It was midnight on a Saturday, and I was about to be deflowered.
Standing on the threshold of the makeshift screening room in Alpha Delta Phi, I cautiously tip-toed my way through a sea of fish-net stockings, bustiers, and eye-liner seemingly stolen from RuPaul’s medicine cabinet, finally locating a seat besides a would-be leather daddy. Brief introductions were given, a lap-dance contest came and went, and finally, the lights dimmed. Two cherry-red lips burst forth from the screen and the crowd burst into applause. Yes, never again can I call myself a “Rocky Horror Picture Show” virgin.
The experience, for a first-timer like me, proved both intriguing and bewildering. On the one hand, the casual viewer cannot help but marvel at the encyclopedic knowledge of inside jokes and naughty tidbits at the fingertips of die-hard “Rocky Horror” fans. At what precise moment do you shout “Slut!” at Susan Sarandon to achieve maximum effect? How long do you stretch out running gags before knowing when they will finally snap? These instincts don’t come in a dream; they take honing and consummate skill. Certain one-liners hit with such dead-on accuracy that other audience members held their ready tongues, producing moments of almost chivalric respect.
The lascivious thrill of a midnight showing cannot be denied. Even at its most hilarious, however, it became impossible to ignore the oddly cynical detachment that underscored every utterance and permeated every pun. Any time strangers gather in a darkened theater, they enter into an unspoken dialogue with the images on the screen. In midnight showings, embodied most clearly in after-hours screenings of “Rocky Horror,” this dialogue transforms into a kind of collective audience revolt. Midnight filmgoers tear down the traditional laws of movie watching, banding together to offer a perverse challenge against the on-screen images.
It’s no coincidence, then, that the majority of classic midnight movies are otherwise considered to be perplexing curiosities at best, unredeemable garbage at worst. “Showgirls,” the 1995 bomb described by the New York Times’s Janet Maslin to be “as cold and joyless as it is contrived,” has begun to find its footing as a camp “disaster-piece.” “Newsies,” to be screened (when else?) at midnight this Saturday at the Center for Film Studies, received a similar critical drubbing upon release. Roger Ebert, among the more softhearted of our national film critics, memorably described the 1992 release as “the very definition of the underwhelming.” Both flopped fantastically upon their respective commercial releases. In other words, these are easy targets for an audience looking to shower the screen with acid, gussied up with air quotes and put forth as ironic cinematic adulation.
How freely the midnight moviegoer will profess their smirking “love” for these camp classics! In a culture where death is preferable to sincerity, perhaps this is a high compliment. Is the act of attending midnight movies, therefore, simply to raise a collective arched eyebrow at arcane pop-culture refuse? In part, yes. There’s a certain coziness one can gather from wallowing in the dregs of cinema with fellow filmgoers who are savvy enough to be in on the joke. Owen Gleiberman, the underrated film critic for “Entertainment Weekly,” summed it up nicely when discussing the recent wave of movies based on middling television series from the 1970’s and 80’s.
“It’s something junky yet ineffable…the Comfort of Crap,” Gleiberman wrote. Comforting it is, particularly when you can ritualize it within an inch of its life, a la Rocky Horror’s shout-backs and altered lyrics.
The irony behind all this irony, though, transcends surface sniggering. The films themselves may be ripe for sarcastic excoriation, but the physical act of gathering in an empty theater at a ridiculous hour of the night confirms the larger, seductive power of film itself. You rarely hear of the literati gathering at three in the morning to trade pithy quips about Jackie Collins novels. You almost never see music aficionados assemble to raze Britney Spears and watch the sun rise. There is something singular about the experience of watching a midnight movie, something that awakens the squirmy five-year-old in all of us. No one should be out this late, seeing this movie, and saying these things! No amount of hipster posturing can completely erase the giddy sensation that, underneath it all, everyone sitting in the theater is getting away with something.
It’s comforting, then, that midnight movies continue to thrive. As DVD’s continue to take larger bites out of theater profits and pundits bemoan the downfall of the traditional film-going experience, here are groups of people saving the idea of watching a movie by subverting it. Let’s not get too sentimental; midnight movie-going can be an exasperating exercise in cooler-than-thou sneering. At its best, though, it’s redeemed by the sugar-high excitement, the unexplainable, inexplicable buzz that lies just beneath the surface.
You can even see it (gasp!) during a “Rocky Horror” screening. After all, what were we all really doing there? We could have dressed up in our dorms. We could shout pithy one-liners at the television screen in someone’s room. Yet it all remained hollow until we were together, in full drag regalia, ready to mock and giggle and experience as an audience, united and fractious all at once.