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Subculture, Hierarchy and Authenticity in Midnight Movies
Lance Conzett Independent Study in Culture May 7, 2010 Dr. Ken Spring
Since its premiere on the midnight screening circuit in 1976, The Rocky Horror Picture Show has cultivated an underground fan-base that has caught the attention of academics and popular culture critics alike. Dozens of articles have been written about the film in its 30 year history, largely analyzing the hypersexual rock opera in terms of sexuality, gender politics, identity and post-modernity—among other aspects typical for sociological analysis of “deviant” alternative scenes. Queer theory (Seymour; Hixon; Lamm), feminism (Studlar) and sexual deviance (Robbins & Myrick) have all been particularly popular topics of study in relation to Rocky Horror. Relatively few theorists, however, have treated the midnight movie audience as more than an outside force engaging with the cultural product – participants in a cultural experience who are being acted upon by the film. What these previous studies have not acknowledged is the fact that the midnight movie audience is a subculture in and of itself with its own hierarchy and structure. To take this point further, the structure that becomes evident over time in Rocky Horror audiences can be applied to similar cult films that followed it in the midnight circuit at art house and independent movie theaters. The dynamic of the “midnight movie” offers audience members an opportunity to act opposite of the socially accepted behaviors inside a movie theater. The members, in defiance of the social norms
surrounding a movie theater screening, embrace an active, participatory pattern of consumption. The audience and other participants—often including (but not limited to) live casts performing alongside the film—fundamentally change the experience of the movie for the individual viewer. As Pulitzer Prize winning film critic Roger Ebert once said, “I can’t think of anything less interesting than seeing Rocky Horror by yourself” (Samuels). A film with a participatory aspect is a fundamentally different cultural product from the film on its own in a home theater, laptop or mobile device. A hierarchy of viewers develops through experience, acquisition of cultural capital and certain rituals performed in the theater. This same hierarchy, with some variation, is also apparent in more recent cult films that have found an audience on the midnight movie circuit including Troll 2, Repo! The Genetic Opera and The Room, which has been considered the most promising Rocky Horror successor by some in pop culture media (Tobias). Even successful films from years past like Point Break have found a degree of repossession and “live remixing” by audiences. This paper seeks to describe the stratification of the average midnight movie screening audience, beginning with Rocky Horror as a foundation and then applying it to other films, specifically The Room. I also consider how authenticity plays into both the audience experience
and the acceptance of a film into the cult canon, as well as the importance of cinematic poaching in these films.
Methods & Setting
I employed a mixed research methodology in order to be in the best position to understand and analyze midnight movie audiences. In total, I attended eight midnight movie screenings: four of The Room and four of Rocky Horror Picture Show, both screened across two weekends each over the course of about a year. All of the screenings were held at the Belcourt Theater in Nashville, TN, a neighborhood movie house opened in 1925 that now specializes in repertory and independent films. It is also the only movie theater in the area that screens midnight movies on a regular basis. Because I saw the films on consecutive nights, I was able to contrast the similarities and differences in the audiences. In addition to observational research localized to Belcourt screenings, I familiarized myself with the subcultural artifacts surrounding the films—fan websites, documentaries, DVD releases of the films, YouTube videos and other works created by and/or featuring fans of midnight movies. I also conducted several interviews, formal and informal, with people with varying levels of commitment to the
film experience, including several members of Nashville’s Rocky Horror Picture Show shadow cast, “Little Morals.” As mentioned, the amount of academic texts written on the subject of Rocky Horror is considerable. The literature review portion is made up of some of these texts, but mainly consists of sociological concepts that can be applied to the phenomena at midnight movie screenings. The bulk of my literature research is comprised of blog posts, newspaper articles, magazine pieces and other journalistic writings that provide historical and social context about the social phenomenon of the films, not just the content. Some book and documentary sources on the broad topic of “midnight movies” were consulted as well.
