once and for all that something was definitely going on here. Star Wars at the Coronet in May of 1977 was THE hot ticket in San Francisco. It wasn’t a movie, it was an event, a large gathering that took over the sidewalk circling an entire city block and packed it shoulder to shoulder with cheerful people brimming with community and giddy anticipation. You had to wait in two lines, one to buy your ticket and one to get into the theater, and each line took several hours. Some people had support teams who would bring them coolers, tents, lawn chairs, air mattresses, portable TV’s and mini-bars, then pack it up and take it all away once the line started moving. Backgammon and chess games prevailed, and there were frequent outbreaks of improv-theater, dance, and drum circles.

Once inside, I couldn’t believe the atmosphere, the vibe of the place. It was exactly the slow-glowing rush you feel when you’re in the audience at a greatly anticipated rock concert, before the headliner, when everyone is settled and in a good mood. So, actually I could believe the atmosphere, I had just never experienced it in a movie theater before.

Then the movie started, along with something else I had never experienced before in a movie theater – non-stop robust enthusiastic audience participation. I mean people were up on their feet and cheering the 20th Century Fox logo, for crying out loud. Every time a Stormtrooper appeared on the screen, the boos and hisses were deafening enough, but when Darth Vader made his entrance I thought a fire had broken out in the theater, there was so much noise. There were entire blocks of dialogue that I never heard until many viewings later, because the audience at the Coronet was so loud I couldn’t hear anything coming from the sound system. And it was a LOUD sound system. Every rebel advance got cheers and applause, every alliance move got boos that you could feel in your spine, and even the slightest hint of a George Lucas ham-fisted attempt at comic relief got roars of laughter like we were watching Martin and Lewis in their prime. When it was over, the movie got a 5 minute standing ovation. I didn’t even know that was allowed in a movie house. The next night we went again, and again the night after that. It was the thing to do and the place to be in San Francisco at that time.

Star Wars got a fairly slow national release, actually, but once the word of mouth got going, it quickly became the big blockbuster of that summer, obviously. Once I got back home and Star Wars had arrived in Oregon, I was primed and ready to start converting the masses. I felt an evangelical need to drag as many people as I could into the Westgate Cinema in Beaverton for this semi-religious experience. Imagine my horror when everyone in the audience just sat there like they were watching a movie or something. No one cheered, no one booed, no one applauded and no one laughed. I wanted to jump up on my seat and shout “What the hell is WRONG with you people? Aren’t you SEEING this?” No standing ovation at the end, either. Oh, well.

The Star Wars franchise went on to become the cultural phenomenon we all know and love and occasionally ridicule. All of the movies, and George Lucas, and Lucasfilms, and Skywalker Ranch, ultimately got every bit of attention and every dollar they so richly deserved.

But I think its San Francisco premier was Star Wars’ finest hour.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

It'll Be OK

We've got a zombie movie marathon going. Tonight it was the 2008 "adaptation" of Day of the Dead. Don't even mention "remake". There was not a scrap left of George Romero's most excellent 1985 original film, except the title and some character names. This one swaps out the scientists 'n soldiers in a bunker with standard issue teens making out, then running like hell. And soldiers. Eventually they run and hide in a bunker. Screaming is involved.

I love the part, toward the end of these movies, when the characters who should be paralyzed with shock and catatonic with fear instead turn into a teen Bruce Willis or Laura Croft. Suddenly everybody's a wisecracking stunt driving sharpshooting ninja demolition expert. When the movie started they weren't even in the popular crowd.

This one entertains on two levels. The zombie effects are really good, no doubt about it. And the plot is so inane and the dialogue so lame, it quickly becomes an unintentional comedy. I love it when people who are being traumatized at every turn by something as impossible to grasp as a zombie apocalypse constantly reassure each other that everything is going to be OK. Says who? We counted five times, including my favorite "It'll be OK, I promise."

It wasn't.

Just Eat It

Thursday, April 14, 2011


I love how on the back of the Q-Tips box they have pictures of things that nobody ever uses Q-Tips for. Ever cleaned your computer keyboard with a Q-Tip? Me neither. Groomed your eyebrows with a Q-Tip? Nope. Jammed it in your ear and twisted it until your leg starts shaking like a puppy getting its belly scratched? Every damn day, my friend.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Sunday, November 1, 2009

That's Right, You're Not From Texas

Now, I’m not going to go off on some rant about how the size of the (pickup truck) (cowboy hat) is in inverse proportion to the size of the brain, or that Country is “the Special Olympics of Music”. I would never say that. I’m not trying to climb up on some kind of high-horse here.

And I understand the appeal, I really do. I was once an eleven year old boy myself, after all.

My question is, why only Cowboys? If it's OK for a fully grown adult to walk around dressed in what is essentially a costume, why aren't there more choices? What about Pirates? What about Astronauts?

The hats. Let's talk about hats. In terms of simple, practical funtionality in modern life, how would wearing this hat...
Be any different than wearing this hat?
While we're at it, how about this hat? You could plug your iPhone right into this bad boy...
Roger that, Houston. Here's another run at the same question. Why is it OK to approximate this look... But this look would be going too far?

These are my questions. I'm not really expecting answers.


Saturday, August 8, 2009

Oh, And By The Way, Dude...

"Tea Party Member" is not the preferred nomenclature.

"Moran-American," please.