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Paula Graham

Related: cult movies - film theory - feminist film theory - commercial


Paula Graham is an American feminist film theorist.

Cult and commerce () - Paula Graham

Cult and Commerce

[8] Cult film practices developed two main forms. Cult 'classics' had once been popular Hollywood box-office successes aimed at a mainstream audience. Their elevation to cult status occurred when they became mere filler material on TV networks in the 1950s and acquired a devoted following. As a result, even films which had been box-office flops on theatrical release might find subsequent cult status through the small screen - particularly as the video sell-through market developed. Whether or not the films had originally been commercial or critical successes, their cult success found a different measure:

[T]he conjunction of a limited audience and a limited, even unconventionally measured success becomes significant. For it underscores how that 'love' aspect of the cult film functions: it works in a realm of difference - from normal film viewing practices and from marketing customs. [Telotte, 1991b: 7]
Mast (1986), however, had already problematised such arguments - pointing out that cult itself had already begun to be exploited as a potential market as early as the 1960s.

[9] The experimental, 'underground' and 'exploitation' film genres of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, on the other hand, were marginally produced for minority audiences and dealt with issues and modes of representation which popular film ignored or suppressed. Their formal strategies began to cross over into popular cinema in the 1960s as both filmmakers and audiences became more sophisticated as 'readers' of film [Cook, 1985: 217]. This led to a field of cult production usually associated with auteurs such as Altman, and to the genesis of the art-house circuit of the 60s and 70s which provided the alternative viewing location. But, and perhaps more to the point, competition with TV was also motivating new marketing practices of segmentation and targeting of film audiences. Most usually cited in this context are nascent minority-targeted genres such as blaxploitation and sexploitation, whose products had made a respectable return on small initial investment by addressing audiences marginalised by mainstream media production. Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971) marks the crossover point:

The fact that Sweetback's domestic theatrical rentals . . . amounted to $4,100,000 indicated that producers could make significant profits by creating black action films for young blacks. [Reid, 1988: 29]

[10] The content and formal strategy of these minority-targeted exploitation genres drew from socio-political movements such as the New Left, Black Power, Feminism and Gay Liberation, which had generated underground cinema. These extra-textual references facilitated the 'cult' bonding process among their primarily young audiences. Exploitation movies were produced to develop profitable minority segments, but also to popularise the politicising aspirations of minority cultural producers. Rebellion and marketing were already, albeit uncomfortably, in bed together. 'Alternative' cultural producers could not work out whether to rejoice at the popular dissemination of 'subversive' form and content or to mourn the crass commercialisation of revolutionary ideals in the commercial teen market:

Sweetback was the first black action film that attracted large black-teenage audiences. Van Peebles had decided to make a film for the 'unpoliticised' black filmgoer… The 'loving product' that constituted … [the 'alternative'] sector of the print media was most confused and ambiguous in its treatment of Sweetback. While struggling to endorse the anti-establishment messages provided by Sweetback, the alternative press could not fully identify with the young black urban spectator who seemed to be Van Peebles' primary target. [Hartmann, 1994: 26, 385]

[11] The teen-segment 'midnight movie' of the 1970s and 1980s was delivered of both classic and exploitation primary cult forms and shows many of the same characteristics. Midnight movies may be associated with an auteur (such as Erasorhead) and/or with a 'exploitative' marketing appeal to the 'Oxy 5' set, its feelings of alienation from the mainstream, and rite-of-passage angst - The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1983), the dreaded Freddy, Night of the Living Dead (1990), and, latterly, Scream (1996). The midnight slot in an otherwise standard mall exhibition context provides the alternative viewing context necessary to facilitate a subcultural bonding experience:

Whilst classical cult films project appealing images that speak to the contradictions in our present lives, midnight movies fashion a context of difference - of rebellion, independence, sexual freedom, gender shifting - that helps us cope with real-world conformity. In common, they offer a kind of loving understanding that acknowledges our own sense of difference or alienation, even as it mates us to other, similarly 'different' types in the audience or the films themselves. [Telotte, 1991b: 11]
Whether connected to existing social networks or agendas of opposition or not, this bonding experience - or even 'illicit' pleasure in itself - was seen as productive of a mode of engagement or identification which is not already commodified or institutionalised. That is, in terms of audience, a cult film may be defined either as productive of an alternative social context through the repetition of devotional activities, or as appealing to an already subordinated community by citing extra-textual marginal cultural agendas and pleasures, and thus reaffirming pre-existent bonds and interpretative strategies.
The cult film has most often been defined in two ways: as any picture that is seen repeatedly by a devoted audience, and as a deviant or radically different picture, embraced by a deviant audience. [Kawin, 1991: 18]
Both modalities have been positively associated with 'abject' status:
To speak as a fan is to accept what has been labelled a subordinated position within the cultural hierarchy, to accept an identity constantly belittled or criticized by institutional authorities. Yet it is also to speak from a position of collective identity … [Jenkins, 1992: 507]
Indeed, the discourse of 'subcultural resistance' is often highly romanticised in that 'subcultural' activity actually appears to transcend capitalist practices altogether:
The role of McLaren and Westwood was also downgraded for the similar reason that punk was seen as a kind of collective creative impulse. To focus on a designer and an art-school entrepreneur would have been to undermine the 'purity' or 'authenticity' of the subculture. [McRobbie, 1989: 193]

