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Validating the Viewer Auteur in 'Mystery Science Theater 3000'

Veronica holds a Master's Degree in Literature from American University and has a passion for literary and film analysis.

Validating the Viewer Auteur in 'Mystery Science Theater 3000'

There are several “auteur” theories in which directors, actors, cinematographers, and film studios have been granted authorial status over a cinematic text, and become auteurs due to stylistic similarities in their body of work. I would like to push theories of auteurism even further and propose that, under certain circumstances, the film-viewer may be put in a position of authorship over a body of films, redefining these films, and making the spectator an auteur completely separate from the film-making industry. The viewer auteur is best exemplified by the television show Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988-1999), a show of spectators who resurrect “bad” films, making them their own with pith commentary.

In each episode of MST3K, an “everyman” named Joel Robinson, along with his two wise-cracking robots, watches a low-budget, “cheesy” film and poking fun of it as they watch. Throughout the chosen “bad” film, the silhouettes of Joel and his robots are visible at the bottom of the screen, simulating a movie theater experience in which characters and home-viewers are watching together, playing up their role as spectators as they interact with the film. Under this unique format, films become something other than what the filmmakers originally intended – they become comedic. During the show, the characters’ jokes overpower the content of the film, to the point where film content and jokes (or “riffs” as they often refer to them) merge into one, becoming a new film in which authorship shifts from filmmakers to the viewer-characters. In this essay, I apply the definitions of auteurism provided by Timothy Corrigan and Andrew Sarris to MST3K, to demonstrate and validate the concept of the viewer auteur.

To better explain the possibility of viewer auteurship, it is helpful to define auteurism and the ways it can be applied. According to “Part 4: Auteurism: Directors, Stars, and Beyond” in Critical Visions in Film Theory, auteurism implies “that a single figure, such as the director,” star, producer, writer, or another “primary figure in a film’s production,” is “largely responsible for the themes, style, and meaning of a film and that, more often than not, a viewer can trace a consistent evolution of style and themes across a specific [figure’s] body of work” (342). Though the text’s definition states that the auteur is most likely the “primary figure in a film’s production,” the more important aspect of auteurism seems to be that the figure is “largely responsible” for “themes, style, and meaning” – aspects that the spectator could control given the right circumstances. The text goes on to explain that the “agency of the auteur usually aligns the directive power of an individual with the creative vision of a film” (342), suggesting that creative vision of the primary figure is one of the dominating characteristics of auteurship. If creative control is asserted and used to appropriate an auteur-less film, combining that film with other auteur-less films, then the active spectator who is separated from the film-making process could ostensibly take control and create a body of work, turning that viewer-responder into an auteur.

“Part 4” of Critical Visions also mentions Andrew Sarris’s explanation of auteur theory, breaking down the defining characteristics of auteurs even further:

Sarris argues that auteurs are powerful agents whose films reveal a consistent technical competence, a recognizable style, and ‘interior meanings,’ an approach that ‘humanizes’ the moviemaking industry as an art form […] and so provides a means of evaluating and critically differentiating films (343).

Sarris essentially lays out “the three premises of the auteur theory” (mentioned above) in “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962,” and imagines them as “three concentric circles: the outer circle as technique; the middle circle, personal style; and the inner circle, interior meaning” (563). These premises may be applied to the active viewer, particularly in the spectator-driven television show Mystery Science Theater 3000.

The first premise of auteur theory that Sarris mentions is technique. Though Sarris writes specifically about the director as the auteur, it seems that any primary figure (as mentioned in Critical Visions) could fit within his definition as well. According to Sarris, “Technique is simply the ability to put a film together with some clarity and coherence” (563). The films that MST3K choose usually lack clarity and coherence, and are considered “bad” or “cheesy” due to their inability to adhere to traditional Hollywood narrative, style, and/or basic standards, while going grossly beyond the audience’s suspension of belief or understanding. Due to their lack of clarity and cohesion, coupled with their failed performances among American audiences, these films have no auteurs and cannot be evaluated according to any of Sarris’s premises. More often than not, the director of a “bad” film that appears on MST3K has only directed one or two films, the main cast have either been in only one film or a number of equally “bad” films, and the film itself has been long forgotten by everyone involved and nearly impossible to obtain until its televised appearance on the show. Cheryl Hicks notes this in her own analysis of MST3K, stating “In order to create the show, MST3K would appropriate low budget films, films that otherwise may have never found an audience” (38). Essentially, these films are unable to find a following on their own because of subpar technique. Sarris claims: “the first premise of the auteur theory is the technical competence of a director as a criterion value. A badly directed or an undirected film has no importance in a critical scale of values” (562). If, as Sarris states, a “badly directed” film cannot have an auteur, then all the films that MST3K adopt are auteur-less, and are free to be re-conceptualized into a new body of work that is unrelated to the original filmmakers’ intentions.

