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allie stewart

on 29 May 2014

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Transcript of CULT FILMS

Another factor which seems to be reminiscent among many "cult films" is their commercial failure on initial release, or having remained relevant/popular over a long period of time amongst a smaller audience.
Often, films which have been labeled 'cult' do not follow the traditional standards of mainstream cinema, and step outside of standard narrative / technical conventions. As well as exploring and alluding to ideas, issues and topics that are not seen in dominant mainstream media.
What is a cult film?
The definition for a cult film is arguable. Generally, a cult film acquires this title because it has a highly devoted but specific group of fans/followers. These films have often become a source of a thriving, obsessive, elaborate subculture/fandom - hence the analogy to 'cult'.
By Allie Stewart
Not many, if any, cult films are made to be cult as much as they happen, or become. The comparatively small, yet fanatically devoted group of fans is what essentially defines them as such.
This separation from mainstream media introduces an appeal to more so niche audiences. It is not uncommon for cult films to deal with abstract subject matter or present characters which do not reflect the norms or expectations of a mainstream audience.
Some examples of
films which have been
labelled as cult include:

Napoleon Dynamite
Blade Runner
Eraser Head
The Shawshank Redemption
The Big Labowski
Rocky Horror Picture Show
Donnie Darko
How and why are they categorized as Cult?
Napoleon Dynamite
Napoleon Dynamite is a 2004 cult comedy directed by Jared Hess. Among others it stars Jon Heder, Tina Majorino, Haylie Duff and Aaron Ruell. The films origins were typical of many 'cult' films, rocky. Like many cult films, it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival (January 2004) to a mediocre response from viewers. It was not until June 2004 that it was available at limited release, and August 2004 for it's widespread release.

Despite its rocky origins, Napoleon dynamite became a commercial success. The film was produced on a small $400,000 budget, and after only a year of its release had a total gross revenue of $46,140,956 as well as an extensive range of popular merchandise - most importantly, 'Vote for Pedro' t-shirts that are seen in the movie as part of main character Napoleon's campaign to get his foreign transfer friend Pedro elected as school president.
The film has been described by reviewers as, to name a few, 'odd, gawky, mirthless, impenetrable and polarised'. It can be argued that these traits are infact how it has acquired such a strong, devoted audience, because, you either love it or you hate it - hence 'polarised'. The characters in the film, predominantly Napoleon, Deb, Pedro, Kip and even Tina the llama, are far from typical representations of mainstream teenagers.

