It’s Not About What It’s About: Dissecting Some Cult Classics

Somebody on Facebook asked this question:

One way I’ve been keeping (what’s left of) my sanity in these times is catching up on old SF cult films that I’ve never got around to watching. Yesterday, I finally got through THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI: ACROSS THE 8TH DIMENSION.
And… I have to admit, I’m just baffled as to how this movie became a cult classic of SF that people still talk about. Seriously, what am I missing?

My immediate response:

It was an attempt to update Doc Savage to modern times, and it riffs on a lot of popular urban legends and conspiracy theories, including aliens secretly taking over, alternate dimensions, and rock star celebrities secretly being involved in global politics and espionage, all of which speaks to subconscious fears and hopes. Some movies work on a visceral level; if a weird film doesn’t resonate with you, the central emotional core is not one of your concerns. You like what you like.

There was some discussion of the context of the times, how the film is a Cold War movie, which it is (it was made in 1984, some seven years prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union) and speaks to common anxieties of the time, which got me thinking about cult films in general and the reasons why films that are objectively bad can emotionally resonate and become cult favorites despite their obvious shortcomings.

So I added another comment:

Thinking more about it… Buckaroo Banzai is really more fantasy than SF; like Star Wars, it’s fantasy dressed up in SF Cosplay, but it’s a different fantasy story. Star Wars (the original film) is a quest tale: farm boy leaves home to follow a wizard and joins up with a pirate to rescue a princess and defeat the Black Knight.

Buckaroo Banzai follows a different story; there is a hidden world we don’t know about, and in that world, forces of good and evil are waging a war with our world hanging in the balance. Our hero, a surprisingly resourceful person, has the ability to enter that world and fight for us, along with a team of allies, each of whom is an expert in a different area with skills that the team needs.

By recasting this trope in the form of urban legends and conspiracy theories, Buckaroo Banzai responds to anxieties about things out of our control and assures us that we have a champion in the hidden battle. It’s religion for a post-supernatural world.

And now I need to go write an article for my website.

So here we are.

As I said, Buckaroo Banzai is a fantasy story. It is kin to other “hidden world” stories, in which the hero discovers an unseen world and has to battle evil forces in that world, usually by pulling together a team of allies. This is the premise of The Wizard of Oz, the Harry Potter books, Michael Chabon’s Summerland, and dozens of other stories, and it’s also a popular conceit in science fiction (Jules Verne used it several times) and pulp adventure stories such as Doc Savage.

Buckaroo Banzai is a somewhat meta version of this, as it’s self-aware and self-referential in a way that not many movies can muster; there’s a central conceit to the film, in that, like Indiana Jones and Star Wars, it’s meant to be seen as just one installment in an ongoing franchise, as if there are a bunch of other movies and comic books and collectibles out there, and the audience already knows the in-jokes and catch-phrases; we get to see the origin story of “New Jersey,” the cartoon cowboy character played by Jeff Goldblum, but are left to guess at where Perfect Tommy, Rawhide, and the rest of the Hong Kong Cavaliers came from. There’s an on-screen reference to a Buckaroo Banzai comic book, and comments in the dialogue about past and future adventures, helping to establish the elaborate world-building behind the film.

Understanding the film requires some knowledge of the context in which it was made. In 1984, the idea of franchise films was still pretty fresh; the Star Wars universe was only three films, there were only three Superman films, and Star Trek III came out the same month as Buckaroo Banzai. The only long-running franchise series at the time was James Bond, which was still in its Roger Moore phase. But even at that point, the concept of an extended universe was already established well enough for Buckaroo Banzai to riff on it. Star Wars starts in the middle of an action sequence, with rebels being pursued by Imperial forces, after an opening scroll has filled us in on what came before in the previous episodes that did not actually exist. Star Trek: The Motion Picture picked up dangling threads from the TV series; Will Decker (Stephen Collins) is the son of Commodore Matt Decker (William Windom) from “The Doomsday Machine,” and the plot partly resembles “The Changeling.” Buckaroo Banzai’s creators thought the audience was sufficiently comfortable with the premise that they could treat the film as if it were just one in a lengthy string of adventures, with callbacks to scenes and characters that did not actually exist, which provided a further layer of implied history. Some viewers considered it a clever conceit, while more the literal-minded were annoyed by the references to stories they would never see, and many were simply confused by them.

