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THE PITCH ...
For almost as long as I can remember, movies were always important, an event, like church, the only difference being that the queue to get in to see Jungle Book was a fair bit longer. But movies took you out of yourself, made you belong to something, a quasi-religious experience if you like. Which is why, today, whenever I go to the cinema, I spend the first minutes of every movie worrying in case the audience is going to talk all the way through it.
This book has something to do with all that but it really exists for one reason only—to increase your enjoyment of the movies.
If you want a thoroughly exhaustive reference work, put this back on the shelf now. If you want a film buff's guide to cinema as an art form, sorry. Or if you want a list of the cast and crew on every film, best go elsewhere, there are certain websites we'd recommend.
But if you want several hundred socking good reasons to visit your local rep house, watch a late-night rarity on TV or splash out on that DVD movie you've been promising yourself, you'll find them in here. There are no dull films in this book. Mad films, yes. Great films, certainly. Films that provoke fierce disputes as to whether they're wall cool or, well, crap: you bet.
So if your ambition is to spend even more of your life watching films than you already do, this should serve you well. Now go. Use it wisely. And may the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end at least once.
A cult has been described as any cause, person or object admired by a minority — a definition which comes awfully close to embracing Jerry Lewis' later work. But without cults in general (and cult films in particular) what a grey old world this would be.
There are almost as many different definitions of what makes a cult movie as there are cults in the world today. The movies, where one man's masterpiece is always liable to be someone else's Howard The Duck, is a world where no opinion is final and deciding what makes a film 'cult' can be as intellectually arbitrary an exercise as deciding whether a film is 'good' or 'bad'. There is also a considerable difference between the films we watch over and over again and the films which are mentioned in critics' lists of greatest ever movies: the gap between the films we admire and the films we love, however irrationally. (For a selection of actors' and directors' favourite films turn to p16.)
The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines 'cult' as:
1) a system of religious worship especially as expressed in ritual
2) a devotion or homage to a person or thing
3) a popular fashion especially followed by a specific section of society
4) denoting a person or thing popularised in this way.
The dictionary, in its linguistic wisdom, assigns the last definition to a cult figure or cult film. In cinematic terms, the word 'cult' has often been applied to films starring 50ft women on a mission of personal revenge, killer tomatoes, or an entire western town populated by midgets. Sometimes this has been extended to include movies that are either 'so bad they're good' (the clichéd example of this genre being any work by the 'world's worst director' Ed Wood) or are the objects of a quasi-religious worship (Star Wars).
The word 'cult' also implies some kind of secrecy, a knowledge hidden from the masses. So a cult film may be the preserve of a few (eg Where's Poppa?, the comedy where George Segal's brother, dressed in a gorilla costume, is implicated in the gang rape of a policeman in drag) or have depths missed by the casual viewer (while many of us have never wondered what was in Marsellus' case in Pulp Fiction, for others it is a celluloid Holy Grail).
THE CULT OF CASABLANCA
Umberto Eco, author of The Name Of The Rose (which became a cult book and, to a lesser extent, a cult film) identifies Casablanca as a cult movie. This sounds ludicrous as Casablanca is one of the most famous films of all time. But Eco goes on to say that: "The work ... must provide a completely furnished world so that its fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were aspects of the fan's private sectarian world, a world about which one can make up quizzes and play trivia games so that the adepts of the sect recognise through each other a shared expertise."
By this definition, Casablanca is a cult movie, as is Pulp Fiction, just as, in the adjacent kingdom of the small screen, Monty Python is still a cult in that people (mostly men) still go around saying "it has ceased to be" and nudging each other hilariously in the ribs. For the purposes of this book, we have taken Eco's definition and added a few other criteria of our own.
Any movie mentioned here should therefore:
1) inspire people to go around quoting it to each other or generally inspire an unreasonable amount of devotion long after the fickle masses have forgotten the movie's existence
2) be good but under-appreciated, possibly because in a marketing machine increasingly built on stars and event movies, they were just too different to be guaranteed a long residence at a cinema near you
3) be an undiscovered gem, possibly because it's foreign or went straight to video in this country
4) be so bad it really is worth watching
5) be compelling for some other reason — the script may stink but there's a song, a stunt or something that makes it all worthwhile
6) be a mainstream film which nonetheless has that indefinable something we can only describe as 'juice'
7) not be Police Academy 2-7.
