"Really drives you insa-a-a-ane,"
part I: what makes a cult classic a classic
by Elizabeth A. Allen (with help
from Umberto Eco)
Umberto Eco provides an interesting thesis for
the appeal of the cult work of art. In "Casablanca: Cult Movies
and Intertextual Collage," an essay that comes from his anthology Faith
in Fakes: Travels in Hyperreality, Eco talks specifically about Casablanca,
but his ideas can extended to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, as well
as all other cult media. To succeed as a cult artwork, The Rocky Horror
Picture Show has to have the following characteristics.
1. "It must provide a completely furnished
world so that its fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were
aspects of the fan's private sectarian world, a world about which one can
make up quizzes and play trivia games so that the adepts of the sect recognize
through each other a shared experience." In other words, The Rocky
Horror Picture Show charges ordinary phrases with almost magical meanings
to be deciphered only by the initiates. For example, it can turn an innocent
statement of expectation -- "I'm shivering with antici...pation!"
-- into an inside joke of sexual innuendo if the speaker and the listener
know Frank's lascivious context for it.
2. "It should not display one central idea
but many. It should not reveal a coherent philosophy of composition. It
must live on, and because of, its glorious ricketiness. .... [I]t must
display certain textual features, in the sense that, outside the conscious
control of its creators, it becomes a sort of textual syllabus, a living
example of living textuality." This means that it should be messy
in an exuberant and enjoyable way, which the film certainly is. Eco even
comments on the improvisational production values of The Rocky Horror
Picture Show in his essay, but those are part of what makes it fun.
(I get the sense that the producers said to each other, "Hey! No one's
danced around in a funny outfit for ten minutes! Let's have a costume change
and a chorus!") As for the film's being an example of "living
textuality," this is shown most dramatically by the whole concept
of audience participation, which is, in effect, a parallel script or re-write
of the entire thing.
3. It's got to have so many cliches in it that
it transcends banality. This is difficult to conceive of, but Eco explains:
"Two cliches make us laugh but a hundred cliches move us because we
sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves, celebrating
a reunion. Just as the extreme of pain meets sensual pleasure [give yourself
over to it!], and the extreme of perversion borders on mystical energy,
so too the extreme of Banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the Sublime."
So because the movie has the archetypical ingenue (Janet), the archetypical
ineffectual dweeb (Brad), the archetypical rock-'n'-roll renegade (Eddie),
the requisite debauching of the innocents, the requisite alien invasion,
the requisite creation of life by mad scientist, as well as many other
debts to other films (best accentuated by the opening number "Science
Fiction Double Feature," a bunch of allusions to famous B movies),
it's a work of great genius! As much as I do like the film, I'm not sure
that I agree with that statement. But I must admit that it's a creative
and amusing parody.
I'd also like to add one more reason, the most
important, which has made The Rocky Horror Picture Show such a well-loved
favorite, something Eco did not address:
4. SEX! As Frank says, "A mental mind fuck can be nice!"
The Frankenstein Place