Background: Midnight Movies as a Subculture
Midnight movie screenings are not immediately recognizable as individual subcultures because of the disparate nature of each film. Often, they’re instead seen as a cultural product within a greater subculture. El Topo by Mexican director Alejandro Jodorowsky, for instance, was adopted by New York’s bohemian art scene (which notably included John Lennon) when it premiered at midnight in 1970. However, midnight movies can be considered subculture using Schouten and McAlexander’s definition of a “subculture of
consumption,” originally used to describe bikers (and Harley Davidson riders in particular): We define a subculture of consumption as a distinctive subgroup of society that self-selects on the basis of a shared commitment to a particular product class, brand, or consumption activity. Other characteristics of a subculture of consumption include an identifiable, hierarchical social structure; a unique ethos, or set of shared beliefs and values; and unique jargon, rituals, and modes of symbolic expression. (43) All of these characteristics can be used to describe the subculture existing around midnight movies. Though Rocky Horror is not a lifestyle for most fans like being a Harley owner is, there is a significant commitment involved when entering into (and, later, returning to) the subculture. However, it would not be appropriate to assume that all midnight movie participants are classifiable as members of a single enormous subculture. Though most midnight movies have a core belief in irreverence to the original work as a commonality, there are nuances in each film and each viewing experience. Because of that, not all midnight movies fit into the context of an “active viewer community.” For this reason, we must narrow the definition of what “midnight movie” means in respect to this community of fans. In La Distinction, Pierre Bourdieu separated “high culture” and “low culture” based on social standing and an understanding of
customs associated with the French aristocratic class. Similarly, a distinction must be made on a smaller level when distinguishing between the different categories of midnight movies. Broadly, there are two types of “midnight movie,” not counting standard mainstream fare with late night screenings; although, there is crossover in the films with blockbuster midnight premieres—The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, the third film in a supernatural romance about teenage vampires, recently set the midnight record at more than $30 million, which will likely be overtaken by the upcoming Harry Potter film and so on—in that many of them appeal to the “genre” demographic of horror, science-fiction and comic book fans. The first style, what I’m terming as “high midnight cinema,” is made up of – for lack of a better phrase – serious art films, sometimes produced by film students. Jodorowsky’s El Topo, David Lynch’s Eraserhead and John Waters’ Pink Flamingos fall into a category of films that are screened at midnight, not because of the communal experience but because of the content (Samuels). The surreal nature of El Topo and Eraserhead made them unpalatable to the broad tastes of mainstream audiences and Pink Flamingos features humor that is, at times, depraved (Divine, the star of the film, at one point eats dog feces on camera). Films in this category are typically surreal and were made outside of the typical filmmaking system. Films in the “high
midnight cinema” canon are generally critically acclaimed and some become corner pieces of serious film studies curricula. The second style, “low midnight cinema,” is distinctly unlike its “high cinema” counterpart. These films are usually not acknowledged or even (in most cases) appreciated outside of their cult audiences. Though an outdated and archaic term, they’re generally considered to be “B movies.” For these purposes, a “B movie,” originally referring to the low-budget bottom half of a double feature, stands to mean films without artistic ambitions of their “high cinema” cousins. Or, if they had artistic ambitions, those ambitions were lost in the final product. Films like The Room and Troll 2 have been panned as objectively bad movies by critics and the films’ cinematic quality is not something that their fans will often dispute. Even cast members gleefully mock Rocky Horror Picture Show as a “bad movie” (Williams). And yet, these are movies that have been embraced by a subculture of devotees despite—and, indeed, because of—their faults. Though not all “B movies” have a developed scene within the midnight movie audience subculture, many of them have the potential to cultivate that kind of relationship based on a variety of different factors including authenticity and top-down support. How films make it into the pantheon of Rocky Horror and other related films will be discussed later.