The only thing to add to that is that we have made a conscious effort to include as many different actors, directors, genres and countries as possible. That's because we we think it's possible to enjoy The Battleship Potemkin and the moment Springtime For Hitler breaks into "Don't be foolish, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi party", to feel a great and irrational exhilaration when you hear John Belushi chant: "Toga! Toga! Toga!", or cheer as an outraged John Wayne thunders into battle shouting: "Fill your hands, you son of a bitch!"
Anyway, enough already ...
One of the unwritten laws of the film business used to be that Harry Dean Stanton had never appeared in a bad movie. It was a law broken by Man Trouble (1992) and Playback (1995), but Stanton, by dint of a career in which as a supporting actor he has specialised in what one critic described as "wolf-faced loners", has appeared in more than enough classics for the general principle to still stand.
Repo Man, Paris, Texas, Wild At Heart. The Straight Story, Wise Blood and The Missouri Breaks are all to this credit. His performance holds Paris, Texas together in a way no mere star (not even the 1980s edition of Jack Nicholson) could have done. Who else could shout: "Repo man is always intense!" with the same insane conviction? Somehow, at the end of The Straight Story, when Richard Farnsworth has ridden 300 miles on that lawnmower, it is conceivable that his estranged brother could be anyone but Harry Dean Stanton. So for these and other reasons too numerous to list, respect.
This account of the movie industry's rise, fall and rise again focuses on the likes of Ed Wood, urban myths about suicidal munchkins and the chaos theory of filmmaking.
The clash between artistic integrity and commercialism, almost as old as the movies themselves and a major point of contention for many producers, is sent up beautifully in Sullivan's Travels, where director John L Sullivan wants to produce a prestige message picture about social conditions called O Brother Where Art Thou? but ends up debating the issue with studio executives Hadrian and Lebrand.
Sullivan: I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions, stark realism, the problems that confront the average man.
Lebrand: But with a little sex in it.
Sullivan: A little, but I don't want to stress it. I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity, a true canvas of the suffering of humanity.
Lebrand: But with a little sex in it.
Sullivan: With a little sex in it.
Hadrian: What about a nice musical?
Hollywood is often accused of crassness, but money rules in most film industries: why else would the French pass a law that Gérard Depardieu must feature in 40 per cent of all that country's films?
Sadly, no one has pursued Sullivan's goat of making an important message musical about social conditions "with a little sex in it". That said, The Howling: New Moon Rising (1995), a film about line-dancing, a werewolf and a detective, is a valiant bid to straddle all those genres.
THE 1920s: THE SOUND AND SILENCE
The movie business really kicks off with DW Griffith's great, big, racist epic Birth Of A Nation in 1916. Hollywood wasn't yet the film industry's epicentre and the greatest director of the time was probably Sergei Eisenstein. Another historical epic, 1925's Ben-Hur, directed by Fred Niblo, marked a sad movie first. This is the first film where an extra was reportedly killed on set, in one of the naval battles. When William Wyler remade Ben-Hur in 1959 (he'd been 2nd unit director on Niblo's version) the rumour spread that the double for Stephen Boyd had been killed in the chariot scene. It's hard to prove a negative, so neither rumour will ever be completely scotched.
The era of the director-king came to a close as the studios created the 'star' system — most stars being more malleable and less intelligent than their directors. The coming of sound also allowed the studios to cull a few stars such as John Gilbert. Mind you, Asa Yoelson, aka Al Jolson, who said: "You ain't heard nothing yet" in The Jazz Singer (1927), didn't last long. The film was a sensation but made $1.5m less than the now forgotten The Singing Fool.
Archetypal hero: The Latin lover
Strangest sub-genre: Melodramas about the evils of wood alcohol
Underrated classic: Pandora's Box
The actor's actor: John Barrymore
The decade in a phrase: "You ain't heard nothing yet"
Excerpted from THE ROUGH GUIDE TO CULT MOVIES by Paul Simpson. Copyright © 2001 by Rough Guides/Haymarket Customer Publishing. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|PART ONE: THE BASICS|
|PART TWO: THE FILMS|
|Films of the book||190|
|Straight to video||399|