Call-Back or Call-Out?: Midnight Movie Fandoms and the Politics of Queer Expression

If you ask me the one thing I wish I’d done before I left New York City for the Berkshires, I’ll probably say I regret never having taken the 1 train to Chelsea to watch people in false eyelashes and glitter call Susan Sarandon a slut for an hour and thirty-eight minutes. The more common name for this activity is The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which plays every Friday and Saturday night at Cinépolis Chelsea Cinemas on West 23rd Street. At first glance, Cinépolis is an unlikely home for Rocky Horror, the 1975 camp classic about a pair of prim Midwestern lovebirds (Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, played by Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) who accidentally stumble into the seductive world of transvestites, mad scientists, and monsters. Unlike Rocky Horror’s Greenwich Village birthplace, the Waverly Theater, Cinépolis is not an art cinema, nor located in the heart of New York’s gay community. Rather, Cinépolis, which draws an eclectic fandom of BDSM enthusiasts, crossdressers, and queer teenagers to its doors on weekends, is a remarkably ugly chain movieplex in a neighborhood that geographically straddles the queer cornucopia of Greenwich Village and fiscally conservative, buttoned-up Midtown. Chelsea also bridges these two neighborhoods culturally; while certainly not the badlands for queer life, modern-day Chelsea is a place of residential respectability and art-collector aesthetics rather than the loud BDSM shops and floor-to-ceiling pride flags found further south. 

Rocky Horror’s symbolic migration from Greenwich Village to Chelsea may appear obvious given the movie’s uptake in mainstream media, from the 2010 Glee tribute episode which controversially changed the line “Transsexual Transylvania” to “Sensational Transylvania,” to the terribly received 2016 Fox TV tribute, Rocky Horror has witnessed a clumsy creep from midnight to primetime.  It would not be surprising if the rampant sanitization and straightening out of Rocky Horror caused once dedicated fans to abandon it entirely. However, to assume that casting Victoria Justice – the former tween Nickelodeon star who possesses a mere thimbleful of Sarandon’s charm – as Janet would cause the Rocky Horror fandom to combust is to misread the place of the movie in its own fandom. Though its homophilic plot arc, campy costumes, and beloved musical numbers are of obvious import, it is the extra-textual facets of Rocky Horror – the shadow-casts, call-backs, and initiation rituals present at its midnight screenings – that define the Rocky Horror fandom. Despite recognizing this, many who bemoan Rocky Horror’s cultural dilution denounce changes to the film’s text, such as Glee’s in-text alteration, rather than questioning the shifts in the idiom of the fandom itself. To put it another way, while the script, songs, and plot of Rocky Horror are susceptible enough to uptake by mainstream media distributors, fans of Rocky Horror believe the inherent unpredictability of Rocky Horror showings – characterized by their ever-changing call-backs and dynamic audience, the rampant and unfettered sexuality, the throwing of items at the screen  – will preclude their takeover by mass culture. While the content of Rocky Horror is accessible to the mainstream, the experience of Rocky Horror is singularly queer. Such, at least, is the argument. 

Enter The Room. Critics have denounced The Room, a 2003 melodrama centered on a woman named Lisa who finds herself in a love triangle (of her own creation, granted) with her fiancé Johnny and his best friend Mark, as “terrible,” “ludicrous,” and even “the Citizen Kane of bad movies.” Critics and amateur watchers alike can easily name a litany of faults in both the technical and creative aspects of the film; shots veer in and out of focus, there are a bevy of incredibly lengthy and gratuitous sex scenes, and, perhaps worst of all, The Room’s leading man is Tommy Wiseau, a terrible actor with an unplaceable accent who looks as if his face were melted down and crudely sculpted back together again. The widespread distaste for the film has made it a sleeper hit with the contrarian set, who boldly claim the film’s merit lies in its complete lack of artistry. Though a flop when first released, The Room has since earned back its $6 million budget from the revenue of years of midnight screenings. These midnight screenings are attended by members of its wide cult following, who resemble Rocky Horror’s fans in behavior if not in demographic. The Room has its own particular set of screen call-backs, objects to throw, and even features shadow casts in some theatres. In fact, the two fandoms are so similar that some critics have taken the syllogistic leap of labeling The Room a “camp classic.”  This seems far-fetched. Or is it? 

