What makes a cult filmmaker? Whether pioneering in their craft, fiercely and undeniably unique, or critically divisive, cult filmmakers come in all shapes and guises. Some gain instant fame, others instant notoriety, and more still remain anonymous until a chance change in fashion sees their work propelled into the limelight. C ult Filmmakers handpicks 50 notable figures in the world of cinema and explores the creative genius that earned them the 'cult' label, while celebrating the movies that made their names. The book features both industry heavyweights like Tim Burton and David Lynch to the strange and surreal imaginings of filmmakers such as Alejandro Jodorowsky and Ana Lily Amirpour. Discover the minds behind such beloved features as Melancholia, Easy Rider, Lost in Translation and more. From little knowns with small, devout followings, to superstars walking the red carpet, each is special in their individuality and their ability to inspire, antagonise and delight. Cult Filmmakers is an essential addition to any film buff's archive, as well as an entertaining introduction to the weird and wonderful world of cinema. The filmmakers: Ana Lily Amirpour, Kenneth Anger, Gregg Araki, Darren Aronofsky, Mario Bava, Kathryn Bigelow, Anna Biller, Lizzie Borden, Tim Burton, John Carpenter, Park Chan-Wook, Benjamin Christensen, Vera Chytilova, Sofia Coppola, Roger Corman, Alex Cox, David Cronenberg, Claire Denis, Amat Escalante, Abel Ferrara, Georges Franju, Lucio Fulci, Terry Gilliam, Lucile Hadzihalilovic, Dennis Hopper, King Hu, Jim Jarmusch, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Harmony Korine, Barbara Loden, David Lynch, Guy Maddin, Russ Meyer, Oscar Micheaux, Takashi Miike, Gaspar Noe, Gordon Parks, George A. Romero, Ken Russell, Susan Seidelman, Seijun Suzuki, Larisa Shepitko, Quentin Tarantino, Melvin van Peebles, Lars von Trier, John Waters, Nicolas Winding Refn, Edward D. Wood Jr., Brian Yuzna.
About the Author
IAN HAYDN SMITH is a UK-based writer and editor. As a journalist he has written on film and the arts for numerous media outlets, both print and broadcast. From 2007 to 2012 he was editor of International Film Guide. Since 2011 he has been editor of Curzon Magazine and is series editor of 24 Frames. He has spoken at film festivals and cultural events around the world, both as a critic and as a representative of the British Council. He has interviewed a variety of filmmakers and artists, including Ralph Fiennes, Clint Eastwood, Isabelle Huppert, Alan Bennett, Ang Lee, Agnès Varda, Terry Gilliam and Anton Corbijn. Recent publications include editing the updated edition of 1001 Movies to See Before You Die. He lives in London.
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ANA LILY AMIRPOUR (1976)
If there was ever a guidebook to becoming a cult filmmaker, one of its principal rules should be that a cult film needs to stand apart – be truly unique. This is what writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour achieves with her debut feature, which she describes as 'the first Iranian vampire spaghetti western'.
Born in the English coastal town of Margate, Amirpour's family moved to the United States when she was a child. She graduated in filmmaking from UCLA, and then directed a number of shorts, most notably A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2011), which became her feature debut in 2014.
Key to her two features is Amirpour's refusal to present female protagonists as hapless victims. The main characters in both her debut and her follow-up feature, The Bad Batch (2016), might not be fully in control of their situations, but they are resilient and intuitive enough to forge their own paths. As such, Amirpour turns the male-centric elements of exploitation cinema on their head.
Amirpour's cult appeal is underpinned by her association with Vice Films, which released both of her features, adding 'coolness' to her profile. To watch her debut is to see elements of the vampire and spaghetti western genres fused with the indie look of early Jim Jarmusch. It also echoes the emotionally glacial allure of other US indie filmmakers of the 1990s, such as Michael Almereyda and Hal Hartley: two directors who made the most of Elina Löwensohn, whose ethereal screen presence in their films is echoed by Sheila Vand as Amirpour's eponymous anti-heroine. By contrast, The Bad Batch plays out like a story unfolding in the same universe as Max Rockatansky, albeit minus the testosterone-fuelled vehicular carnage.
