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Posts Tagged ‘Susan Sarandon’

I mentioned the other day the unusually long theatrical releases enjoyed in years past by films such as The Wild Bunch (seven years or so, in one UK cinema at least) and Reservoir Dogs (not quite as long, but over a wider area). However, as chance would have it one of the ‘high number’ TV channels in my region happened to be showing a film which puts both of these in the shade, by which I mean it was originally released in 1975 and is technically still running in some cinemas today (even if only at midnight on the weekends). No ordinary film gets a 44 year theatrical run, and whatever else you want to say about it, Jim Sharman’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not what you’d call an ordinary film.

From a certain point of view it resembles a fairly typical film adaptation of a successful stage show, but then this is to miss the unique nature of the Rocky Horror phenomenon. Rocky Horror is, of course, synonymous with its creator, Richard O’Brien, who is something of a genial self-mythologiser (at least where the origins of the show are concerned). One version of the story has it that O’Brien was appearing in Jesus Christ Superstar in London’s West End when the creator of that show, Andrew Lloyd Webber, attended a show and was sufficiently unimpressed by O’Brien’s performance that he had him sacked on the spot – unable to get work as a result, O’Brien wrote Rocky Horror as a way of making some money (other versions are less dramatic and suggest the actor started work on the project simply to amuse himself). Richard O’Brien has also suggested that the tone of the show was a calculated choice based on the fact that the two most successful film series in British history are the Hammer horrors and the Carry On films, and that Rocky Horror is intended as a kind of mash-up of the two. This strikes me as disingenuous, to say the least – it sounds good, but the film itself doesn’t really seem to show either as a significant influence.

The film concerns the travails of (initially) wholesome young couple Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon); the setting feels like it should be the Fifties but there is a very deliberate choice to show the characters listening to Nixon’s resignation on the radio at one point. Anyway, having recently become engaged, Brad and Janet are travelling to visit an old friend when their car breaks down and they have to take refuge in the mansion of eccentric (to say the least) scientist Dr Frank N Furter (Tim Curry), who is hosting a gathering of like-minded friends. The occasion is to celebrate the fact that he has recently completed an extraordinary experiment, and created a man in his laboratory! Although his motives for doing so are probably best not dwelt upon…

One thing you can say about The Rocky Horror Picture Show is that it has a visual identity of its own like few other films: if you come across it while channel-surfing, it’s instantly obvious what it is, perhaps (given the remarkable cultural penetration of the show) even if you’ve never seen it before. The movie is consumed by a camp sensibility in a way matched by few others, and this extends to the costumes, the set dressing, and most of the performances. It is its own thing much more than it is a spoof of any other film or genre.

As I say, I’m dubious about O’Brien’s suggestion that Rocky Horror has much to do with the Carry Ons or Hammer (though I detect a certain commonality of approach with the Dr Phibes films). The closest real link between the House of Horror and Rocky Horror (unless you count Charles Gray’s appearance) is that the latter re-uses some old props from Revenge of Frankenstein, and was filmed on location at Hammer’s old base at Bray Studios. It doesn’t really have the relentless innuendo or slapstick (or indeed the actual sense of innocence) you usually find in a Carry On film; compare The Rocky Horror Picture Show with Carry On Screaming and you’ll see that these two films are actually quite far apart in tone and approach.

The film seems to owe at least as big a debt to American sci-fi movies of the Fifties as it does to any English influence – the litany of films invoked by O’Brien in the iconic opening number is mostly American, after all. The setting is certainly American and the plot refers to things like the UFO flap of the 1950s. The clincher, for me, is the musical score, which is stuffed with pastiche rock ‘n’ roll songs intended to recall the same period. If Rocky Horror starts anywhere, it is as a piece of fake Americana, eventually subverted by notions of campness.

Whatever it’s supposed to be, I always find The Rocky Horror Picture Show to be terrifically watchable, mainly because the songs are so good. The slow ones are generally at least pleasant and easy on the ear, while the up-tempo numbers are fun and witty (the complaint that they all sound the same seems to me to be a bit unfair, given they were all written in the same rock ‘n’ roll mode). The cast put them over well, too – I can’t honestly claim to ever have been fond of ‘Let’s Do the Time Warp Again’, but I really like ‘Science Fiction Double Feature’, ‘Damn It Janet’, and many of the others.

If there’s a problem, it’s that – viewed as a piece of conventional musical theatre – The Rocky Horror Show is all over the place. It does contain ‘I Am’ and ‘I Want’ songs, but they’re often in very peculiar places – the most obvious example of an ‘I Want’ song is ‘Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me’, but it’s nearly halfway through the film (much later than is normal). The plot of the film basically falls to bits even earlier than this, at least in terms of normal narrative progression. There’s really no point in worrying too much about the story, because it simply doesn’t make a lot of sense or follow any real logic. Well before the end, the film simply becomes a collection of (pretty good) songs – tellingly, it also becomes essentially sung-through, after the opening includes a reasonable amount of dialogue.

