Will the real cult film please stand up?
In the taxonomy of film, cult cinema is something of a super-class, not a genre, but it still needs careful definition. Genres and subgenres of film show predictable traits and self-contained boundaries, at least as much as print media genres do. For example, film audiences select westerns, romantic comedies, musicals, horror films, and action adventure films on the basis of genre conventions revealed through specific iconographic cues in posters and trailers. That is to say, westerns will have guns and cowboy hats, and action features will have explosions. But what markers indicate cult films? Where are the boundaries that define the term? How do we agree or disagree with an identification of “cult film” attributed to a given movie? Without reliable criteria for inclusion or exclusion of a specific film to this category, the designation is meaningless. Clearly needed is a manageable checklist of five or ten characteristics and identifiers to make the term “cult film” useful for critical purposes. (See Fig. 1).
It’s about Marshall McLuhan, according to Tom Naim, writing in the dawn of cult film appreciation (Naim). A cult text is an “intellectual fashion” spread by contagious diffusion, not authority or vested interests. Cult cinema is democratic. But today in the era of viral video and information overload, the likes of which McLuhan could only dream, this view seems to have changed.
Writing in Cineaste, Adrian Martin, in his article “What’s Cult Got to Do with It? In Defense of Cinephile Elitism,” cites the abuse of the term cult film, saying the category had become “elastic, a catchall for anything slightly maverick or strange” (Martin). He observes indies pushed as “instant cult classics” and marketing tags in media outlets hailing nostalgia, “favorites,” and foreign films as cult films. What is cult? It’s not enough, Martin points out, to watch a film repeatedly, nor that a film attract a large, devoted following. Cult films are best defined as “orphans” discarded, forgotten, or never recognized by the film industry. For him, cult film must be rescued from oblivion and brought to veneration. It is an after-market, “value-added” aspect that can expire or be revoked if the film ever crosses over to the mainstream or larger commercial success. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), according to Martin, is an example of a film going from “subcultural” to mass culture status. To be sure, his approach is elitist, as the title of the article states, and the critic wants to limit cult film by critical opinion, not the marketplace of audiences.
Cult cinema is characterized variously in college film textbooks. Louis Giamatti cites Rocky Horror‘s $80 million gross from the campus midnight movie circuit and adds: “Most cult movies appeal to our subversive instincts, our desire to see conventional morality trashed” (Giamatti). It doesn’t bother Giamatti that Rocky Horror became famous for being cultic. Timothy Corrigan and Patricia White mention Ed Wood’s “cult classics” Glen or Glenda? (1953) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) in the same paragraph as Tim Burton’s biopic Ed Wood (1994). Both Burton’s film and the films of his eponymous filmmaker are handled as cult favorites. In the former, however, we believe the director (Wood) had no intention to create marginalized, “orphan” films, and likewise that Burton’s highly visible success renders his oeuvre mainstream, regardless of motivation or cachet.
Does success play a defining role in cult cinema? Rocky Horror and Plan 9 may turn out to be important discriminators since we have clearly different modes, something like a conscious vs. unconscious cult quality. Terry Gilliam’s strained effort to conduct Hunter S. Thompson’s truly cult Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to the screen (1998) resulted in a Cannes nomination and 577 amateur reviews on IMdB, but few report it as a cult film, though the director apparently willed it so.
The checklist of cult cinema will have to deal with the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Tim Burton, who seem to derive films from a cult cinema sensibility and draw upon the precedent, but whose films may not qualify for cult status, at least not now.
Textbook authors Corrigan and White refer to cult films as “ephemeral or noncommercial films that, despite their lack of traditional cultural value, have survived to yield fascinating glimpses of the past” (Corrigan and White). In another textbook, Gerald Mast and Bruce F. Kawin write about Hollywood’s deliberate production of cult films as a reaction to the strong impact European films made on America after WWII (Mast and Kawin). They cite blaxploitation films (e.g., Gordon Parks’s Shaft, 1971) and sexploitation films (e.g., Deep Throat, 1972) as well as those “late-night” specials that correspond to Adrian Martin’s “cinephile” demographic. The authors draw a line between “art films” (such as those of Mike Nichols and Arthur Penn) and cult films on the basis of viewership and cultural value, an evaluation difficult to defend in regard to films such as Easy Rider (1969) and Billy Jack (1971).
Clearly, cult films cross genres and become cult films (usually) as a result of events after initial release and outside the control of filmmakers. Thus, film X may be cult upon release and drop off the list later; or conversely, begin life as a mainstream film and become cult at some later date (like Casablanca). Cult is what you like and definitions are characteristically vague, even contradictory. Popular media has apparently surrendered to hearsay.
Entertainment Weekly lists its top 50 cult films and makes the typical statement about what they are: “usually strange, quirky, offbeat, eccentric, oddball, or surreal, with outrageous, weird, unique and cartoony characters or plots, and garish sets.” The list contains old standbys like Un Chien Andalou (1928), a film designed to be avant garde and which aptly gathered a cult following; and Freaks (1932), a film consistently dubbed cult by virtue of its content. Freaks, by definition, satisfies EW’s “strange, quirky, offbeat, eccentric, oddball, or surreal,” description. But at number 10 on the list we find The Shawshank Redemption (1994). Why? AMC’s Filmsite blurb on the film calls it an “inspirational, life-affirming and uplifting, old-fashioned style Hollywood product.” Hardly quirky or outrageous.
