Scott Tobias, film editor for the satirical newspaper The Onion, is in town next week to talk about his A.V. Club essay series "The New Cult Canon." He'll speak at the Central Branch of the Kansas City Public Library, which is gearing up for its summer Off-the-Wall film series. The connection: This summer, the library's outdoor screenings focus on titles with the Tobias seal of new-cult approval. To go to the talk (at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 6), RSVP here. Meanwhile, here's The Pitch's e-mail interview with Tobias.
The Pitch: The library's series starts with John Carpenter's They Live. What's the main thing about it that makes it a good example of canon material?
To explain that choice a bit, the New Cult Canon was inspired, in large part, by Danny Peary's Cult Movies books, all three of which were published in the '80s and were a major influence on me when I was getting into cult movies. (Ditto Peary's Guide for the Film Fanatic and the NSFC's Produced and Abandoned anthology.) I waited very patiently for Peary to stop writing baseball books and offer up his thoughts on the current flowering of cult cinema worldwide, but 20 years was long enough for me. At this point in the project, my intention is to pick up roughly where Peary left off, so with the exception of revivals that sparked some passion within the last two decades (like I Am Cuba, for example), my loose cut-off date for inclusion in the New Cult Canon is roughly 1987.John Carpenter's résumé. It's not a perfect movie by any means, but it's his last great one and a fine example of how well Carpenter smuggles subversive ideas into two-fisted genre fare. As I wrote in the piece, it's a movie that plant one last stinkbomb in the toilet of Reagan's America, imagining a country where the rich and powerful are aliens feasting on our resources and populace has been reduced to mindless consumers who watch TV and surrender their consciences and will. The two things that make the film really stand out are the sunglasses that allow ordinary folk to see the truth (i.e., identify the aliens and read the subliminal messages -- OBEY, CONFORM, CONSUME -- that lie behind billboards and commercials and magazine ads) and one of the all-time great fight scenes, an endless alleyway brawl that turns the ridiculous into the transcendent. The latter is also the scene that justifies casting a professional wrestler [Roddy Piper] in the lead role.
What kind of thinking is behind the New Cult Canon as a long-term thing? Or is it really all pretty loose?
We at the A.V. Club (and The Onion, too) have been working hard not only to have a presence on the Web but to be as expansive and innovative as we can with our coverage and make the site a prime destination for pop-culture obsessives. We realized long ago that merely reproducing the reviews and interviews from the print edition online was not sufficient, and under the leadership of our editor, Keith Phipps, we've spent the last several years aggressively expanding our content online. And since we don't have the limitations of a newshole, we have the freedom to branch out, experiment with illustrative audio and video features, and go as long as we like. That means much longer interviews and features online than in print, week-by-week reviews of selected television shows, Videocracy, Newswire, The Hater, the blog, podcasts, etc.
In any case, the groundwork for New Cult Canon was laid by my colleague Nathan Rabin, whose twice-weekly "My Year Of Flop" entries proved to be a huge hit with readers. Originally, I thought about doing a monthly column about cult filmmakers that would read like a long entry in David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film or the Trouser Press music guide, and critique a given director's complete filmography. It was my feeling that the Tarantino age had opened up the floodgates for self-styled (and anointed) cult filmmakers around the world who were catering to a passionate niche. But my editors wanted a concept that could be sustained more easily over the long haul, and we determined pretty quickly that my original idea was far too labor-intensive to be produced every week. So I followed Nathan's (and Peary's) lead and decided to tackle one movie at a time and dig into it with as much passion as I could muster.
Conceptually, I've been keeping it pretty loose. I knew I wanted to start with Donnie Darko, which I think is the quintessential cult movie of the last 20 years, and the only one (save maybe The Room) that was rediscovered as a midnight movie rather than by audiences on video or DVD. (It was a washout at Sundance, bombed in its theatrical run, played to huge audiences for a year in midnight screenings in New York and select revivals in cities across the country, and then bombed again as a "Director's Cut." Crazy.)
Much like Peary, who included readings of popular movies like The Wizard of Oz and Casablanca as well as more obscure or off-the-wall midnight fare, I have a fairly broad definition of what a cult movie is. If I were restricting myself only to phenomena like Donnie Darko or Office Space that tanked in theaters but found a massive, passionate following on DVD, the project would probably be winding down at this point. To me, the common denominator of cult movies is that they're all offbeat, idiosyncratic, usually auteur-driven movies that inspire and reward obsession on the part of the viewer. Sometimes they earn a big following, but I also like to feature some quirky little outliers (Morvern Callar, Irma Vep, Songs From the Second Floor, Gerry, et al.) that are worth championing and that might appeal to cinephiles who might appreciate their singularity. So I like to keep things loose by bouncing around to different genres, crisscrossing the globe, and critiquing lesser known cult gems alongside the more obvious titles.
