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.