“I’m pulverized by this latest thing!”

[The problem with living your life both in the blogosphere and in the steakosphere is that, eventually, you start forgetting what conversation happened where. Pardon, gentle readers, readeresses, and readrons, the oversight if I have already had this conversation with you or your representation in the ether.]

So some non-me entity in some format brought up the subject lately (for I was not clever enough to think of it) of what will be the cult films of the last ten years. Not what are the cult films &c., mind you, because a cult film isn’t a cult film right away. When you try to make something a cult film too early, you end up with Snakes on a Plane, and I have this hunch that the phrase “I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane” will prompt blinks of perplexed near-recognition from all but the Taranteeniest young celluloid mavens of the let’s say 2040s.

My first thought was Brick, but I suspect that’s just because I like it so much. Does it have the elements of a true cult film? Not really. Nobody thought it was terrible because almost nobody saw it and, whether or not you find it interesting, there’s nothing I can imagine anyone finding blatantly awful about it.* I’m inclined to say this is important for a cult film, though on the other hand I don’t imagine anyone thought The Big Lebowski was terrible (I could check Rotten Tomatoes, I guess…critic rating 79%; audience 93%. Let’s compare to, um, Xanadu which is a niche cult film but it’s the first thing that came to mind. 41% and 60%) and it is echt cult.

In theory, as you walk back from the awful and squint at it, a cult film owes its failure to being startlingly outside the most crushingly commercial aesthetics of its time, and to critiquing them, ideally by accident.**

Another element, in my slapdash epistemology of cult film status, is lines that constitute the best thing you could say in certain very rarefied situations. Oh, I’ve been to Prague. I love my dead, gay son. Tell us about it, Janet! Brick created a wonderful Dashiell-Hammett-goes-to-High-School vernacular, but there aren’t any lines you’d pull out of your hat to deflate a pedant or declare defeat.

…although, in fact, it may be that the quoting of cult films is a speech act of a different kind. You don’t say “honestly, mother!” in Little Edie’s fallen-wealth-patois when talking to your actual mother or necessarily in any situation that ever would have confronted Edies Little and Big. You say it as a shibboleth when you suspect you’re in the company of Someone Else Who Gets It.

I’ve muddle my own hasty and half-assed definition by referencing some movies that don’t meet my own criteria, and failing to explore some sub-typologies (pure camp—Ed Wood or, as above, Xanadu; horror cult films the thought of which I faint at.) But I’m going to take the advice of a better blogger than your humble correspondent and leave off a paragraph or three here, throw wide the doors of discourse and ask: what else makes a film rise from the ashes of its box office blowout and become worthy of our midnight adoration?

And so: what are the films of the aughts that will cause us, in retirement, to say “they sure don’t make crap like they did back in the day”?

*Ok, Nora Zehetner reciting Gilbert & Sullivan to twinkly piano jazz is an awkward moment.

**Or something.

17 responses to ““I’m pulverized by this latest thing!””

  1. LP says:

    I’m going with Burlesque. One for the ages, underappreciated in its day. Future generations will conduct midnight showings and engage in drinking games: one swig for every time Cher says something sassy or flips her hair back.

    Current tomatometer rating: 37%. Audience rating: 68%. Mark it.

  2. swells says:

    My first thought when I started reading this was Grey Gardens, and it’s hard sometimes not to warble “Tea for Two” when wearing a particularly good outfit (like, you know, a shirt tied around my head), but then as I read down you had beat me to it of course . . . so I’m gonna venture an actual Oscar winner that enraged me with how seriously it was taken when it was so clearly a kult kamp klassik: Black Swan.

  3. F.P. Smearcase says:

    Oooh Burlesque, good one! Just the right mix of stupidhead and almost irresistibly watchable.

    I do wish I were less scaredy-cat about body horror because Black Swan does sound like it might be ridiculous fun. Natalie Portman is increasingly hard to take seriously, but maybe in a fun way.

  4. Andrew says:

    There are certain cult films that people like to get together and laugh at. A recent example would be The Room, a movie with such bad acting and directing (and plot and production value) that audiences couldn’t resist getting together and howling at the screen. These are movies that you would never watch at home by yourself. To an extent, I suppose that that is what Rocky Horror Picture Show, although that replaces awfulness with pure camp, something that’s also fun to howl at in packs. Again though, have you ever sat down and watched Rocky Horror Picture Show alone? It’s depressing.

    I have watched Brick alone. I own the film and have watched it over and over again. By definition I would say it is a cult film in that it was not embraced by mainstream culture, yet has a following of people that appreciate its style and originality. But there are plenty of movies like that. I recently saw Please Give, a movie that had a pretty small box office also, but no one is calling the movies of Nicole Holofcener cult films. So there must be something that exists in Brick that doesn’t exist in Please Give. Something a little odd that appeals to a film nerd. As you said, it’s not really quotability. I’m not really sure what it is exactly, but it is there.

    That being said, in 50 years, Wet Hot American Summer will still be the funniest movie I’ve ever seen and I will be ashamed of the comedies my grandchildren watch.

  5. A White Bear says:

    I second The Room and Black Swan.

  6. A White Bear says:

    I should add that while taking some recent flights on Air Canada, I saw that the in-flight entertainment offered about a hundred different options, including some awesome 40’s movies, but also many Oscar winners and nominees. As I looked and walked around the plane, mostly full of single businessmen, just about everyone was watching Black Swan.

    I wondered if it’s the sort of movie that dudes really wanted to see but didn’t have the balls to say they wanted to see. (They also offered True Grit, which is great, and a Coen western, but no one was watching it.)

