The Astral Factor

The funniest MST3K ever isn’t even an episode from the series. It’s not even an official video but bootleg audio from a live show MST veterans Hodgson, Beaulieu, Conniff, Pehl, and Weinstein-understudy Allen did in San Francisco during their final tour under the Cinematic Titanic banner, synced by a fan to a copy—a workprint, no less—of an unspeakably bad TV pilot some misguided soul pumped up into a feature film (mainly by showing off Stefanie Powers’ butt crack).


So the video really sucks, and the audio really sucks. But it doesn’t matter because the quips and jabs from these nonpareil virtuosos of movie riffing are really f***ing funny.


The film Hodgson & Co. mercilessly bludgeon like a recalcitrant piñata really is about as bad as it gets—bad script, bad production design, bad editing, bad makeup, bad clothes, bad music, lame stunts, bad fonts, and criminally bad acting and directing. To paraphrase a line from MST3K‘s legendary Manos, there’s a buffet of loathsomeness here.

But The Astral Factor achieves a level most MST episodes could only dream of because there’s a whole bevy of has-been stars on the premises, including Elke Sommer, the aforementioned Powers (“with Stefanie Powers come Stefanie responsibility”), and, in a stomach-churning cameo, Sue (Lolita) Lyon, whose production company was apparently responsible for this flaming sack of dog poopie.


The pacing of the jokes is relentless, with the crew landing solid blows at least every 20 seconds, and sometimes releasing whole barrages that left the audience in San Francisco’s Castro Theatre breathless.


Don’t come here looking for 4K HDR or the perfect aspect ratio or perfectly calibrated sound or even surround sound, let alone Atmos. (Atmos?! On a policeman’s salary!?) This is about laughing your ass off—pure, and simple, and all too rare.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

Patton Oswalt: Annihilation

Patton Oswalt Annihilation

Patton Oswalt is obviously a really smart guy. He has a jaw-dropping ability to react to, dissect, build on, and recontextualize situations on the fly. And anything that brings together him, Bob Goldthwait, and M. Ward can’t be all bad.


But . . .


You always get the feeling he could do better but he’s decided to take the easier path. (Witness his decision to play second banana on the MST3K reboot.)


He’s obviously trying to push his personal envelope with the Netflix Annihilation special, and the result is a comedy routine that’s frequently funny even when it ventures into what, even by the current, low standards, is uncomfortable territory. But it all ultimately feels safe—nerd safe.


There’s vast creative potential in exploring what happens when nerds are confronted by brutal reality in ways they can’t shrug off by retreating into a womb-like fantasy world. And Oswalt comes really close to going there—but he never crosses the line into the truly risky, and that’s where the special falls short. And that failure underlines an even greater flaw.


Oswalt has always been a guy in a bubble talking to other people inside the same bubble. He talks a lot in Annihilation about empathizing, but it’s not really empathizing if you’re just telling people who believe exactly what you do exactly what they want to hear.


He spends about the first third of the special venting, with good cause, over the current sad state of things. But he ultimately just reinforces his audience’s prejudices—the same smug, judgmental, knee-jerk behavior that helped create the crisis in the first place.


Simply put, if he can’t acknowledge the weaknesses in his positions, and by extension the positions of his audience, he’s not really empathizing. This epidemic of people within every imaginable political and cultural subgroup preaching only to the converted, and by doing so only reinforcing the oppressive divide & conquer worldview they claim to abhor, might be the single most malignant cultural disease.


That doesn’t mean every comedian should stop what they’re doing and submit their philosophies and dogma to merciless scrutiny—most of them aren’t up to the task so it would only lead to another empty exercise in narcissism. But the ones who claim to be deeply disturbed by the broken social landscape should, and they should do it publicly. Otherwise, nothing’s going to change.


Put another way, people have gotten so desperate for constant, unqualified praise that they’re scared crapless to challenge anybody or anything directly, and instead blame all their woes on some bogeyman Other.


But let me make the point again: Oswalt is really funny here. And he’s obviously really smart. So Annihilation is a good use of your time. I’m just not comfortable with anyone who decries the state of the world while turning a blind eye to what they’re doing to contribute to the fiasco.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

Submitted for Your Approval

future entertainment

In my last post, I talked about how the future of entertainment might end up being the polar opposite of the empty, abusive, numbing fodder that’s pretty much pervasive today. To bolster that argument, here are some examples that run counter to the trends, and represent small rays of hope that the soulless mainstream won’t prevail.


EXHIBIT 1: “All Over the World”

Yes, the whole flash mob thing is, thankfully, passé, but the beauty of this video lies elsewhere. By taking disparate footage that runs the gamut from barely acceptable to really shitty and using it to underline the naive (some would say misguided) exuberance of the event it captures, it creates a production number way more satisfying than any Hollywood attempt to just ape old movie-musical conventions. (That there’s something inherently fascist about the whole exercise is a topic for another day.)


EXHIBIT 2: “Rose from Concrete”

I could write a whole post (and more) about this astonishing ad that completely bucks the trends (at least until the actual Rose walks in at the end and it becomes predictably slick), yet has gotten as much, if not more, attention than its more cynical and bellicose brethren. (But let’s be honest: It’s a TV commercial, so in no possible universe could it be a paragon of virtue.)


