13 November, 2011

My Life in the Movies: Richard O'Brien , Unintentionally My Nemesis

The 2011 New Forest Film Festival featured a showing of the "cult" film Shock Treatment.  Cult, by virtue of the fact that it is little seen, an obscurity, from the author behind the "cult" film The Rocky Horror Picture Show, cult by virtue of its emergence from the midnight movie phenomenon with a large devoted following fetishizing characters and performing a one-sided call and response with the preserved celluloid performance.  The festival added value with a personal appearance and Q&A with the author and performer Richard O'Brien.  Shortlisted for an award to be presented by O'Brien at the screening, I reflected on my chequered history with his work, and whether I would again be subjected to his unwitting malevolence.

Rocky Horror Picture Show

Summer of 1983. One of the hottest, most humid summers in the swampy urban heatsink known as Philly. W.C. Fields is known to have said, "I spent a lifetime in Philadelphia, one summer...."  A quote I used as an epigram for an essay titled Another Summer in Hell, in which I described Philly summer as "one of God's early drafts for hell."

I've nearly bombed out of my first year at Penn, with a plethora of incompletes on the back of a season of emotional turmoil.  I'd hid in my high-school years behind the relative safety of a humoungous unrequited crush on a beautiful and artistic genius who'd graduated two years early.  Now I'd made up for lost time with the theatrics of my first girlfriend. a petulant narcissist, and a middling crush on a friend, a geek goddess, probably just to keep my apparent unrequited addiction going.  Cracks were forming in my delusion that I could get through university without hard work when I'd previously skated through school on my creative charisma and smarts. On top of this were repercussions of my father's advancing Parkinson's.

I spend the summer trying to finish off the incompletes and pile on some summer school courses, despite my iffy academic record, I still have the hubris to imagine that I can pull off a dual major so I can add the Annenberg School of Communication (and its film courses) on top of my normal Penn BA.  I’ve moved into the geek house frat I joined in spring, in a strange back room that has its own shower.  I share the room with a guy whose only memorable influence on my life is that he lets me borrow his Tom Tom Club albums.  One of my coping mechanisms with the swelter is to wake in the middle of the night, sleepwalk to the shower for a minute long cool down, then back to bed.

I get a part time job at one of the two on campus movie theaters, both triplexes.  The Walnut Mall 1 2 3, I’m not sure which chain owned it at the time, as it went from GCC or AMC or Budco.  Unlike the SamEric triplex around the corner, we run two screens as normal, and the third one as a rep with different films every day or other, sometimes double features.  A few years ago, when my brother doing his Masters at Penn, he brought me here for a George Pal double, Forbidden Planet and The Time Machine.  One of the up sides of the job is that I talk the manager into letting me catalog the poster room in return for a share of the spares.

We have a weekly midnight movie showing of Rocky Horror, my previous experience of which had been limited to the scenes in Fame where the kids go to a screening.  We try to operate a no props policy,  vetting people’s bags as they enter.  This proves ineffective as people will hide the very things we’re looking for, and low paid young people are not very good at challenging their peers.  Most of the things get through.  Our regulars indulge in water pistols and newspaper during the rain scene at the beginning, hurling rolls of Scott brand toilet paper when “Great Scot!” is exclaimed, and toss rice at a wedding.  They also have their own cast of performers, sweet transvestites, teeny boppers and a straight couple all in fishnets. 

The regular Magenta, or was it Columbia? was a really cute artsy fartsy girl, who’d spend half the film out in the lobby flirting with me.  My spidey sense suggested that she was possibly still in high school, which kept me in an unanswerable dilemma. A high school student would just be too young, even though I'm only a year out, it's just a bit creepy for my ick factor. The wrong answer, I’d put full brakes on, but if the answer is right, the perversely thornier problem of testing the interest behind the flirt.  Leaving the question unanswered allowed the pleasant flirtation to continue, even if it merely added to the quantum of my sexual frustration.  My ersatz control freak girlfriend was in Brooklyn for the summer, or possibly forever.  She visited once and came to Rocky Horror, then chided me afterwards for my acquaintance, her jealousy, in retrospect, suggests maybe she detected substance behind the interest.  If I had not been at best lazy at worst a coward, I might have a different attitude to Rocky Horror.  Instead I’ve since had a slight aversion to relationships with younger women, but that’s not the worst of it, the worst was that I had to clean up after the bastard.

