Bodies and Super-Bodies: The Hallucinatory Physicality of Cult Cinema (Web Exclusive)
by Lesley Chow

Elizabeth Berkley in the airbrushed world of Paul Verhoeven's  Showgirls

Elizabeth Berkley in the airbrushed world of Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls


From one point of view, the word “cult” connotes the simply oppositional. From this perspective, cult is as generic a term as cool—a way of explaining obvious badness or plainness, or of injecting flavor into an otherwise bland product. It is a way of riding over narrative schisms, or classifying a film that’s inexplicably busy or zany (hence the perceived craziness of Hong Kong films with odd subtitles.) If cult is mixed in with camp, it becomes a way of enshrining a seemingly impassive or oblivious subject—in which case, no end of things might be reclaimed as cult. Cult could be defined as a special pleasure in against-the-grain readings: for instance, ironically inflating the reputation of a soap, or the quiver of Faye Dunaway’s voice.

If cult is to be understood as more than just a contrarian stance, however, it might be useful to consider the word in light of its formal roots: that is, a rapt and devoted attention to the image. In cinematic terms, this indicates something regarded with unusual intensity, rather than just defiantly liked. In this sense, a cult film might be identified as one which involves a deep immersion in strangeness, leading to a genuine confusion of values.

While the question of the entire range of defamiliarization of normative values in cult film is too broad a topic for the scope of this article, I’d argue that one of the most intriguing disturbances created by cult occurs at the level of its excited attention to the body, and the similarly intense attention it solicits from the audience. In cult film, audience attention to body parts is analogous with the way we identify routinely with characters. In a cult movie where fixations abound, our feelings of surprise, dread, and arousal leap not only from person to person but from body part to body part. Is it any wonder that cult films make such a fetish of mouths: the red lips of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)—on a par with the Rolling Stones’ tongue as an archetype—have come to symbolize the psychic and sexual transfers of that film. More recently, Showgirls (1995)—the only film comparable to Rocky Horror as a “midnight movie” phenomenon—offers an equally arresting yet
confounding sexual image. Paul Verhoeven creates a race of glazed, surgically perfected dancers—like blonde androids—whose manic thrusts and gyrations suggest a crazed distortion of the Hollywood ideal. Such films destabilize our normative relationships with our bodies.

To a large extent, these films function as cults of the odd body. They shatter old norms of cinematic physicality. The hyperbolic bodies in these films serve as guides to fixation for the audience, suggesting ways we might extend ourselves through action or prosthetic enhancement. The films urge us to consider uncanny new uses for the body, both spectacular and mortifying. Yet not every film with spectacular bodies is a cult film. Cult movies also rely on a careful modulation of mood—a sense of being absorbed in their own oddity. Even a film as hardened as Showgirls slips between cynicism and the delirium of its ventures into dance and a rhapsodic style of Forties filmmaking. This standard gives us a way of separating films that have valid cult preoccupations with the body and films that barely cause a ripple in our perceptions of the flesh.

An example of the latter is Harold and Maude (1971) the cult reputation of which depends in many ways on the potentially controversial relationship between an adolescent and an eighty-year-old sexpot at the center of its narrative. The actual movie, however, contains little real physical display; even the “shock” of its romance depends on a series of reaction shots of purse-lipped skeptics within the film. There might be a certain interest in the fact that its bodies are inert and starchy rather than sensual, but director Hal Ashby lacks faith in this nonconformist vision; each scene is held too long as the camera circles ponderously around the misfits. The film has no tentacles—nothing to connect this one case to further themes and possibilities. I’d liken it to recent releases such as Secretary (2002) and Lars and the Real Girl (2007) in its tame treatment of fetish. All three films provide a cool overview of obsession; the cozy art-house style of Lars is totally detached
from a voyeur’s intimate understanding, while Secretary is an all too sane version of deviance, with a generic look that requires no decoding.

Compare this with the truly disruptive force of Rocky Horror: Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) is a mythic monster, in that he displaces female traits onto a masculine structure, resulting in an appearance both attractive and abject. His lips and the curve of his upper legs are pillows of softness, encouraging libidinal investment. There is an abundance of lush signifiers affixed to a butch body, or hidden in interior compartments. Frank-N-Furter inhabits not only the role of drag goddess, but a level of pagan myth: he’s almost a succubus in his sex-changing pursuits, invading the bridal chambers (coded blue and red) of the virgin man and woman.

