Minnesota State Of Mind

Mystery Science Theater 3000:
The Movie

Uptown Theatre

IT USED TO be you never heard a Minnesota accent in the movies. Used to be, in fact, you never thought there was a Minnesota accent. But now provincialism is a kind of commodity, loon magnets are on sale everywhere, and so it bears mentioning that appearing Minnesotan is not the same as being Minnesotan.

I mention this not to start an exclusive club, but to celebrate the unique and often untraceable pleasure there is in finding yourself at home in an unlikely place. And while there's little mention of North Star State stuff in Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie, there is a wonderfully cozy feeling of confronting that rarity among mass-market entertainment: a product that comes from somewhere. As Mike and Crow and Tom Servo and Gypsy (and even Dr. Forrester) continue their TV mayhem by haggling over bad movies and mind control, they are entertaining the world at large while remaining entirely true to their roots. Compare this to most American movies and TV, which tend to use "locations" like ill-chosen seasonings at an indifferent restaurant chain.

We're talking about something more than just accent here. You can buy books that describe the accent, and the whole cast of the last Coen brothers movie could give you leftover lesson materials. Costume has nothing to do with it either, since there are many natives claiming century-old roots whose families never owned an earflap cap. This whole idea about what makes a place or person one thing or another is closely related to the acting theories about getting to the character from the outside in, or drawing him out from within. To play Shylock, do you just find a big rubber nose (as Olivier once almost did), or do you conjure up an aggrieved, mistreated soul?

It's mind-set that makes "Minnesotan," and indeed all provincialism, work. Just as a Floridian of long standing would have distinct opinions on real estate, so too would a self-sufficient Minnesotan have some thoughts about stupidity, delightful coincidence and misplaced ambition. As model surrogates of the historic process of receiving (but not making) bad mass entertainment, the Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie crew have spent several shaggy years on TV pointing out that things created and imported from some mythical nerve center (Hollywood, or feeble approximations of it) are absurdly diluted once they reach the final destination--i.e. the viewers. Deflating pretension is a major part of how they do this, and so it's great to finally have a movie-sized attack on a genuinely bad movie.

As this big-screen debut gets rolling, with the credits looming up for This Island Earth (1954), Mike himself reacts to the studio logo by asking politely, "Doesn't the fact it's Universal make it International?" The whole system of ratios in The Movie also says great things about being victims of bad entertainment: It's a David/Goliath, naked Emperor/little kid situation.

You can nominate other regions and subcults as equally skeptical about Big Media, but let's just point out that only Minnesotans created MST3K. From the comfort of their Satellite of Love (from a studio in Eden Prairie, which makes another wickedly appropriate coincidence), these skeptics have been as faceless as the puppeteers of Henson or the animators of Disney, and just as innovative. They were blessed with no identity to begin with, and remain sui generis, unpackageable; maybe Joel Hodgson could have suffered some years, as Steve Martin or Rick Moranis did, within a character type, but Hodgson had the wisdom to duck out of that trap. And when Mike Nelson took his place, it was a perfect development.

Nelson's calm, Boy Scoutish irony and older-brother attitude with the 'bots is a major element of the MST3K mystique, and defines it as Minnesotan. He's so perfectly plain that he could chair the Goodhue County 4-H one day and be a raving St. Olaf socialist the next. He embodies the show's subversive principles: He's not fancy, he means well, he's good-looking but visually forgettable--and he sure knows what he likes and doesn't like. (And it's clear he's read some books and watched some bad TV.) When Mike hunts down errant stuff in Tom Servo's room (unseen till now!) and the room is found blanketed with underpants, the former's mild frustration speaks volumes.

Embarrassment over one's underpants has something to do with this show-and-movie, too, though I don't think there's anything Minnesotan about that. (Still, there is the Munsingwear legacy...) When are you most embarrassed about underwear? The almost-teen, early-teen years? And isn't that also when you start to realize the world has other things besides your parents' ideas? And wouldn't a psychologist say this is when you start to figure out who you are? Criticizing what others think is good for you is one way to point out that you value something else. And throwing out stray bits of knowledge (the haircut of Charlie Rich, the look of a Flemish landscape) that Mom 'n' Dad never told you is another self-defining tactic.

This does not mean that to be Minnesotan is to be perpetually adolescent. But it does support our mass identity as always-evolving (open to possibilities), and perpetually on guard against imported silliness. At the same time, it defines us as ready for coincidence and wonder; the let's-try-it approach that Mike and the 'bots take with the Hubbell Telescope in The Movie reminds me of what Kevin Kling or Beth Gilleland do with their monologues, or what that short Symbol Guy has always been doing with the legacy of funky music--all of them are pragmatic, independent, insightful and whimsically unapologetic. They're just as ready to shake the hand of mystery as to walk away from failure.

Some of our natives put themselves forward as experts on regional identity--the line forms behind that tall radio guy with his worn-out menu of shyness, bachelor farmers, etc.--but the ones who really get it don't necessarily brag about it. We Minnesotans are, essentially, well-read skeptics with a latent love of weird twists, and so we can afford to be passive-aggressive. Like the seasoned actor who digs within to find the right stuff, the people who made Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie have found their strength--and kept their bemused Minnesota dignity--by sitting still where they are, and daring the world's foolishness to walk right in.

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