For the last few days, I’ve been watching, in bits and pieces, the Rocky Horror Picture Show. There’s a reason I didn’t just sit down and watch the whole thing from beginning to end; it’s terrible. It’s astonishing, how bad it is. Tim Curry’s performance isn’t even all that great; his initial entrance, singing ‘I’m a sweet transvestite’ is extraordinary, but he spends most of the rest of the film flouncing around throwing hissy fits. (His reading of the line ‘Oh, Rocky!’ is pretty great too, I admit.) The story is completely incoherent, the choreography is beyond execrable, both in conception and (OMG) execution. There are some catchy songs. That’s about it.
But here’s the thing, the first time I saw it (winter of ’78), it was at the old Blue Mouse Theater in Salt Lake, a midnight show. And I absolutely loved it. Most of the audience was in costume, and there was an entire meta-theatrical/cinematic ritual at play; people shouting things at the screen, with rice throwing, squirt guns, newspapers to hold over your head. I went in the attitude of pith-helmeted anthropologist, and I had a ball. And so did everyone else in the theater that night, as far as I could tell.
It got me wondering if there were other films like this, films that are best seen with a crowd of people, shared experience films. I suppose another word for them is ‘cult films,’ but that phrase doesn’t quite capture the experience I’m describing. I don’t mean bad films, I mean films that are particularly enjoyable in some kind of group setting. To extend that thought a bit, can we say that certain films are enjoyable precisely because they affirm group identity. They’re insider films, beloved precisely, perhaps, because in some way they are incomprehensible to people not in the group.
Family films fit this category, for example. My wife and her family are all particularly fond of the old Danny Kaye classic, The Court Jester. And with good reason; it’s a terrifically funny film, superbly acted, a delicious parody of Hollywood swashbuckling action/adventure. When we watch it as a family, we repeat lines, we laugh together, we repeat favorite sequences. We can riff off the phrase ‘the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true,’ ad infinitum. Our family does the same for Galaxy Quest; another tremendously entertaining comedy that we enjoy together. And whenever we see an actor who was in that film–especially the otherwise anonymous folks who played Thurmians, we all go ‘hey, it’s a Thurmian!’ Cross to bear for those actors, but hey, that’s the gig.
It’s not a movie, but a TV series, but the fourteen iconic episodes of Firefly have that in-group vibe. Of course, years after that show was cancelled (for lack of ratings), it’s a Comic-con staple. But don’t you know people who can quote it endlessly? I do. And am one.
Get a bunch of theatre people together at a party, and it’s not unusual for someone to haul out Waiting for Guffman. A funny, inside jokey kind of film, particularly suited for anyone who has done community theatre.
What are some other group identity films? I’d love to hear your faves.