By Jon Roig
Arizona Summer Wildcat
The focus on filmmaking has changed considerably since the recent advancements in digital effects technology. The audience is no longer content to just sit back and suspend its disbelief Ä it wants to see, literally and realistically, what the movie is talking about.
Take for instance, the recent sci-fi/virus movie "Outbreak." The effects are totally incredible, but because of that there is some kind of idea that these things really could happen. We live now in a world where "realism" in a certain sense is valued in film. The basic driving ideas remain the same (after all, what is "Outbreak" but an alien-scare film with a '90s spin on things Ä a virus replaces the looming alien menace and with better special effects) while the age of cheap drive-in aesthetics of the genre have been pushed to the rear. Whether this is good or bad depends on the mindset of the viewer, but it makes it impossible to produce or even watch most low-budget movies of the same genre unless the filmmaker employs certain tricks.
The audience has to be aware that the film is being presented as a "joke" and as a cinematic device. A frequently employed technique is the "movie-within-a-movie" concept. The filmmakers have to let themselves off the hook of being taken seriously, and to do that they break up the movie a little bit by creating two separate story lines. The outside story is the tale of the film being made and/or being commented on and the enclosed story is, usually, a really weird parody of other movies.
The magic of Comedy Central's "Mystery Science Theater 3000" is that it forces the audience to sit through an entire movie. The films are presented in an environment in which a film like "The Beast of Yucca Flats" can be laughed at and its creators mocked for being pathetic, but deep down inside it's obvious that the MST3K (as the hipsters call it) people really love these films. The audience just needs permission to watch them.
I submit for your approval two fairly new video releases called "The Pickle" and "Lobster Man From Mars." In "The Pickle" the action revolves around Harry Stone (Danny Aiello), an art film director, who has sold out when the cash situation gets desperate. His movie, also called "The Pickle," is atrociously bad Ä it's a story of a giant cucumber which is also a spaceship and stars, oddly enough, notable people such as Ally Sheedy, and Little Richard (whose mid-film performance of "Good Golly Miss Molly" is worth the price of rental alone), and has cameo appearances by Donald Trump and Spaulding Grey. The plot is pure camp and director/producer/writer/auteur Paul Masursky knows it. Fortunately, the surrounding story is not and gives fascinating, and surprisingly intelligent, insight into the story of a man forced to sell out and direct a turkey.
Similarly, "The Lobster Man From Mars," is the tale of a famous movie producer who is forced to commission an exceptionally bad film which will lose money so he can avoid tax fraud charges. The resulting film, also called "The Lobster Man From Mars," is perhaps the ultimate homage to cheesy drive-in movies of the past Ä an old hard-boiled P.I. makes an appearance and rants appropriately, the incompetent military leader just wants to blow everything up and forget about it, the mad scientist explains half-baked theories of life on mars (he's convinced that the only type of life that could exist is a giant clam), and the two-teenage kids just aren't understood or believed when they first see the spaceship. Starring nobody in particular, the film lacks the, shall we say "intelligence" of "The Pickle," but makes up for it in bad special effects and genre-stealing antics.
"The Pickle" and "Lobster Man From Mars" may be parodies of sorts, but they come off more as tributes Ä something that might be considered unacceptable if the directors didn't let us know that they were in on the joke. It's all about context. Just as the characters on MST3K show allow the audience to take a more abstract view of the movie and reflect on what's going on, the outside stories of the films do a similar job preparing the audience to watch a Really Bad Movie.
The genre, if this is really a genre, extends beyond these two movies. John Goodman stars in "Matinee," a more straight up tribute to drive-in movies by way of the film-within-a-film "Mant" (the main character turned into a half man/half ant mutation because of radiation tests). You can probably find it in the kids' movie section, but I'm not entirely convinced it was aimed at children. Also, Arnold Schwarzenegger's bomb "Last Action Hero" is worth checking out with this concept in mind. By presenting the action in the movie as only a fantasy, the filmmakers give themselves license to go totally over the top and parody "serious" films.
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