The energy of a live performance is not an easy thing to capture. A theater production or a rock concert happens as you watch; a film is a record of something that’s already happened. Of course, that cuts both ways. Barring environmental details like whether the person next to you is texting incessantly throughout, the movie I see today is the one you saw last week, but there’s no guarantee that the band who blew my mind last time they came through town will be as good the next time through.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a movie, but even its most ardent devotees concede there’s no point in watching it at home, whether or not you have a copy of Warner Bros.’ spiffy new Blu-ray. If it needs to be seen at all, it’s with an audience that comes loaded for bear, corseted and mascaraed, with its dancing shoes on and a bag full of rice in hand.
I imagine that the best way for neophytes—or “virgins,” in Rocky Horror-speak—to enter the fold is in the company of a seasoned initiate, someone who can make sure they don’t yell “asshole!” when they’re meant to yell “slut!” But if I ever knew people who took part in the aging ritual of a full-dress Rocky Horror screening, I don’t now. So it was as a dewey-eyed innocent that I headed to my very first viewing, ready to be ravaged.
After consulting the list of screenings at RockyHorror.com, I found one at Cinema 16:9 in nearby Lansdowne, wagering that the late show on the night before Halloween would offer maximum debauchery. While the staff cleaned up after the early show, we were ushered into a smaller downstairs theater where vintage instructional films played on a DVD loop. About half the group of 100 or so was dressed for the occasion, from a buxom Janet to a buff and hairless Rocky clad only in his tighty-whities. From the looks of it, nearly all of them were younger than the film itself, and I wondered how they’d found their way into Rocky Horror’s fold.
Apart from my lukewarm curiosity, one of the things that had kept me away from the film was a worry that watching it would be like attending some sort of camp theme park: a polymorphously perverse Branson, Missouri. Whatever impulse prompted a small group of moviegoers to start talking back to the screen, rescuing a failed attempt to adapt a popular British stage show, must have long since devolved into rote performance: Say this here; throw that there. It seemed, rather depressingly, like the opposite of the creativity it once fostered.
The pre-show did not raise my hopes. In the row behind me, a desperate loudmouth kept up a steady stream of low-grade wit, far more loudly than necessary to reach his handful of friends. The fact that they rarely laughed didn’t seem to dissuade him, which filled me with mounting dread that he might keep it up all night.
They ushered us upstairs, and after handing out bags of props to those who’d paid extra for them—seriously, you couldn’t make your own toast?—gathered the Rocky Horror virgins up front, their foreheads branded with a lipstick V. (Prizing journalistic objectivity as I do, I abstained.) They walked the crowd through the basic steps: Put newspaper over your head when it rains, never miss an opportunity to insult Barry Bostwick, and we were off.
With the exception of the above-mentioned jackass, who was particularly keen on pointing out that the film’s narrator was not overly endowed in the area of neck length—every single time he appeared on screen—the screening was more subdued than I might have hoped. Sure, people shouted when they were supposed to, and we did the Time Warp, but I’d have been more engaged watching a worse movie with a smaller crowd. It being my first time, I was preoccupied with watching, or trying to watch, the film, which struck me as a pretty threadbare and lackluster affair. According to the always-reliable Internet, Rocky Horror was for a time double-billed with Brian De Palma’s The Phantom Of The Paradise, which for my money is a far more successful attempt at glam-rock musical overkill.
Mostly, Rocky Horror felt as if it was trying to be shocking and failed. Apart from the pair of identically staged scenes where Tim Curry seduces first Susan Sarandon and then Barry Bostwick, its warmed-over homoeroticism felt as dull as Rocky’s wits, and the costume-trunk aesthetic of its low-budget staging came across as merely cheap. The safety-pin-and-glue-gun style that can be so involving in live theater doesn’t translate well to film. (Derek Jarman managed something of the kind, but then Jarman was an actual filmmaker.) On stage, it feels as if a group of friends grabbed whatever was nearest at hand and decided to turn it into a show; on screen, it just looks tacky.
When you partake of a historically transgressive artifact, whether it’s reading Tropic Of Cancer or listening to Never Mind The Bollocks, you’re interacting not just with the thing itself, but also with its history. As Thurston Moore observed in The Year Punk Broke, when Motley Crüe is covering “Anarchy In The U.K.” in football stadiums—or, he’d surely add now, when the band re-records the song for Guitar Hero—the context in which the song was meant to be heard is irretrievably lost. Either you listen to it as if it were just released, which inevitably dulls its impact, or you project yourself back in time—and, while you’re at it, across the ocean—playing the part of a scandalized Briton eagerly awaiting the Queen’s Jubilee. You pretend you’re breaking rules that no longer exist.
That, I think, is what goes on at a Rocky Horror screening. In an era when Glee cracks jokes about lesbian scissor fatigue, a man in a corset and eye shadow hardly merits a second glance. It’s a logical gateway drug for teenagers edging their way towards iconoclasm, something they can imagine might horrify their parents even though it would likely provoke mild disquiet at best. It’s a safe way of doing something dangerous.