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What is a Cult Film?

In his essay on Casablanca, Umberto Eco speaks about attributing the fascination with the work as being due to what it fails to do, rather than what it achieves. Many films designated as cult movies have failed in some way or other; While many failed as commercial entities, there are other factors in evidence that could be considered. For example, the Monkees’ Head failed to get the band taken more seriously. BTVOTD failed to turn Russ Meyer into a mainstream director, and Death Race 2000 was not always recognised as a satirical piece.

Also, a cult movie tends to be caught very much in its own period, rather than transcending it, and this tends to be part of the appeal. A film such as The Wizard of Oz still holds appeal to a similar audience to that which it sold to in 1939. They almost certainly would not care about the apocryphal story of the munchkin that was unintentionally filmed committing suicide on set, or about deleted sequences from the original print. In these days of marketing demographics, the cinema industry produces product intentionally destined to be cult pieces.

Films such as Being John Malkovich, or the work of Kevin Smith or Quentin Tarantino are marketed to appeal to a ‘select’ audience to whom a light-hearted romcom or a good versus evil action film would be anathema, even though they are mainstream products, and represent a strong box-office draw. Such an instant cult following for a film would rarely have been considered thirty years ago, and certainly not by a major studio.

It is only the eventual phenomenal success of the RHPS that awakened filmmakers to the potential of cult appeal as a selling point. That is not to say, however, that cult cinema cannot be produced today. A prime example of this, and conforming to many stereotypes of the genre, is the 1997 film Velvet Goldmine, directed by Todd Haynes. On release, the film underwhelmed critics, despite the hype and anticipation that heralded it.

On paper, it seemed like a winner; A semi-fictional account of rock decadence (read: David and Angie Bowie and the Mainman entourage) and sexual fluidity in early 70s Britain, produced by an up and coming auteur, starring many hot new actors and with a soundtrack that mixed classic glam rock tunes with remakes and pastiches by several cutting edge rock musicians such as Thom Yorke from Radiohead and the group Placebo.

In practice, however, the film showed itself to have a rather garbled plotline, suggesting that Oscar Wilde was, quite literally, an alien, and the clumsy portrayal of 1984 as a repressive totalitarian state, a la both George Orwell’s novel and Bowie’s aborted musical production of it. Bowie had refused to allow Haynes to use any of his songs, so the film had to resort to numbers by Roxy Music, Brian Eno and Cockney Rebel, and the film proved to be a rather revisionist version of the era-much of the dialogue comes from contemporary quotes by Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop (plus a smattering of Wilde-isms), but while characters like, say, Mandy Slade are instantly recognisable to Bowie buffs as being Bowie’s first wife Angie, other key players of the era are distorted into completely different people.

The film is unsatisfying as either a work of fantasy or a factual document as it veers erratically between 8 the two. But despite its disastrous reception (“Ziggy Plop!” said the now-defunct Select magazine), the film has gathered a dedicated cult following-one has just to search the internet to find several fan-pages dedicated to it.

Despite its numerous faults, it has to be said that the film is beautifully shot throughout, the soundtrack remains entertaining despite the conspicuous lack of Bowie material, and although most of the principal players are rather unengaging, there is a feast of entertaining bit-part characters such as Toni Collette’s Mandy Slade, and the performance artist The Divine David’s role as a particularly flamboyant member of the Bijou Records entourage.

The film seems to be particularly popular amongst a select band of young gay men, especially those who feel outside of the mainstream. Cult cinema is difficult to define, as it is pan-genre, and although some films are similar enough to have featured on double bills together, such as Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Myra Breckenridge in 1970, or The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Phantom of the Paradise in 1975, cult films tend to stand very much alone.

A film can be a cult item because it proves to be more effective than its sum of parts or it could be because it falls into the camp double bluff of the “its so bad its good” kind. The style of the film tends to be a more important consideration than the plot, and like with 1960s episodes of the TV show Doctor Who, the more quaint and unconvincing the special effect, the better. But perhaps the main appeal of the cult film is that it was either rejected by, or never intended for, the mainstream. Finding art in that which is perceived as trash by the mainstream can be a lot more satisfying than simply consuming that which is an accepted part of the dominant cultural ideology. Continue reading

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