Monday June 15th, 2009

A Definition of “Cult” From Far, Far Away


Cult Movies by Danny Peary
Delacorte Press, 1981

It was probably 1979. After the Star Wars boom, the public wanted more of the same, or better, or worse. Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Alien. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Space was back and it was bigger than ever.

In England in the late 1970s that meant Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who on TV. It meant American imports like Lorne Greene in Battlestar Galactica. It meant early evening screenings of Dark Star and Silent Running. It meant The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on radio, then in print, then LP, then TV – and I loved all of it.

In 1979, I was 11 years old, maybe 10. The previous year, I had seen Star Wars at the Astoria in Purley as part of Philip X’s birthday treat. I can’t remember his surname. His mother was German, and I think her name was Dorothea. She was an enthusiast, over the top and still vivid to me now. I don’t recall anything about his father, other than it was his father who took half a dozen boys to see Star Wars, arriving half an hour before the designated start time. In those days, they let you into the auditorium as soon as you bought your ticket, never mind if the previous showing of the main feature was still in progress. So my first glimpse of Star Wars was not the scrolling text or the remorseless passage of the Imperial battlecruiser – you know, two of the great iconic moments of postwar popular cinema – but an X-Wing™ in a dogfight, Luke Force-ing™ the combustion of the Death Star™. We watched the end of the film. We sat through the adverts and trailers. And then we saw the movie from “Once Upon A Time In A Galaxy Far, Far Away…” to Princess Leia’s prize-giving party, as George Lucas intended, not that we knew who George Lucas was.

I tell this story like it mattered that we watched the film in the wrong order and failed to pay adequate respect to the people who had made it for us. But it didn’t matter – it didn’t matter then and it doesn’t matter now. My parents were not cineastes and nor were my friends’ parents (and nor were we). They understood and accepted the limits of the transaction. Likewise, around this time I begged my mother to drive me into Croydon’s shopping center so we could watch Darth Vader and a meager retinue of stormtroopers arrive at Grant’s department store on North Street. We waited a long time for the visitation, and when Vader finally stepped from his hire car we saw we had been betrayed. Obviously it wasn’t the real Darth Vader, but it wasn’t even a respectable costume. It looked cheap. We were suburban saps and we deserved nothing better. The cheap shit Vader with his two stormtroopers hurried into the shop. The stormtrooper outfits did not fit properly. Behind white leg armor, a glimpse of dismal red tracksuit.

(This early disappointment did not prevent me from joining subsequent queues at Croydon’s department stores for the autographs of Douglas Adams, Little and Large, and Jay Aston from Bucks Fizz. The suburban sap knows his place.)

The Star Wars phenomenon, the principles of commercial exploitation, my mother’s willingness to spoil her only son and the inevitable failure of all art came together at some point in what was probably 1979. A new film was showing at the Purley Astoria. Children’s television and comics were full of it. In actual fact, it was an old film. It was important. It was the original science-fiction blockbuster. It was being reissued for the Star Wars generation and to make some money for MGM. 2001: A Space Odyssey was back in cinemas.

So it was that Mum and I endured the longest two hours and twenty minutes of our lives. In a mostly empty afternoon showing, we slogged through the stuff with the “monkeys” (less convincing than the Croydon stormtroopers) and the monolith, Also Sprach Zarathustra, then the spaceships and the man from the Cinzano adverts, you know, Rigsby*, then the endless misbehaving computer and then the utterly inscrutable and interminable ending with the man getting older and older and then turning into a baby… I haven’t seen the film since 1979 so you’ll forgive me if this is a bit wrong. Later today I am going to watch it again. Perhaps it will be a revelation, eh, readers? 

Though I cannot recall many specifics of the plot, even at thirty years’ distance I do remember how 2001: A Space Odyssey made me feel – a cosmic trip of anger, embarrassment and boredom. My brief life flashed before my eyes, for want of something else to watch. I felt humiliated. This was not the thrilling ride I had been promised. Moreover, it was my fault we were here. At some level, I knew we didn’t understand this film. Someone somewhere was laughing at us.

Why didn’t we walk out? Because we never walked out of anywhere, no matter how late the meal, how bad the service or how mediocre the concert. We should have asked for our money back. We should have demanded a written apology from Stanley Kubrick. But we didn’t.

So 2001 changed me. It did not expand my mind. It did not set me straight on the evils of the culture industry or the cheerful deviousness of marketing departments. Instead I developed a suspicion of all art-house cinema, a suspicion which later found its focus as a loathing of art-house crowds – a self-deluding elite, a market segment with delusions of animate existence, saps masquerading as stormtroopers, monkeys pretending to be human beings. Like I said, I was angry.

