December 19, 2011

I Don’t Think That Means What You Think That Means

There’s an old joke that goes something like this:
Q: What’s the difference between a cult and a religion?

A: The religion has better lawyers.
Of course, what really distinguishes a cult from a religions is numbers. In other words, popularity. If enough people join and the cult grows past a certain point, it becomes a religion. Christianity, after all, started off as a small cult splintering off of Judaism.

That’s an awkward introduction to a more pressing question: what’s the first thing that comes to your mind when someone says “cult movie.” If you’re like me, it’s something like the Rocky Horror Picture Show or, perhaps, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. In either case, we’re talking about movies that didn’t make any real impact when initially released (financially – critical reception is another matter), but found audiences down the road that revere the films and keep the somewhat commercially viable in various new media.

I bet movies that didn’t pop into your mind include things like the Star Wars movies, The Sound of Music, and The Wizard of Oz. Yet, those are among some of the 100 cult movies compiled in a new book by a pair of academics (one Canadian, the other British) who really take a different view on what makes a “cult” movie, one that focuses more on the fans than the films themselves:
I think amidst their popularity, there's a degree of fandom that exceeds the bounds of moderation. It's that very engaged committed and loyal enduring fandom for "The Lord of the Rings" and "Star Wars" and "The Sound of Music" and "The Wizard of Oz" that makes them the cult films as well.
Wait, what? Maybe they’re inspired by the future history set forth in Futurama, whereby an actual cult of Star Trek arose and caused such problems all copies of the series and movies were shot into space.* I’m not sure I buy it:
There's a subset of fans, but those fans, they don’t invent stuff. They latch on to elements of the movie, which they then pull out of normality, if you want, and they start questioning it, discussing it extensively up to the point where then other people, other fans start asking themselves. Yeah, that's right, actually. This isn't quite normal, such as, for instance, the friendship between Luke and Leia.
So, films that are popular enough to inspire discussion about them are now cult films? Are film critics cultists? Academics who study film the way English majors study literature?  There’s a touch of elitism in that view that rubs me the wrong way.

Without a doubt, fans of any particular cult film may be inspired to do silly things (as with the aforementioned Rocky Horror Picture Show). But the very point of such shenanigans is that they’ve found something valuable – whether it’s profound truths about the universe or just a reliable good time – in a movie that the mass of film goers didn’t. A cult film, by definition, has to be an outsider experience.

There are probably lots of interesting things you can learn about fans of movies, both popular and less so. Just because they take the damn things more seriously than you do doesn’t make them a cult. Just ask their lawyers.

* The cult members themselves were dealt with in the way most befitting their status as virgins – thrown into a volcano by a pair of heavies quipping “he’s dead, Jim.”

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