CULT CINEMA 100 YEARS PART 2: ART OR EXPLOITATION?
“The sexploitation films of Russ Meyer were among the first to abandon all hypocritical pretenses of morality and were technically proficient enough to gain a cult following.”
By Shailik Bhaumik
Image (above) “Super Vixens” from Russ Meyer
Although they belong to two opposite poles, art and exploitation films are frequently treated as equal and interchangeable in cult cinema fandom, listed alongside each other and described in similar terms: their ability to provoke a response. The most exploitative aspects of art films are thus played up and their academic recognition ignored. This flattening of culture follows the popularity of post-structuralism, which rejects a hierarchy of artistic merit and equates exploitation and art. Some academicians think that although cult films are not synonymous with exploitation, as is occasionally assumed this is a key component; they write that exploitation, which exists on the fringes of the mainstream and deals with taboo subjects, is well-suited for cult followings. Some critic say that cult soft-core films are “the most masculinized, youth-oriented, populist, and openly pornographic soft core area.”
The sexploitation films of Russ Meyer were among the first to abandon all hypocritical pretenses of morality and were technically proficient enough to gain a cult following. His persistent vision saw him received as an auteur worthy of academic study; director John Waters attribute this to Meyer’s ability to create complicated, sexually charged films without resorting to explicit sex. Myrna Oliver described Doris Wishman’s exploitation films as “crass, coarse, and camp … perfect fodder for a cult following.” “Sick films”, the most disturbing and graphically transgressive films, have their own distinct cult following; these films transcend their roots in exploitation, horror, and art films.
SO BAD IT’S GOOD
Critic Michael Medved characterized examples of the “so bad it’s good” class of low-budget cult cinema through books such as The Golden Turkey Awards. These films include financially fruitless and critically scorned films that have become inadvertent comedies to film buffs, such as Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) and The Room (2003). Similarly, Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls (1995) bombed in theatres but developed a cult following on video. Catching on, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer capitalized on the film’s ironic appeal and marketed it as a cult film.
Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
Films which attract the derision of audiences can turn into outlets for fan creativity where fans impose their own interpretation, such as reinterpreting an earnest melodrama as a comedy. Academicians state that films can be perceived as nonsensical or inept when audiences misunderstand avant-garde filmmaking or misinterpret parody. Films such as Rocky Horror can be misinterpreted as “weird for weirdness sake” by people unfamiliar with the cult films that it parodies. The rise of the Internet and on-demand films has led critics to question whether “so bad it’s good” films have a future now that people have such diverse options in both availability and catalog, though fans eager to experience the worst films ever made can lead to lucrative showings for local theatres and merchandisers.
CULT STAMP FOR BUSINESS
As major Hollywood studios and audiences both become savvy to cult cinema, productions once limited to cult appeal have instead become popular hits, and cult directors have become hot properties known for more mainstream and accessible films. Remarking on the popular trend of remaking cult films, Claude Brodesser-Akner of New York Magazine states that Hollywood studios have been superstitiously hoping to recreate past successes rather than trading on nostalgia.
Their popularity would bring some critics to proclaim the death of cult films now that they have finally become successful and mainstream, are too slick to attract a proper cult following, lack context, or are too easily found online. In response, David Church says that cult film fans have retreated to more obscure and difficult to find films, often using illegal distribution methods, which preserves the outlaw status of cult films. Virtual spaces, such as online forums and fan sites, replace the traditional fanzines and newsletters. Cult film fans consider themselves collectors, rather than consumers, as they associate consumers with mainstream, Hollywood audiences. This collecting can take the place of fetishization of a single film.
