Editorial: Cult versus Canon

Posted on August 1, 2012 by UK Editor

by Ben Bussey

Have you heard the good news? Vertigo is now officially the single greatest film ever made in the history of the world. The cultural elite have knocked their heads together and decided that Citizen Kane just ain’t the slam-dunk it used to be, and have dethroned it in favour of Hitchcock’s dizzying, blonde-bothering classic. So now you know. This, at least, is the conclusion of the BFI’s Sight & Sound magazine based on their poll conducted once every ten years, taking in the opinions of film industry professionals, critics and scholars. Satisfied? Fine. Move on.

Okay, perhaps I’m getting a smidgen too defensive. Sight & Sound are not outright declaring their poll to be definitive, nor are we obliged to consider it such. But clearly that’s the underlying idea. Clearly the implication is that this assembly of strangers in some kind of position of authority have rigourously considered the length and breadth of their film knowledge, which is indubitably far greater than that of the average filmgoer, and have decided which films are of the highest value, and by further implication which are of the least. To disagree, or to be ignorant of the films that make the cut, is to acknowledge that you are deficient as a film fan.

Cards on the table, then: of the 2012 Sight & Sound poll top 20, I have seen a grand total of 6: Vertigo, Kane, 2001, 8½, Apocalypse Now and Singin’ In The Rain. Yep, I said it. Now, without a doubt there are a few there I’m disappointed in myself for not having seen, The Searchers and The Seven Samurai in particular. But there are also plenty that I frankly know nothing of, and wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to learn if that was true of many other readers.

Now, in no way am I declaring these films I don’t know to be insignificant. Nor, in spite of the rather bitter tone I may be striking, do I think polls of this manner are without their importance. In a time when the top ten box office hits of all time include Avatar, Transformers 3 and the last two Pirates of the Caribbean films, it absolutely pays to be reminded that there is a great deal more to cinema than the kind of half-baked, overpriced tripe that Hollywood regularly dishes out to us. But when we start to make claims that one set of opinions is more valid than the other; that, for me, is when alarm bells start ringing.

Which brings me to the title subject of this editorial: cult versus canon. Just so we’re on the same page, by canon I mean those films which are accepted as indisputable, untouchable classics by the high brow elite; and by cult I mean… well, we all know what I mean by cult. Or do we? As self-evident as it may seem, it’s actually surprisingly difficult to define what specifically constitutes a cult film. And I should know, I’ve got a master’s degree in the subject. (And with that one statement, I’ve elevated myself to the status of cultural intelligentsia who know so much more than everybody else, as if I had not already done so through simple act of writing for a film site… damn, this shit’s harder to navigate than I thought…)

Example: a key piece of writing which popularised the notion of cult film was an essay by Umberto Eco, entitled ‘Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage.’ Now, if you’re anything like me you may have done a double-take at that title. Casablanca? How the hell does that count as a cult film? It’s a widely acknowledged classic that everybody and their mother has seen. To this day Warner Bros use the coda of ‘As Time Goes By’ as their signature music. And yet we’re to afford it the same status as, say, the films of Roger Corman, Russ Meyer, John Waters or Troma? Here at Brutal as Hell we regard ourselves broadly a cult film site, yet Casablanca is not a film we’d be likely to publish anything about; partly because it doesn’t fit into our preference for the horror-oriented and/or extreme, but more because, generally speaking, it’s just not a film we would expect our readership to be interested in. But does this mean it can’t be considered a cult film? No. Of course not.

Take these points in Casablanca’s favour: it was neither a critical nor commercial success on release, and only built its reputation with time, much as can be said of innumerable other cult properties. Further, a key part of Eco’s definition of a cult movie, which in my opinion holds up, is that it “must provide a completely furnished world, so that its fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were part of the beliefs of a sect, a private world of their own (…) whose adepts recognise each other through a common competence.” This sentiment should without doubt ring true with gorehounds, as well as comic book geeks, Star Wars fans, steampunks, Browncoats, Trekkies (or Trekkers if you prefer), and – yes – even Twi-hards. Feel free to add as many more titles to that list as you see fit. Simply put, any and all of these properties can be classed as cult, even though we wouldn’t necessarily cover them on this website.

In other words: although we may sometimes use the term as such, cult is not a genre. It is not genre-specific. It does not so much describe the text as it does the audience’s reaction to it.

So why do I feel the need to bombard you with these lofty postulations now, I hear you cry? Well, because things like this Sight & Sound poll beg the question – where does cult end and canon begin? Can a film exist in both imaginary arenas at the same time? If a film’s cult appeal is strong enough, will it inevitably result in canonisation, as may well have been the case with Casablanca (which, incidentally, didn’t make the Sight & Sound Top 50 this year) – and Vertigo, for that matter? Is it generational: does that which was disregarded in its own time invariably attain credibility as the years roll on? Does this mean that in another few decades the Sight & Sound number one could be, I dunno, John Carpenter’s The Thing?

Here’s what I would say differentiates a cult film from the rest: it is a film whose audience have embraced it on their own terms. Critical and/or popular opinion may have helped them on their way, or not; but what really matters is the viewer’s own response. The viewer has decided on his/her own that this film is important. The film has value, because it has value to the viewer.

To cite the opinion of a critic who I know is not held in an especially high regard today – Harry Knowles has argued that it’s far more interesting to hear what someone’s favourite films of all time are, rather than what they consider the best films ever made. The two lists may well be wildly disparate; perhaps they may overlap, or not; but one list will surely be easier to predict than the other. In declaring the best ever made, we’re so much more likely to fall back on the pre-existing definitions of great filmmaking, ensuring that the requisite directors get a look in: Hitchcock, Welles, Kurosawa, Goddard, Fellini and so forth. Your personal favourites, meanwhile; they mean whatever they mean to you. They’re the films that captured your attention on their own, the ones that opened your eyes to the joys of the medium. Chances are, they’re films which you love knowing full well they are flawed, and in a way those imperfections are the very reason you hold them so dear.

Regular BaH readers will have surely noticed how many commemorative retrospectives we’ve been doing of late, most recently Steph’s 25th anniversary tribute to The Lost Boys. This may well beg the question – are we not simply another form of cultural intelligentsia enforcing another canon? Is there not also elitism at play within cult; the demand for that ‘common competence’ Eco spoke of? Well, I won’t deny that’s a difficult accusation for us to dodge. What I will say in our defence is, if you go back and look at these retrospectives, you will hopefully find that the greatest emphasis is placed on how much the film in question means to the writer on a personal level. We’ll argue its technical and artistic merits, for certain, but we won’t deny its failings either. If you don’t agree with what we have to say, that’s cool and the gang. Of course, those involved in the Sight & Sound poll may very well say likewise; or so I would hope, at least.

To wrap this up, Springer’s Final Thought style: it bothers me deeply when anyone attempts to blanketly declare that which is of the greatest cultural importance. We can, and should, and do decide on an individual basis that which is most important to ourselves, and this is as it should be. Yes, it is very important indeed to hear a wide variety of opinions and allow your eyes to be opened to things which you may otherwise have missed; I wouldn’t be writing for a site like this if I didn’t feel that way. When all is said and done, though, we should embrace that with which we feel the greatest affinity, whatever that may be, without fear of scorn or ridicule from those who might consider themselves our cultural superior. If that means preferring instant coffee to fresh, or burger and fries to filet mignon, or Jim Wynorski to Jean Renoir – so be it. Yes, the opinions of those who voted in the Sight & Sound poll are valid, and well worth taking into consideration; but so too is your own, and you should never be intimidated into thinking otherwise.