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I first heard about the “Manos” the Hands of Fate episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 as everyone else had in that halcyon period of 2005: through word-of-mouth. I had seen several episodes of MST3k before its cancellation in 1999, but that one being from an earlier season caused me to overlook it. I was nevertheless assured that it was the worst creation in cinematic history, and that I must see it. Thankfully the college acquaintance who told me this was pleased to enlighten me further by way of lending me his DVD copy.

On a Friday night, I placed the DVD into the drive of my MacBook and everything was as described. I marveled at the ineptitude and crudity of this ill-fated product: the terrible almost alien sound quality, the lobotomized acting, the barely focused photography, the desolate setting, the meandering plot, literally everything the goat-legged henchman Torgo did. It’s rather difficult to put into words just how poorly made this film is, and the writers of the show were hardly better as their humor gave way to frustration. Crow T. Robot’s line asking if “this is going to turn into a snuff film” is probably the harshest riff of the series. Even the usually low-key host Joel Hodgson loses his patience yelling “DO SOMETHING!” at the film’s seemingly Quaalude-induced pacing. By the time it ended I could hardly believe I’d even watched it. Was it all a dream? If not a dream, then, have I been altered in its viewing? Is Torgo going to call me, his “theme” playing in the background, to tell me I have seven days to live and so must show it to someone else?

Naturally, a film this bad ignites significant curiosity as to its genesis and execution. And the data is a treasure trove. The film was made by Harold P. Warren, an El Paso fertilizer salesman by trade with some connections in community theatre, from which he got most of the cast along with others from a modeling agency. The film was shot with a camera that could only take 32 seconds of footage at a time. Most of the voices in the film were dubbed over by other actors. For marketing purposes, Warren signed up costar Diane Mahree for a local beauty pageant without her knowledge. The gratuitous car make-out scenes that bookend the film happened because one of the models broke her foot. Despite Warren’s assurances that the shoddy production would be smoothed over “in post,” it’s quite clear that those assurances were empty. The film was made in the first place because Warren bet Route 66 writer Stirling Silliphant that anyone could make a film. In this light, some cultural artifacts are not just failures or mistakes, but gifts carefully crafted by the hand of Providence.

When something sucks, you know it in your bones. Or maybe you know it in your gut, possessing as it does an onset feeling not unlike nausea. The feeling gets very severe very quickly, without much nuance to soothe it. Finding that something sucks is rooted in your unique palate, and yet you have no control over something that has been determined to suck. Things that suck are obstinate; they resist manipulation and redemption. Simply put, you cannot turn back from “This movie, album, show, party, date, job, essay, or family sucks.” You can deny that something sucks out loud. You can forgive something for sucking after a certain maturity is reached. But you can never forget that something sucks. That feeling, so acute and echoing so far, never leaves you; or it leaves and comes back in quick, regretful pangs.

That doesn’t prevent some people from developing a fascination with sucking, and with finding things that suck with aplomb. What is done with those things depends on the person looking. Some people like to strip them to their elements, to find a definitive catalyst that sent the object away from the path of not sucking. Some people like to set a thing that sucks up next to themselves to see how they measure up to it, confident that they are free from sucking in the way that the object assuredly sucks. Some people just like to watch an object self-immolate for their amusement. This is what the Culture has deemed “hate-watching,” even though the term never sat well with me. “For what he hate,” Montaigne wrote, “we take seriously.” I never found anything truly serious about this endeavor. That was its charm for a while.

MST3k aired 198 episodes from its start on Minnesota public access to its end on the Sci-Fi channel. The show covered a pretty wide gamut of bad cinema. There was standard mid-20th-century schlock, the Japanese, Mexican, or Soviet equivalents of that shlock, rejected TV pilots from the 1970s, Conan knockoffs, Jaws knockoffs, teen beach movies, dour suspense films, films that only make sense as money-laundering fronts, and a few that are truly, truly unexplainable. I can’t say I ever hated anything presented to me on the show. I was baffled and amused, mostly, by the often surreal nature bad film can assume in, say, Ed Wood’s conveniently exploitative anti-porn polemic The Sinister Urge, the proto-mumblecore of Track of the Moon Beast, or the unintentionally postmodern disjointedness of The Wild World of Batwoman. That such a show could drive a cult obsession was a given, but it was that innocent, purely aesthetic cult clearly without hazards, ramifications, or hunger for the trappings of power.

The nature of the dedication, however, allowed seriousness to creep in. Quite against its intentions, the show took on an educational role. First in helping hone my critical faculties. MST3k had some of the most erudite people ever placed in a single writer’s room. The show’s most enduring merit was that it never assumed the stupidity of its audience. Having intelligence and a humorous streak (though that would make itself known to me later) were not mutually exclusive and in fact quite essential to each other.

