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 Bayou Renaissance Man.)