Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: Withnail and Us, by Justin Smith

Withnail and Us: Cult Films and Film Cults in British Cinema, by Justin Smith. London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010. Trade paperback, 256pp. $28.00.

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” — PerformanceA Clockwork OrangeThe Wicker ManThe Rocky Horror Picture ShowTommyThe 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.

The book’s inaugural chapter, dedicated to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, expresses Smith’s desire to develop a general-purpose template for defining cult films. By starting with a “gold standard” of cult, so to speak, he lays the groundwork of his survey and formulates a set of central questions in such a way that they stand relevant throughout the length of the book. He dissects Rocky Horror‘s “cultness” with respect to the ways in which it transgresses or exceeds conventions of plot, narrative, and genre. A careful analysis of interviews and primary sources concerning the film’s production history, critical failure, and eventual “re-birth” as a cult object forms the underlying foundation of Smith’s ultimate argument — that cult films have a shared history of “low-budget,” mishandled, or poorly conceived productions, which in turn are “disproportionally” adopted by a community (or communities) of spectators for the ways in which the “outsider” or “misfit” status of the film appeals to their own sensibilities.

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.

Departing from his earlier focus on a specifically historical analysis of production and reception, Smith’s treatment of A Clockwork Orange proceeds to examine the ways in which the methods of formal and structural film analysis can offer insight. He produces several short critical analyses of Kubrick’s film in areas such as visual style, performativity, music, violence, and censorship. Leaving behind his formal and structural toolbox almost as quickly as he picked it up, Smith’s analysis of The Wicker Man in the next chapter temporarily re-focuses the book’s object of study, moving it from cult films into a marked exploration of film cults. As the subtitle of the book betrays, the cult audience is of first-order importance to the formation of the cult object. Smith usefully frames his study of these audiences in terms of two major variations on cult formation — first, “niche-taste” communities that form as a result of production or exhibition practices, and second, communities who align with particular forms of “concentrated social change” or revolt that a film engenders. However, Smith sprays a shotgun spread of theoretical topics at The Wicker Man and its fans, applying a fragmented range of theories — from Erving Goffman’s ideas on performance and passing, to conceptions of mesmerism and charismatic hypnotism. Although an informative departure from the analyses that precede it, Smith’s oddly structured chapter culminates in the lengthy usage of “Wicker-head” fan documents as a way to tie together what would otherwise be a wildly uneven application of theories to the text of the film. Given the extent to which Smith begins to rely on these importations of fan experience in making or defending his arguments, one might come to question the efficacy of these sources. Very little context, if any, is provided to justify or ground his particular usage or selection of these documents, thereby raising the specter of confirmation bias across Smith’s text.

As the book continues through its analyses of TommyThe Man Who Fell to Earth, and Withnail & ISmith attempts to assemble his theoretical approaches from the previous chapters into a unified system. Combining production histories, formal and structural analyses, and fan documents with discussions of charismatic performance qua performance (The Who, David Bowie, and Richard E. Grant, in turn), Smith reintroduces his earlier concept of the importation of pre-existing cultural value, and stresses the role of the cult audience in re-appropriating these films to make them cult texts. Although Smith does not cover any new ground here, the reiterative application of his past analytical modes begins to bear fruit, as connections to past films in the study are developed — an important factor in the development of a positive definition of cult.

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.

It should be remembered that the quest to define and conquer cult film has been taken on by many more books besides this, and to quote Smith’s own words, “such enterprises are fraught with difficulty (as some recent efforts show) and may ultimately be pointless.” Perhaps that is the ultimate point — that the attempt to define what resists or exceeds definition is futile — that cult objects ought to be taken at face value, to be known when we see them. Given the seemingly organic assemblage of factors that Smith attributes to the formation of cult films and film cults, in the end a concrete definition of what cult is and why it works may not only be unnecessary, but even dangerous, perhaps even counter-counter-cultural.