The other day, for no good reason, I started to watch Avatar. This in itself was unusual, because I have always found the success of the film to be a phenomenon as baffling as string theory. Avatar has the power to turn an otherwise decent, functional person into a raving idiot. Before Avatar came out, I heard plenty of chatter about how believable the computer-generated Na’vi bodies were going to be. Thanks to James Cameron’s innovative “performance capture” technology, they were going to transcend traditional the limits of the believability of CGI characters. They were going to make Gollum look like the front and back ends of a provincial pantomime cow. Then came the film…
There were three Na’vi of note — Sigourney Weaver, who goes from being a boring caricature of an academic sociologist to a boring nonfactor in a crop top. There’s Jake Snaggletooth Hammerstein or whatever Sam Worthington’s name is, who goes from being an angsty paralyzed former vet who is loyal to the military to being neither angsty, nor paralyzed, nor loyal to the military. Then there’s sort-of-goatee guy, who goes from being “in the movie” to being “not in the movie.”
The whole thing is crap, with a storyline that makes as much sense as a horse in a tuxedo and yet, just before it started, the TV continuity announcer described it as a ‘Cult Classic’.
This got me thinking. Can the (at the time) highest grossing movie of all time, really be a cult? What is a cult movie? Are they just bad movies in disguise?
What about ‘Cult actors’? Take for example Kurt Russell, he can’t act, he walks and runs in an odd, lumbering way and he always sports the worst hair of whatever era he happens to be living through at the time. Even playing a psychopathic stunt man in ‘Death Proof‘ he does not look intimidating in the way that Clint Eastwood or Samuel L Jackson or even John Travolta look. And what about the eye patch in ‘Escape from New York’? he looks like a little boy who wondered into a pirate’s bedroom and stole one of his props. Even some of Kurt Russell’s biggest fans concede that his best performance was in a TV movie about Elvis Presley (by John Carpenter). Much like Ronnie Wood, Russell is the kind of person who made valuable industry connections at an early age and then milked them. He is Hollywood royalty, yes, but he is royalty in the same way that the other guys in the Smiths and U2 are royalty: he knows people on the throne. He is even married to one of them. But he has never occupied the throne himself.
If you watch Big Trouble in Little China, which IS terrible, and then check it on Wikipedia to see how well the film did at the box office. You’ll find it crashed and burned upon its release, over the course of time, thanks to massive video sales, it became a cult classic. That’s what it said, right there on Wikipedia. It was a cult classic. So I checked out a few other websites to see if this was true, then ran it past a couple of close friends who, despite their otherwise unblemished pop cultural escutcheons, actually like Kurt Russell movies. And all of them said the same thing. Yes. We love Big Trouble in Little China. It’s a cult classic.
This conversation got me to thinking about the very meaning of the term “cult classic” or “cult film”. A cult film is usually, though not always, a film that was savaged by critics and ignored by the general public upon its release, or a film that was admired by critics but savaged by the public when it first appeared. But over the years, as the tribal drums implacably thump away, the cult film gathers a significant following among a small but vocal segment of the population. Cult film buffs are true believers, zealots who refuse to accept the verdict of history. No, Dune did not suck. . No, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is not breathtakingly self-indulgent and just plain awful; it is actually jaw-droopingly great. Those of you who do not share this opinion are idiots.
There are high-quality cult films (Aguirre: The Wrath of God, The Big Lebowski), low-quality cult films (Reefer Madness, The Toxic Avenger), prefab cult films (The Blair Witch Project, Surf Nazis Must Die!) and lots of movies that fall somewhere in between (The Evil Dead II, Showgirls). For the most part, cult films are neither as bad as the general public and critics said they were upon their initial release, nor as good as their fans maintain. Except in the case of Big Trouble in Little China, which flat-out stinks.
Some cult films – Get Carter, Hard Boiled, Blue Velvet, Reservoir Dogs, and True Romance – are absolutely great. They deserved a warmer reception when they were released, yes; they have a right to be much better known than they are, yes; but it is not as if no one has ever heard of them. Other cult films suffer from being released in the wrong time in the wrong country; this is certainly the case with Old Boy, Battle Royale and any number of Korean gangster films. These are films that are cult classics outside the country in which they were released; but inside that country they are by no means unknown quantities.
We devotees of cult films have a curious mind-set. We want the movies we worship to be better known, but they secretly fear that wider acceptance would spoil all the fun. We would have much preferred that Jet Li remain obscure, that films such as Ong-Bak never achieved anything more than borderline success. We do not really want the cool kids to discover Eraserhead. We are like billiard or backgammon fans; they insist that the games are far superior to pool or chess, but they realise that if everyone started playing them, it would ruin everything. Cult films are like holidays to South-East Asia: things were great until the people with money found out.
Deep down inside, we Cult Movie fans fear that the verdict of history may be correct. Maybe Event Horizon and Manhunter are just OK, but nothing more. Maybe, despite Mickey Rourke’s fabulous three-minute cameo, Buffalo 66 isn’t quite as brilliant as we think it is. Maybe V for Vendetta really is stupid and juvenile. One could not continue to insist that Spaceballs was an overlooked classic if millions of people actually saw it – and accurately reported that it was anything but a classic. Ditto Earth Girls are Easy. When cult films become more widely known, we feel betrayed, preferring that they remained weird and relatively esoteric, like Ichi the Killer. There was a time, though it is hard to believe, when Jackie Chan movies had a cult-like status, and only we recognised his true genius. Then, in the late 1990s, Chan broke out in a huge way and made loads of popular mainstream American films, few of which would ever achieve cult film status.
The internet has made it harder for films to achieve true cult status. This is because the internet has destroyed the concept time. Early cult films such as Plan Nine from Outer Space or Faster, Pussycat, Kill! Kill! were released, tanked at the box office, and then went away for a while, to be excavated from the crypt at some later point. The same was true of Mad Max, which took a while to build an international fan base because no one outside Australia could understand anything Mel Gibson was saying. Films like this were shrouded in mystery. This allowed us to feel special because we had seen a film that others had not, and in many cases, could not see. We liked it that way.
Anyone who truly loves movies has a personal list of cult films. These are films that suck, but that suck in a special way. Because we saw those films as children (DARYL), or with the first girl that we loved (Kalifornia), we impute virtues to them that may not exist.
I also watched ‘The Three Amigos’ recently. When I first saw it I may not have been paying as much attention to the film as I should. I have ceaselessly recommended that film to friends, not because it is any good – it is actually quite horrible – but because in my mind it is a film that has achieved legendary cult status. Even though the cult may not extend very far beyond my living room. And even though it is an absolutely horrible motion picture that almost destroys any fond memories of Steve Martin. It’s still a lot less stupid than Big Trouble in Little China. A lot. My own experience with the Steve Martin/Chevy Chase dud underscores a very important point about cult classics: just because everyone in their right mind says that a movie is atrocious doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t.