Rocky Horror Picture Show is the grandfather of “low cinema” films with an appeal to cult audiences. It was released in theaters in September 1975 and, when it failed to find a mainstream audience, later rereleased in midnight screenings on April 1, 1976. Both film styles are typically made outside of the film studio system and are perceived as being authentic artistic creations, untouched by studio executives and protected from Hollywood’s culture of consumerism. However, viewers of the “high midnight cinema” films are not typically engaged in an active, responsive viewing experience. The kind of cinematic poaching and audience interaction that characterizes Rocky Horror screenings does not translate to Eraserhead. While these high culture films are an interesting phenomenon, particularly when grouped with the societal and industry circumstances surrounding the films’ production and release, they don’t offer any insight into the social structure that we are studying. Unless otherwise noted, further uses of the phrase “midnight movie” are meant only to refer to the “low midnight cinema” category. To establish further boundaries within the midnight movie subculture, I did not find any significant crossover between the audiences of Rocky Horror and The Room or, indeed, any other midnight movie scene that I witnessed first-hand. I initially approached midnight movie subculture from a vague understanding of the
“gateway drug use” theory—i.e. a marijuana smoker is more likely to become a cocaine user because of that “gateway” introduction into a deviant subculture (Burton), except in this case it’s B-Movies and Rocky Horror usually is the “gateway” in this equation. The idea was that a positive experience in an introductory scene would inevitably lead to other scenes. That isn’t necessarily the case. Being a member of one hierarchy opens the door to enter into another, but members of one subculture aren’t more prone to participate in another film’s rituals. During my process of finding interview subjects, one potential interviewee told me that although she dresses up in character for screenings of The Room and was invited to join a shadow cast for Repo! The Genetic Opera, she had only seen Rocky Horror once and didn’t have any interest in moving past the “virgin” stage of viewing. What follows is a hierarchy of social organization within the midnight movie subculture. The hierarchy is broad enough that it can be applied to many different film scenes beneath the overall umbrella of “midnight movies.” In this context, a film “scene” can be equated to a “franchise,” branched off from the original concept. In addition, midnight movie scenes are typically geographic in nature and vary somewhat from region to region. I will discuss the specific differences between Rocky Horror and The Room after establishing the typical hierarchy.
Social Organization in Midnight Movies
Kathryn Fox’s study of American punk scenes in the late 1980s is a useful resource for discussing countercultures based on consumption. In “Real Punks and Pretenders,” Fox divided the punk scene into a hierarchy of four tiers: hardcore punks, softcore punks, preppie punks and spectators. But despite that clear model of stratification, Fox presents and addresses several issues related to the imposition of structure on punk scenes: membership is impermanent, a lack of consensus over values and motivations within the group exists, leadership is vague, and so forth. The same kinds of issues plague midnight movie subcultures. The relative low bar of commitment means that, for the price of a movie ticket, literally anyone can adopt and shed membership within the running time of the movie. In the case of The Room and other castless films, the leadership isn’t always clear and people who are interested in these films and participating alongside them often have different motivations for why they are engaging with the film. For the most part, there are no inherent ethical standards, political obligations or responsibilities outside of the movie theater. Despite these issues, a hierarchy similar to Fox’s emerges during screenings that can be applied to Rocky Horror and other midnight movies. This model has four tiers: virgins (to use Rocky Horror’s
parlance), casual fans, diehard fans, and cast members/the charismatic leadership. Each tier has a role to play in the theater and contributes (positively or negatively) to the overall experience. Mobility within the subculture is not difficult and depends on a combination of commitment and the acquisition of cultural capital related to the film.
