14 November 2011

Midnight Movies

United States – 2005
Director – Stuart Samuels
Starz Home Entertainment, 2005, DVD
Run Time – 1 hour, 26 minutes

I was much too young to have any firsthand experience with the Cult, B and more recently Grindhouse movie phenomena, so it took me a long time to figure out what the designations meant in practical terms. These days they are used to give films a false cultural cache. But I understand that new meanings have been created by consumerism and marketing. Just like the meaning of an image or a icon can evolve as history slips by, so can a word. A B-movie is no longer the cheap movie on a double bill, it’s just anything with a low budget. Grindhouse no longer refers to the venue, but to the general class of graphic exploitation movies that might have shown in one.

But new meanings have no real weight unless we understand their inspirations. Midnight Movies bridges the gap between the use of “Cult Film” in the fast and loose marketing sense, and its original meaning in the pre-video world. In interviews with directors of seven films that became cultural phenomena, the closest thing to a “certified” cult film, Midnight Movies explains what made those films what they were. Their claim, and even several distributors and producers agree, is that all of these films became popular in spite of their peculiarities and counter-cultural aesthetic, not because of them. Often, as in the case of Alejandro Jodorowski’s El Topo, they suffered from a near total lack of distribution. Yet nevertheless they became literal “cult” films, with a rabid local following that went religiously, sometimes for years. When their cultural cache was discovered and they finally got popular distribution, these cults vanished. It was a classic case of an art that is no longer appealing once it is commodified and everyone knows about it.

Unfortunately, with the arrival of home video all of that changed. As much as I deign to criticize the video format I so love, history tells us (as does John Waters in Midnight Movies) that it was largely responsible for the death of true cult cinema. There are occasionally films like Troll II that develop a following despite the inherent solitude of home video, but it’s a different creature. In interviews with Jodorowsky, Waters (Pink Flamingos), George Romero (Night of the Living Dead), Perry Henzell (The Harder They Come), David Lynch (Eraserhead) and Richard O’Brien (Rocky Horror Picture Show), Midnight Movies makes it perfectly clear what “cult film” means and why as a category it no longer truly exists. A cult film simply cannot be made with intention and it cannot be made on BluRay or Netflix. As sad as that is for those of us unfortunate enough to have been born in the post video age, we have been lucky in one respect. Video has made it possible to preserve both the movies and the history that we missed. I can think of no better example than Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream.

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