Cultism has evolved throughout history in the bacterial space between symbiosis and parasitism. It is not an extraterrestrial phenomena, but always contingent on the boundaries of the cultural present. Whatever the dominant culture deems to be heretical or subversive, in any given age, is the place where cultism congeals.
The location of the fringe constantly mutates under the humid politics of power respired by the dominant culture. Decorum looks different from one generation to the next, but culture always has a place for dissent. Orthodoxy needs heterodoxy, and heterodoxy needs orthodoxy.
In this way, cultism forms in the cimmerian spaces of culture, like a fungus. This is why cults are treated with such apprehension, derision, or outright castigation, such as the early Christian church – a cult of Judaism – under the foot of the Roman Empire; or later, the heathens and pantheistic cults dismembered by the swords of the Christian crusaders. Or today: Mormons, Rajneeshees, Scientologists, Freemasons, Rosicrucians, Pentecostals, and so forth – all carry a certain suspicious reputation.
While these and other moral and religious cults persist today, we’re no longer living in an age where organized religion is at the heart of dominant culture. Religious cults are now considered novelties at best, and oddities at worst. Their historically subversive power – and the political power of organized religion in general – has been rendered incontinent by the new, decentralized religion of commerce, capital, and entertainment, or what we call mainstream culture. This is the universal organization of power that holds an invisible, omnipresent deity at its center – the triune god of information, algorithm, and technique – that tells us what to buy, who to vote for, how to look, and why to exist.
Even in its apparent totality, the religion of mainstream culture still leaves a converse space for subcultural schism, or what we can refer to, shorthand, as “counterculture.” While the term of course was first popularized in the 1960s, I use it here, following Timothy Leary in Counterculture Through the Ages, to refer to a contemporary ideology not concerned with overriding mainstream culture through “the acquisition of personal and political power,” but rather, as a categorization of cultural sects focused on “the power of images, ideas, and artistic expression.”
Counterculture operates according to an alternate value system, though these values are always contingent on the values of mainstream culture (the boundaries of the cultural present). This is especially true in the world of media and film cultism. Though not constrained by a single academic definition or agreed-upon set of aesthetic criteria, cult films are unified by a shared strain of transgression—sometimes inherent in the text itself, sometimes merely in its given reputation, but always present.
Within the transitive value system of counterculture and cultism, the virtues of mainstream culture are turned inside out. For example, success is a symbol of sainthood in mainstream culture. A-list celebrities are apotheosized based not on talent, but on their inculcations of success. The same goes for platinum records and blockbuster films; the more money the make, the more power they’re granted, and the more deified the become.
The opposite is often true within a cult value system. What is often elevated in mainstream culture is spurned in counterculture: Beauty is ugliness, and ugliness is beauty; civility is crass, and crassness is civility; success is failure, and failure is success; and so forth—like all heterodoxy—into semantic infinity. As it pertains to how we think about cult cinema, film scholar Jeffrey Sconce has popularized the idea of paracinema, which he defines “less a distinct group of films than a particular reading protocol, a counter-aesthetic turned subcultural sensibility devoted to all manner of cultural detritus.” Other scholars, such as Jancovich, Reboll, Stringer, and Willis in Defining Cult Movies, add to this idea, seeing cult film as “an essentially eclectic category […] not defined according to some single, unifying feature shared by all cult movies, but rather through a ‘subcultural ideology’ in filmmakers, films or audiences are seen as existing in opposition to the ‘mainstream.’” For every Platoon, there’s a Pink Flamingos; and for every Star Wars, there’s a Turkish Star Wars.
Within this paracinematic economy, there are two main streams of cult films: the accidental and the intentional. The former includes well-intentioned films, such as Casablanca (well explored by semiotician Umberto Eco in one of the more foundational essays on cult cinema) or Showgirls (also written of extensively within cult film studies). The latter includes those films which never had mainstream aspirations; so-called cult classics, such as Eraserhead, El Topo, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the thousands of other films—in reference to Leary—focused more on their own imagery, ideology, and artistic expression than any semblance of culturally acquisitive power.
