Tag: Rifftrax

The Return of MST3K -- Part 4: The Old Cast

A lot of the discussion about the MST3K reboot has centered around fans who want to see the old cast come back. Joel has said he'd like to bring them on as writers, and to appear in cameos. But the thing is, most of them don't seem to want to do it.

Here's what Mike, Bill, and Kevin said when Chris Ford asked them about it in a Diffuser interview last year:

Speaking to Wired, Joel Hodgson mentioned that he’d consider revisiting ‘MST3K.’ Is that something you’d consider?

Nelson: I probably wouldn’t. It’s just sort of a personal preference. I mean, I already have RiffTrax going, and that’s taken my last seven years, and I’m fond of how that’s working. So there’s just no need, I feel. And I wonder about revisiting something like that. But who’s to say that it couldn’t be. You know, it survived a lot of changes, so it could start again. Who knows?

Corbett: It would depend completely on the arrangement. I loved doing ‘MST3K,’ was honored to be part of such a great show and had a wonderful time during my years there. But the owners of the show cut me off as soon as it was over. Haven’t made a cent from it since I filmed my last show in 1999, and all attempts to change that arrangement have been rejected. A few attempts to revive ‘MST3K’ have already failed because of such issues. So I’d be skeptical.

Murphy: You know, I’m really not interested. As I said, where I am right now, I’m really loving what I do. We’re having great fun with RiffTrax, and to go back and do that again would … it has this ‘Return to Gilligan’s Island’ feel to it. You know, they did that again, and it just looked sad and lame because it was the same characters, except they’d gotten old. Or they’d substituted in new characters, and it didn’t really feel right. I think they had a fake Ginger in there. I don’t remember, but it just never felt right. It never felt like the real thing. We made that real thing for 10 years, so I’m really not interested in going back. It’s like going back down to your basement from when you were a kid when you’re an adult and making the same kind of car models that you did when you were a kid. It just doesn’t ring true to me anymore. What I’m doing right now with Mike and Bill at RiffTrax is a blast. We’re having a great time doing it, and people seem to like it. So I’m happy to do that. And if Joel wants to do the show again, God bless him, and I hope he has a lot of fun doing it. But I think I’m happy where I am.

Since the announcement of the Kickstarter, Mike and Bill have both reiterated their non-involvement, as have Mary Jo and Josh. Trace has ruled out even showing up in a cameo.

Joel addressed this in a Kickstarter update:

What about everyone else? Are the other MST3K writers and actors coming back?

This is the hardest question to answer, because there are several moving pieces involved.

Right now, I don't know who will agree to come back and work on the next season of MST3K… but if the Kickstarter is successful, everyone will be invited to take part.

Until yesterday, I wasn't even sure this whole Kickstarter idea would work. I've reached out and spoken with some of the old cast and writers, but until I knew how much money we'd have to work with – and when we'd start writing and shooting – there was just no way to make the specific offers that I hope will bring many of them back.

Plus – as many of you know – so far, the old cast haven't been compensated as well as they (or I) might have liked. I wish I could go back and fix that, but if I'm going to ask them to participate in the next season, I want to be certain we can pay them what they deserve this time. As soon as we pass our initial goal of $2,000,000, I'm hoping to start making the invitations official, and I hope some of them will be able to join us before we start working in January.

And guys, as much as I'd like to see the old cast and crew back, given their responses so far I really don't think it's going to happen.

I think it's great that Joel is talking about royalties. I believe that Shout! Factory should pay royalties to all the former writers and cast members, not as leverage to get them to participate in the new show but because it's the right thing to do.

But while royalties have certainly been a sticking point for some of the former cast members, I don't think they're the only reason people are holding out on participating in the new show. Look at what Mike and Kevin said in the Diffuser interview I quoted above -- it doesn't sound to me like they're holding out for a better deal; it sounds like they just plain don't want to do it. And Josh has said he's working on two documentary films, so it sure sounds like his non-participation is because he's too busy with other projects.

Aside from what they've said in public, I can't speak for individual cast members' motivations. Mary Jo has complained about the lack of profit participation in the past, while Frank has said it doesn't bother him. I've seen a lot of fans assume that the reason the old cast members aren't interested in being part of the new show is because of their lack of profit participation, and that if Joel gives them a good offer they'll be onboard after all -- but I think that's fans' wishful thinking. I've seen no hard evidence to back it up; the only thing I've seen that even looks like a "maybe" is Bill's "It would depend completely on the arrangement" in that Diffuser interview.