[12] This conceptualisation of subcultural or cult activity as transcending capitalist practices and thus as 'always-already' transgressive is ultimately based on a repression thesis fundamentally at odds with postmodernity. In the 1960s, the legacies of McCarthyism, the Cold War, sexual puritanism, and racial segregation were seen as repressive in an authoritarian (or Freudian) sense rather than productive in a Foucauldian sense. The 'estrangement' (through repetition and/or recontextualisation) and recoding of dominant representations was rebelliously deployed to reveal the 'truths' of authoritarian corruption behind repressive 'masks' of moralistic hypocrisy, creating 'alternative culture(s)' and the iconography of 'cult' in the process:

The cult fascination with 1950s 'bad art' seems largely to stem from the commonplace assumption that the era was repressive … for to be sure, while the sixties drug culture seemed obsessed with mysticism, its primary project was the irreverent demystification of American culture … what was 'hidden' was a sense of life and self directly at odds with postwar morality … The revered symbols of fifties morality, battered by such persistent mockery, easily dissolved into comic stereotypes - and cult icons. [Graham, 1991: 110]
If the 1970s saw an exploitation of the commercial potential of popularised subcultural activity, by the 1980s, no longer searching for 'truths' behind the 'masks' of hypocrisy, postmodern culture eschewed 'truth' altogether in favour of the uncontrollable multiplicity and play of the text. The 1990s then saw the movement of 'positive representation' of minorities into mainstream media both in terms of segmentation and the routine inclusion of black/gay/pro-feminist characters in blockbusters, soaps, and sitcoms. By the end of the 1990s, 'outsider' status and its 'deviant' (re)coding techniques, began to emanate a positive cachet.

[13] In this diverse, micropolitical, and segmented environment, boundaries between 'margin' and 'mainstream' become more difficult to locate or define. Although members of dominant social groups clearly do not suffer the same 'anguish of invisibility' as do cultural minorities, dominant cultural traditions have frequently been argued also to have reached a condition of painfully confusing collapse:

The revered 'master narratives' of the past … survive in truncated form, influencing but not dominating social discourse. Instead, a multivocal and contradictory culture that delights in difference and disunity seems to be at the core of contemporary cultural consciousness. [Lipsitz, 1997: 351]
A tendency towards breakdown in cultural hegemony and the proliferation of microcultures can also be seen as the product of shifts in the organisation of the American enconomy from 'Fordism', associated with classic patterns of consumerism, to the 'flexible accumulation' model. In the context of hyperproductive capitalism, identity is no longer seen as a human property, or even as a primarily cultural product, but as a product of patterns of consumption. You are what you consume.
[F]lexible accumulation typically exploits a wide range of seemingly contingent geographical circumstances, and reconstitutes them as structured internal elements of its own encompassing logic....the result has been the production of fragmentation, insecurity, and ephemeral uneven development within a highly unified global space economy of capital flows." [David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), 294, 296]
Marginal identificatory practices have, of necessity, always been highly improvisational and adaptive. Marginal groups have thus been uniquely equipped to cope with (and exploit) these changes. This has effectively moved 'alternative' lifestyles from margin to mainstream. Gilroy (1987), for example, argued that it is no longer possible to theorise black culture in Britain without re-theorising British culture as a whole. Mercer (1987) reached a similar conclusion:
Western cultural traditions are radically transformed by this neo-African, improvisational approach to aesthetic and cultural production. In addition, there is another 'turn of the screw' in these modern relations of interculturation when these creolized cultural forms are made use of by other social groups and then, in turn, are all incorporated into mainstream 'mass' culture as commodities for consumption. [Mercer, 1987: 430]
Mercer's argument holds across a range of subcultures. Besides doing good box-office, Thelma & Louise (1990) could be redeployed to sell cars to young, post-feminist, women. Lesbian and gay 'subtexting' and 'synchretising' expertise could be exploited in 'window' techniques which enable media to produce not only advertising but programming which appeals to a gay audiences whilst avoiding 'negative association':
But 'gayness' remains in the eye of the beholder: gays and lesbians can read into an ad certain subtextual elements that correspond to experiences with or representations of gay/lesbian subculture. If heterosexual consumers do not notice these subtexts or subcultural codes, then advertisers are able to reach the homosexual market along with the heterosexual market without ever revealing their aim. [Clark, 1991:188]
Marginalised groups' flexibility and expertise in 'subtexting' and 'recoding' can thus be seen as key to this new cultural order:
Their exclusion from political power and cultural recognition has allowed aggrieved populations to cultivate sophisticated capacities for ambiguity, juxtaposition, and irony - all key qualities in the postmodern aesthetic. [Lipsitz, 1997: 351]
Cult practices, in this decentred context, may begin to appear as complicit - even pivotal - rather than as 'oppositional' or 'outside'. By the 1990s, one might suggest that 'subcultural' activity had become the very motor of hyperproductive western capitalism, which is crucially dependent on cultural innovation and diversification.

--Paula Graham via http://www.rhizomes.net/issue4/graham.html [Feb 2006]

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