Tuesday, April 9, 2013

‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ Sing-a-long (1975) at the Prince Charles Cinema, 7th April 2013

They say it’s the film with the longest ever theatrical run.  When you look at the other contenders, you realise they’re probably right.  Star Wars ran for 44 weeks, E.T. ran for over a year, but The Rocky Horror Picture Show has been screened continuously in cinemas since 1975 -  a theatrical release of about 38 years.  Pretty good for a bizarro glam-rock pansexual musical that was a colossal flop when it opened.

I’d completely forgotten I had tickets for this until the morning before, where, bleary-eyed and slightly hungover, I was awoken by a text reminding me.  My first thought was “yay!”, my next thought was “oh crap, I need to get a costume together - fast”.  The internet helpfully informed me that I should dress “as sluttily as possible”.  Unfortunately I own neither basque or fishnet suspenders, but I managed to knock together a passable rock n roll girl outfit out of an old red dress, some army boots, a pair of tights bought from Waitrose (not very rock n roll I admit) and a brown girl’s wig that’s been hanging around the house.  I topped the whole ensemble off with a delightful daisy headband I found in the attic, unloaded half a can of hairspray into the wig, spritzed myself with perfume, tucked a bottle of Jamaican rum into my handbag and headed out into the dark London night.

Needs more punk rock and much sluttier makeup, but not bad for short notice.
Everytime I end up doing a bit of cross-dressing I wonder why I don’t do it more often. Firstly, it’s liberating to get outside your comfort zone once in a while.  I’m fully aware how ridiculous I look bewigged in frock and tights, but I enjoy not giving a fuck, which helps. Secondly, just hanging out at a bus stop dressed like this seems to annoy people I’d despise as a matter of course - and making pricks angry tends to cheer me up.  Still, it was a little scary when a white van slowed down opposite the bus stop and someone yelled out “faggot!”.   Even though I’m engaging in a bit of lifestyle tourism here - dipping my toes in the water without making any real commitment - it makes me appreciate just how fearless transpeople must be to go out like this all the time, and how much stick they must get every single day of the week.  Finally, it’s just plain fun: getting a chance to slip on another persona for the evening is thrilling in a decently subversive way.  Everyone should make a habit of it.

Once I’d arrived at the cinema, things were a little more friendly.  When you walk into the men’s bathroom and there’s three Dr Frank-N-Furters pulling on their suspenders and fixing their eyeshadow it's almost impossible to feel overly peculiarly dressed.  There's a maxim to live by for these shows: "There will always be someone who looks more out of place.".  The cinema was packed to the rafters, stuffed with loads of people dressed up the occasion in all kinds of crazy outfits.  I was a bit surprised how many people didn’t bother to dress up, there was a miserable looking man behind me in stained jeans and a flannel shirt, which isn’t really condusive to the atmosphere of sexy thrills that I was after.

The beauty contest - in crappy low resolution :(
As we settled down the compère came on to warm us up in full Frank N Furter gear.  One of the things I’d been a bit worried about was the amount of rules you're expected to remember.  These include; squirting water pistols, throwing confetti, sheltering yourself with a newspaper, waving tissues, snapping rubber gloves and yelling stuff at the screen pretty much all the way though.  This all sounds bit daunting; just imagine shouting out the wrong thing - you’d look like a right plum.  Fortunately as long as you get the basics down (yelling “SLUT!” and “ARSEHOLE” at Janet and Brad occasionally, and know how to do the Timewarp) you’re pretty much set.  After a quick costume competition, with a clear winner in the case of an outstandingly ballsy and confident Rocky Horror named Chris, we were into the film itself.

I’ve seen it a few times before, always admiring its unselfconscious barminess, but I've never quite seen why it inspires such devotion among its die hard fans.  Now I do: much as the film smashes through the boundaries of taste and sexuality, so these screenings tear up the contract between film and audience.  Throughout the film people are shouting out stuff,: making fun of the film and mocking the characters, but it’s an affectionate kind of mockery.  There’s one American girl quite near me who’s obviously an old hand at this kind of thing, with a smart-ass line ready for almost every moment.  This would be infuriatingly in any other screening, but here it’s just nice to see someone putting the effort in.

Hiding under newspaper, being lightly showered.
As we move up into the big dance numbers, we get out of our seats, jumping to the left, stepping to the right and so on.  The Prince Charles isn’t exactly the most roomy cinema around, with the seats jammed together, leaving little room to really work those pelvic thrusts. But the slight claustrophobia adds a certain sweaty charm to proceedings that you  wouldn’t get in a big multiplex. It’s the dancing that’s my favourite bit, you get to actually see the audience surrounding you, the complete opposite of being alone in the dark in a cinema.

There’s an instant sense of community, the cinema becoming a soft, safe space where, as the compère says “The only rule is that there are no rules!”. Rocky Horror works fantastically at creating an atmosphere that allows weird gender shifts in a socially acceptable environment.  It’s probably the only place where a guy can get dressed up in a basque and suspenders and not be afraid of his masculinity being called into question.  For women the level of transgression looks a bit more limited - but then being given an outlet to wear whatever you want and act in an provocative manner while feeling entirely secure, safe and happy is nothing to turn your nose up at.

Waving goodbye.  The only part of the film I don't really like.  Why do they have to kill off Frank N Furter and Columbia (my favourite)?!
In terms of actually exploring or widening anyone’s sexuality, Rocky Horror is a bit limited.  This is a pantomime - and though the compère jokingly encourages the audience to collapse into a hedonistic sea of blowjobs and buttfucking, the atmosphere never becomes truly erotic.  It’s more cheeky than anything else, a gentle but therapeutic pressing against the membrane of appropriateness rather than busting right into the world of the perverse.  But then I guess if you want to experience that then you can go to a fetish club.  

There’s probably a reasonable argument that all this is a form of cultural tourism; experiencing some of the thrills and fun of kinkiness without making having to actually step off the precipice of normal life.  But when you’re dancing around like an idiot to the Time Warp it’s impossible to imagine that Rocky Horror can be anything other than a force for good in the world.  A sing-a-long screening like this is one of those classic pop culture experiences that every lover of cinema should experience at least once.  

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