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.


Anonymous said...

This is a very thought provoking post. I have always thought that more research needs to be done in order to discern whether or not the idea that viewers throughout the history of cinema have considered films to be consumed in one go is correct, and-- the corollary-- whether filmmakers made their movies to be consumed in this manner. The trouble is that there is plenty of evidence to support the notion that some 'athletic' viewers (or sub-communities of viewers) may have considered film to be something more than ephemeral. Henri Langlois' cinema-club, Le Cercle du cinema, collected film "artifacts" throughout the 30s, eventually creating the foundation for the Cinematheque francaise. Some critics, like Bazin, treat some films like they are objects to be considered for a wide array of points of interest, and therefore to be viewed multiple times. I think here of his essay on Journal d'un cure de campagne (published in 1951), in which Bazin argues that the uninitiated viewer might miss the film's subtle dialectics, and throw his hands in their shouting "ambiguity", "contradiction." Instead, Bazin shows that Bresson made some careful moves through adaptation-- moves that Bazin sees as worthy of praise.

Now, to what degree is this hot air, and to what extent can it be said to impact movies themselves? Well, perhaps it could be ascertained whether a filmmaker like Bresson was "bartering" for this kind of attention (in the words of art historian Michael Baxandall)-- from those select few who might be able to help the filmmaker secure a certain cache in the art cinema market. Bresson, in this sense (should research be able to support the idea), might be said to be playing to those extrinsic norms of excellence which obtained at this time.

All this to say that it seems we have yet to do the requisite work to determine whether there are finely tuned sub-communities of viewers-- to which some filmmakers might partially address themselves for the purpose of marking their territory and testing and stretching the standards of skill-- that see films as more than ephemeral 'texts,' but rather as art objects that demand a careful look (or many looks). Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the comment, Colin. I think what you are calling sub-communities many people would call cults, which is a pretty vague and loose term (and one which I don't really like or use very much if I can help it, actually, because it's vague and also because it sort of stigmatizes the audience's practice with its negative, mysterious connotations). But I agree completely that many viewers and filmmakers before the video age saw film as something more than ephemeral, which most likely means as a durable artwork like a museum piece. My contention is that this was not a very common conception among filmmakers and especially audiences way back when. Certainly this is a matter to be researched and not merely mused about in a blog. The institutions of film criticism and history and of cinephile culture (incl the Cinémathèque française), and the establishment of an art world for movies might be seen as an effort to overcome the ephemerality of the motion picture experience, to seize an object that resists apprehension and uncover its mysteries.

Anonymous said...

As you can probably tell, I too dislike the term "cultist." What seems significant for the historian of film style is not the underground aspect to this, or the desire of some cultists to be on the fringe, but whether these "cultist" audiences develop skills (of looking, listening) that filmmakers are alert to and make films for, or whether regimes of excellence bubble up from these audiences and that filmmakers subsequently try to fit their work into (and devoted followers in the audience try to follow).

However one might wish to research this, it seems that national cinemas that fail to create a reliable popular audience (like France, for instance) might be studied for the vocal sub-communities ("cults") which have powerful enough forums (i.e., magazines and cine-clubs) to impact how a filmmaker might conceive of his/her art, and then how this same filmmaker conceives of the problems faced in making a movie and then the solutions favored.

But this is leading us too far field from your initial comments. The point is this (and you've already said it): "cult" audiences have always been around. But to what extent can these sub-communities be inserted into a causal explanation of film style? It might depend on the nature of the industry in question. Let's not forget that a staggering contrast between Hollywood and France, or even Hollywood and Soviet Russia, is the geographic proximity between intellectuals, producers and filmmakers in France (and Russia)-- not the case for Hollywood. The potential for two-way osmosis is certainly greater in France.

Needless to say, this is perfect food for thought for blogs!

Anonymous said...

Man, I wish I'd read this about a month ago. I was working through some of these ideas in my DVD chapter and in my film blogging chapter, but I never quite put them together this efficiently.

I like the Bordwell idea that DVDs have made movies more like books, and even if there were examples of groups who saw films as more than ephemeral, individual ownership seems to matter, especially the idea of (1) the collection and (2) immediate access.

Jason Mittell said...

Great post (and thanks for the link)! I think that one distinction that matters is about the cult text that is consumed for narrative/dialogue/etc., vs. the cinephilic viewing for visual style/poetics. The former seems more like people who read novels repeatedly, diving into difficult works like Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, etc. to hermeneutically decode and crack the code. The cinephiles seem more about rewatching for sensory experience, like the buff returning to the same paintings or symphonies regularly (see the Wagner Ring-heads).

Hence the indy complex narrative works you reference initially encourage the former, while the films that encourage more poetic rather than hermeneutic engagement are less plot-driven and more textural - fewer American indies fit this, although P.T. Anderson and Hal Hartley might be close, while foreign cinemas seem more poetically oriented. Make sense?

(And the inevitable TV aside - it seems that the hermeneutic thrives on TV right now, but the latter poetic viewing is rarer, or focused more on semi-bad objects, like a certain blogger's obsession with The Hills...)

Anonymous said...

If I may, I'd like to add to a point to Jason Mittel's comment. The literary/hermeneutic vs. poetic/stylistic registers of cultist and cinephilic viewers respectively do seem to be a generalization that holds. We should be on the lookout for exceptions, of course, or for sub-communities that thrive on the ability to move nimbly between both. Since France of the 50s and 60s remains my frame of reference, I'll say that there is evidence that by virtue of the close relation between the Nouveau Roman/New Novel (of Robbe-Grillet, of Queneau, etc.) and cinema (and due to other factors), French cinephiles of the 50s appear to have developed an interest and skill in pointing to the 'novelistic' aspects of films-- aspects that might be literary but that are nonetheless "sensory experiences." Fine shifts in verb tense in voice-overs, skillful execution of ellipses-- these are the visual and auditory materials written about in many essays of Truffaut and Bazin and that are deposits of an intellectual culture inflected with the 'literary'. Going the other direction, in a 1954 essay Barthes comments that an episode in Robbe-Grillet's 1953 novel Les gommes has 'cinematic' intrusions, including descriptions of POV shots and pans-- evidence, according to him, that cinema has impacted everyday visual habits. (On a side note, we should also note that "mise-en-scene" is a broad and at times quite vague term in this period-- and may not refer to precise aspects of visual technique.) All this to say that these may be exceptions that prove Mittel's rule.

Adam Tramantano said...

I recently started blogging and I've been looking for a blog like this one. The writing and analysis are crisp. I'm new to blogging but not to thinking about these things. You obviously have been doing this analysis of media and pop culture way longer than I have and I think I can learn a lot from your blog. I would appreciate it--if you have the chance any comments or suggestions you would have on my blog. This particular article you wrote here will be one I read again and again. One "cult-like" phenomena that I've noticed that is an interesting development in this DVD age is the tv show party. Some people invite friends over to watch a show when it airs, not on DVD. I've known this to happen with "Heroes" and "Arrested Development." What is your opinion on this phenonmena?