Notes on Cult Films and New Media Technology

The bunny in Donnie Darko, a DVD cult film.

I've been writing for the past few weeks about indie films that make prominent formal play or certain kinds of complexity that rewards repeated viewing. Many of these films are hard to understand in a fully satisfying way the first time through. They have scrambled temporal structures or ambiguous levels of subjective/objective narration. (These include Pulp Fiction, Mystery Train, Donnie Darko, The Limey, Memento, Primer, and The Nines.) Along the way I have had to consider that many of these films have attained cult status, and that the difficulty they present for first-time viewers might encourage audiences to form fandoms around these films that can organize knowledge about them, especially through the social networks of the web. The official Primer discussion board, for instance, includes lots of aids to interpretation including detailed descriptions of the film and timelines of events represented (and implied). I have found this material really helpful, since even after three viewings there is lots about this film that I still cannot fathom.

It strikes me that new media technologies have significant effects on the history of cult cinema. (I'm not sure how original my insights about this will be here, but they're new to me, so I'm offering them up.) My basic point is that the availability of films to own on videotape, disc, or computer file marks a transformation in the way audiences engage with the film text, and that this transformation makes the cult mode of film experience much more typical, more available to more viewers and to more movies. Cult media used to be pretty marginal, and it prided itself on its marginality, which was essential to the identity of the cultist as outside of the mainstream. Now I think it is much less so. This would seem to fit with the Henry Jenkins /Convergence Culture idea of fandom becoming more of a mainstream practice, and one which the media industries actively cultivate in audiences.

The idea of cult media is old (though Wikipedia claims the term "cult film" entered usage only in the 1970s). Matt Hills cites a William James article from more than 100 years ago describing a cult of Walt Whitman. There were cults around opera singers and stage actors in the 19th Century, and in some cases there still are. The Astor Place Riot of 1849 was a product of a class conflict between fans (they wouldn't have been called that then) of different actors and styles of theatrical performance. The first instance of a discussion of movie cults usually given is an article from 1932 by Harry Alan Potamkin about French cults of American movie stars like Chaplin. In the studio era movie cults were probably organized more around stars than films. This was the form of fandom encouraged by the industry in publications aimed at the audience for movies, and fashioned through studio publicity departments. It would make sense that the star rather than the film would be the object of adoration for cultists in this era, since one had much less opportunity to see films repeatedly and much more opportunity to see stars repeatedly.

The essence of cult status is repetition. Cult movies are movies people see again and again, and recreate in various ways, as in the quotation of choice lines of dialogue ("these go to eleven!"). The cult ritualizes the viewing, adds theatrical elements as in participatory experience of Rocky Horror, and excerpts favorite parts (lines of dialogue, character costumes) for extra repetition.

Rocky Horror Picture Show performance at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto, December 30, 2006, photo by Flickr user JaMmCat (used in accordance with its Creative Commons license).

In the studio era, the audience for movies was ensured of seeing their stars again and again, often many times a year. Stars would appear in the press, on the radio and later the television. A contract player might easily appear in half a dozen pictures each year.

Eventually cult movies were appreciated by viewers of television and audiences of repertory theaters. The Wizard of Oz, Miracle on 34th Street, and It's a Wonderful Life became cult films by being shown on TV in an annual ritual. Humphrey Bogart became a cult actor when retrospectives of his films were screened in the 1950s and 60s. Midnight movies made cult hits of films like El Topo, Pink Flamingos, Eraserhead, and Rocky Horror. My introduction to cinephilia was at repertory theaters in Toronto and Montreal in the early 90s (the Bloor and Revue in Toronto, the Paris and Rivoli in Montreal) that always seemed to be showing something by the Marx Brothers, Woody Allen, Sergio Leone, Kubrick, Scorsese, Lynch, or John Waters, and then slightly later in the mid-90s, Hong Kong action films like Hard Boiled. I wasn't aware of these films being cult, really. I thought cult meant specialized knowledge that I probably couldn't access. I just thought the films were classics, and that if I had seen them I could appear to be more literate and worldly and be able to impress people or at least not feel the emptiness and shame that come with never having seen Taxi Driver or Dr. Strangelove.

