Embracing Marginalization Through Cult Films
What constitutes a “cult?” What is the difference between Christianity and a cult? Systemically, structurally they are the same. They both gather believers under an absolute authority who can not be questioned and who requires faith in the place of reason. They both rely on indoctrination. They both use fear as a motivator to promote group cohesion. They both disapprove of outsiders. They both have a history of violence and anti-social behavior. So why are the Manson Family in prison while the pope sits on a throne in Rome?
Mostly it just comes down to size. Christianity has enough followers, approximately 2.8 billion, to be almost inseparable from the dominant ideology. The Manson Family was a tiny group, and although systemically they resembled any other religion their specific beliefs went against the mainstream and so they were deemed deviant and labeled a cult. I am in no way advocating for The Manson Family, I am only pointing out that they are less aberrant than they may appear, and that they may serve the same role and function as any other religious ideology.
When films are categorized as “cult films,” they like the Manson Family, are being singled out and separated from the mainstream. How a label like cult is established and negotiated can reveal the dynamic between dominant ideologies and marginalized ideologies.
Even though Star Wars has one of the most zealous group of followers of any film ever produced, it is not commonly thought of as a cult film. If any film ever had the trappings of a cult following it would have to be Star Wars, but Star Wars is not transgressive. Star Wars is well within the mainstream imagination. It plays out the heroes journey and supports the dominant ideology.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show has devout followers but they add up to a fraction of the Star Wars adherents, but what makes it a cult movie is that The Rocky Horror Picture Show advocates a subversive messages and celebrates the marginalized. In its finale Frank N. Furtur sings “Be it don’t dream it” while the conservative doctor Everett Scott discovers his inner transvestite. This is a particularly moving sight when taken in the context of watching the scene unfold in a theater full of marginalized people. I grew up going to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show in Greenwich Village with the indomitable Sal Piro as the MC. The crowd was awash with people who’s sexual orientation or gender identification were seen as deviant back then and listening to that song while everyone around you sung along was truly touching.
György Lukács once wrote “Art becomes problematic precisely because reality has become non-problematic.” Cult films like The Rocky Horror Picture Show or John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, were intentionally problematic in what they presented. Even more so were the thousands of grindhouse movies that often had transgression as their sole motivator. They strove to make money by offering the forbidden world of sex, drugs, violence, incest, and anything that was taboo. Their audience just wanted to be thrilled by seeing something society disapproved of.
Not all cult films follow this model. The Room is often referred to as a cult film, but it does not appear to be transgressive or subversive in any way. Even so the audience who comes to watch The Room react to it in almost the same way as The Rocky Horror Picture Show audience does. They both stand up in front of the screen and recite the lines along with the film. They bring funny props to wave and throw at the screen. The experience is similar in many ways.
The Room is not meant to be transgressive but the ironic appreciation of it is. The Room through its abject failure as a film holds up all the tired tropes, and empty conventions of Hollywood and unintentionally parodies them. The Room is an anti-film that appeals to the viewer who is bored with mainstream film and enjoys seeing the wheels come off. The trick of course is that the writer and director must be sincere. If Tommy Wiseau hadn’t been earnestly trying, the failure would lose its edge and its humor. This is why movies from Troma Studios are less cult films than badly made conventional comedies. They are intended to look cheap and be shallow which undermines the irony.
Unlike The Room, Mommy Dearest is a well made, somewhat mainstream film, but like The Room there are unintentional messages contained in Mommy Dearest.
Mommy Dearest as a whole is ludicrously melodramatic but it is the main character that really provides the draw. Joan Crawford as depicted in Mommy Dearest is a queer Icon. She is bitter, misunderstood and beset with cruel betrayals and unreasonable demands. She is the ultimate “drama queen.” She in many ways is able to express the frustration and rage felt by many people in the gay community. She is beautiful and feminine but she is also a vicious bitch that speaks out powerfully against a world that does not understand what it is like to be marginalized. Here the gay community can find catharsis in someone who will not accommodate or compromise.
The character of Joan Crawford demands respect but through her demands she ends up destroying herself. This brings out an entire second layer in how the viewer can relate to her. Her rage is theatrical and overblown. Her famous line “No more wire hangers ever!” or my personal favorite “Tina! Bring me the axe!” are not designed to garner sympathy, but instead to show her as a monstrously, unreasonably and ridiculously, overwrought narcissist. This not only translates well into camp but it touches on the self-reproach and even self-hatred that was all too common in the gay community in 1981.
In listing the cult classics it is abundantly apparent that subversion is a common element among many of them. Think of Repo Man, Hairspray, This Is Spinal Tap, Donnie Darko, The Big Lebowski, They Live, Reanimator, Night of The Living Dead, Troll Two and The Wall. These films each find a way to undermine norms thereby appealing to unconventional audiences.
The reason people join cults or watch cult movies, or go to church or join a street gang or the Boy Scouts is all the same. In his research on why people join cults Douglass Atkin came to the conclusion that they join for two reasons, “They need to belong and they need to make meaning.” Whether you seek out acceptance from the mainstream or a sub-culture you are motivated by the same drive. It’s biological, it’s evolutionary. Whether we huddle together in the dark around a fire and tell our tribal stories, or we gather in a dark air-conditioned room by the light of the movie screen we are all there for the same reason. We bring meaning to our lives through shared stories.