The Quiet Man (1952)

I get tired of saying it—so this may even be the last time—but you can’t help but notice that The Quiet Man is one of those classic Hollywood films that couldn’t possibly be made today. I think I’d be shocked to see one you could make at this point. The (semi-) positive aspect of this, I suppose, is that, like the Korean and Chinese films that took up such a substantial portion of my pre-lockdown viewing, these classics feel fresher and bolder and more fun than they might have only a few years ago, to say nothing of more interesting in terms of their commentary on the Human Condition.

Which, ultimately, The Quiet Man is in its own beautiful, charming way. The plot is one of the simplest: Sean Thornton, an American from Pittsburgh, returns to his family’s old home in Castletown, Ireland, where he meets and immediately falls for Mary Kate Danahar whose brother, Will, he alienates by purchasing the old family farm, thus creating the barrier to his ultimate happiness with Mary Kate.

The moment when Sean first spies Mary Kate and Michaleen warns him off. Michaleen is played by Oscar-winning Barry Fitzgerald, and his character is varying degrees of drunk throughout the film.

The wrinkle is that Sean is a peaceful man, a “quiet” man, because he doesn’t fight. Will constantly offends him and Mary Kate, and Sean’s reaction is to not care. He’s an American, so he’s shocked to find that as the Danahar patriarch, Will can prevent their marriage. He’s wealthy, at least by Irish standards (though nobody seems to pick up on that), so he doesn’t understand Mary Kate’s attachment to her dowry, or the 350 pounds that Will has specifically refused to hand over.

This ultimately boils down into Mary Kate losing respect for Sean and thinking he’s a coward, at which point we learn Sean’s secret, and what he must overcome to win Mary Kate’s love.

The Flower pointed out to me, quite astutely, that the moral of the movie was that Sean had to learn to fight with love. And of course, the movie ends with one of the most extended brawls in movie history (John Carpenter having used it for inspiration for the Roddy Piper/David Keith battle in They Live) and almost certainly the most joyous. The entire village swarms around Will and Sean as they roll from hill to street to field to river, everyone drinking and cheering.

I can’t even.

The Duke’s look of shock here is genuine: O’Hara has said something truly outré, at John Ford’s prompting. The price of her saying it was that no one would ever know what she said.

The movie trucks in stereotypes, romanticization, idealization and is so heteronormative, Disney Co. is probably lobbying to have it burned, and it’s absolutely wonderful and completely inoffensive to those not looking to take offense. Much like Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (1954), it comes from a time when cultural differences were a topic of amusement, rather than a profit center for useless PhD holders.

I don’t suppose anything has to be said about six-time Oscar-winner John Ford, who won for The InformerThe Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley and this film, as well as for two WWII semi-documentaries (The Battle of Midway and December 7th: The Movie) but who (I don’t think) ever went to the ceremonies. He was not even nominated for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, The Searchers, My Darling Clementine, Mister Roberts or Fort Apache.

About our three principals, John Wayne (Oscar for True Grit), Victor McLaglen (Oscar for The Informer) and Maureen O’Hara (honorary Oscar in 2015), what can we say? They’re all too old (by at least ten years) for the parts they’re playing and it doesn’t matter in the slightest. Wayne is at his Wayne-iest, but it couldn’t feel fresher than it does in this fish-out-of-water scenario. McLaglen is convincingly belligerent but somehow still likable as the antagonist.

It’s a huge cast. I mean, physically. Wayne is about 6’4″, McLaglen, 6′ 3″, Ward Bond, 6’2″. I mean, Humphrey Bogart could be in this shot and you’d never see him because the frame ends at their shins.

O’Hara is the engine that drives the picture, though, and she has the toughest role. One has no trouble believing the “meet cute”, if you can call it that, considering it’s just John Wayne driving along the road while she’s foraging or something, and she sort of flees and sort of looks back, and you know the two are instantly in love (because it’s Wayne and O’Hara!), but O’Hara has to play hard-to-get but not too hard because she’s already crazy for Wayne, and also she’s a mercurial red-head, and also an older unmarried woman—the look she shoots anyone when they call her a “spinster” is priceless—there’s more acting here than Meryl Streep has done in her entire career. But it never seems like acting.