Music can often be the making of a cult film, and for both of her features Amirpour created a blend of the unknown and familiar. If Kiosk, Radio Tehran, Farah, and Free Electric Band are some of the lesser-known artists on the soundtrack for A Girl, The Bad Batch finds songs by Pantha du Prince and Die Antwoord alongside those by Darkside, Ace of Base and Culture Club. The music adds texture to Amirpour's imagery, which mostly exists without dialogue. The lack of substance has drawn criticism, but Amirpour's post-apocalyptic visions evince a command of genre elements that plays with conventions and challenges gender roles in exploitation cinema.CHAPTER 2
KENNETH ANGER (1927)
QUEER CINEMA ICON
Filmmaker, actor and questionable chronicler of Hollywood's seedier side, Kenneth Anger is known not only for his interest in the occult, but also for building a career that spearheaded the rise of homoerotic cinema.
Santa Monica-born Kenneth Wilbur Anglemyer entered cinema at an early age. His debut, Ferdinand the Bull (1937), was made when he was only ten years old, but Anger has subsequently dismissed the film and now regards his sophomore effort, Who Has Been Rocking My Dreamboat (1941), as his real entry into filmmaking. Made when he was 14, it was followed by Prisoner of Mars (1942), inspired by the Flash Gordon serials that were screening in cinemas at the time. Although these early films differ wildly from his later work, they reveal the director's enthusiasm for the short film form, which he maintained throughout his career.
Around the same time as these early shorts, Anger became fascinated with the occult and was introduced to the work of Aleister Crowley and his Thelema religion. The decision to fully integrate his beliefs into his filmmaking coincided with Anger discovering his homosexuality. These elements combined in his most famous – and notorious – series work, Magick Lantern Cycle. Made over a period of 34 years, it began with the controversial Fireworks (1947). Upon this film's release, Anger was arrested on obscenity charges, and the case made its way to the California Supreme Court. There, the film was deemed to be art rather than pornography and the case was dismissed. By that time, Fireworks had a significant following and gave Anger prestige in the underground filmmaking world. One notable fan was the sexologist Alfred Kinsey.
Anger then moved to Paris and became friends with Jean Cocteau. However, funding proved problematic, and some projects took decades to complete. In the late 1950s, he returned to the United States and, in need of money, penned the first volume of his Hollywood Babylon series, a collection of stories charting the darker side of Hollywood's golden age. Alongside this, the shorts continued, including his masterpiece Scorpio Rising (1963), which drew inspiration from the nascent West Coast biker culture.
Anger's reputation has increased over the decades. His use of pre-recorded songs was innovative at one time, but is now a staple in mainstream cinema. A retrospective of his work at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 2009 was a testimony to his enduring influence as a filmmaker and visionary.CHAPTER 3
GREGG ARAKI (1959)
Writer-director Gregg Araki's desire to shock with films that challenged societal norms made him the bad boy of the New Queer Cinema scene in the 1990s.
Born in Los Angeles, Araki has talked about how he immersed himself in classical Hollywood in his early years, before discovering that his interests lay in world cinema and in challenging the norms of mainstream filmmaking practices. It soon became clear that Araki would be aligned with the collection of US filmmakers who made up the New Queer Cinema that emerged in the late 1980s. However, as he shifted gear, from the no-to-low-budget early features Three Bewildered People in the Night (1987), The Long Weekend (1989) and The Living End (1992) to more propulsive, stylised films, the shock factor of his work made him one of the most controversial US filmmakers of the 1990s.
