Cult Film: A Critical Symposium

Most of us know at least someone who can’t get through a day without quoting from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, CasablancaDracula, or some other compulsively worshipped movie. Other people tire of hearing them intone, “Eeelectricity!” or “Round up the usual suspects,” or “I never drink… wine,” but they perseverate and we screen them out. At what point, however, does this kind of behavior cease to seem quaintly quasipathological and begin to call to us as a significant spectacle? Is it a matter of the ferocity of their ardor? Or their numbers? Would 1,000 people attending a Star Trek convention wearing Mr. Spock ears in San Diego make us sit up and take more notice than if two showed up at a Starbucks in Paramus speaking Vulcan? We finally decided that the only way to seriously examine these and other pressing questions was to publish a special section on Cult Film.

What initially drew our attention was that not only did cult film turn up in our conversations with great frequency, it also arrived in numerous guises. Cult as shock and schlock; cult as nostalgia; cult as marginality; cult as intensity and passion; cult as marketing hype; cult as fad and fashion; cult as subversion; cult as historical era marker. Too many things to too many people, cult film seemed to us to be stretching so thinly before our eyes as to potentially lose its meaning in a dizzying vortex. It seemed an untenable situation ripe for critical investigation.

Cult film has actually been a subject of intermittent, serious study for almost thirty years, and the object of “gee-whiz,” hyperemotional expostulations for longer than that. But Cineaste is also aware that the past ten years has seen a surge of scrutiny of the cult film phenomenon by well-informed scholars, journalists, and critics armed with something more than the pleasure, curiosity, and wonder of the initial wave of critics. This “New Wave” of cult criticism, so to speak, carries with it the intention of winnowing the wheat of rigorous understanding from the chaff of spurious and digressive chatter.

We approached a number of leading scholars, journalists, and critics—authors of classics in the field, editors of journals devoted to cult film, and new scholars of the subject—and invited them to contribute to our Critical Symposium. In the following pages, and continuing on our web site, we offer a wide range of critical interpretations and strategies—emanating from the United States, England, and Australia—that we believe will contribute to a new clarity about cult film, but leave abundant breathing room for the stimulating clash of differing considered opinions.

Our contributors differ in emphasis, which has created a trio of interrogational repertoires. Their three major focus points can be itemized as: the cult fan; the cult object; and the relationship between the cult film and the marketplace. Viewing the phenomenon of cult film through the lens of the fan elicits questions about what distinguishes cult interest from the more general category of cinephilia; differences between the opportunities for cult fans now and cult fans back in the day of pre-home- viewing technologies; and the motives and cultural roles of the cult fan.

Viewing the cult film in terms of its definition as an object, our contributors have confronted questions about cult esthetics: whether they are distinctly different from the esthetics of mainstream film; the independence of cult creators; whether there is a distinctive cult esthetic; whether the cult film (or only some cult films) is marked by a defamiliarized attitude toward the body, gender, society, the family, and human identity.

Finally, where our contributors set their sights on the commodification of cult film, they ran up against the overwhelming question of whether cult film is possible any longer, given a marketplace that omnivorously coopts whatever it catches in the cross hairs of its profit motive in order to produce a standardized product. Under this heading, we find consideration of whether and how there can still be the kind of search for the unknown, obscure object of filmgoing desire that marked the cult adventure in the long- ago days of the midnight movie, screened in the kind of independently owned movie theatre that barely exists today.

We posed the following questions to our respondents, both for the print and online editions, suggesting that they could choose either to answer the individual questions, or to use them as departure points for their own essay.—The Editors

1) What is your definition of cult film?

2) What is the social function of cult film?

3) In his landmark book Cult Movies (1981), Danny Peary asserted that cult films are always marked by excess and controversy far beyond that usually permitted by Hollywood. He also noted the way they stimulate fan devotion of an extreme nature: characteristically an unlimited appetite for screenings of a favorite, and a determination to track it to wherever it is shown. How has the contrast between mainstream and cult film changed since the publication of Peary’s book?

4) What do you find the most exciting and/or valuable esthetic features of cult films?

5) How has the change in venues where cult films are shown, from public theatres to individually owned electronic devices altered the production and experience of cult?