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Rocky Horror Picture Show: A stroke of liberation

The original version of this article appeared on the marx21 Website on August 14th 2015, the 40th anniversary of the Rocky Horror Picture Show: 

The “Rocky Horror Picture Show” has been shown in cinemas worldwide for forty years now. The simple message of this once obscure musical is still relevant today. But that’s not the only reason to watch again, says our reviewer, Phil Butland.

therockyhorrorpictureshowposterOn August 14, 1975 the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” was released in British cinemas. It was largely unsuccessful. At first, it was equally unloved in the USA. However, after a year of late night showings it started to find an audience, particularly in areas with an LGBT scene, or in student towns like Austin, Texas. Today, it is the fifth most profitable film ever, and has already generated $140 million.

Transsexual Transylvania

“Rocky Horror” is a musical comedy, which parodies science fiction films from the 1950s – many of which are namechecked in the opening song “Science Fiction Double Feature”. These films were released at the height of the Cold War, and often featured evil scientists and scary aliens, who quite crudely symbolized the threat of Communism.

Rocky Horror takes place in a quite different political atmosphere – a year before the first performance of the original play, the Watergate scandal exposed US President Richard Nixon as a crook. This is explicitly referenced in the film, with one of the first scenes featuring a radio report of Nixon’s resignation. It was no longer so obvious who were the good guys, and just who it was, that posed a threat to society.

The film follows the newly engaged couple, Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon), who appear to personify the conservative Fifties. After their car breaks down, they end up at the castle of Dr. Frank N Furter (Tim Curry), a “sweet transvestite from Transsexual Transylvania” in the middle of a party. Frank and his guests quickly start to corrupt the bourgeois couple. They experience a little homosexual (and heterosexual) sex, and some murder and cannibalism. In the final scene, the castle transforms into a spaceship that flies back to the planet Transsexual in the galaxy Transylvania.

As in the science fiction films that it parodies, the plot is neither plausible nor particularly relevant. The simple message is summarized in the title of one of the songs: “Don’t dream it, be it.” This message goes further than the film’s relaxed attitude to sex and recreational drugs. It is encouraging its audience to develop their own opinions on all issues.

Against prudishness

In the early 1970s, this message was dynamite. The musical on which the film is based opened in London in 1973, just six years after homosexuality and abortion had been (partly) legalised. Gays and lesbians had experienced their first victories in the struggle against oppression, but the lives of the majority of LGBT people were still dominated by fear and isolation. The mere presence of Frank N Furter dressed in a corset and stockings was a breakthrough for many who had never previously seen themselves represented on stage or screen.

For gay activist, James Michael Nichols “Rocky Horror provided a rallying point and created community for many young queers and people who felt as if they just didn’t fit in.” This was not just through the flamboyant Tim Curry. Director Jim Sharman recruited other actors and actresses from an agency called “Ugly” which specialised in people who did not look like fashion models. It wasn’t just gays and lesbians who saw themselves represented in Rocky Horror, but many other groups on the margins of society.

Awakening in the popular culture

Rocky Horror was part of a more general trend in the early 1970s to include the growing LGBT and women’s movements in contemporary popular culture. In 1970, David Bowie who had recently announced his bisexuality posed in a dress for the sleeve of his “The Man Who Sold The World” album. Two years later, Lou Reed had a hit with “Walk on the Wild Side”, a song about the transsexual actresses Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling. On a more general level, Glam Rock questioned gender roles and sexuality, and paved the way for the more politically engaged punk rock.

Even musicals – until then the domain of the uptight middle classes – started to acknowledge the sexual revolution. In the play and film “Cabaret”, Liza Minelli played a sexually active cabaret artist in Weimar Berlin, the hippie musical “Hair” was notorious for its nude scenes, and even “Jesus Christ Superstar” prominently featured the prostitute Mary Magdalene. Few of these musicals were explicitly political, but they prepared the ground on which Rocky Horror could thrive.

This is the political and cultural background in which the slogan “Don’t Dream it, Be it” was raised. Rocky Horror was promising a new way of judging things – and this judgement extended to the divisions that had been drawn between high and popular culture.

B-Movie Aesthetic

We have already seen how Rocky Horror stole magpie-like from B movies, but its cultural reference points are far more catholic and eclectic. Frank’s castle contains various poor reproductions of classic works of art, including “American Gothic”, the Mona Lisa and Michelangelo’s “David”. Some critics have interpreted this as showing Frank’s inherent bad taste or the fact that, as an alien, he has no understanding of art. Yet Frank’s chaotic décor contains much more life than many refined middle-class apartments or galleries. The film is not condemning Frank’s taste, rather celebrating his refusal to bow down to the judgement of “experts”.

