May 7 marks the 20th anniversary of the “Fifth Element”, which many Russian viewers rightfully consider a cult film. How and why films that came out a few decades ago, get the title of cult? At the request of the Movie Search, the answer to this question was found by the culturologist and film critic Alexander Pavlov, the author of the book “Tell Your Children: One Hundred Eleven Experiments on Religious Cinematography.”
Salon / sarafan
On the one hand, the cult cinema is a Western and, above all, an American phenomenon, on the other – today, with the help of this concept, many researchers explain why specific films suddenly found themselves in demand at one time or another by a social group. Therefore, the phenomenon of worship can also be applied to Russian realities. The most important thing to understand when discussing a topic is that cult cinema is inherently linked to the social and cultural context, but today, due to the mass of academic works, the term is used to describe a whole universe of films, that is, as a discursive category.
It is impossible to talk about cult films until at least a working definition of cult cinema is given. The latter is usually understood as a film that, for certain reasons, has become the object of sustained veneration for a particular group of people. It can be either a separate subculture or a whole generation.
It should not be confused with the cult and popular cinema. Distinguish these categories is very simple: popularity is transient, cultic – something lasting. It is a stable and constant interest. Of course, films can lose their cult status and, thus, remain cult only in historical retrospect, but still the cult means worship in the literal sense of the word. And the longer the memory of the film lasts, the more people discuss it and revise it, the stronger is its cult status.
For example, “Titanic” in Russia has become not only popular, but also cult. He was not just watched and revised. Young aficionados and older girls wore T-shirts with Leonardo DiCaprio, he was depicted on their backpacks and pencil cases. They hung posters on the walls with him, listened to Celine Dion’s hit to the point of exhaustion, cried and dreamed that someday they could meet with their favorite actor who would fall in love with them and take them to their home in the United States, where they would do the same with them, that already turned with the heroine Kate Winslet on the infamous ship – will hold from behind, standing on the bow of the ship. Moreover, they sought out all the films where DiCaprio was playing, and were often very upset because they did not get what they expected when they looked at them.
Everything that I will write about further, not only my personal experience, but the result of a large number of interviews made with ordinary viewers, video salon employees, sellers, translators, video rental employees and so on. The more often I spoke about video culture in Russia, the more I came to the conclusion that we already had what I called a cult culture, but until recently it was not described in these terms.
As a rule, cult films fail at the box office, if at all, and get their reputation in some other ways. And if the West was characterized by special midnight shows of such films, aimed at a certain type of viewer, or a common practice of demonstrating paintings in university buildings, then for Russia the ways of becoming a cult were limited.
First of all, these were video shows. Till now in culture periodically address to this subject because it was unique and practically with what incomparable experience. Of course, there is no official data as to which films in the salons were in high demand. And in fact, this is the best confirmation of the cult video scenes: people still remember what they watched and how often, why those, and not other things remained in their memory.
Another way of becoming a cult in Russia is what we call sarafan today. Constant stories about incredible films not only made viewers look for this movie, but also in some way gave an orientation to the perception: if this picture is so liked by your friends, then it must certainly please you. From the sarafan there were a variety of and unimaginable legends and myths. The already existing franchises received continuations in the imagination of the viewer and later began to live their own lives.
Finally, this is what replaced the video salons, namely cable television, video rentals and retail outlets. As a rule, sellers in points became personal guides of buyers in the magical world of cinema. They not only provided novelties, but, most importantly, they advised what exactly to look at. They knew the preferences of customers, but at the same time advised at their own risk that they like personally, or what became the most discussed. So, one of the video pirates told me that in general the “Pulp Fiction” was not in demand in the outlets, and he personally recommended the film to his well-established customers, thereby promoting the cult of Quentin Tarantino to the masses.
Comedy / Horror
To answer the question about why this film became cultic in both the West and Russia is not easy. First, it is likely that the answer can be sought in the immanent nature of the cult. So, “Evil Dead” became cultic both in the West and in our country. The same goes for such horrors as “The Risen from Hell,” “The Reanimator,” and “The Return of the Living Dead.” These films made such a big impression that the teens told each other that “Evil Dead” is in general the most terrible horror film that only can be.
