Sunday, October 17, 2010

Science Fiction, Double Feature: Why Rocky Horror is a Masterpiece

I was not one of the johnny-come-latelies to the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I saw it at quite a young age, and long before it really hit the mainstream and suddenly everyone was doing callback parties for Halloween. I'm not saying it's a bad thing, not at all; everyone should know this film. Everyone should appreciate it, and everyone should be aware of its significance.

I'm also extremely fond of Shock Treatment, which was a film too far ahead of its time to be appreciated when it was released. It's a pity, since in many ways it's actually more polished and slicker than Rocky Horror, but it was often compared to its predecessor (to which it was not a sequel) unfavourably when in actuality they were two very different works that are incomparable. It's better to consider them siblings. Shock Treatment is especially important in this day and age of 'reality TV', king-for-a-day celebrity, and music video culture, which it more or less entirely predicted.

But today I'm going to talk about Rocky Horror, why it is special to me, and why I think it should be special to you, too. Especially at this time of year, my favourite holiday Halloween and my favourite season of autumn, it is important to remember the things like this.

From the very beginning, Rocky Horror seems like a story that is little more than a musical pastiche of 1950s Americana. However, as it continues, it quickly becomes clear that it is a deeply subversive work, one that calls more or less everything about that period's values into question. Brad is hopelessly lost in self-denial of his true desires, but until his and Janet's ordeal, he was never in any situation to discover them. You can notice it even as early as 'Dammit Janet'. Similarly, Janet easily begins to come into her own once her inhibitions have been chipped away, coming to the realisation that she isn't happy to be a demure, retreating, virginal trophy.

Frank and the strange cast of characters who greet us on our journey through the film's chronicle are eye-openers. It is especially noteworthy that Frank is bisexual and a crossdresser. Tim Curry's perfect portrayal makes Frank into an icon, a larger-than-life figure that is more godlike than anything human, so much so that it makes his show-stopper 'I'm Going Home' all the more poignant.

All the subtleties in the background, all the details, all the little could watch the film hundreds of times and never catch them all. It's amazing how painstakingly the film is constructed and, even with the help of the commentary from Richard O'Brien and Patricia Quinn on the DVD, there are so many things there that it is impossible to note them all in a single viewing, or even in several.

But the thing that always gets me, which I didn't understand for some time, is the special magic of Rocky Horror. Viewed as it is, it seems a bit downbeat and depressing. There has been this explosion of identity, this vital party wherein every single person involved has had to face his or her true self and realise what it is he or she really wants, and who he or she really is. And then, just as quickly as it had begun, it ends again. Fortunately, it avoids the hackneyed plot device of everything going 'back to normal'; it's clear from 'Super Heroes' that everything has changed, which is confirmed by the reprise of 'Science Fiction, Double Feature'.

But how can it be salvaged? Part of the reason why it's important it seem downbeat is because in the films of the 1950s, anything deviant from the norm -- especially aliens from outer space -- always had to be defeated and the status quo preserved. It's just another aspect of the film's subversive nature. It is important that as the audience, we sympathise not with the two supposed protagonists Brad and Janet, but with anyone else. Brad and Janet are as much the antagonists as anything, the oppressive force of 1950s American conformism. We cheer when they themselves are subverted and their strong aspirations of mediocrity dashed irreparably. Any who identified with them at the outset are forced to question themselves through Brad and Janet's own experiences.

But we are not Brad or Janet. We are the Transylvanians, the creatures of the night who make a party of things when 'sensible folk' don't dare step out. We are the ones who spend our nights in this strange and wonderful mansion, where anything and everything could and does happen. There is nothing beyond imagining in Frank's mansion.

And that is why it must go the way it goes. The night must end, and day comes again, so that light can be cast on the reality of Brad and Janet's situation. They must understand what they did, what they always were, and what they have awakened themselves to see. It was always there, it was always them, and now, can they ever conform again? Even if they try, they can never, ever forget what happened. Even if they pretend, they will know they are pretending. What is seen cannot be un-seen. What is experienced cannot be taken back.

But we creatures of the night, who have seemingly been defeated and our plans foiled...what of us? We know ourselves, although every journey through Frank's discovery and floor show changes us. We notice new things, about everything else and about ourselves.

The night goes and then comes again. Even if we have gone through it once, we will go through it again. It will come again. And that is the most comforting thing of all. It's a show, a show for us. It's a party for us. The players do their part, and then it all happens once again. When the sun sets and darkness falls again, Frank and the rest throw another party. It's not a linear experience. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a cycle. Like so many of the best stories in the world, it can be seen as a metaphor for the endlessly-repeating cycles of nature. Of night itself, where anything is possible. And to some, that unlimited potential is so scary.

To me, it is comforting. It is always sad to me that night has to end. It is like being afloat in a magical world of unlimited potential, and then daylight comes and shows you exactly where your boundaries and limits are. But night...night is a different story entirely.

It's why I embrace Rocky Horror so wholeheartedly. I know that, after the last note fades and the lights are out in the Criminologist's study, it only needs the urging from me to start it up again. Frank and Columbia and the others pick right back up and start again. And even before we had VHS and DVD, that was still what it meant to me. All it needs is for night to come again, for everything to start again.

In all the periods of my life, Rocky Horror has been there for me. Ever since I saw it for the first time, it has given me the assurance that I am not alone, and that even if we are all aliens and outsiders, we at least have each other, and we throw great parties. In the darkest time of my life, I watched Rocky Horror almost daily, just for that reassurance. It seems like, no matter how bad it gets, Frank and the rest are always there for me. And they never fail to cheer me up and to strengthen me.

From the first notes of 'Science Fiction, Double Feature', the tone is set by some of the most iconic science-fiction actors and films referenced in the lyrics. But Rocky Horror itself is one of the most iconic science-fiction films ever made. And it isn't just sci-fi. It's so much more than that, it's difficult to pin down into any singular genre.

If you haven't seen the Rocky Horror Picture Show, you need to see it. And you need to see it, not at a mass showing with all the callbacks and props, but at home, perhaps with friends, and plenty of snacks and fun. I'm not much of a fan of the showings, but they can be fun. However, I think the first experience needs to be a personal one. See it. Embrace it. And as Frank so famously says:

Don't dream it, be it.

Words to live by.

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