Manos: The Hands of Fate, Part Deux

Photo courtesy of Manos: Hands of Felt (puppetmanos.com)

Photo courtesy of Manos: Hands of Felt (puppetmanos.com)

(Part 2)

In Manos: Part Un, Andrew Hamlin gave us some context for SIFF’s screening of Manos: The Hands of Fate, and interviewed one of the stars of the movie. In Part Deux, he interviews two more artists involved in the remaking/representing of Manos: The Hands of Fate.

First, Benjamin Solovey is the mastermind behind the restoration of Manos.  He’ll be presenting the film at SIFF Cinema Uptown on the 7th.

Seattle Star:  What is your background in film?  Describe your childhood, your growing-up, and your learning to love film.  Which movies were your favorites as you grew up, and why? Which were your favorites as you got older, and why?

Benjamin Solovey:  I started projecting 16mm film in elementary school after my mother, a teacher, gave me a projector the school was going to discard. The library in Chattanooga, Tennessee had a very good collection of films in that format, with many features from the silent era to the 50’s.

In high school, I took up photography and became acquainted with the darkroom. I went to Florida State, majoring in Motion Picture, Television and Recording Arts, and moved to Los Angeles interning at Panavision. Since then, I’ve been working with motion picture cameras of all types.

I’ve got too many favorite movies to really go through. However, I will say that Danger: Diabolik, which was also featured in a MST3K episode, is one of them.

SS:  How did you hear about Manos for the first time? What were your first impressions of this singular film?  How did your perceptions change as you watched and re-watched it?

BS:  For the longest time, the only easy way to see this film was in the context of its MST3K episode. Like most of the people who watched that episode, I was mesmerized by its strangeness, even in comparison to other films that they featured.
The exaggerated reactions it provoked on the show only added to the mystique of it being too awful to watch alone, whether that was true or not. For many, Manos was their first exposure to the low end of the first real wave of independent “regional” films, movies that were manufactured far away from Hollywood from the 1950’s onward, played double bills and drive-ins, then usually forgotten.

A few magical films did transcend their regional origins, the biggest one by far being Night of the Living Dead–this is the very opposite end of that spectrum.

I may have watched Manos more than anyone else at this point, and I can honestly say that the ability to simply see it with a clearer picture has made the movie much more enjoyable. It is now much more obviously a time capsule, revealing all sorts of details about the time, place, and people that produced it.

SS:  What is your experience in film restoration?  What lead to your determination to restore Manos?  What lead to your discovery of the original workprint?

BS:  This all started with the discovery of original editorial materials from Manos among many old crates of film that I had bought, sight unseen. The subsequent sharing of that discovery online, and the enthusiasm I encountered there, led to the restoration. 

Normally, I’m working as a cameraman, and as such I had no experience in film restoration, only some in film post-production. Fortunately, a surprising amount of that skill set translates over. Imagine someone has plunked a movie into your lap that’s been shot, but has no edits, VFX [visual special effects], audio mixing, color grading, or other polish. The real miracle is that enough elements survived to recreate the picture almost exactly, which is all thanks to the relative shelf-stability of film stock.

SS:  Aside from the crucial picture-quality issue, what are the differences between Manos as the public knows it, and as you knew it?  You mention on your site that you discovered the original opening shot…?

BS:  The restoration is not entirely based on the film as we know it, but the workprint of the film as it was initially edited together. Through accident or design, there are slight differences between the two. Some shots are a little shorter, some are a little longer. A few shots of the family driving did not appear in the workprint, and had to be reinstated from a vintage theatrical print. Extra reaction shots of Torgo unique to the workprint now make some scenes even weirder.

While the workprint differs the most from original theatrical prints is in its far superior visual quality, the reasons why are interesting to me. Though it was shot with a “we’ll fix it in post” mentality, Manos was visually ruined in post production through a series of sloppy lab decisions. To make theatrical prints, the film was cropped from a full frame “silent” aspect ratio to the narrower “Academy” ratio, though they had clearly made no compensation for this in framing.

As it was blown up without any care from 16mm Reversal to 35mm, it lost a great deal of clarity. And most crucially, color and brightness were all over the place, with printer calibrations changing mid-shot at times. 

The workprint, which is made of high quality Ektachrome dupes, and an incomplete set of A/B rolls, consisting of Ektachrome film straight out of the camera, allowed us to bypass all of the above problems for almost the entirety of the film. Though the workprint was never intended for public viewing, it is better looking than any other element out there and integrates very well with the A/B rolls.

