Gilbey on Film: cult followings

Can anything really be a cult movie any more?

Before I knew what a film critic was, before I'd become addicted to Barry Norman's weekly BBC1 review show (Film '86, Film '87 etc), I was obsessed with a book called Cult Movies by Danny Peary. I can remember how much that book mattered to me because I kept going back to the library to renew it, so intent was I on poring over its secrets, so reluctant to share it with another, anonymous library member. For a hard-up teenager living in an era before DVD or internet or streaming, that book was one of the few points of access to the Aladdin's cave of movies that was out there, somewhere, beyond our reach. The director Todd Haynes told me in 2003: "I remember wishing as a kid that I could go to a room that had all the movies I wanted to see, and say 'Today I want to watch this movie...'" I had that wish too, so was able to coo along with him at the memory. Then he sighed sadly: "But now I guess we have it." The desire was diminished once that satisfaction was within reach.

And now we have arrived at that stage that anything can be seen, at any time, with very few movies not accessible in some way, I think the definition of a cult movie has changed. Here's how Peary described it in the book's sequel, Cult Movies 2, published in 1983:

"I choose to define 'cult movies' quite broadly. I consider them those special films that elicit a fiery passion in moviegoers long after their initial releases; that have been taken to heart as if they were abandoned orphan in a hostile world, cherished, protected and enthusiastically championed by segments of the movie audience; that are integral parts of people's lives. These are pictures that people will not miss whether they are playing on the Late Late Show, at a grindhouse in the most dangerous part of town, or at a drive-in in the next county; pictures that people will brave blizzards, skip their weddings, ignore their most solemn religious holidays, and even date their least-appealing cousins to see for what may be their tenth, twentieth or one hundredth time."

Hard to imagine that happening very much today, or needing to. Widespread availability has reduced the rarity value of the cult movie, although the "abandoned orphan" factor to which Peary refers is still thriving in the cases of films that may not have received their critical or commercial due. To return to Haynes, his 1998 glam rock movie Velvet Goldmine has, its producer Christine Vachon once told me, been adopted by legions of teenage girls who dress up as its flamboyant characters and hold party screenings, much in the manner of one of the original cult hits, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The fact that the picture flopped commercially has now been consigned to history. And I think that's one of the most appealing things about the cult movie phenomenon -- it's emancipated from the oppressive orthodoxy of box-office takings and opening weekends. The films concerned are borne aloft instead on waves of love.

In a world where corporations strive for edginess by producing lo-fi viral marketing campaigns, can anything really be a cult any more? The cult movie hasn't exactly died, but in a fractured marketplace of such plurality, surely everything can claim to be in some way cultish. Sure, there are still movies which inspire devotion and fancy dress screening parties, the most obvious example in recent years being the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski. But not many.

Peary's books came to mind as I watched a soon-to-be-released film called Rubber, by Quentin Dupieux. The name was new to me. You achingly hip New Statesman readers will be familiar with him, I'm sure, and will no doubt be appalled to learn of my ignorance of this French music producer, DJ, filmmaker and electro pioneer. (Frankly I'll be a little surprised if there aren't some calls for my resignation -- not only from the NS but from cultural life in general -- in the comments section below this post.) Turns out he goes by the name Mr Oizo. Ring any bells?

For the film's once-in-a-lifetime synopsis, allow me to quote from the press release:

"Rubber is the story of Robert, an inanimate tire that has been abandoned in the desert, and suddenly and inexplicably comes to life. As Robert roams the bleak landscape, he discovers that he possesses terrifying telepathic powers that give him the ability to destroy anything he wishes without having to move. At first content to prey on small desert creatures and various discarded objects, his attention soon turns to humans, especially a beautiful and mysterious woman who crosses his path. Leaving a swath of destruction across the desert landscape, Robert becomes a chaotic force to be reckoned with, and truly a movie villain for the ages."

No kidding, eh?

I'm not sure I actually like Rubber -- this wheel-life story strives a little too hard in places for eccentricity -- but I definitely want to see it again, which has to be a good sign. It certainly has originality on its side: it's an eerie one-off with a strong visual identity. And the distributor may be going the right way towards appealing to any cultish sensibilities out there by showing it only in a few special screenings prior to its DVD release. It already played at the Flatpack Festival in Birmingham last weekend, but you can still catch it at the Sheffield Showroom Cinema on 5 April, then at the Ritzy in Brixton, south London, on 8 April, before it reaches DVD on 11 April.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.