The bottom tier in a midnight movie scene is made up of people who have never experienced the film in a theater before. Rocky Horror fans have termed these newcomers as “virgins.” The official fan website for the film specifically states that people who are familiar with the film based on home viewings are still virgins until they have a) either completed or bore witness to the virgin ritual (dependent on the kind of ritual being performed) and b) seen the entire film in a movie theater, with an audience and a live cast (Norman). The virgin ritual, sometimes called a “virgin sacrifice” or a “cherry busting ceremony,” is unique to Rocky Horror screenings. The ritual, like the specific audience participation lines, varies from theater to theater and from cast to cast. Typically, screenings pick two virgins (usually opposite sexes) to perform a vaguely sexual act. In the case of Belcourt screenings, the ritual is inclusive of all virgins in the audience: everyone who either self-identifies or is “outted” as a virgin – usually
by associated members in a higher social tier – has a red “V” drawn on their foreheads. Before the film begins, everyone with a “V” is brought to the front of the theater and told to inflate party balloons, put them between their legs and march, single-file, around the theater. When they finish their lap, they’re told to burst the balloons to end the ceremony. Anyone who pops their balloons too early or doesn’t perform part of the ritual is usually pulled aside and mocked by the cast—typically by the MC, Ryan Williams, who also plays the role of Eddie. Virgins are blank slates, not expected to know anything about what they’re getting into with a Rocky Horror screening and not expected to fully engage in audience participation. However, due to the Internet and the proliferation of material explaining audience participation at a typical Rocky Horror screening, virgins attending their first show are much more informed about what to expect than they would have been 15 or 20 years ago. The virgin stage is critical for social mobility. As the unofficial virgin guide states, “Rocky Horror is like sex, you can only have one first time so make the most of it” (Norman). There is a correlation between the likelihood of whether or not a virgin will return for another screening and their understanding of the community and their position within it.
“You can always spot that they’re new because they’re dressed weird, but it has nothing to do with the show,” Williams said. “You always have the high school senior goodie goodie girl who’s in the drama club and dressed in a tutu who gets all pissy because she gets shut down and made fun of.” He went on to say, “the Internet has made people into beautiful unique snowflakes who truly believe they have something to contribute to society. They’ll try to take over.” Indeed, there is a significant chunk of people who leave midnight movies disappointed. During a screening of The Room in April, one female virgin fell asleep and later voiced indifference about the film. Immediately following a Rocky Horror screening later that month, another person was overheard saying, in an upset tone of voice, “First he made fun of Belmont... and then he called me a cunt,” before swearing that she wanted to punch one of the cast members in the face for saying it. She likely won’t be back either. However, for every person who “doesn’t get it,” there are those who surrender themselves completely to the screening and move forward through the ranks.
Casual Viewers & Diehard Fans
Virgins immediately graduate into the second tier once they decide to pursue their position in the scene further by attending
another screening. Casual viewers are harder to pin down as a stratified social group within the theater as their level of commitment varies wildly. The very bottom of the spectrum is represented by virgins who weren’t entirely convinced of the film’s value – the female Room viewer who fell asleep, for instance – but is willing to give the experience another try. These people, by virtue of having witnessed the ritualistic behavior involved in a screening of a midnight movie, are still “casual viewers” despite their low commitment level. From what I witnessed at the various midnight movie screenings that I attended, a person’s position within the hierarchy can be roughly determined based on how they interact with the movie. At the base level of interaction is use of props, then recurring lines, then standardized callback lines, and, finally, relevant costuming. The people occupying this tier are unlikely to stray outside the boundaries of the rituals very often, as they are still learning the ins and outs of typical participation. In order to move from the “casual viewer” tier, into the “diehard fan” tier, participants must accrue significant amounts of cultural capital with multiple high quality first-hand experiences of seeing the movie in a theater setting. A high quality experience would involve trying more rituals and demonstrating a willingness to initiate some of the more widely known participation moments. Although scripts with
audience participation blocking inserted into them exist online, along with guides to films like The Room and message board posts describing their experiences, they are not a substitute for repeated first-hand experience. “If it’s been on the Internet long enough to be found, it’s outdated,” said Donald Atwood, who plays the role of Dr. Scott in Little Morals. The scripts online are full of “70s and 80s lines,” according to Atwood, and the people who shout them stick out as simply regurgitating memorized lines from the Internet. During one Rocky Horror screening, a young couple printed out the script to use at the show, which they were promptly mocked for among the cast members. Cast members later informed me that this was not an unusual occurrence.
