Over at the Guardian Unlimited film blog Danny Leigh tosses out some cult film titles. Leigh's list is suitably obscure, at least from the perspective of the average multiplex troller: "I'll happily throw my weight behind Trent Harris' Beaver Trilogy, Hiroshi Teshingahara's The Face of Another, and Alex Cox's Three Businessmen, while for old times' sake I'd also include Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me." Leigh notes, however, that David Lynch's TV series may be about to be disqualified from the ranks of the cult film because "it seems to have been shame-facedly retrieved from the critical waste disposal lately."
But what is a "real cult movie?" Leigh borrows his definition of the cult film from Michael Atkinson at the IFC film blog, who suggests a better term might be "snark hunt," which is
the desire for the maudit, music or books or films that have been largely scorned or misunderstood or forgotten or all three, but which, it is held by the lone, courageous voice crying in the wilderness, are in fact sublime and subversive and ultracool. We all know of movies like this ("cult" is the too-often applied term in the U.S.), and we all also nurse ardor for some unique examples ourselves (OK, me: Kalatozov's "The Letter Never Sent" (1959), Fassbinder's "Whity" (1970), Buñuel's lowliest Mexican films, Friedkin's "Sorcerer" (1977), Jean Rollin's "The Living Dead Girl" (1982), the Bill Murray version of "The Razor's Edge" (1984), Alex Cox's "Walker" (1987), and so on).
It's not really clear how a "lone, courageous voice crying in the wilderness" constitutes a cult, which is group of people. Also, it would seem a pre-condition for forming a passion for a particular film is critical and popular disdain, which, first of all, eliminates films with large but passionate audiences who watch their objects of obsession repeatedly. Two films that fit into this category--or did when I taught film studies in the 1990's--are Pretty Woman and Reservoir Dogs. The former film was the only film every one of my students had seen, and some admitted to have watched it over 20 times. The latter was on infinite loop during fraternity parties at Villanova University, where frat brothers would trade quotes from the film. Some guys could quote entire scenes.
To my mind these are genuine cult films. They're hardly forgotten and if anyone could be said to misunderstand them, it would be their passionate fans, who see something in them that general audiences gloss over. In his A Cinema Without Walls, Timothy Corrigan offers a better definition of a cult film. (Full disclosure: Tim was my dissertation director at Temple University.)
Cult movies are those films that become the property of any audience's private space, and in this assumption of public images into private, they become furnishings or acquisitions within which any modern viewer temporarily inhabits and acts out different subjectivities.
Films attract cult followings simply through an act of appropriation. A public text becomes a shared experience through which a set of viewers can collectively try out forbidden or unattainable identities. It's no coincidence, from this view, that college students would be so fascinated by Pretty Woman and Reservoir Dogs, both of which are about assuming new identities--as well as testing loyalties at the cusp of adulthood.
For a current film with a cult following I would nominate Jared Hess' Napoleon Dynamite, a film that earned positive, if not wildly enthusiastic, reviews, and did well at the box office. Members of the cult are everywhere once you understand the references. River North hipsters in Chicago wear tee shirts with unattributed quotes from the film. There's a senior executive at the company where I work who has quotes from the film scrawled on his white board, next to data warehouse diagrams. I've seen more "Vote for Pedro" buttons than buttons for all the presidential candidates combined.
Quick--anyone know any quotes from A Razor's Edge?