Araki's breakthrough films comprise teen dramas featuring attractive actors, pureposefully shallow dialogue, often extremely heightened emotions and driving soundtracks. However, they are a far cry from the comparatively innocent worlds of John Hughes' 1980s school movies, and different from the slacker lives portrayed in other youth-oriented US films of the period. Their form of rebellion entails a wholesale rejection of the values held dear by American society in favour of anarchy. Araki remains best known for his 'Teen Apocalypse Trilogy': Totally F***ed Up (1993), The Doom Generation (1995) and Nowhere (1997). They play out like a gut reaction to the Generation X films, with angst-ridden characters more likely to explode with violence than any that populate a Richard Linklater film. Violence in Araki's worlds is wildly over the top, even absurdist. In one famous scene from The Doom Generation, a bizarre moment follows the decapitation of of a gun-wielding convenience store owner. It is not so much that his head is blown clean off that makes the scene, but that it lands on a plate of fast food, reanimates, and regurgitates whatever snacks it has landed on. Even the disturbing climax of the film, featuring castration, sexual assault and mass murder, evinces an air of comic-book absurdity. Likewise, the pansexual adventures of a student in the outlandish sci-fi feature Kaboom (2010) are a stark contrast to most US dramas set in a college.
Although his films are often referred to as kitsch and nihilistic, Araki himself has resisted such descriptions. His preference is to look at his body of work as a series of outsider tales. Whether his characters are gay, straight or queer, his interest lies in telling stories outside the norm. If his early work rages against a nation belatedly coming to terms with the impact of AIDS (in The Living End, one character suggests: 'Why don't we go to Washington and blow Bush's brains out!'), Araki's more recent work, such as his most acclaimed and successful features Mysterious Skin (2004) and White Bird in a Blizzard (2014), clearly point to his maturing as a filmmaker. His singularly take on teen life has made him the go-to director for youth-oriented TV dramas such as Riverdale, Heather and 13 Reasons Why.CHAPTER 4
DARREN ARONOFSKY (1969)
Writer-director Darren Aronofsky's career has been uncompromising in its vision, and has seen him progress from the periphery of independent cinema to the heart of mainstream blockbuster filmmaking.
No one watches an Aronofsky film for an easy time. The filmmaker exists within a small band of directors who have made a film budgeted at over $100 million dollars without sacrificing their vision. And that vision is often dark, tortured and edging towards the apocalyptic.
A student of the American Film Institute, where his graduate film Supermarket Sweep (1991) was universally acclaimed, Aronofsky won the Best Director award at the Sundance Film Festival for his feature debut, Pi (1998). Drawing on mathematical theories, Kabbalah, the Torah and the Koran, and driven by kinetic camerawork and Clint Mansell's mesmerising score, Pi is in equal parts riveting and disturbing. The filmmaker went further with his nightmarish follow-up, Requiem for a Dream (2000). Adapting Hubert Selby Jr.'s tale of narcotic and opiate addiction, Aronofsky interweaves his four characters' stories into a bleak tapestry of lives destroyed by drugs. Mansell's 'Lux Aeterna', with its stabbing strings, makes for a breathtaking accompaniment, but, brilliant as it is, the film is one that only those with the most hardened disposition can watch repeatedly.
If a cult film is defined as a work that teeters on the precipice of the ridiculous, leaving most audiences baffled, bemused or enraged, Aronofsky hit the bullseye with The Fountain (2006). A triptych of tales featuring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, told in the past, present and future, it appears stranger now than it did on its initial release. Its premise, regarding the search for the tree of life, told through the prism of interconnected love stories, is merely a platform for a series of extraordinary set pieces that might make no sense, but look magnificent. And yet, Aronofsky's ongoing fascination with obsessive characters shines through.
That film failed spectacularly at the box office, and Aronofsky's subsequent films, The Wrestler (2008), Black Swan (2010), and even Noah (2014), suggested that the filmmaker had curbed his wilder excesses. But then he delivered his strangest film yet with Mother! (2017). It can be viewed as an allegory of a despoiled Eden, a warning of the imminent danger we are wreaking upon the environment. Love it or loathe it, the film cements Aronofsky's status as the preeminent cult US filmmaker of the 21st century.CHAPTER 5
MARIO BAVA (1914–1980)
A gifted cinematographer who turned to directing, Mario Bava worked across various genres, but is most closely associated with a particular strain of Italian horror film.