In general, cult cinema is a very complex and, of course, obscure category of cinema. The first mistake that is usually made when discussing a concept occurs when one attempts to present it as a genre. Despite the fact that cult cinema is not a genre, as film historians Ernest Mathis and Jamie Sexton write in their book “Introduction to the cult cinema”, most often such a reputation is acquired by horror films and science fiction. For Russia, this is true with regard primarily to horror. In general, the key genres in demand among film fans and amateurs were: 1) horrors; 2) eroticism; 3) action; 4) a comedy. Which is understandable. Nothing that viewers have seen so far, and so they eagerly devoured everything they were offered.
Only with some satiety and contemplation video enthusiasts began to distinguish between good and bad and high from low. Moreover, if “2001: The Space Odyssey” could cause a sharp rejection of the audience in the salon, then, say, such a thing as the “Naked Gun” was going with a bang. Of course, this is due to the fact that people went to have fun, and not to look at how groups of monkeys gallop around the black obelisk for 30 minutes and wave a bone. At the same time in the West, in its time, the “Space Odyssey” has become an unequivocal cult. Psychedelic experience together with her was experienced much more vividly than without her.
“A Nightmare on Elm Street”
Horror and some comedies were extremely popular among teenagers. Of the horror films, besides the films mentioned, they were Peter Jackson’s “Living Dead” (possibly the second most important film after “The Evil Dead”), as well as the franchise “Nightmare on Elm Street”, “Friday, 13th”, “Children’s Games” “. At the same time, some parts of the series were in high demand, for example, “Nightmare on Elm Street 3” and the third part of “Friday, 13th”. Along with this, some European horror also became cult, in particular, what is expected, the films of Dario Argento and the “Demons” diary of Lamberto Bava. Less well-known, but also discussed were the “Wind of Demons”, the “Night of the Demons” and, of course, “Clowns-killers from outer space”.
Cult comedies were primarily parodies such as the trilogy “Naked Gun”, “Top Secret” or “Charged Weapons”. Especially famous as a comedian was acquired by Eddie Murphy. All the films with his participation were very cheerful. It was like the trilogy “The policeman from Beverly Hills”, and “Swap places”, “A trip to America”, “Golden child”.
However, an unequivocal hit with lasting demand was the “Police Academy” franchise. Each part, which for some reason they did not see, was shown in the salons several times in a row, and people could wait patiently for their session for two hours or more. Later, the “Police Academy” enjoyed incredible demand and on video cassettes. In some ways, its success, like other franchises, can be explained by seriality. How could the audience miss some link in the already beloved history?
Erotica / pornography
In love for such things as “Emmanuelle” and “Greek fig tree”, the audience coincided everywhere. Those who visited abroad and could join the already legendary cinema, went back and in the colors told about what they saw. Even the researcher Don Sowa in his book “125 Prohibited Films” specifically mentions that “Emmanuel” enjoyed incredible demand in Soviet Russia and most often among party functionaries who could afford VCRs.
But it was pure eroticism. In general, viewers were willing to get acquainted with this genre and not in pure form. In this respect, some erotic comedies became cultic, for example, “Hot chewing gum”, or pseudo-comedies, which in reality turn out to be a real drama, like “The Last Virgin of America”. The bold comedy “Private Lessons” (of course, with everything then familiar to Emmanuel Silvia Kristel) about how a sexy girl, having conspired with her friend, seduces a rich innocent young man, also enjoyed an unchanged demand. The plot itself, the actors’ play and even comical situations were of little interest to viewers: they rather focused on erotic content.
And even more. Such a picture as “The Last Tango in Paris”, among a wide, not an elite audience, was interesting primarily for bed scenes, but not at all by the original author’s statement by Bernardo Bertolucci.
