I decided against scouring all of the top 100 cult classic lists and run the risk of stumbling across reviews or spoilers (I know the film is from 1977). So, I turned to a co-worker. Everyone has the stereotypical film buff co-worker. Stereotypes exist, especially in the work place (I’m looking at you cat lady). There is always the quirky film buff that recommends weird films and you nod but never watch them. Everywhere I’ve worked there has been one. So I asked Alex, a young, smarter than he should be high school student, which cult classic film I should start with. He quickly, almost without thinking responded, “Anything by David Lynch. In fact, Eraserhead.”
I should have known just by his sickening smile just what I was getting myself into.
Saturday night, quiet house, I turned off all electronics and gave Eraserhead my total attention with a notebook and pen in hand. I had no knowledge of the film or what was coming. The movie began and I soon saw that it was in black and white. It immediately had an industrial feel, with the opening of Henry’s (Jack Nance) large head floating, big hair and odd looking, then a cut to a scarred and decrepit looking man, toying with levers and looking out a window. The landscape was barren save for tall buildings and pile of stone.
I realized I was watching a horror film with the infliction of noise. The sound throughout the opening scene was a loud humming or buzzing then seemed to be louder outside than inside the apartment but it was always there. It became all I could focus on. Even the bizarre things in the apartment such as dirt and hay in a dresser drawer and then a plant and a pile of soil on the nightstand didn’t stand out as much as the humming did.
Anyone want dinner at the X’s?
This is where the movie completely lost me from my idea of an ambitious viewing before it began. This scene will forever be engrained in my brain and I can honestly say I will never eat a cornish hen again (I wasn’t much of a cornish hen eater to begin with but…). The loud machines, sweeping steam outside of Mary X’s house, followed by the slurping and disgustingness that was the unseen sound in the living room, only to turn out to be puppies feeding off their mother, made me trepidatious of what I was getting into.
I was still slightly on board. I was watching closely, hoping not to miss any subtle symbolism or meaning in each scene. It is a cult classic right? There has to be something there. But the sounds, images, desolation, the industrial slum that they all resided in, brought a sense of despair and angst to my viewing.
My anxiety began with the dogs and I noted it. It was the last note I took. Then, Mr. X served the cornish hens and the scene played out and my angst turned to nausea and for the remainder of the film I felt like I were going to be sick.
The rest of this scene and film then played out like a bad dream. There seemed to be no reason to how character’s were acting. The movie was bizarre and grotesque just to be bizarre and grotesque. I understood immediately what Lynch was exploring and degrading: parenthood. It was obvious from the fetus stomping blonde with bubble cheeks to the incessant crying of the mutant baby. Lynch had a bad childhood and wanted to disgust anyone that was to ever choose to be a parent.
Oh, and the baby
The baby is a mystery to everyone, because Lynch is keeping quiet. Lynch says it is because he doesn’t want the mystery to ruin the film. Some say it is because it’s a calf fetus and illegal as a prop. But regardless, the baby is so strange for me that it takes away from any comment Lynch is making on childbirth and parenthood. It’s perverse.
Henry has a soft spot for the baby, changing it’s bandages and staying up at night to it’s cries. But he is unhappy, and does not appear to be happy again until he kills the baby (out of mercy apparently).
A word I want to use for this film is pretentious. I think it is because of the success it had in the midnight movie realm. The film grossed $7 million during midnight screenings and other theaters. And with the added influence it had on many successful films and directors, there has been this aura around it that makes it more than it is. The film is revolting, at times unnecessarily disgusting. It lacks any followable plot, acts more like a prolonged dream sequence and also has a poor script. The movie is a fantasy, a bad dream.