Born in San Remo, Italy, he was the son of Eugenio Bava, a noted special-effects photographer. He cut his teeth as a cinematographer for Roberto Rossellini in the early 1940s, and his skill with lighting made him a popular choice to work with stars including Gina Lollobrigida and Aldo Fabrizi.
Image is everything in the films that Bava shot, as well as those he would eventually direct. A perfectly constructed shadow or a dash of colour could alter the tone, add suspense or embellish upon a specific theme. Bava became a master of atmosphere, but he was initially known as the dependable go-to technician who could add magic to a production. He once told an interviewer that films are 'a magician's forge' and what attracted him to them was the idea of being 'presented with a problem and being able to solve it. Nothing else; just to create an illusion, and effect, with almost nothing'. It is an approach that served him well. His status in Italian cinema by the mid-1950s was such that he was promoted from cinematographer to director when filmmaker Riccardo Freda walked out on The Devil's Commandment (1957), generally regarded as the first Italian horror film. He was an uncredited director on several films around this period, and also produced special effects for what would become the popular Italian sword-and-sandals genre. However, it wasn't until Black Sunday (1960) that he was finally credited as sole director.
Throughout his career, Bava moved between genres as varied as science fiction (Planet of the Vampires, 1965), comic book adaptation (Danger: Diabolik, 1968) and soft-core sex comedy (Four Times That Night, 1971). But he achieved fame with his horror films. In particular, he popularised the giallo film, which blended thriller and horror tropes, along with a touch of eroticism, to create a style of film that was common in Italian cinema from the 1960s to the 1980s. Black Sunday set the standard, but the addition of colour in films such as Blood and Black Lace (1964) and Kill, Baby ... Kill! (1966) highlighted Bava's baroque style. His extraordinary work rate notwithstanding – he directed/codirected 24 films in 18 years – Bava's importance as a filmmaker has stretched far beyond the genre he came to dominate.CHAPTER 6
KATHRYN BIGELOW (1951)
Eschewing lazy gender stereotyping, Kathryn Bigelow has risen to the front rank of action movie directors by finding a perfect balance between exploiting and deconstructing the genre.
A chameleon who has successfully reinvented herself several times as a filmmaker, Bigelow was born in San Carlos, California, but moved to New York after attending the San Francisco Art Institute. A member of a study programme at the Whitney Museum of American Art, she became firmly established in the city's art world, befriending Julian Schnabel, undertaking apprenticeships with Richard Serra and Lawrence Weiner and – a little more tangentially – entering the real estate world with acclaimed composer Philip Glass.
After a few years, Bigelow shifted towards film, signing up to Columbia University's MFA film programme and teaching part time at CalArts. Her graduation short, The Set-Up (1978), presaged the preoccupations of her early features. Footage of two men fighting – shot over one night, she asked her actors to make actual physical contact with their punches – unfolds as the voice of two academics discuss the meaning of what is shown. Violence became central to Bigelow's films, and controversy has surrounded the way she employs it. Although she has never identified herself as an explicitly female or feminist filmmaker, some critics have taken umbrage with a woman directing such explicitly violent films. Most notoriously, a rape scene in Bigelow's Strange Days (1995) attracted significant opprobrium from a number of critics. It shows two characters wearing devices that allow each to experience the sensation of victim and assailant – an attempt to question the way sexual violence is represented on the screen.
Near Dark (1987) remains one of the most original takes on the vampire myth: the film is located in the heart of Texas, with the vampires portrayed as a band of misfits. It revealed Bigelow's skill at staging complex set pieces, which only increased in scale with her action trilogy Blue Steel (1990), Point Break (1991) and Strange Days. Of the three, Point Break's perfect balance of testosterone-driven thrills and healthy cynicism towards macho-oriented culture remains the best known, but all three found Bigelow challenging assumptions about gender or race, the latter explored through a Rodney King-like scenario in Strange Days, which may have arrived in cinemas a little too early for audiences after the actual events that prompted the LA riots.
