RiffTrax, Cinematic Titanic, and Me

For many years I was a fan of the cult classic TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000. When I say “fan”, I mean this in the most derisive and dismissive way possible: I’m an utter fanboy. My love for the show was, and is, beyond any sort of rational analysis. So as I prepare to discuss two projects that the shows’ various members have launched, Cinematic Titanic and RiffTrax, the reader would do well to remember that the projects’ creators would probably have to drive to my house and literally pee in my cornflakes before I could bring myself to say anything bad about their work.

A Brief History of MST3k

The MST3k scenario was simple. A young man and his two robots sat and watched a really, really bad movie. You, the viewer, watched them watching the movie – their silhouettes were visible onscreen as the movie played. Throughout the film, the man and his robots constantly chattered at the screen, humourously riffing on what they (and you) saw. Here’s a brief sample to give you an idea:

Writers and actors came and went over the show’s history, but there were basically two “faces” of MST3k: Joel Hodgson and Mike Nelson. Joel was with the show when it aired on Comedy Central, and Mike spent most of his years on the show while it was hosted on the Sci-Fi Network. Each of them had a unique style, and both of them, I thought, were funny. Mike was hobbled a little bit because when the show transitioned to the Sci-Fi Channel, the network required that all the movies they mocked be science fiction movies. This was a huge mistake.

Part of what kept the show (and its jokes) fresh was that you never really knew what you’d get. One week, sure, it might be a potboiler about spacemen invading the Earth. Or you might end up with a biker movie, or a late ‘60’s Beach Blanket Bingo extravaganza. When the genre of the targeted films was limited tightly to sci-fi, it seemed to me that a lot of the joy went out of the series.

Two New Projects

In the past several years, both Mike and Joel have started interesting new projects based on the same premise, each working with various folks from Mystery Science Theater’s original run.

Joel Hodgson has started Cinematic Titanic. In many ways, Cinematic Titanic is the more conservative of the two projects. It has a great structural similarity to MST3k. Joel and his collaborators – Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein Mary Jo Pehl, and Frank Conniff, among others – obtain the rights to a movie and then make fun of it, projecting sillhouettes of themselves onto the screen as they do so. The silhouettes allow for visual as well as spoken-word jokes. The finished product is then sold as a DVD (and, soon, as a digital download) for $15.94. The first project released by Cinematic Titanic was a terrible 1972 horror film called The Oozing Skull.

Mike Nelson’s project, called RiffTrax, is to my mind a bolder experiment. Mike and his collaborators (there are several, notably Kevin Murphy, Bill Corbett, and Weird Al Yankovic) take a movie that they don’t have the rights to, but that you probably already own, make fun of it, and sell you an mp3 audio recording of their riff. The customer watches their copy of Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings, or The Matrix (or whatever the riffed movie is) on DVD, and hits “play” on their MP3 player at the right moment. When all goes well, the riffs sync perfectly with the movie, and hilarity ensues. Prices for RiffTrax vary, but most are $2.99, or about the price of a typical movie rental.

A Rising Tide Lifts All Ships

Both projects have their fans and partisans, and if you visit the forums on each company’s website you’ll no doubt find any number of forum denizens who think that their favorite project is the best thing ever, and the other one is just a bunch of lousy poseurs.

My own observation is that I’ve known about RiffTrax for nearly a year now but never really found the time to investigate it. The release of Cinematic Titanic not only inspired me to buy their DVD, but also inspired me to pick up a RiffTrax title as well. I suspect I’m not the only person who did this. There’s clearly enough room in the world for both projects, and I think the existence of each helps the other more than it hurts.

When discussing these projects, I’m not going to focus on individual jokes. You can take it as read that I think both projects are uproariously funny, the product of a number of talented writers, actors, and comedians. Rather, I’d like to focus on more fundamental, structural aspects.

Cuts Like a Knife

I sat down with the DVD of The Oozing Skull this weekend. Cinematic Titanic’s strengths, as a project, are illustrated by this: it’s a DVD. I put it in my DVD player and pressed “play”, and it worked.

It is truly a terrible movie, full of brutally gory surgery sequences early on, which nearly kept me from watching it at all. The commentary from Joel and the crew was funny, and the use of physical comedy via the silhouettes was more wide-ranging than in a typical MST3k episode. The performance seemed a little stiff, overall, but it’s only the first release. Presumably as they find their groove they’ll settle down a bit.

There are a lot of riffers on screen, surrounding the borders of the screen like a sort of human proscenium. As performers speak, they sometimes move or strike a little pose so that you have some idea which of the them is speaking.