A pitch-perfect exercise in scene-setting, character development, and storytelling, it uses simple images and actions with deft sophistication, harkening back to the earliest days of filmmaking. More importantly, on every level that matters, it works.


EXHIBIT 3: “MST3K Kickstarter Telethon”

Things got so bad that at one point they had to put up a slide that said, “Please Get Out And Push.” But that’s the whole point: During the course of a 5-hour Webcast, they lost their live feed (for almost a half hour), the sound went out of sync, lav mikes repeatedly broke down, remote segments imploded because of bad signal . . . in other words, just about everything that could have gone wrong, did go wrong. But watching the talent both in front of and behind the camera rise above the adversity, in real-time, is exactly what makes it so compelling.


The result was the most successful Kickstarter campaign for a media project ever. That the money was essentially wasted and both the telethon and Felicia Day’s livestream (see below) were way more entertaining than the resulting series is something I’ve already covered.


Highlights include Patton Oswalt doing 10 minutes responding to a torrent of tweets about how sublimely awful the event is:


“This is what TV is going to look like after society collapses and there’s just one working mike for
the country, and there’s just going to be Thunderdome battles over who gets to control it.” 


“This is the nerd equivalent of the Chilean mine disaster, where I’m having to get communications
through people’s Twitter accounts.”


“Thanks for watching this on the Dumont Network.”


It’s worth the investment to experience it in real time—jumping around misses the whole point. And hang in there for Dana Gould’s jaw-dropping Dr. Zaius doing William Shatner doing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”


EXHIBIT 4: “Felicia Day MST3K Livestream”

If anything here best represents the future, this is it: Just a person and their cellphone—no lights, no mikes, no crew—not just capturing an event but, by spontaneously both hosting and performing, and acting as the audience’s eyes and ears, turning it, via a kind of high-wire act, into entertainment. Ignore that the often clueless and always supercilious Day is kind of annoying—what she pulls off, through intuitive talent and tapping into the zeitgeist is, if you stand back and look at it for both what it is and what it portends, pretty amazing.


If anybody remains unconvinced, just let me know and I’ll submit more for your approval. I’ve got a million of ‘em.


Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

The Death & Rebirth (Maybe) of American Entertainment

Death of American Entertainment

The evidence couldn’t be more obvious that it’s time to storm the entertainment Bastille and create some new ways to be engaged and amused.


The movies have been an exhausted form since the late ‘70s—we now get off not on watching movies but movies about movies, the kind of mental masturbation that’s the working definition of the Wasteland. TV has always been a wasteland, and only gets worse as it dresses itself up in cinematic trappings and indulges in more & more depraved behavior. And we’re now a few generations in to endless legions desensitized by “cartoon” violence and shooter games.


Every current form of mass entertainment pisses on subtleties, on any kind of discerning approach, instead producing bigger & bigger adrenalin jolts and ultimately encouraging us to do nothing but wallow in the mud. It’s like we’re all taking the Milgram Experiment, and failing miserably. It’s like we’re devolving.


People have had good—as in “life & death”—reasons lately to bemoan the state of the culture and wonder how things got so bad. But they seem oblivious to the entertainment choices they make every day that reinforce our blind rush to the bottom.


But there are some promising signs of new mass entertainment out there, forms that aren’t as smartass and soulless, that subordinate all the tech that can create a false sheen of competence and instead let you connect directly with the individuals and groups doing their damnedest to create things that feel true instead of just slick. Most of it derives in some way from street theater and has echoes of minstrels and vaudeville. It doesn’t just mimic the past but feeds from it—something that hasn’t happened in a long, long time.


In my previous post, I talked about the avoidable and kind of wrenching disaster of the Kickstarter/Netflix MST3K reboot but pointed out that from that wreckage emerged some encouraging glimpses of a brighter entertainment future. Next time, I’ll go into specifics.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound &
Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Failure to Launch: The MST3K Reboot That Wasn’t

mystery science theater netflix

There have only been a tiny handful of TV shows worth watching over the past 30 years, and MST3K was the only one that gave a meaningful f*** you to the TV establishment. So I had a huge emotional investment in its Kickstarter-driven Netflix reboot—which turned out to be such a massive piece of crap that I wish they’d never even bothered.


I don’t think they could have gotten it any more wrong if they’d set out to screw it up on purpose. The host segments are too short and play it way too safe, Jonah Ray has no discernible personality, bot-voicers Baron Vaughn and Hampton Yount have proven adept at playing Tom and Crow in interviews and online videos but don’t get the chance to develop their personas at all in the series, (let’s not even talk about the new Gypsy), the delivery of every single line by every single cast member is so mechanical and forced it feels soulless, it should be a capital crime to make Patton Oswalt play second banana to somebody so obviously limited as Felicia Day, the movies don’t cover any new ground (don’t expect to see anything of the caliber of Manos here), the elaborate effort to cover up mid-segment screwups couldn’t be more lame, and trying to impose the original series’ commercial-break structure couldn’t be more forced. But forget all thatthis whole obviously rushed effort just isn’t funny.


This is a series that deserves to be shot at dawn.


But that doesn’t mean it didn’t yield anything good. In a subsequent post, I’ll talk about how stuff Hodgson probably wasn’t even aware of gave bright examples of entertainment’s future, how the seemingly animated but lifeless carcass of this misguided MST3K gave shelter to some things that are actually pretty darn good.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound &
Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.