Friday, October 2, 2009

On a return to the Home of Happiness and an attack on the cult of personality

My opinion of reality TV is at best, tepid. I've gone on about it before, and often marveled at the fact that we've lowered the bar for what defines "fame". For too many people are "famous for being famous", having done nothing to achieve fame but simply being on TV, something that used to require BEING famous before they let you do.

Reality TV has been skewered many times in film. The Truman Show seemed outrageous in its predictions, for about six months. A sadly little-seen film called Series 7: The Contenders played with the idea of what will be required to entertain the populace next, something played with years before by The Running Man. One of the earliest assaults in the yet-to-be genre was Albert Brooks' eerily prescient Real Life. But none had as much fun with the idea of how completely reality and television would merge that Richard O'Brien's followup to Rocky Horror, Shock Treatment.

Ernie Kovacs said it over 50 years ago; the major strategy of Hollywood is "Beat it to death if it succeeds". The Rocky Horror Picture Show was a massive cult hit, albeit years after its initial release. So 20th Century Fox decided to do what comes naturally; a sequel.

Only a handful of actors returned for the second film, and that handful did not include the three leads; Curry, Bostwick and Sarandon. Charles Gray (also seen as Blofeld in Diamonds are Forever) returned in what is debatedly the same role, now named Judge Oliver Wright. The only other actor to return as the same character is the barely seen Jeremy Newson as Ralph Hapschatt. "Little" Nell Campbell (Columbia) plans Nurse Ansalong, and Patricia Quinn (Meganta) plays Nation McKinley. Of all the cast, the single most important person to come back was Richard O'Brien as Cosmo McKinley. Amazingly, Fox actually realized that O'Brien's script and songs were the core of the first film, and gave him the chance to catch lightning in a bottle again. Rather than go for a true sequel to Rocky, with the return of the Transylvanians and all, Richard explored new ground, and wrote something that really was what the PR flacks at Fox claimed; not a sequel or prequel, but an equal to Rocky.

The film takes us back to Denton, A Period Of Time after the events of The Denton Affair, and in the interim, the Home of Happiness has gone through more than a few changes. Denton is now the home of DTV, a national television network helmed by the mysterious and reclusive fast food magnate Farley Flavors (Cliff DeYoung in a dual role). The film starts with the population of Denton entering the cavernous studio and taking their seats, which they do not leave for the remainder of the film, even sleeping there overnight as the station is off the air (Yes, years ago, before infomercials, stations actually went off the air when they assumed all sane people were sleeping.)

The film takes place entirely inside the DTV broadcast complex. Time passes as shows air, and the setting changes from before the cameras to backstage, to an assortment of meeting rooms. The events transpire over only two days. The frenetic and compressed timeline magnifies the craziness of the events. Television shows are referred to almost as if they are physical places and actual objects. Much like the comedy of The Firesign Theatre, the lines between reality and the fiction of the shows merge. Game show winners don't win vacations in sunny climes, they win "trips" to appear in television shows. The shows are examples of reality television before they had a name.

Brad and Janet Majors (played by Cliff DeYoung (FX) and Jessica Harper (Suspiria, Phantom of the Paradise) respectively) have been having marriage trouble, and visit the broadcast in an attempt to do something together. Apparently the lessons taught by the Transylvanians were short-lived; Brad is back to being a clumsy nebbish, and Janet can't believe she's married him.

The first main song of the film (not counting the instumental credit sequence overture) is "Denton USA", and it sets the tone for the film. It's sung at the beginning of the broadcast day, in lieu of the National Anthem. It's a song that seems written by the town's Chamber of Commerce; it touts the the advantages of the town as a good old-fashioned suburban paradise ("Happy hearts and smiling faces; and tolerance for the ethnic races"), an image that is soundly trounced by the end of the film.