Here’s a promo for Cinematic Titanic that should whet your appetite:

The same thing that lets Cinematic Titanic be convenient is also its drawback. Fundamentally, I don’t want to watch The Oozing Skull, even to hear it mocked. The best of the MST3K episodes leveraged the ambiguous love-hate relationship most Americans have with B movies. Sure, we might talk about how Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster was really just a Mexican wrestling movie with a guy in a rubber lizard suit, but deep inside many of us still have an inner 8 year old that’s happy, or even thrilled, at the prospect of watching Godzilla. Not all B movies have this nature, but hopefully Cinematic Titanic will be able to license some properties that are a little less hateful than this one was.

The Bigger They Are, The Harder They Fall

Which brings us to RiffTrax, which is a project that makes fun of (mostly) A-list movies. The first RiffTrax I bought, last weekend, was of the recent remake of the Bond film Casino Royale. My logic went something like this: the Bond films lately have been tepid. They’ve been watchable, but mostly predictable. I wanted to see the movie to maintain some illusion of being culturally plugged in, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to sit through it if it turned out to be a stinker. So I bought the RiffTrax, rented the DVD, and watched it.

And it was great.

I don’t just mean the riffing was great (and it was; Kevin Murphy especially seems to be on my wavelength). I mean Casino Royale was great, and I still enjoyed it as a movie, even while laughing as I listened to people make fun of it. It was as if I sat through two completely different movies at the same time, and both were awesome. This wasn’t an outcome I expected. I thought that either the movie would be terrible, in which case I’d enjoy the mockery, or the movie would be good, in which case the mockery would annoy me. But that didn’t happen. The mockery just made an already good movie better:

And so, in rapid succession, I’ve picked up the riffs for Lord of the Rings, the first Harry Potter movie, all of the Star Wars prequels, and Eragon. These are movies that range from excellent to terrible, and so far, although they’ve all been funny, the good movies are more fun to watch with riffing. I think this represents something of a structural advantage in RiffTrax’s favor: they can riff movies that people actually want to watch. The bad movies work, too: I wanted to see Eragon, even though I had heard it was awful. RiffTrax gave me an excuse to rent it without turning the night into a total waste.

The other structural advantage is that of price. With an average cost of $2.99/riff, I’m finding it hard to come up with reasons not to simply buy all of them. Their focus is on first-run feature films, but they’ve also covered a number of classics (such as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) and popular TV series pilots (including Lost and Heroes).

All is not wine and roses. In order for the RiffTrax experience to work, the downloaded MP3 file has to be in sync with the DVD you’re watching. RiffTrax provides a couple of mechanisms for this, but none are completely seamless (and, unless you’re going to go to the trouble of burning your own DVDs, you’re committing to the idea of watching a movie with your computer somewhere in the A/V food chain). They have provided a standalone player for Windows that handles all the syncing automatically, but it’s not quite perfect, and if you’re on MacOS it’s not an option at all. Even with the standalone player, I found myself spending a few minutes at the beginning of each film futzing around with the relative volume of the film and the riff more than I would have liked.

These are not serious complaints for someone like me who is, let’s face it, a completely irredeemable nerd. I do see it making it hard for the RiffTrax folks to penetrate deeply into the mass market; most of my non-nerd friends, for example, could never be bothered to mess with syncing an MP3 track to a DVD track just for a few laughs. But then, most of them probably wouldn’t buy The Oozing Skull, either, so perhaps this is a distinction without a difference.

And even with the minor annoyance of having to sync, there’s just something bold about RiffTrax. The fact that they’re doing this sort of thing without permission of the studios, that they’ve basically figured out a way to sell their remixing of popular culture without getting sued – yet – is exciting to me. I roll my eyes whenever I hear anyone talking about The Long Tail, but this is the first business model I’ve seen where I could actually imagine it working.

In The Not Too Distant Future

Both RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic seem to have their share of strong supporters. I’m looking forward to seeing (and buying) more of their work as time goes by.

Should you shell out your own cash for these projects? Well, as I noted in the opening paragraph, I’m not an impartial judge. For me, supporting both of these projects is not only a way of consuming media I enjoy, but also something of a political statement: I want to support independent artists. But not everyone feels the same way, nor would I expect them to.

There are plenty of samples of both projects on YouTube and on each projects’ respective web sites. Watch some of the clips, see what fits your taste, and make your own decision.

And if you end up buying a RiffTrax, or a Cinematic Titanic DVD, tell them peterb sent you. They won’t have any idea what the hell you’re talking about, of course. But tell them anyway.

It’s my little way of saying “thanks.”