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Cinematic Titanic - Reviewed!: Sumana was interested in watching the Cinematic Titanic DVD with me. I was apprehensive as Sumana has heretofore reacted towards MST3K in a way that must be described as lukewarm. We watched the first half last night and then I finished it off by myself this evening. She was happy that there was a woman in the cast, but not interested enough to stick around.

In terms of riffs it was a solid early episode of MST3K. That's not as good as it sounds; I have a very-long-term project to watch all the episodes of MST3K, and one thing I've discovered is that the early episodes aren't nearly as good as I remember. There's a lack of polish and an over-dependence on observational riffs.

Observational riffs take some aspect of the film and tie it in to some aspect of pop culture or common knowledge. This derives from the KTMA and first season episodes where there wasn't much (or any) writing done beforehand, and it was just noting who looked like who or what sounded like what. Oozing Skull example: Joel doing the Mod Squad theme song because a particular shot looks like the Mod Squad opening sequence. Classic baby-boomer Joel riff that's only funny because it comes as one of a flood; however, he does then turn it into a meta-joke, one of the funniest in the movie.

Commentary riffs do what people say MST3K does: "make fun of bad movies". It's not making fun to say that something looks like the Mod Squad opening sequence; it is making fun to say (Oozing Skull example) "Yeah, it's nice to just slowly ease into a chase scene."

The best riffs combine an observational with a commentary riff. The first one that comes to mind is from MST3K "Pod People": "Even the movie The Fog didn't have this much fog." It combines two jokes that aren't that funny ("The Fog starring Adrienne Barbeau!" and "Boy, there sure is a lot of fog in this movie") to get a result that's funny.

Here's the thing: I associate this sort of riff very strongly with Mike Nelson. It grows in prominence as Mike goes from staff writer to head writer to star of MST3K to nearly the most senior MST3K staff member to post-MST3K solo projects. Mike Nelson has been refining this technique almost nonstop for eighteen years. It's not easy to do, and he's good at it. I find the last couple seasons of MST3K dominated by bland one-note characters and a need (possibly imposed by Sci-Fi Channel brass) to jump strange new sharks every week, but the movie riffs are consistently funny. They're also extremely nasty, because most of them are this combo that takes the movie down a peg while tickling some semirelated part of your brain.

The Cinematic Titanic team don't have Mike and haven't done this sort of work since the end of MST3K. Two of them have been over at America's Funniest Home Videos, which doesn't have much call for sophisticated comedic devices. So this movie doesn't have much of what I think was the best device to come out of MST3K.

Another thing that would help would be fleshing out the riffers as characters in a fictional situation. Having a framing device really helps with suspension of disbelief, even a minimalist device like Uncle Morty's Dub Shack/The Film Crew. This is especially important because there's five people in the theater, and only Frank and Mary Jo have really distinctive voices (even UMDS only has four, and they're always doing funny voices). This will also help the problem some other reviewers noted, where the riffers were hamming it up. I suggest they're hamming it up because they don't have characters to play.

This is more an analytical review and less a "should you watch this" review, but in general I think you should watch this if you like MST3K. I'll keep buying the DVDs and will let you know once CT hits its stride. I've also ordered some Film Crew DVDs so that I can try the Mike fork of MST3K out on Sumana.

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