The rest of the main cast are introduced in rapid succession. Betty Hapschatt, nee Munroe (The world famous in England Ruby Wax) hosts the Breakfast Show, and she interviews Judge Wright (Gray) about the anthem, and morals in general. Betty's estranged husband Ralph (Newson) is anchor of the news, along with his partner and current squeeze Macy Struthers (Wendy Raebeck).

Once the Breakfast show is over, it's on to Marriage Maze, the popular gameshow where couples in trouble work out their issues on the air under the blind eye and sharp tongue of Bert Schnick (Barry Humphries, AKA Dame Edna Everidge). Brad and Janet are picked for the show, and while Janet is charming and pleasant, Brad makes a boob of himself, with Bert calling him "an emotional cripple". Just as most Americans expect their problems to be solved by picking up the latest new appliance or toy, the couple sing the song "Bitchin' in the Kitchen", where they literally ask a steady stream of lovely parting gifts how to solve their emotional issues.

From his control room high above the studio, the enigmatic Farley Flavors is smitten by Janet. Bert recommends Brad visit the popular hospital series "Dentonvale". While Brad and Janet are wheeled off to Dentonvale, Janet's parents appear on Marriage Maze to discuss their son-in-Law.

Things start to happen fast from here on. Brad is heavily sedated and Janet is introduced (via a TV monitor) to Farley Flavors. Janet is quickly groomed to be a TV superstar. The DTV audience takes to her, just as they are told. By the end of the film Janet awakens from her fame and drug-addled haze, Brad reveals Flavors to be his long-lost twin brother, and in short...the bad guys win. The population/audience are commited to Dentonvale, and Brad, Janet, Betty and Judge Wright escape with the clothes in their back in a stolen late-model car.

Just about everything about this film is bigger and (arguably) better in this film. The sets are brighter, the cast is larger, and the songs are more creative and complex. "Little Black Dress" is an unabashed paen to cross-dressing (ironically co-sung by famous drag performer Humphries), "Lullaby" is the most erotic night-night song you'll ever hear, with delightful lines like "with your everything akimbo, slip into the Sandman's Limbo". The titular song is a powerful number that'll have you spinning in your chair. The performances are by far superior to those of Rocky as well. Jessica Harper has a lush throaty voice that I must admit I adore, both here and in her ealier role in Phantom of the Paradise. Cliff De Young, Nell Campbell and even O'Brien really sing in this film - much of the performances in Rocky were closer to screaming in key.

The sound design is brilliant. There's almost always a second soundtrack running, whether it's coming from a TV that's on in the background, or from the stage as people talk amongst each other in the audience or off camera. They often work together perfectly, two halves of a single joke.

There's a lot of very literary jokes in the script. Judge Wright mentions the beginnings of a conspiracy: "Remember Lt. Orpheus? He diappeared into that 'Underworld' show and NEVER came back!" Later in the film, Betty Hapschatt starts to read "Rime of the Ancient Mariner", and at the end a security guard comes up with a dead albatross, asking, "Does this bird belong to you?"

This was the first time they tried to make a film specifically for the new "Midnight Circuit". Unlike Rocky Horror, Shock Treatment premiered at the midnight theaters. The film tries to purposely place spots for the audience to yell comments. When Janet is asked if she's watched Dentonvale, she hesitates and says "Yes, I've caught it a couple of times"'s plainly obvious you're supposed to yell something to the effect of "Have you ever had VD?".

Rocky fans felt like the film was crammed down their throats, and resistance was widespread. The film never really got a fair shake as a result. But looking back, Richard O'Brien created a satiric film that has only shown itself to be more and more prescient. It's a brtilliant and savage satire about American television culture, the fleeting nature of fame and the ease that TV watchers can be educated and led.

For those who hated, or simply didn't "get" Rocky Horror, it does not mean you'll hate Shock Treatment. Shock was forced upon the audience, as opposed to Rocky, which was found. Also, its themes of TV taking over reality may simply have been too ahead of its time, as opposed to the bohemian "Give yourself over to absolute pleasure" themes