The sect of intentional cult cinema contains a multitude of definitions, aesthetic philosophies, and audiences, but for the sake of considering the contingencies of counterculture, this essay focuses on those cinematic artifacts made according to what film scholar Barry Keith Grant calls “fast food” cult production, or those films “consciously calculated from the time of their production (or even before) to become instant cult films.”
Compared to those cult films with more artistic intent, which often happen to find their audiences based on aesthetic pretenses, fast food cult films are made specifically to appeal to (and capitalized on) the values of a particular subculture. Though this subculture may broadly reject mainstream cultural values—and may even vilify standard representations of success—its symbiosis means that it’s still subservient to the systems of dominant culture that ultimately shapes of boundaries of cult contingencies. This is why there’s a cult film industry, rather than a night market.
On the other hand, now that we’re even deeper into the 21st century and the age of hyper-individualized media and entertainment, it’s difficult to imagine any kind of media artifact not made to appeal, fast food-style, to a specific segment of culture. But this media individuation, especially of cinema, is a recent phenomenon we can trace back to the dawn of video technology in the 1980s. This was when cult cinema transferred from art houses and midnight movie theaters into the now familiar settings of our living rooms and basements, with the mechanics of fast-food cult production advancing in kind.
For example, we can look at two similar, intentional cult films from this era—Mark Lester’s Class of 1984 (1982) and Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984)—to observe how these fast food mechanics work in practice. Together they represent how the contingencies of countercultural value systems shift over time, particularly through their varied cult evolution over the past three decades.
For many cult film aficionados, both Class of 1984 and Repo Man fall into the larger set of punk rock films that blossomed in the late 1970s and early 1980s as an extension of the cultural punk movement itself. Though made with sundry degrees of sincerity and subversive intent, these and other contemporaneous punk films, such as Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979), Times Square (1980), Rude Boy (1980), Smithereens (1982), and Suburbia (1983) represent varied pronouncements, representations, and ritualizations of punk culture, reflecting the heterodoxy of counterculture, and ultimately, the challenges of translating these cult principles in mass media. For example, as suggested by Steven Blush in American Hardcore, while there were strains of punk and hardcore cultures motivated by self-serious political and moral issues, collectively the maturing canon of punk films propagated the mainstream image of punk as a shallow, reactionary, and nihilistic youth movement.
This mainstream castigation of punk is at the heart of Class of 1984. The plot centers around the a naive and idealistic music, Andrew Norris (played by Perry King), who joins a troubled urban school. Security guards and metal detectors flank the entrances, the walls are covered in graffiti and filth, and teachers and students alike prowl the halls with guns, knives, and outbursts of violence. Much of the violence is led by a gang of five punks, led by the very un-punk-like Peter Stegman (played by Timothy Van Patten). They sell drugs, run underground strip clubs, and eventually focus their anarchy on Norris. After they rape his wife, in the form of a generic revenge slasher film, he goes on a violent rampage, killing each of the gang members one-by-one – and he gets away with it, too, as one of the many yuppie heroes of the 1980s.
Punks hated Class of 1984: The theme song is by Alice Cooper (who then represented a different strain of counterculture, which itself often vilified or abused punk culture). Stegman looks too much like a football quarterback, and the gang of punks were too brash to be bona fide. It was pure exploitation – a cinematic formula already predisposed to fast food film production – and, as such, was received seen as a mainstream affront on the countercultural sanctity of punk.
Class of 1984 had all the right ingredients, but lacked the secret (occluded) knowledge of what makes punk punk. Like most countercultures, punk is either something you get or you don’t. As a media artifact, the film appropriates an ersatz cult knowledge, ultimately standing in stark contrast to Alex Cox’s Repo Man, hailed by many as not only one of the best punk movies of all time, but also one of the greatest cult films of all time.