Home video releases in the past have always omitted the opening shot of the film, which is a slow pan over El Paso from the overlook on Scenic Drive. It is possible, viewing it in high resolution, to see tiny cars moving on the highway below, as well as some of Juárez, Mexico across the border. We have reinstated that shot, which got quite the reaction when we screened it in El Paso. For them, it must have been a lot like opening a time capsule.

SS:  What aspects of Manos do you feel are the most misunderstood?  Did the MST3K robots help or hurt its reputation?  Did they do both?

BS:  The backstory of this film is the basis of many wild rumors, but the facts as we do know them would still make a good movie: in a small, extremely conservative border town, a group of community theater acquaintances got together and created a threadbare, pulpy, horror film that perplexed and bothered everyone that saw it. After a glamorous premiere that quickly turned disastrous, the film all but vanished–more rumor than fact–until it was rediscovered by icons of comedy who saw in it not only humor value, but also perhaps the same handmade spirit of their own show.

Make no mistake, without MST3K this film would not have been rediscovered. The fact that no one had heard of this film, and the extremely regional and outside nature of it, helped make it such a memorable episode of the show: compared to their usual fare, Manos may well have come from some alternate dimension. That being said, MST3K subverts and adapts each film it features into an entirely new, humorous context (the French would probably call this détournement).  It would be a mistake to say that you’ve “seen” a particular film just from watching it on the show. 

In fact, viewing Manos with an audience, without any outside guidance or accompaniment, is the most satisfying way I know of to see it. The long stretches of silence, with the actors looking towards the camera as if lost, are better than any joke. You begin to notice that continuity is non-existent: in three successive shots a character is awake, then asleep, then awake again in the space of a few seconds. The weird cadence of the dialogue, the inappropriate yet catchy musical score, and the illogical actions of the characters all pull the audience into the vortex of a collective fever dream. It’s the real deal, a truly unique filmgoing experience.

SS: What version of the film will be shown in Seattle? How far along is the restoration?

BS:  The restoration is done, minus some final tweaks before it reaches Blu-ray disc. Seattle will see a digital presentation.

SS:  Where have you taken Manos before Seattle?  What reactions have you had? Which fan reactions and/or questions were the most memorable?

BS:  The most memorable screening by far was in El Paso, Texas, only feet away from where the film had originally premiered. A big, enthusiastic crowd came out to revisit the film, which is something of a local legend. A gentleman who had attended the original premiere of the film in 1966 came up to me afterwards and informed me that the restoration looked better than the film itself had when it was originally shown.

SS:  Manos spinoffs include a stage play, a puppet show (by a Seattle puppeteer), and a planned sequel.  Are you keeping up with these developments?  Your thoughts on them?

BS:  These projects and mine have been very friendly. Like me, they have found something very fascinating about this film and brought their own unique kinds of artistry to expand on the experience. 

Brian Koch’s stage play, for instance, one-upped the unsettling dubbed voice of the small child in the movie by having the actual actress from the film (Jackey Neyman Jones) voice her lines over a scratchy PA. The live band, complete with lounge singers, carried on cheerfully with little regard for context, just like in the movie. The question mark in the “The End?” screen prompted a series of hypothetical “other” endings that might have been.

I also don’t want to overlook Sam Beddoes in the UK, who made a wonderful Nintendo-style videogame adaptation of the film. It’s hard but rewarding, and serves as a tribute to many other MST3K-featured films as well.

 Manos: The Hands of Felt by Seattle’s own Rachel Jackson, will be opening this coming Friday, and I can’t wait to see it. Jackson will also be joining us for our screening on the 7th to give audience members a sneak peek of what she has in store. Just seeing the “Master” puppet in action should be worth the price of admission…

I think that Manos might appeal to those in creative fields because of its unmistakably handmade aura, the creativity and the audacity that was required by its crew to make it. I think those qualities also spoke on some level to the makers of MST3K, who built puppets out of thrift-store items and ran their show out of a small studio in Minnesota.

SS:  What are your immediate plans for the future with the Manos restoration project?  How much money will you need to finish, and how can people help out?

BS:  Our Kickstarter backers gave us the budget we needed to carry out the restoration in full. The one extra thing I am aiming for is the preservation of the restored movie on a newly-struck 35mm print. It’s an expensive process, but well worth it as there is currently no safe way to preserve digital material over the long term. Film-out tests have been done, the results are promising, and we are very close to affording it. To put us over the tipping point and make film screenings possible, I’m selling posters and t-shirts in our fundraising store .

 

..and last but not least, Rachel Jackson, mastermind of Vox Fabuli puppets, re-presents her Manos:  The Hands Of Felt  puppet show at Richard Hugo House, August 9-17.  Her own experiences below:

Seattle Star:  Did you grow up in Seattle?  If not, when did you arrive, and from where?  What were your first impressions of the city, and how have they changed over the years?

