Thursday, October 8, 2009

Rocky Gothic / American Horror

I have always been intrigued by the appearance of Grant Wood's 1930 painting, "American Gothic," in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Some thoughts about the painting and its possible significance in Rocky Horror after the jump...
The painting is always associated with Riff Raff and Magenta, played by Richard O'Brien and Patricia Quinn, and is always associated with death. First they appear playing the farm couple who sing backup in the "Dammit, Janet!" scene. Then, the painting itself is seen next to the Tempus Fugit clock as Riff Raff and Magenta introduce "The Time Warp." Finally, the triple-barreled laser used to assassinate Frank provides a chance to spoof the image.

What, if anything, does this mean? None of it is in the script, and it likely arose from a combination of production designer Brian Thompson's pop-collage aesthetic and Jim Sharman's own sense of humor. Was this just a little joke? I can see them making the "Dammit, Janet" couple into the American Gothic couple, and then carrying on the joke from there. But, was it intended to mean something? Is there anything to unpack here? I can't claim to have a coherent thesis, but here are a few thoughts.

The "American Gothic" couple are stoic icons of probity and hard work, the very embodiments of the American heartland. Interestingly, the work was controversial as as viewers could not decide whether the image was a tribute to or a parody of Americana. The "Gothic" of the title refers to the style of house in the background, particularly the arched window (the church set in "Rocky Horror" features similar windows). The couple are often thought to be husband and wife, but Grant Wood's sister (the female model) thought the age disparity indecent and insisted that they were father and daughter. Wood himself never commented. The painting has been the subject of countless spoofs and imitations over the years - there is even a blog dedicated to collecting parodies of the image.

Riff Raff and Magenta are space aliens with an oddly puritanical world-view which finds Frank's revels decadent but incest, androgyny, and murder acceptable. Perhaps for Riff Raff, incest is the ultimate form of purity, or perhaps a way of exerting control over his wayward, hedonistic sister. Perhaps it's really Frank's "miscegenation" with human-kind that rankles. Or, as author Richard O'Brien suggests in his notes on the 15th Anniversary box set, perhaps Riff is just jealous that the more gregarious Frank gets all the attention. But what's clear is that these two eldritch beings have infiltrated the American heartland of Denton, USA - they are in our midst!

The "American Gothic" couple who sing backup in "Dammit Janet" appear to be the church caretakers. The man wipes Brad's chalk heart off the church door, and later, the couple change the church decor from "wedding" to "funeral," swapping white flowers for black and bringing in a coffin. They are joined by a second woman (a daughter?) played by Little Nell, who later portrays Columbia. Tim Curry plays the priest.

The Narrator has a slide with a wedding photo that has Curry's priest and O'Brien's caretaker circled - does this indicate that these people ARE Frank and Riff? That seems extremely unlikely from the way the narrative plays out. Perhaps it was a way for the film-makers to clue the audience in on the joke? Some will say that trying to find narrative sense in Rocky Horror is a fool's game - and though I think this is selling the movie short, it's also true that by its nature, Rocky is a surrealistic pop-art collage more than anything. Also, it was never intended to for the repeated viewings that were its lot.

At the beginning of the "Time Warp," we find a framed print of "American Gothic" in Frank's foyer, complemented by a clock fashioned from a coffin and skeleton (this was not a prop, by the way, but an authentic 18th Century item). Is the American dream dead, rotting, ready for the ground? Are Brad and Janet, the all-American couple, being warned that their way of life is doomed?

Or is it the so-called American Dream itself which is deadly? When the image re-appears during the film's climactic coup, is this American Puritanism reasserting itself in the face of unbridled hedonism? Rocky Horror was, after all, a product of the early 70s, a post-Altamont cultural product, with Richard Nixon's Moral Majority already starting to put its collective foot down (and the disgraced Nixon himself makes a cameo in the film, in the form of his resignation speech heard on the radio).

The climactic coup finds Riff Raff (having struck an "American Gothic" pose with his triple-barreled laser and Bride of Frankenstien-coiffed sister) unexpectedly allied with Dr. Scott, the Nazi scientist turned American college professor and government stooge, who appeases Riff by approving of the carnage. "Society must be protected," he smugly pronounces. "But from who?" we ask ourselves.

All of this definitely throws unsavory light onto the "American Gothic" image, an image which had for decades been the subject of parody and critique, both from left- and right-wing perspectives. A celebration of the plainspoken, hard-working American spirit, or a savage parody of it? Likewise its use in Rocky Horror is ambiguous, but its constant association with death is telling. I can't claim to have any answers, and if I ever get to interview Sharman, Thompson or O'Brien, that will definitely be a question I'll ask.