Mainstreaming Cult19 August 2015
Some films are so goddam good-bad. Sometimes they defy all convention, sometimes they’re cheesy and obscure, sometimes their dialogue is infinitely quotable. Whatever it is, today’s film critic and everyday Joe share an appreciation of cult films. It’s so outrageously trendy to love these kinds of films, which have typically bombed at the box office and then garnered a loyal following. It’s hard to discern whether we can even consider them transgressive or subcultural or underground at all. Quite simply, they seem to be popular – just not for doing, or being, what we might usually expect. What might have once made them so repellent is, ironically, what seems to generate their appeal in the long run. It’s as if a deep, sometimes decades – long breath is held until we figure out why the film is offbeat and whether maybe we actually like the weird feeling it gives us. Other times, however, the subversive appeal seems instant. I’m thinking more recent runaway hits like Mean Girls or Almost Famous. What exactly is it about these films that makes us revere them? And more intriguingly, is there an increasing tendency to reproduce this oddball formula and generate a cult fan base?
Whilst cult films may generally have their roots in subculture, they are not always meaningful or transgressive by their very nature. It’s hard to suggest that Napoleon Dynamite had a deeper meaning or sophisticated subtext veiled by off-kilter dialogue and a minimal, awkward high school plotline. The film was a notoriously low-budget runaway hit. While it’s almost impossible to figure out for certain why, it’s simultaneously easy to see it. There’s an element of freshness to the cast and it has the endearing quality of being relatable. Arguably, it’s better known than earlier cult hits like The Goonies or The Princess Bride, but with this traction and popularity comes a sense of loss: you’re no longer part of a special group, no longer ‘in’ on an inside joke. If everyone can recite the lines to a film, is it still a cult hit, or does this mass appeal poison its uniqueness? Mainstreaming seems to occur increasingly in response to cult films of today and yesteryear.
Only a rare breed of film can engender avid and enduring fan bases. Many Melbourne venues still show cult classics regularly, with opportunities for fans to dress up and partake in the fun. Cinema Nova shows The Room late at night, the first Saturday of each month. This exemplifies ‘the bad’ becoming synonymous not just with cultural acceptability, but with ‘cool’. The tasteless and offbeat has become gentrified.
Most definitions suggest that cult films should have a relatively small fan base and be non-mainstream. It’s easy to see how this badge might be pinned to films like A Clockwork Orange, which was withdrawn from the market by Kubrick shortly after its release and shared behind closed doors for thirty years. It was placed firmly outside of the mainstream and its loyal fan base was, arguably, resisting the norm through this positioning… Understandably, its popularity has been solidified in recent years, and part of this is its remarkable roots.
Whether it’s the so-bad-it’s-good, so-weird-it’s-good, or so-confusing-I’m-not-sure-who-I-am-anymore (Donnie Darko, you’re not making more sense the more I see you), one common thread binds those films that garner cult following: their ever so slightly left-of-centre outlook, characters and stories. No convention is sacred, no trope is left unaltered. This may be deliberate – or a consequence of minimal budgets, maverick directors and dodgy plotlines. Perhaps the mainstreaming of the deliberately bizarre evidences the pervasive appeal of belonging to something non-mainstream and special. Their brilliance (Fantasia) – or notable lack thereof (Showgirls) – is irrelevant; the fiery passion or opinion that they elicit truly sets them apart, and seems to be the one criteria for a cult film. Engendering this kind of response in an audience should be applauded, because perhaps confronting them with the weird and wacky is an act of subversion in and of itself.