It’s probably 1979 and we’re in Purley. On the pavement outside the cinema, I launch my empty popcorn bucket into the air, spinning up, up into the tea-time sky…  

* * *

… and audaciously, thirty years later a copy of Danny Peary’s Cult Movies lands in my lap.

Cult Movies was published in 1981. It’s a straightforward concept – 100 films, each presented with a plot synopsis, some black-and-white photos and a short essay by Peary. Let’s make another visionary leap of imagination and say that two years earlier, at the very moment I was watching 2001, Peary was writing about it. “The most awesome, beautiful (the visuals and the music), mentally stimulating, and controversial science fiction film ever made,” he types on his zippy electric typewriter, before pausing for a slurp of Tab and to flip the Devo cassette he is listening to. (Actually, in the photo on the jacket flap, Peary doesn’t look much like a Devo listener. He is nearly forty and he has thick hair and a black beard. He was probably listening to a lot of early Neil Young, just like I am right now.)

Anyway. “The most awesome, beautiful (the visuals and the music), mentally stimulating, and controversial science fiction film ever made.” Obviously, this is not the review I would have formulated after my initial screening. But it is solely thanks to Danny Peary that I did not slam the door on that movie, or many others, in the critical years that followed. I discovered this book when I was fifteen. Cult Movies was my map, not just to cult movies, but to cinema itself. What I know about film, I owe to Danny Peary.

In fact, as I cast an eye over the book’s back cover – luckily, it has landed on its front – it seems to me that its selections still offer a pretty thorough survey of the form. You could view these 100 films and have a good claim to a working overview of cinema – not just in the period covered by the book (1929 to 1979) but right up to here and now. Sure, The Brady Bunch Movie isn’t here and someone has yet to imagineer Vin Diesel, Vin Gallo or the entire output of the Dogme movement, but still. Most genres are represented, along with some films you’ve probably never heard of. Peary chose classics (It’s a Wonderful Life, Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz), westerns (The Searchers, Man of the West), porn (Emmanuelle, Behind the Green Door), noir (Gun Crazy, Laura), musicals (Singin’ in the Rain, 42nd Street), comedies (Duck Soup, The Producers), horror (Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), art-house (El Topo, Le Roi de Coeurs (King of Hearts)), ur-cult (The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Performance, Eraserhead) and pictures which seem to have been made with the sole purpose of giving film studies students something to deconstruct (Kiss Me Deadly, Johnny Guitar). Kubrick is here (twice – 2001 and The Killing) and so is Herzog (Aguirre, the Wrath of God), Hitchcock (Vertigo), Malick (Badlands), Welles (Citizen Kane), Tourneur (twice – Out of the Past and I Walked With a Zombie), Ray (Nicholas, not Satyajit, and twice – Johnny Guitar and Rebel Without a Cause), Altman (The Long Goodbye), Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch), and Ed Wood Jr. (Plan 9 From Outer Space). It’s true that Fellini, Godard, Truffaut, Ray (Satyajit, not Nicholas), Kurosawa and Renoir aren’t here but a) there are good reasons for that which we’ll address in a minute, b) the book is more true to itself without them and c) except for Godard, I don’t care.

The subtitle of Cult Movies offers a perfectly valid working definition of the criteria for inclusion – “the classics, the sleepers, the weird and the wonderful” – but rather than leave it at that, Peary offers a broader explanation in his foreword: “I have included prime examples of various types of cult films. You will find pictures that daily newspaper reviewers attacked and, almost as a reflex action, film enthusiasts rallied around; pictures hated by the average moviegoer as much as the daily press that have been saved from oblivion by a cult of out-of-the-mainstream critics and film scholars; pictures underrated or neglected by everyone at the time of their releases that recently have been rediscovered and re-evaluated; pictures that have gained popularity because they star performers who have become cult stars or were made by filmmakers who likewise have become cult figures; pictures for which we have nostalgic feelings because they had great impact on us when we were kids; pictures that are so out of the ordinary that attending them has become a communal event – as it is with Midnight Movies, a godsend for financially troubled theater owners.” Which sounds like an after-the-event justification to me, albeit an understandable one.

