One is always considered mad when one perfects something that others cannot grasp.
As a body of work, the films of Edward D. Wood, Jr., virtually defy classification. Wood's career output included exploitation films, short subjects, industrial films, commercials, pornography, and unproduced screenplays, as well as various forays into sf. Yet even at an individual level, several of Wood's best–known films elude our grasp in terms of genre: Bride of the Monster (aka, Bride of the Atom, 1955) freely traverses the borders between sf and horror; and recent criticism has noted the avant–garde qualities evident in Wood's sf opus Plan 9 from Outer Space (1956, released 1959), as well as the exploitation film Glen or Glenda? (1953). As this volume's topic suggests, such blurring of borders is central to sf and “cult” films alike, resulting in the frequent overlapping of the two categories, as Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space and Bride of the Monster well illustrate. While known primarily for their cult status, these films abound in sf iconography and thematics—with their flying saucers and intergalactic intelligences, mad scientists and mutant creatures, and ruminations on the use of advanced technology. Even Glen or Glenda?, while not quite sf, features a subplot devoted to the then–revolutionary medical procedures involved in sex–change operations, combined with the psychological aspects of its characters’ transgendered experiences.
In addition to blurring generic boundaries, as Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik point out, cult films often challenge the distinctions between innovation and “badness,” between high and low culture, between acceptable and forbidden subject matter (2–3). As a result, our experience of the cult is frequently marked by confusion: a confusion not only of categories, but also of response (De Seife 2). Are we to be repelled by these films, elated by them, or both? In Wood's case, are we to regard him as a misunderstood auteur (even, perhaps, an accidental artist of the avant–garde), or do we merely dismiss him as one of the “worst” directors of all time?
The “badness” attributed to Wood's films may be seen as a hallmark of cult cinema, yet their almost gleeful silliness stands in marked contrast to Wood's apparently serious aims.
The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.
Despite all you may have heard to the contrary, the rain in Spain stays almost invariably in the hills.
This book derives from my readings from the field of cultural geography in an attempt to reflect on the terrain of the entity known as Spain, through the prism of my scholarly interest in contemporary Spanish cinematic and literary texts. A further motivation is the difficulties I and others wrestle with in Hispanic Studies as we try to investigate questions bounded by an idea of nation, in an era when the whole notion of a nation is open to dispute and indeed discredit. Some scholars now talk of an era of ‘post-nationalism’ and sometimes by implication post-nation-ism, but the concept of nation, including that of the Spanish nation, still has some currency. As Joan Ramon Resina puts it, ‘political subjects themselves continue to correlate with their national foundation in ways that cannot simply be bracketed out of the political discourse’ (Resina 2002: 377); the same could be said of cultural discourse as well. To take just one example, the field of Spanish film studies increasingly encounters difficulties over the now strongly questioned concept of a Spanish national cinema as if the latter simply reproduced an essential, authentic Spain within its films and were impervious to outside influence. Guarding against the impulse to be normative as to what Spanish cinema is has proved vital, particularly in an era of co-production and the ever-pervasive influence of American cinema (as first among other cinemas), but it does then raise questions as to what Spanish cinema actually is, and also it complicates the process of writing about the topic while trying to pick one's way through a normative minefield. I have great difficulties with the idea of a cultural text simply acting as a surface which we can scrape away to find an essential Spain underneath, thus the avoidance of essentialism in Spanish film studies as well as Spanish cultural studies more widely is something I find welcome; but it sometimes conflicts with not only my desire but my academic responsibility to write about something called ‘Spain’.