There are other reasons why people might not want to participate -- Mike and Kevin have suggested that they're just plain not interested. As for other former cast members, the geographical issues that brought an end to Cinematic Titanic are still present; the simple fact is that many of them don't live in the place where the new show is going to be produced. Even if, say, Mary Jo gets a profit-sharing offer that she's agreeable to, she still lives in Austin.

In short, I think that while fans are absolutely right to call for a new royalty agreement for every former cast member and writer on MST3K, they should also tamp down their expectations that this will lead to the old team returning for the new show. I just don't think that's gonna happen. Look forward to the new show for what it is, not for what you wish it was going to be.


I think that's it for now on the subject of the upcoming MST3K relaunch. The Kickstarter page, one more time, is bringbackmst3k.com; I haven't pledged yet but I plan on throwing in at the $35 level. That'll get you the first episode of the new series, plus three classic episodes as DRM-free downloads. (The three classic episodes are not currently listed in the Rewards section, but Joel said in an update that they're being added to the $35 tier as a bonus. He has not yet specified which three episodes they will be.)

And on the subject of compensation for the cast and crew of the old series: Rifftrax has just started selling MST3K episodes; as of this writing they have Mitchell, Pumaman, Final Sacrifice, and Future War, each priced at $10, with another episode going up for sale every Monday. And here's the most important part:

A significant share of the profits of all MST episodes sold on RiffTrax will be paid out directly to ALL the principal cast members of MST – Mike, Joel, Kevin, Bill, Mary Jo, Trace, Frank, Josh and Bridget. We feel it’s important that the original artists benefit directly from their awesome work. So if you want to support them, buy your MST here on RiffTrax!

There's no mention of Paul Chaplin; I wonder if that's an oversight, or if they don't know how to get in touch with Paul these days or what. I hope he gets a cut too.

At any rate, much as I love the DVD sets, I have to recommend from here on in that if you want to buy old episodes of MST3K, you buy them through Rifftrax, because right now that's the only way the cast and writers get a percentage of your purchase dollars. Again, I'm hoping that changes and the series' new owners at Shout! reach a deal to give them a piece of all purchases and streaming revenue. But for now, they only get paid if you buy them through Rifftrax. So do that.

The Return of MST3K -- Part 3: Behind the Camera

The main thing that led me to make this series of blog posts was something Mothra said over on Brontoforumus:

Haven't had time to mention how unbelievably delighted I am that MST3K is coming back under Joel. I adore Mike, but if Rifftrax has shown me anything, it's that a good amount of his MST3K-era comedy was touched up by the writers.

There's certain Rifftrax that are wonderful return-to-form gems, like Jack the Giant Killer or Mike/Fred Willard's Missile to the Moon, but nothing's quite captured the magic for me like the Cinematic Titanic ep Joel, Pearl, Frank and Trace did on The Alien Factor. So, I've got a lot more faith in Joel as a showrunner than Mike.

The Writers

Mothra's got something here: yes, Rifftrax (usually) features Mike, Kevin, and Bill, but that doesn't mean it's the same writing team as the Sci-Fi Channel years. The Sci-Fi era wasn't just Mike, Kevin, and Bill; it was also Mary Jo and Bridget (who have some Rifftrax shorts of their own), and Paul Chaplin too. Before the Sci-Fi era, Trace and Frank were in the writers' room too, and in the early days so were Josh and Jim.

There was always continuity. When Joel left the show, the rest of the writing team stayed constant, with head writer Mike Nelson taking over as host. (It does bear noting that, while Mike usually got the Head Writer credit, there was little that set the Head Writer apart from the rest of the writers; the show was collaborative to the core.) When Frank left the show, the rest of the writing team remained constant. And when Trace left, Bill joined, and the show moved to the Sci-Fi Channel, the rest of the writing team remained constant. As much as the show changed onscreen, very little changed in the writers' room.

I think that's a big part of why, even with all the casting changes over the years, MST3K still felt like it was the same show at heart.

And, as I've said, that's a big challenge the new show faces: not just that it's got a new team onscreen, but that it doesn't have any of the old writers onboard except for Joel. Joel has said he'd like to invite the old writers back to contribute, but that doesn't look very likely; I plan on getting into that in the next post.