At the time, the world was still mired in the Cold War; Reagan was running for re-election, still portraying the USSR as the “evil Empire,” while Ed Meese had settled on pornography as the great threat to US society, a precursor to Tipper Gore’s soon-to-be-formed Parents Music Resource Center, originator of the “parental advisory” stickers. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension is a product of its times, just as the earlier Escape from New York and later Robocop and Big Trouble in Little China are products of their zeitgeist.

The existential threat of global nuclear destruction (Wargames came out a year earlier), the ever-present threat of foreign infiltration (the Donald Sutherland version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers was six years prior), and the ever-present hope of a hero to save us all (Superman III was the previous year, and Flash Gordon was three years before that) were all in full bloom. Buckaroo Banzai’s stock in trade was simply hope; the thing that Reagan had promised in 1980 and then quickly replaced with fear. The thing that all the great pulp heroes offered. The notion that very capable humans could and would solve our scariest problems and get us back to creating the awesome future we were promised a few decades earlier. But like that Tomorrowland film, too much of the audience was too unfamiliar with the things the film was referencing and had no way to contextualize the concepts. Putting it together from clues was too much work, so the film tanked.

I’ve written before about the differences between the various generations, and this film is one of the landmarks; older Baby Boomers may see it as mocking the issues that defined them, the post-JFK Boomers (Generation Jones) absolutely understand the zeitgeist of the film, but it really is a Gen X film, and it will probably not appeal too much to Millennials unless they are first steeped in a lot of Mid-Century pop culture detritus in order to grasp the references.

Moving on from Buckaroo Banzai, we can start to see a pattern, which I can best sum up this way: Good movies are seldom about what they’re about, and most great cult movies have a chewy core that has little to do with the candy shell.

John Lithgow leaves no scenery unchewed.

Of course, the question of what constitutes a “cult film” has changed dramatically since the days before on-demand video and DVRs; today, when everyone identifies as a nerd or geek, any quirky movie can call itself a cult classic, and a number of films manage to straddle the line, such as A Clockwork Orange (and several other Kubrick films) and most of the Coen Brothers’ films (most especially The Big Lebowski). Most true cult films were flops upon release, but were later discovered by audiences via television, video release, or, in the case of anything prior to about 1985, through revival and art-house (or grind-house) screenings. Many are genre films–science-fiction, fantasy, noir, horror, western–but many are not. The true mark of a cult film is the audience, as indicated by the label. These are films that collect a loyal and devoted following, an audience that will keep coming back over and over with cult-like fervor, because there is something in the film that they respond to, something that resonates for them, and most often it’s not actually the storyline.

Smarter writers than me have talked about how horror and sci-fi movies reflect societal anxieties, that zombies and vampires and alien invaders are allegorical representations of cultural concerns. But I think that it goes far beyond political and societal anxieties; there’s a reason why most people’s favorite film is something they saw between the ages of 8 and 18; that’s the window where we’re figuring out who we are, what we value, and how we fit in, and movies often help us identify that or validate what we’re feeling. I’ll start with an obvious example.

The quintessential cult classic is of course The Rocky Horror Picture Show; some may like the weirdness of it, certainly trans and nonbinary people see major representation and validation (“Don’t Dream It, Be It” directly gives you explicit permission to be yourself; you can’t get too much more validating than that), but I think there’s something else going on aside from the ’50s satire and the sexual identity messages. When you stop to think about it, the Rocky Horror Show is primarily a screaming condemnation of toxic masculinity.

Each of the characters represents an archetype:

Riff-Raff: The nerd, the outsider/observer. Riff-Raff is every weird kid who ever got hassled at school.

Magenta: The geek girl. Every geeky guy knows at least one girl who is “different from the others;” she “gets” him, they’re best friends. The geek girl can mingle with, and maybe even be friendly with, the popular people, but her heart is with the outcasts and underdogs, and she has the courage to like what she likes regardless of societal judgment.

Columbia: The Needy One. Columbia is that person who pretends to be something they aren’t in order to have an identity at all. When she’s with Eddie, she’s a biker chick, with Frank she’s a fetish model; if she hooked up with Brad, she’d be a Stepford Wife. Her entire identity is defined by whomever she is currently attached to; she believes she has no value at all apart from her relationships.

Janet: The Good Girl. Janet is “good” not from any compelling moral standards, but simply out of concern for what others might think. She’s all about appearances, a people-pleaser whose primary focus is being admired, and biggest fear is what other people might think of her.