Spanish cinema has for many decades maintained a vein of film-making known as cine social, films that attempt to deal with social problems in a realist style; and this vein persists today even in an era when scholars and critics of Spanish film acknowledge a move towards more commercially orientated film-making that emphasises narrative and spectacle. Indeed, some film-makers have combined the two, with Benito Zambrano's Solas (Alone, 2000), for instance, blending a sentimental tale of family and quasi-family relationships with a study of alcoholism and domestic abuse; or Alejandro Amenábar's Mar adentro (The Sea Inside, 2004), a biopic cashing in on the director's previous commercial successes that nonetheless raises the question of assisted euthanasia and a person's right to die. Similar phenomena occur when it comes to depicting the question of immigration. As Isabel Santaolalla has observed in her book Los ‘otros’ (Santaolalla 2005: chap. 1), race and ethnicity have been underlying preoccupations of some areas of Spanish film-making for many decades: nonetheless, depictions of immigration in particular have become prominent in the last two decades. This responds to wider concerns in contemporary Spanish society about immigration, particularly from the African coast, a concern exacerbated recently by the increasing influx of people trying to get to Spain from Africa and media coverage of both the human cost of this influx and the political conflicts engendered by the phenomenon within the Spanish communities most affected. Most commentators on these films foreground race and immigration as their primary point of interest. My approach here is slightly different, since, in keeping with the overall tenor of this book, I am incorporating questions of landscape, space and place into the equation: I am looking at the ways in which questions of national and ethnic identity come to interact with notions of Spanishness related to space. What I will argue is that the spatial interaction of Spaniards with North African immigrants not only problematises the claim of Spaniards to the territory but also the very filmic representation of the landscape and more particularly of the immigrant. Yet the very contestation over territory invokes a call to care on the part both of the Spaniard and of the immigrant: both desire to associate with an idea of ‘Spain’.
This chapter and the next consider the links between the law and national identity, as further examples of the ways in which a notion of nation can trace itself through space and place. Space is one of the ideas listed by Tim Edensor in his discussion of the imbrications of legal frameworks, national identities and everyday life. ‘In a very practical sense, national identity is facilitated by the state's legislative framework, which delimits and regulates the practices in which people can partake, the spaces in which they are permitted to move, and in many other ways provides a framework for quotidian experience’ (Edensor 2002: 20). But more particularly space and place can become sites wherein the law is actively carried out (or, also, actively broken): the law is not simply an implicit shaper of daily experiences but something overtly manifested and displayed through policing and through criminal activity. And, as we shall see, the law is one manifestation of national identity, although not an unproblematic one precisely because the law and its policing by definition imply the possibility that the law can be broken and thus the link between law and nation fractured. But if the law is to this extent always provisional, it nonetheless offers the opportunity for the national to trace itself through textual space and place. The idea of the law, either broken or reinstated as part of the Spanish thriller, calls up once more Rose's desire for association and space and place as the means whereby we see that desire. The law's constant re-making and re-breaking, and its link to national identity, suggest once more a Spain always in the process of becoming.
The texts I will be considering in this chapter are Spanish thriller films, a genre which at first glance does not fit neatly into definitions of Spanish national cinema; and it is worth pausing to dwell a little on why this should be so before evoking the use of space and place in these films more directly. The difficulties can be illustrated by the example of the very successful debut film by Alejandro Amenábar, Tesis (Thesis, 1995).
One of the purposes of this book has been to reinvigorate the meaning of the word Spain as a term of more than simple convenience for academics. What that term means, of course, is another matter altogether. Given the case studies outlined here, the term resonates in different and often opposing ways. While both the films of del Toro and the novels of Torrente Ballester look to recover a Spain apparently lost, the Spains they imagine to be lost are very different, as are the reasons why recuperation is desirable. As regards the Basque Country, considered in Chapter 4, there are landscape traditions used to figure a different space wherein Spain may be resisted but must nonetheless be taken into account. The Spain stitched together through a restoration of the law of the land appears different depending on whether you are a local man taking on international crime lords and a corrupt local government or a woman juggling the spaces of work and home in a city. The porousness of borders can affect home life very differently if you are earning money through catering to foreign tastes for Spain as exotic and pleasurable, or if you feel threatened – or attracted – by the thought of foreigners coming to share your space on a more permanent basis. The explicitness of these characters’ commitment to Spain varies, too. While in the earlier chapters an avowed struggle for a certain sort of Spain – or, indeed, against a certain sort of Spain – takes place, in later chapters characters are more likely to prioritise personal over patriotic concerns.