When it comes to the outré connotations of bodies, Paul Verhoeven is a meticulous stylist of female parts. Perhaps more than any current director, Verhoeven is engrossed in the look of women: the appearance of his female leads is the most important in a complex mélange of style elements. One long look is enough to tell us what kind of reality each film is grounded in, from the toothy and opaque Denise Richards in Starship Troopers (1997), to the angular Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct (1992), whose appearance makes you crave linearity. In Black Book (2006), the blonde played by Carice van Houten is more naturalistic, but still a “type” whose dramatic potential can be apprehended at first glance—her profile is that of a windswept woman in a melodrama. The degree of subtle shading of each woman lets us know exactly what investment to make in her world; it’s as if the emotions suggested by her face are a microcosm of the film’s concerns. Throughout his career, Verhoeven has honed
numerous variations of the blonde: seeming to delight in her decorative nature, power, and the style factor she signifies above all.

For Showgirls, even the film’s poster image clues us into the state of Verhoeven’s unreality. The “s” of the female nude is all sheen and body tone—sinew rather than voluptuousness. In the film, the naked body of the protagonist, Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley), is revealed with little sense of vulnerability. Her face is often immobile so the concentration is on her mouth, with its highly textured, artificial gloss, and her bizarre fetish for nails. Nomi’s blank look is malleable; her lips can be metallicized, her cheeks rouged like a dominatrix. While many of the film’s women are surgically tooled, the one girl (Nomi’s love rival) who appears untouched seems dopier, slower than the rest; it’s as if her “natural” body has made her less streamlined or alert. In Vegas, a pure beauty is a look without novelty—hence the film finds room for an oversize burlesque performer with trick breasts, or a male lead who looks like a melting Ken doll. The entertainers are a group of writhing,
polysexual dancers—like extras in a Madonna video, whose nudity is listlessly dangled about (the film’s esthetic is a throwback to ’80s Madonna, with her powerful robotic body, an assembly of chiseled parts.)

Yet Verhoeven’s universe is even more particular than this: all these bodies are showcased in a setting reminiscent of Thirties studio glory, a Selznick world of volcanoes and mythic sensuality. For all its skin, Showgirls is not a very lascivious film—its sex tends to be futuristic and unusual rather than provocative. The choreography is frenzied, and the nudity consists of a remorseless classifying of types. Surprisingly, none of the women are prey to masochism—as in, say, Shohei Imamura, or the first half of Death Proof (2007). The Vegas panorama, with its neon and Egyptian stylings, is largely available to frame moments between women; each vista settles to accommodate an aspect of female drama. Onstage, as well as behind the scenes, the film runs through the spectrum of female genres: the women’s prison drama, the rape-revenge movie, the Forties picture based on female friendships, blackmailing, and alliances. The film’s hierarchy is that of All About Eve (1950), with
bitchy backstage antics, and a reigning brunette queen deposed by an outsider. Verhoeven applies the old showbiz scale to the business sphere; within a corporate, impersonal domain, the film insists on uncovering the dreaminess of a Forties woman’s picture. In this, Showgirls displays one of the hallmarks of the cult film: it makes decadence a homely place, the base for a family of “freaks.” With its maternal guiding figures, the film turns sexploitation into a space of domestic and familial interaction.

Also genuinely cultish in its investigation of the female body is Tarantino’s fiery, comparatively obscure Death Proof. While its companion film, Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror (2007), was more obviously cultish in its approach to women’s parts—it converted Rose McGowan’s thigh into a pulsing machine gun—its bodies were candied and unreal compared to those of Tarantino. I felt this most acutely when watching one of Tarantino’s frequent leg shots, where a woman’s feet tap on a car window, stretched out in idle relaxation. What happens to women with “lazy legs”? In a film with the threat of a serial killer, these are “moral” shots as much as cheesecake ones. Lazy legs denote freedom and a certain languid irresponsibility; in Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945), the character named “Lazy Legs” had an indolence that was chronic, capable of infecting men and driving them to neurosis.

Tarantino excels at showing women at rest and play, in love and in fear. The film’s first half has a deep, tense atmosphere, reminiscent of magazine ads for Kool cigarettes: those insidious campaigns which feature a man’s arm and fist in the foreground, while a woman in his eyeline cowers in aroused awe. It’s a form of fetishism which advertising encourages us to internalize: the erotic lingering on a sadistic scene. In Death Proof, Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) is the fist—a surly, aggressive man who unnerves women by working on their vulnerabilities. He unlocks the sexual masochism in a seemingly confident young woman; she succumbs to the extent of giving him a lap dance. Shortly afterwards, she and her group of friends are drawn into a fatal encounter with him. This, the film suggests, is one of the dynamics between men and women; certain girls can be aroused by being troubled and intimidated. Women who are exhilaratingly free plunge into the madness and messiness of sexual
violence. As this first segment closes, that dynamic seems inescapable.