In a 2017 New York Times article about The Room titledWhen Your Movie Is a Hit for All the Wrong Reasons,” writer Sarah Lyall explains what makes The Room campy:  its “amalgamation of absurd non sequiturs, continuity problems and characters of dubious motivation who come and go for no particular reason in the service of a story involving a cheating girlfriend, a betrayed friendship and a lot of scenes of guys tossing around footballs.” Many of the elements of style Lyall observes in The Room match the criteria for camp laid out by Susan Sontag in her seminal 1964 essay, “Notes on Camp,” considered to be the first and definitive academic contribution on the study of Camp. “Pure examples of Camp,” writes Sontag, “are unintentional… It seems unlikely that much of the traditional opera repertoire could be such satisfying Camp if the melodramatic absurdities of most opera plots had not been taken seriously by their composers.” This surely holds for The Room, whose fandom is organized around the assumption that The Room’s creator, Tommy Wiseau, intended The Room as a earnest drama; curiously, this criteria does not apply to Rocky Horror, whose campiness is thoroughly intentional. Sontag’s final note on camp anticipates The Room’s most frequent defense: “The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful.”

While the absurdities of and intentions behind The Room nudge it towards a camp classification, its lack of spectacle may cause it to fall short on meeting Sontag’s other provisos.

“Of course,” falters Sontag after a telling ellipsis, “one can’t always say that. Only under certain conditions, those which I’ve tried to sketch in these notes.” While the absurdities of and intentions behind The Room nudge it towards a camp classification, its lack of spectacle may cause it to fall short on meeting Sontag’s other provisos. What are we to make of the “scenes of guys tossing around footballs”? Rocky Horror offers much more than The Room in the way of visual abundance and gay spectacle. Surely the spare style and overall drabness of The Room do not conform to the “spirit of extravagance” Sontag deems a “hallmark of Camp.” 

Perhaps the difficulty in determining whether The Room and its associated fandom qualifies as camp is that for fandoms where fan engagement with the movie is of equal importance to the movie itself, a critic must consider not only the textual aspects of the film, but also the relationship between the film and its audience. Sontag describes camp as a “way of seeing”; deciding if The Room is camp (and assessing the potential implications of this decision) requires applying Sontag’s conceptual “way of seeing” to a participant’s physical experience of seeing the film (in this case, at a midnight showing). 

The Rocky Horror fandom de-sanitizes its material; the result, a humor almost innocent in its own dirtiness, as if the call-back script were formulated by a room of snickering eighth-grade boys.

A useful place to start, then, is perhaps by examining each fandom’s “call-backs,” or the improvised lines that become codified participation rituals. A close look at the call-back culture of Rocky Horror and The Room reveals interesting differences between the types of call-back each deems acceptable.. Rocky Horror’s call-backs by and large utilize crude humor — participants swap words into lines to alter their meaning in humorous and raunchy ways. Glee’s changing of “Transsexual Transylvania” to “Sensational Transylvania” is particularly amusing when one considers that for Rocky Horror fans, the text of Rocky Horror is already the “clean” version, a script begging to be imbued with even more innuendo. The Rocky Horror fandom de-sanitizes its material; the result, a humor almost innocent in its own dirtiness, as if the call-back script were formulated by a room of snickering eighth-grade boys. Call-back lines such as “When I saw Jeanette Scott [‘Unison’ When I saw Janet’s twat]” or “Here they come! [All over the church? That’s disgusting]” demonstrate one of Sontag’s provisions for camp, which is that it “typically, convert[s] one thing into something else” – here, the addition of innuendos before or after a line can re-contextualize it and reframe its meaning. The simplest of all Rocky Horror call-backs demonstrates this principle of subversion, if more subtly: every time Janet’s name is said, audiences scream “SLUT!” One critic from the Houston Press writes:

“It’s only on the other side of a lot of reading and critical thinking that I’ve started to realize how bloody wrong [calling Janet a slut] actually is, and the problematic aspects of society it reinforces. Why is Janet the slut? She has sex twice in the film, but so does Rocky, and Frank has it three times. In fact, the character that is literally created to be a sex toy somehow weirdly escapes any sort of repetitious audience comment on his promiscuity. Only the woman gets the label.”

This critique misses the carnivalesque, liberating beauty of this particular call-back: at Rocky Horror, where new participants are labeled “virgins” and clothing is entirely optional, “slut” becomes a compliment, a title more akin to “Her Majesty” than “harlot.” That Janet accrues this label despite having fewer sexual encounters than her male counterparts is not a sign of the audience’s shaming – in fact, it further identifies “slut” as a celebratory term of sexual encouragement that, in the fashion of the carnivalesque, subverts typical gender expectations.

