Like a Virgin


There are a lot of rituals in high school. The prom. Homecoming. SATs. Thin and fat envelopes from colleges. Squeezing zits in the mirror. Getting a driver's license. Explaining the dent in the car to your parents.

Besides getting drunk or stoned under the bleachers, there was one particular high school ritual in which I never participated. It just never seemed all that interesting to me. Last night, almost twenty years after graduating, I rectified that situation-- and discovered that even in high school, I knew myself pretty well.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show must rank among the worst films of all time. It's bad. Egregiously bad. The script borders on incoherent-- and I'm told if I'd been able to hear more than 50% of the actual dialogue it wouldn't have improved. Even its signature Time Warp segment, a staple of bar mitzvahs and high school dances for decades, just serves to confuse the viewer with incongruous, surreal shenanigans for no apparent purpose.

But of course, the film itself isn't why Rocky Horror has become a cultural phenomenon. People go for the audience participation-- the rice, the toast, the cards, the toilet paper, the newspaper, the way-too-into-it costumed folk acting along with the movie on stage and in the aisles. And shouting at the screen. It's amazing how the Rocky Horror experience spread around the country in the pre-Internet era. The thing is, it didn't spread in exactly the same way. Different people learn different things, and then they show up at the same theater and contribute them to the group experience. That might sound fine in theory, but in practice it works rather less well. With no synchonicity, part of the theater lags behind another. Different jokes are shouted out on top of each other. One is left with the sense that each individual is merely indulging themselves with no regard for creating a common shared experience, and the theater becomes a cacaphony of competing sound. I found it deeply unsatisfying.

The particular show we attended was apparently full of virgins like myself, there for the first time. More experienced members of my party informed me that the crowd was unusually quiet, since most people didn't know the routine. Perhaps it would feel different with a crowd full of experts. The multimedia aspects-- all the stuff that gets thrown, the live reenactment, etc-- did nothing for me. Many of the comments hurled at the screen weren't funny at all, and just seemed crammed in there because they could be. The group-mind needs an editor.

Most of the patter was sexual in nature, which is probably much funnier at 18 than at 37. When the crowd goes wild at "elbow sex", I know I'm in the wrong room. I vastly prefer Mystery Science Theater 3000, which does the same kind of thing but in a more consistently funny, clever way, leaving the comedy to the professionals. I understand why Rocky Horror, which must seem rebellious and exciting to teens, is so popular at that age. But damn it, Janet, I don't need a time warp to know it would have fallen just as flat to me then as now.


It does seem to work better with the force of nostalgia behind it.

Damn, you never went with us? No, I guess not... You did miss out - it was great when the crowd was into it, eveyone yelling at the same time, telling the same things. And of course being the right age is important. Teen flicks are funny to teens, not adults, and the same goes for crappy movies that you are making fun of - you have to be in the right mind set.

If you had gone with us back in the '80s I think you would have liked it.

In my experience, it was very different back in 1978 and 1979 - in one theater, with one coherent set of jokes/actions/bits, and a VERY shared experience. The movie isn't egregiously bad, it's an egregious knockoff of about two dozen *horrifically* bad 1950s movies, with a British sense of humor layered on top.

The problem isn't pre- and post- internet; the problem is pre- and post- HOME VIDEO. When we went to the movie in 1978, the theater was the only place we could see it (or any movie for that matter). Jokes and callbacks were limited and timed to fit into the silences between things onscreen. The cleverness and "in-group-ness" was in being perfectly synched, in having seen the movie enough times to know exactly when to insert something without interfering. Today's crowd has practiced at home - alone or in a tiny group, losing the "community" experience - with a videotape or DVD, and sees the theater as a personal performance venue with little or no connection to the movie or to other people.

I've mellowed quite a bit on this subject. For a while I thought that today's kids just didn't have a clue how to be sociable. It took two great live performances at Vassar (where my son goes) (live actors on stage performing and singing synched to the movie) to realize that the crowd wasn't giving attention to their live entertainment, let alone the movie, because everyone was acting like they were alone at home watching TV rather than at a concert or club performance. And the virgins were totally confused because they couldn't hear the dialogue at all.

It's not just teen vs. adult, though that helps. Remember this was a play in London's West End before it was a movie, aimed at adults with fond and/or silly memories of those old B movies. Hell, the kids at Vassar never even saw any of those old movies in the first place, so they don't know what was being mocked; the most they've ever seen was the scenes in "Ed Wood" with Johnny Depp. There's also a fine line between mockery and satire and exaggerated stupidity, and American humor too often tends towards the latter - "Airplane 20" and "Naked Gun" and "Scary Movie X" bear witness to pressing a joke until it's squeezed flat.

So with different stylistic preparation, different acculturation, and different manners, the experience you're likely to see today is totally different from what you would have seen back then.


After reading the title of the entry and then the first two paragraphs, you can imagine what I as thinking.

Because of the audience participation thing, it's quite a different experience from place to place. When I went to one in LA 10 years ago, I was struck by what a rabble it was. All manner of people yelling out over the dialogue, instead of just interspersing comments between it as I was used to in Melbourne.

The group who did it in Boston at Noreascon 4 in 2004 were much more coherent.

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