Let’s just say that on top of the traditional theater floor grue, spilled soda and popcorn, and chewing gum, the extra ingredients of wet newspaper and toilet roll and rice, create a sludge which most likely has at least one military application.  So in addition to my ordinary box office and concession stand duties, I’m drafted in as additional janitorial staff, the only upside is a smattering of overtime, which at the minimum wage is negligible.  At least once we were there until dawn, I think the latest we finished was 10 am.  at about 2 am the a/c cuts out, the house lights they use are always dimmed, so you are in poorly lit increasingly hot room for hours scooping up crap off the floor.  You would think that this would make you nauseous as well, but the sleep deprivation takes care of that.

I’ve had worse jobs.  I sold encyclopedia for two weeks.  I held a job that required me to work 60 hour weeks plus up to 25 hours of commuting.  Cleaning up after Rocky Horror in the humid Philadelphia stink for between 4 and 8 hours, was the single worst working experience of my life. Add to that the self-thwarted desires of my attenuated adolescence, and a regimen of cold showers and exhaustion, and you have one of the few visions of hell I've actually visited.

The Time Warp

It's 1989.  I'm working freelance as a computer database wrangler for Kraft Dairy Group while still taking occasional classes at Penn as I haven't quite sorted out my degree yet.  As I'm still student, barely, and living in West Philadelphia, I go out for student amdram productions.  I score a minor, fun, but strangely demanding part (I'm on stage almost continuously) in Carey Mazer's production of Richard II for U Penn's English Department.  His concept for the play was a fairly prescient take, the royals are sound biting politicians whilst their advisers are spin doctors.  The meta conceit places much of the action in a TV studio, I played the hapless on stage propmaster, occasionally stepping awkwardly into the shoes of minor characters, such as Berkeley as a spear carrying extra.  Unfortunately I had flu the first weekend the play went up, and one of my friends misinterpreted my attempts not to cough throughout as the stifling of my grief as one of Richard's vassals seeing him deposed and murdered.

After the second and final weekend of performances a cast party was held at the yuppie hangout for the Wharton students, the Gold Standard Bar in the middle of campus.  Although I lack confidence and coordination as a dancer, I enjoy it when the fog of disco, or a strobe light nullifies the visibility of my gracelessness.  So when they start playing out the Time Warp, Rocky Horror's built in dance craze song complete with instructional chorus, I am uninhibited enough to join in.

I still don't remember whether it was the jump to the left, or the step to the right, but part of me went in the wrong direction, and the bit below my left knee disagreed.  The knee in the middle of this argument contorted into a tantrum.  I'm not sure if I actually fell over or not, but I was suddenly in searing pain from  that taken for granted evenly distributing weight standing still thing.  Stupidly valuing my social survival over actual survival, I decide to deny offers of help to get me to the University Hospital.  I don't want to be a buzz kill and I somehow manage to make my way out of the bar unassisted.  I don't have health insurance, so I'm not heading to the Hospital either.  It's late, the campus is mostly deserted, and I have a half a city block to walk to the nearest street where I might be able to hail a cab to get me home.

The main logistical problem at this point is that I cannot put even an ounce of weight on my left leg.  It's a bitterly cold icy February night, so hopping is out of the question, if I fall over I won't be able to get up.  The answer is simply to walk slowly, waiting for each wave of pain to subside from a weight on left leg as right leg forward step.  Then repeat.  The cold is somewhat helpful, providing a small amount of numbness.

One of Penn's neighbours in West Philly was the VA Hospital, and the area also had half way houses some of whose tenants would go off their meds and wind up homeless.  ATM's had just been introduced and some were installed in small purpose built enclosures, the size of six phonebooths stuck together, and some of these homeless denizens would wind up sleeping rough in the ATMs.  One of the ATM regulars, a bit far from this habitual home, found me carefully walking toward Walnut Street.  It had taken half an hour for me to walk 30 yards, I'm about half way to my destination.

I recognized the homeless guy from his usual spot.  He watched my progress for a few minutes before attempting to engage me in conversation.  He wants to know if I want a hug.  I try to put him off, but he insists that a hug will make me feel better.

