"Cult Cinema: A Critical Symposium"
A Conversation with Joe Bob Briggs
Excerpted and reprinted from Cineaste magazine, Winter 2008, Volume 34, No.1
1. What is your definition of cult film?
The cult film is taken from a pool of movies your mama told you not to watch. So you start with rebel filmmakers, and then within that pool you have filmmakers rebelling against the rebels. A small handful of those are so quirky/fetishistic that they attract a loyal following of fans who use them as markers to set themselves apart from the mass. Adherence therefore becomes the equivalent of a declaration of independence and freedom-and also demands a t-shirt.
2. What is the social function of cult film?
Most cult films establish a generation at a certain point in time. For example, Billy Jack could probably have been produced only at that one key moment in history-when hippies, bikers, Native Americans, and drug users were all starting to deal with their dark side for the first time since the social revolutions of the Sixties. Two years in either direction and the film would have been incomprehensible. The social function of a cult film is to make emotional sense of the times. You can't understand the cult film apart from the history of the period.
3. In his landmark book, Cult Movies (1981), Danny Peary asserted that cult films are always marked by excess and controversy far beyond that usually permitted by Hollywood. He also noted the way they stimulate fan devotion of an extreme nature: characteristically an unlimited appetite for screenings of a favorite, and a determination to track it to wherever it is shown. How has the contrast between mainstream and cult film changed since the publication of Peary's book?
The main difference is that in 1980, when Danny was writing his excellent book, no one wanted to make a cult film. Cult films were created entirely by happenstance. The term had a negative connotation in most circles. When I started reviewing drive-in movies that same year, cult films were despised and ignored by the mainstream. Frequently I would be the only reviewer of a film, and the distributors were frankly surprised that I was interested in writing about, say, Dr. Butcher, M.D. or Cannibal Holocaust. I reviewed for The Dallas Times Herald and the only other regular cult reviewer was Bill Landis, who roamed the Time Square theaters and put out a crude fanzine called Sleazoid Express. The two of us represented the twin ghettos where these films played-downtown grindhouses and remote drive-ins. I was actually slammed by The New York Times for celebrating a movie called Pieces, and there were outright protests of my review. I was picketed several times by various interest groups, including feminists, Baptists, gays, and African Americans. Many citizens would have been ashamed to attend the theaters where these movies were shown. Obviously today that's all changed, and many filmmakers attempt to make a cult where none exists. The first attempt at this was Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, which in my opinion is not a cult film at all, because it was a self-conscious effort to create a cult through titling and marketing. And today many mainstream publications have both critics of "popular culture" and critics who review what would have once been called cult films. The directors who were shunned in the late 1970s and the early 1980s tend to get nice obituaries from The New York Times, the very newspaper who considered their films beneath contempt when they were alive.
4. What do you find the most exciting and/or valuable esthetic features of cult films?
This is impossible to answer, because a true cult film is unique. It has no twin. It's usually a product of a misfit filmmaker in a transitional period who hits on the themes of greatest interest to youth at that particular time. (There are also examples of films becoming cultish later. Ignored by the generation who made them, they are adopted for various reasons by the next. Prime recent example: Showgirls.)
5. How has the change in venues where cult films are shown, from public theaters to individually owned electronic devices, altered the production and experience of cult?
It's cheapened the concept. Everyone with a five-minute video on MySpace or YouTube claims to have invented a cult classic. Unfortunately the word is now so devalued that we probably need a new one. Future historians of the culture will no doubt use Danny Peary's book as a text describing a period that began around 1970 and ended around 1995. When Tobe Hooper made the cult classic Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974, he had trouble getting work. By the time Quentin Tarantino made Reservoir Dogs, being a cult auteur was a ticket to fame and fortune. The fact that Reservoir Dogs premiered at Sundance, once the exclusive preserve of liberal leaning dramas that would be at home on PBS, indicated that the whole terrain had changed forever.