By turning the films into comedies that reflect the audience’s experience when watching these films for the first time, MST3K also changes movies into coherent texts that have function and purpose. MST3K theorist David Ray Carter recognizes the show’s ability to rework existing films:

The premise of Mystery Science Theater 3000 involves the commenters-cum-filmmakers recontextualizing an existing film into a new work, one that contains their running commentary. Horror, melodrama, science fiction and even educational films become comedies through the riffing of the cast (85-86).

The show’s “running commentary” is no mere contribution. According to the show’s official estimate, “each episode contains an average of 700 interjected humorous comments” (Dean 107-108). The spectators, who in this case are the writers and cast of MST3K, actively assert creative control of the films, not only by commenting on the events occurring in the film, but by adding their own dialogue to the characters and pointing out, or verbally changing, oddities and inconsistencies that make the film unclear and incoherent. In other words, “the riffer’s remark re-contextualizes the screen action by suggesting potentially different events or meanings behind them” (McWilliams 96). Kaleb Havens also agrees that the “characters’ dialogue in MST3K is a regular, direct contribution [that] may be argued to inherently alter the fabric of the media artifacts until the repurposing yields an entirely new media product” (125). Therefore, the scripted reactions of MST3K spectators actively contribute to the films, changing the once-viewers into creative visionaries able to claim authorship.

It is primarily through appropriation that MST3K is able to assert new authorship over cinematic texts. According to Cheryl Hicks:

In the terms of visual arts, appropriation occurs when an artist recontextualizes part or all of a previously created work in order to produce a new artwork. The appropriated object, although having been placed within a new viewing context, still remains accessible to the spectator in its original form. By presenting the work in a different light to the audience, the artist is able to bring new life to the appropriated object (38).

By selecting dying, or already dead, films – such as Hobgoblins, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, and Manos: The Hands of FateMST3K is able to create a second life through comedic reawakening. As Hicks puts it, “The use of these riffs would create a completely different context for the audience to view the film, thus drastically changing the viewing experience from viewing the film by itself” (38). Through appropriation, MST3K makes the unwatchable watchable, by bringing “out the campiness of otherwise dull movies” (Hicks 39), “filling in the gaps in the sparse dialogue,” and giving “the characters far more depth and personality than they were originally given” (Hicks 41). This appropriation is so removed from the original filmmaking process that it is often done without the original filmmakers’ permission. This usurpation by MST3K has sparked mixed reactions from the original makers, though a few directors were thrilled to see that their failed films have finally found an audience. Rick Sloane, the director of Hobgoblins, personally appreciated MST3K’s adoption of the film:

[Hobgoblins] faded into oblivion until a decade later, when it was resurrected by the writers of Mystery Science Theater 3000. It became one of their all-time highest rated episodes and gave the movie cult status […] they had greatly improved my film, and it would never be the same without their riffing (1).

By adopting films without permission and making them into new works through “riffing,” MST3K remains in the spectator position, and continues to act as a separated viewer that shapes the film purely through response without physically altering the onscreen content.

Now that it has been established that MST3K, as a viewer auteur, has technique and is able to assert creative vision over auteur-less films, it is time to move to Sarris’s second premise of auteur theory: “The second premise of the auteur theory is the distinguishable personality of the director as a criterion of value. Over a group of films, a director must exhibit certain recurrent characteristics of style, which serve as his signature” (562). The auteur, in short, must establish a pattern after a given number of films (Sarris 563). The riffs of MST3K certainly have a style of humor that is recurrent throughout every film they appropriate. No matter the film, their riffs serve as the signature that brings the various films together into a tightly knit body of work. MST3K writer Mary Jo Pehl identifies the collective personality that gets thrust into each film:

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We writers would spend days with each movie, writing the hundreds of jokes that ended up in the final script. At any given time, there were 4 to 10 writers, each with his or her own background, life experience and regional influences. Each episode reflects that (Pehl 236).

Once MST3K adds its humorous film-responses, films change from independent entities into MST3K films. While referencing everything from everyday pop culture to “world history, current events, science, sociology, literature, art, art criticism, film, and television” (King 41), the jokes of MST3K also reference past episodes and previously viewed films. These references in particular have a way of tying all the films together, as they bring the unique riffs of one film into another. Even favorite characters from films (ones that were more fully developed by the MST3K cast), make reappearances in the show’s frame-narrative; when the character Torgo from Manos: The Hands of Fate became an MST3K fan favorite, the show had a Torgo look-alike cameo in several episodes. The familiar humor, “inside jokes,” and the collective personality of the writers that saturate each film creates a personal style that is unique to MST3K and its collection of appropriated films.

The third and last premise of auteur theory provided by Sarris “is concerned with interior meaning, the ultimate glory of the cinema as an art” (562). According to Sarris:

Interior meaning is extrapolated from the tension between a director’s personality and his material. […] It is not quite the vision of the world a director projects nor quite his attitude toward life. It is ambiguous, in any literary sense, because part of it is imbedded in the stuff of the cinema and cannot be rendered in noncinematic terms (562).

