B-Movies Extended: Cult Movies vs. Guilty Pleasures

Bibbs and Witney take a look at two rebel movie mindsets and try to figure out which one is better.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani


That last one was a blast. On the latest episode of The B-Movies Podcast, William “Bibbs” Bibbiani and I were welcomed into the home of Dave White and Alonso Duralde of Linoleum Knife (and many other things as well), wherein we shared Hostess cakes and spent a good deal of time (on what proves to be our longest episode yet) discussing several of our “guilty pleasures.” Josie and the Pussycats was mentioned. The Lake House was praised, and I, as I would, take yet another opportunity to talk about Super Mario Bros. And Bibbs bends over backwards to defend the maligned Fantastic Four: Rise of the Cobra Surfer. Despite our wiggly praise of the often dismissed, no blood was shed, and a good time was had by all.

Dave White, in a brief moment of pique, did mention that he was going to defend the 2004 motorcycle chase cheapie Torque, but demurred, citing that Torque has become something of a cult hit in recent years. Which I agree with. Torque may not have the cult heft of, say, Donnie Darko, but it does seem to have a small cadre of passionate defenders who, with all sincerity, love it unabashedly. I haven't seen the film, but it's been mentioned too often in casual conversation to brush off. There will come a time when I manage to take in the motorcycle madness.

Which leads me to ponder the following: What is the difference between a guilty pleasure film, and a cult film?

I guess the short answer would be the size of the audience. A guilty pleasure is something that is yours and yours alone. You have passion for something that none of your peers have much regard for. A cult film, by contrast, has a slightly larger audience. What's more, a cult audience will make it a point to view their object of affection repeatedly. They will get to know their cult film very well, learn dialogue, and become intimately familiar with the visuals. If a film is seen enough, one can even memorize it. Heck, I have a couple I could probably repeat back to you.

But both guilty pleasures and cult films are possessed of a similar viewing attitude. Here is something – you say to yourself while watching a cult movie – that only I can understand. Here is a password. Here is a film made for me and my buddies. I can imagine watching this again, and enjoying it more the second time. I can imagine this as part of my interior lexicon. This movie speaks my language, and, importantly, not the language of the populace at large. I will use this to define myself.

Openly expressing love for a cult film can say something about your character. If you regularly attend The Rocky Horror Picture Show, then you are doing more than announcing what you like to do on Saturday nights; you are declaring a personality trait. If you've been to a Star Wars convention, well, this is more than a hobby. This is part of you. Many teenagers, as they grow up and begin groping around for the type of person they want to be, will often (or perhaps always) use their pop culture interests to define themselves. Cult films occupy a less-inhabited corner of pop culture. They are a niche. They are, in the best of circumstances, a small streak of rebellious counter-culture, which fans use as testaments for their iconoclasticism. I do not like the mainstream, the proud rebels declare. We're through being cool. We're the young alien types who step out and dare to declare.

True, a “cult” film can be in the middle of the mainstream, and still be considered a cult, depending on how people react. I know few people who haven't seen Star Wars, but not all of them are Star Wars cultists.

But then, a guilty pleasure, or Contrarian Pleasure, as Alonso Duralde prefers, requires even more from the viewer. A cult, after all, still has other members. By using it as a character-driving force in your life, a cult film has a community. A place where you may meet and worship together (even if that place is only a frothing online forum). A guilty pleasure is, as its name implies, something you don't necessarily want to share with your peers. It is your sweet little secret. The cult may dictate how you want the world to see you. The pleasure says more about your own soul.

Hackers, for instance, may have its followers, but I don't use my love for Hackers as a declarative. It springs from a more immediate and emotional place. I happen to be very fond of Hackers, and not just for reasons of 1990s nostalgia. Naysayers may say what they will.

For many years, I have encouraged young geeks to live by their passions. I feel that much of culture these days is dictated by feeding into a common group mind than it is about rebellion or self-definition; teens would rather all log into Facebook and exist together in a vague cloud of cyber-socialization than they would run off to the corner and cultivate an oddball interest. These days, when what was once considered to be “outsider interests” are increasingly in the mainstream, and joining a cult is easy and expected (and when you think about it, it is), it takes more courage to declare your earnest love for something unpopular.

The guilty pleasure, then, is something that will define you more naturally than your counterculture cult stance. It will reveal what you truly love.

Should you openly declare your guilty pleasures? Well, maybe not all of them. I love Hackers, but I'm not going to include it on my Top 10 lists. I won't insist all my friends see it. I will, if asked, attempt to explain why I enjoy it, and see if I can articulate its virtues. But I will not charge headlong to its praise, merely because there's another person nearby. I save that for Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. I've said this before: Love what you love, but pick your battles. There are some perfectly embarrassing films – and in some cases entire film genres – that I do love, and will only divulge if I know you well.