And when there was German pornography, fortunately the neophytes had no end. But, as is typical, hardly anyone today will be able to recall at least some names of viewed pornographic films. Except for the picture “Catherine and her wild stallions.” Moreover, in the course there was a selection of double feature “Catherine and her wild stallions” and “Rasputin: Orgies at the royal court”. On the one hand, the demand for these films was explained by the fact that they were filmed on the theme of Russian history, that is, about how everything was in fact, what the audience was sure of. On the other hand, most often, “Catherine” was remembered in the context of the legendary scene of mating with a horse. The spectator shock from what was seen could be understood, and, of course, everyone who saw this had to share the intimate with all the acquaintances. As soon as the conversation between adults about the “Catherine” ended with a discussion of the scene with the horse, they immediately recalled “Rasputin” with the usual saying “And there is …”.
It is difficult to describe the enthusiasm experienced by women by looking at “9½ weeks”. The movie was not simply discussed – it could have offended him. Critic Sergei Kudryavtsev, who at that time was writing for the magazine “The Soviet Screen”, had the imprudence to put the film low scores, after which he received letters, where angry spectators were rightly indignant about why he so low rated their favorite movie.
At the same time, if anything, the picture was nominated for the “Golden Raspberry” in three categories – the worst female role (Kim Basinger), the worst script and the worst song – although it did not become a laureate in any of them. By and large, vulgar in the sense of visual filing a film that was booed in the US, received real recognition in the (post) Soviet Russia. Against the backdrop of the success of the “9½ weeks”, such things as “The Merging of Two Moons”, “The Wild Orchid” and “The Bitter Moon” were also popular. Again, in the people, the latter was perceived as a movie, where there are bed scenes, and not the author’s view of Roman Polansky on perverse sexual relations.
In the 1990s, the latest films from this series appeared – “Basic instinct” and “Shougels”. Although in the US the “Shougels” tape became a vivid example of the Camp and was recognized as so bad that even a good picture, in Russia, the dancing of naked women for some reason was perceived as something beautiful and sublime. As for the “Basic Instinct”, this movie interested everyone much more as erotica, rather than as a thriller. Of course, a sharp plot attached piquancy, but in general, women often talked about a beautiful white scarf, which you can tie a man to bed, rather than remembering the general detective line of the picture.
Action / Hyperverity
Films produced in Hong Kong – is, you can say, a special category of world cinema. Such films, for example, are highly appreciated by the famous film historian David Bordwell. And many of them are cult, including in Russia. Surprisingly, the audience watched this national cinema both in video salons and on VHS regularly and did not lose interest.
First of all, this concerned martial arts and martial arts. Jackie Chan, if he could not compare with Arnold Schwarzenegger, he was at the level of Jean-Claude Van Dame and, perhaps, even surpassed Chuck Norris. In 1989-1991, adolescents and adult men often revised Project A, Project B, and Police History. More demanded seemed the “God’s Armor”, “Snack on Wheels”, “Drunken Master” and “Snake in the Shadow of an Eagle”. Other cult favorites were the immortal paintings of John Woo “The Assassin” and “Cool Cooked.” At the same time, the Chinese history of ghosts was circulated.
“Armor of God”
Explain why from all the national cinematographers Hong Kong has become a cult, it’s quite simple. The exemplary genre cinema, which both amuses and surprises at the same time, was simple enough for perception. The same Bordwell says that when he offers to watch Hong Kong films to students without translation, then after the session they can without any difficulty discuss the plot and the general meaning of the picture, because everything is clear and so. The fact that this movie is still relevant is confirmed not so long ago by a book by St. Petersburg critic Dmitry Komme, “The City Where the Cinema Lives.” Of course, it was bought and read first of all by those “cultists” who know what Hong Kong is.