What all these chapters have in common, however, is their invocation, either explicitly or implicitly, of Spain through their interaction with landscape, space and place: it is the last that assists us in the perception of Spain as being evoked. This use of landscape, space and place is another crucial element of what I have wished to explore here. As I noted in the Introduction, the examination of these in Hispanic studies is beginning to develop; but the purpose of this particular analysis has been more precisely to attempt to tease out how Spain as a concept is seen explicitly or implicitly by subjects by means of landscape, space and place.
You wanted to blow other people's minds and you wanted to blow your own.
The 1970s represent one of the great transitional periods for Hollywood, producing an increasingly independent and confrontational approach to cinema in terms of both narrative content and aesthetic display. Film–makers sought to break violently with film–making conventions by reimaging genre tropes through a more visceral and realistic style, challenging audiences with graphic, nihilistic, and often brutal imagery. Thus, John Carpenter, director of The Thing (1982), confesses that he “wanted something savage to happen. I don't believe I could do that now. I don't believe they'd let me do that,” while David Cronenberg explains that he “wanted to blow other people's minds” (both qtd in The American Nightmare). This attitude was particularly apparent within film genres as they were being reimagined in this period. For instance, the western The Wild Bunch (1969), the outlaw film Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and the gangster film The Godfather (1972) all featured dramatic shootouts in which the bodies of protagonists were riddled with bullets in an orgy of bloodletting and violence. Similarly, big budget Hollywood horror films were reworking their scare tactics through visual display and special effects, both The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976) featuring regular and escalating set pieces in which the body comes under brutal attack by the devil and his minions. Nowhere was this emphasis on graphic imagery—defined by John McCarty as “splatter”—felt more keenly than in the arena of independent exploitation or underground cinema. McCarty argues that splatter cinema is a type of film whose aim was “not to scare their audiences, necessarily, nor to drive them to the edges of their seats in suspense, but to mortify them with scenes of explicit gore. In splatter movies, mutilation is indeed the message” (1).
While we most commonly associate splatter with horror, many of the era's exploitation film–makers were increasingly rethinking the nature of genre, blurring the lines not only between art and exploitation, but between sf and horror. Splatter especially served to reimagine sf within the context of increasingly independent modes of film production and a growing cult audience.
Cult and sf are both categories that suggest a skewed perspective on reality. Jeffrey Sconce uses the term “paracinema” to denote this different perspective, as he describes cult and other kinds of “bad” cinema that are often appreciated, ironically, for their deviation from—perhaps resistance to—dominant aesthetic codes. Sconce maintains that the resulting celebration of such “trash” is a rejection of the hegemony of academic film criticism, championing the trashy as “a final textual frontier that exists beyond the colonizing powers of the academy, and thus serves as a staging ground for strategic raids on legitimate culture and its institutions by those (temporarily) lower in educational, cultural and/or economic capital” (382). Through much of its history, sf has been similarly regarded. In Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, Darko Suvin calls it a “paraliterature” (vii) but celebrates its promise to interrogate dominant ideological codes that pass, unquestioned, as natural and apolitical in realist modes of representation. While Sconce's and Suvin's analyses of such different perspectives emphasize their foregrounding of class issues, this essay will focus on gender in the intersection of cult and sf. Both cult and sf have often been regarded as masculine forms, and the pleasures of excess that cult films celebrate often include the visual pleasures of scantily clad female bodies, images frequently associated with pulp sf's lurid magazine covers of the 1920s and 1930s. Yet sf also has a rich history of interrogating gender attitudes, using images such as aliens to express and examine patriarchal fears.
