Friday, November 24, 2017

In Defense of Cult Films

"I beseech you, learn to see the 'bad' movies, they are sometimes sublime."
--Ado Kyrou, "Le Surrealisme au cinema"

James Franco's THE DISASTER ARTIST deals with the creation of Tommy Wiseau's 2003 movie THE ROOM, which has earned both a reputation as a profoundly awful film and a devout cult following of fans who celebrate it for its awfulness. Cassam Looch, "Film and TV Editor of Culture Trip," doesn't much care for THE ROOM or its following and he's written a sour article on the matter, "Why Is Hollywood Obsessed With Celebrating Failure?" He calls the Franco picture "the latest in a series of films preoccupied with a lack of success," but he cites as examples only it and ED WOOD, Tim Burton's loving biographical sketch of perhaps the most notoriously inept filmmaker in the history of the medium. The two films were made 23 years apart, which doesn't even suggest a trend, much less an obsession. Looch's real targets are cult films and he snottily dismisses THE ROOM, Paul Verhoeven's SHOWGIRLS and the films of Ed Wood.

I can't speak for THE ROOM, which certainly looks pricelessly inept, but I'm definitely a fan of the others and, more generally, of the kind of off-the-beaten-track cinema Looch is trying to dismiss. Looch describes cult films as simply worthless rubbish, failures that earn only scorn and belong in some forgotten corner of landfill. This is both ahistorical and appallingly blinkered. Movies regularly fail to find immediate financial success and critical praise for an infinity of reasons that have nothing to do with their quality. They can be misunderstood. They can be ahead of their time. They can just fall through the cracks of our immense entertainment landscape. They can be low-budget affairs, which are much closer to individual expressions of the hearts and minds of their creators than films deliberately engineered by sophisticated studio machines for mass appeal. A film attracts a cult for the same reason any film draws an audience, because it's possessed of some quality that connects with a certain segment of viewers. The very qualities that can alienate a mass audience from such films--their uniqueness, their individuality, their quirkiness, their entertaining of heretical ideas or flouting of social norms, even their unwillingness and/or inability to conform to the usual standards of technical proficiency--are those that can draw a cult. Many fans see such productions as a refreshing alternative to stifling mainstream pap. Rejecting films merely because they're transgressive of contemporary mass-audience tastes or because they challenge traditional notions of what's entertaining--what Looch has done--is reactionary. It may steer one away from a lot of genuine rubbish but it also closes one off from an entire world of delightful, unique and fascinating films. However obnoxious he may make himself, it's hard not to feel sorry for a film fan who who does that to himself.

At this late a date, it's a little strange to see SHOWGIRLS included in this particular snort. Verhoeven is a top-notch filmmaker and more than one of his movies was widely--and wildly--misunderstood in its own time then has, upon subsequent reevaluation, garnered much respect. The cult that formed around SHOWGIRLS was made up of the people who actually got it the first time around. The film is a gloriously smutty, over-the-top, cynical, darkly humorous--and sometimes just dark--rendition of a classic "Hollywood story" movie that uses Vegas as a metaphor for certain unflattering aspects of American culture.[1] We have a plucky, girl-power heroine trying to take on a man's world by getting naked for its entertainment, sexy Gina Gershon, catty as nip through a y'all-come drawl, as the wisened starlet looking to hold on to her hard-earned spotlight and it's impossible to greet the dual renditions of convulsive rutting by Kyle MacLachlan and excruciatingly gorgeous Elizabeth Berkley with anything but hysterical laughter--only a few of the film's significant repertoire of charms. SHOWGIRLS is a blast. Upon its initial release in 1995, it became a fad among critics to bash it and it proved a massive bomb at the box-office but in the years since, that tide has definitely turned. Looch's description of the film--"a blight against all involved that deserves to be dismissed as a foolish endeavour that never needs to be spoken about again... and certainly one that should not be watched by any right-minded film lover"--is decades out of date, and would have been the words of a fool even back then.

