The Cult Film Reader

March 6, 2008

In the academic study of popular culture the margins have a tendency quickly to become the mainstream, and nowhere more so than in the analysis of cinema. As Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik's The Cult Film Reader - an admirable collection of often provocative essays and extracts aimed at students - reveals, where movies are concerned the exotic, the avant-garde and the just plain tacky have pleasures to offer the critic that the straight-faced mainstream finds hard to match.

But what exactly makes a film a cult film? In a brief foreword to the collection the editors seek to identify the defining elements of the genre. But these prove to be so wide-ranging and various (innovation, transgression, a capacity to push at generic boundaries and conventions, intertextuality, "insultingly conformist or problematic endings", gore, bad taste, a predilection for nostalgia) as to exclude almost nothing. And this, of course, is part of the promiscuous appeal of cult cinema. Almost any film can qualify, whether it is born cultish, achieves cult status or has cultishness unexpectedly thrust upon it.

Hence the examples cited here range from B-movie shockers such as Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) to avant-garde artworks such as Un Chien Andalou (1928) and from modern classics such as Blade Runner (1982) and quietly subversive genre-movies such as The Big Lebowski (1998), to mainstream Hollywood blockbusters now enjoying a camp second coming such as The Sound of Music (1965) and Gone With the Wind (1939).

Similarly the essayists anthologised range from canonical cultural critics such as Walter Benjamin and Susan Sontag to young scholars with recently completed PhDs. Indeed, one of the collection's greatest strengths is its breadth, in both subject matter and methodology. The excerpted contributions, all of them previously published in one form or another, run the gamut from dry abstraction about the concept of "cult" to sparky advocacy of particular films and movements. While some are worthily (and wordily) theoretical, others are rooted in the details and textures of the films and cinematic phenomena they describe.

Among the most engaging of the latter are Steve Chibnall's lively account of "(Get) Carter in Context", Steven Jay Schneider's analysis of the gory details of David Lynch's Eraserhead (1977), J. P. Telotte's study of the website associated with The Blair Witch Project (2000), Siegfried Kracauer on Berlin's picture palaces and Bruce A. Austin's statistical survey of the audiences for showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in Rochester, New York, in 1979. For sheer enthusiastic advocacy, however, the prize must go to I. Q. Hunter's "Beaver Las Vegas!", a spirited essay on why he (seemingly uniquely among scholars and critics) likes Paul Verhoeven's widely vilified "lap-dance musical" Showgirls (1995).

No collection of this kind can completely satisfy all its readers. Perhaps a second edition might find more room for the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Alexander Korda and Peter Greenaway. But even without these pioneering directors this reader offers a rich prospectus for the scope of the genre and makes a strong case for its further study. If in the end the best definition the editors can produce is the almost circular one that "a cult film is a film with an active and lively communal following", this does at least identify the crucial fact about the genre: its defining feature is actually extrinsic rather than intrinsic to the films themselves. Whether it does so in lavish international conventions or modest internet chat rooms, if there is a group willing to identify a film as "theirs", and identify themselves by their commitment to that film, then a cult film it surely is, regardless of its content.

The Cult Film Reader

By Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik
McGraw Hill/Open University Press
£65.00 and £22.99
ISBN 9780335219247 and 219230
Published 1 December 2007

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