Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Why "Shock Treatment" May Be One of the Most Brilliant Films Ever Made

I'm going to take this blog in a bit of a different direction... but I did say above that one of my topics is mindfuck cinema, and Shock Treatment is certainly that. It's also a film whose writer doesn't seem to understand its significance, or even the fact that it was good, and I find that sad. I'm sitting here with my good friend Mani, who agrees with me about how sad it is, and so we wanted to take a little bit of time to thank Richard O'Brien for his genius. And now, for his benefit and everyone else's, we're going to explain why the Rocky Horror sequel that most people seem to genuinely despise is, in fact, a work of utterly incomparable social commentary.

We do have to acknowledge that we agree with Mr. O'Brien when he says the movie has quite a few problems. We're going to get those out of the way for the sake of honesty and presenting a clear picture. The sets look cheap, some of the acting choices are strange, and the plot is indecipherable, at least on a first viewing. It took me personally at least five watchings to really understand what the hell was going on. But once I did understand it, it reminded me of Stephen Sondheim's often-misunderstood musical Anyone Can Whistle.

Both stories are about characters who struggle against a society that tries to impose conformity upon them using manufactured miracles, mental health claims, outright lies, defamation, and seduction.The moral of both stories could be simply stated this way: In a world full of mad people, the few sane ones get labeled mad and cast out. Both musicals were completely unsuccessful on release, because they were so ahead of their time that no one understood them. Anyone Can Whistle closed after only nine performances on Broadway, with terrible reviews, but so many people like it now that the joke goes, "If as many people saw Anyone Can Whistle on Broadway as say they did today, it would still be running."

We see a parallel here. And certainly within Rocky Horror shadow-casts, we've seen that many cast members now seem to really enjoy Shock Treatment. Ten or fifteen years ago, that was definitely not the case. So we think Shock Treatment's time is almost upon us. Now let us explain why.

First, Shock Treatment also shares with Anyone Can Whistle a fantastic soundtrack. If you listen to either of these albums alone, especially without seeing the show, I expect you'll be impressed. Both Richard O'Brien and Sal Piro, president of the international Rocky Horror Fan Club, say they like the music from Shock Treatment a lot more than the music from the Rocky Horror Picture Show. But don't take other people's word for it... here are some links to music from the movie on YouTube to listen for yourself.

Little Black Dress
Looking for Trade
Shock Treatment

Okay: pretty good, right? Especially if you aren't opposed to an 80's-synth-pop-type sound. But in his interview here, Mr. O'Brien also happens to casually mention that the movie predicted modern reality TV. In 1981. That is pretty amazing, and it's not an achievement that we should allow to be understated. In this movie, an evil TV sponsor and fast food tycoon, later revealed to be Brad's long-lost identical twin brother Farley, lures Brad and Janet into a reality TV show in order to completely control their lives and eventually seduce Janet. Okay, there - we explained the plot in one sentence. Now you can enjoy the movie without having to figure it all out yourself. (Because trust us, we didn't have easy time of it at first either.) The overbearing product placement (in between nearly every line of both "Bitchin' in the Kitchen" and the Happy Homes scenes) is also a nice subtle touch.

We also feel the movie succeeds as a rather scathing critique of American culture. Everything in this America looks plastic, cheap, and really about as fake as possible. Even the characters' smiles (particularly Janet's parents' smiles) look phony and plastered on. This is how America looks to a Brit. I imagine it's a bit like how Japan looks to us - in other words, for British people America is Bizarro Britain, and for Americans Japan is Bizarro America. But Mr. O'Brien's criticism is right on the nose: our culture in the States has shifted increasingly toward shallowness, materialism, consumerism and selfishness - and this in comparison with the 1980's, a notoriously self-indulgent and narcissistic period in our history. The phrase "Faggots are maggots" seems eerily similar to "God hates fags". That hatred lurks beneath the surface of America, and as an outsider, Mr. O'Brien is right to point it out to us, as he does repeatedly throughout the movie.

We think Mr. O'Brien may not understand why this film resonates with so many young people today. It's probably because this is a movie about the subtle forms of mind control that so many of us experience while growing up. And now they've followed us into adulthood - there's no longer any media that even pretends to be unbiased, only liberal propaganda and conservative propaganda. Drug companies advertise their antidepressants openly on television... as if a layperson knows enough about mental health to self-diagnose a disorder. "Sanity for Today" is upon us, and anyone who's paying attention should be terrified.

The movie shows a corporate figure using his influence to manipulate people for purely greedy and selfish reasons... and that's something any American should be able to understand in the age of Occupy Wall Street. Beyond that, both of us were weird kids, weirder teenagers, and remain pretty unusual adults, and we didn't have an easy time of it with school bullies as a result. So it's gratifying to see a movie in which the protagonists seem happy to escape from a town that's degenerated into a conformist cult. Blind obedience is willful self-enslavement... which is fine if you value comfort over knowledge, but that's not us, and probably not a lot of Rocky Horror fans.

When comparing Shock Treatment and Anyone Can Whistle above, we mentioned both stories revolve around manufactured miracles. Anyone Can Whistle has a rock with water coming out of it, while Shock Treatment has the incomparable Bert Schnick, a "blind" man who reveals that he suddenly can see. In both cases, the fake miracle convinces most of the town the villain is an angel, starting them on the road to blind, mindless adoration of that villain. The protagonists have no choice but to leave and seek their fortune, which they seem happy to do anyway. What I realized tonight is that I like both these musicals for the same reason I liked Brave New World: the nonconformists ultimately find happiness outside the society that rejected them, in the company of others who understand them. I think that's a message more unpopular kids and adults need to hear, whether they get it from a movie like the recent documentary Bully or from a Rocky-Shocky double feature on Halloween.

Mr. O'Brien, we salute you. While you're definitely correct that this movie has more than its share of problems, we believe the true measure of an artist is whether his work successfully reveals to society parts of itself that it would rather not see. On this level, Shock Treatment is a complete success. We wish you luck and speed in finding someone to adapt it for the stage, and hope to have an opportunity to see it when that happens. Please know that your work is deeply appreciated and influential - perhaps even in ways you might not have intended - and that, too, is the mark of a great artist.