Before home video came along, the repetition of films was still largely out of the audience's control. You could catch your cult favorites when they were being replayed at the rep house or on TV, but someone else was programming the slate. Sure some cultists collected films and projected them at home, and campus film societies and college courses programmed films too. But the typical, everyday experience of cinema was of an ephemeral text. You could see a film as long as it was playing in your town. If you really liked it you could return to see it again and again. Star Wars is the first movie I remember seeing and I went twice when it came out. But the text was not yours to own, not yours to repeat on your whim. The power to program films was in the hands of gatekeepers, not the people.

Today things are so different. Now you can walk into a Target or Wal-Mart and buy hundreds of different movies to own, each for less than $20 and many for less than $10. You can download thousands for free using BitTorrent, if you don't mind violating the DMCA a little, and store them on hard drives. You can record them off the air to watch again and again if you have a VCR or a DVR or a DVD burner. This makes the repetition of movies so much more available and accessible, and makes the ordinary viewer more likely to engage with their favorite movies as cultists do. The cult films of the past two decades have attained their status not so much by being seen on TV or in rep houses, most of which have closed (there are no commercial repertory theaters where I live unless you count "budget theaters" which are just 2nd-run multiplexes), but by the second life they enjoy on video. Donnie Darko, for instance, was a flop in the theaters, but a cult hit on DVD. From Spinal Tap to Showgirls to Office Space to Primer, the cult films of recent years have been largely home video phenomena.

Now we don't think of movies (and TV of course) as ephemeral. As David Bordwell has written, DVDs make movies more like books. You can keep a movie on your shelf to return to it whenever you like, and it's yours--you own it. You can experience only parts of it. You can start at the end or the middle. You can experience it again and again, or lend it to a friend. Of course few people use movies and books this way, but that's not the point. Now the medium affords a different kind of experience.

The difference between ephemeral media and collectible media is hugely significant, especially for the way media experiences may be repeated. It has certainly influenced the way movies and TV shows are made (Jason Mittell has written about the latter ), and will undoubtedly continue to do so. In addition to certain textual forms (jokes you get only the second time around, temporal structures that offer a very different experience on second viewing once you know what to expect), the collectibility of media makes possible a more cultish mode of engagement. Cult films don't need TV stations or repertory cinemas or campus film societies to program them in order to gain their audience. Every film comes out on DVD, which means that any film might be a cult hit. The ubiquity of commentary tracks and other DVD extras encourages the formation of knowledge communities around films, and commentaries only exist on the assumption that viewers want to watch a second time--they have extended a cult/ cinephile mode of reception out into the general public. Maybe this makes for a world in which we approach the audiovisual text with expectations of passionate engagement rather than "mere" entertainment and diversion. Maybe it makes movies matter to more viewers in a way they didn't as often before--maybe it makes possible a more attentive, obsessive, even worshipful mode of viewing. Academic film studies and cinephilia are both forms of cultishness. But even outside of scholarly and cinephile circles, people are doing with movies what cults have always done, ritualizing an experience by repeating it again and again, and finding heightened significance in the details and the process and the shared knowledge that circulates among cultists.

Of course, cult TV is different now too, but that's a story for another day, and perhaps another blogger.

PS Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (cult written all over it--and I've watched twice already) is totally awesome, but you knew that.


Matt Hills, "Media Fandom, neoreligiosity and cult(ural) studies" The Velvet Light Trap 46 (Fall 2000), 73-84; also reprinted in a very useful new anthology edited by Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik, The Cult Film Reader (New York: McGraw Hill, 2008), 133-148.

Harry Alan Potamkin, "Film Cults," in Mathijs and Mendik, 25-28.

J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, Midnight Movies (New York: Harper and Row, 1983).

Extra Links:

Wikipedia: Cult Films.

Danny Peary's Cult Movies List (from Peary's books of the early 80s).

Scott Tobias's New Cult Canon series at the A.V. Club entries on Primer, Donnie Darko.

Further Reading:

Mark Jancovich, Defining Cult Movies: The Cultural Politics of Oppositional Tastes (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2003).

Barbara Klinger, Beyond the Multiplex: Cinema, New Technologies, and the Home (Berkeley: U of California P, 2006), esp chapter 4 on repeat viewings as practiced by the kids these days.