Guilty pleasures, childhood favorites, secret obsessions, emotional investments, shades of serendipity — chances are we all have a film that is dear to our heart, the object of an unconditional love that knows no bounds and will bear no criticism. It might not be the best film, it might not even be a great film, or a good film, at that — but we thoroughly value and completely enjoy it, oftentimes without apparent reason. Taking this concept of devotional love for a film as its motive force, Justin Smith’s Withnail and Us: Cult Films and Film Cults in British Cinema attempts to make manifest the conditions under which certain films become the object of cult worship.
As such, Smith’s goal is simple: to define and explore the object of the cult film by tracking its appearance across a series of British film productions in the 1970s and beyond. Smith’s proffered reasoning for focusing on British cinema of this period is equally simple, if not highly arbitrary and possibly specious — given the proliferation of writing on US cult films, he has “chosen largely to ignore” said films (and all other spheres of cult) in favor of an analysis grounded solely in Britain. Setting the tone for his work through an etymological study of the word “cult,” its origins, and its (often misappropriated) applications, Smith quickly moves into an analysis of several films, their makers, and the people who love them.
The films that Smith selects for his studies are, as he states, films “already considered to be cult” — Performance, A Clockwork Orange, The Wicker Man, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Tommy, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and the book’s namesake, Withnail and I. In this sense, Smith’s book attempts to reverse-engineer the definition of cult by taking a selection of films that already have this status within popular discourse, and applying a series of historical, social, cultural and aesthetic analyses to them in order to suss out the reasons for their having been defined as cult in the first place. To do so, Smith applies a two-fold method of differentiation: he distinguishes the ways in which these cult productions were different from “regular” film productions contemporaneous to their release (e.g., the 1971 cult-hit Get Carter versus the rarely-discussed film Villain from the same year); and he then examines the entire spectrum of his case studies for common traits, in order to determine what might be distinct about the form of cult film.
Much like obscenity, or beauty, the definition of cult tends to be subsumed by an “I know it when I see it” mentality — which can hardly inform a discussion on why a given film comes to be appropriated as a cult object. Here, Smith attempts to define the phenomenon of the cult film in both a positive and negative formulation (that is, both by what it is and what it is not). Each of the book’s seven chapters approaches a specific film through a variety of sociological, anthropological, historical, and psychoanalytical techniques, with supporting analyses from related films, production documents, and concise citations from relevant primary and secondary sources. In this regard, Smith’s book not only attempts to define the cult phenomenon, but consequently maps and surveys a spectrum of methods for analyzing film texts.
Smith continues to develop this method of historical analysis in his treatment of Performance. His discussion of Mick Jagger’s role in the film as an “untrained” star actor serves to explore the important practice of “importing” cult value into a film by appropriating sources of pre-existing cultural value, such as rock stars, pop art, and underground or counter-culture movements. Smith’s analysis of Performance employs its own manner of importation, of “fan documents” (primarily culled from newsgroup postings on Yahoo!), which provide tangible voices to support his theoretical ideas.
However, the strides made by these final three chapters in building up Smith’s definition of cult film are cut short by his rather abrupt conclusion, a sort of reductive catalog of the methods employed in the previous chapters, followed by the introduction of several new or tangentially mentioned concepts (textual “unconsciousness,” the midnight movie, and nostalgia, to name a few). He does not seem entirely unaware of the haphazardness of his conclusion, ending mid-stride, as he does, by consulting the dictionary as to the high importance of nostalgia to the definition of cult. As this closing section points both literally and figuratively to the opening of the book, the reader may get the feeling of having possibly missed something along the way.
If one returns to view Smith’s book again through the lens of these last-minute additions and augmentations, the reader in fact undergoes a process similar to the one that Smith has proposed regarding cult film formation; a seemingly shoddy or ill-formed production that gathers new value when re-appropriated in a new light. Whether this is clever design on Smith’s part or tongue-in-cheek recapitulation on my own part, I am not quite certain. In the end, the book’s individual analyses stand as thorough primers on their respective films, and the book itself provides a wealth of primary (and especially fan-based) materials for those readers interested in exploring the phenomenon of cult film within the context of Britain.