Camp Hands… of Fate

a response to RiffTrax’s presentation of the film Manos: The Hands of Fate

movie poster for Manos: The Hands of Fate

Figure 1: DVD image for Manos

At least in my own mind, for years I’ve been at war with Susan Sontag’s summative claim about camp: “it’s good because it’s awful.” It started when I was working on my undergraduate thesis, “Cultural Hierarchy: Reevaluating the High and the Low,” at Harvard, where I now realize I was responding to the school’s general high-cultural diminution of the more modest cultural milieux of my upbringing. Basically, I wanted to prove that things are good because they’re good: if you enjoy something, then there’s something good about it. I didn’t mean then and don’t mean now that Sontag was wrong. “So bad it’s good” is indeed the justification that many high-minded people use to explain why they’re slumming in the realm of genre films that have low production values. I just think the justification is inherently flawed. Take the prime example of films directed by Ed Wood. The bad props and costumes, sloppy cinematography and editing, and heroin-tinged acting all come together with precious earnestness, and the precious earnestness is what what makes the lack of other types of skill tolerable. In other words, I think movies like Plan 9 from Outer Space are good because their tone is as compelling as their conception is bizarre–the awful stuff, at least for me, is a symptom, not a cause, of this uncommon kind of goodness.

Even before I was transplanted from Atlanta suburbs to the realm of the Cambridge elite, I felt defensive about things commonly derided for being “low” culture, which is probably why I never really liked what I saw of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K). I thought the “riffs,” or snide commentaries, on old genre films were inanely condescending. Last night–August 16, 2012–I decided to see whether my sensibilities have become more accommodating by attending a RiffTrax Live presentation of the film Manos: The Hands of Fate. The RiffTrax folks are some of the main talent behind MST3K carrying on the tradition via periodic special screenings around the U.S. Maybe I’ve been in universities too long, but I thought the riffs were pretty darned funny, and the movie was pretty darned bad.

image of RiffTrax people from their website

Figure 2: How the RiffTrax guys see themselves.

Why? Some aspects of the film had their own kind of goodness: wild hand-print costumes, scantily clad women wrestling in sand for reasons beyond my comprehension, and a few other things that would have made me laugh approvingly even in the absence of well-planned riffs. I noticed, though, that the riffs were funniest when the film wasn’t doing any of the things I regard as good. Shots framed so poorly that they draw attention to the crotch of a man’s uninteresting pants when we’re supposed to be looking at… something else, I don’t recall… combine with sequences of people staring or standing up that seem… to… go… on… forever. And in these moments, the riff-artists shone, pointing out the ineptitudes of production that had nothing to do with budgetary restrictions or genre-driven imagination. The riffs transformed these moments of cinematic badness into moments of pleasure.

Was the film, then, good because it was awful? I don’t think so. The riffs were good because the film was awful. The use of the film text was good, but that doesn’t mean that the film text itself got any better. I suppose that having the potential for riff-driven resuscitation is a kind of goodness attributable to Manos, but this potential isn’t enough to make me want to see the movie again, at least not without the riffs. By contrast, I’d much prefer to re-watch Ed Wood’s Plan 9 without someone’s planned commentary (although comments by friends would be welcome and encouraged… that’s different).

Camp is, as Sontag explains, both a quality of texts and a sensibility that informs texts’ reception. The sensibility that tags a movie as “so bad it’s good” is what I have a quarrel with, and that’s not the sensibility that informed the riffs I enjoyed. The riffing talent did seem a little snobby–mostly when dissing the Transformers movies, which to me are so visually dazzling that I can’t not like them–but ultimately their humor came from smart observations about the film production’s shortcomings combined with affection for the people involved who tried and failed. Such affection borders on camp sensibility, but at least from my perspective, it stays close enough to that line to make the RiffTrax experience one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend. The movie, on the other hand (heh heh), is welcome to obscurity.

Talking to you is way more interesting than talking to myself. What do you think?