When I was a pre-teen, I went to Disneyland and enjoyed an attraction called Mr Toad’s Wild Ride. I thought it was the most amazing thing ever. The little cars in which visitors sat careened left and right through narrow faux-Victorian streets whilst barely missing lamp posts, carriages, curbs, suits of armor, and other obstacles. It was fast-paced, frenetic, and thoroughly enjoyable. I must have ridden it a dozen times over the days my family was at the Magic Kingdom, and I remember desperately wanting to go back almost as soon as I had returned home.
I didn’t get a chance to return to southern California until the last year of medical school, probably 15 years after the initial visit. I couldn’t wait to see Mr Toad after all that time! But when I got there, everything seemed smaller and less impressive than before. The ride was slower, more sophomoric, and less exciting than I remembered. After disembarking, I had no desire to repeat, and I found myself wondering why I had been so taken by it in the first place.
Welcome to the ‘You Can Never Go Back’ phenom.
When I was a freshman in college, I was invited in my first weeks to go to a midnight movie by dorm friends, one of whom had a car at his disposal. I asked what we were going to see, and was told The Rocky Horror Picture Show, then a flick only four years old. I had never heard of this movie, but I knew that anything that involved 1. leaving campus at night, 2. driving somewhere strange, and 3. seeing a purportedly hip and experimental film was something I did not want to miss.
For those of you who may not know, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (RHPS) is an Anglo-American movie released in 1975 and based on the London musical stage production of essentially the same name from several years earlier. It was designed as both a parody and a tribute to Hollywood’s grade-B science fiction and horror films of the 1930s through 1960s. In essence, it is a very loose retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, except that the (androgynous) scientist who animates the monster Rocky is actually an alien transvestite, and Rocky is to be his adult plaything. The film contains much allusion to non-hetero sex and violence. There is cannibalism, there is oiled skin, there is S/M leather, and there are oddly costumed characters of dubious gender throughout.
Think Halloween meets La Cage Aux Folles
Despite its catchy soundtrack, the movie was critically panned on release, though Rotten Tomatoes gave it a surprising 80%. Its original eight-city U.S. release was quickly scaled back because of very small audiences. However, the following year, it was decided to try RHPS as a midnight movie at select theaters, the first being the Waverly Cinema in NYC. Quickly it became a campy cult classic amongst the costumed fans who took to acting out scenes in the aisles and yelling back at the screen with comic/ vulgar commentary. RHPS is to this day the longest-running theatrical release in movie history, never having been pulled by Twentieth Century Fox over more than four decades. Against all odds, it was even selected by the Library of Congress for inclusion on the National Film Registry – those works deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” – in 2005.
[sidebar: the Library of Congress ‘honor’ aside, I’m certain that then-unknowns in the film who became bigger stars in later years – think Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, and Meatloaf – would prefer that modern audiences basically forget that they appeared in RHPS]
Anyway, my dorm friends and I drove from tiny Williamsburg to larger Newport News to attend the show. As I wasn’t driving, I did partake of adult beverages on the trip, so was not entirely of sober demeanor during the screening. To be honest, I don’t even recall the ending from that first experience, as I nodded off sometime after Riff Raff started engaging in elbow sex. But it didn’t matter. The movie was so shocking, so kitschy, so non-conservative! This, I thought, is what it means to be in college and experiencing things so radical!
[sidebar: it’s funny the things one does remember. The girl sitting in the backseat with me on the trip was a punk rocker named Cindy, and the driver was a fellow named George – I rarely saw them afterward. The stereo was playing Golden Earring’s Radar Love. Why those factoids remain with me decades later is a mystery]
As with Mr Toad, one recent Saturday night I decided to go see RHPS at midnight just for old times’ sake, at an indy theater in downtown Tucson that is said to be the flick’s longest running venue in Arizona (1978). The difference, of course, is that I was entirely sober, married, graying, and 36 years older this time around.
I was planning to write a commentary on the movie itself, but driving home at 2:30 a.m. and thinking back on the two hours just passed, nothing particularly insightful came to me. I felt, if anything, curmudgeonly. The movie sets looked cheap. The costumes, while flamboyant in their day, were nothing compared to modern Mardi Gras. The subject matter was a yawn. The dialogue was dumb. The story was contrived. And the cavorting audience members and their running commentary in the theater were immature and goofy. That about sums it up.
In retrospect, the scourge of AIDS opened the door and brought into public discourse subjects that were never mentioned in the mass media prior to the epidemic; discussions of gay marriage, internet porn, gender-reassignment surgery, and public bathroom access and LGBTQ rights appear in print today in ways never imagined when Jimmy Carter resided in the White House. And just as a 21st century denizen viewing formerly ‘racy’ Victorian swimwear might instead see such attire as now more suitable for matronly bathers, topics that were taboo pre-AIDS are no longer viewed by most as forbidden subjects of conversation.
Predictably, with that change in societal mores did RHPS lose some of the creative campiness that made it so unique and naughty.
As I noted, you can never go back.
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