Rachel Jackson:  I grew up in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri. I went to college in Missouri as well, so my move out to Seattle was my first big, life-changing move. I’ve been here for about ten years now. My first impression was that Seattle was gorgeous and had a lot going on as far as original theatre work goes; that hasn’t changed.

SS:  Please describe your background in puppetry and art. Did other arts lead you into puppetry?  What were your first experiences in puppetry, and what/who were your most powerful influences?

RJ:  I’ve been a theatre person forever. I lucked into the part of The Jailer in a Vacation Bible School skit of “Paul and Silas in the Jail” back in 2nd grade, because the guy they’d cast wouldn’t learn his lines, and I’ve been doing whatever theatre I could get my hands on since. (Church choir, then a pantomime troupe in middle school because we didn’t have a drama club, all-school plays and musicals in high school, majored in it in college, etc.)

I’d always loved puppets, thanks to, of course, Jim Henson, and I took workshops sporadically, but I really got into it in 2008 thanks to Annex Theatre. They put out a call for puppet builders for their show S2 and I happened to be free and thought “Why not?”

Annex has the awesome philosophy that if a company member wants to learn something new working on a show, they want to support that, so they welcomed me into that role. And then the puppet designer for the show had to drop due to health issues, so suddenly I was designing and building. And the time just flew by, so I knew I’d found something that was for me.

In the lobby after one of the performances, an improv friend approached me and said he was going to be directing an improvised version of Labyrinth and would I like to join the cast and design and build puppets for it? And I’ve pretty much not been without a puppet related project ever since.

Puppeteering brings together a lot of things that have always been important to me: physical work, focus, crafting and it also gets me out of my head (something I always struggle with as an actor) better than anything else has ever done.

SS:  How did the idea of a Manos puppet show get started?  What were your first moves toward making it a reality?

RJ: It actually started as a joke. It was November of 2010 and I was at home one night riffing with my husband on the topic of “puppetizing” various things. I looked down at my copy of Mystery Science Theatre 3000: The Essentials and exclaimed “MANOS – The Hands of FELT!” Almost immediately the image of The Master as a ping-pong-eyed, Muppet-style puppet popped into my head. The next day, I got the notion that the extended wife fight could mash-up with The Ballroom sketches from The Muppet Show in a really fun way.

The idea just grabbed hold of my brain and refused to let go.

I started by talking to trusted people about the idea. And then I watched the movie. And then I watched it again (shudder) to transcribe it. And then I worked on the script over most of the holidays of that year (2010).

SS:  How did the construction of the “Manos” puppets proceed?  Were you able to incorporate any of Torgo’s satyr-like qualities into a puppet which (presumably) has no legs or feet?

RJ:  With almost all of the puppets, we started from the film and worked to make them evoke those characters. With the most iconic characters (The Master and Torgo) we aimed to make them as much like the originals as possible. With second-tier characters (Hal and Diane and Debbie, The Wives) we went for the general look. And then we gave ourselves a lot more leeway with the B “plot” puppets (Sheriff, Make-out Couple)

Yeah, we talked for awhile about whether to give Torgo his legs or not. We wound up not doing it, because none of the other puppets have legs. Paul Velasquez, who built Torgo, focused mostly on making him look ragged and dirty, and then recreates the walk with his own legs. I think the choice works out pretty well (And then, of course, there’s the debate over whether Torgo was actually intended to be a satyr or not….)

SS:  How does the Manos puppet show differ from the film?  How did you go about incorporating other elements?

RJ: Hands of Felt takes the movie plot and mixes it with a highly fictionalized “making of MANOS” story. So a lot of the movie is there in the show, but it comes in a different order than what you’d expect, from knowing the film. It’s MANOS, but not the way you know it…not MANOS as you know it…

For example, the show opens on the family riding in the car, singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Then the Sheriff comes in and pulls them over and that scene happens. But then, once the Sheriff leaves, the Hal puppet yells “CUT!” and you realize you’ve been watching them film the scene from the movie.

Then they go to drive to another location, get lost in the desert and wind up at Valley Lodge. So it winds up being the story of Hal bravely trying to carry on and make his movie in the face of difficult actors, the death of the dog, a creepy cult, and Torgo. Always Torgo.

Most of the songs in Hands of Felt are the songs that are in the film. Again, they just come in different places. For instance “Forgetting You”, which plays over the closing credits in the film, in our show becomes the First Wife’s song of lament and longing after The Master ties her to the column. I put a lot of thought in to putting the songs into places where they would make sense.

