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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Even Smiling Makes My Face Ache: Rocky Horror and the Fourth Wall


Let's take a break from the horror analysis to delve into two different literary concepts. Yes, tonight on Storming the Ivory Tower, I intend to actually explain Liberal Arts concepts, as the title of the blog claims! But I'm going to do it through an exploration of a movie that owes virtually all of its aesthetic to the venerable tradition of film horror: The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

This is a film that touches upon quite a lot of the ideas I discussed in my last two articles: concepts of transgressive and monstrous horror, where the audience finds kinship and empathy with the monsters of the movie--Frank-N-Furter, Rocky Horror, and even, perhaps, with the ultimate villain of the film, Riff Raff. Frank, in particular, has a fascinating mania about him. He seems driven by wilder and wilder fantasies throughout the film, becoming steadily more unhinged. And yet, I suspect that few audience members wish to see him meet his grizzly fate at the wrong end of a ray gun... trident... thing. Thankfully, we have a number of conceptual tools to help us pick apart just what makes Frank such a fascinating and tragic figure.

The first concept is that of Performance. Now, this is probably causing a number of you to raise your eyebrows. Performance isn't exactly a complex subject--it's the basis of all our movies, plays, music, and so on. And Rocky Horror is explicitly a celebration of performance. The climax occurs in front of a giant replica of the RKO Pictures logo, for heaven's sake! They aren't shy about their deep debt to the black and white cult science fiction and horror movies of the past, or to the sexually transgressive aesthetic of cabaret. This isn't a revolutionary commentary.

"By RKO..."
But there's another meaning of performance that appears in the film repeatedly, one that comes from gender and queer theory. This meaning is tied to the idea of social norms and the performing of particular roles. In feminist theory we talk about performing masculinity or femininity, in particular, and in queer theory there is a longstanding debate about the performance of stereotypes and whether that helps or hinders the cause. Performance, in this context, means to conform of break from a certain set of social rules dictated by your gender, sexuality, race, age, and so on. In Rocky Horror, this is expressed in a number of ways through different characters. The proposal scene at the beginning ("Dammit, Janet") is a great example of this, with the rather useless Brad Majors performing a strong, gruff masculine stereotype (badly) and Janet Weiss performing an emotional, head-over-heals romantic female stereotype. They are performing, respectively, masculinity and femininity.

There's Brad, the absolute pinnacle of manhood.
But Frank puts on a very different type of performance. He openly flaunts the stereotypes that Brad and Janet embody, portraying himself as an ultrasexual, omnisexual, ambiguously gendered being, unfettered by the laws of society. And yet, he seems to be under pressure of some sort, driven by some sort of internal turmoil despite his apparent prestige, charisma, and substantial sexual prowess. At one point, he turns to the camera and intones, "It's not easy... having a good time. Even smiling makes my face ache."


This is where things move away from the realm of the sociological and into the realms of science fiction. That said, to understand Frank's reactions here it is useful to understand a second concept, drawn from theater and adopted to literary and film criticism. The concept is called the Fourth Wall, and it essentially means the division between the fictional characters and us, the audience. Consider it in terms of a play: if you have a scene inside a building, there will be four walls. One in the background, two on the sides, and one invisible wall that we can see through, allowing us to peer in on these participants.

Now, look again at that video clip and notice what Frank is doing.

That's right, he's looking directly at us. He is breaking the fourth wall.

And, what's more, this isn't the only place he does it. There are a number of scenes throughout the movie where he gives the audience knowing glances or seems to address us directly. What's more, he is the only character besides the Criminologist to do so, suggesting that, like the Criminologist, Frank is particularly aware of us as an audience, despite the fact that he is living the events, not relating them from outside like the Criminologist. The effect of this is that Frank makes us aware of ourselves as an audience and draws attention to the fictional nature of the film.

Well, how 'bout that.
And, of course, there is the Floor Show at the end, performed for a seemingly empty room. Empty, of course, until Frank conjures up a phantasmal audience for himself. I think this is the key to understanding what strange things are going on in Frank's mind, and why exactly he becomes so completely unhinged. The fact of the matter is, Frank is actually able to perceive the fourth wall--he is aware of the boundary that divides his fictional world from our real one. He is, in short, aware of the fact that he is in a work of fiction.

And this knowledge is driving him insane.


You would go crazy too if these old people were staring at you all the time.
There are other subtle clues in the film that support this reading. Consider the Criminologist's random interjection early in the film: "There are those who say that life is an illusion, and that reality is simply a figment of the imagination." This line serves no purpose in the narrative, as far as I can see. And yet, it ties so strongly into this understanding of Frank's character. These clues suggest to me that there is a deliberate attempt on the part of Richard O'Brien to see him in this light.

Now Frank's character makes quite a bit more sense. He has not transcended the act of Performance any more than Brad and Janet have. Far from it! Frank is simply performing a set of deviations from social roles. He is still defined in relationship to social stereotypes. And what's more, he chafes horribly under both those roles, and the knowledge that his universe is ultimately an amoral creation meant to entertain others.

It's not easy for Frank to have a good time.

Ah, and I really thought we had, for a time, escaped horror. But this reading of Frank's character contains a horror all its own. You see, the ones that hold the key to Frank's freedom... the ones that observe his performace... the phantom audience at the end of the film that only Frank can see... is us. We are the ones ultimately responsible for the insanity of Frank.

Yikes.

This goes a long way to explaining the rather dark ending song, unreleased in America because Americans are stupid babies, I guess. The song, if you never saw the extended version of the film, is called "Superheroes":

The song seems to suggest the presence of some sort of terrible, unknowing force that exists in the shadows of the world, a Lovecraftian elder god presence that humans have no ability to control. Humans simply crawl like insects on the planet's face, unknowing and lost. Again, I would like to suggest that we, the audience, watching the mayhem for our entertainment, are the Superheroes of the song.

What we are left with, then, is a tragedy based around a simple flaw in Frank's character: he felt too acutely the pressure to perform the role he was given, and in the face of a perceived constant spotlight he cracked.

This is one of the keys to understanding the lasting appeal of the film. It is the simple fact, again, of the transgressive or monsterous experience. So many of us have felt this pressure to perform in our daily lives--whether it is the pressure to hide our true selves as queer, trans, nerdy, or whatever, or the pressure to correctly perform queerness, transness, or some other role lest we be accused by our fellow transgressors of not being transgressive enough.1 Frank is ultimately relatable because despite his charm, and his sexual prowess, and his wealth and power, he struggles with these questions and, ultimately, falls apart.

As always, feel free to leave comments, complaints, or, best of all, your own interpretations, or e-mail me at keeperofmanynames@gmail.com . And, if you like what you've read here, share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Xanga, Netscape, or whatever else you crazy kids are using to surf the blogoblag these days. Oh, and I'm looking for guest entries this month, so if you have something interesting to say about things that generally fit the theme, send them my way.

1You think that doesn't happen? Talk to a random sampling of gay people sometime about whether or not they think bisexuals are real. It may be quite an eye opener for you.

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