The film’s aesthetic steals liberally from cheap films, and the excessive use of primary colours reminds us of the sets of the 1960s “Batman” series (or, if you want to get all high art, of the later paintings of Piet Mondrian). This does not mean that the film only has an understanding of popular culture. Screenwriter Richard O’Brien has described Frank as a mixture of “Ivan the Terrible”, from the film by Soviet revolutionary Sergei Eisenstein, and Cruella De Vil, from “101 Dalmations”.

Similarly, Dr. Scott mimics Dr. Strangelove, and many aspect of the story mimic Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” – as does the film “Forbidden Planet”, cited in the opening song. The point here is not high culture versus low culture, but an effective mixing of the two.

Humour and catchy melodies

If push comes to shove, the main reason for the film’s success is its sense of humour, its catchy tunes, and the excellent acting, not least by Tim Curry as Frank and the young Susan Sarandon as Janet. The universal message of the film – think for yourself, and make your own decisions in art, fashion, and sexuality – means that it retains its validity for every new generation.

Nonetheless, it is worth asking whether Rocky Horror’s political message remains relevant. After all, gay marriage has now been recognised by many countries (if not quite in Germany), and discussions which would have been censored in the 1970s are now readily available all over the Internet, and often even on daytime television. In such circumstances, can Rocky Horror maintain its ability to shock and to empower?

The first thing to say here is that the sexual freedoms won in the 1960s and 1970s are still under threat. We have recently seen tens of thousands marching in Paris against gay marriage, and thousands in Berlin against the right to abortion. In a world where “concerned parents” take to the streets, the mere existence of Rocky Horror is a slap in the face of anyone who wants to restrict our freedom of choice.

It is also not true that our culture (either high or popular) is teeming with characters like Frank N Furter – someone who wears what he wants, sleeps with whoever he wants and refuses to apologise for it. The last four decades have seen many common struggles and many victories for LGBT and their allies, which is undoubtedly a good thing. But it is also still rare to see gay, lesbian or transgender people on screen whose sexuality does not cause them extreme misery.

“Asshole” and “bitch”

Having said all this, Rocky Horror is not universally recognised as an emancipatory work of art. Both the film and musical have received recent criticism for transphobia, as the majority of transgender people are very different to Frank. I believe that this criticism is correct in essence, but somewhat misses the point – Rocky Horror is not a documentary, and the scandalous absence of other transgender lives on screen should be blamed on unsympathetic commissioning editors, or (more generally), film companies who prefer to make another sequel to “Transformers” than anything that represents life as it is really lived. In fact, the year 2015 has seen a significant increase of television and films depicting trans figures – a sign that Hollywood can overcome any prejudice when there is a profit to be made.

And here is where we see the real problem of recent performances of Rocky Horror – as soon as a film or a play is released, it becomes a commodity which is exploited for profit. So, in 2000 some Rocky Horror viewers were charged $80 to see a ticket, plus an extra $10 for a “props package”, containing things like rice to be thrown on the stage during the wedding scene.

Unfortunately for the exploitative theatre owners, not enough people were prepared to buy the expensive props packages. So we had the bizarre spectacle of the theatres paying actors to sit in the audience and use the props. What started as a spontaneous movement of fans from the midnight showings had become commodified and sold back to the audience at an ever increasing price.

Another ritual which developed at the midnight showings was organised heckling – for example, every time Brad and Janet were mentioned by name, the audience greeted them by shouting “asshole” and “bitch”. This was always problematic, but could originally be understand as a rebellion against the couple’s petit bourgeois conservatism. In some more recent showings, this motivation appears to have been wholly replaced by old-fashioned misogyny.

It is true, then, that in some showings, what had once been spontaneous play has developed into dreary ritual. This has been particularly the case in theatres and cinemas where the tickets are the most expensive, and the audience no longer consists of the outsiders for whom the film was made.

The film as a collective experience

So far so terrible, but there are other experiences. Every weekend you can see Rocky Horror in a rundown cinema in New York, every summer you can watch the film in the open air cinema in the working-class Berlin district of Wedding. Here the atmosphere is much more close to that the original screenings.

At its best, a showing of Rocky Horror provides a creative interaction between audience and screen – something which is perhaps unique in contemporary cinema and unusual in all theatre outside the realm of pantomime. The film becomes a collective experience and not something you consume alone.

In 1980 Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote the following in the film magazine “Sight and Sound”: “perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Rocky Horror Picture Show cult is the extent to which it evokes and weirdly resurrects, as if in a haunted house, a form of cinema as community that once flourished in the U.S., when Hollywood was still in its heyday. At that time, going to the cinema was automatically a social event, a night at the movies, even a collective form of self-expression — a moment when one felt proud rather than embarrassed to be sitting next to other people in the dark.”

At a time when the cinema is increasingly dominated by computer animation and mind-boggling special effects, it is refreshing to see a film, whose value lies in its content and the acting. And if this film also carries a message of sexual self-determination and pride of your own sexuality, all the better. This is why Rocky Horror Picture Show has kept its audience for forty years – long may this continue.


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