Because it is “ambiguous” and “imbedded in the stuff of the cinema,” Sarris’s third premise is the most challenging when applying it to viewer auteurship. As mentioned earlier, Critical Visions interprets Sarris’s third premise as “an approach that ‘humanizes’ the moviemaking industry as an art form” (343), which many could argue is exactly what MST3K does through its appropriated films. Many theorists regard MST3K as serving a “higher satirical purpose,” in that its “cheesy”-centered humor allows audiences to “to laugh off the social and economic differences that continue to hurt and divide us” (King 47). Many also see the show as a “mise en abyme” in which “there is theoretically no end to the mediation of the media” (King 43). As a potential commentary on media/cinema, or on audience interaction with film, or a stretching of “authentic meaning” into obscurity (King 43), MST3K is believed to project “interior meaning” within its riffs, though this meaning tends to go beyond cinema, which contradicts Sarris’s terms. I would argue, however, that the comedic interpretations of the events onscreen bring interior meanings to the films themselves. The riffs of MST3K “humanize” the “bad” films through comedy, and bring the text closer to the audience by mimicking the audience’s reaction. As a result, art is created through response to cinematic material rather than the material itself.

In "The Auteur Theory Revisited," Sarris claims that “Auteurism has less to do with the way movies are made than with the way they are elucidated and evaluated” (361). Similarly, viewer auteurism has “less to do with the way movies are made,” and more to do with appropriation, recontextualization, and active response. As Kaleb Havens puts it in regards to MST3K, “Although their performances may be more scripted and rehearsed than those of the film they critique, the writers and cast of MST3K were once audience members, consuming the media artifacts in question and seeking to engage in a bi-directional dialogue” (125). It is the cinematic consumption, the spectator/film dialogue, and the resurrecting/recontextualizing of film to new audiences that defines viewer auteurism and differentiates it from other forms of auteurism. Since MST3K proves that spectators are able to assert creative control, develop technique, personal style, and interior meaning within films, then the viewer auteur can be critically evaluated according to premises of auteur theory, and find a place among the directors, stars, and other primary figures of filmmaking.

Works Cited

Carter, David Ray. “Cinemasochism: Bad Movies and the People Who Love Them.” In the Peanut Gallery with Mystery Science Theater 3000: Essays on Film, Fandom, Technology, and the Culture of Riffing. Ed. Robert G. Weiner and Shelley E. Barba. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009. 84-91. Google Play.

Corrigan, Timothy, Patricia White, and Meta Mazaj, eds. "Part 4: Auteurism: Directors, Stars, and Beyond." Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Ed. Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White, and Meta Mazaj. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2011. 341-44. Print.

Dean, Michael. "Frame Work, Resistance and Co-optation: How Mystery Science Theater 3000 Positions Us Both In and Against Hegemonic Culture." In the Peanut Gallery with Mystery Science Theater 3000: Essays on Film, Fandom, Technology, and the Culture of Riffing. Ed. Robert G. Weiner and Shelley E. Barba. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009. 103-109. Google Play.

Havens, Kaleb. “Authorship and Text Remediation in Mystery Science Theater 3000.” In the Peanut Gallery with Mystery Science Theater 3000: Essays on Film, Fandom, Technology, and the Culture of Riffing. Ed. Robert G. Weiner and Shelley E. Barba. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009. 123-127. Google Play.

Hicks, Cheryl. "Resurrecting the Dead: Revival of Forgotten Films through Appropriation." In the Peanut Gallery with Mystery Science Theater 3000: Essays on Film, Fandom, Technology, and the Culture of Riffing. Ed. Robert G. Weiner and Shelley E. Barba. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009. 38-47. Google Play.

King, John. "Mystery Science Theater 3000, Media Consciousness, and the Postmodern Allegory of the Captive Audience." Journal of Film and Video 59.4 (2007): 37-53. JSTOR.

“Manos: The Hands of Fate.” Mystery Science Theater 3000. Ep. 424. Comedy Central. 30 Jan. 1993. DVD.

McWilliams, Ora and Richardson, Joshua. “Double Poaching and the Subversive Operations of Riffing: ‘You Kids with Your Hoola Hoops and Your Rosenbergs and Communist Agendas’.” In the Peanut Gallery with Mystery Science Theater 3000: Essays on Film, Fandom, Technology, and the Culture of Riffing. Ed. Robert G. Weiner and Shelley E. Barba. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009. 93-102. Google Play.

Pehl, Mary Jo. “Afterword.” In the Peanut Gallery with Mystery Science Theater 3000: Essays on Film, Fandom, Technology, and the Culture of Riffing. Ed. Robert G. Weiner and Shelley E. Barba. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009. 236-237. Google Play.

Sarris, Andrew. "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962." Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. 561-564. Print.

Sarris, Andrew. "The Auteur Theory Revisited." Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings. By Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White, and Meta Mazaj. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2011. 355-61. Print.

Sloane, Rick. “There’s Been an Accident at the Studio: How We Made Hobgoblins!” In the Peanut Gallery with Mystery Science Theater 3000: Essays on Film, Fandom, Technology, and the Culture of Riffing. Ed. Robert G. Weiner and Shelley E. Barba. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009. 1-11. Google Play.

© 2018 Veronica McDonald

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