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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.