Friday, August 26, 2011

Google Docs is Down

Friday, August 26, Google Docs went offline. As of this writing, it is still offline. Judging from the posts on the Google Docs Help Forum, the problem started at 9:46 am (PT) and have continued for over an hour. Most interestingly, the forum people at Google, who were so good about responding quickly to user questions only an few minutes earlier are remarkably mum all of the sudden, both on the Google Help Forum and on Twitter. Meanwhile, the rest of us, unable to access our online documents, are sitting back and contemplating this inherent and inescapable flaw in the cloud computing concept.

Follow up: Google Docs came back online around 11:25 am (PT). Still no explanation from Google yet as to what happened, but I expect that will come later. Meanwhile, people all over the world are backing up every single file they have online.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Why I Hate MST3K

Okay, let me get this out of the way right at the top: the writers for Mystery Science Theater 3000 can be very funny. They can make me laugh, I won’t deny it. They have found a clever way to deliver jokes that are just obscure enough to make their audience think they are hip, but not so esoteric as to lose them. It is a fine balancing act and they perform it sensationally well. Yes, I know that most TV critics love this show; that the series won a Peabody Award; was nominated for two Emmys; and that James Poniewozik at Time Magazine called it one of the “100 Best TV Shows of All Time” (a worthless list, since it did not include That Was the Week That Was, Slattery’s People, or Naked City). Yes, I know that I am in a serious minority on this, and that many of you have probably already stopped reading lest I say anything bad about your favorite show.

All of this said, I implore you: Don’t watch this show. For goodness sake, just get the original movie and watch that instead. I don’t say this lightly, nor am I in any way intending to be troll about this. If MST3K is on, just change the channel. Someday you’ll thank me.

I first encountered MST3K back in its early days. A friend of mine was raving about it and wanted me to come over and watch an episode. This was back when there was no Tivo and many of my friends still didn’t have VCRs (and the ones that did were divided between VHS and Beta). This woman was one of the wittiest and most perspicacious writers I knew, so I assumed any show she would endorse had to be a winner. I went to her house and...I was horrified! I made polite conversation and got the hell out of there. I spent the rest of that afternoon brooding on what I had just seen. Nothing since then has caused me to change my mind about this show. Further attempts to “get” this show have made me dislike it all the more.

For those of you who have never seen the show, allow me to set up the scenario. MST3K is about a likable janitor who is imprisoned on a space station and forced to watch cheesy movies by two evil scientists (or one evil scientist and his sidekick, or two evil sidekicks and a woman in a minibus—I never got all this straight). His only companions are robots that he built from parts he could spare. During the films, the janitor and the robots made clever quips about what they see on the screen. Sometimes the jokes are obvious references to pop culture, but sometimes they are remarkably obscure. Most of the films they watch are low-budget exploitation films from the fifties, sixties, and seventies—the so-called “Golden Turkeys” as the concept was christened by the Medved brothers.

I don't dislike the show because they make fun of these movies. I’ve been known to do the same thing while watching them myself. My problem with the show is that it only goes in one direction: toward ridicule. If you are watching a low-budget movie on your sofa, with your friends, you may make similar comments to those made by the characters on the show, but you are also more likely to give credit where credit is due. A cheesy line, or absurd situation might elicit a sarcastic remark, but the next moment, you can acknowledge an effective shot or scene. MST3K cannot do this. Nothing is ever impressive. All observations have to have a punchline. If a scene works, Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot are not going to say so. They will either try to make a joke (which usually falls flat in these situations) or wait until they can say something arch.

Worse still is that, by interjecting their comments, they remove the viewer from the experience of the movie. You are watching Joel (or Mike) and his puppets make fun of a movie, you are not really watching the movie at all. If you have any clever things to say, they are held in check in favor of the comments on screen. Your own wit is put on hold while someone else does the movie-watching for you. No good can possibly come from this.

But the worst thing about this show is that, like an invasive species, it has overtaken Netflix and forced out the distribution of many classic low-budget films in favor of the MST3K versions. You cannot, for instance rent Manos: The Hands of Fate, The Beast of Yucca Flats, The Giant Gila Monster, The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy, The Wild Rebels, and half a dozen other interesting oddities that deserve to be seen in their original forms. Only the MST3K versions are available.

Right now, for instance, Netflix does not offer Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies except in the MST3K version. That’s really a shame, because if the only way you ever see this movie is with their comments, you are missing a world of delights. The songs are solidly entertaining, the camerawork—some of the first work in Holllywood by Vilmos Zsigmond and László Kovács—is spectacular, and, if you bother to pay closer attention to the film, you might learn a few clever low-budget tricks on the use of MOS (shooting without sound) to save money. All of this is lost on the MST3K viewer, who walks away from the film feeling oh so clever without learning a thing.

With this in mind, I would like to make the following suggestion to the makers of the MST3K DVDs: Give the viewer the option of turning off the peanut gallery and simply watching the movie. This is not too much to ask. It would solve the lack of access that presently exists with these films, and still allow people without any native wit to experience the comments of people cleverer than themselves.

The writer I mentioned at the start of this article stopped publishing her zine shortly after my visit to her house. Mostly this was due to the insertion of a new attention-sucking device into her life (i.e., a baby), yet I can’t help but think it is partly because of MST3K. Did the effect of being placed as a spectator where she used to actively participate cause her imagination to atrophy? I hope not, but I suspect the worst. I don’t care how funny you think this show is, it is stealing from you one of the great joys of watching these films: the opportunity to become one with the movie, giving you the ability to see them both as unintentionally hilarious and as stunningly imaginative. When watching MST3K, all that is left is you, sitting on a couch, watching the lives of others without a thing to say.

Follow up: After finishing this post, I tweeted it with the hashtag #mst3k, which, naturally, put the fans of this show on my tail. I decided to publish their remarks to allow the opposite viewpoint some breathing room. The most interesting post to me was the one that claimed that MST3K discs contain bother the original and the riffed versions of the film. Had this been true, I still would not have cared for MST3K, but they would have risen in my estimation somewhat. Alas, it turns out not to be true. Although some contain other material (usually mini-docs about the films and filmmakers that are as snarky as the show), they do not offer you the ability to watch the movies as they were intended.

I was amused at how many of the irate posters felt compelled to point out that the reason the show does not offer anything other than sarcastic comments is because it's a comedy show. Um, yeah, that was kinda my point. Although many of the posters tried to explain why they objected to my rant, none made a very convincing argument. One person surmised that I was a film snob based on my statements about the quality of the camerawork in some low budget films. If by "film snob," sir, you mean I care about movies as an art and pay attention to all the aspects of the work that goes into making them, then I plead guilty. The saddest comment is the last one (I've closed new posts on the topic for now): "If you want to see the movie untouched by the hands of the MST3K crew, rent or buy it in it's [sic] original form." Yes, exactly, but therein lies the problem. Many of these are currently only available in the bastardized versions, and MST3K has never done anything to help alleviate this.

Most of the emails and Facebook responses I received that supported my rant came—not coincidentally, I think—from people who either make films or write about them. One fellow film historian summed things up nicely: "It's worth remembering that those films were created by people who cared about them.... [MST3K] is piggybacking on someone else's work and should be seen as such."