It?s a good point for two very good reasons: Firstly we all know which films are cult classics, but I bet that the many definitions of what actually makes them cult differ radically. Secondly, a cult film column without any kind of discussion as to what cult is, is like Will what?s-his-name?s cover of LIGHT MY FIRE ? mostly pointless, eminently disrespectful and just?well, crap.
Like Douglas Adams? theory that the meaning of life is 42, any single definition of what makes a film a cult classic is unsatisfying. One definition suggests that a film is cult if it grosses less than its catering bill. But this would include films like the inexplicable WATERWORLD (1995). See what I mean about unsatisfying?
Of course it?s pleasant to categorise things and comforting to know that we can slot everything into nice, friendly little compartments.
Actually cult films say a lot more than that, and what I?m driving at is that 'cult' is born out of the desire to say something different, (ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, 1975); say something shocking (see just about every film John Waters made); something exploitative (THE DRILLER KILLER, 1979); rational (FIGHT CLUB, 1999); intelligent but intensely violent (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, 1971); something about the grime beneath our pristine suburban veneer (BLUE VELVET, 1986) or say something in a language your average stoned Martian would find difficult to understand (ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES 1978, or THE CARS THAT ATE PARIS, 1979); or simply films with really good titles (ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES or THE CARS THAT ATE PARIS).
Beginning to see the extent of the dilemma?
Some of you have sent in ideas around this minefield of definitions, some of which I?ve included below. All of them are valid, but having said that any one definition is unsatisfying; perhaps the answer embodies all and more of these qualities.
One trait that could define a cult film is that which makes us look at things from a different perspective. Nothing wrong with that at all. In fact it is one of the finest qualities of a cult film. Now I?m not talking about Robin Williams encouraging a group of spotty teens to stand on a desk to gain a new perspective on the world, (although he?s on the right track). I?m talking about tunnelling beneath the desk to the pits below. In David Lynch?s BLUE VELVET, he dissects the All American suburban front to reveal a world of sordid sexual expression, drugs and sociopathic tendencies. If you?re the kind of person who wonders what is really happening at the neighbour?s house then BLUE VELVET is just the thing you?re looking for.
The film draws on the premise that evil is always closer to home than we would like to think. Also if you?re going to rank a film?s cult status simply on performances then Dennis Hopper?s role as Frank Booth should clinch it.
Hopper, known for his off-beat parts, said he wanted to play Frank Booth because he is Frank Booth. Now that?s a scary, but intriguing thought.
In a similar vein comes Francis Ford Coppola?s revealing fresh look at an old topic. His choice was the Vietnam War and the mammoth APOCALYPSE NOW (1979). Based on Joseph Conrad?s HEART OF DARKNESS, this film tracks the descent into hell and savagery that many vets reported experiencing on the frontlines. It?s a far-cry from the patriotism bullishly portrayed by John Wayne and is technically, dramatically and emotionally near-perfect filmmaking.
Coppola picks up where anti-war poet Wilfred Owen left off and is just as eloquent.
There are many more examples of films that show us a different side to any given topic and not all of them are cult. Mainstream efforts like PLATOON (1986), made possible by the precedent set by APOCALYPSE NOW, shed a similar light of scepticism on war, but few efforts come close to the intensity of Coppola?s opus.
Another criteria suggested is that of exclusive audience enjoyment ? the ?Clique Factor?. There is some truth in this. Let?s face it, not all great films are accessible to everyone. Films like the expressionist landmark DAS KABINETT DES DOKTOR CALIGARI (1920) directed by Robert Wiene, can only be enjoyed by a few. This isn?t to assume any kind of moral or intellectual high ground. The film is simply only open to those with a sympathetic eye. In these cases the enjoyment of the film usually involves the ability to disregard bad performances in favour of the overall effect. A great example of this is THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) ? a simply brilliant and honest film. It is a landmark in the horror tradition but let?s be honest here ? the acting is only mildly better than that of a hastily made porno film. If you can get past that and cut to the vision Tobe Hooper is trying to share with you the results are truly rewarding.
Some cult films are shocking and are either acceptable because of their style or simply because they have balls. Films like FREAKS (1932), THE EXORCIST(1973) and others like them gain cult status because they: a) Dare to smash taboos, b) are brilliantly made and compelling, despite the subject matter or c) are so controversial their ?legend? dwarfs the actual production and its possible flaws.
Another proposal is that cult films come from the mainstream, but due to their originality become firm favourites (note I didn?t say ?instant cult classic?. Smash is instant, coffee is instant, but there?s no such thing as an instant cult classic. Do NOT believe this billing. It is simply the result of lazy marketing and has no bearing on the film).
I?m sorry to harp on the Pop Idols thing, but basically what we?re talking about here is the difference between David Bowie, who paid his dues and earned his enduring status, and Will and Heinz what?s-their-names, who had it given to them (for however long it may last).
Films can of course become cult classics over a short period of time, due to their power and innovations. Under this header I would include films like THE MATRIX (1999), FIGHT CLUB (1999) REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000) and TRAINSPOTTING (1996).
There is an argument for cult films to be cheap and nasty and for certain genres and directors this would hold; certainly for the likes of John Waters (whose creed is ? there?s 'good' bad taste and 'bad' bad taste). But when you weigh it up, a director like Darren Aronofsky, whose powerful works like PI (1998) and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, while not reliant on high budget effects, would certainly seem diluted given a thin budget. His distinctive visual style would perhaps not translate to screen as well if he was working on a shoestring.
Cult films are also defined by the ?What the hell?? principle which refers to the absurd. And whether it?s LIFE OF BRIAN (1974) or THE CARS THAT ATE PARIS, these films are either incredibly witty but so far left field that they?re not even in the ball park, or just so incomprehensibly bad that they?re actually good and gutsy (see anything Ed Wood made, especially PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1958), which has got to rank as the worst film EVER made).
The liberating thing about cinema and cult film in particular is that there are no wrong answers, only badly justified ones. In this sense one person?s cult is another?s tripe. Speaking of which, you could for example justify PEARL HARBOR (2001) as a cult classic. But who the hell would believe you?
At the end of the day there are numerous criteria, arguments, posturing, drunken conversations, drug induced moments of clarity and garish statements to consider. But perhaps the simplest answer to what makes a film a cult classic is this: We do. Our reactions, memories, associations and attachments elevate these films to the positions they deserve (and occasionally do not deserve) to be in. Tons of latex rubber, corn syrup, blood and other bodily fluids aside, there?s more to the cult film than meets the eye. The important thing is that it?s ultimately in our eyes, and if there?s hope for the future of the planet, a bit deeper than that.
Of course a debate of this nature is an ongoing one and ultimately proves to be more exhausting than exhaustive. In the coming weeks I will touch on all of these and more aspects of cult films, like famous cult directors, the different genres of cult and contemporary cult amongst others.
But for now it?s all food for thought. Bon appetite!