In short, your pleasures and your cults are more than just ways of categorizing films. They are, ultimately, based on the ways you socialize, and are betoken how important films are to your and your peers. None of this I say here is revolutionary, but it is something to ponder. If you have a guilty pleasure, and you share it, secretively, with a good friend, and they reveal to be on your side on the issue, then, well, you've just formed a cozy, intimate cult of two.



From the Desk of William Bibbiani:

There’s a movement of sorts to do away with the term “Guilty Pleasure,” for surely, if you’re sufficiently cultured to have good taste in the first place, you can own up to and explain your appreciation for anything, even if there’s a caveat involved. On this week’s B-Movies Podcast, I declared my love – actually, let’s go with “affection” – for The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Anyone’s who’s seen the film is aware of its obvious flaws (the rampant product placement, the cop out ending, half the film is still miscast, etc.), but for some reason when I look within the film I see an inner narrative, one of a screenwriter – in this case, Don Payne (Thor) – who is clearly trying to fix the mistakes of the last Fantastic Four film without actually rebooting the franchise. On that note, he does a respectable job. There’s an increased sense of scale, immensely improved action sequences, characters start behaving more like they’re supposed to and, most importantly, Doctor Doom is swiftly stripped of his pointless super powers so he can be the jealous megalomaniac he was always meant to be… even if he’s still played by Julian McMahon.

There is, as near as I can tell, no cult forming for Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. The film acts as a Rorschach test of sorts, to me at any rate, in which I see what I want to see: an uphill battle on the part of a clearly decent writer, forced to work with what he’s got and doing the best he can. I see in my mind’s eye screaming matches across polished oak desks in studio offices, in which Payne begs executives to include Galactus but is shouted down in favor of budget cuts and half-headed concerns that a giant space Cthulhu would be in some way hard for superhero audiences to swallow. And so to me the film qualifies as a “Guilty Pleasure,” since I can’t expect anyone else to connect with it on that level. I got me some baggage, basically. If Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer boasted more obvious pleasures, like high camp I suppose, it would probably play better to other audiences, and have more potential for cultism, and “guilt” (for lack of a better word) wouldn’t be an issue.

Unless you wind up in an angry mob of some kind, I think it’s hard to feel genuine guilt for something an entire group of people did. It’s like that old saying, “If everyone in the world jumped off a cliff, would you jump too?” Well, yes. You’d go insane from ennui if everyone in the world died. Besides, if everyone in the world jumped off the same cliff, the cliff would fill to the brim after a while, and you could safely walk across on the backs of the early cliff-jumping adopters. My point is, we take comfort in going with the flow. Most of us at one time or another have said we liked the #1 movie at the box office, only to revisit it years later and wonder what the hell we were thinking at the time. At press screenings for populist motion pictures like The Three Stooges, it’s common for studios to fill the audience with casual audience members so that stuffy critics like myself will (they hope) get swept up in the energy of the room provided by less-discerning types, or at least begrudgingly admit in our reviews that other people liked it. We’re pack animals after all. I call this “The Finding Neverland Effect.”

So it takes time to figure out whether or not we like something, and at first, it seems like a guilty pleasure. I treasure Rockula, for example. I must have seen that ridiculous vampire comedy rock opera 50 times, and I find that bringing it up in conversation brings me confused glances or, at worst, genuine scoffs. But on those rare occasions when I do bring it up, and the person I’m talking to responds with a quote from the film (“That was my mother you just boned,” for example), then we are friends. Maybe we’ll watch it together. Maybe we’ll find other likeminded friends and watch it as a group. Maybe word will spread, and a cadre of Rockula fanatics will form. And then it will become a “cult” film. Instead of being something special that only I love, an act of rebellion, there will be a support group, and I will have a pack of my own that looks down on Rockula haters and takes comfort in our shared interests. In time, if enough people turn to the Rockula cause, the film everyone looked down on could be discovered by the mainstream and accepted as a classic. That’s what happened to film noir and Citizen Kane and Freaks and quite a few other films besides.

You shouldn’t feel guilty for liking a film, unless maybe there’s something illegal involved. (See: 8mm.) You should resist the urge to keep it to yourself, and share the movies you love – even if they’re kind of crap – with other people, if only to find kindred spirits (something we spend our lives searching for already). You could be at the forefront of a new artistic movement, for all you know. And yes, if your “guilty pleasure” goes mainstream you lose your rebel status, but that’s okay. Hollywood’s making underappreciated movies every damned year. Why not start the cult of John Carter?