In 2009, part of Cult Movies’ appeal is anthropological – a pre-download, pre-DVD, pre-VHS time capsule, a survey of the movies you could screen in America in the late 1970s and be guaranteed a paying audience. It also represents the idea of cult before the cult industry really got underway (the 1980s VHS rental and retail boom had a lot to do with this, fueled in part by crib sheets like Peary’s). But what makes Cult Movies such a fine book is not its historical noteworthiness (debatable), nor its conceptual purity (it’s all over the shop). What makes the book work is the man who wrote it. You want to read about these movies because Peary wants to write about them, and he does so in a manner which is accessible but never patronizing, light but never glib. It is a uniquely personal yet democratic book.

Take, for example, Peary’s entry on King Kong. “With the exception of The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Citizen Kane (1941), no picture has been the subject of more critical writing than the original King Kong, an irreplaceable part of twentieth-century American culture… It has been interpreted as: a parable about an innocent, proud country boy (probably a muscular, uneducated black) who is humbled and finally destroyed when he comes to the cold, cruel city; an indictment of ‘bring ‘em back alive’ big-game hunters; a racist visualization of the fears a white woman has … and a parable about the Great Depression, an interpretation I have never understood.” See how much ground he just covered? And then Peary offers his own irresistible interpretation: “I believe we are on a journey through Carl Denham’s subconscious [the italics are Peary’s] … Skull (as in cerebral) Island’s expressionistic landscape – fertile, overgrown, reptile-infested, watery, cave-filled – is Denham’s fantasized sexual terrain. And Kong, I believe, is a manifestation of Denham’s subconscious.”

Well, who doesn’t want to stop reading and go and watch King Kong RIGHT NOW? Not because Peary’s analysis is a suggestive one but because it sounds so much fun – unlike the kind of criticism which bends a text to fit a template, Peary suggests the reader, who already knows and appreciates King Kong, might like to look at the film his way and find something new to enjoy in it. He does this several times in Cult Movies – his interpretation of Johnny Guitar, for example, is so brilliant it almost makes the film make sense as a story in its own right, rather than simply as an ultra-vivid jumble of metaphor and camp.

This is also the reason why Peary’s work trumps later, longer attempts at the same thing, the 1001 lists of 1001 things you must must see/hear/read/eat before you die. Peary’s selection of films creates a canon by default. Its purpose is not to act as a shopping catalogue or to enable the reader to acquire a feeling of cultural omniscience (or just to feel on top of things). It exists to let Peary chat with you about a shared enthusiasm, which is the sort of confidence trick only a very good writer can pull off. 
He isn’t perfect. He doesn’t like Apocalypse Now, which he describes as “a Disneyland jungle cruise” and considers a pale shadow of Aguirre, the Wrath of God. And he is “not a fan” of the Ramones – “one of the least attractive punk rock groups (which is saying a lot).” But in 1980, the Ramones and Apocalypse Now were breaking news – and it took years for both to accrue cult respectability, groomed in part by assiduous record and film companies. I have one friend who is a human wiki on the various permutations of Apocalypse Now and Hearts of Darkness, and another who once told me if he could be anywhere in the world at any point in history, he would dance down the corridors with the Ramones at the end of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (so much for Great Pyramid of Giza, Hanging Gardens of Babylon, etc.). But here’s the thing. At the time of its release, Apocalypse Now was seen as an indulgent and expensive folly by a major studio, and got stinking reviews as a result. Whereas today, these are precisely the reasons why the film is a cult favorite and viewers flock to it year after year. As for Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, Peary fingers it as “the prime of example of a picture that became a ‘cult’ favorite by design,” a phrase which could only have been written by someone who had yet to live through The Matrix, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, not to mention thirty years of Star Trek spin-offs. Après les Ramones, Danny, le déluge.

Likewise, there are probably too many westerns in Cult Movies and too much film noir, a result both of the movies Peary grew up with and also Truffaut-inspired auteur theory which, by the late ’70s, had filtered into the popular consciousness and favored these genres in particular. Ironically, there is not enough French cinema – nothing by Truffaut himself, and nothing at all by Godard. Let me bring my white e-type to a screeching halt to repeat that: there is nothing by Jean-Luc Godard in this book. It seems doubly perverse to omit JLG yet include such (admittedly great) films as Brian De Palma’s Greetings and Richard Lester’s Petulia, both of which are “indebted” to Godard, as Peary notes, “the most influential political filmmaker of our times.”

But this is an American book, made in U.S.A., from the end of a particular American era. Its faith in a duality of Hollywood vs. non-Hollywood (as opposed to the U.S. and the world beyond) seems quaint, perhaps the one really old-fashioned thing about the whole enterprise. If it were written now, it would be transformed by the whole notion of “world cinema.” Plus I doubt there were Midnite Movie crowds queuing up to see Weekend in the late 70s. And even if there were and the sin of omission is all Peary’s: who cares? As I said above, this book works because of the author’s openhanded attitude to what has been included. He wrote what he knew.  

