Saturday, January 23, 2010

Cult Movie Theology

A particular paragraph from this piece, one of the first to observe The Big Lebowski's cult status, caught my eye:

"The typical Hollywood product has little potential for becoming a cult favorite because it is perceived by everyone in basically the same way. ... Although Gone With the Wind and Star Wars have fanatical followings, I have not included them, because they are still distributed with the intention of attracting the masses rather than devotees on the fringe of the mass audience; the word cult implies a minority,, and the studios are well aware that Gone With the Wind and Star Wars still attract the majority of the movie audience."

What happened over the next two decades, however, is that cult movies became so cool (and such potential cash cows in the profit-recycling world of home video) that every studio wanted one--and was willing to spend millions to get it.

Meanwhile, mainstream audiences became so hypersavvy that offbeat movies like David Fincher's Se7en or The Blair Witch Project, which once would have been relegated to cultdom, became massive, overhyped hits.

This seems to imply a double-standard by which cult films are judged. Plan 9 From Outer Space, really is an awful film, so much so that its badness becomes a perverse virtue. Ditto Rocky Horror (except the songs really are pretty fun, and Tim Curry's Frank n' Furter is to die for). This, of course, is how we arrive at the "camp" aesthetic, in which we enjoy something for its spectacular failure. There's nothing wrong with this, of course, I pity anyone who doesn't allow themselves to enjoy this sort of filmic junk food once in awhile.

But why fault Se7en and Blair Witch for their wild mainstream success when they would have found an even more fervent following if they had stayed underground? These films are overexposed, of course, but I fail to see how that is any better than the multitude of cult films which are just mediocre in their brand of shittiness and not worth the devotion they receive (I'm looking at you, Napoleon Dynamite and Boondock Saints).

The Big Lebowski, as it happens, is a terrific film that, as the author notes, was just too weird for mainstream America when it came out. That's a far cry from the hilariously awful cult classics of yesteryear, which require a great deal of distancing irony in order to be enjoyed. I suppose they both reflect their creators' idiosyncratic visions, perhaps that's the unifying factor in their cultness.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this. In essence, I think bitching about a would-be cult flick that goes big is a product of reverse-snobbery, the indie type that declares itself too good for the masses. At this point the quality of the movie becomes irrelevant, it just becomes a matter of (counter)popularity. Instead of judging the movie on its own terms, it becomes just another feather in one's cap as evidence of his own superiority.

The Big Lebowski and Fargo are good, Rocky Horror is so bad it's good, The Boondock Saints and Michael Bay movies are just bad. The size of their audience should be immaterial to these judgments, but apparently some think otherwise.

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