FILM CLUB: CULT FILMS & DANNY PEARY

‘Cult’ is a broad term. It can cover something successful with a rabid fanbase or something more niche, but with disciples willing to die, or at least, exchange crossed words with critics over it. It’s so overused that it’s barely worth using any more. In cinematic terms, post ‘Pulp Fiction’ in 1994, became an epidemic. Contrived quirky dialogue and sudden bursts of violence? Cult. Botched heist? Cult. ending? Cult. Riddled with referential touches? Cult. Cult status can be bestowed in hack poster quotes before the damn thing’s even screened to the public. For the recent Cass Pennant biopic the tie-in book declared it to be “a remarkable British Cult Film” from the get-go. In 2010, unless it’s a bearded guru sanctioning nerve gas subway attacks, there’s no point buying any talk of cultdom. Fuck it. This wasn’t always the case.

Sometimes you’ve got to pay tribute to the teachers. Shoes..apparel…it’s all totally irrelevant compared to films and music. Films in particular are important, but having grown up poring through Halliwell’s Film Guide and Leonard Maltin’s annual tome, those guys dropped the facts, but badmouthed De Palma’s ‘Scarface’. There was a conflict of personal opinions that necessitated a new guru.

Without an equivalent of the mighty ‘Z’ channel as documented in ‘Z: A Magnificent Obsession’, Alex Cox on ‘Moviedrome’ (that’s a whole ‘nother blog post) screening the likes of ‘Walker’ and Danny Peary’s trilogy of ‘Cult Movies’ books published between 1981 and 1988 were my mentors. Peary introduced this Brit to ‘Over the Edge’, ‘Seconds’,  ‘Massacre At Central High’ and ‘Behind The Green Door’ (RIP Marilyn Chambers) – classics. As relevant to my formative pop cultural education as ‘The Face’, ‘Spraycan Art’ or ‘Rap Attack’, this trio of books still holds an important place in film literature – much of what was covered in the first volume has been elevated in Blu-Ray special editions, but the ensuing chapters still hold some rarities.

Peary created a checklist – a curriculum for students looking for the odd, erotic, violent and offbeat, and he has excellent taste, with writeups (ignore the spoiler synopsis for each film) that can still enlighten an eager viewer. This was my film school. Always bear in mind that here you’re reading the ramblings of someone who spent afternoons as a child cross-referencing his cousin’s ‘Cracked’ and ‘Mad’ parody issues with the corresponding Halliwell reviews. Strange. Very strange.

Why there was never a ‘Cult Movies 4’ is a shame, but post 1988, perhaps the overkill of cult talk proved repellent. Danny’s ‘Guide for the Film Fanatic’ and ‘Alternate Oscars’ were essential too. This was a writer who just seemed to understand that populist wasn’t tantamount to entertainment. Easter is the perfect time to catch up on some films, and seeing as a ‘Clash of the Titans’ remake has fallen flat (without sounding like the anti-synth idiots of the early ’80s, CGI lacks soul – stop motion still wins), revisiting some of Peary’s tips made sense. 1969’s ‘Medium Cool’ and 1979’s ‘Saint Jack’ still capture their respective times, split by a decade, the former with sledgehammer subtlety compared to the latter, but linked by obsessive documentation and controversy.

Haskell Wexler’s ‘Medium Cool’ with a mix of real riot footage, revolutionary talk and fictional anti-apathy subplots, takes on some incendiary topics with regards to media ethics and earned itself an ‘X’. Despite notions of hippie idealism, it stays relevant. Quentin Tarantino was right to re-up Robert Forster’s career on the back of this and grindhouse favourite ‘Vigilante’.

Quentin apparently owns an original print of Peter Bogdanovich’s ‘Saint Jack’ – an adaptation of Paul Theroux’s novel, and Peter’s last great film. Set in Singapore in 1973, it contains one of the decades most overlooked performances alongside Harvey Keitel in ‘Fingers’ from Ben Gazzara as the titular pimp operating in Singapore – the film is one of the only Hollywood films shot there, and despite the Brits and Americans looking like the real villains of the piece, Singapore authorities banned the film until 2006. With a yearly narrative showing Jack in deeper looking more world-weary, it’s a low-key affair, but a forced tattooing at the hands of Triads and the ensuing flowery cover up should prove interesting for the ink fans out there too. Both deserve wider audiences. After DVD releases early last decade, they’re out-of-print now, commanding some heavy prices. Where’s Criterion when you need them?

The background of both films is so interesting that 2001’s ‘Look Out Haskell It’s Real: The Making of Medium Cool’ screened on the BBC just prior to the digital release, and the 2006 book, ‘Kinda Hot: The Making of Saint Jack in Singapore’ are the perfect follow-ups. The book in particular is a product of obsession, but the guile and wranglings required to shoot the film justify 240 pages, but the author, Ben Slater is evidently a man as driven as Peary in putting his passion to paper, and it’s a story rarely told. Slater’s tie-in site is still getting updates, and this site, dedicated entirely to Danny Peary’s listings is worth spending some time with too.

After talk of Cosmo’s greatness in ‘The Killing of a Chinese Bookie’ last month, other Ben Gazzara moments of note (and of many) today are this ‘LIFE’ cover from 1969 too preceding the release of ‘Husbands’ alongside John Cassavetes and Peter Falk, looking sharp, and from a film that even I can’t bring myself to extol the virtues of, despite another great performance as Charles Bukowski from Gazzara, his fine speech on the nature of style from ‘Tales of Ordinary Madness’ – best to stick with ‘Barfly’ or ‘Factotum’ if you want a good motion picture on the pock-marked literary don-dada though.