It may have been that her pedigree as “The Pirate Queen” wasn’t strong enough to land her even a nom for this role (Shirley Booth would win for Come Back, Little Sheba, but the rest of the nominees were in movies you probably never heard of), and that just goes to show you the Oscars have always sucked, just not as hard as they have in their recent, more violent incarnation.

Not based on any previously written source material, Ford called on frequent collaborator Frank S. Nugent with a fellow named Maurice Walsh, who had some expertise in Irish matters, I think. Victor Young provides the delightful score, Technicolor the delightful color, Winton Hoch would win his third Oscar for cinematography.

In the end, this is just a joyous and fearless representation of a culture that has a sense of humor about itself (or had, at least), by people who loved it, and who didn’t have the culture cops bearing down on them. I look forward to future times and art forms where this can be true again.

John Ford, the dunce, puts WAYNE in the wet, white shirt.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Santo in the Treasure of Dracula

And just as mysteriously as they arrived, the passport requirements vanished. I was actually able to go see a movie, sans mask, sans documents, with the only downside being it was the Norwegian contender for best international picture, The Worst Person in the World. I kid (somewhat) but it’s not exactly a crowd-pleaser. While y’all are reading this I will be seeing a Korean double-feature (the political thriller Kingmaker and In Our Prime, which appears to be a Korean Good Will Hunting) and tomorrow I’ve got The Quiet Man. Could things be returning to normal?

Well, at least until they figure out how to screw them up again, anyway.

Instant classic: The robot wrestler sketch.

Last Friday, on the other hand, was the premiere/beta of season 13 of the ever abiding “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and the “Gizmoplex” which is a sort of streaming service/virtual theater concept. For those unfamiliar with the show, it took the concept of movie “riffing”, where an existing filmed entertainment is played and humorous comments are made over the film’s original soundtrack and mainstreamed it by setting up a flimsy but vital framing story: That of a man shot into space by mad scientists and forced to watch these movies as part of their evil experiment.

Over the series’ initial 11-year-run it had many homes—starting with a copyright-law-dubious season 0 on a local Minneapolis UHF channel, leading to the Comedy Channel which was absorbed by Comedy Central, and finally to the SciFi channel—and many cast changes. When it was canceled after season ten, many attempts were made to revive the general format with and without a framing story.

The three main riffers of the last MST3K seasons, Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett went on to do “Film Crew” and then found success with “Rifftrax”, which provides pure riffs both integrated with movies and—through an ingenious app—allows you to play the commentary over films you already own unriffed. (This also gets around the prohibitive licensing issues for many movies.) Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff have been touring and recording as “The Mads are Back” since 2015. MST3K creator Joel Hodgson himself refurbished the concept in 2007 with  the fairly successful “Cinematic Titanic”, reuniting himself, Beaulieu and Conniff, and MST alumni Mary Jo Pehl and J. Elvis Weinstein (who started with season 0 of the show at age 17!).

(L-to-R) Hodgson, Weinstein, Pehl, Beaulieu and Conniff

In 2015, 16 1/2 years after the show’s “final” cancellation, creator Joel Hodgson—having spent half a decade acquiring rights and clearing a path—announced a Kickstarter to bring back MST3K. This would raise a record $5.76M to create new episodes with a new cast for Netflix. Setting aside all the differences that a couple decades will make, season 11 must not have been what Netflix wanted, since season 12 was streamlined for binge watching: Six movies released all at once, for back-to-back viewing in a gimmick called “The Gauntlet”. Exeunt Netflix.

Last year, Joel launched another Kickstarter, racked up another $6.5M and started on season 13: 13 episodes plus a concept called the Gizmoplex, which most people look at and say “Oh, it’s a streaming service,” but there’s a distinct emphasis on community experience. More on that in a bit. Unencumbered by Netflix, but encumbered by lockdowns, Hogdson & Co. nonetheless managed to film all 13 episodes in under a year, and made the first episode available on March 4th, 2022—

A riff based on the Mexican wrestling “classic” Santo in the Treasure of Dracula, wherein the titular Santo invents time-travel, sends a girl back to her past life to discover she was romantically involved with a Dracula and that said Dracula had a treasure they try to retrieve in current day 1969 “to help the children”.

