Sunday, August 22, 2010

Losing Track of History (again?)

Thomas Vinciguerra's piece in the Arts and Leisure section of today's New York Times turned out to trigger all sorts of nostalgic nerves, as well as a general sense of personal, if not social, history. It concerns one of those aspects of freshman orientation at Harvard University that is probably not highly publicized but may well play a fundamental role in how undergraduates develop a sense of personal identity:

Nowhere is “Love Story” more pummeled than at Harvard, the site of Oliver and Jenny’s gooey courtship. Every year the Crimson Key Society, a student organization that conducts campus tours and otherwise promotes college spirit, runs “Love Story” strictly for laughs for first-year students during their orientation. This year’s two screenings take place on Aug. 30.

The meaning of "strictly for laughs" is then elaborated (as if it would need elaboration) as follows:

“We’re looking to entertain the freshmen and help them feel comfortable in this new place,” said Maya Simon, the co-chairwoman of the Crimson Key Alumni Association.

That involves Crimson Key’s nearly 100 members sitting in the rear of the auditorium of the Science Center building and jeering the proceedings in the manner of a midnight viewing of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Just before Ms. MacGraw utters the deathless catchphrase “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” Crimson Key members loudly implore her, “Don’t say it!” At the conclusion, when Mr. O’Neal repeats her bathetic utterance, they shout, “Plagiarist!” And so it goes. At one point, Oliver enters Jenny’s dorm, learns from a receptionist that she is in the “downstairs phone booth,” and asks, “Where is that?”

“Downstairs, stupid!”

I found the reference to Rocky Horror at bit curious, particularly after Vinciguerra decided to give that nail another whack with his hammer:

Crimson Key’s hallowed tradition apparently began in the late 1970s, just as “Rocky Horror” was setting the standard for cult-flick audience participation.

Clearly, Vinciguerra is not of my generation! My own freshman orientation at MIT took place in September of 1963. It did not take me long to discover that our Lecture Series Committee ran a series of weekend films at which improvised sarcasms from the audience were almost always a part of the show. I have no reason to doubt that the same sort of high jinks were taking place every weekend on the other end of Massachusetts Avenue up at Harvard. Indeed, I would guess that this was a normal weekend ritual at just about every American college. Undergraduate life always hits you with more pressures than you expect. This was a great way to blow off steam in a relatively innocuous setting in the company of your fellow students.

In all the screenings I attended, I never saw anyone get up on stage, as would later happen at midnight screenings of Rocky Horror; but I also suspect that our own audience participation was never (well, hardly ever) rehearsed, which was probably part of the Rocky Horror ritual and seems to have been appropriated by Crimson Key. Rocky Horror did not set any standards. It just provided one of those opportunities where undergraduates could indulge in a practice previously confined to the campus and where those of us who remember being undergraduates could do the same in good company. In other words college life had institutionalized the practice long before Rocky Horror was released. Midnight movies just provided a way for that practice to establish itself in a new setting (and, in my own experience base, long before Rocky Horror there was the midnight movie experience of Pink Flamingos).

Vinciguerra clearly lacks such an extensive experience base. I feel sorry for him. For most of us, everyday life now presents us with stresses that would make undergraduate life seem innocuous. We clearly need better ways to blow off steam, particularly when we see so many examples of the pathological behavior of those who apparently lack such means. By missing out on this point, Vinciguerra appears to have also missed out on the full signification of the material he was reporting.

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