So, after a Thanksgiving week spent in suburban squalor, I am back at Carleton to act as the Cinema & Media Studies office assistant for three weeks. Mostly, this involves receiving mail, filing applications, and inventorying movies for 6 hours a day. [Note: Ashley suggests I wear “sensible, yet stylish heels and a pencil skirt” for my secretarial duties; if anyone wants to go back to 1959 and fetch those for me, I’d be more than willing to oblige.] Plus, I have to make my own food for once in my life. Eek! My computer was tragically damaged on the way down here so now the monitor’s pretty brutally fucked up, but I will blog on nonetheless in an attempt to remedy my absence.
So first of all: I had a number of fun cinematic experiences in the past week. Most of them involved me being cuddled up next to my DVD player watching great movies like The Wind (1928) or Brief Encounter (1945), but two actually required me to visit a theater and pay for a ticket. The first of these was the Coen Bros.’ latest film, A Serious Man, which I’m still trying to puzzle out. Are the filmmakers sadistic or sympathetic? Does their universe contain even the slightest glimmer of hope?
I won’t spoil anything since Ashley hasn’t seen the movie yet (and is pissed about it), but A Serious Man is basically about Larry Gopnick, a Jewish physics professor living with his family (a wife, son, and daughter, each dysfunctional in their own way) in late-’60s suburban Minnesota. At first everything seems superficially fine, but then everything pretty much starts going to hell, all at once. The Coens are no strangers to tormented Minnesotans – see William H. Macy as Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo, fielding viciously bureaucratic phone calls just like Larry does throughout A Serious Man. The big differences here are the personal and religious elements.
While Fargo was based on a true story of violence and local color that never really happened, A Serious Man is steeped in a milieu that did happen, to the Coens themselves – i.e., growing up Jewish in St. Louis Park in the ’60s. (Worth noting that Joel and Ethan would’ve been about 13 and 10 respectively when the film takes place.) In this regard, I think you could view A Serious Man as akin to Woody Allen’s Radio Days or Spike Lee’s Crooklyn; the director’s fondly (or in this case, brutally) nostalgic return to childhood roots.
Then there’s the Jewishness, which stretches into every corner of the film, glazed over with a layer of Coen quirkiness, whether we’re talking about the prologue’s beautiful recreation of shtetl life or the kafkaesque visits to increasingly unhelpful rabbis who mark the film’s progress. Woody Allen’s protagonists just crack wise about perceived anti-Semitism; a Coens protagonist has a deeply disturbing yet oddly funny nightmare about it. (OK, maybe Allen does too, if you count the monks-with-crosses dream from Bananas…) Similarly, one of the best parts of the film is probably the story of the Goy’s Teeth, simply because it’s so weird, so very Jewish, and manages to sum up film’s major themes in a few short, bewildering minutes.
I don’t think enough time has passed yet for me to determine where this film stands in the Coens’ filmography, let alone in film altogether. But I do think it’s a great direction for them to go in – we’ve got the same dark oddball humor as The Big Lebowski, only toned down to match the film’s evocations of a real time and place in its colors and characters. For example, instead of a hair-trigger Vietnam vet, we get a slightly autistic brother with a sebaceous cyst. The one aspect that’s been ramped up is the torturous ambiguity of the ending: if you’ve seen Barton Fink or No Country for Old Men, you know what to expect, only count on more.
This film has been frequently described as the Coens’ retelling of the story of Job. I’d go one step further and apply it to the whole Old Testament. Larry Gopnick wanders around the desert, falls to his knees, asks, “Why me, lord? Why me?” What answer does he get? You’ll have to see the movie to find (and even then, good luck), but let me say that familiarity with the poetry of Stephen Crane couldn’t hurt. Also, special kudos to Fred Melamed, who plays Sy Ableman. At least in my eyes, he’ll probably be 2009’s Best Supporting Actor.
The other, possibly even more amazing, film-related experience of the weekend was seeing The Rocky Horror Picture Show at Minneapolis’s Uptown Theater on Saturday night. I love pondering the Rocky Horror phenomenon – why should this weird, gleefully perverted ’70s rock musical-cum-tribute to Poverty Row B movies be so wildly popular among nerdily obsessive audiences who treat it like the Second Coming of Halloween? Or did I just answer my own question? (Note: I am myself a member of said nerdily obsessive audience, as is Ashley.)
If you’re not familiar with the cult of Rocky Horror, you can familiarize yourself at rockyhorror.org; basically, fans will dress up as characters (Tim Curry’s Frank-N-Furter is understandably a favorite), reenact the movie while it plays on-screen (which the talented troupe Transvestite Soup did last Saturday), shout at the characters on-screen (e.g., calling Brad an asshole every time he introduces himself), and throw things! (Rice, toilet paper, playing cards…) That’s the gist of it.
Better yet? It’s lots of fun! Granted, many people do it with more than a little chemical alteration, but I’ve seen the play and movie sober, and enjoyed myself greatly. I think a lot of it has to do with the breaking down of barriers, the cutting loose of inhibitions encouraged by both the film and its surrounding cult. For example, “virgins” are required to make a twisted Pledge of Allegiance which concludes,
…and to the decadance for which it stands,
One movie, under Richard O’Brien,
With sensual daydreams and erotic nightmares for all!
These sentiments – in praise of decadents, tolerance, and freely exploring fantasies – are echoed in Transvestite Soup‘s mission statement:
…to all other freaks, punks, Goths, Christians, pagans, gays, straights, misc., hippies, normals, whatever you are,
that here shall be a place where fun and humor rule supreme…
I think this is part of Rocky Horror‘s beauty, and maybe why so many flock to it – that is, so many of the people who’d be going to a midnight movie anyway. I mean, wasn’t the original cult/midnight movie Freaks, a similarly bizarre movie all about rejecting normality while embracing deformity and weirdness in all their forms? At least until its (very perplexing) finale, this is what Rocky Horror proclaims, too, through the desire-driven character of Frank-N-Furter, who sings, “Give yourself over to absolute pleasure!” as he and the other cast members swim orgiastically, draped in soaking lingerie.
So this, at least to me, is a large part of the appeal: it’s freedom, it’s acceptance, it really is Halloween all over again. In his It’s a Bird – a semiautobiographical meditation on Superman in graphic novel form, much of which deals with Superman’s relationship to the Other – Steven Seagle tells about an unpopular kid who dresses as Superman for Halloween. All of a sudden, he’s popular for a day. So naturally he decides to dress as Superman the next day. He’s promptly picked on and told to change his clothes.
I think the connection to Rocky Horror should be pretty clear: that theater is a self-contained world where no one will ever tell you to change your clothes (unless they’re being “a bitch,” as Carleton’s production of the stage musical put it). It’s also a world without homophobia, or transphobia, or heteronormative discrimination of any kind – because what’s cooler than being a sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transsylvania, at least while you’re watching Tim Curry sashay up and down that carpet? And what’s wrong with being at least a little – if not a lot – attracted to him, or the other fishnet-clad men (or women, or those who aren’t quite sure!) around you?
This is why I think Rocky Horror is more than just some goofy little ritual, and why so many people take it so seriously (which, at the same time, means taking it very lightly): it’s not just a case of another “so bad it’s good” movie you can get some laughs out of. It’s a campy, sequined, madness-drenched romp with a new motto advocating sexual exploration at every turn. And if you can get all that with a live, enthusiastic audience doing the Time Warp in the aisles – what more can you ask for? God bless Lili St. Cyr, and God bless Richard O’Brien.