Cast & Crew
The top tier of commitment in a midnight movie subculture is the cast and crew, who establish the most tangible form of structure in the theater. They represent the connection between the audience and the movie. At the same time, they’re also in the unusual position of being the arbiters in a room that self-identifies as somewhat anarchistic. They are, for all intents and purposes, the theater’s police force. The conundrum they are placed in is probably best reflected by the
audience’s traditional reply of “fuck the rules” when the cast lays down the law during the introduction. “We’re checking for pukers and underaged kids. We’re making sure people aren’t fucking in the chairs,” according to Williams. Aside from preventing sex—something that apparently happens more than the cast (or, indeed, the movie theater) would like to admit—they are also responsible for enforcing the theater’s policies, which differ from theater to theater. At The Belcourt, for instance, glitter is forbidden because it is too difficult to clean up. The consequence of being a legitimized structure is that they are responsible for what happens in the theater. In screenings of both Rocky Horror and The Room, someone, whether it’s the cast or the theater employee MCing the event, makes it clear that if the theater’s rules are broken (i.e. things hitting the screen, underage drinking, etc.), midnight screenings will be shut down. But what about franchises that do not employ a shadow cast to give the screening experience structure like in The Room or Troll 2? In ideal circumstances, the cast is replaced by a charismatic figure that knows the film well enough to perform all of the participation cues while engaging with the audience. At the Belcourt’s first screenings of The Room (on the weekend of December 5, 2009), the higher tiers were largely absent from the theater. Though many people were familiar with the standardized participatory elements—spoons being
thrown, repetition of lines like “Hi Denny” and “Meanwhile in San Francisco”—the non-recurring moments often passed them by. The December 5 and 6 screenings of The Room were fascinating because the issue of having no upper-level structural system was solved in two very different ways. On the first night, which was held in the smaller screening room, one person took it upon himself to bring the lower-level audience members into the communal experience of the movie. He brought a football and instructed people that they could only throw it underhanded at a short distance (as they do in the movie), handed out plastic spoons to throw at the screen and initiated some of the acts that require significant knowledge about the beats of the movie. For instance, during a party scene toward the end of the movie, there’s a moment when Johnny looks at the bottom-right corner of the screen and waves. During that brief moment, the audience member ran up to the screen, called out for Johnny’s attention and gave him a high-five, prompting cheers from the audience members who had no idea what he was doing—Belcourt employees included. That member of the audience could reasonably be considered a “charismatic leader,” using Max Weber’s outline of authority. Weber defines charisma as being: …a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with
supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader. (Weber 358) Of course, Weber’s definition of charismatic authority is based on divine rule and a medieval style of leadership, which in a far loftier position than simply being funny in a movie theater. However, at the same time, people were impressed to the point of awe over this one person’s relationship with the film and ability to shepherd the audience through the experience. It was at the point where members of the audience intended to return the next night, hoping for the same feeling. That charismatic leader was absent from the second screening and it fell upon the next highest level in the caste to fill the void. However, because the film was so new, a “diehard fan” class was also still absent from the screening, leaving the less experienced casual fans to fill in the gap. The result was a din of half-thought-out jokes and shaky attempts to recreate the magic of the first night. In the previously described scene, which relied upon precise timing with beats in the dialogue, a member of the audience attempted and failed to imitate the previous night’s biggest laugh. Because he wasn’t familiar with the timing, he went up too early, stepped on one of the
lines and wasn’t loud enough for the audience to hear (or understand) what he was doing. The fact that the movie screened in the wider 1925 theater was also stacked against him. When chatting with audience members after the movie, the opinion was nearly unanimous—the experienced suffered without the higher levels of involvement.
