Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Sins Of The Flesh

Year: 1975
Director: Jim Sharman
Cast: Tim Currey, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick
Run Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Much like 2003's cult classic The Room, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is preceded by its status and thus almost entirely unreviewable. Thus, in lieu of a full review, I will post the media reaction essay I wrote about the film for my Human Sexuality class and attach a mini review at the end. Sound good? 

Why am I asking? You have no choice.

Prompt: Choose a movie to review. Cover the following areas: The movie's portrayal of sexuality, gender, and sexual orientation: using examples from the movie, demonstrate how the movie could affect its viewers and how the movie affected you.

“There’s no crime in giving yourself over to pleasure.”

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a cult classic celebrated for its cheery camp, low budget charm, and its gaudy excess. In spite of its technical failures, this sci-fi horror musical comedy has captured the hearts of millions of devoted midnight movie fans and currently holds the title for the longest running theatrical release in human history. This is in large part due to the film’s alternative gleeful embrace of alternative sexuality and gender norms, an uncommon theme in 1975 – the year of its release.

The lead character, Dr. Frank-N-Furter, is a hedonistic scientist who doesn’t allow gender, relationship status, or even non-existence impede his lusty pursuits. By the end of the film he has slept with a solid five of the eight characters in his secluded home and would surely have carried on, had his untimely death by laser not killed his sex drive.

However, even more important than his rampant sexuality are the partners with whom he engages. Brad and Janet are vanilla white-bread fianc├ęs, a sweet small town couple that have only ever kissed. But under the thrall of Frank’s spurious advances, both inevitably succumb to pleasure, partaking in the “sins of the flesh.”  Both characters change drastically during their stay at the Doctor’s manor and, after opening the doors to their secret inner desires, are left with nothing, shattered and coughing in the dust.

This is where the film’s treatise on sexuality gets interesting – one by one the characters are subsumed into the orgy of carnal delights. But as the web of sex and pleasure weaves tighter and tighter, each of them finds themselves in a trap of their own creation. The message therein is complex and taut, providing further evidence to the theory that sidelined B-movies are infinitely more thematically resonant than their big Hollywood counterparts.

The film isn’t saying that pursuing pleasure is misguided, but rather that doing so within the context of modern society will wreck whatever that group has built together. Everything is perfect in their orgiastic bubble, but once other factors come into play (like the appearance of Dr. Everett Scott - a figure from Brad and Janet’s past), the merriment screeches to a halt.

But the pursuit of their desires is certainly never looked down upon by the filmmakers. The characters are never directly punished for their actions, merely for their performance in a judgmental society. Their comeuppance stems from jilted lovers and (in an implied finale) once again trying to fit into a world that doesn’t accept their newly warped perspectives of eroticism.

Among these perspectives is an almost total perforation of the line between man and woman. Frank-N-Furter, a self-described “sweet transvestite,” encourages his guests to model after his gender bending ways and they begin to like it. In fact, only after donning fishnets and high heels does Brad ever feel sexy – for the first time in his life.

The film does a fine job of subverting the traditional gender binary right off the bat. After a deliriously heteronormative opening scene at a small town Ohio wedding, Brad and Janet seem to be “on the right path” to becoming another average suburban couple. But the second they step foot into Frankie’s castle, their roles begin to reverse.

The macho behavior Brad displays in the first act is quickly tamped down by his fear of these perverse strangers while the quiet and mousy side of Janet begins to be overtaken by her lust for Rocky (the mad doctor’s creation) and her initiation into pleasure by the (wo)man of the house him/herself. Their masculinity-femininity dimensions become exactly reversed (at least by the standards of the Ohio society that raised them) and their personalities become bifurcated, containing the essence of who they once were but ruled by a new id.

The ensemble’s lascivious finale in the pool fully cements in their gender transformations. Where, in the beginning, symbols of femininity like Frank-N-Furter’s lingerie were viewed as threats (Brad saw them as an undesirable connection between his masculine and feminine sides and Janet saw them as representatives of her “evil” lust and “dirty” genitals), now they allow them access to new heights of sensual pleasure. In addition, Brad and Janet know more about themselves and their desires than ever before.

In spite of their initial reluctance to have anything to do with the castle’s motley crew, their lives and mindsets were changed for the better. Brad became more tolerant and Janet became actualized as an independent and unique individual.

Part of this process of finding a new identity within their gender involved a great deal of exploration of sexual orientation. For all intents and purposes, Frankie is a pansexual transsexual and his search for endless delight knows no biological bounds. His separate seductions of Janet and Brad are pitched the exact same way, evidence that he cares not what lies beneath the sheets, just what he can get out of it.

For what is possibly the first time in the history of film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show accurately displays the spectrum of sexuality and the fluidity of our positions upon that spectrum. While Frank-N-Furter’s boundaries are nonexistent, those of his staff and guests are certainly not so destructible. But despite the apparent hetero- or homosexuality of every character, not a single one of them is closed off to the idea of a same-sex or opposite-sex experience.