Rocky: The Jock. Rocky is, quite frankly, an idiot. His function is to flex his muscles, and he is the only character that Riff-Raff displays any overt hostility toward, despite the fact that Rocky has literally never done anything to anyone. His very existence is an affront to Riff-Raff.

Eddie: The Bully. Eddie is described as a “no-good punk,” and it fits. He doesn’t last long enough to have any interaction with Riff-Raff, but we can assume that it wouldn’t be pleasant.

Dr. Scott: The Authority Figure. Dr. Scott uses his intelligence as a weapon, and he’s cold and judgmental.

Brad: The Conformist. Like Janet, he isn’t motivated by beliefs about right and wrong, but by opinions of what’s socially acceptable and what isn’t. Brad tries to act like what he thinks a “real man” is supposed to be, but he hasn’t got it in him and it shows.

Frank N. Furter: Frank is every geek’s nightmare, and paradoxically an aspirational figure. He is aggressively pansexual, a sexual predator directing his lustful intentions toward everybody except, of course, Riff-Raff and Magenta. Frank is brash, loud, flirtatious, demanding, tyrannical, cruel, sentimental, and self-absorbed. More than anything, he is a narcissist. Half the time we admire his audacity, the other half we’re appalled by his callousness. Where the outsiders ignore societal expectations, Frank attacks the norms, tears them down and burns them in his wake. He is both inspiration and cautionary tale.

Naturally, in the big finale, every toxic archetype is either killed or humbled. That is, if we ignore the fact that Riff-Raff in many ways embodies the creepy “nice guy” who is anything but that. There’s a bit of unexamined privilege going on. Frankly, I don’t think Richard O’Brian was fully conscious of the story he was really telling.

Rocky Horror offers affirmation for anyone who chafes at the rigid confines of modern gender role restrictions. There is a reason the film resonates most with adolescents, and I think it’s because that’s the time when one is most likely to be told they are “not manly enough” or “not ladylike,” are judged and condemned and not yet secure enough in themselves to recognize that the standards they are being held to are arbitrary and unnecessary and wrong. A film like Rocky Horror assures us that we are not alone and not broken. It’s raw and visceral and mostly subliminal, and that why he wasn’t able to write a satisfying sequel. It’s also why the TV version didn’t work; it was too self-conscious, too self-aware, too arch, and way too concerned with imitating the original in a TV-friendly way.

Another example: Phantom of the Paradise.

Phantom of the Paradise is a cautionary tale about selling out your artistic principles for money, power, or love, dressed up as a goofy horror musical parody. Since the film swipes heavily from the classic Phantom of the Opera, Faust, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, the filmmakers get to play with all of those themes at the same time. (Side note for movie geeks: the film is also littered with homages and references to Hitchcock films. DiPalma really indulged himself in that regard.)

Winslow Leach refuses to sell his cantata, insisting that only he can perform and produce this highly personal work, but as soon as he is talked into letting Swan take a look at the score, his doom is sealed; he will be betrayed, framed, imprisoned, killed, enslaved, and ultimately killed again. Along the way, he will again sell himself and his work, the second time through his nerdy devotion to Phoenix, the woman he falls in love with, who barely knows him and does not recognize him later.

The point about artistic integrity is hammered home in a musical montage sequence; it begins with Winslow, now “the Phantom,” forced to sing with Swan’s voice in a bitter irony, pouring out his soul in an emotional song, “Beauty and the Beast,” which then becomes the audition song for a number of musicians performing in different genres. We hear the song as country, pop, R&B, and ultimately as a sort of pre-death-metal rock with a bit of glitter rock, a corporate-engineered monstrosity that is in every way the opposite of what the composer intended, and we know that there’s not a damn thing he can do about it. His art has been converted into a crass commodity, doubling down on the earlier example, hearing his mournful “Faust” turned into the bubblegum pop “Upholstery.” The lesson is pretty well spelled out: there are predators like Swan (Paul Williams) in every artistic field, and they will rob you and destroy you if you are foolish enough to get entangled with them. Don’t sign contracts you don’t understand; not for money, not for fame, not for the love of a good woman, not for anything.