While Rocky Horror’s call-backs are juvenile and subversive, The Room’s call-backs are often vocalizations of protest towards the chaos and misogyny that pervades Wiseau’s script. One of the most popular call-backs in The Room is “Because You’re a Woman,” delivered every time Lisa is required to field a patronizing or sexist comment (hint: often). This call-back becomes a call-out; unlike the celebratory repurposing of “Slut,” “Because You’re A Woman,” remains patronizing even in the throes of its sarcasm because there is no absurd or playful break from the line’s original context. In other words, calling Janet a “Slut” is liberating because it is fully unjustified in the context of the movie, and therefore a goofy declaration; but since “Because You’re a Woman” is wholly justified, it allows The Room’s viewers to act out the policing of the very media they actively consume. Many of The Room’s call-backs are disciplinary in this sense; one notable example arrives when the audience physically exits the theatre during the third lengthy sex scene. And although AV Club recommends watchers to “[hurl] the cruelest jokes about the actors’ bodies/movements that one can conceive,” they strongly caution against referring to Lisa as “fat Britney” (a reference to her resemblance to Britney Spears). This begs a question: if the movie is so retrograde, why not simply stop watching it instead of attempting to correct it? There are bad films aplenty that do not feature rampant misogyny. Men in the audience who scream out “Because You’re a Woman,” but do not think twice before calling Lisa’s mother, an unbecoming older woman, a “whore” only minutes later might provide a clue: unlike in Rocky Horror, where the mockery is equally distributed, The Room allows for selective ridicule. Commonplace social norms, such as age and attractiveness, shape the derision characters in The Room face from ruthless audiences. 

By co-opting the framework of Rocky Horror’s fandom, The Room offers a model for straight counterculture, a camp that can distance itself from the weirdos at Cinépolis.

The problem then with The Room? It is a camp film with an un-camp fandom. “Camp taste is a kind of love,” Sontag says. “It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of “character.” Judged alone as a film, The Room might, in fact, be campy, and yet the fan culture surrounding it does not adhere to the camp “way of seeing.”  In other words, the real threat to queer culture is not its assimilation into the mainstream; mass media has always provided ample fodder for camp, whether in the films of Judy Garland or the music of Cher. The problem is not that Rocky Horror has symbolically or geographically moved to Chelsea; it is that The Room, through its midnight showings at Houston Street’s Landmark Sunshine Cinema, has taken up residence downtown. By co-opting the framework of Rocky Horror’s fandom, The Room offers a model for straight counterculture, a camp that can distance itself from the weirdos at Cinépolis. Viewer guides for The Room admit this: “It’s like going to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show,” says one “sans the music (and transvestites).” Rocky Horror’s fandom represents the fine art of turning straight culture on its head –  the expressions that define the fandom, such as throwing food, heckling, and making sexually explicit comments, subvert the arenas in which these activities normally occur, spaces of intense masculinity such as football games. If Rocky Horror is a cultural one-eighty, The Room comes full circle: under the guise of “counterculture,” straight people once again are allowed to throw things, heckle, and make sexually explicit comments. What is “straight camp” if not the football game transposed to the movie theatre? If you think this is a stretch, consider that the same viewer guide that refers to The Room as “The Rocky Horror Picture Show sans transvestites” lists a “Football” as the first item to bring to a screening: “When the movie shows the guys ‘playing football,’ you should toss the football with someone in your group,” it states. The Room’s categorization as “Camp” therefore undermines the possibilities that Camp provides for alternatives to heterosexual culture, simply by rebranding heterosexual culture as counterculture and even an instance of Camp itself. Next to this, Victoria Justice is looking pretty damn good.


References:

Bakhtin, Mikhael. Rabelais and His World. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press), 1965. 

Bradshaw, Eric. “Riff Rag’s Rocky Horror Picture Show Call-Back Script,” 1985.  http://web.mit.edu/adorai/Public/rhpscb.htm

House of Qwesi. “A Viewer’s Guide to the Room.” AV Club. March 11, 2009.  https://www.avclub.com/a-viewers-guide-to-the-room-1798215944

Lyall, Sarah. When Your Movie Is a Hit for All the Wrong Reasons.” The New York Times, November 29, 2017.  

Moskowitz, Sam. “Rocky Horror Midnight Show is Born.” Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, April 1, 2016.  http://gvshp.org/blog/2016/04/01/rocky-horror-midnight-shows-turn-40/

“The Room.” IMDb.

“The Room Audience Participation Guide.” Lost Highway. http://www.the-losthighway.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/The-Room-Audience-Participation.pdf

“The Room Audience Reaction (Full)” YouTube video, 1:37:32. Posted by “Giovanni Hernandez” June 13, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cWQ3NXh5tUE,

 “The Room Guide.” The Room Guide. http://roomguide.weebly.com/

Rouner, Jef. “Looking Back, The Rocky Horror Picture Show Hasn’t Aged That Well.” Houston Press. July 13, 2017.

Sontag, Susan. “Notes on ‘Camp,’” 1964. 

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