SHOWGIRLS is now celebrated because it's good, not, as Looch would have it, because it's regarded as "so bad it's good" but into the latter category would certainly fall the works of Ed Wood. A former Marine and World War II vet, Edward D. Wood Jr. was an angora-adoring transvestite unter-auteur who, joined by an evolving troupe of oddballs, turned out a string of ultra-low-budget pictures in the 1950s and '60s. By ridiculing his work, the Medved brothers' Golden Turkey books brought it a posthumous cult following in the late 1970s which has only grown in the decades since. Wood is regularly cited as the "worst filmmaker of all time"--he's become the pop answer when the question arises--but that appellation (appallation?) really isn't defensible. While it's undeniably true that Wood was usually an awful storyteller who had absolutely no serious talent for filmmaking, it's also the case that he was a genuine artist. A bad artist, to be sure, but when one sees his films--GLEN OR GLENDA, BRIDE OF THE MONSTER, PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, etc.--one is seeing him, not some cynical drive-by conducted by a disinterested mercenary or committee of studio business suits only looking to make a quick buck.[2] Underneath his inexpert productions, there is sincerity. One is watching a guy struggling, usually rather hopelessly, to bring to the screen stories for which he has a great personal passion. This makes his work interesting and gives his films an endearing quality, while their extraordinary shortcomings are some of the marks of his unique cinematic vision. Obviously, the "worst filmmaker of all time" is an entirely subjective judgment but it seems to me that if we're going to slap that title on anyone, the cinema is simply too heavily littered with entirely worthless, unwatchable junk to bestow it on someone whose work is possessed of these traits. Wood's films are imminently watchable and even if much of their entertainment value is derived from their ineptness--and the ineptness of Wood's productions is a never-ending parade of hilarity--that still counts as entertainment value.

Looch doesn't think that counts. He asserts that it's a "problem" that Wood's films are regarded in some quarters "as somehow being worth watching."[3] Of THE ROOM, he writes, "fans quote along to the wooden acting and inexplicably bad dialogue as if it's entertainment, something Wiseau himself has said he fails to understand..." That bolding is mine and to Looch, I would say, if you wished to establish that you don't understand why people find such films entertaining, you could have saved all that writing by simply saying so. It would have taken a single line. A paragraph, if you wanted to get wordy. You call so-bad-they're-good films "an oxymoron of epic proportions, and one that doesn't really stand up to any scrutiny whatsoever," but you don't offer it any real scrutiny and your own absurd notion that these films aren't entertainment can't withstand the obvious reality that so many people do, in fact, find them entertaining; that's how they became cult films and of sufficient notoriety that you're writing about them. The project on which you embarked with your article is to wave an ugly, stifling notion of Good Taste as a fetish against things you see as so beneath your contempt that you don't feel the need to offer any substantive case for your own view or substantive critique of the films you dismiss with verbal bulldozers; you instead treat their complete lack of merit as a given and ask your readers, who may love them, to "drop the pretence that these are good films when they most certainly aren't." What you've written is presumptuous, pretentious and preposterous and I suspect film connoisseurs with a more diverse palate than your own will continue to imbibe and enjoy entertainments that fall well outside the coffin-shaped box you've here labeled "good" and that the only thing of which you've convinced them is that you're not a writer on these matters worth reading. Of one, I can say that for certain.

Do better.

--j.

---

[1] Twenty-two years old, the film is particularly timely this year, given the current rash of Hollywood sex-abuse scandals.

[2] Which shouldn't be read as a condemnation of such cash-in productions; they're often sublime as well.

[3] He also writes that "the B-Movies Wood is famous for are hated for good reason... they are abysmal." But one sees very little "hate" for Wood's movies. Four decades ago, the Medveds treated them with snickering contempt but they survive and are kept in constant circulation because people find them entertaining. Wood has been the subject of multiple documentaries over the years, a great book ("Nightmare of Ecstasy") and Tim Burton's film, which is also Burton's masterpiece. Wood's PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE has, among other things, been turned into a comic book, three different stage plays, a musical and has been remade for the screen. Speaking personally, when I owned a video store some years ago, PLAN 9 was a regular rental, so much so that each of the three times it was stolen, it had made enough to justify continuing to replace it--in my little video store, a remarkable achievement for a film of that vintage.


Email: jriddlecult@gmail.com
Twitter: @jriddlecult

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