Film Thoughts: What is the enduring power of the cult classic?

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 2/12/19 2:40am

As we find ourselves hurtling toward the already contentious 91st Academy Awards ceremony, I think it might be time to take a break from our regularly scheduled programming and tackle a seemingly unrelated question: Why do we like cult films?

Before we proceed any further, though, we need to come up with a working definition for “cult film,” or we’ll just be stuck here going in circles for days. Because the parameters tend to vary greatly based on who you ask, I’m going to opt for a fairly broad definition and argue that cult films are those films that tend to be adored by a group of fans — no matter how small — even if the film itself isn’t generally regarded to be that well-made. To be clear, we’re not talking about so-bad-they’re-good films like “The Room,” which certainly qualifies as a cult film in a different sense. Yet when it comes to a film like “The Room,” most of the enjoyment comes from how very bad the filmmaking is. There is an inverse relationship between overall amusement and overall quality. A great many cult films, however, are incredibly flawed, yet these flaws tend not to matter all that much to the audiences that covet these films. 

I’m favoring this unconventional definition of “cult film” largely because this article was inspired by three films that my girlfriend introduced me to during the past few weeks. Specifically, we watched “Pretty in Pink,” “A Knight’s Tale” and “10 Things I Hate About You.” You might argue that none of these movies constitute “cult films,” but I think that really speaks to the broadness of the concept more than anything else. By and large, I enjoyed all three films, but I want to focus specifically on “10 Things.” Despite its many, many flaws, I genuinely loved it. I could certainly debate the pros and cons of the film’s gender politics and its themes for days, but ultimately, it won me over with charming characters and perfect casting. It didn’t hurt that the film is set in Seattle and I’m from the Seattle area — although I must admit that Seattle has never looked that consistently sunny. 

Regardless, I want to focus on two aspects of the film that intrigue me most. Firstly, I was extremely familiar with “10 Things” before watching it precisely because the film has such a specific yet fervent fan base. In my personal experience, that fan base was the group of kids in high school who did drama and thus loved the film for its Shakespeare connection. For the uninitiated, “10 Things” is essentially an adaptation of “The Taming of the Shrew” set in a 1990s high school. Secondly, the film frequently walks a very fine line between odd and bad. This fine line is especially evident in relation to all of the Shakespeare connections. The general plot of “The Taming of the Shrew” is adapted fairly seamlessly, but the film insists on drawing attention to its literary roots in a variety of inorganic moments. Somewhat objectively, these moments aren’t particularly good and stick out like a sore thumb because they aren’t better integrated into the film as a whole. That being said, this is exactly the element that appeals to so many people about “10 Things.”

Thus, I might draw the preliminary conclusion that people tend to forgive the flaws of cult films precisely because those flaws add to their flavor. A prime example of this paradigm might be the ultimate cult film: “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” From a storytelling standpoint, that film is a structural mess. But not only does that not matter to the people who love the film, but I suspect that they wouldn’t love it as much if the narrative was better paced and executed. In a sense, there seems to be an acceptance that cult films are the way they are because they couldn’t be any other way. Admittedly, viewers might often apply this same sort of logic to films that are simply considered “great” or “masterpieces.” But for those films, people accept them as complete unto themselves because they are aware of their quality; they are the way they are because they are great and thus should not be any other way. Yet with cult films, it’s not as though fans can’t acknowledge the flaws or oddities — they just don’t matter. It’s as if these strange little films wouldn’t fill a very specific cultural niche if they weren’t exactly as imperfect as they are. 

And as I think through it, this logic makes perfect sense to me. “10 Things” is certainly flawed, and it would honestly be a much stronger film if it toned down its Shakespeare fanaticism. But I wouldn’t actually want it to do that. I enjoyed it so much in part because the Shakespearean aspirations are often at odds with the cadence of the high school teen drama. And even though I found these elements to be distracting, I still found myself to be thoroughly engaged with the film’s often rather ludicrous drama. I can only describe my viewing position while watching “10 Things” as an odd mix between ironic enjoyment and sincere enjoyment. And I suspect that may well be the key to cult films in general; an ironic awareness of a film’s flaws yet a sincere enjoyment of the film in spite of and perhaps because of those very flaws. In a sense, great films transcend their flaws because they’re great, while so-good-they’re-bad films transcend their flaws by not transcending them at all, and cult films transcend their flaws because without those flaws they would not be unique, and thus less culturally relevant.

So, why bother to explore this topic during the lead-up to the Oscars? The honest answer is that I’ve been too busy watching “10 Things” to watch “Roma.” But the answer that makes me look more professional might go something like this: Cult films define the contours of the Oscars’ limitations. Film critics spend a lot of time complaining about how the Oscars nominate all the wrong films. Nevertheless, we tend to forget that the most impactful and influential films from any given year often won’t be those films that we consider to be objectively “the best.” The Oscars need to do better at acknowledging the actual “best pictures” of the year, but they will never be able to account for those films that will one day be indelible cult classics. In 1999, a Michael Mann film called “The Insider” was nominated as one of the year’s five best pictures. “10 Things” was released the same year. I’m sure “The Insider” is good; it’s probably more well-made than “10 Things.” But as far as I can tell, no one remembers it. Yet Heath Ledger singing and dancing to “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” isn’t about to leave our collective cultural consciousness any time soon.