The path of socialization in these situations takes on the “trickle down” model of conspicuous consumption championed by Thorstein Veblen (Trigg 104). The only way for a member of one of the lower tiers in the theater to climb upwards is to secure the necessary cultural and social capital to embed themselves within that group. In a sense, the lower stages are in a state of “monkey see, monkey do.” The upper divisions of the structure exhibit behaviors that are copied by the people around them. This is best illustrated with how props at a midnight movie screening are used as an entrance into embracing audience participation. As mentioned in the “casual fan” section, I view prop usage as the most basic way a new fan can involve themselves into the community with little or no prior knowledge. At Rocky Horror screenings at the Belcourt, the cast sells prop kits for a nominal price to unprepared audience members. The people who buy the kits are not
told when or how to use a particular item, but they figure it out based on the actions of others around them. The same can be said for callback lines. As an audience member becomes more experienced from repeated screenings, they absorb more information about the ritualistic behavior that makes up an average screening. There are some interesting correlations between how virgins rise through the ranks in a midnight movie scene and the development of a novice marijuana smoker into a regular user, as described by Howard Becker. Becker’s “Becoming a Marihuana User” lays out the steps necessary to become a typical marijuana smoker. He emphasizes firsthand experience and adherence to proper procedure. In Becker’s words: He has learned, in short, to answer “Yes” to the question: “Is it fun?” The direction his further use of the drug depends on his being able to continue to answer “Yes” to this question and, in addition, on his being able to answer “Yes” to other questions which arise as he becomes aware of the implications of the fact that the society as a whole disapproves of the practice. (242) Not to compare throwing plastic spoons in a movie theater to expressly deviant and, in most states, illegal behavior like smoking marijuana, but they do relate to one another in that these are “skills” that can only be learned from the subculture and not from the dominant social structure. It also requires an understanding of what you are doing, why
you are doing it and whether or not it is “fun.” The stigma attached to Rocky Horror is variable, dependent upon how involved a person is. While simply attending a screening wouldn’t necessarily be met with disapproval, dressing up in fishnet stockings and high heels as Tim Curry’s transvestite character Dr. Frank-N-Furter would be considered salacious outside of the subculture and could have real world repercussions in professional life. In both situations, viewing the practice from outside does not lend any particular insight. A massive amount of information regarding midnight movie rituals can be found online and in stores or libraries, particularly for Rocky Horror Picture Show. The 25th anniversary DVD release for the film features a bonus audio track recorded from a Los Angeles screening of the film, as well as a optional subtitle track informing the viewer when to use certain props and a branching video that shows clips of different Rocky Horror screenings over the years. This is problematic because the person consuming this information from the comfort of their couch at home would not be able to answer the earlier three questions. Not only does the viewer not know why a ritual is performed (outside of “that’s what I was told to do”), he or she does not know if the rituals are even still being performed. One Rocky Horror audience participation script was written in 1995. Though the script doesn’t include dated pop culture references, use of the lines is a faux-pas for
casts for a few different reasons: 1) it demonstrates a lack of innovation and creativity; 2) contrary to popular belief among outsiders, all Rocky Horror screenings are different and the lines used in Nashville may not be known in Los Angeles and vice versa; and 3) it demonstrates a lack of patience and, potentially, an attempt to hold the show hostage by stepping over social boundaries. When a member of the subculture does not accept his or her position within it, it causes chaos with the rest of the show. The phrase “you’re not that important” was repeated like a mantra during my conversation with Little Morals, both in relation to the audience and to themselves. They were quick to point out that when people lose sight of contributing for the betterment of the audience or, indeed, the “society,” they have a damaging effect on the experience instead. Tracy Saunier, who plays Riff Raff, sees this happen most often with former cast members. “When old cast members become crowd members, 99% of them become total shithead assholes. They don’t understand that they’re not part of the cast anymore,” she said. “They still feel the right to get up on stage, but the show doesn’t know you played Rocky in 1997.” Brandy Salter, who plays Frank in Little Morals, once had to contend with an audience member—also dressed as Frank—attempting to perform with the cast. Perhaps he was earnestly attempting to improve
the show, but the cast viewed him as a nuisance that could only harm the experience. This phenomenon isn’t strictly limited to Rocky Horror. Heydn Erickson, a Room fan who has seen the film at least 10 times, found that sometimes, groups of people get into the groove of one-upping each other instead of contributing to the experience. While viewing the film with audience members who fall into the second category of the hierarchy, they commented that it seemed like a couple people were trying their hardest to be noticed as the loudest voice in the crowd, regardless of whether or not what they were saying was funny or made sense.