  7. F.P. Smearcase says:

    Again though, have you ever sat down and watched Rocky Horror Picture Show alone? It’s depressing.

    Completely depressing. When I was in high school we understood Rocky Horror to be one of the hallmarks of college sophistication, so we got really into it, only…they didn’t show it in our town. So we just listened to the soundtrack, tried to learn the audience participation in the information vacuum of pre-internet days, and eventually got together and watched it in someone’s basement, which was still depressing. I finally went to half a screening in Dallas when I was 17 and left because I was a total square and found the whole thing intimidating. Someone dressed up as Magenta came over and sat in my lap and said “oooh you’re a virgin, aren’t you!” and uptight me was out of there like a shot.

    The cult film experience has to be organic. Premeditation kills it. (This is a slight argument i have against The Room, not having seen it: there is the suspicion it was a prefab cult film.)

  8. A White Bear says:

    Johnny Wiseau has claimed he meant it to be a “black comedy” only because people hate it so fucking bad. Seriously, he’s actually nuts. The Harper’s Mag essay and interview with him is really excellent.

  9. k-sky says:

    My mom took my friends and me to see Rocky Horror for my sixteenth birthday. My mom bummed a cig from Jamie in line and I was slightly horrified but mostly pleased. Of course I fell asleep for a good chunk an hour in, because it’s a terrible movie. But the pre-show and the first forty-five minutes so chock full of participation were sublime.

    Three years later, my poor competitive father took my sister for her sixteenth birthday but was kind of horrified by the whole virgin auction/pelvic thrusting thing.

    Someday I want to say “I gave you Jerr to see him eaten not to see you fed” to someone, but I’m not sure what the circumstances will be. In the meantime I’m practicing a phrase employed in a good Moth podcast — “What you know about taking care of things, I could write on my cock with a mop” — which is awesome but tricky to say.

  10. A White Bear says:

    Tommy Wiseau. Johnny is his character’s name.

  11. Rachel says:

    Joseph Gordon-Leavitt in general. I love that guy, and his film choices (especially Brick) are impeccable.

    I like queer films that embrace a mainstream aesthetic, as if to say, “Only about 12 people will see this, but we’re going to carry on like it’s Mission: Impossible.”

    This is why I love the low-budget film D.E.B.S. It’s about teenage lesbians in Catholic schoolgirl uniforms who lead secret lives as government spies. Of course, the statuesque blonde heroine falls in love with the brunette villainess and they make out a lot while grappling with their moral quandary (good vs. evil, not whether to be lesbian, thank god). What makes it so great is that it’s not very arch or ironic at all. Not sleazy or salacious, just an awesome flick with action montages where none of the girls dies or gets punished for her awesomeness. Plus, Holland Taylor!

    Also, given the sad whimper of Lindsay Lohan’s film career, I think a lot of people will look back on Mean Girls and wonder how she could have gotten top billing over Amanda Seyfried, Rachel McAdams, and the great Lizzie Caplan. It was her apogee. And TIna Fey’s script is gold.

    This one may be trying too hard, but I will always love Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Also, it’s just outside your time frame, but Fight Club for sure. It was pretty mainstream, but the pre-9/11-ness of it is breathtaking.

  12. F.P. Smearcase says:

    K-sky I have a probably-never-to-be-satisfied need to hear that line delivered by Lauren Bacall.

    Rachel: Lizzie Caplan was in mean girls?! I totally didn’t remember. I hear she is on the team/family/from Michigan. D.E.B.S. is new to me–thanks for putting it on my radar.

  13. k-sky says:

    This is a side point, but 10 Things I Hate About You is the best Queer Coming Attraction Movie ever. Joseph Gordon-Leavitt goes onto Mysterious Skin; Heath Ledger goes on to Brokeback (“they’re bi shepherds, not gay cowboys!”) Mountain.

  14. Rachel says:

    Yes, she played a character named Janis Ian. Hilarious! F.P., you have just made my day.

    re: Brokeback–Heath Ledger, upon losing the Best Actor Oscar to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Capote performance, reportedly griped, “I thought the award was for BEST acting, not MOST acting.”

    Dude wuz robbed.

  15. Rachel says:

    Smearcase, I can’t stop thinking about this question.

    Can we include foreign films? Because if so, I would definitely have to put Bertolucci’s The Dreamers on the list. (Eva Green, OH MY GOD.)

    In a way, though, isn’t the cult film gone for good? Now that we can own films for cheap in a personal library or stream clips online, the days of waiting for a retrospective, trekking to an art cinema, or staying up for a midnight screening are long gone. These are exercises in nostalgia. Is there anything so “culty” about simply being able to memorize lines? If so, Zoolander probably wins. But a shibboleth? Not really.

  16. F. P. Smearcase says:

    Well, bear in mind I made up my definition in ten minutes after Swells said “hey I’m not sure I have anything for Thursday” so I think we can all take it with a giant “who the hell are you anyway Smearcase” flavored grain of salt.

    I don’t think the cult film is gone for good, though. I think the Gen X habit of instant nostalgia means a lot of things will be thought of as cult films and nobody will think of them ten years later. But I also think the quirk of savoring something we believe to be (I hate to say objectively but anyway) objectively bad is a durable phenomenon. I like that we do it. Though it risks perpetuating a kind of rigid high culture vs. low culture snobbery, I think on the whole it may broaden the scope of what bits of our culture last when we’re gone.

    Huh didn’t mean to get all serious.

  17. swells says:

    These fragments I have shored against my ruin, yo.