Don’t Dream It, Be it: What “Rocky Horror” Means to Me

 

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What do you say when your favorite movie is one that’s been written about over, and over again; a cultural icon with a subculture surrounding it that often eclipses the film itself, like the traveling Deadhead movement (of which I was a part) often eclipsed the music of the Grateful Dead?

Well, in the case of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,”  I say–‘Don’t dream it, be it.’

I first encountered “Rocky Horror”–or a clip from it–in 1980, when I was a media-conscious, sci-fi and horror loving, precocious 9 year old.  It was in a short feature about cult films, a term I didn’t even understand at the time, on Siskel and Ebert’s “Sneak Previews” show on PBS.  The song “Science Fiction Double Feature”, and the red lips against a background as black as the midnight which has always been the film’s traditional screening time, instantly captivated me.

The song and the image stayed with me, but it wasn’t until the next year, when I was ten, that I finally saw the film, at a science fiction convention in Chattanooga.  No, I didn’t understand much of it at the time, but I did love the music, the bright colors and extravagant set design, and the sense of fun.  And, as the single song from it had before, the film stayed with me.

I started attending “Rocky Horror” regularly at midnight in my teens, at two different theaters in my hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee.  By then, of course, I did understand the film, and its particular appeal to me–an appeal I heard echoed by many people, including RHPS fan club president Sal Piro: Acceptance.  Achieving your dreams, however crazy or socially unacceptable they might seem to other people.  That’s a message that’s right there in the movie: the alien scientist Frank N. Furter not only plays God, like Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein before him, but he crosses gender lines both in his manner of dress, his body language, and choice of sexual partners.  He’s not the villain of the film, as many misinterpret, but the Dionysian anti-hero at its very heart.  Frank is a tragic hero with two fatal flaws–his own ego, and the social moment he finds himself in (1970s rural America).  His actions and motives are both questionable and bravely heroic.  He’s a hero the poet Byron would have approved of–even the film’s original poster, less famous than the iconic ‘lips’ poster, trumpeted Frank’s hero status.  But he dies at the end, because social order must be upheld.

But the words of one of the film’s songs, “Don’t Dream It, Be It”, have become a  credo for many of the film’s fans, and it’s a vision even the film’s cast shares.  Barry Bostwick signed my RHPS banner with those very words just a few weeks ago at a convention.  That’s why the film’s made a cumulative ton of money over the years; why it’s stayed in rotation at midnight for decades–because, underneath all the decadent fun and loud, raucous trappings, there are two persistent visions that are really one: in this space, in this place, we accept you, no matter how odd the rest of the world thinks you are.  And–if you have a dream, you can achieve it, whether it’s dressing like a movie star–of either gender–making a creature on a laboratory table come to life, or writing a book (or many books).  “Don’t Dream It, Be It’, Rocky Horror said to me–and many people–in the late 1970s.  It’s still saying it today.

My Favorite Things: Let the Right One In (2008)

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There are a lot of vampire films in the world.  There are even quite a few vampire love stories.  But there’s no other film like “Let The Right One In.”  With a screenplay by John Avidje Lindqvist that serves as a striking revision of his novel of the same name, the film is both a horror film and a tender story about a romance between a human boy of twelve named Oskar and an immortal girl named Eli who has ‘been twelve for a long time’, yet remains a child in mind and spirit, locked inside an equally unchanging body–kept alive by a thirst for blood.

Eli and Oskar live in the same housing complex in Blackeberg, Sweden, and both are outsiders: Eli, because of her condition–and that really is how the film treats it–and Oskar, because he is a painfully shy, odd-looking boy who is bullied mercilessly at school, and isolated at home by his dysfunctional relationship with his estranged parents.  Things are more complicated in the novel, but here, Lindqvist’s script boils the story down to its essence–the evolving relationship between two lonely children, that blossoms from friendship into a kind of doomed adolescent love–more doomed than most.

Lindqvist describes the story as being about “being lifted out of the darkness by love”, and this is true for both Oskar and Eli.  Eli helps give Oskar the courage to stand up for himself, and Oskar gives Eli both a sense of her own connection to humanity, someone to care about her (and, potentially, to protect her), and someone to love and be loved by.

