Last week, my partner hosted a screening of Miami Connection, Drafthouse Films’ release of the heretofore largely unseen low-budget Tae Kwon Do musical from 1987, for a small group of friends. Ever the meticulous party-planner, she made the viewing interactive by constructing, amongst a litany of other viewing activities, a series of Bingo cards that our friends could play while watching the film.
At first, I was a bit worried that this might make the viewing of a ridiculous ‘80s cult film all too predetermined, forcing our friends to anticipate amazing lines like “I thought we are all orphans” or the transcendent pro-friendship tunes of Dragon Sound ahead of time rather than experiencing these moments organically, as she and I did the first time we saw Miami Connection. Thankfully, I was proven wrong. The interactive viewing was a great success for our dear Miami Connection virgins, and everyone went home whistling “Against the Ninja” whether they wanted to or not.
But I’m not interested in talking about a party that went well (okay, maybe a little bit). I’m interested in what something like Miami Connection Bingo cards represent for people seeing the film for the first time: the simultaneous, seemingly paradoxical engagement with cult film initiation and cult film participation.
It seems to be common wisdom that one should be initiated into the cult film before participating in its cult. I’m talking here about cult films with devoted fanbases and a developed set of regular practices to go along with screenings. Theoretically, one can see The Room for the first time via a public screening, but one probably shouldn’t. The cacophony of spoon-throwing and cued audience interaction would likely prevent the first-timer from fully appreciating the subtle brilliance of Tommy Wiseau’s naïve defiance of even the most basic fundamentals of coherent narrative storytelling.
And public screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show have long-established elaborate, even intimidating rituals for first-timers, thus making the experience about so many things other than the “film itself.” Furthermore, a lack of adequate knowledge about the original cult object in question can prevent even a basic engagement with its intended appeal when one encounters ancillary cult practices; Spinal Tap, for instance, spoke of many fans who had never seen the film and seemed not to get the joke when they went on tour.
Perhaps most cult films require the technology of home viewing. Older beloved films from cinema’s margins, like Manos: The Hands of Fate or Ed Wood’s filmography, came to be appreciated decades after their initial release through the legacy-forming possibilities of television and home video. It makes sense that the uninitiated would have to “do their homework” per se, watching The Room or Rocky Horror at home or with a small group of friends, to develop a basic understanding of the appeal of the object in question in order to subsequently participate in its interactive rituals. Such rituals are far from the ideal first-viewing context, and minimal-participation viewing is typically the best guide for understanding why such a cult developed around the film in the first place.
This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, of course. Some can appreciate any of these films in a way that they couldn’t possibly experience at home, and many cult films haven’t developed rituals at all. I’m thinking in particular about a screening of Troll 2 I once attended at one of the Alamo Drafthouse’s Terror Tuesdays. Strict and necessary no-talking policy in tow, the nuances of Troll 2’s anti-vegetarian propaganda were all the more enjoyable on a giant screen with an elated captive audience filled to capacity. And some movie experiences simply aren’t replicable anywhere else, like a midnight showing of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (psychedelic assistance non-optional). But what’s important is that, in the tradition of cult movies, ritual develops after appreciation in an evolutionary sense, with a subculture emerging from a shared love of a cinematic object and eventually forming a set of practices to exhibit a collective love of a film.
But with a couple of recent films that seem to occupy a similar category, the order of events is rather different. Practices and exhibitions of appreciation can appear simultaneously with mass initiations into the love of the cult film itself, and this has some complicated implications for what we deem worthy of “cult film” status.