At 92 minutes, Repo Man was the first feature-length film by 30-year-old, LA-based, British director Alex Cox (who later went on to make other cult hits, such as Sid and Nancy and Walker). It stars Emilio Estevez, as Otto, a young punk who gets wrapped up in the repossession business by the wizened and cynical Bud (played by Harry Dean Stanton). With a piecemeal plot nearly impossible to summarize in a few sentences, the trajectory of the film involves a government conspiracy, an irradiated 1964 Chevy Malibu, an alien secret, and bouts of punk rock violence, all underscored by a sentiment of satire and irony explicitly drawn from the attitudes and worldviews of early 1980’s punk culture.
Like many cult films, Repo Man defies genre conventions, borrowing freely from science fiction, Western, cold war conspiracy, and score-driven films. Similarly, despite its independent approach, Repo Man, like Class of 1984, was made on the fast food manufacturing line. Both films were made to appeal to a specific countercultural sect, and neither entertained illusions of mainstream grandiosity, but what it takes for a film to become a revered cult artifact is an essentially occluded process. That Repo Man is so cherished – well-preserved in books, special features, ritual viewings, and Criterion Collection editions – and Class of 1984 so derided – loosely remembered in YouTube videos, footnotes, and viewing parties – reflects the intrinsic occlusion cult heterodoxy, which can be approached by approximation at best.
Perhaps this is why Repo Man is so illustrative of cult genetics; its countercultural trajectory itself a manifestation of the “the lattice of coincidence” that forms the philosophical center of the film as well as an homage to the spiritual essence of cultism. One of the key scenes of the film involves an exchange between Otto and the trash yard sage, Miller, who stand poking at a garbage barrel fire while Miller waxes poetic about the nature of reality:
“A lot of people don’t realize what’s really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidents and things. They don’t realize that there’s this lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. Suppose you’re thinkin’ about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly someone’ll say, like, ‘plate’ or ‘shrimp’ or ‘plate of shrimp’ out of the blue, no explanation. No point in lookin’ for one, either.”
In one way, this is a comment on the film itself, which is riddled with perceived coincidences. But more broadly, it’s a comment on the nature of cultism. Repeated viewings of the film unveil a more expansive physics, discernible only to the devout. As Matt Hills writes in his work on the paradoxes of media cultism, it’s precisely this sense of cult meaning that “is both ‘found’ and ‘created’ by the viewer.” There is no need for centralization or logical coherence in the formation of the countercultural worldview, only the embrace of what Mathijs and Sexton call cultism’s option for the embrace of a “new purity,” rather than the return to past, ultimately making cultism “a type of belief open to esotericism and prone to mysticism.” The Repo Man today persists at the core of film cultism because of its mysticism, while Class of 1984 is merely a sideshow – partly because its worldview so transparently reflects a mainstream viewpoint, rather than an esoteric idea.
But the location of esotericism, and the power of mysticism, changes based on its relation to the cultural present. Whatever discursive or subversive power either Repo Man or Class of 1984 were originally perceived to have – it has been disinfected by the passage of time and the movement of culture. For younger audiences, there’s no real distinguishing between authentic punk and poseur culture, and to that end, there’s no longer massive countercultural movements, only tribal moments of cult elation – the reclamation of a mainstream failure as a symbol of cult success, or an instant of cult failure as a moment of mainstream triumph – all of which reflect the broad pantheism of our new cultural religion.
Cult mechanics evolve along a route charted by a logic of their own occluded invention. The hermeneutics of success and failure inhibit any truly academic study of cult media and media cults. Cult ceremonies – these ritual and repeat viewings, or excessive interpretations and theorizations – vaporize in the dusk of the end credits. To understand the failures of success, and the success of failures, we must be of the cult that returns to dark spaces of the earth, or of the cosmos, where culture dissipates and creation blossoms.
[This essay was originally presented at the 20th Annual Cinema Studies Graduate Conference, “Failed Cinema,” at San Francisco State University on October 18, 2018, in San Francisco, CA.]