Sunday, August 23, 2015

How Rocky Horror made me a better person

Re-watching a film you used to be obsessed with is always a strange experience, and the longer it's been since you last indulged, the stranger it gets. Some dialogue, characters and entire scenes can seemingly be forgotten, until the re-watch drags them up from somewhere deep in the memory, and you realise you never forgot any of this shit.

Last week I watched the Rocky Horror Picture Show, a film I was brutally obsessed with for an incredibly brief time 28 goddamn years ago. It was the first time I'd seen it in more than a decade, and it was bloody awesome. I knew every song (up to a very particular point) backwards, and greatly enjoyed drinking in its unique vibe again.

Looking back, with its themes of wild and rampant sexuality, it probably wasn't the best film to be watching over and over again when I was 12-years-old. But it really did help me become a better person, so maybe it was exactly what I should have been watching.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show remains a strange and goofy movie that is unlike anything else ever put on film. A lot of this is due to the fact that it remains oddly timeless - a pastiche of dopey fifties horror films made in the seventies, on very limited sets that have no foundation in the real world. It's a hermetically sealed world where everyone bursts into delightful song, or gets on down into some dirty sex, and it all takes place in a tight little universe.

Fortunately, almost all of those sings are still just as irritatingly catchy and meaty as they ever were - everybody knows the Time Warp, but each song, which come along at surprisingly regular intervals, is infinitely catchy. Over at The Frankenstein Place is a dose of haunting glam, Sweet Transvestite has some great thundering keyboards, I'm Going Home is still fucking heart-breaking, and the whole Science Fiction/Double Feature thing is a fantastic bookend.

And it's all held together by a fine cast, including the young and unflappable Susan Sarandon, and a ensemble who had mastered the roles in the stage show.  Tim Curry has done many fine things over his long career, but nothing beats his sly, snide and spectacular Frank N Furter.

Even with the groovy songs and unique atmosphere of cheery and gross dread, Rocky Horror still has some flaws. Some parts of the story are needlessly cruel, and some of the sexual politics are incredibly dated. And it's easy to see how the whole thing could be repulsive to certain people, with its callous disregard for taste and social niceties.

But it's precisely  those things that still make it an attractive experience for some. For many beautiful freaks and lovely geeks, Rocky Horror is still one of the greats.

My own obsession with the movie was oddly limited, in more ways than one. I had a copy on video tape when I was 12, but it ran out of tape almost exactly halfway through the film, right after the point when Frank separately seduced Brad and Janet.

So I just rewatched the first 45 minutes over and over again, because that was enough. I loved the look of the film, and that unique and unusual atmosphere. I would watch that same 45 minutes over and over again, memorising the tunes and dialogue through sheer osmosis, (although I had to play 'Hot Patootie, Bless My Soul' a million times over to figure out what Meatloaf was on about). I pestered my parents to rent out a copy from the video store so that I could see how it ended, and was thrilled to see the second half continue with the same bizarre vibe. They didn't really understand the attraction, but indulged it.

It didn't last long - youthful obsessions like that rarely do - and I was over Rocky Horror by the time I was a teenager. It was still something I would watch now and then, but the spaces between those viewings stretched out further and further, until I didn't watch it for 10 years.

A brief aside on the experience of watching Rocky Horror - I never, ever got into the whole audience participation thing, something Rocky is truly infamous for, and actually found myself actively turned off the movie by those fan events.

It's hard to really explain why, especially when so many outsiders and loners found those special movie screenings a revelation, all over the world. There are plenty of people who couldn't even think of watching the movie on their own, because the communal experience was what it was all about.

Not for me - right at the height of my Rocky Horror love I got a hold of a soundtrack album that actually included the whole audience participation, and it was so fucking annoying and restrictive and elitist that it turned me right off the idea. It was something about the strict rules over what dumb lines to insert in any gap in the movie, and the loss of the movie's silent charms, that was so off-putting.

I went to one live show once, and it only took five minutes for one person to get loudly upset because the others "weren't doing it right".

Still, while I'm just a grumpy old shit on this issue of watching it with a crowd, I can point to one way that the Rocky Horror Picture Show made me a better person, and I'm so glad it did.

Because when I was going through that phase of watching it every day at school, I was literally living on a farm outside a small rural community in New Zealand in the mid-1980s, and that whole scene was conservative as shit. And growing up in that place, I was a bit of a conservative little prick, worried about things like homosexuals and transexuals and anything that could be classed as 'abnormal'. I never experienced anything to do with it, it wasn't really on TV or anywhere, and I knew a few camp adults, but they just seemed really happy all the time.

So Rocky Horror was actually one of my very first exposures to all these issues, with some very mature moments in between the rock and roll. And seeing a man in sexy ladies underwear seduce both Brad and Janet was an absolute revelation, because I suddenly discovered I had absolutely no problem with any of this. Confronted with some very adult issues at a reasonably young age, I couldn't see why people were so scared of this sort of thing. Because if Rocky taught me anything, it's that you should just be happy with who you are, no matter what the rest of the world says.

Confronted with these things, I really didn't think it was any big deal. If feeling good about yourself means putting on some tight pantyhose and slipping the odd nipple out, go for it. Who cares what anybody else thinks?  I'm still painfully heterosexual, but if people want to change clothes, or genders, or anything like that, then I don't want to get in their way, and I encourage them to do whatever makes them feel good, because we could all use a bit more of that in life. I may have been a small minded little son of a bitch, but Rocky Horror opened that mind right up.

I'm 28 years older now, and a lot of things have changed. But some things haven't.

I still love the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I love the way Richard O'Brien's kiwi accent only pokes through once (when he yells that they never liked him, right at the end), I love the American Gothic thing at the start, and I love that it's still as funny as hell - the 'Brad! Janet! Doctor Scott! etc...' bit is a strange comedic highlight.

And I'm still trying to keep that open mind going. I've seen plenty of other sexual shenanigans since Rocky Horror, but as long as it's this much fun for everybody, I'm up for anything.

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