If Strange Days' failure at the box office stalled Bigelow's career for a number of years, her triumphant return with The Hurt Locker (2009) transformed her fortunes in the industry. She became the first female to win a Best Director Oscar and has since forged a path directing films based on controversial moments in recent US history. Her fascination with how violence is portrayed remains, albeit presented with more elan and lacking the wilder spirit that made her earlier films so compelling in their balance of technical brilliance and devil-may-care spirit.CHAPTER 7
No colour is too kitsch in writer, director, producer, editor, designer, composer and actor Anna Biller's retro-fitted worlds.
Recent years have seen a small number of contemporary filmmakers focusing on reviving and reinventing tropes of continental European genre films from the 1960s and 1970s: Peter Strickland, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani among them. In comparison, Biller's work may seem tame, revelling more in pastiche than full-blooded thrills. But her contributions successfully engage with gender stereotypes past and present, offering a playful and knowing take on an era whose genre cinema frequently revelled in regressive gender stereotypes and misogyny.(Continues…)
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Table of Contents
ANA LILY AMIRPOUR (1976),
KENNETH ANGER (1927),
GREGG ARAKI (1959),
DARREN ARONOFSKY (1969),
MARIO BAVA (1914–1980),
KATHRYN BIGELOW (1951),
LIZZIE BORDEN (1958),
TIM BURTON (1958),
JOHN CARPENTER (1948),
PARK CHAN-WOOK (1963),
BENJAMIN CHRISTENSEN (1879–1959),
VERA CHYTILOVÁ (1929–2014),
SOFIA COPPOLA (1971),
ROGER CORMAN (1926),
ALEX COX (1954),
DAVID CRONENBERG (1943),
CLAIRE DENIS (1946),
AMAT ESCALANTE (1979),
ABEL FERRARA (1951),
GEORGES FRANJU (1912–1987),
LUCIO FULCI (1927–1996),
TERRY GILLIAM (1940),
LUCILE HADZIHALILOVIC (1961),
DENNIS HOPPER (1936–2010),
KING HU (1932–1997),
JIM JARMUSCH (1953),
JEAN-PIERRE JEUNET (1953),
ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY (1929),
HARMONY KORINE (1973),
BARBARA LODEN (1932–1980),
DAVID LYNCH (1946),
GUY MADDIN (1956),
RUSS MEYER (1922–2004),
OSCAR MICHEAUX (1884–1951),
TAKASHI MIIKE (1960),
GASPAR NOÉ (1963),
GORDON PARKS (1912–2006),
GEORGE A. ROMERO (1940–2017),
KEN RUSSELL (1927–2011),
SUSAN SEIDELMAN (1952),
SEIJUN SUZUKI (1923–2017),
LARISA SHEPITKO (1938–1979),
QUENTIN TARANTINO (1963),
MELVIN VAN PEEBLES (1932),
LARS VON TRIER (1956),
JOHN WATERS (1946),
NICOLAS WINDING REFN (1970),
EDWARD D. WOOD JR. (1924–1978),
BRIAN YUZNA (1949),
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I received a copy of this book from Netgalley and had my wish granted to read it by White Lion Publishing. I really enjoyed this book. It's really short considering how much information is in it which is pretty impressive! I really enjoyed the illustrations. Honestly, though? What i enjoyed most was being introduced to filmmakers I'd never heard of before.
As a former film critic, I gobbled this book up, eager to see cinema journalist Ian Haydn Smith’s take on what makes for a cult director. And I was thrilled by his choice of 50, from Burton to Lynch, Carpenter to Coppola, Cronenberg to Waters ... from superstars to the little known. Explains the cult film mentality, with bracing text that reflects this cornucopia of cinematic genius. Perfect for serious as well as budding film buffs. 5/5 Pub Date 03 Sep 2019 Thanks to Ian Haydn Smith, Quarto Publishing Group - White Lion Publishing, and NetGalley for the review copy. Opinions are mine. #CultFilmmakers #NetGalley