Then the morning comes, and the sunny flipside of the film begins: with a quartet of chatty, upbeat women on a road trip. In their bright T-shirts, they look like pink and yellow sundaes, but their talk is earthy and everyday (no artist has mined the style of African-American women like Tarantino, outside of hip-hop.) With their aerobic forms, they suggest a clean, energy-efficient form of girl power, which easily trumps the hubris of Mike. One of the protagonists is a “real” woman, Zoe (Zoe Bell), a New Zealand stunt double. Raw in body and her roughhewn accent, she’s a strange presence in a genre film: one of Tarantino’s cabinet of cult objects. The multicultural world of filmmaking has apparently brought us a new range of curiosities—including Antipodean stuntwomen who cruise small towns. In battle with Mike, this woman mounts her car like the prow of a ship. The formerly unassailable male figure turns panting and anxious, more than the women in the first segment. It’s as
if those sad, slain women have been airlifted into a new breezy chapter. Where those characters saw no end to their despair, the girls in the second half turn the tables on that reading. Mike is whipped from every direction by a pack of taunting girls. Significantly, these women are effortless rather than emotionally invested: they’re triumphant but somewhat detached in rejoicing over the fallen man. This light, angst-free mood is here to stay.

None of the films I’ve discussed, however, have really been willing to lose their preconceptions in relation to sexual identity. Showgirls and Death Proof are body-conscious films, willing to play variations on the existing gender game, rather than redefine those oppositions. Redefinition is hard to find, and it is not necessarily in films that are widely recognized as cult. In fact, the most radical cult films I’ve come across are two fantasias of female imagery by Irvin Kershner, Up the Sandbox (1972) and Eyes of Laura Mars (1978). Eyes of Laura Mars has received some attention as a cult film, while Up the Sandbox has not. But both films present us with a cultish focus on the body that ought to be acknowledged as central paradigms of the body in the cult film. They both take place in a murky night world, where a woman encounters a parade of strangely distorted stereotypes: monstrous mothers, cult activists, and icons of sex and death. Up the Sandbox is a one-off in that it
combines sophisticated feminist theory with a mood of babyhood: a feeling of being incredulous at sexual difference.

The film begins with a young mother, Margaret (Barbra Streisand), washing her infants in the tub; a soundtrack plays, which resembles a warped version of tinkling toys. This moist, hazy atmosphere persists, and gradually infuses us. We internalize Margaret’s childlike surprise at the appearance of men and women—her curiosity about the body and its behavior, which extends to speculation about matriarchal Amazonian tribes, or the mating habits of insects. During a daydream, she envisions meeting an amorous Fidel Castro with breasts. It appears that her imagination has a particular bent; after deconstructing bodies, she reassembles the parts incompletely or incorrectly, resulting in new forms.

Margaret lapses into fantasies which range from a reworking of topical issues—polyamory, abortion, the Black Panthers—to a more generalized sense that borders between bodies have been erased. Throughout these visions, the film remains utterly focused on interiority: fixed in a half-awake, soupy state, even as it takes what now seems like a peculiarly period interest in women’s experience. The issues of daycare and equal parenting are regarded as neither tiresome nor politically correct, but of puzzling interest: the substance of myth rather than modish social life. The movie also has a particular, wiggy fascination with Africa; while it’s wary of academics who sample tribal cultures, Margaret’s paranoia often bleeds into fantasies of Africa, linked to her feelings of being crowded and forced into inexplicable rituals. It’s strange for a major studio film to have such private, discomfiting obsessions, but Kershner simply folds them into the mix, stirring them into the
Altman-like chatter. As such, Margaret’s visions of Kenyan birth rites seems like an extension of the bizarre maternal models closer to home, such as her own, intrusive mother. When viewed through a heated hallucination, the world can seem like a floating procession of bellies and torsos, breeders and offspring, nothing more than combinations of psychoanalytic tropes. The film often resembles a version of Alice in Wonderland, with its series of archetypes inflated to different scales. Body parts are misplaced; everyday objects take on fantastical power. Mothers can be soft and tactile, or gargantuan and insatiable (with her knowing genie eye, Streisand signals mood changes very effectively.) Occasionally, this stay-at-home mom feels dumbly obdurate, like a heavy body outwitted by sharp minds; at other times, she loves her warm immersion in the biological world.

With its Helmut Newton photos and ditzy, gorgeous models, Eyes of Laura Mars should be a camp fashion artifact—so what makes it a cult? For a start, Kershner’s interest in fashion is far from cursory: he goes deep into that rarefied sphere, where every kind of marvel is catered for. Laura (Faye Dunaway) is a Newton-esque photographer, who specializes in chic references to sadism and oppression. She shoots models as cadavers and designer car- crash victims. The girls look stylishly lifeless and manipulated; their tortured expressions result in fabulous, contoured cheekbones. An actor turns up cheerfully to play a corpse, while daffy assistants run around asking, “Where do you want the blood?” This is a night carnival, where cross-dressing and theatrical fanaticism are the norm.