I set that apart because I don’t want anyone to think I’m making it up. It’s pure MST3K glory, taking an insane movie and just running with the various concepts and cultural oddities therein. It’s made all the more wonderful by the fact that El Santo was a kind of Mexican legend and a decent fellow, and the only quality print remaining is “the European cut” which features a lot of nudity El Santo did not approve of. (He was a friend to all the children!)

Santo never took off the mask, even for Bridge Night at the Kiwanis Club.

With all the different riffing ventures, there is of course some overlap in movie choices but Santo is just very MST3K. Rifftrax, by contrast, does a lot of popular films. It is, for example, the only way I would (and have) watched the Twilight series. Rifftrax also does a lot of infamous cult movies (recently, for example, they took on the Canadian microbudget/wth-is-this flick Feeders). I don’t see the main three rifffers doing Mexican wrestling pictures. (MSTie alumni Pehl and Bridget Jones Nelson get a lot of mileage out of old Sherlock Holmes and teen-sploitation films under the Rifftrax banner so I could see them doing it.)

The Netflix years got mixed reviews from fans of the old show and while I liked them, this felt like real MST3K. This episode paces jokes more like the original run. That’s important, I think. The movie has to have enough room to breathe on its own; this makes the riffs funnier when they come. It feels less frenetic. The new riffers (Jonah Ray, Hampton Yount, Baron Vaughn) are fairly seasoned by this point and much more comfortable. This season will also feature episodes with the latest “experiment” subject played by the charming Emily Marsh, as well as new voices for the robots, who I believe all worked together on the live tour.

(L-to-R) Crow, Hampton, Jonah, Baron, Tom Servo

The Netflix era had one fewer host sketch, which season 13 has restored. This also helps the pace. One serious flaw with Rifftrax, for my taste, is that sometimes you really, really need a break from the film. It’s hard to watch Manos: The Hands of Fate straight through with no interruptions! Also, the sketches allow the crew to develop both the show universe and the in-movie gags. This episode featured an instant classic: a sketch where Crow (Yount) and Tom Servo (Vaughn) are being “interviewed” by ’80s era wrestling announcer (Ray) and say increasingly nice things about each other in an increasingly belligerent manner.

Due to the lockdowns, the visuals are hampered by having everyone in front of a green screen: A critical part of the charm of MST3K has always been a reliance on low-budget models and sets reminiscent of the movies being riffed. Nonetheless, the joy over having a new episode and the episode being such a high quality, generally overrides the misgivings over details like this.

Now, the Gizmoplex? That’s another story. Historically, it’s the sort of thing that has never worked. That is to say, it is in part an attempt to create an experience out of what people commonly view as interface elements. The idea that you can browse in the lobby hang on in the lobby or have an avatar in the theater has not been one that has caught on much in the past although the emphasis here is very much on “a place you can bring your friends to share experiences with”, and this might be the definitive factor. It reminded me a whole lot of what Joe Bob Briggs aims for on “The Last Drive-In”, with the show airing on Friday night and not being available for streaming right away, and during which Joe Bob and Darcy—mostly Darcy—interact with the viewers.

In this context—that of a cult following that can throw together 7 figures for a new season—community building in a virtual space could work. We shall see if it does here. Indeed, the only thing that would concern me, were I Hodgson, would be that even though the latest campaign raised more money, the original “Bring Back” campaign in 2015 had a third more backers. Ultimately the idea is for the Gizmoplex to fund future MST3K seasons—something that seems somewhat unlikely to me to occur by the summer (where they’d have to have enough money to start making season 14), but I’m hopeful and curious.

The new season should be available to the public in May. The Gizmoplex itself I suspect will roll out piecemeal over the next year.

A real cineplex on the moon would charge you $40 for a bucket of oxygen.