This essay explores cult's claims to transgression in this context of gender difference, focusing on a number of low–budget sf films of the 1950s and 1960s that have attained cult status, including Cat–Women of the Moon (1953), Devil Girl from Mars (1954), The Astounding She–Monster (1957), Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), The Wasp Woman (1959), Monstrosity (aka The Atomic Brain, 1963), Attack of the Puppet People (1957), and The Brain that Wouldn't Die (1962). I argue that these films demonstrate a dialectic of indulgence and critique that characterizes cult sf's treatment of gender difference, revealing how such difference—as well as differences in educational, cultural, or economic capital—informs the “raid” on legitimate culture that such films stage.
Decades ago, fans were usually adults who had the economic and social liberty of going to conventions or clubs. Recently, the discourse on fandom has become entwined with that on new media audiences, who are not only portrayed as younger, but also seen as especially exemplary of fandom in terms of their online activity. As a result of the increase in online participatory culture, criticism has followed suit, often focusing more on the “online” than the “offline” dimensions of fandom. However, concerts, conventions, movie theaters, and fan clubs remain relevant sites where media fandom is performed today, and these venues are especially revealing for the study of both cult and sf, one of the media genres in which cult texts have most flourished. In fact, only offline, amongst those who embody the enthusiasm of cult activity, can the scholar witness the key role that intimacy plays in enabling and characterizing the typical cult audience and cult relationship.
Academic commentary has often defined cult texts in relation to their media fandom and the intense and critical commitment of their audiences (Mathijs and Sexton 17–18). These definitions of cult reception echo the social and affective patterns that are often mentioned as characteristics of fandom (see Grossberg; Fiske, Understanding; Jenkins, Textual Poachers). Of course, differentiating between the fan and the cultist is problematic, since both are adoring, active audiences, but two differences are especially noteworthy here. First, while fandom of movies and television series is historically grounded and organized, for instance through early fan magazines and clubs, cult largely emerged in the 1970s and ties viewers to a critical discourse and a vintage identity of that era (Mathijs and Sexton 3). Cult fans invest in specialized media texts and knowledge (Abercrombie and Longhurst 138–39), and by defining their tastes as oppositional from the mainstream, they maintain a sense of distinction (Mathijs and Mendik 2). Second, academic studies on fanship have differentiated fans from other audiences through their productivity (see Fiske's “Cultural Economy”). In their creative fan practices, fans rework, extend, and appropriate popular culture through creative writing, costumes, fan art, and other activities (Jenkins, Textual Poachers). While cultists are recognizable through their knowledge practices, media fans seek to deepen the text through transformation.
When theorizing how a cinematic cult status develops, we should bear in mind that there may be more than one kind of media cult, and also more than one way for audiences to meaningfully approach films and franchises as cults. Prior research has emphasized different types of cult texts, whether by distinguishing “the midnight movie from the classical cult film” (Telotte, “Beyond” 10), “residual” from “emergent” audience valorizations (see my own “Realising the Cult Blockbuster”), or transgressive cult movies from “cult blockbusters” (Mathijs and Sexton 214). Some writers have explicitly identified branches of cult movies: “One … branch of cult adores, worships and scrutinizes our leading actors, performers and celebrities,” while “the alternate branch … focuses on the very nature of strange worlds and unusual tales” (Havis 1–2). Of course, these may not be wholly separate branches: cult stars, for example, can appear in films depicting fantastical worlds (see the essay in this volume by Gerald Duchovnay). So cult value suggests a series of parallel universes—forked paths and expanding possibilities—rather than a single coherent logic. However, moving beyond these binaries, I will argue that cult films inhabit four categories that are not mutually exclusive and may come into tension with one another. These categories depend on differing processes of cult development: world–based, auteurbased, star–based, and production–based.