Yet the movie recognizes no separation between the esthetic of high fashion and the outside world. The film is simultaneously a plausible reality and a consistent fashion portfolio, frame by frame. Everything is interpreted in terms of a photographic eye; pockmarked cops and drivers seem like extras on location. Even the docks and scummy surrounds of New York look like sets, with art-directed ambience. Laura presides as empress over this labyrinthine world, which is almost a sect: a group of people who gather to stage macabre tableaux. At its centre is a convincing, close family of eccentrics and fashionistas; at the edges are New York’s wild-eyed stalkers, like Weegee figures come to life. Each scene contains layer upon layer of stylistic reference. A detective’s face is framed against a black slash of canvas; we focus on a static image in front of a felt and acted scene. Before a model is killed, her pink, glowing skin is viewed through slitted blinds—a nod to the black
joke of editorial photography. But Laura isn’t in control of every image; she’s possessed of a clairvoyant vision which wraps her like a visor. As it turns out, her creative drive transmits real-time killing; her shots are re-creations of actual crimes. So this magazine culture is serious stuff: while others might dismiss Laura’s vision as trivial, this movie claims it’s a psychic experience of interiority.

One the most fascinating things a film can do is to coopt the interests of a minority, and project them onto a collective screen. Like Up the Sandbox, this film perceives a specialist fetish as universal; it focuses on a particular, narrow stream—in this case, fashion ephemera—and insists on finding it haunting. This society of perversion and theatrical decadence is the only world the film knows; thus every detail of fashion life becomes iconographic. The language of high fashion is seen as an elaborate, consistent mythology which augurs death. When “Let’s All Chant” is played at a shoot—with its compulsive “ooh-ooh” refrain—the song seems less like a disco hit then a hymn to the dizzying loss of identity. Murder gives impetus to what might otherwise be a free-flowing, contentedly hedonistic world; if anything, real violence enlivens and animates the stock poses. Photography is read as a world of symbolism, so that images which come to life in the darkroom are the signs of
psychic phenomena. There is no barrier between the public stage and the hallucinogenic creations of the mind.

These are two films which could be deemed superficially cultish, due to their costumes and the histrionic potential of their stars. With Faye Dunaway in Laura Mars, however, the film refuses to go camp: instead of focusing on her operatic manner, Kershner instead studies her hooded eye shape, and asks what mysteries it encodes. Cult cinema can be divided into films that are “knowing”—a movie that keeps its head, sanity and superiority, like Showgirls—and those that are less certain, preferring to identify with the amorphous body. Both Kershner films feature radical switches across gender and class, with body confusion and psychic merging occurring as part of an ostensible fantasy plot. Yet amidst all of this subversion, the films maintain their serene glide; the camera acknowledges no disturbance as it moves between margin and center, protected and public selves. Of Up the Sandbox, Kershner has said that he worked hard to create a consistent atmosphere—rather than an obvious
mood swing, he wanted to give us the subtle, quiet feeling that “something isn’t quite natural.” That’s an understatement—nothing in this film is “natural”, not even biology. When nature does appear, it spills and gushes out, in the form of ripe, overinflated bellies. On the other hand, “alternative” models of thought produce feminists of outstanding peculiarity (Margaret’s “sisterhood” with her husband’s suspected lover, as well as her stint with the Black Panthers.)

What’s special about the Kershner films is that rare quality of unknowing—the feeling of a film being too preoccupied and distracted to take account of us. As Jonathan L. Crane has proposed in his work on Russ Meyer, one definition of a cult film is that it “doesn’t seem to have a clue to whom it is speaking”; in seeming not to notice or recognize the audience, it encourages us to “become strangers to ourselves.” By communicating largely with itself, the cult film posits and fashions a new viewer—one willing to be entranced by its mumbling self-talk. With Kershner, neither film can keep its gaze off the specific obsessions of a minority group.

Cult gives us the sense of a special interest coded into cinema, the marginal encrypted in the mainstream. In Showgirls, that interest runs counter to a commercial sensibility; the film signals that its real pleasure is in re-creating the dramas of the woman’s picture, while going through the moves of sexploitation. Rocky Horror appears to care very little for its disposable cast of lanky ingénues, compared with the demonic glory of Frank-N-Furter. In Death Proof, Tarantino’s agenda goes against the current, sadistic mood of pulp and action films. He places four women in the muck of sexual politics and violence, only to reinvent them as an elite squad of uncomplicated feminists—as relaxed and talkative as they are fierce. Both Kershner films deal with women facing kinky sexual disturbance, while preserving a strange veneer of calm and domesticity. Yet the aura of magical ease and comfort in all these films is key. The characters of cult are fully rounded in their oddity: a
warm home of misfits, the family of freaky voices that chatter on.

Lesley Chow is an Australian film writer with a particular interest in dance, music and dialog in cinema. Her articles have appeared in Bright Lights, Senses of Cinema, and The Times Literary Supplement.

Copyright © 2008 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXIV, No. 1