I go around shouting about my movie love, and yet I'd never had one of the quintessential midnight movie experiences: "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" at the theater. (I'd never even rented the movie on video. I knew enough to know that the film itself is not the experience). I know, I know: here I am on the wrong side of 40 and the rest of you have been doing this since you were 16, but gimme a break. Anyway, I remember a black-clad theater girl on the school bus in the mid-80s, cradling her cherished record album of the soundtrack. She'd actually been to see it, which made her seem very exotic in my little corner of southeast Ohio, very wise in the ways of the world. People yell at the screen and throw stuff, she confided to us with a smile, and there are these crazy musical numbers like "Time Warp".
I decided to remedy the situation by attending the midnight showing at the Music Box yesterday night. I turned up at about 11:30 and got my ticket. Feeling a bit like Dylan's Mr. Jones, I wandered around outside the theater, observing the manifestations of the human form milling about. Many would turn out to be cast members. There was an alluring corsetted creature leaning against the wall with one knee up. Her top half was just androgynous enough to give pause, while her bottom half, clad in panties and fishnets, was very noticably feminine. She turned out to be the actress playing Frank-N-Furter. (Tim Curry in the movie: great performance, that.)
I was slightly atwitter as I queued up: I'd heard that a certain amount of good-humored hazing was involved if the audience worked out that it was your first time seeing it. And in fact an Igor-looking fella was moving up and down the line with a lipstick in his hand, marking the cheeks of "virgins" with a big pink "V". (This would turn out to be the actor playing "Riff Raff"). He seemed to be able to suss them out by sense of smell. I was relieved when he passed me by, no doubt based on my man-of-the-world demeanor. The woman in front of me, decked out in full gear, ratted out her smiling male companion. "He hasn't actually seen it in the theater," she called out. Thus summoned, Igor came over and examined him, marking his face carefully. The fellow seemed to accept it in stride. It's a fair cop, seemed to be his attitude.
For a few bucks I bought a "prop kit," a bag full of all sorts of curious things: my examination revealed a balloon, a noisemaker, a glow stick, a roll of toilet paper, playing cards, a wad of confetti, paper plates, a party hat, rubber gloves, a sponge. Many of these items are intended to be hurled, explained a helpful "prop list" included in the bag. (No rice or toast included: the Music Box draws the line at foodstuffs, it turns out. They bar squirt guns as well. No one seemed too put out). There was even a helpful diagram explaining how to do the time warp.
As we filtered in, men and women's paths diverged for frisking under signs labeled "penis" and "vagina". Once inside, the atmosphere was like the most sexually polymorphic nightclub you've ever seen (if you're a sheltered kid from southeast Ohio like me, that is), with dancers clad variously in shiny gold hot-pants or their underwear (and, to be fair, a few in street clothes). Lady Gaga's "Born this Way" got 'em moving, as did Outkast's "Hey Ya!" The most surprising selection, to my mind, was Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back," but the crowd loved it. It was fun to see young lesbians in their underwear doing the bump-n-grind with each other while belting out lines like "My Anaconda don't want none unless she got buns, son". It ended, perhaps inevitably, with "YMCA", which brought the row of young men to my right, clad only in their underwear, to their feet to do the classic semaphore routine. As the song ended the dancers found their seats.
An emcee appeared. "You're fucking gay!" someone yelled. "I may be fucking gay, but I'm not fucking you," he shot back, to the audience's riotous approval. This all seemed to be part of the give-and-take. Right, said the emcee, first things first: all virgins come forward. My fears had been realized! I hadn't been marked with the Hester Prynne-like letter and thus could've gotten away with laying back in the cut, but, an honest man, I decided to head up and take my lumps. This despite having been forewarned that if my status as a virgin was discovered I'd be forced to strip to my underwear. (I'd worn the skull-and-crossbones boxers just in case.)
A sizable chunk of the audience was now grouped at the front of the theater. First of all, the emcee said by way of preliminary remarks, this movie has been out for 36 years. What the fuck is wrong with you people? We had no answer. He warmed to his theme for a moment or two, and then turned to address the theater. So, what would we like to say to our virgins? "FUCK YOU!" hollered the audience. The formalities having been dispensed with, we were bade return to our seats, except for four good sports hand-selected for further humiliation, two men and two women (including two young visitors from Hong Kong). Though the row of young men to my right, not having been heard from since "YMCA" ended, clamored loudly for the men to be stripped, the emcee said he wouldn't make them do that. Instead each was asked in turn to give his or her best approximation of orgasm in a given scenario. The young Asian fellow was asked to do his interpretation of Godzilla orgasming while terrorizing a city (prompting a call of racism from someone in the audience); he emitted a groan that tore the roof off the place, thereby winning the audience applause award. The four were given prizes and sent back to their seats.
The movie itself began. During that great opening credit sequence with the lips (that much I had seen before), a female dancer took the stage and performed a strip tease. Well now, I didn't know it was going to be like this, I said to myself. This is absolutely brilliant, I was thinking as she moved up the aisle.
From there you know how it works: the cast acts out the movie in front of the screen as the movie plays. The Chicago cast was really great, I thought: they had good costumes and props, and their movements were well-synced to the movie. (And they do it all for love, not money, a flyer included in the prop bag explained.) They made good use of the space, careening up and down the aisles during action sequences.
What immediately struck me, actually, was that there was absolutely no moment--not one second, from the beginning of the movie until the end--when the audience was not interacting with the movie in some way, anticipating or responding, imprecating or exhorting the actors, singing over the lyrics with their own obscene words, making elaborate visual and aural puns. "If you're horny and you know it clap the rails!" they yelled: sure enough, right on cue, a moment later a character onscreen gave some rails a few sharp claps. Sometimes one section of the audience seemed to be engaging in a kind of call-and-response with another. The overall effect was to turn a movie that is, truth be told, only sort of playfully, mildly naughty at its worst into something utterly obscene...and extraordinarily funny. And bracingly non-PC. "Women drivers, no survivors!" "He's so gay he can't even float straight!" Poor Susan Sarandon's character came in for a special slagging. I knew she'd be called "slut" virtually every time she appeared (just as Barry Bostwick's character is "asshole"), but that doesn't begin to cover it. She'd turn her head in close up, mouth hanging open for one second; in that instant an actress in front of the screen stuck a big phallus in her mouth.
There was also some pretty brilliant readings of the image, analyses that any film semiologist might admire. "The link between God and man is a transvestite!" the audience yelled at an overhead shot where Frank floats in the middle of a pool, the bottom of which is painted with Michelangelo's iconic image from the Sistine Chapel of God and Adam.
The audience had a good sense of humor about the movie as well. I could learn a little about film criticism from them. When the filmmakers tried to get away with passing off the same set as two different locations, they hollered, "Same room, different lighting!" When Susan Sarandon's character proclaims, "If only I was surrounded by friends," the audience retorted, "Or competent actors!"
Though the prop list helpfully explained the moments in the film where they come in, and even the moment to get ready, I still had a hard time keeping up my first time. I'd never used a glow stick before and thus couldn't figure out how to work it. Hmm, the cap doesn't twist. How do you work this thing? (I only worked it out after I got home and was puzzling over it: bend it far enough and it snaps on). I blew the noisemaker at the appointed time. When Brad called out "Great Scott!", rolls of unspooling toilet paper filled the air. I hurled mine and got pelted with one in turn. At various other points I sent sailing into the atmosphere the confetti, the playing cards, the paper plates. As the lights came up the theater looked like the scene of a transvestite ticker tape parade.
I had an absolute blast. Another 40-year-old virgin bites the dust.