Last fall, I was asked by a USC dorm which was planning a field trip to Los Angeles’ NuArt Cinema to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show if I might share some reflections with them to stimulate thought and discussion about the experience. As someone who had been a Rocky Horror fan in the 1970s, I approached this task with some bemusement, but I also saw it as a chance to think a bit more deeply about the “cult film experience” as it has evolved over time. Here’s what I shared with those students:
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the 1975 film adaptation of the British rock musical stageplay, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, written by Richard O’Brien. The film is a parody of B-movie, science fiction and horror films of the late 1940s through early 1970s. Director Jim Sharman collaborated on the screenplay with O’Brien, who wrote both the book and lyrics for the stage. The film introduces Tim Curry and features Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick along with cast members from the original Kings Road production presented at the Royal Court Theatre, London in 1973.
Still in limited release 36 years after its premiere, it has the longest-running theatrical release in film history. It gained notoriety as a midnight movie in 1977 when audiences began participating with the film in theatres. Rocky Horror is the first film from a major Hollywood studio to be in the midnight movie market. The motion picture has a large international cult following and is one of the most well known and financially successful midnight movies of all time. In 2005, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”
Here are some questions to ask yourself as you have the Rocky Horror Picture Show experience almost 40 years after it all began.
What Constitutes a Cult Movie?: Film scholar Timothy Corrigan writes, “Cult movies are always after a fashion foreign films: the images are especially exotic; the viewer uniquely touristic; and with that relationship viewers get to go places, see things, and manipulate customs in a way that no indigeneous member of that culture or mainstream filmgoer normally could.” So, what is it about Rocky Horror Picture Show which has engendered this kind of response? If this is a touristic experience, then where does it invite us to travel, what world does it open for us?
Manufactured or Discovered: A key debate among people who have studied cult movies is whether cult movies can be designed and manufactured to inspire this kind of devoted response or whether they must be found and cultivated by their audience. People have made both arguments about Rocky Horror. The original stage production already passed out sheets instructing the audience on how to dance the Time Warp, and thus clearly invited our participation. But, it is the audience participation which has sustained interest in this property over time, even as other contemporary “Midnight Movies” have long ago faded into the background. So, what properties of the film and of the audience participation inspire such passion?
From Cult Movies to Cult Television — Some have argued that Rocky Horror represents the last gasp of a public film culture — that is, the values of movie-going as a shared culture experience. Which contemporary films become events in anywhere close to the same way that the Rocky Horror Picture Show is? Most contemporary cult movies have emerged as such because people watched them on television or DVD. Today, television shows are more apt to become cult objects than movies, and the experience is more likely to be an online experience.
Rocky Horror as Ritual — When the “Midnight Movies” emerged, they were often discussed anthropologically in terms of the collective performance of rituals. So, there are certain gestures, lines, and actions which are performed and reperformed, taking on special meaning and significance to those who repeat them week after week. What role might popular rituals perform in an increasingly secular society? Are there other examples you know of popular rituals of this kind?
Rocky Horror as Spectacle: When it began, the argument was that Rocky Horror was like traditional carnival — a space where there was no division between performers and audiences. Over time, though, has it become more like a spectacle, where certain people — now semi-professional — perform their parts every week for the amusement of others who come once or twice to watch. Do you feel fully a part of the Rocky Horror experience?
Transgression and Tradition: This movie/experience celebrates transgression. For the first generation who went to the film, it was all about the shock appeal — the sense that our parents would not go to see a movie featuring a singing transvestite. But, now that this event has been going on for almost four decades, the odds are that many of you have parents who saw this film as an undergraduate. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, today, is almost a historical re-enactment, one deeply immersed in a sense of tradition. And what counted as transgressive in the 1970s may seem much more familiar in the 21st century. So, does the film still maintain its transgressiveness under these circumstances and if so, how?
Room for Improvization?: Many of the practices now associated with Rocky Horror emerged through practices of improvization, as different audience members added their own contributions to the mix. Yet, these practices are increasingly codified. What space remains for spontaneous audience response?
Local and Global: Rocky Horror is a global media phenomenon, yet it is also one which gets performed locally — tied to specific theaters and specific communities in specific cities. What aspects of the NuArt performance of Rocky Horror seem specific to Los Angeles? What signs if any do you see of the global dimensions of this tradition?
Are You A Virgin?: A classic ritual at many Rocky Horror screenings is to identify those in the audience who are seeing the film for the first time. In the 1970s, it was possible to come to the movie knowing very little about what to expect. But, as RockyHorror references have spread across the culture (for example, Glee did a special Rocky Horror themed episode last year), does anyone really enter the theater without some preconceptions about what they are going to experience? And if not, then what are the consequence of this pre-knowledge?
Talk Among Yourselves.