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MST3K: Learning Through Laughter

You can accuse the writers behind Mystery Science Theater 3000 of aiming at low-hanging fruit. You can argue that their sense of humor relies entirely too much on obscure pop culture references. But you simply cannot deny that they perform a valuable service for aspiring directors. Beyond their obvious talent for unearthing the hidden treasures of trash cinema, their “jokes” also occasionally reinforce the fundamental rules of film language, providing the future Spielbergs and Kurosawas of the world with an example of what not to do when they get behind the camera.

Consider, for instance, the episode in which Mike Nelson and his robot pals riff on Final Justice.

At the end of the schlocky revenge thriller’s first act, Joe Don Baker’s (literal and figurative) cowboy cop is rerouted to the sleepy island of Malta while transporting an imprisoned Mafioso to Sicily. Foregoing the traditional establishing shot, writer/director/producer Greydon Clark begins the scene with a low angle shot of his nominal “hero”—and by “low,” I mean from approximately boot level, which has the unintended effect of making Baker appear to be about as tall as a skyscraper. The reverse shot, meanwhile, looks down at a taxi driver as he loads our portly protagonist's luggage into his cab. The master shot appears dead last, belatedly clarifying the spatial relationship between the two characters—and, consequently, revealing that neither of the pervious angles was anywhere near the actors’ eyelines. Crow T. Robot succinctly summarizes the sequence’s numerous stylistic blemishes with a one-sentence zinger: “The three-inch taxi cab driver!”

In other words: conventional coverage exists for a reason! If you neglect the basic building blocks of visual storytelling, your movie will end up looking absolutely ridiculous.

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