Repo! The Genetic Opera, a gothic horror musical released on film in 2008, shares many similarities with the story of how Rocky Horror came to theaters. It began as a stage play, originally titled The Necromerchant’s Debt, about a dystopian future where a corrupt corporation has cornered the market on organ transplants and gleefully murders patients who fall behind on their payments in order to repossess their property. Like Rocky Horror, the film was shot quasiindependently on a relatively low budget with the backing of a major studio (in this case, Lionsgate). Also like Rocky Horror, the film was
aggressively panned by critics and made less than $150,000 in domestic theaters. Since its initial failure, Repo! has been offered in arthouse theaters on the midnight circuit where it has gained a modest cult fanbase. In what could be construed as either a conscious attempt to hitch the film’s wagon to Rocky Horror’s legacy or an attempt to get back to the original production’s theatrical roots, the film is often accompanied by a shadowcast. According to the Repo! Shadow Cast Network, about 32 casts are operating in the United States, with another 5 operating out of the country (RepoShadowCast.com). Unlike Rocky Horror, there is little—if any—audience participation outside of the cast. Also unlike its predecessor, shadow productions of Repo! have a reputation for being unironic and played completely straight (Erickson). Participants in Rocky Horror productions, comparatively, simultaneously attack and defend the film. Despite the similarities, however, Repo! has been rejected by many Rocky Horror fans as trying too hard to be “the next Rocky Horror.” Little Morals cast member Ryan Williams dismissed the film and its fans outright. In an article about the “new wave” of Rocky Horror successors, one anonymous commenter self-identified as a member of a Pittsburgh-based Rocky Horror cast laid out why Rocky Horror fans have largely rejected Repo!:
We, the majority of the Rocky Horror community, at least the vocal ones about this kind of thing, hate Repo not so much because it's a shitty film, but because the marketing department for it comes on OUR message boards, bashes OUR film, and says how freaking great they are. If Repo was destined for greatness, the fans would embrace it on their own. (Goss) The commenter’s accusations cannot be verified, but they speak to a greater truth regarding how midnight movie subcultures function: authenticity is at the heart of both cultural production and social interaction. It has become clear that without an authentic drive, neither the film nor the fan will be able to make it very far into the subculture. A film that is seen as inauthentic may be embraced by a small collection of fans but will ultimately be rejected by the tastemakers who are necessary to disseminate a cultural object. Shock Treatment, the pseudo-sequel to Rocky Horror has never been embraced by the larger Rocky Horror culture because, in part, it is seen as an attempt to recapture lightning in a bottle and “tried for the camp” (Williams) instead of letting the “badness” of the movie happen organically. Shock Treatment, over time, has gained a small audience of fans, but only because of its connection to Rocky Horror. The film is forced to trade off the authenticity and clout of another film in order to develop as a subculture.