I'm in no position to refuse him.  He hugs me, and I take it.  Luckily either he adds no more weight to my left leg, or the sheer weird freakiness of wondering whether he will escalate to assault causes me no additional physical pain.  The cold wind also prevents his smell from knocking me out.

He asserts that he loves me.  He wants to know if I love him.

I decide to generalize.  I love all mankind, I assure him.  This seems enough to placate him.  He releases me and continues on his pathetic way, now that he has found someone he can pity.  Pain usually focusses me so that I get on with it and don't indulge in self pity of which, if I'd even a dint of it before this hug, would have evaporated.  I have a future that may involve pain, but at least includes a warm room and a bed.

Another half hour later I make it to the street, manage to hail the first of two cabs (one to the city limits, another to my parent's condo in the 'butbs which I have to myself as they are snowbirds ensconced in Florida's retort to the borscht belt). I can finally attempt the most basic treatments, analgesics and ice.  Ironically the bed I'd looked forward to does not provide the support to keep the knee stable in sleep so I eventually doss on the floor a couple of hours before dawn.

I'm on crutches for a week, but able to walk afterwards.  When I eventually pay for diagnosis and a nearly bankrupting MRI, I'm told that I've completely torn cartilage in my knee, and indeed a piece of it floats uselessly next to my kneecap,  The doctor offers to do keyhole surgery to remove it despite my protestations that I will be back-packing around Europe between job interviews in the UK a few weeks later.  I get a second opinion which is a) first doctor is a surgeon he only wants to solve my problem through surgery, b) if I have knee surgery now, I will likely need it every 5 to 10 years for the rest of my life c) physio may be a better approach.  I ask the first doctor if by doing the surgery to remove the detached cartilage, he will restore any of the lost functionality to my knee.  He says he doesn't know, but he'll "have a look around when he's in there."  At which point I follow the second opinion.

The knee is permanently damaged and will require management for the rest of my life.

Shock Treatment

The email that delivered the news on 11th September 2011, that I had been shortlisted for the 2011 New Forest Film Festival's Critic of the Year had left me walking on air.  An amateur competition may not seem like much, but most of my writing is subjected to perfectionist privacy that won't be seen until it's nearly done,  this blog being my sporadic scratchpad outlet barely seen outside of a small circle of friends.  I don't get much feedback about my writing, and friends are kind about what you write.

In quick succession I got a more personal email, congratulating me specifically and instructing me:
We'd like you to reserve the time and date: 7pm on Saturday 17th September 2011 at Brockenhurst College when you (or a person you nominate) and a guest of your choice are invited to attend the New Forest Film Critic Of The Year award ceremony at which the overall winner will be announced by none other than Richard O'Brien, creator of the Rocky Horror Show.

We'll be on contact shortly with further information.
I contacted Tempeste, the budding events planner tasked with the logistics of the Festival. As one of the volunteers for the Festival, I was down to be at Shock Treatment anyway, helping with set-up, parking and tickets.  She offers to give me a pass from those responsibilities, but I want to still do what I can, as long as I'm free to be in the audience for the awards and the film.  I cheekily request that my comps be used to allow my wife to attend both Shock Treatment, and if Finuala manages to make time available (she's getting the garden ready to be invaded by our annual BBQ for the progeny of our canines, and their owners), the Sing-a-long-a Mary Poppins earlier in the day (I'm a bit loathe to purchase a ticket which might not get used).  Nice, despite her ethereal prettiness (like an even thinner waif clawed her way out of Keira Knightley), Tempeste agreed.

On Tuesday, at the screening of Project Nim, I'm approached and congratulated by Simon Miller, one of the festival organizers, to whom I'd yet to be introduced.  I'd met his other half, Jo Cockwell, at last year's inaugural Festival event, a sort of ideas open house during a Dodge Brothers gig at the Thomas Tripp pub.  I'm suddenly slightly on a paranoid back foot: am I allowed to talk to the judges about my entry?  aren't the entries judged "blind"?  How does he know I'm the guy who wrote that?  If he's talking to me, is it because they've already decided the winner, and so there's no harm to be done?  If they've already decided, is he being kind to me because he already knows I've lost?