The Movies

But aside from the writing team, I think there's something else that makes Rifftrax fundamentally different from MST3K. And it's precisely the thing that makes Rifftrax popular and profitable.

And that's that Rifftrax makes fun of Hollywood blockbusters.

As of this writing, here's what the top 10 most popular Rifftrax commentary tracks are, as listed on the rifftrax.com homepage:

  1. Twilight
  2. Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring
  3. Twilight: New Moon
  4. Jurassic Park
  5. Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone
  6. The Matrix
  7. 300
  8. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
  9. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
  10. The Dark Knight

And here's the thing: I've seen those movies. Well, more precisely, I've seen seven out of the ten, and I've heard of the other three.

And hey, that's okay! Hollywood blockbusters can be just as cheesy and bad as the B-movies MST3K used to do. Or at least as much fun to make fun of. (I mean, I don't think anybody's actually saying Lord of the Rings is equivalent to Manos: Hands of Fate.)

There's a definite draw to that. I can say, with some confidence, that if I ever watch Twilight or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014), I'll watch the Rifftrax version. It's added a whole new category to my viewing habits: "I'll see it in the theater," "I'll wait until I can watch it at home," and now "I'll wait for the Rifftrax."

But I think a big part of the joy of MST3K was the sheer obscurity of its selection. While it had a few relatively well-known titles over its run (Godzilla vs. Megalon, Gorgo, Gumby, Hamlet), tuning in to the show usually meant seeing something I'd never seen before.

The Info Club recently had a discussion thread titled What Movies Should the Reboot Riff? From my perspective, that's an unanswerable question. The reboot should riff movies I have never heard of.

Rifftrax taps into the delight of making fun of movies we've already seen. MST3K was, usually, more about the delight of discovery. I know what Twilight is, but if not for MST3K I would never have heard of The Magic Voyage of Sinbad.

Joel gets that, too; he noted in his recent Reddit AMA:

We love The Room, but I think MST3K does best when we steer away from movies that are famous for being bad. That's why we never did "Plan 9 From Outer Space" during our original run.

To me, watching Mystery Science Theater is kind of like going to a haunted house on the edge of town with your funny friends. It works best if you don't know what's in there.

And I've spent a lot of time talking about Rifftrax's emphasis on familiar blockbusters -- but that's not entirely fair, because Rifftrax actually does a lot of those more obscure films. Especially the shorts. Many of which are available on Hulu (inconveniently and counterintuitively split up into Rifftrax Shorts and Rifftrax Features, even though some of the "features" are just collections of shorts).

Magical Disappearing Money does a perfect job of evoking that old "Where did they find this?" vibe of MST3K. So do the Christmas shorts and the baffling Norman Krasner series.

As far as feature films, I think Kingdom of the Spiders is indistinguishable from vintage MST3K. And, while House on Haunted Hill is not exactly an obscure film, it's the kind of movie the old MST3K would have done too.

I suppose there is a downside to MST3K's grab bag approach: and that's that sometimes, those old movies are just boring and drab. I must admit that, over the past couple of years, there have been several times I've pulled up an old episode and fallen asleep in the middle of it. (Lost Continent, looking in your direction.) Some of those movies are just excruciating.

Then again, you can say the same for the blockbusters Rifftrax does. I watched Attack of the Clones and, even with the riffs, it was just a long, boring, painful slog. By the end I realized something I hadn't really thought about before: MST3K really did us a favor by trimming every movie down to under 90 minutes.

Cinematic Titanic

If you accept the premise that MST3K wasn't about the puppets and the satellite and the host and the Mads and the plot, that it was really about the writers and the movies they picked, then I think that leads to a clear conclusion: the closest thing we'll ever get to a revival of MST3K as it was has already been and gone, and it was Cinematic Titanic.

(Leastways, unless Rifftrax starts doing riffs of old B-movies with Mike, Kevin, Bill, Bridget, and Mary Jo. In fact, Rifftrax should totally do that; somebody should start a Twitter campaign.)

CT reunited five of the original writers and stars of MST3K to make fun of similar obscure, cheesy movies. It ran for six years, released a dozen movie riffs, and, most excitingly, went on tour.