Addressing concerns that DVDs have revoked the cult status of films like Rocky Horror, academic Mikel J. Koven states that small scale screenings with friends and family can replace midnight showings. Koven also identifies television shows, such as Twin Peaks, as retaining more traditional cult activities inside popular culture. David Lynch himself has not ruled out another television series, as studios have become reluctant to take chances on non-mainstream ideas. Despite this, the Alamo Drafthouse has capitalized on cult films and the surrounding culture through inspiration drawn from Rocky Horror and retro promotional gimmickry. They sell out their shows regularly and have acquired a cult following of their own. Academic Bob Bachelor, writing in Cult Pop Culture, states that the Internet has democratized cult culture and destroyed the line between cult and mainstream.
Fans of even the most obscure films can communicate online with each other in vibrant communities. Although known for their big-budget blockbusters, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have criticized the current Hollywood system of gambling everything on the opening weekend of these productions.
Geoffrey Macnab of The Independent instead suggests that Hollywood look to capitalize on cult cinema, which have exploded in popularity on the Internet. The rise of social media has been a boon to cult films. Sites such as Twitter have displaced traditional venues for fandom and courted controversy from cultural critics who are unamused by campy cult films. After a clip from one of his films went viral, director-producer Roger Corman made a distribution deal with YouTube. Found footage which had originally been distributed as cult VHS collections eventually went viral on YouTube, which opened them to new generations of fans. Films such as Birdemic (2008) and The Room (2003) gained quick, massive popularity, as prominent members of social networking sites discussed them. Their rise as “instant cult classics” bypasses the years of obscurity that most cult films labor under. In response, critics have described the use of viral marketing as astroturfing and an attempt to manufacture cult films.
Influenced by the successful online hype of The Blair Witch Project (1999), other films have attempted to draw online cult fandom with the use of prefabricated cult appeal. Snakes on a Plane (2006) are an example that attracted massive attention from curious fans. Uniquely, its cult following preceded the film’s release and included speculative parodies of what fans imagined the film might be. This reached the point of convergence culture when fan speculation began to impact on the film’s production. Although it was proclaimed a cult film and major game-changer before it was released, it failed to win either mainstream audiences or maintain its cult following. In retrospect, critic Spencer Kornhaber would call it a serendipitous novelty and a footnote to a “more naive era of the internet”. However, it became influential in both marketing and titling. This trend of “instant cult classics” which are hailed yet fail to attain a lasting following is described by Matt Singer, who states that the phrase is an oxymoron.
Cult cinema is often approached in terms of auteur theory, which states that the director’s creative vision drives a film. This has fallen out of favor in academia, creating a disconnect between cult film fans and critics. Critics state that auteur theory can help to create cult films; fans that see a film as continuing a director’s creative vision are likely to accept it as cult. According to academic Greg Taylor, auteur theory also helped to popularize cult films when middlebrow audiences found an accessible way to approach avant-garde film criticism. Auteur theory provided an alternative culture for cult film fans while carrying the weight of scholarship.
By requiring repeated viewings and extensive knowledge of details, auteur theory naturally appealed to cult cinema fans. Taylor further states that this was instrumental in allowing cult films to break through to the mainstream. This auteurism is often highlighted when mainstream success occurs. This may take the place of – and even ignore – political readings of the director. Cult films and directors may be celebrated for their transgressive content, daring, and independence, but mainstream recognition requires they be palatable to corporate interests who stand to gain much from the mainstreaming of cult film culture. While critics may champion revolutionary aspects of filmmaking and political interpretation, Hollywood studios and other corporate interests will instead highlight only the aspects that they wish to legitimize in their own films, such as sensational exploitation. Directors, whose films are both transgressive and subversive, will have the transgressive aspects highlighted while the subversive aspects are ignored.
Shailik Bhaumik is an award-winning filmmaker and entrepreneur. Known for his feature film “Dasein”, Shailik is the founder and Chairman of Human Lab Corporation, a Multinational Film Company whose mission it is to help Independent Filmmakers survive and thrive in this highly competitive industry. Shailik oversees worldwide operations including production, distribution, and marketing for HLC’s live-action films, as well as films released under the HLC banner.