Conversely, The Room has been embraced by cult audiences partially because of its status as an authentically “bad” work. When Tommy Wiseau started production on the film, it wasn’t his intention to make a bad movie. Not only that, but Wiseau is unabashed in his support of the final product, saying in an interview with The A.V. Club “I’m satisfied with the way The Room turned out, and I don’t want to change anything” (Heisler). He may have revised his films genre – he now claims that it is a “black comedy” and not the drama it was originally marketed as – but he insists upon deeper meanings and even “subliminal messages” within the film. The badness of The Room comes from an honest place, which drew the attention of celebrity tastemakers like David Cross, Paul Rudd and Kristen Bell (Collis). Their acceptance of the film – though, perhaps not in the way that its filmmaker intended – mirrors the path of El Topo before it. Other situations where a major studio attempts to create a film that will be embraced because of its “badness,” have also been relegated to pop culture footnotes. Snakes on a Plane, for instance, became a viral hit on the Internet during the film’s production, but failed to find an audience during its theatrical run due to overexposure and the one-notedness of the joke. In the end, there is an ongoing conflict between intentional pastiches of midnight cinema and original works. When given a choice, midnight movie audiences will pick the original, authentic film to obsess over instead of the major motion
picture. There are exceptions to this—Grindhouse was made in loving tribute to exploitation and genre movies and has been viewed as an acceptable (if flawed) window into the kinds of films it was influenced by. However, even Grindhouse struggled in the box office and doesn’t have a specific cult around it removed from the fandoms surrounding directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. Elgin Theater manager Ben Barenholtz, arguably the godfather of midnight movie culture in that he was the one who started showing El Topo at midnight in his theater, puts its best: “You can’t make a cult film intentionally. It doesn’t work. It’s the audience that creates a cult, it’s not the filmmakers” (Samuels).
Though it may appear to border on anarchism to outsiders, a stratified social structure clearly exists in midnight movie subcultures. Like in any countercultural segment, authenticity, experience and commitment are valued in midnight movie screenings and those who exhibit all three are most likely to rise quickly through the ranks into what could be considered a “leadership” position within the theater. However, the most important quality for a productive participant in a midnight movie structure is to have an understanding of their position in community. The rituals associated with a given film’s subculture are
a function of policing that understanding. As a result, despite its outward appearance, midnight movie screenings are as deeply regimented as segments of the dominant culture—one must understand and obey the laws of the land in order to be a successful member of the social structure. To wit, the self-policing system in place at midnight movie screenings is an attempt at self-preservation. There is a clear social contract between the audience, the leadership and the theater that, if broken, would mean the dissolution of the scene as it stood. As a result, a communal structure is accepted as long as it is made up of like-minded people. Whether audience members realize it or not, they are part of a social order and have roles to play. Arguably, when they understand their roles in the movie theater, an optimal experience is achieved. Broadening out to the macro sociological theories, it is easy to find structural functionalism in a subculture that has often been viewed from a conflict theorist perspective. Rocky Horror Fan Club president Sal Piro considers the fan participation as a way that fans can reclaim the movie, away from its original makers and away from the film studio: Not only were these fans participating in the film, they were taking the movie away. They were taking the movie away from Richard O’Brien and all the people who produced it and all the people who made it and the studio. (Samuels)
A similar phenomenon occurred with Star Trek and the culture of fanfiction that developed from that television series. In his “Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten: Fan Writing as Textual Poaching,” Jenkins describes a cult of fans who are “characterized as ‘kooks’” whose relationship with Star Trek is typically misunderstood: Rejecting aesthetic stance, fans passionately embrace favored texts and attempt to integrate media representations within their own social experience. Like cultural scavengers, fans reclaim works that others regard as worthless and trash, finding them a rewarding source of popular capital. Like rebellious children, fans refuse to read by the rules imposed upon them by the schoolmasters. (471) Sound familiar? The way that fans interact with Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Room and other films acts as an impermanent form of reclamation that could be considered “cinematic poaching.” The cast members demonstrate the most visible form of this by literally stepping into the shoes of the characters and reinterpreting what is being shown on screen, usually to comic effect, but all participants exhibit some form of poaching. Viewers take ownership of the film and mold the live experience into an entirely separate, yet symbiotic, cultural product from the original production. Yet, paradoxically, the people who are most involved are also the ones who have grown sick of the show.
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