To say more would ruin a magical, marvelous film.  LTROI was remade in 2009 as “Let Me In”, a British-American coproduction starring Kodi Smit McPhee and Chloe Moretz as the respectively renamed Owen and Abby.  The remake is also worth a look, as it preserves the original film’s tenderness while amping up the stereotypical horror elements.  But do see the original film first.  You won’t forget it.

 

 

My Favorite Things: Prince Ombra by Roderick MacLeish

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I’ll tell you right now, this is probably the best fantasy novel you’ve never heard of. 

If you have heard of it, maybe you love it as much as I do.  I first ran across this novel in the early eighties–probably soon after its first paperback publication in 1982.  It’s a story about a hero born to save the world–except that this unlikely hero is a boy named Bentley Ellicott, who is only eight years old, and utterly unaware of his destiny to battle Prince Ombra as the ‘thousand and first warrior of the borrowed heart’, a heroic legacy that extends back to Gilgamesh and beyond.  His allies are a girl Bentley’s own age, Slally (okay, her name is Sally, but she speaks with a lisp), and Dr Dietrich Kreistein, a child psychologist who knows Bentley isn’t just imagining the challenge he faces.

The book is a mix of “Lord of the Rings” and “Bridge to Terabithia”, and may also remind people of Stephen King and Peter Straub’s collaborative fantasy “The Talisman”–but is utterly unique in character and execution.  Not only does it speak truly of the awkwardness and innocence of childhood–when you really could believe you could fight the prince of ultimate evil, if you were only given the right tools and training–but it evokes both a believable real-world setting and a conflict worthy of Tolkien or J.K Rowling.

When I was younger, I kept two copies of this book at all times–one to read, and one to give away to friends.  I’ve given away I don’t know how many copies.  Those who have read it will know how extraordinary it is.  Those who are reading this, and don’t know the book, should go and remedy that immediately.

 

My Favorite Things: Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

dandelionThis is going to be the first of a series of blogs about works of art,  music, fiction, and film that have inspired me or had some meaning to me over the years.  Maybe it’ll give you a little insight into who I am; maybe it’ll give you something new to check out.

I love science fiction.  I’ve always read and watched a lot of science fiction, and I even WRITE science fiction.  One of my favorite science fiction authors is Ray Bradbury–but my favorite novel of Bradbury’s isn’t a science fiction novel.  It’s “Dandelion Wine”, the part-novel/part-memoir from 1957, set in the summer of 1928, in Bradbury’s fictional Green Town, Illinois–also the setting of Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes”, and based on Bradbury’s hometown of Waukegan, Illinois.

“Dandelion Wine”, somewhat like Robert McCammon’s much more recent “A Boy’s Life”, is a masterpiece of the magic of childhood, when the moments from the last day of school to the first again were filled with rituals of the familiar and discoveries of the unprecedented.  Reading “Dandelion Wine” is one of my own annual summer rituals–I read it in June, usually, when the summer is fresh, and the tone of the book matches most closely the tone of the year.

The book is filled not only with poignant images: a boy buying new shoes every summer because he feels he can’t run as fast in last year’s pair; the sense of waking up on the first day of summer as a magic incantation giving one boy the power over time, and the title image–the idea of time and memory preserved in jars of a fermented concoction of flowers–but evocative musical language as well, singing out from every page.

“Here was where the big summer-quiet winds lived and passed in the green depths, llke ghost whales, unseen (p. 5).”

“There were some days compounded completely of odor, nothing but the world blowing in one nostril and out the other (p.4).”

And a fabulous turn of phrase, committed to memory but eluding my fingers as I page through the book, where Bradbury describes the heat of a summer’s day as ‘the bee-fried air.”

My own childhood summers were full of rituals and marvels too, although they weren’t rural marvels, as are the ones Bradbury describes.  Summer is still my favorite time of the year, thanks perhaps to my memories, my still-active inner child, and to evocations such as those in Bradbury’s book.  I highly suggest reading it, if you haven’t.  I think it’s as full of fascinating images as the skin of “The Illustrated Man”, and opens a world for the reader just as compelling as the alien landscape of “The Martian Chronicles.”

It’s one of my favorite things, and perhaps it’ll become one of yours, too.

 

By the way, if you don’t want to search it out in print, “Dandelion Wine” is available for reading online right here: http://www.vampirelibrary.net/Other/Dandelion_Wine/

Enjoy.