This chapter focuses primarily on the first two, examining how world–based and auteur–based cults operate in relation to two exemplary sf texts, Blade Runner (1982) and the rebooted Star Trek (2009) franchise. Despite the emergence of significant work on cult stardom (see that by Egan and Thomas, Nicanor Loreti, Jason Scott, and my own “Cult Movies”), I will not focus on cult stars here, but will emphasize questions of multiplicity and authority via cult world–building—or “world–sharing”—and authorship.
Cult worlds typically offer an expansive narrative space, which fan audiences can learn about, fill in via the creation of their own fan fiction, and imaginatively inhabit through such practices as cosplay or replica prop making. The intersection of cult and fantasy/sf is supported by this mode of cult development.
In 2009, several friends recommended that I see District 9, a new film produced by Peter Jackson and directed by the hitherto unknown Neill Blomkamp. They knew that since I was something of a missionary for cyberpunk and avant–pop texts, I would appreciate this film, an unlikely export from South Africa that had quickly attracted a cult following. They were right. Blomkamp's ideas and shocking images immediately reminded me of Shinya Tsukamoto's cyberpunk Tetsuo films (Tetsuo: The Iron Man, 1988, and Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, 1992) which had inspired me to write my first book, Full Metal Apache (2006). However, after seeing District 9 again, I realized that my first reading was a bit one–dimensional, and I became convinced that this cult film offered significant insight not only into the history of sf film, but also the cultural history—and contributions—of sf itself. At first glance, and like many other films with a cult reputation, District 9 seems very cheaply done, a seemingly slight, even offhand work. However, that simple low–budget appearance masks an incredible narrative complexity and challenging cultural commentary. This essay explores how that combination of simplicity and complexity has helped to make District 9 a contemporary cult classic.
District 9 Revisited
The central concept of District 9 is relatively familiar. Certainly, it recalls the traditional “invaders from space” narrative, as one day the inhabitants of Johannesburg, South Africa, find hovering overhead a huge UFO, inhabited by crustacean–like aliens that the South Africans nickname “prawns.” Fans of sf might well suppose that they are either superior invaders, as in Roland Emmerich's Independence Day (1996), or god–like supervisors of human affairs, much like the Overlords Arthur C. Clarke describes in his novel Childhood's End (1953), advanced beings who will help us evolve from humans into a higher form and solve our problems. However, Blomkamp twists Clarke's canonical formula for such “Imperialist” sf narratives, a formula that redefines humans as a kind of cattle who have been domesticated and overseen by superior aliens since the dawn of human time. He creates a situation in which it is not the human beings on Earth but the aliens from outer space who need help.
While histories of cinema, especially US cinema, typically discuss the development of the star system, only in recent decades has much attention been paid to actors as performers, and still less attention is given to actors as cult performers. As Wade Jennings observes, compared to regular stardom, “Cult stardom is a relatively recent phenomenon,” and one that, “over time … can emerge as a quite different phenomenon” (90). Exploring the discourses related to this “different phenomenon,” Matt Hills notes how, “across their lifetime, some cult stars become hemmed in by their most famous roles (where a specific character has taken on a cult following, or been linked to a cult text)” (28). For example, while William Shatner was “recast” from his TV image, he, like other cult figures, continued “to be shadowed by his cult identification with Captain Kirk” (28). Meanwhile, as Hills offers, Harrison Ford's Hollywood career, “as a ‘mainstream’ star,” has undermined his “cult status despite his multiple appearances in cult movies such as Blade Runner,” because Ford's performance always “connotes conventions of Hollywood acting, being discursively linked to ‘mainstream’ cinema” (31–33). There are, in fact, few international stars like Ford who have shifted their focus from mainstream, even blockbuster films, to cult or non–mainstream works that have resulted in a problematic persona that successfully challenges audience expectations.
Dennis Bingham, in writing about Clint Eastwood, notes that:
Not much has been said … about the star who acts against the grain of his or her own persona, the effect that such a deviation has upon the ideological meanings of the persona, and the reaction of audience groups who have learned to “read” the performance codes in one particular way. (40)
One star who deviated from the expected and challenged those “performance codes” at a relatively early stage in his career—and did so perhaps most spectacularly within the realm of sf—is Sean Connery.
