Friday, August 14, 2015

Four decades of a cultural phenomenon

On the evening of Thursday, August 14th, 1975, a cultural bomb exploded in London, England, that is with us to this day and looks set fair to continue for a long time to come.  The film version of the Rocky Horror Picture Show had its first performance - and it's never looked back.

It's become the longest-running movie in history: literally, it's always been playing in a cinema somewhere in the world since that date. No other film in entertainment history can make that claim over so long a period. In fact, RHPS has been called 'the most iconic cult movie of all time'.

The film prompted outraged responses from the establishment, whether the latter be entertainment, religious, moral, philosophical or political.  I first saw it in South Africa, where the Publications Control Board took the scissors to it in fanatically self-righteous censorship, excising great chunks of it.  The (in)famous scenes where mad scientist Frank N. Furter seduces, successively, both Brad and Janet were not shown at all in that country, leaving only fragments for the confused audience to infer what had happened.  This made the already confusing movie even more incomprehensible to those of limited and overly delicate sensitivities.

As an author, and (as such) an active participant in at least one aspect of modern culture, I can't help but ask myself what produces a phenomenon like RHPS.  Why has it been so enduringly successful?  It's not even a particularly good movie, in terms of quality of production or plot or soundtrack or scenery.  It's the epitomy of B-movie schlock . . . but it endures, beloved by millions upon millions of fans, who gleefully attend midnight screenings in costume as members of the cast, hurling "toast, water, toilet paper, hot dogs, and rice" at the screen with manic enthusiasm. 

I don't think one can consciously try to create a cultural phenomenon like RHPS.  To become one, something has to speak to the zeitgeist of an age or a place or an event.  I think certain novels about World War II encapsulate the American post-war perspective on that conflict, such as Joseph Heller's 'Catch-22', Kurt Vonnegut's 'Slaughterhouse-Five' and Norman Mailer's 'The Naked and the Dead'.  It's notable that all three authors served during the war, and based their novels on their experiences.  Is such experience necessary to write an iconic novel?  Is it at the root of how a cult following develops?  Does it convey itself through fiction or drama to an audience, drawing them into the experience itself?

How does this apply to speculative fiction, such as (for example) science fiction?  Certain SF novels have generated a cult following, and are widely acknowledged as having started a trend or set new directions.  I'd include among them Robert A. Heinlein's 'Starship Troopers', Isaac Asimov's 'Foundation' series, and Arthur C. Clarke's '2001: A Space Odyssey'.  Even people who've never read any of those books or watched any of the movies or TV episodes based on them, or which use them as inspiration, have encountered cultural memes derived from them.  Clarke's 'HAL' has become the epitomy of artificial intelligence gone awry - something about which we're being warned right now by entrepreneurs and scientists.

What iconic movies or books or other cultural phenomena have you encountered in your life?  What's 'set the trend' for you?  Let us know in Comments.


(This article has also been cross-posted at Mad Genius Club.)


Anonymous said...

For me, watching "Jerimiah Johnson" is very easy, I've seen it at least a dozen times in the past 10 years and still will sit down and watch it.

JoeMama said...

Dune by Frank Herbert. The book.

C. S. P. Schofield said...

For me, the really fascinating thing is to watch Hollyweird and/or our cultural gatekeepers (while they still have a job) try to figure out how to COPY an iconic piece of pop-culture. How many bad imitations of FISTFUL OF DOLLARS did Hollywood crank out before they gave up? So many of the shots of CITIZEN KANE have been copied over the years that it takes a conscious effort to watch it and not feel that it's nothing special.

And sometimes the rotoscoping works, and sometimes it doesn't. Want to spend a day film-geeking? Watch YOJIMBO, then FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, and then LAST MAN STANDING. Why does the first transposition work, and the second doesn't?

I have a vague memory that some effort was made to duplicate the RHPS phenom; a handful of really ODD SF/Horror/Comedy films made at around that time. Mercifully, I can't recall the details, except for the feeling that the LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS musical kinda/sorta fits in there.

Old 1811 said...

I remember in the late 70s/early 80s, when I was known to pubcrawl on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago, seeing the block-long line for the Saturday midnight show of Rocky Horror at the Biograph Theater. I never went to it, and when I rented the movie years later, it was so bad I couldn't watch it.
I think the sexual ambiguity had something to do with its appeal. Remember, this was also the era of Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Cousin, Cousine (remade as The Birdcage).
Remakes/reboots don't do as well as the original because the original is, well, original. Remakes are copies, and the lack of originality shows in them.

WhiteKnight said...

Books with that have a big following and are acknowledged to have had a majors impact on sci-fi and society at large?

Can anyone say 'Atlas Shrugged'? When Presidential candidates are talking about a book, and major news publications are making comparisons are acknowledging parallels to major plot elements, I think the bar has been passed whether you like the book or not.

Wandering Neurons said...

Sci-Fi that started a cult following? How about Larry Corriea's Monster Hunter International series. Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game (among military personnel). Star Trek. Star Wars. Just to name a few...

Anonymous said...

Cousin, Cousine was remade as Cousins with Ted Danson and Isabella Rossellini. La Cage Aux Faux is the french movie The Birdcage is based on. I think the appeal of RHPS is largely due to the participation. I know of no other movie that you interact with like RHPS. I saw every weekend while in Nuclear Power School in Orlando.(Nukes have always been a little off.)

Judy said...

Monty Python's Flying Circus and the movies

Fantasy - J.R.R. Tolkien

Murder Mysteries - Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe

The Human Condition - C. S. Lewis and my Bible

Anonymous said...

Kurosawa's "7 Samurai" is one for me. I first saw it in a butchered version on T in the late '60s. When I saw the complete version, I couldn't take my eyes off of it, I've sat through the whole thing at least 20 times.
Peckinpah's "Wild Bunch" has the same effect on me.
Now I like movies and I like the 2 directors listed above, but none of their other movies captures me the same way and I'm not sure why. Sometimes I think that these creators only have one masterpiece in them. While they are talented and have a considerable catalog of work, take that one movie out and the overall average falls.
Someone mentioned 'Fistful of Dollars" and I think it is superior to "Yojimbo", but Leone did nothing close to it again. The 2 sequels are good movies and the last one looks very pretty and is done on a much larger canvas, but they are lesser movies.
Last comment on movies I find iconic. Anime has some hidden gems among mountains of dreck. One lesser known movie is "Skycrawlers" it mones some interesting emotional depths.

Charlie Mitchell said...

Lonesome Dove - either the TV movie or the book, but mainly the book.
I will say that there are some mighty fine performances by some great actors in the movie, though.

When TRHPS came out in '75, I told myself that that's the most stupid title ever, and that I would NEVER go see it. Still haven't.
That's kinda scraping the bottom of the barrel for something to be proud of, isn't it...

Old 1811 said...

Anonymous at 1:41: You're right. That's what I get for writing from memory.
Anyway, my thesis still stands. (And I also forgot Victor/Victoria.)

Joe in PNG said...

As a very small child, I caught the first "Star Wars" movie during the original re-release (before the release of "Empire Strikes Back".

Kermit said...

For me, at the current moment, it would probably be Firefly and The Fifth Element.

"Well, my days of underestimating you are certainly coming to a middle."
"Anyone else wanna negotiate?"

Great lines.