Monday, August 17, 2009

An open letter to Scott Tobias of the Onion A.V. Club

Dear Scott,

Hey bud. First off, just wanted to let you know that I think you’re doing an awesome job. In my experience, your movie reviews tend to be the most insightful on the site. In addition, I’ve been a fan of your weekly New Cult Canon column ever since it started up last year. As someone who knows what a grind it can be like to crank out content with any regularity, I admire that you still manage to keep the pieces fresh without being stingy with the critical insight.

I recently worked my way through Danny Peary’s first volume of Cult Movies- the book you cited as your inspiration for the series- and I couldn’t help but notice some differences between Peary’s M.O. and what you’ve been doing so far in the series. The biggest difference I could see is that, unlike Peary, you seem to enjoy nearly all of the movies you’ve selected. Now, don’t get me wrong- I’m not trying to say that you’re more of a pushover than Peary was by any means. Instead, I see this as a kind of difference in approaches. Whereas Peary’s goal was to write about movies that had already amassed passionate followings at that point, you also seem to be looking at movies you like that fit the definition of a “cult movie” even if the cult hasn’t quite happened yet.

Now, you’d think that by using this approach that it would be you who would have included more legitimate “classics” in your series, but in fact the opposite is true. Granted, some of the universally-acclaimed titles selected by Peary were inescapable, but I’m not sure that the likes of Citizen Kane or Singin’ in the Rain necessarily fit the mold in the same way as, say, Rocky Horror. By contrast, it looks like you’ve been avoiding across-the-board critical successes so far. Of course, I’m sure that it’s only a matter of time before you get to some of these, for example The New World or the oeuvre of Charlie Kaufman.

But at the same time, I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I’d like to see more pieces like your spotlight on The Boondock Saints. Not every title that has amassed a substantial following necessarily deserves the love it gets- I for one can’t fathom the cult that has grown up around Napoleon Dynamite except that it creates an almost impossibly nerdy character to whom even the average everyday dweeb can feel superior. And I would say that part of writing about pop-culture cult phenomena would be to acknowledge that there’s more to a movie finding a devoted audience than just quality.

That said, there’s still plenty of diversity among the titles you’ve chosen so far, which is one of the most interesting things about the series. After all, any subject that encompasses both Naked and Pootie Tang is fine with me. I also like that you’re not shying away from less-obvious foreign choices. After all, Audition and Battle Royale are natural inclusions for a column like this; Beau Travail and The Lovers on the Bridge, not so much. Personally, I might have gone with Trouble Every Day and POLA X, but it’s your column.

At the beginning of the series, you mentioned that you would be concentrating largely on movies that have been released since the mid-1980s, but would occasionally tackling older films as well. But aside from Soy Cuba (“the Cuba for vegans!”) and Manos: The Hands of Fate, I don’t think you’ve written about any recent re-issues. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d like to hear your thoughts on some semi-forgotten classics that have resurfaced in the past few years- I think Le Cercle Rouge would be an awesome fit for the column, along with Nicholas Ray’s long-unavailable-in-any-video-format Bigger Than Life. I also think it could be interesting to include movies that were critically maligned on their original releases but which have since been re-assessed by the critical community. I’d throw out some titles, except that the ones that keep springing to mind- One From the Heart, Heaven’s Gate, etc.- have already gotten the My Year of Flops treatment. Oh well.

In closing, I’d just like to re-iterate that I love what you’ve been doing, and that you should take these thoughts as nothing more than my own ideas on what this series is about. Sure, I’d like to see you take on some more “sexy” titles (let’s not forget that Peary wrote about Behind the Green Door and Emmanuelle, among others) but I also understand that the last two decades haven’t exactly been a great time for onscreen eroticism, although Betty Blue and Y Tu Mama Tambien might work for your purposes. But in the end, it’s your baby, and I totally respect the choices you’ve made so far, so I trust your judgment. In other words, keep up the good work.

Paul C.

P.S.: If I may suggest a title, I’ve got one word for you: Malice. Also, if you could broaden the format a little to spotlight the short films of Don Hertzfeldt, I’d be eternally grateful. Thank you.

Revised 8/20 to add: Scott was gracious enough to send me a response to this post, which I'm posting below in its entirety. Thanks, Scott!

Hi Paul--

This is a very helpful post and I appreciate you taking the time to write it up. A few notes in my defense:

1. Yes, I have generally liked the films I've covered, and I think I should mix it up a bit more with some I didn't. So far, I have written negatively about CLERKS and THE BOONDOCK SAINTS (and THE ROOM, as a film anyway), and have my share of reservations about some others (TEAM AMERICA most recently), but I need to mix things up with more takedowns. I've actually never seen NAPOLEON DYNAMITE based on the disapproval of many trusted friends, but it's certainly a movie I need to cover and who knows what I'll think of it. In any case, more balance is called for here.

2. THE NEW WORLD and a Charlie Kaufman joint (SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK most likely) are in the offing. It's just a matter of when at this point.