Even the vacuous, preening, drug-addled, and genuinely stupid manufactured rock star, Beef, is alert enough to recognize the value of artistic integrity; when told to rework a song and make it completely his own, he balks. “But doesn’t that change the whole thing?” and when told that nobody cares about lyrics or themes, he defends the crazy presumed-dead composer he’s never heard of, because Art Matters.

I’ve discovered that almost everyone I know who likes Phantom of the Paradise first saw it sometime between ages 10 and 15, and almost all of them are some sort of artist or performer. The theme hits them in their core.

Another cult classic is Bubba Ho-Tep, seemingly a goofy horror-comedy about nursing home residents fighting a cowboy mummy who kills old people by sucking their souls out through their butts. The fact that the two heroes are a limping Elvis Presley and wheelchair-bound black JFK (um, look, just see it, I promise it makes sense) just adds to the lunacy, which serves to hide the chewy nougat center.

The story of the film: Elvis got tired of being Elvis, so he swapped lives with one of his impersonators; the fake Elvis moved into Graceland and Elvis took over his trailer-home. A few years later, Fake Elvis died on the toilet, and Real Elvis had a fire in his trailer that destroyed all the documents that could prove his identity. Some years after that, Elvis fell off the stage at a concert and woke up in a nursing home with a broken hip. His roommate claims to be John F. Kennedy; he survived his assassination, and the CIA has dyed him black and stashed him in this remote place for safekeeping. When they discover that their fellow patients are being killed by a supernatural force, the two have to go into action, because that’s the kind of people they are.

At heart, Bubba Ho-Tep is a rumination on aging, mortality, identity, duty, sacrifice, and self-image, but it’s dressed up as a goofy horror movie to slip the themes in unnoticed. In between jokes about venereal disease and bedpans, Elvis and JFK wrestle with their public and private images and identities, who they are and what that means, and what difference they can and must make in the lives of others. For a silly horror movie, they spend a lot of time on philosophy. And of course the obvious metaphor, that death comes for us all, rich and poor, obscure and famous, is dealt with in a satisfying way. It’s a great balancing of the sacred and profane, the ridiculous and the sublime, and was absolutely not what I was expecting.

Another example, which I mentioned earlier: The Big Lebowski. Joel Coen described the film as having “a hopelessly complex plot that’s ultimately unimportant.” It”s unimportant because what is important is the character of Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski. The film has been dissected a variety of ways, presented as a political critique (centering on Walter Sobchak is “a neocon”), a feminist statement on Karl Marx’s “commodity fetishism,” a counter-narrative to post-Reaganomic entrepreneurialism, a carnivalesque critique of society, an analysis on war and ethics, and as a narrative on mass communication and US militarism, but I think it’s more humanist than any of those.

The theme here is simple: “The Dude abides.” No matter what happens, the Dude never loses his equanimity for long. The Dude takes everything in stride, calmly asserting his grievances and pushing for his restitution no matter how things play out. While Walter engages in self-righteous rage and hapless Donny takes abuse, whether being threatened by German nihilist thugs, insulted by The Jesus, or seduced by Julianne Moore, the Dude abides. His ability to ride out anything and stay focused on his original goal is what carries him through.

Of course we already gave a good look to Battle Beyond the Stars, a story that always works, whether it’s called Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, Three Amigos!, or A Bug’s Life, and another riff on the notion that a group of people working together can get shit done, even if they don’t much like each other.

There are dozens of other cult classics we could dissect in the same way, finding each one’s chewy moral center; films like Harold and Maude, Army of Darkness, Donnie Darko, Repo Man, and so on and on, but I think I’ll leave you to dissect them for yourself.

Oh look, a comment section. How convenient.

Standard selfish footnote: Just about all the links in this post point to relevant items on Amazon that you can buy or rent for your own amusement, and I get a handful of change every time you do. I also get a cut if you go and buy other things at the same time. So please go check out any of these fine entertainments, and also look at expensive home entertainment systems and other pricy indulgences while you’re at it. Thanks!

6 Comments

  1. Peter

    Excellent dissection of a lot of these “cult classics.” Even if there are some of these movies I don’t love, I think they’re differentiated by sincere attempts to communicate some lesson or belief about being human. It’s why a lot of films that are just manufactured to be wacky don’t have much staying power.

    Also – when is Bubba Nosferatu coming out?

  2. Alaric

    Nicely written, and very interesting.