(A personal aside: my first date-as-a-couple with the woman who would become my wife was the Mesa showing of East Meets Watts. It was a great show, a delight to meet the cast, and I treasure my autographed copy of Doomsday Machine.)

But CT was unsustainable, simply for logistical reasons. As they noted in the E-Mail announcing that it was winding down:

We feel that with any project there is a time to move on and as 5 people living in 5 different cities with different lives and projects, it has become increasingly difficult to coordinate our schedules and give Cinematic Titanic the attention it requires to keep growing as a creative enterprise and a business.

That, in and of itself, is a reason you can't go home again: because all those writers who made the show what it was just plain don't live in the same place anymore. And I think that's a big reason why fans who are holding out hope that the old team will get back together are just setting themselves up for disappointment -- but I'll get into that in my next post.

By the way, CT is still available on Hulu for the time being. You should watch those episodes while you still can.

The Propaganda Schlock of Starship Troopers

The last time I saw Starship Troopers was on VHS. I'd have been about 15, so you can forgive me if what I remember most about it is Denise Richards's titties. Which should give you some idea of just how well I remember it, because Denise Richards's titties are not actually in the movie. (Denise Richards's titties are actually important to the theme of the movie. I will be getting back to them in a moment.)

I also remember the film getting pretty mixed reviews on release -- it's quite clearly a big dumb action movie, with extra big and extra dumb, but there was also a vocal contingent of critics lauding it as a brilliantly subersive piece of satire of wartime propaganda. In the years since, it's become a cult hit among people who enjoy it for both -- because it manages a pretty interesting tightrope walk of playing itself totally straight while also being a wicked piece of satire.

More specifically, Starship Troopers the movie is a parody of Starship Troopers the book.

Well, maybe "parody" is a little strong -- again, it plays itself far too seriously to be considered a comedy per se. But it's certainly a movie about crazy, over-the-top wartime propaganda -- and the novel is crazy wartime propaganda (or, almost -- it was too late for Korea and too early for Vietnam).

Heinlein's an interesting dude, and Starship Troopers fills an interesting place in his oeuvre. For a guy who's typically identified as a libertarian, he sure has some weird ideas about only allowing soldiers to vote, and how public floggings are the best tool for disciplining them. With an extra bonus chapter where he really goes off the rails with that public flogging thing and rants about how anyone who doesn't spank their children is stupid.

Starship Troopers the movie gets how ridiculous the book is, ratchets its ridiculousness up to 11, and plays it completely straight.

And while the homages to WWII-vintage propaganda films are great, what it gets most about the nature of wartime propaganda is the dehumanization. Not only Heinlein's choice to very literally dehumanize the enemy by making them giant bugs, but the heroes are dehumanized, too -- and here's where I get back to Denise Richards's titties.

Because the coed shower scene is disquieting.

It goes beyond the obvious ideas of discipline and respect in a coed military and straight on into having a bunch of men fail to even notice Denise Richards as female. And when the Main Guy finally does go for a perfunctory roll in the hay with her, it's all just rote, mechanical "this is happening because it's a movie and the leads have to hook up" stuff.

All in all? Well, to make another Spinal Tap reference, there's a fine line between stupid and clever, and Starship Troopers walks it. It's a winking, biting homage to the source material, that looks and feels like it's a dumb movie made by people who just don't get it. (And it could be both -- there are a whole lot of people involved in making a movie.)

Its cult status is well-deserved -- and even if its comedy is intentional, it seems unintentional enough that it's perfect fodder for Rifftrax.

Which is what I'm headed to see right now, as I write this, though by the time you read it I should already be home. Maybe I'll share more tomorrow!

Such as Seals

Welp, another Halloween, another Rifftrax Live. This year: Birdemic.

It is increasingly clear to me that House on Haunted Hill is far and away the best movie Rifftrax Live has ever done.

I mean, House on Haunted Hill has Vincent Price and a handful of other colorful characters, is competently written and directed, and is unironically fun to watch all by itself.

Birdemic...Birdemic doesn't even have the homemade charm of Manos.

I mean, it is homemade. It's homemade as hell. But it's homemade in an era when any-damn-body can make a homemade movie.

Manos was shot on a shoestring budget with primitive equipment in 1966. Birdemic was shot on a shoestring budget with primitive equipment in 2010. Manos took effort to make; it's surprising the damn thing was finished at all.

Referring to Birdemic as "finished", on the other hand, makes for liberal damn use of the word "finished".