Of course he knows of me as a volunteer, and a couple of evenings hence he'll be instructing me to hide behind a tree in a dark wood making scary noises and spraying our ghost ride participants with giant water pistols.  I wonder if my volunteer status might complicate things, would a win seem an inside job.  I have enough sense to doubt my paranoia, my overthinking including the recursive admission that I'm overthinking.

I'm trying, despite my natural social inept, not to be standoffish.  I'd like to become a known and respected part of the Festival team although I appreciate the organizers top tier may turn out to be a closed shop.  Prof. Linda Ruth Williams, who I'd talked to last year at the Thomas Tripp, then again on the hop at the sister New Forest Festival's Minstead music, storytelling and crafty day, is leading the Nim Q&A.  She congratulates me, which puts me at ease.  I resist the urge to ask if her name's hyphenate Ruth-Williams or Linda-Ruth, and the consequent observation that the latter sounds like the Southern Belle that becomes a scold by the fourth reel and the former a star of Harold and Maude.  Rather than subject her to my irrelevant weird attempts at humour, I admit how pleased I am to be short listed: after all, your friends have to like what you write, strangers don't have to be nice about it.

Actually I'm a bit nonplussed about winning.  There's 50 quid in it and the prestige of having won, but the boost I had from finding myself on the short list so enervated me about my writing, it seems less important.  I, of course, think that mine is a better piece of writing than my rival's, though not necessarily a better piece of criticism.  So I can see there's not much in it

Saturday we had mostly fine weather.  The Mary Poppins screening went well and Finuala was able to come out.  Some changes mean I actually have unexpected time to run home for dinner before returning to Brock College for Shock prep.  The weather is starting to turn slightly a drizzle to light rain, naturally I get handed car park duty.  Some of the signs I put up earlier need sorting out, and then when the punters arrive they need to be waved in the right direction as they may be incapable of following the signs.

By the time the cars start arriving there's intermittent downpours, and I find a well situated doorway to stand in.  Mark Kermode, a top film critic here in the UK and the best known of the festival organizers strolls past purposefully.  I give him a nod which he mistakes as an attempt to communicate.  I do feel I should introduce myself as one of the finalists, but don't want to hold him up, so I just give a what is it like silent film shrug and mug and say something inconsequential about the weather so he can continue on.

Cars parked, comment forms on seats, I can go from volunteer to punter and join Finuala for the evening's entertainment.  We settle into some seats in the second row behind some fans of Shock Treatment who like their Rocky Horror counterparts are in character costume and clearly up for it.  We make sure I'm on the aisle, in the event I actually need to accept an award.

It seems that Richard O'Brien is running late, so the program begins with a run down of the film competition finalists.  Then it is time to announce the winners of the Film Critic Competition.  It turns out that Mark Kermode not Richard O'Brien who will now present these.  I can see that my tangent to O'Brien has again proved a bad omen.  O'Brien then turns up in time to present the awards to the short films, he's flamboyant, knows how to project an actorly voice when the sound system acts up, and is genuinely funny and lovely.  He's very abashed about the faults of Shock Treatment but in conjunction with his Q&A, the screening of the film, the whole event is very entertaining amusing and enjoyable.

Oh, and I didn't win.  Ah well....


Do I blame Richard O'Brien for any of this?

No.  I could have confronted him with these dire tales of his unwitting damage to my psyche and body.  I could have posed for a photo with him as the queue of Rocky Horror fans did (or perhaps to illustrate this piece).  I could at least have told him of my usher experience and had a self-deprecating laugh, or, at the risk of sounding the litigious yank, told him of my knee wrenching injury, or the third time unlucky portent of his untimely arrival but, perhaps it's best that he not know his crimes.

I don't think that Richard Wagner should be held accountable for what his fellow German nationalists and antisemites, the Nazis did, as they embraced his musical canon as the soundtrack for their Reich.  Artists create what they create, they can't possibly be mindful of all the consequences.
[For the O'Brien-free presentation of the Film Critic of the year award:
New Forest Film Festival: And the Winner...
or my review of Shock Treatment do what that mouse wants to do and click.
As for my knee. varying encasements of neoprene, some sporadic physio, allowed me to take up horseriding.  Now, it's started to tell me when it's about to rain.]   

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