Though there are no direct allusions to it, The Venture Brothers was a huge inspiration in how to blend pop culture references into another story.

SS:  How do the puppeteers go about manifesting the Manos characters, and how many times did everyone have to watch the film to get theircharacters down pat?  (And how difficult did repeated watchings of Manos become?)

RJ:  What our director asked us to do is watch for the quirks, the specific ways in which these individuals are bad actors and then try to recreate one or two of those things. (Torgo is a buffet of weirdness in this sense, and I have it easy as Debbie because the woman who overdubbed her voice apparently had the odd notion that children sound like they’re talking through a sock….Diane acts with her head more than the rest of her body…Hal is almost always angry, etc.) It would be easy to just do Generalized Bad Acting in these parts, but it wouldn’t be nearly as funny.

I’m guessing the watch rate is about 2-3 times…..though I hope on later watches people are just watching their own scenes and not the rest of the movie.

I’m actually due for another watch myself right about now. Which will bring my total to….14-ish, I think? For the remount, we watched it together at the first read-through; watching it with other people always helps. I find that just watching the whole movie gets harder, but watching it with A Purpose, such as trying to recreate something specific from the film, makes it easier.

The weirdest thing for me about watching Manos so many times, is that I start to get a sort of Stockholm Syndrome…I get really sympathetic towards Hal and what he was trying to do.

SS:  Do you prefer Manos with the MST3K robots, or without?  What do you think are the most misunderstood aspects of the film?

RJ:  With robots, definitely with. I let myself watch the MST3K version instead of the plain film as a special treat.

I unfortunately do still think Manos is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. However, I think the plot, while there isn’t quite enough of it for a full-length movie, is way more interesting than most people give it credit for. Also, the music in the movie (and there’s a lot of it) is actually pretty darn good. Except for the Torgo theme, of course.

I also think the movie doesn’t get enough credit for just existing. It took a massive act of will on the part of Hal for Manos to exist at all. He must’ve been a ridiculously good salesman.

SS:  How did the first run of the show go?  What were audience reactions like?

RJ:  It went really, really well. Surprisingly well. We sold out all of our shows after the first weekend. And got to perform at Bumbershoot. Mostly people seemed to really enjoy it, whether they had seen the movie or not.

The Kickstarter campaign got a lot of lovely comments from people who had seen the show in 2011 and loved it. (And, shockingly for the Internet, no comments at all from people who had seen it and hated it.)

SS:  Has anyone from the movie seen the puppet show yet?  If so, what are their reactions?

RJ: Not yet. They are coming opening weekend. My fingers are crossed that they enjoy it.

What has been extra-great about this whole experience for me, is getting to know the extended Manos family–Jackey, who played Debbie; Bryan Jennings, the son of the sheriff; Ben, who did the Restoration; the crew in Portland, who just remounted their live Manos show – they’re all just awesome people and they’ve totally embraced me as one of them, which is lovely.

SS:  What lead you to relaunch the puppet show?  What are your plans for the DVD?  How will you go about filming the puppet show, and which extras will be included on the finished DVD?

RJ:  Because the first run was so successful, the idea of relaunching it was always there. But the real impetus was in 2012 when several geek-centric websites (Topless Robot, The Mary Sue, etc.) found the YouTube clips from the original show. They seemed really enthusiastic, people in general seemed really enthusiastic, so it seemed like Puppet Manos had legs.

The debate for me was how to remount it and how to get it to a wider audience. I chewed a long time on a DVD versus a tour…both would be new territory for me…and finally decided a DVD would be slightly easier to tackle.

Local company Pressing Pictures LLC will be doing the filming. Our plan is to shoot the live show during the second weekend of the run. We’d have 3 cameras going per night, to get as much coverage as possible. Then, we’ll have an additional afternoon of shooting, where the cameras will be allowed to get in closer and catch things we may’ve missed.

That day will turn into the Wrap Party, and being invited to that is one of the Kickstarter tiers. (Not only do you get snacks and party beverages, but there’s a high likelihood you’d wind up on the DVD as part of the studio audience.)

But, as much as possible, I’d like the DVD to make it feel like you’re there watching the show. Because the audiences seem to really really enjoy it, so I’d like that fun to be part of the DVD experience. The Kickstarter campaign reached the stretch goal of Audio Commentary Track, so that extra will be on the DVD…and I expect that will feel very much like hanging out with the cast.

SS:  If your production does need more money, how can people get involved?

RJ:  At this point, we really just want people to come and enjoy the show. And tell all their friends to come too. ;)

(The End?)