Fifty years and multiple James Bond films later, while much debate continues as to who is the best Bond, for many Sean Connery is Bond, the star who helped to create the franchise. To John Cork and Bruce Scivally, the initial Bond/Connery appeal focused on teenage boys who found “007 [to be] everything an adolescent male dreams of becoming:…
As Lincoln Geraghty reminds us, early 1950s sf cinema, typified by films like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Thing (1951), Invaders from Mars (1953), and War of the Worlds (1953), was often marked by a rather serious tone and effect, presenting “America and the world in the grip of emergencies … that jeopardized the future of the [human] race” (23). Despite their sometimes strange monsters and strained plots, the “emergency” visions in these films urged audiences to contemplate the trajectory of their newly atomic–driven world, to reconsider the tense and potentially destructive relations between nations, or, simply, as The Thing prompted viewers, to “watch the skies, keep watching the skies” for possible threats—from aliens of the extraterrestrial or earthly sort. Yet other films of the same era, works like Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), Cat–Women of the Moon (1953), and Robot Monster (1953)—all similarly invoking the specter of monsters, invasion, or what Susan Sontag famously described as the “imagination of disaster” (215)—just as often moved viewers in rather different ways. While tracking many of the same concerns and anxieties of the era, these works and their monstrous visitors prompted, both then and now, a less than serious, at times even a laughing response—albeit, I want to suggest, one that only underscores the sorts of strains and exaggerations that often characterize sf films.
As most will readily recognize, Plan 9 from Outer Space, Cat–Women of the Moon, and Robot Monster are also typically cited as cult films, movies that have a special following and special appeal; in fact, films that often seem to traffic in or derive an element of their popularity from that very tension between the serious and the strained that, for some, is the downfall of many sf films. Some commentators describe these as exploitation films, some as camp texts, and others, like Jeffrey Sconce, simply as “bad” films that have been effectively redeemed for viewers and critics by a “paracinematic sensibility” they project (“Trashing” 102), that is, by their tendency to make us mindful of conventional film aesthetics and, in the process, to subvert those same aesthetics.
Oshii Mamoru's animated Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004, hereafter Innocence) is indisputably an sf film, but does it constitute a cult film as well? Is it a cult film for all audiences, or only those outside Japan, fascinated by the world of anime? Perhaps we might better ask: can an animated film for adults, created within Japan for a Japanese audience, be considered anything but cult when it circulates in a non–Japanese context? This essay will explore these questions en route to a consideration of the connections between the “cult” elements of the film and the science fiction–esque issues that Oshii explores throughout his oeuvre. By using Innocence as a case study, I want to argue that, for Oshii, film is a kind of performed philosophical speculation, and many of the same elements that allow us to define his work as “cult” also function to highlight and enact his theories regarding technobiopolitics—theories typically linked to sf. To define Innocence as “cult” here is not a secondary designation; rather, “cult” is a fundamental element in producing the meanings of this sf film.
Oshii Mamoru is not a director of animated film, but rather a director of anime, with all of the technical and stylistic differences that designation implies. In an interview with Ueno Toshiya significantly titled “Anime begins from zure (disjuncture): on the border between 2D and 3D,” Oshii links the concept of zure —disjuncture, divergence—with his beliefs about what anime is, and especially what it can do that other cinematic forms cannot. The distinctive mixing of 2D and 3D animation styles in one film is only the most obvious of the various zures Oshii exploits to thematize his post–anthropocentric, anti–humanist philosophy.
This examination will begin with some arguments for designating Innocence as a cult film, at least as it circulates outside Japan, from both a phenomenological point of view, concentrating on its reception, and an ontological one, identifying the cult elements of its production—visual, narrative, and technical. Then we shall turn to a discussion of the ways that cult functions in this film beyond a simple genre designation.
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