Not only does it feature CG that actually looks substantially worse than if they had just used stock footage or rubber birds (and presumably cost more, too, unless it actually came with the video software they used to make the movie -- which, to be fair, is a distinct possibility), it is the most amateurishly, sloppily edited film I have ever seen, and that's coming from a guy wearing a Crow T. Robot T-shirt who has namedropped three separate Rifftrax Live events so far in this post. I have seen some bad movies, is what I am getting at.

Manos -- well, the entire damn film is dubbed because it was shot without sound. And yet, the inevitable sync issues aside, the audio editing is solid. The audio of Birdemic cuts out, constantly -- just straight-the-fuck-up cuts out. No sound. And that's without getting into the multiple scenes where you can't hear what actors are saying because they're shooting on a windy beach, the multiple times actors clearly flub their lines and they don't reshoot, and the bits where going from one character to another comes with a very long pause in the dialog and a substantial difference in background noise.

Of all the bad movies I've ever seen, this may be the only one where I wasn't struck most by the quality of the acting, the writing, the shooting, or even the effects (and trust me, all of them are pretty terrible), but the editing. It is shoddy, shoddy work. This movie makes Sci-Fi Originals look like...well, at least as good as House on Haunted Hill.

Birdemic 2 is slated for a 2013 release.

Shooting Yourself in the Hoof

You know how a single ill-considered comment can overshadow absolutely everything else you say in an interview?

Well, if you've read the news today you can probably think of a pretty good case-in-point, but that's not what I'm here to talk about today.

Last Thursday I went to a Rifftrax presentation of Manos: The Hands of Fate, which ended with a fan video entitled Take It Easy, Torgo Style which I duly posted here.

The fellow in the video is Rupert Talbot Munch, who runs the site torgolives.com and who is working on an honest-to-God sequel to Manos, featuring as much of the original cast, and their families, as he could find.

The other night I poked around his (turn-of-the-century throwback red-on-black Flash) site and, after a series of dead-end "Coming Soon" links that directed me back to the main page with its autoplay music, eventually ran across a link to a Fangoria interview with Munch.

Now, Munch seems like a neat dude. Clearly he's an über fan; he's got a good costume, a sense of humor, and has shown legitimate dedication in getting the band back together and getting this sequel made. Plus a documentary. Plus...well, this is where everything goes wrong.

And if that wasn't enough, Munch and co. have been busy spiffing up MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE for high definition. "We, the people who represent the original cast and all things MANOS, have been working on the HD restoration for over 14 months," he says. "Recently, some kid who found a print of MANOS at an auction is trying to cash in with the same idea. Myself and Joe Warren do not acknowledge, recognize, or approve of what this kid is doing. In the end, we just ask that the fans hold onto their money and wait for our version. It will include tons of never-before-seen footage, plenty of extras, cast and crew commentary, interviews...plus surprises. And the proceeds will go back to Joe Warren and the MANOS faithful."

Now -- possibly due to how legitimately difficult it is to find the link to this article from the torgolives site -- there are only 5 comments at the bottom of the article. And four of them are eight months old and the fifth is from me. But I do think it's telling that four of them (including mine) are negative responses to that one little paragraph out of the entire article.

Let's back up a bit. The "kid" he's talking about is Ben Solovey, and the restoration project he's talking about is Manos in HD.

Solovey, as Munch notes, got his hands on a work print of Manos and decided to restore it; he wrote about the experience.

Here is a truly independent horror film from the 60′s, a contemporary of 1962′s Carnival of Souls and 1968′s Night of the Living Dead. The main difference being, of course, that those movies came from career filmmakers Herk Harvey and George Romero, who had already made commercials and industrials and knew how a set should be run. Hal Warren, director of Manos, did not have that sort of experience and the deck was truly stacked against him.

[...]

If you yourself have ever been involved in an independent movie, Manos becomes somewhat poignant as you see evidence of the problems that have arisen and have been worked around or willfully ignored. [...] It's all very relatable stuff. And because this is a movie where the artifices of filmmaking are constantly crumbling and being rebuilt, a little shakier every time, it holds a certain fascination to film buffs that places it above worse and more boring films (which there are no shortage of, then or now). Simply put, it's memorable.

[...]

So rather than have Manos fade away as a footnote with only a cruddy video transfer to remember it by, I've resolved to make it a personal project to restore it.

