‘Cultographies’ is a new series of books, devoted (as you might guess) to ”the weird and wonderful world of cult cinema”. In format and approach they are very much reminiscent of the acclaimed British Film Institute’s series ‘BFI’s Modern Classics’. Small in size and not longer than 130 pages, ‘Cultographies’ books manage to compress unbelievable amount of valuable facts and interpretations between their covers.
Comparison to BFI’s series is no small praise, but it is a well-deserved one: cult movies are still denigrated as cinema’s poorer, more colorful but somewhat shameful cousins, but the approach exemplified by the first three books of the ‘Cultographies’ series is as serious as if they were talking about CITIZEN KANE. And before some readers are repelled by the word ‘serious’ I hasten to add that these books at the same time manage to be personal, entertaining and highly readable. If there is one quality to stress above all others, then it is the perfect balance achieved between the academic and popular writing. Serious, but not solemn or dry; entertaining, but not condescending or straining to be funny.
Cultographies Series Editors, Ernest Mathijs and Jamie Sexton, have conceived the books’ structure in a uniform way, so that each book covers the four major elements which define a cult film:
1) Anatomy: the film itself – its features: content, style, format, and generic modes.
2) Consumption: the ways in which it is received – the audience reactions, fan celebrations, and critical receptions.
3) Political Economy: the financial and physical conditions of presence of the film – its ownerships, intentions, promotions, channels of presentation, and the spaces and times of its exhibition.
4) Cultural status: the way in which a cult film fits a time or region – how it comments on its surroundings, by complying, exploiting, critiquing, or offending.
THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW is a well-chosen title to start up the series (the other two books in this series include Volume Two: DONNIE DARKO, by Geoff King and Volume Three: THIS IS SPINAL TAP, by Ethan De Seife, soon to be reviewed here), as in many ways it epitomizes the cult film as a phenomenon. “ROCKY HORROR is not just a product of its time, but of other times as well – it is history congealed, a tapestry woven out of many threads of history, some obvious, some buried in the weave,” says Jeffrey Weinstock and goes on to un-weave, re-present and contextualize the film’s numerous symbols and allusions. The meaning of Dr Frank’n’Further’s tattoos is revealed, together with the pink triangle on his dress, and other details that you may or may not have noticed but which are parts of a larger frame of references.
Some of the central issues that THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW invokes include the modes of spectatorship and the desire (the audience’s desire to participate in the film, to make it conform to its wishes, to possess it) and, of course, gender politics involved in the films gay-friendly and sex-friendly attitudes. Mr Weinstock convincingly places the latter in their historical and cultural context: Stonewall, Nixon’s resignation speech, Women and Gay rights movements, the rise of pornography, musical and avant-garde theatre, rock’n’roll subcultures, etc. In that regard, his book covers a much larger ground than ‘just’ an analysis of one single film. THE ROCKY HORROR embodied the tendencies of the times that the book analyzes, providing a bigger picture, while never losing sight of the smaller.
In his obvious devotion to the film Jeffrey Weinstock does not turn into its unequivocal partisan: the balance of his approach and style is mirrored in his constantly balanced awareness of the film’s numerous contradictions and faults, including the central question, whether the film is essentially subversive or conservative? “If Frank self-identifies as gay (or gay-friendly), does this advance, to use the language of the 1970s, the cause of Gay Liberation? Or rather, does the association between homosexuality (or bisexuality) and Frank as polymorphously perverse transvestite mad scientist-cannibal-murderer ultimately hinder social progress for gays?” The author concludes that “THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW is not just a cult movie, but a ‘meta-cult movie'; it is not only a movie pieced together from other movies, some of them possessing their own cults, but one that itself participates in cultic activity as it both reveres and savages the tradition which spawned it.”
This book is especially eye-opening in terms of revealing the assumptions of mainstream (heterosexual) cinema by pointing things we take for granted and rarely question (like, why are there no men in the Aqua Musicals of the 1940s?). It concludes that THE ROCKY HORROR is ‘queering’ the history of cinema by re-possessing and re-contextualizing the generic cliches of musical, SF and horror film, shedding a new light on ‘innocent’ pleasures they provided by casting light “upon underlying cracks and fissures in the patterns of their original cinematic contexts.”
The book juxtaposes the films relevance then and now, showing how “THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW slowly underwent a process of cultural gentrification as nostalgic thirty- and forty-somethings remembered when they used to be wild and the love that many of them bear towards the film today is inextricable from memories and fantasies of their youth.” It doesn’t shy away from the ironical development in the history of the film’s reception: “Once upon a time ROCKY HORROR attendance marked one as ‘edgy'; now, it marks one as normal.”
Jeffrey Weinstock’s greatest accomplishment in this book is the control and precision with which he balanced all complexities attendant to the film and its (cinematic, and wider cultural) significance, never losing his way in irrelevant anecdotes or academic mumbo-jumbo. As the first book in the ‘Cultographies’ series, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW is an invaluable addition to every library, regardless of how devoted to cult cinema in general or THE ROCKY HORROR in particular you are. Just as that film’s values transcend cinematic ones, this book transcends its subject and attains a much wider relevance.
By Jeffrey Weinstock
Wallflower Press (London, UK – distributed in the US through Columbia University Press)
2007, 132 pages
To buy or learn more about the book CLICK HERE