MOVIES WORTH GOOGLING FOR SEPTEMBER—or, Can You Make a Cult?
The first flick of this month’s column is a little different than the ones I normally approach—it’s readily available at Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Target….Granted, it was barely seen on home video, and even less on the big screen. However, it raises a good question—can a cult hit be created, or can it only happen by accident?
Think of the early midnight movies—El Topo, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Eraserhead, and the later ones like Buckaroo Banzai and The Big Lebowski. None of them were designed to be underground cult hits. Sometimes they aimed at high art, and others simply wanted to entertain. Yet there was something in them that connected with audiences. People were willing to travel miles to watch late night showings. Some take it a step further and have conventions or fan sites, finding kinship in their love of these bits of cinematic goodness. Like lightning in a bottle, the movies found the right people at the right time and transcended simple passive viewing to become a phenomenon.
Repo: The Genetic Opera set out to be a cult hit from the start. They tried to create that lightning in a bottle. What they succeeded in was a poor facsimile, similar to an LED light in a juice cup.
Repo, as the title suggests, is an opera. The music was really pretty good, a decent mix of Broadway and modern goth/metal. The cast has some fantastic singers—Paul Sorvino, Sarah Brightman, Anthony Stewart Head, and some pleasant surprises like Bill Mosley and Paris Hilton. The artistic side of the movie was fantastic—the sets were gorgeously done, the costuming was fit the characters well. So where did the movie fail? It was the writing that killed Repo.
The story itself wasn’t half bad. Repo is set in the not so distant future, where human organ and face transplants are done for both medical and cosmetic reasons. These operations are run by a private organization, GeneCo, who offer surgery on credit. Now, we all know what happens when you don’t pay your bills…REPOSESSION! Yes, your spleen or pancreas will be cut out by the Repo Man. Movies with weaker premises have gone on to be classics.
No, the major belly flop comes with the details. In the dialogue, everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, is telegraphed. Each thought, each emotion, each step is told to you repeatedly. It felt like the director didn’t trust the actors enough to show you when they were sad or angry or only walking six steps forward. And that’s a damn shame, because the director had such a capable cast. Yes, I understand the telegraphing is a standard in classical opera. Those were on stage. On film, it’s repetitive and insulting.
The writing also fails with lazy plotting. Repo is narrated by a drug dealer named Graverobber. Graverobber conveniently ends up in many places where he has no reason to be. Why is he backstage at GeneCo’s opera house? Works for the story. How did he get past security? And why does GeneCo even have an opera house in the first place? No matter, it all needed to be there for the story. It could have been so easy to set up reasons, maybe having a customer nearby, or even a wrong turn—anything, even a bad excuse. The fact they didn’t even try felt sloppy and haphazard.
The first time I watched Repo I thought the bad writing was simply lack of skill. Then I watched the DVD with the commentary, where the filmmakers talked about how they aimed for camp. Then I had to look at the movie with a different set of eyes, this time looking for the joke. Sadly, the movie still fell flat.
The term “camp” is described in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a style or mode of personal or creative expression that is absurdly exaggerated and often fuses elements of high and popular culture.” Sure, Repo fits the dictionary definition, but that doesn’t make the movie good. If anything, once I knew they aimed at camp, it felt like they used that as an excuse, and made the movie worse. For example, a scene where the heirs of the GeneCo fortune are arguing over who should take over the business, one sings, “I’m the smartest, and the toughest. I will find a hole and fuck it.” When I thought they were being serious, that line was almost laughably bad. We’ve all seen movies so poorly written they were funny. But if they try to write bad dialogue with no sense of irony or well-meaning heart, the humor is gone and it remains simply bad.
I do have to wonder if they aimed for camp while making the movie, or if it was an afterthought. Sure, some scenes are played for laughs, but then you have the bits of heavy drama. Our main Repo Man is still mourning the death of his wife during childbirth seventeen years previous (which they don’t forget to remind us every, oh, eight or nine minutes). In that role, Anthony Head transcends the material. He is totally convincing as a grieving husband (as long as you don’t listen to the lyrics). How does his misery fit under the ‘camp’ umbrella? In addition, the transitions between the comedy and drama are so sudden, as a viewer I gave up trying to follow the emotions, and stopped caring halfway through.