[...]

In addition to making a digital restoration of Manos of sufficient quality to produce a new print or digital projection files, I will be creating a limited run Blu-ray and making the restoration available for repertory screenings. While it remains to be seen if this film is for anything but a niche market, I also feel that if I don't restore it no one else will.

Film restoration is something that too often falls by the wayside in troubled economic times. Though it's doubtful I will change anyone's minds about Manos, I would like to send a message that every film, regardless of the place it holds in movie history, deserves a fair shot to be maintained and presented in the best way possible.

Now does that sound to you like "some kid trying to cash in"?

Because, okay, first of all? If a guy were looking for a get-rich-quick scheme, and he told you he had a plan to release Manos: The Hands of Fate on Blu-Ray...well, look, that's a pretty fucking terrible get-rich-quick scheme, is what I'm getting at.

Yes, Solovey wound up exceeding his Kickstarter goal by some $38,000 -- but he had no idea that was going to happen when he bought the print. Even with the extra money, it's not clear if he's turned a profit or simply put that money back into making the project better than he had originally planned.

Point is, this sounds a lot more like a labor of love, born of a genuine desire to preserve a historical curiosity. And Munch kinda just pissed all over it.

And here's the thing: Manos has a pretty fucking small fanbase. If "fanbase" is even the right word. There is a whole hell of a lot of overlap between Munch's audience and Solovey's audience.

And I can relate to Munch realizing this and being upset -- to him, Solovey is unwelcome, unexpected competition, and threatens not just his bottom line but the exposure of a project that, to him, Joe Warren, and the rest, is also a labor of love.

But dude, one fan dumping on another fan? Very bad form. And incredibly off-putting to the fellow fans who you are trying to convince to buy your product instead of his.

So Mr. Munch, if you're reading this? (Not implausible, really; I'm often surprised by what kind of searches pull this site up.) Here's how I think you should handle it:

"We are aware of Ben Solovey's unofficial restoration project; he is not affiliated with myself, Joe Warren, or the Search for Valley Lodge team. We wish him the best but believe our restored version will be the superior product, as we have access to a higher-quality print, a larger restoration team, and many of the original cast and crew members."

Something like that. Make your case, explain why you think people should buy your version instead of his -- by all means! Nothing wrong with some friendly competition! But don't insult the guy. Don't mock his skill or his motives.

And I also get that Joe Warren may have a sense of ownership over his father's film. That's totally understandable! But the thing is, he doesn't own Manos. Manos belongs to all of us -- and that's not in some fanboy "Star Wars belongs to all of us" sense; Manos is public domain and legally belongs to all of us.

Somebody besides you and Warren wants to restore Manos? He has every right to. Somebody else wants to adapt it as a Zelda 2-style iPhone game? Totally acceptable too. And -- not to put too fine a point on it -- some guys from Minnesota want to put it on a show where a couple of puppets make sarcastic remarks about it? Yeah, that's legal too.

And so while, again, it's totally understandable if Warren has a sense of ownership toward the property, and is miffed when somebody else exploits its public-domain status without his family's blessing -- well, if somebody hadn't exploited its public-domain status without his family's blessing, we wouldn't be having this conversation. If Manos hadn't entered into the public domain and wound up in a box of movies that eventually made their way to Frank Conniff and MST3K, there would be no Manos sequel, no Manos restoration, no Manos documentary -- because nobody would know what the fuck Manos was.

All of this may seem a little harsh, but really, if you ever read this, Mr. Munch, I'd like to repeat that you seem like a cool guy, I love what you're doing, and I look forward to seeing your finished work. I just think you've made a pretty unfortunate misstep on this -- unfortunate enough that it overshadows all the cool stuff you talk about in that interview -- and in the future I'd advise a couple of things:

  1. Remember that Ben Solovey is a fan just like you and me, and just like you and unlike me he has put a whole lot of blood, sweat, and tears into making something lasting out of this silly-ass movie.
  2. And dude, seriously, do something about that website.

A Frank Frazetta of Frank Zappa

Image: Portrait of the Master
Image courtesy of manosinhd.com

Caught the Rifftrax of Manos: The Hands of Fate this evening. It was great fun; all new riffs, plus two fun new shorts.