* * *

There are two further, shorter volumes of the Cult Movies franchise, with fifty movies apiece. Cult Movies 2 was published in 1983 and is excellent (and – how about that? – features A Bout de Souffle), but by the third volume (1988) it feels like Peary’s attention has wandered elsewhere. Plus the definition of cult changed forever with the popularity of the video cassette. Speaking for myself, VHS allowed me to see a lot of these films without having to endure the horrors of the art-house mob. There’s a lot to be said for atomization.

I wish Peary would come out of retirement – I am under the impression he no longer writes about film – and produce a fourth and final volume of Cult Movies. He could restrict himself to films from the last twenty years – there would have to be at least a couple of action movies, one of the dominant genres of the period. Or maybe he could include older films whose cult reputation has grown in the same period (more westerns, more noir) or popular films which have grown into cults, e.g. Star Wars.

Star Wars brings us full circle; we enter during the final dogfight. In his foreword to Cult Movies 3, Peary writes this:  “Although the three Star Wars movies … have fanatical followings, I have not included them because they are still distributed with the intention of attracting the mass audience. Only when they are released primarily for their hardcore fans will they be classified as legitimate cult movies.” Of course, the story of what happened to Star Wars and its sequels is the story of what happened to “cult.” Peary’s “mass audience” allowed itself to be persuaded it was actually one gigantic cult. In the eyes of the conglomerates, we are all “hardcore fans” now.

I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey again just after I started work on this piece. There was a lot I liked about it. It’s very beautiful. I was surprised by how much of the film’s imagery had stayed with me, and how little of the H.A.L. 9000 “story” I remembered. And then I turned to the entry for 2001 in Cult Movies and two things struck me. The first was that Peary deserves a medal for his plot synopsis – a master class in narrative précis and interpretation. And I realized he had to do this 200 times in these books, for some of the weirdest, most esoteric cinema ever made (El Topo in 250 words? Andy Warhol’s Bad?) with some of the most inexplicable, convoluted plots (any and all Film Noir), with no recourse to the Internet and who knows what notes. Amazing.

I was also struck by how lucky I was to find this book as a teenager. The interpretation of 2001 which follows the synopsis is neither flashy, nor pretentious, nor informed by ingenious secondary sources such as Homer or the Bible but it is totally, convincingly plausible – and fantastically accessible. I probably could have read it as a 10-year-old and it would have transformed my experience of the film. For Peary, 2001 is a film about evolution. “Man has seen his origins and has come back – his odyssey over – in a higher form to begin the second millennium.” Do I agree with him? Do you? I don’t think it matters. “Much of 2001’s continuing popularity is due to so many having different interpretations of the film. I offer mine below.” That sums up Peary’s uniqueness as a writer and a critic – his clarity, his pluralism and his humility. When I grow up, I hope I evolve into Danny Peary.

* * *

Appendix: Memo to Danny Peary – 61 films for Volume 4, jotted down in twenty minutes.

Amateur, Apocalypse Now, Being John Malkovich, La Belle Noiseuse, The Big Lebowski, Bonnie and Clyde, Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe And Find True Happiness?, Chinatown, Crash, Clerks, CQ, The Crow, Dark Water, Dazed and Confused, Dead Man, Dead Man’s Shoes, Die Hard, Do the Right Thing, Donnie Darko, Gone With the Wind, Goodfellas, The Great Escape, Grey Gardens, Head, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, The Italian Job, Jacob’s Ladder, Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains, The Last Boy Scout, The Machinist, Mamma Mia!, Masculin Féminin, The Matrix, Memento, Naked, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, The Piano, Point Blank, Privilege, Les Quatre Cents Coups, Rocky, The Rebel, Reservoir Dogs, Ringu, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Science of Sleep, A Short Film About Killing, Slacker, Star Wars, Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story, A Taste of Honey, There Will Be Blood, This is Spinal Tap, Titanic, Trainspotting, The Usual Suspects, The Village, When Harry Met Sally, Withnail & I, Xanadu, Young Frankenstein

How about it, Mr. Peary?

Andy Miller is the author of three books. He lives in England.

* [Ed. Note: This is a reference to Leonard Rossiter, an actor who played Rupert Rigsby in the 1970s UK sitcom Rising Damp, and also starred with Joan Collins in a series of TV ads for Cinzano vermouth, which ads are discussed in somewhat astounding detail here.]

Books mentioned in this review:

Cult Movies
Cult Movies 2
Cult Movies 3