Thursday, 4 October 2012

From the Archives - I Can Smell Your Cult

Having just spent the morning watching Street Trash after writing a little bit about it for The Quietus I was put in mind of an old article I wrote for ZERO magazine back around 2006.  I can't remember if it was published but, as I haven't blogged much recently, I thought I'd slap it up here...

I Can Smell Your Cult...

The cult of Lebowski is now a grand ten years old and a cult it truly is, a phenomenon to the beauty of which Brother Doran has already testified on these very pages. Cult status is a state of being, yet it is not unusual when reading a movie review or DVD sleeve to come across the bold proclamation, “Destined to become a cult classic!” Usually this is the result of hackneyed reviewing, oracular PR, or both but it has become a lazy form of accolade.

Walton Street Market
Any online or magazine list of cult movies from the last thirty years will invariably feature the likes of Blade Runner and The Shawshank Redemption. Both are movies that, despite some critical acclaim, failed to make money on their theatrical runs but thanks to the home video market are now considered profitable and therefore successful. The problem with this ‘cult’ label is that by the early nineties all the largely illiterate gold sovereign knuckled mutants down your Dad’s street owned (and cherished) a copy of Blade Runner and Miramax produced so many copies of Shawshank that six months after its VHS release they were piled five deep on tables at Walton Street Market in between jumbo packets of broken biscuits and a 1973 Vauxhall Viva manual. It is also the film most commonly watched at three o’clock in the morning by fifty-something care assistants once they’ve finished wiping shit from old peoples’ arses.
Blade Runner stands as a perfect example of a film misunderstood on its release but thanks to the advent of home video, appreciated gradually and so lovingly by different folks with different strokes that it eventually went on to rule the world. It just took a long time. Years later we see the release of a brand new DVD version replete with special features, enhancements and a massive marketing campaign that cost almost as much as the movie’s original budget. There are many examples of the home video ‘slow burn’ phenomenon. The Big Lebowski, Withnail & I, This is Spinal Tap and the first extreme Asian action breakthrough films such as John Woo’s The Killer all benefited from ‘word of mouth’ promotion. The American film critic Danny Peary in his book Cult Movies wrote: "While word of mouth certainly plays a large part in the growth of cults for individual films, what is fascinating is that in the beginning pockets of people will embrace a film they have heard nothing about while clear across the country others independently will react identically to the same picture."

Before home video fringe cinema depended upon independent theatre owners and promoters for exposure, in particular those of the USA. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Last House on the Left, Barbarella, Night of the Living Dead and the films of Dario Argento, Akira Kurosowa, Pier Paolo Pasolini and even Ed Wood all cemented their cult status through the American Grindhouse and drive-in circuits.

In 1970 New York’s foremost exhibitor of specialty and underground films Ben Barenholtz took a punt on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s monumentally unhinged El Topo, screening it at midnight without advertisement. Whether this was purely an artistic decision or one made in the light of riots in Mexico caused by Jodorowsky’s anti-catholic messages is unclear but word of mouth publicity rapidly made it (and midnight screenings) a wild fire success. An impressed (and probably thoroughly toasted) John Lennon convinced financier and former Beatles manager Allen Klein to buy the screening rights. So impressed was Klein with the buzz, or Lennon’s weed, he subsequently agreed to bankroll Jodorowsky’s 1973 follow-up Holy Mountain and El Topo was subsequently launched in a blaze of publicity in Times Square. It didn't last the week. After a major disagreement with Jodorowsky Klein would eventually withdraw both films from circulation and in so doing ensure their cult status. Their reputations as being subversive, masterful and utterly off their gourds continued to reverberate thanks to dodgy South American VHS tapes for 35 years until Klein and Jodorowsky finally overcame their differences and collaborated together on an official DVD release. Unlike Blade Runner however they are unlikely to go mainstream any time soon unless your average punter can come to accept crucified monkeys, excruciating violence and iguanas re-enacting Mexican history as things of beauty. Until that time El Topo and The Holy Mountain will stand as the true models of cult cinema!

Surely Michael Mann, Paramount and Tangerine Dream can resolve their issues and produce a pristine DVD copy of The Keep. Otherwise the widely distributed members of the WW2/Krautrock fusion cult will remain isolated and alone… but connected.



No comments:

Post a Comment