Napoleon is the films main character, in mainstream film terms he represents the films protagonistic figure
Main character Napoleon Dynamite stems far from the typicality of a teenage protagonist. This 16 year old high school student from Preston, Idaho, is portrayed as scrawny, awkward and unpopular - an outcast with only two friends; Pedro and Deb, and an initial love interest who rejects him.
Pedro Sanchez, Napoleons 'side-kick' character, is a quiet, reserved and inexpressive Mexican exchange student. His personality is unlike the typical side-kick who, in reference to mainstream media, plays an influential role in allowing the protagonist to overcome the major conflict.
Deb, Napoleons love-interest, is portrayed as a bland, monotonously spoken and nervous character. She meets Napoleon whilst selling key chains door-to-door, and later develops this friendship at school after he returns the kit she left on his doorstep. Deb is unlike the mainstream version of an ideal love interest, she is not overtly good-looking, popular or even full of personality.
The distance from typical mainstream characters that these characters share, is a possible reason for the movies cult status. The variance from the jock, the cheerleader and the nerd that is so often seen, provides a sense of relatability for a possible niche audience. The school and the characters provide a sense of complete honesty when it comes to high school circumstances, the 'realist' approach has been taken. For example, rather than a manic high school bully, we have a 'jerk stealing tater-tots', cheer leading has been replaced with a sign language ensemble and in place of an idealistic nuclear family is a llama loving, daredevil grandma and a creepy uncle Rico. Depending on the context of the audience, this can either be appealing because its unstereotypical nature is so relatable, or because the essence of this high school experience affords them to feel like their own experiences were much more dynamic in comparison.
Napoleon Dynamite is undoubtably a cult film. As a production, it gained more resonance in 2011/2012 than it did upon release in 2004. The films quirkiness definitely branches away from mainstream cinema, presenting characters, scenarios and ideas that are not typical to the style. The film shows no intention to pose a moral question, it merely tells a simple story in a simple way. The niche cult-like audience that this film has acquired is likely a result of its oddness, 'quote-ability' and relatability.
Donnie Darko
Donnie Darko is evidently not mainstream. Both its content and the style of production sway from mainstream style of cinema. It appears to have no link to a coherent story line, ie. beginning, middle/conflict and end/resolution. It concludes with an unresolved, open ended finish, leaving the audience with definite room for thought and doesn't fit within a specific genre. Films with multi-faceted genres, like Donnie Darko, are seen as a key attribute to cult status. This quirky, unconventional film which manages to embody teen angst, black comedy, romance, time travel, religion and thrill, definitely appeals to niche rather than mainstream audiences.
Donnie Darko is a 2001 fantasy drama film directed by Richard Kelly. It stars Jake Gyllenhaall, Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Noah Wyle, Jena Malone, and Mary McDonnell. This film has been categorised as cult, and some reviews even refer to it as one of the best. Like Napoleon Dynamite, Donnie Darko debuted at the Sundance Film Festival (January 2001). Later, in October 2001, it went to theaters and was considered a 'flop', grossing only $7.6 million, which only just recouped the budget. It was not until 2002, when it was released on DVD and VHS, that is acquired a small, but solid fan base. This fan base allowed it to remain successful through midnight screenings in New York City, East Village, which went on for over 28 months. Donnie Darko's rocky origins, and small recurrent viewers is indicative of many cult films.
The characters of Donnie Darko are definitely unconventional, ranging from a possibly psychotic teenage boy, to an imaginary rabbit to a 101 year old senile woman. These quirky and sometimes unexplainable characters have definitely contributed to the films cult status, strongly defining who the devoted audience is.
Donnie Darko is the films main character. Donnie is an ambiguous character, the style of the film evokes various interpretations and theories about him, much of his detail is left to be assumed or decided. Is Donnie dreaming? Is he schizophrenic?
From the exterior, Donnie appears strange and distant. His actions are unlike a conventional teenage boys, having allegedly burned down a house, continuously seeing an imaginary rabbit faced creature and displaying serious detachment from reality. This character presents the audience with an alternative version of a protagonist role, his ambiguity and mysteriousness encourages viewers to develop their own conclusion, and perhaps watch the film again to try and 'figure him out'.
Frank the 'rabbit', can possibly be seen as Donnie's sidekick, however he is both a leader and an enemy to him. His character is unarguably different, a six foot tall rabbit from the future, who predicts the end of the world. This character alone assists with this films cult status. The presentation of such an abstract character and concept pushes it further away from mainstream genre, the idea is like unappealing to an audience with mainstream expectations and develops a basis for a possible niche following.
Grandma death too plays the role of a guidance character for Donnie. A 101 year old former scientist turned senile woman, who continuously checks her mail and has written the answers two time travel into a book. Her assisting Donnie is indirect, however as a character she induces further food for thought amongst the viewers. Does her letter actually come?
Donnie Darko has acquired it's cult status as a result of various factors. Firstly, the films rocky origins contribute to this categorization as this is common across many cult films. Secondly, the incoherent, unconventional construction of the film does not follow a mainstream narrative structure, alluding to its appeal to alternative audiences. This appeal to an alternative viewership is further reinforced through the characters within the film, although fulfilling typical positions of protagonist, antagonist, side kick and so on, the characters do not reflect stereotypes and likely differ from a mainstream audiences expectations. Also, the film presents a very abstract, ambiguous story line with an open ending, this ability to provoke thought and leave the viewer guessing reflects its 're-watch ability'.
Overall, Donnie Darko has rightfully been categorised as cult. The films origins, abstractness, distance from mainstream conventions and presentation of unconventional characters have contributed to the film acquiring a small, recurrent audience based on an inspired level of obsession and eagerness to reach conclusions on the films open ended mysteries.
The Big Lebowski
The Big Lebowski is a 1998 crime-comedy directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. This film has been labeled as a 'the quintessential' cult classic. As common amongst many cult films, The Big Lebowski experienced commercial failure upon it's initial release. It was not until its DVD/VHS availability that is began to obtain what has been described as a 'mass and avid cult following' and was aired to this audience through successful midnight screenings, similar to Donnie Darko's. The fact that the movie was watched recurrently in theaters, suggests the recidivism of it's audience.
Even today, 16 years later, the film continues to be a part of "replay culture", and incessantly circulates in the market via studio reissues including night screenings and web availability. To its devoted audience, this film is endlessly watchable, and continues to be celebrated amongst them.
Since its release, there has been an annual "Lebowski fest", whereby over 3,000 Lebowski fans, (i.e. "achievers") attend a four day celebration of the film. The turnout for this celebration involves them selves in activities including bowling, drinking (both recurrent throughout the film) and reciting the film word for word, as well as watching the movie various times over the four day course. This event it's self is an indication of the films cult status, reflecting the devoted nature of its audience.
But the question remains as to why the film has gained such a strong, supportive cult following. In terms of the films content, it has been suggested that the the densely packed, perversely hermetic noir comedy is so popular amongst this small solid audience because of exactly that. The film is dense, quirkily detailed and unfolds and exists according to its very own rules and logic of production. The characters are honestly presented, and unstereotypical, with a lifestyle oddly relatable to many of the "achievers". This, along with its rocky origins and it's position within replay culture attributes it to the cult category.
Based on the assessment of these three, very different cult films, it is possible to pin point various similarities between them which may be what influenced their gaining of a cult following. It can be suggested that many cult films did not automatically achieve commercial success, and rather gradually obtained a solid audience over time. Also, by differing from the mainstream expectation in terms of production style, characters and concepts, the films become appealing to audiences with specific expectations and are therefore of smaller quantity but larger devotion. All three films embody a sense of relatabilty and honesty in the way they present their ideas, and are generally unscathed by idealistic "Hollywood" views of people, places or things, for example stereotypes. These three films are undoubtedly cult, and have obtained this status based on their appeal to niche audiences through character, concept and construction.
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