Todd Weiser: TPS reports, Donald Darko and the world of cult film fandom

BY
BY TODD WEISER: WAITING FOR PORTMAN

Published January 22, 2004

Trying to define a genre may be one of the
most difficult tasks in art criticism. Breaking films, books, etc.,
into genre distinctions usually turns into a list of a
genre’s standard conventions rather than a clear, succinct
sentence on what a melodrama is, or what makes up a post-World War
II B-movie detective noir.

Janna Hutz

An even more difficult task is to try and define a genre when it
isn’t a genre at all. This happened last semester during one
of the many film classes I’ve been a part of at this fine
university. A friend — you know him as esteemed Daily Music
editor Joel M. Hoard, I just call him J-Ho — and I were doing
our normal thing, sitting in the way back of the auditorium reading
the newspaper as loudly as possible, when a checklist appeared on
the out-of-focus projector screen. The checklist compared two clear
genre categories (I wasn’t paying enough attention to
remember what they were, so let’s just say musicals and
comedy) and a third category, cult movies. J-Ho and I laughed (as
quietly as possible, of course).

Musicals: a genre. Comedy: a genre. Cult movies: not a
genre.

Honestly, I shouldn’t be so holier than thou on this
issue; “cult movies” is historically a hard term to
define. But in my book (not the textbook, I never opened that
sucker up or even bought it, come to think of it) and in the books
of most of the classmates I talked to, this definition was
blatantly wrong.

In his description of cult films, Tim “Diggler”
Dirks of filmsite.org (a favorite website of Chicago Sun Times film
critic and all-around great guy Roger Ebert) writes, “Cult
films are usually strange, quirky, offbeat, eccentric, oddball, or
surreal, with outrageous, weird, unique and cartoony characters or
plots, and garish sets.” “Diggler” (a nickname I
made up, by the way) gets closer to my definition than my film
professor did, but his description even seems too specific.

Basically, cult movies are films that were ignored upon their
initial theatrical release, but slowly gained attention over the
years as more and more people saw them, liked them and then joined
the cult following. Under this definition, films with obvious cult
followings like the “Star Wars” or “Lord of the
Rings” trilogies do not count, as they were immediately loved
by everyone, not just a small group of loyal, mainstream-hating
fanatics. “Star Wars” and LOTR go beyond cult films,
for they are an entire culture in themselves.

My professor’s cult-as-genre description feels like a
neo-capitalist take on the art of filmmaking. A screenwriter can
sit down, planning to write a comedy. How do you write a cult
movie?

The impetus for this entire discussion was Tuesday’s 58th
birthday celebration for one of the kings of cult film —
David Lynch. Lynch makes films which are “strange, quirky,
offbeat, eccentric, oddball, etc.” They’re just plain
weird. Think “Eraserhead,” “Blue Velvet,”
“Mulholland Dr.” John Waters (“Pink
Flamingos”) and Sam Raimi (“Evil Dead”), two of
the other kings of cult filmmaking, also gravitate toward the
outrageous. Guys like these make the definition of cult movies as a
genre understandable. However, it’s still not correct.

The ultimate cult film has to be 1975’s “The Rocky
Horror Picture Show.” “Rocky Horror,” and the
transvestite-rocking good times it inspired, failed at the box
office at first but then found new life in midnight screenings all
across the country. The midnight screening has since been an
immediate identifier of a cult film. Still, while the State Theater
may cause you to think differently, not all midnight screenings are
of cult films and not all cult films are given midnight
screenings.

The question now is what are the recent cult movies? It’s
another tricky subject, because the whole point of cult movies is
that they’re not immediately popular.

Still, modern cult films exist, and some don’t fit
people’s normal expectations for what a “dark, strange
and difficult” cult movie is supposed to be. Next month, we
get to celebrate the five-year anniversary of one cult film, Mike
Judge’s “Office Space.” In 1999, “Office
Space” received average reviews and garnered only $10 million
at the box office. Today, it’s hard to find a college house
without a copy of the DVD. It’s even harder to find a
cubicled office without at least one reference to the movie every
day. Lumbergh, PC Loadletter and Vibe Magazine are all now
synonymous with the once underrated comedy hijinks of Peter
Gibbons, Michael Bolton and Samir Nagheenanajar.

And finally, the true point to all this rambling …
“Donnie Darko.” The Coen Brothers’ “Big
Lebowski” offers some competition, but Richard Kelly’s
film debut about the tangent-universe adventures of a high-school
kid with a superhero’s name is playing out as the cult film
choice of a new generation. Manhattan’s Two Boots Theater has
been showing “Darko” every weekend at midnight for over
a year. Jake Gyllenhaal and Co. almost never found an audience
after a very-limited post-Sept. 11 release (due to the film’s
principal event of a plane crash), but thanks to DVD word of mouth
the film has flourished, quickly finding its cult and making young
stars of Gyllenhall, his sister Maggie and director Kelly.

“Donnie Darko” also now finds itself as a favorite
of the State Theater and its midnight screenings.
“Darko”’s 1980s world of Sparklemotion, Frank the
Bunny and Patrick Swayze ran during the fall semester and now
returns on Jan. 31st.

Cult movies are not made, they just happen. “Donnie
Darko” has happened. Go join the cult. No KoolAde
involved.

—Weiser has so much more to say about this topic.
E-mail him about your favorite cult movie at "mailto:tweiser@umich.edu">tweiser@umich.edu.