Also, it closed with this:

Back to the subject of Zappa: Zappa, because he appreciated things that were awesome, was an MST3K fan. Purportedly he once described the experience of watching the show and suddenly hearing a reference to himself as "unsettling". (Unfortunately I can't seem to find the interview where I originally read that at the moment...)

Form and Function

A few weeks back, I rented Hellboy: Sword of Storms. It was a neat little movie, and adhered pretty well to the the comics' folklore vibe. The highlight was a sequence adapting Heads.

And it occurred to me, you know, the best Hellboy stories are 8-page adaptations of folk tales, in which Hellboy himself plays only a minor role. Similarly, wouldn't it be great to see some 10-minute Hellboy animated shorts?

It's a real pity that both 8-page comic stories and 10-minute animated shorts have fallen by the wayside. DC, at least, seems interested in bringing them back: they've been doing 8-page "secondary features" in some of their popular titles, and next week's animated Crisis on Two Earths will also include a 10-minute Spectre short. Which is the perfect length for a Spectre story.

And of course all this has me thinking, Why 22 pages? Why 22 minutes? Why 6-issue arcs? Stories should take all the time they need; no more and no less.

Which isn't to say that rigid parameters can't foster creativity. The BioWare Writing Contest I participated in a few years back had some very tight guidelines -- only so many characters, only one location allowed, and that location has to be a pretty tiny square. But in a way, that stimulated creativity. Sometimes, you need parameters.

Douglas Adams is a favorite example. His best Hitchhiker's Guide work was written for radio, with a rigid three-act structure and length requirement for each episode, with the requisite pacing those things entail. Those episodes were adapted as the first two books of the Trilogy. The third, Life, the Universe and Everything, was adapted from an unused Doctor Who pitch, so it was conceived around a predefined structure as well. The last two books, where Adams took a more freestyle approach, tended to flail a bit; they were adapted by Dirk Maggs for radio a few years back and, for my money, worked much better with his judicious editing.

(The awesomeness of The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul does not fit my narrative as, to the best of my knowledge, it wasn't adapted from a radio or TV format. The first Dirk book was, though.)

There are plenty of writers who could benefit from tighter restrictions. Will Eisner put as much plot in a 7-page Spirit story as Brian Michael Bendis does in a 132-page Avengers arc. Sometimes I like longer, decompressed stories that spend more time on the scenery and the atmosphere. But there should still be a place for those weird little Hellboy stories.

I recently read Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall. Its pacing and form were noticeably different from the typical Fables books, because of its format: it was written as a graphic novel, rather than simply collecting 6 issues of a serial comic.

(A tangent on nomenclature: I absolutely despise the term graphic novel as it is commonly used, ie as a synonym for "comic book" used by people who think they're too cool for Spider-Man. However, it is a useful term when used in its original sense, ie a comic written in long form instead of being serialized in stapled, 22-page, monthly increments.)

Of course, 1001 Nights isn't a graphic novel so much as a graphic short story collection -- far from being a longform Fables story that takes its time, it's a series of stories which are shorter and tighter than a typical issue of Fables. So actually, it's more along the lines of those 8-page Hellboy stories I've been yammering about.

More in the "paced like a novel" vein would be DC's upcoming Earth One books. While it is obvious that these stories need to be published, as nobody has retold Superman's origin story in over three weeks, it's going to be interesting seeing them told with a little more breathing room, without the overwhelming, breakneck pace of Superman: Secret Origin.

I kid, but you know, the nice thing about constantly retelling Superman's origin is that now the Siegel heirs get a cut.

At any rate, once the rehashes are done, it would be quite nice to see DC tell some new stories with these characters in this format -- stories as long or as short as they need to be, at whatever pace suits the piece, without having to speed toward a cliffhanger every 22 pages.

V for Vendetta is actually a decent example -- yes, it was serialized, but its chapters don't fit into a consistent, forced length or pace. And while some of the chapters were climactic action sequences of V stabbing people a lot, others had him simply soliloquizing about anarchy.

(And funnily enough, the guy writing Earth One: Superman is J Michael Straczynski, the same guy whose The Brave and the Bold is currently the best 22-page superhero book that actually tells 22-page stories -- but whose run on Thor was decompressed, organic, and even meandering. Which is not a criticism, as I loved his Thor; it's just a statement that the man can write very well in different formats.)

