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  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: July 2017

2 - The Coy Cult Text: The Man Who Wasn't There as Noir SF


They got this guy in Germany. Fritz, something–or–other. Or is it? Maybe it's Werner. Anyway, he's got this theory, you want to test something, you know, scientifically—how the planets go around the sun, what sunspots are made of, why the water comes out of the tap—well, you gotta look at it. But sometimes, you look at it, your looking changes it. You can't know the reality of what happened, or what would've happened if you hadn't've stuck in your own goddamn schnozz. So there is no “what happened.” Looking at something changes it. They call it “the uncertainty principle.” Sure, it sounds screwy, but even Einstein says the guy's onto something … Sometimes, the more you look, the less you really know.

—Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub), The Man Who Wasn't There

Many attempts to define cult movies and to describe their appeal are characterized by notions of doubleness, contradiction, and introjection. For example, J. P. Telotte finds in the “etymological underpinnings of ‘cult’” (14) a complex of potential meanings pointing to a dialectical impulse to possess and to be possessed, to express selfhood through surrendering to an external other. Thus, he suggests, the cult movie transgresses norms, enabling the cultist “to fashion a statement of difference” (14), even as it establishes “a stable ground from which to make that assertion, a ground within the very boundaries” that are being transgressed (15). Sam Kitt suggests that cult audiences “need to identify with something” external to themselves that is nonetheless “emblematic of their feelings” (qtd in Telotte 15), while Timothy Corrigan depicts the movie cultist as embracing certain public images and making them part of his or her private space (26). The cultists, as he says, “wrench representations from their naturalized and centralized positions” and relocate them within a personal and “glorious[ly] incoheren[t]” cultural repertoire (28). Although Corrigan considers this effect specifically as a variety of audience activity, it resonates strongly with our post–structuralist understandings of textuality (albeit retaining a greater sense of agency than normally survives the putative death of the author). Furthermore, it suggests the extent to which an authoring agency such as the Coen brothers, the partnership responsible for a cult text like The Man Who Wasn't There (2001), might be understood not merely as objects of cultist fascination but as cultists themselves.

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Science Fiction Double Feature
  • Online ISBN: 9781781384640
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