According to the commentary, they wanted this to be this generation’s Rocky Horror Picture Show. The funny thing is, Rocky Horror didn’t want to be Rocky Horror. It wanted to be a regular movie that people would enjoy, go home, and maybe think of fondly. It found its way into millions of hearts by accident. Repo was too self-conscious to reach that level.
A casual movie watcher might simply be annoyed by this little flick. A real movie fan will be offended—there is so much wasted talent on this movie, the final product is an abomination.
At this point I’m stepping back, looking at the past three movies I’ve discussed for The Black Glove, and I’m feeling like an old lady sitting on the porch griping about “damn kids, get off my lawn.” So allow me to continue on with the cult film line and bring up one I find absolutely amazing—Institute Benjamenta, directed by the Brothers Quay (identical twins who direct every movie together).
Institute is one that’ll take some hunting. Myself, I was lucky to find my copy of the out of print DVD on the shelves of a used bookstore. Amazon has them starting at 70 bucks and, as of this writing, none are available at EBay or Netflix. Finding an affordable copy might take some detective work.
The cult of Institute is not the loud, in-your-face, Scientology type cult that Rocky Horror is. No, the Institute cult is more along the lines of a quiet sect meeting at dark basements in the middle of the night.
Like Repo, the basic storyline behind Institute isn’t overly complex. Jacob enrolls in the Institute Benjamenta where they train people to be submissive servants. Yet something isn’t quite right about the brother and sister who run it, and something is definitely wrong with the building itself. And Jacob won’t be at peace until he finds out what’s in that secret room….
A simple plot is the only thing these two movies have in common. Repo felt barely thought out. In Institute, everything was deliberate. There was not a word spoken, a character movement, any bit of set decoration that didn’t have a purpose. There was not a wasted moment in that movie.
The downside of that type of filmmaking is that it becomes exhausting to watch. You do have to pay attention. The payout is worth it, though, because as a movie viewer, it felt more like an experience than just a passive activity. The very deliberate manner creates not just a viewing experience, but an emotional one as well. The sets and props combine with the words (or in some cases, lack thereof) spoken by the characters to create such a strong sense of melancholy and dread I was left feeling the movie long after I’d finished watching it.
Another positive aspect is that Institute doesn’t leave you feeling stupid. Repo, with all its emotional telegraphing, said in its own way “You aren’t smart enough to figure this out on your own. I will make sure you don’t miss anything and let you know that this character feels really, really sad.” Institute is fine to let the audience figure things out on their own. None of the characters say much about how they feel, or whether they are rebellious or resigned. The Brothers Quay didn’t tell us—they showed us and wouldn’t you know? We, the audience, got it.
The Brothers Quay didn’t set out to make a cult movie. They just wanted to make the movie they envisioned. It didn’t matter to them if they sold extra tickets for repeat viewings. They weren’t thinking about merchandising. They wanted to make a damn fine flick. They did, and audiences responded. It might not have the widespread acclaim of Rocky Horror, but its little cult is there. Evidence of that comes with how hard it is to find. The fans aren’t selling their copies. Available DVDs are so limited that the price becomes prohibitive. A quick look to any one of the “downloads of questionable origin” sites shows a ton of people either seeding or currently downloading the movie. It has its fans who will go to any lengths to watch it, almost fifteen years after its release.
In fifteen years, will people be willing to drop a hundred fifty bucks for a copy or Repo?
I’m not saying it’s impossible to create a cult movie from scratch, with that end in mind. What I am saying is that it didn’t fly this time around. I’d be curious to see what would happen if the Brothers Quay tried to make their own cult classic. That kind of talent might be able to pull off what the filmmakers of Repo couldn’t. I doubt we will ever know. The Brothers Quay are too busy trying to make good movies. The cults, they’ll show up on their own.