Second it instilled a broader sensibility about making art. Though the sensibility was not so much aesthetic as it was moral. Some of the films that left an impression on me in the later episodes showed how a bad film was a form of abuse. Films like Space Mutiny, The Projected Man, Time Chasers, Soultaker, and Future War were not just ridiculous films, but pretentious and hubristic, made by deluded people out of their depth. Mocking them was both really fun and a service to prevent future lapses. This was not explicit, but the shift is somewhat detectible in the change of hosts. Joel Hodgson, the show’s creator, was laconic, easygoing, and upbeat, something like a class clown and a champion of “good-natured ribbing”; his sixth-season replacement, head writer Michael J. Nelson, was more cerebral and acerbic. The show gained an edge. It was less reserved when it was losing patience with a film. To take one example, Invasion of the Neptune Men, thanks to its reliance on World War II-era stock footage, took them to the breaking point. And this new lack of patience, this edge, oozed out from the screen and onto its viewers. Or at least one viewer.

That a show should evolve with changes of personnel is nothing new, let alone objectionable. What is objectionable, perhaps, is one of its viewers taking that evolution to such heart as to make an authority of it. This is something I’ve always done. When I become dissatisfied with the world that was given to me, there is the classic urge to strike out a path for myself. This is more of a contingency measure, however, until I could latch onto someone or something that could express my inner convictions more forcefully than I could or who could make sense of, if not bring order to, the noise constantly frazzling me. Once found, sycophancy and pliancy very quickly became my love languages. Some might call that blind obedience; I prefer self-abnegation: lesser power ceding to a greater one. In this case I accepted all the bad things as singularly bad and which should be stopped at all costs. I accepted it by not saying anything that didn’t echo preexisting sentiments. I didn’t become witty or intelligent for my own sake or to address my own needs. In other words, I spent a lot of time nodding along to message boards. It was like being frozen without the added annoyance of being cold. It is approximately what sucking feels like.

In a foreword to the MST3k episode guide, Kevin Murphy (the voice of Tom Servo) recalls the time he met his hero Kurt Vonnegut. Murphy explained MST3k to the author, who had in fact seen the show, but was less than warm about it, saying that even bad artists deserve respect. When I read about this in college, I wrote it off as bitter tut-tutting; but I came around eventually. Vonnegut languished in pulp science fiction for years before achieving his iconography. His recurring character the prolific but obscure author Kilgore Trout was based on his friend and genre fiction lifer Theodore Sturgeon. Vonnegut, like Philip K. Dick, did not necessarily like being associated with lowbrow lit, but being in that world probably offered an understanding of the dimensions of badness that was not as narrow as the MST3k’s was.

Art that sucks isn’t an act of cultural sadism. Error, even comically flagrant error, isn’t cruelty. Sometimes it is more revealing than perfection. Sometimes art that sucks even has a purpose. Most of what MST3k ridiculed was hack work meant to meet some market requirement, and quickly dispensed with once it had. Even “Manos” had a purpose. True, the crew mocked the film during production and no reasonable person expected that payment through shares from the profits would ever be made. But it was completed, screened in a local theater, and reviewed (poorly) in a local paper, all to prove a point to the guy who wrote The Poseidon Adventure. What was Harold Warren’s failing there? That he was a technically inept man of his word?

So, what then? Am I reborn? Do I find the good in the lowest of things? Am I a reveler in the potentialities for the sublime in garbage? Am I a schlocktimist? Not really; I’m just reoriented. The world turns as it always has. Americans awaken to propel commerce another grueling day toward their tombs. Garbage continues to be made; it is more profuse than ever. I am reminded how just about everyone can suck on a cyclical basis. Everyone has the potential to fall short of even their most modest expectations, to miss the mark by a spectacular distance, to pander shamelessly to the crudest spectator, to bore me to tears, to insult my intelligence. When it happens there is neither a ghetto to which we are confined nor a rehab in which we can convalesce. In this world we can not suck before we very badly suck. More dazzlingly we can suck and not suck at the same time. As “Sturgeon’s Law” puts it: “Using the same standards that categorize 90 percent of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90 percent of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap.” Sucking is something from which none of us are immune. Not even sucking’s arbiters.

“I’m currently seething with great well springs of rage over Carnival of Souls, a horrible, completely worthless piece of crap, incompetent in every conceivable way that garners an impressive 83 percent on the Tomato Meter.” So said Mike Nelson, who in his current manifestation of RiffTrax (along with other MST3k costars and writers) has turned his attention to the film more than once. Carnival of Souls is not perfect, the Criterion Collection edition was probably overkill, but it doesn’t meet any of the aforementioned symptoms of sucking either. Certainly it’s not “incompetent in every conceivable way.” I like the film, the film is fine; A24 would put it out if it was made today. Not that this particular disagreement makes me cast a pox on my past viewing; Mike Nelson hands down such judgment calls like it’s his job, which it is. It just happens that this judgment fucking sucks.

“What? Who cares?” –Me

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