However, the most popular among teenagers – often the main consumers of cinema and worshipers – were the heroes of the militants: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Chuck Norris, and Bruce Lee. The latter’s films are perhaps the most revealing, as they were cultic in the international sense. The young boys had posters with the “Terminator” or “Rambo”, they had badges, their yard games they often built on the stories of their favorite fighters. And if one of the guys for some reason did not see the most important films, for example, “Universal Soldier”, “Terminator” or “Rocky 4” (perhaps the last one was the most significant, since the opponent of the legendary boxer was a Soviet fighter ), then they retell these films in the smallest detail.
And here we come across not so much with the sarafan, so much with the fact that Nick Land and the English Group of Cyber Culture Studies (SSRU) is called as hyperstition. It is best to translate the term as “hyper-belief”. This neologism is formed from the English “hyper” (“over” in the sense of “excessive, elevated”) and “superstition” (“superstition, prejudice”).
Hypervery is the “transformation of fiction into reality,” a loop of positive feedback, which “by the very fact of its existence as an idea is the cause of its own embodiment as real.” Thus, in the (post) Soviet Russia there were films that never existed. On the one hand, they were simply invented, but the belief in their existence was so strong that the legend spread far beyond the boundaries of one region. On the other hand, sometimes hyperversion had real grounds.
For example, the movie “Predator 3” with Schwarzenegger, where the film takes place in the ice, was invented for a reason. Something similar supposedly appeared in a series of books “The Classic of Hollywood”, where the novelization of key western films was presented. Thus, some films became cultic enough to receive a new life in folk myths. Another vivid example of the cult was the fourth part of the “Evil Dead”, of course, with Bruce Campbell, where action, as is not hard to guess, takes place in the distant future. Many viewers dreamed of watching “Alien 2”. The fact is that in this way someone translated “Aliens”, and the audience wanted to see not the forgery of James Cameron, but the present continuation of the sai-fay horror Ridley Scott.
Perhaps, it should be emphasized that all these films were cultic in the widest environment of consumers. There was also another dimension of the cult. For example, in the early 1990s the intelligentsia idolized Peter Greenaway. Needless to say, this was not the kind of movie that the fans of the Police Academy wanted to discuss?
For some aesthetes the fate of Russia in the early 1990s was less interesting than the retrospective of Pasolini’s films. Later, these two dimensions of cult viewers merged into one, when “Twin Peaks” was shown on television. A little later, the taste was released by the “Pulp Fiction”, and, it seems, even those who claimed good taste could already enjoy such things as “Leon”, “On the needle” or “The Fifth Element”.
If we talk about the 1990s, then with the education of taste, the resumption or emergence of rentals, industry youth magazines, truly cult films in Russia were becoming less and less. If earlier young people could, without embarrassment, allow themselves to love “Ninja 3: Dominance”, then for the 1990s the cult universe narrowed greatly: Lynch, Tarantino, Boyle, to a lesser extent “Children” of Larry Clark, who were never promoted to the level of “On the needle”, and later “Matrix” and “Fight Club”.
By the way about “Fight Club”. If the “Art of Cinema”, as far as I know, did not even bother to publish a review of this film, the cult magazine “Ptyuch” placed Tyler Durden on the cover of the twelfth issue of 1999, thereby openly declaring what the young people are going to go into the new century.
About many of the films mentioned in the text that have become cultic in Russia (for example, about “Terminator”, “Rasputin: Orgies at the Tsar’s Court”, “Ninja 3: Dominance”, “Unflappable”, “Assassin”), I wrote in detail in Tell your children. So, if you feel that this is your type of movie, perhaps you should tell young audiences what a cult cinema in Russia is.
Today it seems to me that “Cobra”, “Predator”, “Commando” and “Unflappable”, which are less often mentioned in the list of cult films of Western audiences, for many domestic filmmakers for thirty remain unattainable height of the cinema. For me, including. I myself review them every year.
More details about the phenomenon of “hyperversion” can be found in the article by Alexander Pavlov and Polina Khanova “Cult in everything but name? Transnational experiences of (Western) cult cinema in late soviet and early post-Soviet Russia (Transnational Cinemas., Volume 8, Issue 1, 2017).