Cinematic Enslavement

Cineaste recently published a forum on "cult cinema" (December 22, 2008). Now that the issue is off the newsstand, I'm reprinting my contribution below. The other contributors to the forum were Joe Bob Briggs, J. Hoberman, Damien Love, Tim Lucas, Danny Peary, and Peter Stanfield.

What is it like to be in a film cult? I can only speak from my own limited experience in cinematic enslavement. Dallas, 1977: A small circle of friends emerges from their seventh consecutive Saturday midnight screening of David Lynch's Eraserhead. As we leave the theater, a bored usher accosts us with biting sarcasm: "Can you believe you paid four bucks to see that?" "Yes!," we respond in unison. "We've seen it seven times!" We exit into the parking lot, smugly triumphant in having "blown the mind" of this lowly popcorn jockey, knowing that we alone have the brains and the taste to "get" Eraserhead while this poor soul, sadly, would have to settle for the more simple pleasures of Orca or Smokey and the Bandit.

Are such moments of cult solidarity still available to young cinephiles? Certainly there have never been more opportunities to sample the entirety of film history and argue about films, genres, and directors for hours on end. Between Netflix, bit torrent, TCM, and international Amazon, any reasonably motivated person can probably track down almost any extant title in the world in less than a few weeks. The growth of the blogosphere, meanwhile, gives us all the opportunity to engage complete strangers in passionate debate over the talents of Ron Howard, or better yet, his little brother Clint. Does this mean "cult" cinema still thrives? I would say no, not really. I've never actually liked the term "cult" very much. If we designate as "cult" any film with an unusually devoted audience, the term remains imprecise and fairly meaningless. In theory, Doris Wishman, The Goonies, Pilipino gore, Japanese "pink films," Titanic, Mildred Pierce, Zontar, and The Sound of Music would all qualify under this criterion, reminding us that there is probably a "cult" of at least one viewer for every single film ever made.

To the extent that there was something called "cult cinema," I think it was very specific to a finite window in the history of cinephilia and exhibition. "Cult" thrived when film culture itself was growing in the 1970s/'80s and yet access to certain films remained somewhat limited. Midnight movies were one sacrament in this religion, as was dutiful attendance at the local rep house. Seeing Godard's late-Sixties oeuvre (yes, that's a cult too, let's face it) used to require proximity to a university or film society and required a certain work ethic in service of the cinema as whole. Schedules had to be cleared. Laziness and torpor overcome (Will Letter to Jane ever screen again in this municipality? Better not chance it!) Back in 1977, having no insight into the future media platforms on the horizon, I stupidly thought I would actually have to go to a theater to see Eraserhead, and that I had better do so as much as possible before Attack of the Killer Tomatoes or some other lame stoner fare displaced it on my local screen. In its original form, then, "cultism" evoked an esoteric sense of social, cultural, and esthetic exile, a type of distinction difficult to maintain once every film became available to every viewer, and once domestic viewing replaced theatrical screenings as the privileged form of spectatorship.

At the height of the cult boom, Danny Peary argued "cult" cinema defined itself through "excess and controversy," but this too seems a less salient criterion in today's media environment. One could argue the moment Cannibal Holocaust appeared at the local video store, conveniently filed in the "cult" section, any final remnant of "excess and controversy" passed into history. And given the acceleration, fragmentation, and hypervisibility of contemporary filmmaking, is it even possible to signify "excess" or provoke controversy anymore? Some cultural center would have to remain to be attacked and defended. Even if an enterprising gore-hound somehow found a way to marry The Matrix, Wavelength, and Saw to photograph a circular blade cutting through a skull in excruciatingly precise slow motion for an hour and a half--each droplet of brain spray meticulously rendered through the latest in digital imaging technology--would anyone even notice, much less be outraged?

No doubt some viewers still form intense "cultlike" attachments to individual films, watching them over and over again to that strange point of intimate defamiliarization that accompanies such complete diegetic immersion. But I think in general the cultism of cult cinema has changed over the past few years, morphing right alongside the growing access to thousands of previously obscure titles. Today "cult cinema" appears to have become more or less a synonym for various historical schools of "exploitation"--low-budget horror, '60s/'70s soft-core, Italian Giallo, Hammer, grindhouse, blaxploitation, Eurotrash coproductions, Asian Extreme, etc. For Anglophonic audiences in particular, "cultism" has the tendency to transform this hodgepodge of international "trash" into an ahistorical playpen of "gee-whiz" Otherness. Isn't Japan kinky-strange? What's up with the Italians and all those zombies? Mexican horror films are really, really weird, man. Calling such fare "cult" really only cloaks the "cultist" with a mantle of connoisseurship, providing a few extra inches of critical distance that help better protect said cultist from the implications of simply enjoying exploitation for what it is--obsolescent sex and violence. I realize "exploitation" is no less loaded a critical term than "cult," but it at least has the advantage of placing these films back into the social, historical, and industrial contexts of their original production and circulation.

This trend toward creating a metagenre of "cult" from various national traditions in exploitation also suggests that today's cultism is less about the intense fetishization of a single film than an obsessive mastery over an entire genre or subgenre. "Cultists" now seem to collect Giallos, Jess Franco movies, and hicksploitation titles like baseball cards, reconstructing an entire historical avenue of cultural production rather than singling out a particular film for repeated engagement. It is an interesting shift from a type of heady romanticism, one born of "cult's" oldest foundations in the secrecy and esotericism of the "occult," to a world where everyone can serve as an archivist of his or her own obscure pocket of film history. If, for example, one is an aficionado of schlocky LSD cinema of the Sixties, then Otto Preminger's fatally misguided Skidoo is a must--but once Skidoo has been seen, there is little to do other than check it off the master list of the genre--God help anyone who would try to watch it a second time.

In many respects, this transition in cultism from an experience of immersion to one of critical mastery is symptomatic of a larger crisis in cinephilia over the past twenty years or so. On the one hand, I can't imagine that I would ever care as much about a movie as I did about Eraserhead in 1977. To see a film on a big screen in 35mm seven weeks in a row, with a full week separating each individual screening to facilitate reflection and anticipation, presents a type of textual engagement that is now rare if not completely impossible. On the other hand, the idea that one can now use DVDs to reconstruct the entire exhibition history of a long defunct Alabama drive-in is nothing less than amazing. The cultist challenge of the new century, I imagine, is to prevent this new plentitude from damning the cinema to the cruel fate of music in the era of the iPod--songs and albums often reduced to little more than data, more important as potential examples of certain types of music than as music itself. I probably don't need to see Eraserhead again, but I do sometimes worry the day will come when I'll have the sick realization that I've never had access to so many movies in my life, and yet cared so little about any of them.

Popular Posts