If the world is a just and beautiful place, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is a template for the future of television. It manages the rather neat trick of adhering to a rigid structure that also just happens to be noticeably different from the traditional structure of a TV show: three 13-minute acts, each itself featuring a beginning, a middle, an end, and four songs. It's similar to, but distinct from, the standard three-act structure and 44-minute length of an American TV show.

Even The Daily Show -- God, not a week goes by anymore but one of the interviews goes over. Which is swell, but the way this is handled online is completely boneheaded: if you go to Full Episodes on thedailyshow.com, or view an episode on Hulu, you get the broadcast episode, which shows the truncated interview, followed by an admonition to check out the website, followed by Moment of Zen and credits. I can see this as an unfortunate requirement for broadcast, but guys, Internet videos can be more than 22 minutes. Why in the hell do I have to click through to a different page on the site (or, if I'm watching from Hulu, a different site entirely) to watch the rest of the interview? It's viewer-unfriendly, especially if you use your PC as a media center hooked up to your TV. Cut the full interview into the damn episode. Add an extra commercial in the middle if you have to. (It would be swell if you didn't show the exact same commercial at every single break, but that's a separate presumably-silly-and-useless "rant".)

At least they've wised up a little and started showing just the first part of the interview in the broadcast episode and then showing the rest in the "Full Interview" link on the website. It used to be they'd show a chopped-up version of the interview in the broadcast episode, meaning that instead of the Full Interview link picking up where the show left off, it had five minutes' worth of the same content spread out across it.

You know, it seems like the youngest of the major media is also the one with the least rigid requirements for length. Video games can be anything from a three-second WarioWare microgame to a persistent world that players sink years into. People may grouse a bit that Portal or Arkham Asylum is too short, but it doesn't prevent them from being highly-regarded, bestselling titles.

Which is, of course, not to say that longer games don't have to function under tight restrictions. They're often very high-budget affairs with a hell of a lot of people involved (as Dragon Age tries to forcibly remind you with its absurdly slow credits crawl) -- programmers, writers, artists, and so on. The Mass Effect games have voiced player dialogue and let the player choose Shepard's sex, which means every single one of those lines has to be recorded twice. (And frankly that doesn't seem like enough variety -- I have a Samuel L Jackson lookalike who says "aboot".)

And those restrictions are probably why every dialogue choice in ME is broken up into a predictable paragon/neutral/renegade choice. That kind of very-unsubtle delineation is exactly the sort of thing western RPG developers have been trying to get out of (as in both The Witcher and Dragon Age), but in the context of ME it works quite well -- I've even tried my hand at writing in a three-choices, no-hubs dialogue style and it works very organically. (For the ludicrous amount of dialogue in Dragon Age, there were places I could see the seams showing -- spots where I'd have three dialogue options and, as soon as the NPC spoke, knew that all three led to that exact same response. But that's probably a lot harder to notice if you've never written a dialogue tree yourself, and it's certainly an artform in and of itself, giving a response that works equally well for three different questions. I can only think of one occasion in the dozens of hours of Dragon Age where a writer screwed up and had a question hub that began with an NPC answering a specific question in a way that didn't make any sense if the dialogue looped back.)

And of course it's the medium that allows this kind of longform storytelling. Game length is no longer restricted by the arcade environment. Which is, of course, not to say that short-play games don't get made anymore -- Street Fighter 4 is a high-budget, "hardcore gamer" example, but Nintendo's entire business is built around games a casual player can pick up and play for ten minutes at a time. Ditto every Flash game on the Web, and most games on the iPhone.

And, indeed, Internet delivery is going to liberate other media from their restrictions. Eventually, we're bound to see shows like The Daily Show just run more than 22 minutes if they have to, and, God willing, we'll see more offbeat stuff like Dr. Horrible. The Web's given us comics as diverse as Achewood, Dr. McNinja, Templar, Arizona, and FreakAngels, and cartoons from Adventure Time to Homestar Runner to Charlie the Unicorn to Gotham Girls to the complete version of Turtles Forever. It's also allowed MST3K to continue in the form of the downloadable RiffTrax and the direct-order Cinematic Titanic.

Variety is the spice of life. I love comics -- and yeah, that includes mainstream superhero comics. But I'm sick of all of them having the exact same structure. Fortunately, I think we're on the edge of an age of experimentation.

Or another damn market crash. It is an odd-numbered decade now, after all.