Devotees of the film and the show would doubtless say that Rocky Horror is about an attitude more than a narrative, and I couldn’t honestly argue with them. You could perhaps make a case that the film is about the way in which strait-laced American society in the 1950s was undermined and subverted by the permissiveness of the 1960s and early 70s, symbolised here by rock ‘n’ roll music and the film’s obsession with cross-dressing and minority sexual practices, but looking for a serious subtext to The Rocky Horror Picture Show is surely missing the point by an enormous margin.

I do wonder, though, if the show hasn’t been a victim of its own success. It’s hard to get a real sense of what society was actually like back in 1973 when the stage production opened, and it may be that it was a genuinely startling and transgressive new show at the time. These days, as I say, it has achieved a remarkably high profile and perhaps this has given it a cosiness and sense of familiarity which has to some extent pulled its teeth. I saw a revival on stage in 1994 and despite the large number of slightly puerile sight-gags it was very much a family show, with people taking their children along for a pantomime-like experience of audience participation. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, like its theatrical progenitor, was long ago absorbed into the mainstream and accommodated there, if never completely assimilated – but it remains an energetic piece of entertainment, and practically the type specimen of a cult movie.

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Two separate trends on which I have previously commented come together in the form of Jake Schreier’s Robot & Frank, currently enjoying a generous UK cinema release. This is not the biggest movie in the world, and in both scale and tone it is unmistakeably very indie-ish – but at the same time it makes deft and convincing use both of modern cinema technology and narrative tropes from traditionally mainstream genres. It is also a film deeply concerned with the lot in life and place in society of older citizens, and thus arguably making a pitch for the grey market in the same way as other recent movies like Song for Marion and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. While the aging nature of western society should probably be more of a concern for everyone living in it, I am personally more immediately interested in the former.

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The distinguished character actor Frank Langella, who’s previously given us his interpretations of such great roles as Sherlock Holmes, Perry White, and Skeletor, not to mention appearing as the most bouffant Dracula in cinema history, plays Frank, an elderly man living alone in upstate New York. Relations with his children are not good – his son (James Marsden) lives five hours away and is often too busy to visit, while his daughter (Liv Tyler) is off travelling the world and can’t do more than videophone him (we are a teeny way into the future in this movie). Physically Frank seems okay, but he is becoming increasingly mentally fragile – spells of confusion and memory loss are growing more frequent and disturbing.

But Frank’s son has hit upon what he believes to be an ideal solution: he has purchased a domestic robot to live with Frank and look after him. Frank is initially less than delighted to have this cybernetic nursemaid attempting to run his life for him, but changes his opinion in a hurry when he realises that the robot, though an excellent carer, has no real moral compass nor cognisance of the laws of the land. This inspires Frank to return to one of the passions he had earlier in life – namely, being a high-end cat burglar. Previously only ever working alone, Frank finds that teaching the robot his skills at breaking and entering gives his life a direction it was previously lacking. As their criminal partnership goes from strength to strength, though, it seems that the robot is becoming more than just a guardian and an accomplice for the old man: it is the closest thing he has to a real friend…

Well, you may be thinking you’ve got a pretty good handle of the kind of film this is – a sentimental caper about a loveable old curmudgeon rediscovering his joie de vivre thanks to a cute droid, with some hilarious comedy lawbreaking along the way. That’s probably how it looks on paper, but this movie is a lot less broad and simplistic than it could have been – it actually takes itself pretty seriously, with considerable success. The robots in this movie look and behave credibly – they don’t crack jokes or suddenly manifest real emotions, they are recognisably and plausibly machines. To begin with I thought the design of Frank’s robot – it sort of resembles a giant Lego version of the Stig – was a bit of a misstep, as it’s not the most immediately endearing of objects, but the film consistently avoids this kind of easy get-out, working much harder to earn its pay-offs, which are all the more effective because of this.

It is, anyway, a very convincing robot: initially I found myself wondering exactly how it was operated, but very soon I had accepted it as part of the film and was following the story instead (a sign the film was really working). It’s really just a device to facilitate the rest of the plot, anyway, which is all about the characters of the various humans and how they respond to the world in which they live. Langella gives a brilliant performance, capturing the old man’s brittle defiance perfectly, and completely selling you on the kind of person he used to be and his delight at reliving former glories. I’m not sure I’m completely sold on Liv Tyler’s appearance as the daughter, but everyone else in the movie is also very good. The movie isn’t afraid to tackle fairly uncomfortable topics, like the issue of how we should treat our elderly parents, the price of progress, and the effects of senile dementia, and does so seriously and effectively, for the most part. Well – there’s a third-act plot twist courtesy of Frank’s memory loss that seemed to me to make a fairly big ask of the audience, and a possibly unnecessary one at that, but the film made up for this by making an issue of the difference between Frank’s all-too-fragile memory and the robot’s indestructible one.

It’s always quite clear that Robot & Frank is an indie movie, in both style and concerns, but it’s a very accomplished and accessible one with a superb cast. It treats the audience as intelligent adults and has interesting and significant things to say about the world in which we live. It works admirably as a character study, a piece of SF, and a comedy drama. It may not be the most momentous film of the year, but I can’t honestly think of a way in which it could easily be substantially improved. I liked it very much.

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