I bet you're always buttonholed by people insisting that their favorite nonhit or critical dog is really a cult classic. What are the hazards of the canon discussion?
The most frequently asked question is also the most annoying: "How is this a cult movie?" I've answered that question many different times and in many different ways, and it's faded quite a bit over time, as people have gotten used to the column and dropped their objections. Frankly, I can understand them bristling a little at the arrogance of one guy -- me -- taking it upon himself to chisel in stone the really important cult movies of this generation. (Just look at the flak that A.O. Scott took the other week for recognizing a new wave of American independent filmmakers concerned with the poor and disenfranchised and labeling it "Neo-neo-realism.")
In all honesty, though, I love the discussion that follows my New Cult Canon pieces and confess to staying up very late the night they're posted just to get a taste of comments section. Every week, readers are proposing new titles for consideration and I do pay attention to them; it wouldn't have occurred to me, for example, to give The Way of the Gun, a movie I had brushed off as a nasty Tarantino knockoff, another look, but it was really rewarding on second viewing. But more than that, I'm just happy to see something I write start a dialogue and to have a chance to participate myself.
We're certainly not free from trolls on the A.V. Club comment boards, but we also have a lot of very smart, very devoted readers who bring a lot of new ideas to the table -- not just on what cult movie they'd like me to tackle next, but ways of thinking about a particular movie that had not crossed my mind before. At their best, these discussions remind me of the many arguments I had with friends over burritos or tuna melts when I was college, and I'm thrilled that new media has helped to democratize the relationship between critics and readers.
What have you learned about your own taste from reading online discussions? Do you ever wish some of the commenters would just go away?
I know of writers who completely ignore comments about their review, but I like scrapping a little. From the beginnings of the Internet, before I was writing professionally, I used to brave the troll-filled waters of newsgroups (specifically rec.arts.movies.current-films) to argue with online friends and complete strangers about the movies of the day, and I've never lost the will to mix it up. I frankly don't understand thin-skinned critics who can dish out nasty little bons mots in their reviews but can't take any blowback from readers. I'm not sure my taste has changed as a result, but my arguments have definitely become more refined by having to defend them. I'd be lying if I said that the signal-to-noise ratio was always to my liking -- and oh, God, yes, do I wish a few of them would just go away -- but I'd hate to go back to being a monolithic voice from on high. As Nancy Pelosi put it recently, when talking about the intensity of the criticism she faces every day, "I'm in the arena."
I hate to even type the word -- it's so reductive and stupid -- but here goes: Do fanboys and critical acknowledgment of fanboys help the larger discussion about movies, or is all that shit just really annoying?
I don't like the word "fanboy," either, because it usually implies someone who approaches movies uncritically or gets too hung up in waves of hype. That's the problem I have with a site like Ain't It Cool News, which has become Fanboy Central in the way it harnesses and nurtures enthusiasm for the next big thing, only to move right along without taking much critical stock in it. I'd like to think the New Cult Canon does the opposite by stepping away from the coming-soon hype and looking back on movies that have either taken root in cultists' imaginations or are oddities worth revisiting. At the same time, I think a little fanboy enthusiasm isn't a bad thing -- indeed, neither is AICN, which champions some great, unheralded films and holds many wonderful events, such as the Butt-Numb-A-Thon -- because I would much rather have people excitedly engaged in movies than passively drooling through them.
Warner Bros. has just started making movies available on DVDs made to order, and that kind of lower-overhead, small-batch approach seems pretty cool. Can you think of some titles (from any studio and era) that hold mystique for you enough to be on a wish list for something like that?
Sure, though I should say first that I think Warner Bros. has done a wonderful thing and that they've always been by far the best studio in terms of DVD production. A few titles off the top of my head: Bill Forsyth's 1987 film, Housekeeping, which I first discovered through the Produced And Abandoned anthology, is a beautiful movie that has his quirky sensibility but is also quite poignant and lovingly evokes the Pacific Northwest in the '50s. Roger Ebert showed it last year as part of Ebertfest, so maybe that will give it a boost.Homicide, which I remember as a really provocative thriller with a great early William H. Macy performance and an interesting exploration of Jewish identity. I've never seen the reputedly excellent Olivier Assayas film Cold Water, which especially burns given that I covered his Irma Vep in the New Cult Canon that he'd directed at least a couple more movies that would be up for cult consideration, especially Demonlover. I've never understood why Johnny Guitar had never been on DVD -- c'mon, it's a campy Western starring Joan Crawford -- but I saw it after reading an entry in one of Peary's books and was knocked out by its feminist twist on the genre. (It's also the prototype for Once Upon a Time in the West, one of my all-time favorite movies.) And if we want to get really recent, I wouldn't mind a copy of Grindhouse as it was shown in theaters, with all the fake trailers and advertisements intact and less indulgent cuts of the two movies.