I’ve been watching a lot of old episodes of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (MST3K) on YouTube. It’s not a quarantine thing; I just like it. If you’ve never seen MST3K, it’s a T.V. show from the 90s that features a man sent up to space by villains who torture him by making him watch terrible old movies. The man and his robot friends keep their sanity by riffing and cracking jokes at the cheesiness on screen. (MST3K was revised briefly by Netflix; modern episodes can be seen there.)
The movies are well and truly awful. You really cannot watch them without the jokes; even then, they can be hard to get through. And yet this, ironically, makes it perfect viewing for when I’m doing something else, like typing or cooking or playing Candy Crush on my phone. Typically, I watch the same episodes over and over, until I have all the jokes memorized and can practically recite the bad movies word for word.
Sometime around the 20th viewing of an episode, I start to become oddly sympathetic to the bad movie. Once you get through the tedium, the confusion, the bad acting, the ugly visuals, and the lack of budget, there’s usually… something. An idea that went terribly wrong. What was it trying to be? What potential did it have? And why did it fail so miserably?
One of many problems I’ve noticed with these bad old movies--the one that’s been on my mind lately--is that these movies don’t seem to understand whose story it is, possibly due to sexism or racism. The main character has to be a white male lead, even when, as I examine the plot and character arcs, I realize that it is not that person’s story.
Take, for example, The Girl in Gold Boots, a 70s softcore version of Showgirls with a ton of original songs that are just catchy enough to listen to while I do dishes. You’d think the movie would know who the main character is--it’s right there in the title. The girl in gold boots: Michelle, a waitress who dreams of being a dancer.
The movie opens with Michelle dancing at the restaurant where she works. She catches the eye of a customer named Buzz, a sketchy man who offers her a chance to fulfill her dream. Although initially leery of Buzz, Michelle decides to hitch a ride with him to California. She makes it as a dancer at a club where Buzz’s sister works, and she soon catches the eye of the owner, who also deals drugs. Michelle has the chance to become head dancer--but at what cost? Will her ambition cost Michelle her soul?
The actress who plays Michelle is the second name listed. The first name listed is the actor who plays Critter, one of Michelle’s love interests. Critter spends most of the movie spouting flowery language and playing the guitar. It’s not until the end of the second act that we learn he’s been drafted to the Vietnam War and is trying to escape.
Now, I’m always annoyed when credits don’t list actors in order of their character’s importance. I think that the main character’s actor or actress should always be credited first. However, as annoying as it is when the credits don’t know the correct order of importance, it is simply tragic when the actual movie doesn’t seem to understand who the main character is.
If The Girl in Gold Boots actually knew it was Michelle’s story, the plot would have come to a climax with Michelle’s decision to either stay or leave. Instead it ends with Critter beating up Buzz and the scumbag owner, while Michelle is reduced to a screaming damsel in the background. As the robots riff, “Ah, so he learned he enjoys violence and is ready to kill like a man ought to.” Yeah, apparently, that was Critter’s character arc, him going from a coward on the run to a brave hero.
But it wasn’t his story! He was barely in the first act. He had no strong desires, and we didn’t even know he had a backstory until 2/3rds into the movie. It is Michelle’s desires and her willing to act on them that drives the movie. It is Michelle’s soul that is at stake. Michelle is the link that connects all the characters. The title of the movie refers to her. It is freaking obvious who the main character is--to everyone except to the movie.
And this is not the first time it’s happened.
There is a whole sub-genre of MST3K bad movies featuring a bland white guy (preferably named Paul) who turns into a monster at night, kills or terrorizes people, and can’t quite remember what he did. These movies seems to think that Paul guy is the main character. He’s not.
So, first up, we have Track of the Moon Beast. A man named Paul gets hit with a particle of moon rock and turns into a killer lizard at night. Paul is not the main character. Johnny Longbow is the main character. Johnny is the Native American professor who taught Paul anthropology and is later recruited by the police to solve a series of grizzly murders. Not only does Johnny solve them by figuring out that Paul is the Moon Beast, he also figures out how to kill the monster. What does Paul do? He tosses and turns in a sweat, makes out with his girlfriend, and tries (and fails) to kill himself. Johnny actually does kill the monster and gets the last shot of the movie.
I’m not saying that the Johnny Longbow segments are interesting. They’re not--but at least him solving the mystery is, in fact, a plot. Paul’s segments contain no plot and are beyond sleep-inducing. In fact, they completely destroy what little plot there is by sucking the intrigue out of the mystery.
Then there’s Werewolf, and it makes Track of the Moon Beast look like a tightly-plotted masterpiece by comparison. In Werewolf, a group of archeologists uncover a werewolf skeleton, and one of them, Yuri, discovers he can make new werewolves by cutting people with the teeth of the skull. His third victim is a man named Paul. The movie acts as though Paul is the main character, despite him not appearing until the end of the first act of the movie and not turning into a werewolf until halfway through. Once he becomes a werewolf, he starts “running through the streets, doing things.” He doesn’t seem to actually kill people so much as lightly toss them around.
It is hard to identify the main character in a movie that literally has no story, but I’d venture that it’s Natalie, one of the archeologists who discovers the skeleton and subsequently becomes Paul’s love interest. Not only does she appear in all three acts of the movie and know most of the characters in the film, she is also the one who comes closest to having a character arc. Initially skeptical, the mounting evidence causes Natalie to believe in werewolves. She goes from excusing Yuri’s bad behavior to standing up to him. In fact, she’s the only one who stands up to Yuri, making her the hero by default. It could be argued that she kills Yuri by siccing Paul the werewolf on him. Paul, by contrast, can’t even beat Yuri at a pool game.
By the way, I’d just like to point out that monsters are typically the antagonist of their movies and not the main characters. There is a reason for this. Monsters create problems and sometimes moral dilemmas, but they typically are not the in any position to solve them. The main character--the hero--is the one who solves the problems and dilemmas. Accidentally turning into a monster is not conflict. Killing random people is not a conflict. These are both incidents. When someone decides to do something about the monster, that is the conflict.
In both Track of the Moon Beast and Werewolf, the misguided notion that Paul is the main character forces us to spend great swaths of time watching a man writhe and rampage in the most boring way possible. Had the movie abandoned the notion, they might have cut those parts short and given the extra screen time to the actual main character, allowing them the opportunity to develop the plot.
Would this have fixed the movies? Probably not. I have seen plenty of movies featured on MST3K that knew who its main character was and still turned out to be terrible. But the movies would have been less terrible, and that would have been something. And beyond that, I just find it sad that so many of these movies really don’t understand something as basic and elementary as how to identify its protagonist. If you fundamentally don’t understand what a story is, why are you bothering to tell it?
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Writer. Critic. Dreamer.