Copies of Memories of Copies

“If anyone wants a piece of crap, four head VCR, I just tossed mine in the trash can outside.”

This was the announcement my friend Rae had made from the open doorway that lead to the computer arts room. There were five or six of us in there at the time so I didn’t waste a moment. In vein, I attempted to not look too eager, as I lunged at the black barrel that sat in the hall and reaching past the debris of cut off bits of foam core and mat board, I nabbed the unit it and gave it a quick look-see.

“It wasn’t cheap, actually.” Rae had followed me after I had bolted past her to snatch up the failed bit of technology before someone else decided to break it apart and make a mobile out of its guts. This was, after all, an art school, so the danger was real. “It worked well for a while but then it just stopped playing or recording tapes correctly. If you can fix it, it’s yours.” After a pause, she added, “Actually, it’s yours even if you can’t. Either way, good riddance.”

Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I’m a totally unrepentant scrounge and at the time, a four head VCR recorder was nothing to sneeze at. They were fairly pricy and for a college student who routinely checked under the cushions in the common areas for loose change (The trick was to beat the other guys to the cushion mining expeditions) so that he might order a horrible, little pizza from Dominoes, this was a huge win. Well, a potential win at any rate.

I’ve always loved taking things apart. Mechanical things, to be specific. Getting into some critter’s innards in biology class never made me feel sick, but it didn’t get me very excited either. That’s probably a good thing since I doubt seriously that I have the mental aptitude for professional science and so if I had that gory interest… well, it would lead me to decidedly creepier waters. A good thing all around, for all parties involved, so far as I’m concerned.

Gore? No.

Gears? OH, YES, PLEASE!

I loved finding free technology to vivisect. My feeling has always been that if it was already broken, then there wasn’t much for me to loose. The possible gain was worth the time tinkering around with screwdrivers, soldering guns and pliers. In this particular case, I got lucky. Within moments of opening the case, I spotted the main drive belt, stretched and distorted as it snaked through various pulleys in the VCR.

I replaced it with a large rubber band, and oddly enough, it worked perfectly.

What this got me was not only the satisfaction of getting a new VCR for the price of a rubber band, but also the ability to inflict… I mean “share” a newfound insanity with my classmates.

Mystery Science Theater 3000

Back in the late eighties and early nineties, the concept of viral marketing was virtually unknown. If you wanted to get your product, TV show, or what ever, to go over big then you needed big corporations to shepherd the way. There was no other real way to break through.

Then came MST3K.

The show had nothing to do with Mystery, Science, or the number three thousand. The theater part though, oh… it had theater. The premise of the show was simple and bizarre. A guy is shot into space by two mad scientists. He is a prisoner on the “Satellite of Love” with a variety of strange little marionette style robots and each week, he and the robots are forced to watch bad movies.

No. That’s not quite right.

HORRIBLE movies. Movies that people wish had been forgotten… and here, I’m talking about the people IN the movie. These movies often redefine the word, “ghastly” or at least set the bar that much lower.

When you watch the movie, you watch it with the prisoner/astronaut guy and his robot friends. They will appear as little silhouettes at the bottom of the screen and mock the actors, the plot (if any) and anything else through the length of the entire thing.

This, in essence, was college humor gold.

Here’s where the marketing comes in. MST3K, as it was lovingly known, started out as an “on the cheep”, cable access show out in the Minnesota. If you didn’t live near by, there was no way to see it… except for the tapes.

There was no way, back then, that any major broadcaster was going to touch MST3K with a ten foot antenna and video streaming over computers was not even close to on the horizon. If they wanted distribution, it was going to have to happen the hard way. Knowing their audience, the minds behind the show not only turned a blind eye to taped copies being handed around campuses all over the nation, they actually promoted it! In the end credits, a message appears reading, “Keep circulating the tapes, guys!”

Talk about appealing to your fan base! When it came to marketing, these guys were at least fifteen years ahead of the game.

So, with my new VCR, I happily introduced MST3K to the dormitory and, as expected, it went over as well as you’d expect juvenile and often esoteric humor would on a college campus. No. BETTER! We’d sit up late at night watching, “The Cave Dwellers”, “The Phantom Creeps” or “Manos, The Hands of Fate,” all the while laughing our heads off at the cutting remarks made by the professionals in the front row. It was great!

Eventually, we all moved on. College ended, jobs were found, connections with old friends were lost and MST3K, which reached its zenith by finally being picked up by Comedy Central and then briefly, the Sci-Fi network, ended its time on TV and as most shows are, was finally canceled. To all good things…. Ah, well.

A funny thing about technology today is that it often seems to all be focused on ordering our lives. We, as a culture have become obsessed with keeping track of everything that we have or will encounter, be it friends, appointments or nostalgia. Facebook has reconnected me with many individuals whom I thought I might never again speak to. My computer calendar attempts (and mostly fails) to keep me apprised of when I should be doing something I scheduled and, as I have just discovered, Hulu and Netflix have brought me back MST3K.

So, I sat down this evening with my laptop to see if the old magic was still there. The verdict? Hmm.

It’s not quite like I remember it. To watch it again all these years later, and this time in a crisp, clean resolution was a little… odd. The shows that I recall were grainy to watch and the sound was often distorted as well. The tapes had been copied so many times, that to have the show fail for a minute or two was not unheard of. It was even expected, to a degree. This time, it was so… so… perfect. Too perfect. The lack of a room full of drunk or otherwise decision impaired college friends also dragged the laugh-o-meter down a bit. It may have something to do with a change in my own tastes as well, I suppose.

Still, the fun (at what ever level) is there to be had and if you’re in the mood for some seriously horrible cinema, there is no doubt in my mind that this is the way to watch it.

In my basement, somewhere, no doubt in a very dusty box, sits my old and neglected VCR tapes. Among them is my own ancient collection of bootleg Mystery Science Theater 3000 shows. Copies of copies of copies, in all their blurry finery. Somewhere, I might even have that old VCR player as well. Who knows? The overall lesson though seems to be that some memories are best left as just that.

It’s great to reconnect with friends and relive some of the good times over a beer or three, or even over a computer if that’s the only way you have available, but I think I’ll leave it at that. Someday, I might just get around to tossing out all that old stuff saved for years for God knows what reason. We’ll see. It’ll wind up at the local dump here and perhaps, just PERHAPS, someone will find it and think, “SCORE! I can’t believe someone just threw this all out! I’ll go get a box!”

Yah…

I doubt that too.

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