Brad will probably never have sexual relations with another man again but he houses no shame about his illicit tryst with the Doctor. In fact, this same tryst was key in his formation as an enlightened individual. And while Janet never directly has a sexual experience with a woman (although she certainly does have her share of the men), the pool finale provides hard evidence against the rigidity of her sexual orientation. And that’s not to mention Magenta and Columbia’s implied lesbian affair (and certainly not to mention Magenta’s not-so-implied incestuous affair with her brother Riff Raff).

The only consistency in the characters’ sexuality is inconsistency. They have affairs with people they connect with, not just people with a certain set of genitals. Again, B-movies must be praised for their insight into the human condition, for it is only in a movie so universally ignored by the common public that this kind of truth can be displayed.

Because of all these views and insights into gender, sex, and sexuality, Rocky Horror has found its niche audience in those with non-heteronormative sexualities and viewpoints. Outcasts, both sexual and nonsexual alike can find their home at these midnight showings because they can relate wholeheartedly to the characters within the film as well as the predicament of the film itself.

They flock together to celebrate their individuality with a film that is nothing but unique.
For fans, a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show creates a pocket universe separate from the ironclad constraints of conservative society, much like the one that Brad, Janet, Frankie, and Rocky enjoy.

But among other subsets of viewers, Rocky could potentially engender chaos (pun absolutely intended). Conservative suburban mothers viewing the film would be absolutely shocked at the lewd behavior displayed both onscreen and off. Far from being a learning opportunity about the validity of alternative sexual methods, Rocky Horror is so over the top that it may increase resentment toward the very activities it seeks to support and encourage.

If the message was transmitted in blander material, it wouldn’t reach anybody, but the way it is presented can be dangerously alienating to those who haven’t been primed to receive it. This could include any group of people from the aforementioned suburban mothers to homophobic fathers, hard-headed policemen, closed-minded seniors, and just about anybody who has influence in a closed-minded community (which is in fact, the very community the film vilifies).

But for me personally, Rocky Horror presents pure pop culture magic. I fall into the subculture of non-heterosexuality so I am a natural fan of the project, but beyond that I have an infinite appreciation for the scope of human experience this one terrible film manages to cram into itself. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is absolutely bursting at the seams with meaningful messages about the state of modern sexuality, both intentional and unintentional but all massively important.

The success of the film has a lot to do with that and the increasing mainstream acceptance of gays, lesbians, transgender, and bisexual individuals has a lot to thank Rocky for due to its widespread popularity within an increasingly un-cult market. As more and more people are pulled into its vast orbit and as those people begin to have kids, there is a weakening of the societal bonds that ensnare LGBT youth as well as any and all alternative lifestyle individuals like punks, skaters, musicians, or even visual artists.

Rocky Horror is about accepting yourself for who you are and letting your freak flag fly. It isn’t healthy to keep your Self in a cage and the environment that the midnight screening crews have created is one of absolute acceptance of every Self anybody has to offer. This celebration of human existence (for humans are – in essence and of necessity – sexual creatures) is what appeals to me the most about this long classic film, despite its many many many obvious shortcomings.

A gaudy and insightful camp classic at best and an earnest attempt at embracing sexuality at worst, Rocky Horror is a win-win as far as I’m concerned. The sheer amount of love and understanding in each grain of film will forever be embedded into my heart, and those of others.

I fervently wish that Rocky stands as a cultural tentpole for years and decades to come. And as long as people keep attending and celebrating, this is a positive tradition of celebrating the human condition that promises to continue long after we’re gone. And that is something I can only think about with a grin.

Thank you, thank you. And now for a quick review.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is perhaps the best known cult film in the entire world. Based on a West End musical written by Richard O'Brien so he could afford his rent, it turned out to be a smash hit in the midnight community and has been playing weekly since April 1976, making it the longest running movie in the history of cinema.

The musical film could have flopped phenomenally but let's thank our lucky stars that it didn't. The film is usually looked down upon as a crappy B-picture, but it has this going for it - the music is spectacular. Regardless of the budget and the continuity and the acting and everything else it has going against it, the music was written by somebody with passion and heart and the unforgettable tunes that drive the story along are a key factor in the film's success. It's impossible to overemphasize how important the songs (especially The Time Warp) are to the fun factor. 

I really don't want to tax your reading abilities after that long essay, so I'll wrap this up quick. Rocky Horror is an experience that, even if you don't personally enjoy it, is a must on the bucket list of every single person alive. You have to go. At least once.

It's the perfect cult film - catchy tunes, dumb dialogue, lots and lots of sex, and big stars before their breakout roles. I adore it and I've seen it too many times to count.

That said, to be completely honest, there's something a little off to me about the audience participation aspect of the midnight screenings. I think what bothers me is that if you don't know the script, you're left floundering with no room to maneuver. The beauty of riffing on The Room is that it's relatively new so there's still areas where you can improvise, but with Rocky you either know it or you feel like an alien in a vast sea of shouting.

For that reason and that reason only, I knock off a point. But as one of the initiated, I can say I truly enjoyed my recent experience at the Long Beach Art Theatre and simply can't wait to do it again.

Rating: 9/10
Word Count: 2167
Reviews In This Series
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Sharman, 1975)
Shock Treatment (Sharman, 1981)

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