Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Cult movies

I started Cult Film: A Critical Symposium by David Church, Matt Hills, I. Q. Hunter, Chuck Kleinhans, Mikel J. Koven, Ernest Mathijs, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock with interest.

I got to this segment by Hunter, "... many of the most problematic questions about cult film, e.g., what is the difference between a cultist and a fan; how many people make up a cult (I’m very keen on the remake of Stepford Wives—am I completely mad and alone?); and why are cult films usually associated with male tastes (Withnail and I and Fight Club are cult movies, so why not Titanic or Dirty Dancing)?"

Frankly, I couldn't be sure if that last question was intended seriously or with some kind of irony that simply went right on over my head. I mean, clearly anyone could see another obvious difference between those two pairings other than the gender balance of their audiences, right? But then what... Yeah, I don't get it.

I read on for a while, but I realized... I don't care about "cult movies".

I mean, obviously a brief skim of the article will show that titles of movies I'm interested in and love are name checked, and lots more of those that might have been are movies I'm interested in. Not to mention the movies I'm interested in and love that none of those authors considered making mention of, but would still undoubtedly be considered "cult movies" by it authors along with most of the public.

I care about the movies themselves.

I don't care about the label or the phenomenon or what it says about me or other people that we like these movies or what other people think we're trying to say by enjoying them or what a lot of other are trying to say by liking these movies.

I probably did care about all of those things ten, fifteen years ago, but I couldn't tell you why at this point.

Now, I just want to enjoy the movies I enjoy and celebrate them with occasional friend and acquaintance and be done with the matter. I don't mean anything different when I enjoy a mainstream movie than I do a "cult movie", I don't mean anything different when I enjoy and action movie than when I enjoy a romantic comedy.

I think I'm just too old and tired to think about this stuff.


Kimberly said...

I couldn't agree with you more Neil.

In all honesty, a lot of the writing I do is an attempt to pull the films I love out of the cult/trash/whatever gutter they've been stuck in for years and point out new ways to view and enjoy them.

I think people forget that films like Hitchock's Vertigo for example were maligned by critics for years until some smart person like Francis Truffaut legitimized what Hitchcock was doing by writing about his work with a critical eye and pointing out how spectacular Vertigo was. Now it's considered to be the director's greatest film and Hitchcock is called one of the world's greatest directors. What a difference a few years made!

What's also funny is how many of these critics seem to totally disregard Truffaut's ideas about film cannons, etc. Truffaut is arguably the great granddad of modern film criticism (or least one of them) and they love to praise the man and his films, but they rarely follow his advice when it comes to film criticism. I recently started re-reading Truffaut's "The Films in My Life" which I hadn't looked at in 15 years and I was surprised by how much the book had influenced my own thinking when it comes to viewing movies. I think he would have hated the term "cult movies."

One of my favorite lines from the books first essay contains one of my favorite Truffaut quotes:

"I still find any hierarchy of kinds of movies ridiculous and despicable."

It's a little disjointed but I'm sure you get the idea.

Anyway, I found the Cult Film: A Critical Symposium a somewhat interesting read but ultimately rather pointless (or is that old fashioned?) and unrewarding.

Neil Sarver said...

Thank you. You make a number of excellent points, which I agree very much with, and probably won't get around to dealing with in their entirety.

Certainly the list of movies with unsavory reputations that have managed to gather their critical reputations over time is long. Obviously, with more credit to Truffaut, film noir would top that list. Let's remember these were all basically men's action thrillers when they were made... and were literally b-movies.

(For those unaware, literal b-movies haven't existed since the 1950s, although I suppose one could argue that Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof is one.)

It wasn't until the Cahiers du cinéma that the film noir movies are recognized by anyone for their artistic achievements, rather than their time's Cannon Films... admittedly that's me using a similarly dismissing bunching, but I was just trying to put the impression into perspective for people.

That Truffaut quote is also exactly on the money. I don't like movies because of or in spite of their genre or popularity. Obviously, I have some leanings to some subject matters more than others, I'm a human being who has had a set of impressions made at various times that have inclined me to certain interests... whatever...

I think the tendency to ghetto-ize certain genres is frustrating on a number of levels...

For one thing it leads to the Great Movies that fit into those genres being dismissed as "great as horror movies go" or "great for an action movie".

It also overplays the quality of other genres. Sturgeon's Law applies just fine to arthouse movies and drama. Anyone who's spent time exploring them and not just occasionally sampling the cream of the crop can certainly confirm that.

And it also allows a certain kind of genre fan to excuse the worst examples of their genre with a "well, it's a horror movie, what do you expect?"

None of that is good for appreciation of movies as a whole, including the "good" genres that get a free pass from audiences for being "good" and "important" in themselves and are, as such, never pressed to get better.

Kimberly said...

Very true. I enjoyed your added insights. I tend to forget that Film Noir is a rather new expression.

I also forget that Orson Welles - arguably the greatest filmmaker that ever lived - wasn't offered this kind of status until the critics of Cahiers du cinéma legitimized his efforts. It's hard to imagine now, but guys like Hitchcock and Welles were really outsiders at some point and not the critics' darlings. I think it's important to keep this in mind since it's much too easy to forget.

Neil Sarver said...

And just in my memory there are likewise dozens of movies that were critical darlings that have been nearly forgotten. Time changes a lot of perception... for better and for worse, but oftentimes indeed for the better, as with those example.

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