    A couple of things;

    “The only long-running franchise series at the time was James Bond, which was still in its Roger Moore phase.” I was going to mention the Godzilla franchise, but then I realized that it was just being brought back (and rebooted) after a nearly 10-year hiatus at that time. There were, of course, a number of earlier franchises (many, perhaps most, of a comedic nature).

    “there’s a reason why most people’s favorite film is something they saw between the ages of 8 and 18; that’s the window where we’re figuring out who we are, what we value, and how we fit in, and movies often help us identify that or validate what we’re feeling.” I must be kinda weird in that respect, then. I’m not sure I even HAVE a favorite film, and several of the ones that would be in the running were things i first saw much later than that age (or, in a couple of cases, earlier). (I had a lot more to say about this, but it would end up being a full essay in itself.)

    I guess I didn’t really have anything that important to say here, after all.

    1. You have a good point with Godzilla, and there certainly were what might be considered pseudo-franchises, generally built around certain stars, such as Abbott & Costello, Jerry Lewis, and the Bing & Bob “Road” films. But the continuing and expanding “universe” wasn’t seen too much outside of Bond and the Planet of the Apes series.

      My point with the 8-18 age is a variation on an old truth of the comics industry: “the Golden Age is 8.” In my experience, relatively few hard-core Star Wars fans were older than 15 in 1977. The stuff we love uncritically usually comes to us in our youth.

  3. The novelization of Buckeroo Banzai was littered with numerous footnotes, all referring to events that happened in “previous” volumes of the novel series.

    I like Buckeroo Banzai because it’s a Jason and the Argonauts / Robin Hood and is Merrie Men type of story: The actual plot is only the thing that links all the fun character bits together.

    1. The screen crawl on the edition of Buckaroo Banzai I have has similar details, for example identifying one minor character as an agent of the World Crime League (who would have been the foe in the second movie, had it come to pass).
      The creators tried buying back the rights to the movie when it became obvious the studio wasn’t going to make a second film, but according to one of the DVD features, some of the studio execs so loathed the film having come out under their label they said no.

  4. Jeff Nettleton

    I wanted to like Buckaroo Banzai; I really did. It features things that are right up my alley….Doc Savage and his Famous Five, rocket cars, mad scientists/aliens, secret conspiracies, hidden pasts, World Crime Leagues; but, I just can’t get into it. It took 3 attempts to sit through the entire movie, as the first two bored me to much to continue. After writing a review of the Marvel Super Special, I watched the whole thing. I just don’t think it works. To me, it seems like it wants to be cleverer than it is, wants to have a tone that it misses and wants to present bizarre but likable characters but doesn’t really bring them to life. It had a good cast; but, the visuals don’t support it well, the dialogue gets clumsy and Peter Weller just comes across as bland. The concept is great and I think the problem is an inexperienced writer, working with an established writer who became the inexperienced director, who were more in love with their words and there concept than actually telling the story. The hints of Hanoi Xhan and the World Crime League are far more interesting and I think a director who was more experienced with actors would have got a heck of a lot more out of great character actors like Clancy Brown and Jeff Goldblum. I mean, Goldblum’s dressed in a ridiculous Roy Rogers outfit, yet he sounds like he is lecturing on the sweetening process in a cereal. There is no hint of the guy we see in Jurassic Park or Thor Ragnarok.

    For my money, if you want a good Doc Savage homage, you have to look at Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China series. Wong Fei Hung, a master of kung fu and herbology, a protector of the people against oppression, works with his various assistants, each with their own speciality and each with a lively personality, who are often at odds with each other. Couple that with John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China and you get what I think would have made Buckaroo Banzai a real classic. In fact, John Carpenter would have really made this film come alive.

    Big Lebowski befuddled me, the first time I saw it. It was only later, after I saw an interview with the Coens, where they said something about Phillip Marlowe, with a stoner for the detective that I finally “got” what they were doing. I was too busy trying to make sense of the plot.

    The philosophical stuff in Bubba Ho-Tep isn’t that surprising, if you have read Joe Lansdale’s work. For all of his weird western stuff, he’s still a pretty deep guy. Love the Elvis commentary track on the DVD.

    Rocky Horror never did much for me; but, I was also in college when I saw it. I know of a few people who did really identify with it, including one fetishist who found it as an example that it was okay to be who they were. It seems like a lot depends on the crowd you see it with, as we were in a not to full theater, with some high school kids acting it out, but not really “being” it. Just felt a lot duller than I heard, when I was in high school.

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