So while most of the films on the list can be nodded to, some leave us guessing about what got them there. This is common in cult cinema discussion.
At the end of a search for some firm criteria for labeling a given individual cult film, we’ve put together a checklist of attributes. Using the checklist, critics, viewers, and academics can generate a number that corresponds with a film submitted for consideration. A film that meets only two or three criteria is probably less a cult film than one that meets all or most.
Figure 1: Checklist for Determining “Cult Film” Status
1. Marginality Content falls outside general cultural norms
2. Suppression Subject to censor, ridicule, lawsuit, or exclusion
3. Economics Box office flop upon release but eventually profitable
4. Transgression Content breaks social, moral, or legal rules
5. Cult following Generates devoted minority audience
6. Community Audience is or becomes self-identified group
7. Quotation Lines of dialog become common language
8. Iconography Establishes or revives cult icons
A test of the checklist could go this way: The 1998 film The Big Lebowski shows up as number 34 on the Entertainment Weekly list of 50 top cult movies. It receives a weak point for criterion 1, Marginality, only because the characters are slackers, neurotic, or nihilistic and these character traits are depicted as likeable or comedic. The Big Lebowski gets nothing for criterion 2, Suppression. The Coen brothers’ film was not suppressed. As for economics, Lebowski was made with a $15 million budget and has a gross revenue to date of $47 million in worldwide distribution. The film is not particularly transgressive, but it racks up points with criterion 5, Cult Following. See www.lebowskifest.com for latest merchandise and festival information.
The checklist adds “conscious” vs. “unconscious” cult film and includes a “cult iconography” component in the Other category. Both of these attributes may help describe a cult film, but neither is sufficient to define one. For example, Kill Bill splashed cult images, motifs, and plotlines from leader to credit crawl, but Tarantino’s remarkable film remains derivative of cult cinema, not an example of it. But if a film establishes or significantly revives cult iconography, it should be counted. The checklist should be able to discover cult film as a function of the eight attributes more or less disregarding filmmaker’s intent or style. The following matrix may be useful to that purpose.
Using the Checklist
Figure 2: Cult Checklist for The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
1. Marginality Transvestitism, homosexuality X
2. Suppression N/A
3. Economics Profitable in college and midnight movie release X
4. Transgression Bisexual seduction X
5. Cult following Established cult industry X
6. Community LGBT and Boomer groups X
7. Quotation “Time Warp” dance X
8. Iconography “Conscious” parody; presents transvestite costume icon X
Rocky Horror Picture Show Score: 7
It is further noted that film critic Adrian Martin would have this film expire from the cult list due to its acceptance by the general public. Whether this is true or not, holding films to a perpetuity requirement would purge all but a tiny fraction of the films commonly agreed upon as cult films, including Freaks and Un Chien Andalou. This would seem tantamount to an error in historicity since it judges an artwork at odds with its timeframe. The cult label is fragile enough. Indeed, with the advent of Internet access, the cult film phenomenon is changing quickly.
An ideal example of the Internet factor in cult cinema evolution is Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987) directed by Todd Haynes. The 43-minute low-budget film deals with the pop singer’s fatal anorexia and brother/pianist’s homosexuality. LGBT groups supported Haynes for the film’s satire of conventional repression of self and the lethality of social norms. Then Superstar was suppressed by court order in 1990, ostensibly for its unauthorized use of copyrighted performances of Carpenters music. All known copies were confiscated and ordered destroyed. And thus it remained until bootleg copies appeared on YouTube. In the present digital/archival culture, nothing is suppressed for very long.
Cult cinema came of age in America with midnight movies and campus showings of films such as David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1976) and Rocky Horror. It continues in cyberspace with 2 Girls, 1 Cup, a shorter version of Hungry Bitches (2007) by Marco Villanova.
Figure 3: Cult Checklist for 2 Girls 1 Cup (2007)
1. Marginality Coprophagia, emetophilia X
2. Suppression N/A
3. Economics (?) Advertising revenue for host site X
4. Transgression Displays rare paraphilias X
5. Cult following (?) Viral video X
6. Community Coprophiliac fetishists, voyeurs X
7. Quotation “Two girls, one cup” X
8. Iconography Replaced “The Aristocrats” (2005) for most hits X
2 Girls 1 Cup Score: 7
This film probably requires no careful analysis; its transgressive quality and viral growth data give it prima facie cred. Using the device for Shawshank or The Dark Knight (2008) might be more necessary and useful.
All said, the checklist may be a mechanism for answering the question, “Is it a cult film?” without resorting to a yes or no declaration by fiat.
AMC’s Filmsite. Dirks, Tom, Ed. American Movie Classics, Inc. 2010. www.filmsite.org
Corrigan, Timothy, and White, Patricia. The Film Experience: An Introduction, 2nd ed., Bedford St. Martin’s 2009.
Entertainment Weekly. www.ew.com
Giamatti, Louis. Understanding Movies, 10th ed. Pearson/Prentice Hall 2005.
Martin, Adrian. “What’s Cult Got to Do with It? In Defense of Cinephile Elitism.” Cineaste 34.1 Winter 2008.
Mast, Gerald, and Kawin, Bruce F. A Short History of the Movies, 10th ed. Pearson/Longman 2008.
Naim, Tom. “Into McLuhan’s Maelstrom.” New Statesman 74.1906 (Sept. 22, 1967): 362-363. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Daniel G. Marowski and Roger Matuz. Vol. 37. Detroit.