Bright Light Films Score
I know I said in my Intro Post that I wouldn’t always be using this “checklist of attributes” by Dan Bentley-Baker of Bright Light Films, but I wanted to test it out against my first cult film viewing. Heres how Eraserhead would have scored:
1. Marginality Content falls outside general cultural norms Yes
2. Suppression Subject to censor, ridicule, lawsuit, or exclusion No
3. Economics Box office flop upon release but eventually profitable Somewhat (did not open to major theaters)
4. Transgression Content breaks social, moral, or legal rules Yes
5. Cult following Generates devoted minority audience Yes
6. Community Audience is or becomes self-identified group No
7. Quotation Lines of dialog become common language No
8. Iconography Establishes or revives cult icons Yes
4 out of 7 meets most of the criteria, which would make it a cult film. But we already knew that. I wanted to try the checklist out against a known cult film. I personally did not enjoy the film, and I would not watch it multiple times. I would not recommend it to friends or family or readers. But, I can quote from it and I will definitely never forget it.
What is a Cult Classic?
That was my first question when I prepared myself to dive into the unknown of cult classics. I am not an expert on this and will not claim to be. I think that is why I was drawn to exploring the cult classics. I can start with a fresh palette. I have no dog in any fight. And from what I’ve seen in my early research, there are many fights. I also won’t be limiting myself to film. I want to explore all things that have obtained a cult following; novels, graphic novels, tv shows, video games, even food and drinks (remember Surge?). The term “cult following” is at the crux of how one could label a film or book as a cult classic. As Ian Haigh of BBC News says in this article, “Cult film is a tricky term.” That seemed weird to me. If a film has a devote following, followers that are rabid about quotes, themes, create websites dedicated to characters or films, then call it a cult classic and move on. Who cares, right? Well, the following themselves care.
It is a Dichotomy
In order for a film to become a cult classic then it must have a cult following. There are many characteristics, articles, arguments, but this one about the following is a consensus view. I have seen other characteristics, such as what Robert Pearson writes in this informative article that the art has a “post-modern intertextual awareness.” But many did not set out to become cult classics. The lore of the classics appear to come from a counter culture perspective, a group that wants to participate in something out of the mainstream. This appeal gives fans a feeling of obscurity, a togetherness in the films that were unappreciated or didn’t pass a critic’s muster. The fans can unite by reciting quotes or entire scenes in rarely seen films, let alone films seen enough to be memorized. This obscurity and counterculture is at the heart of the rabidity and defensiveness of the followings. But the following itself becomes large, creating an aura around the film or text that makes others want to see or read it. The following increases, and re-releases happen, and midnight showings become films with multiple showings. Or a show like Arrested Development gets new season after being off the air for seven years.
That is what I am struggling with. If the fans want to revel in the obscurity or counterculture, then what happens when their beloved classic becomes a mainstream novelty? This is what bothered me the most when searching for my first classic to review. I found many “Top 100 Cult Classic” sites and other countdown lists. But, while scrolling through, I found books such as A Catcher in the Rye, shows like The X-Files and the films Donnie Darko, Fight Club and Clerks. I have read and seen all of these titles, and they are all now mainstream hits. I am not exclusively confused. Many critics, authors and students of film are also confused. Dan Bentley-Baker of BrightLightsFilm.com put together a “checklist of attributes” to clear up much of the confusion. It is as follows:
1. Marginality Content falls outside general cultural norms
2. Suppression Subject to censor, ridicule, lawsuit, or exclusion
3. Economics Box office flop upon release but eventually profitable
4. Transgression Content breaks social, moral, or legal rules
5. Cult following Generates devoted minority audience
6. Community Audience is or becomes self-identified group
7. Quotation Lines of dialog become common language
8. Iconography Establishes or revives cult icons
#3 helped me understand my confusion. “Eventually profitable” explains why I have knowledge of a few cult classics. This list is thorough and can easily (or possibly) discern whether a film, book, video game or tv show is a cult classic. I don’t intend on using this list as a Holy Grail checklist for my own reviews, but it is a rather clear and straightforward way of examining an introduction into a subculture that I am not one hundred percent comfortable with. I look forward to the process I am undertaking, and not only exploring the obscure, or wildly fanatical, but also maybe encountering a following I myself will become entrenched in.