Is it possible that Ernest Mathijs has the coolest job on Earth? “Well, I do and I don’t,” says the UBC prof, who designed and teaches a popular course on cult cinema for the university’s department of theatre and film. “Because I have to watch these films, and I have to question the validity of my own enjoyment of it and then sort of try and objectify it by seeing if there are traces of a similar enjoyment with other pockets of fans.”
Please, there’s nothing wrong with a little validity-questioning to go along with the daily work of watching and thinking about awesome shit. It’s surely better than being an accountant. In any event, Mathijs has called the Georgia Straight to talk about 100 Cult Films (Palgrave Macmillan), his new, and third, book on the subject of cult movies—or paracinema, as it has been labelled by academia.
The term is used to describe films ranging from classics such as Casablanca to delirious garbage like Jess Franco’s 1971 soft-core castration opera, She Killed in Ecstasy (both of which make an appearance in the book). But it also necessarily takes in the related role of the cult audience: an ever-growing constituency of fanatics, gorehounds, camp enthusiasts, trash aesthetes, slumming intellectuals, and anybody else who exalts in “ironic counter-taste.”
Besides offering some delicious brain food in the form of elevated (yet brisk) essays on items such as Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals, Debbie Does Dallas, and Withnail and I, Mathijs and coauthor Xavier Mendik are attempting with 100 Cult Films to identify a state-of-the-art, paracinematic canon, a doomed enterprise and one that the authors acknowledge in their introduction as being “virtually impossible”. But 100 Cult Films is still an unusually impressive attempt. Besides being a mouthwatering design object, the book is a project of the British Film Institute.
“There were some discussions about how and if this would fit in their repertoire, as it were,” Mathijs says of the BFI, which is better known for honouring highbrow cinephilia than it is for getting behind Manos, the Hands of Fate or Showgirls. “They were enthusiastic about the project from the beginning, but there was the occasional raised eyebrow when we defended films such as The Room and Plan 9 [From Outer Space] with the same kind of vigour as Citizen Kane would be defended. It wasn’t the validity of the argument as much as, ‘Yeah, all right, at the end of the day, it isn’t Orson Welles.’ Which it isn’t, but it is Ed Wood Jr. It’s the Orson Welles of paracinema.”
It goes without saying that the majestically impaired Plan 9 From Outer Space makes the cut, being among the “50 or 60 films you can immediately put at the centre of the canon”. As Mathijs says, “They have to be there: Rocky Horror Picture Show, Eraserhead, Big Lebowski, El Topo, Plan 9.” The rest is up for debate, and reflecting the evolving nature of their chosen area of study, the authors have made some challenging picks.
“When we worked up our definition of cult cinema, we thought, basically, it’s two things,” Mathijs explains. “On the one hand, it’s this kind of film that transgresses, that’s edgy, that’s controversial, that breaks morality. And then, on the other hand—and the two are connected, of course—there’s the part where you have to have a fanatical base of followers who ritualistically watch and rewatch and rewatch those films. And I thought by that part of the definition, Star Wars and The Sound of Music definitely apply.”
Mathijs offers that it’s really about loving a movie “well beyond the bounds of moderation” in a relationship that “yanks it out of normality”. At the same time, he also notes that the paracinematic attitude is becoming more common, that “the exotic is definitely a point of interest for more and more film viewers these days.” And although this growing visibility has led some older critics and viewers to “mourn the loss of exclusivity” (The Lord of the Rings trilogy also finds its way onto the list, as does Dirty Dancing), it also lends his project some weight. UBC never balked at the course proposal Mathijs first submitted in 2007.
“I was expecting that,” he says, “and the full year that it took to get past all the committees that have to give it the stamp of approval, I was expecting an email saying: ‘Well, okay, but is this going to change the world? Is this really what we should be paying attention to?’ And quite the opposite—I got enthusiastic reactions all around.” Cut to 2011, and picture Mathijs’s 85 students turning up at the Rio Theatre last fall for The Room. Firmly established as this generation’s best worst film (Mathijs’s definition of cult cinema recognizes a generational aspect to the ritual), The Room is such a big deal that when director Tommy Wiseau came for a one-day engagement in September, organizers had to squeeze in an extra sold-out screening before his flight left.
Part of the bizarre gravitational pull exerted by The Room comes from its strange auteur. Just thinking about Wiseau is an addictive, if possibly brain-damaging, activity, partly (but only partly) because he’s hungrily taken to his infamy while emitting weird and indecipherable signals as to why. “Isn’t that typical of cult, though?” Mathijs asks with a hint of wonder. “You cannot say that either he’s a very clever showman or a naive soul like Ed Wood, who sort of embraces things against better judgement. You can’t quite make out what it is. It remains ambiguous whichever way you approach it.”
Some movies with considerably older reputations, meanwhile, are nerd-baitingly absent from 100 Cult Films. No Wicker Man? Really? “The Wicker Man absolutely could have been the hundred-and-first film,” Mathijs shoots back, before revealing that his partner “twisted my arm a little bit” to include the toweringly vicious Cannibal Holocaust—which Mathijs views as more of an initiation exercise than a film catering to a sustained community of devotees. But the presence of Cannibal Holocaust does provide yet another shade of subtle to the elusive definition of paracinema.
“All of those films,” Mathijs begins, referring to the deeply nihilistic trend in Italian horror cinema in the ’70s and ’80s, “a lot of them got their notoriety through the fact that they were once video nasties, so they came with this label. It wasn’t exactly a kind of film that it identified but a way in which society thought that these films were not proper. Which, of course, to people like you and me with a paracinematic mind, signals, ‘Okay, this we gotta see.’ ”
Yes, you can infer from that statement that Mathijs—whose own initiation into cult movies came as a teenager in Belgium in the ’80s when he saw Videodrome—is a fan first and foremost and an egghead second. 100 Cult Films therefore manages to be almost breezy while conveying a sense of deep understanding, and the man with possibly the coolest job on Earth is stoked to find himself leading the expedition into new and bold areas of the subject he loves. So what if it’s a virtually impossible task? “The upsetting of traditional structures is part of cult enjoyment, and by definition it should upset the rules by which we build a canon,” he admits. “Really, we should have miscounted them.”