3. You're perceptive about the difference between my approach and Peary's approach w/r/t to movies that have a cult quality but not necessarily a big cult following (e.g. MORVERN CALLAR). Part of it is that I'm choosing from a smaller pool of films than Peary; mostly, though, I want to shine a light on some cool, under-the-radar films that deserve to be celebrated.

4. I'm thinking of doing a theme month of older cult movies that have been championed more recently through reissues and DVD. The ones you suggest are all good, and I'd probably be inclined to add stuff like ARMY OF SHADOWS, a Melville movie, maybe a WAGES OF FEAR/SORCERER double review, et al. So I'll definitely return to this concept.

In any case, thanks for your open letter. This project is open-ended—and therefore a marathon, not a sprint. But expect to see some of your ideas employed in the coming months.




Phil Nugent said...

Things have changed so much in how movies are disseminated and digested that I'm no longer sure what constitutes a "cult movie"--it seems as if you could make some kind of case for anything less popular than "The Dark Knight", and I'm sure there are people who'd try to make a case for that. That said, I think the most impressive thing Tobias has done with the concept so far was to include the commentary track for the DVD of "The Limey." It really is that rarity, a commentary that addresses the film at hand while taking on a life of its own, and the fact that it comes attached to a movie that I think is terrific is gravy.

As for Danny Peary, his "Guide for the Film Fanatic" came out around the time that I was able to dive head first into home video, cable, and revivial screenings, and I have to say that within its strict educational limits, that book is a marvel: he really did include, whether in the main text or in the long list of titles that follows it, just about every movie that, as of early 1986, some wild-eyed film freak somewhere would have been likely to urge on you; if it wasn't in that book, chances are that it was a total waste of your time, whoever you were. A damn handy thing to have and I remain grateful to him for it, but I've never read anything else of his because he wrote about movies like they were "discussed" by the guy in the cubicle next to you at work who's still stuck at the level where he just describes the plot in detail and then starts rattling off dialogue, hoping that someone will join in.

Chris said...

I've been admiring New Cult Canon since its inception as well. I love reading the oddly focused treatments of films I've seen. I love also reading something more than a "see this; it's good" dictate regarding films I just added to my Netflix queue. [Aside: I wonder if anyone's been tracking to see whether there's an increase in interest in certain titles based upon their appearance in the New Cult Canon. I hope so.]

I do agree that there's a focus on a number of films for which the cult hasn't exactly appeared yet, which I think is indicative of the project in general. After all, these are definitionally, with a few exceptions, newer films. And cults don't happen overnight.

Nice letter, by the by.

Paul C. said...

Phil and Chris~

Thanks for stopping by, and I think you both make valid points, especially when you say that the definition for a "cult movie" seems to be shifting away from what we've traditionally understood. With the advances in home viewing technology, it's easier than ever to pore over the movies that obsess us, and the Web allows people to readily connect with other obsessive fans of a movie. Look at the way The House Next Door essentially became New World central in early '06. But while there are still some movies that have generated full-blown "cults" in the last decade- Donnie Darko, Boondock Saints, Napoleon Dynamite, etc.- for many of these newfangled "insta-cults", the following doesn't last particularly long. It's not unlike Peary's inclusion of a handful of movies (e.g. Outrageous!) that just couldn't sustain their cult following.

If anything, it seems to me like the old-fashioned cultists are gravitating toward TV series instead of movies. Now that TV execs have discovered that off-center fare can generated a devoted following provided that it's marketed properly, more shows have found the kind of rabid cults that were once reserved for movies. The serial form is key, since it allows stories to develop from week to week, with each episode both deepening and broadening the worlds in which the shows take place. The Simpsons is probably the model for how this is done right, but recent history has seen devoted followings for everything from Arrested Development and Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Breaking Bad and The Wire. Most movies, even the "cult-y" ones, just can't compare anymore.

James said...

Great letter, Paul, and it was cool of Tobias to write back.

I just stumbled upon the New Cult Canon series a couple weeks ago and have enjoyed his entries. What struck me, though, was how there were a couple of entries I hadn't even heard of ("Beau Travail"?) and plenty of others ("Gremlins 2", "Brick") that I wouldn't have expected to see.

That, along with your letter and Tobias' reply, brought me back to a question I'd asked myself long ago: what mixture of audience attention and affection is needed to make a film "cult"? The term widely gets applied to virtually any work that has a devout following, but as Phil pointed out above, then you'd have to start including films like "The Dark Knight," which pairs unwieldy with the alleged concept.

The other day I saw an article refer to "24" as a cult TV show. It got me thinking: can a series with an audience and wide-ranging cultural impact as big as "24"'s be considered cult? How about a film like "Office Space," which despite a microscopic gross is now known by every other individual you encounter? Alternatively, are some of the films selected too obscure to even be considered cult?

Audiences and grosses aside, the only reliable indicator of a cult film to me is a gauge of how offbeat a film is. When I think of a cult film, I think of one that's decidedly different from most mainstream fare and plays with the unexpected. Tobias' selections fit that criteria quite well, though I'm always reluctant to use the term myself regarding pretty much anything.