An Infinitely Expanding Emporium of Desire: Cult Films and Their Audiences

image from cdn.collider.comScott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)

There are a lot of different kinds of relationships between films and their audiences. Keith Phipps and Manohla Dargis look at two relationships that are endangered, although for different reasons.

Phipps looks at the midnight movie, which isn't exactly synonymous with the cult film, but very close to it. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the ur-text of the midnight movie, and according to Phipps, the film and its rituals still appear. Rocky Horror attracts an audience that is sexually unconventional–"weird" is the deliberately vague term they use to describe themselves. The point of the film, and of all cult films, is to construct a space in which identities can be forged and shared. The act of sharing an identity is far more important than the actual content of the identity. That's why all true cult films have some sort of shared language surrounding them, even if they are largely consumed at home in private.

Missing this point entirely, major studios have tried to horn in on the midnight screening experience, but to my knowledge no cult film audience has ever been forged by marketers. Phipps reports that from time to time cult film audiences still coalesce around a film. He mentions Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010) as a recent cult film. Unlike Rocky Horror, though, with its exuberant viewership, Wright's film, like a lot of other later cult films, engages its audience through irony. 

Irony isn't really a factor in the Star Wars cult. Instead, Star Wars is a contested property, with George Lucas battling Star Wars fans for ownership of the franchise. Dargis tells a familiar story about how the original Star Wars (1977) redirected American cinema away from an auteurist model of filmmaking to a blockerbuster cinema. Her twist on the story is placing Lucas on both sides of the divide. Lucas claims ownership over the creative vision of the Star Wars films and every scrap of its merchandising, or as much as he can get his hands on. 

Dargis sees the merchandise as a key battleground for ownership of Star Wars. "As the decades and sequels opened and closed, those mugs and toys multiplied into a seemingly infinitely expanding emporium of desire," she writes, "a 'Star Wars' alternative reality in which you could live, play (online and off) and dream." I like the phrase "infinitely expanding emporium of desire." It perfectly describes how Star Wars is both a corporate property and a private thing. It's how the films' audience is forever running ahead of its marketers. 

Blockbusters are still around, of course, but I can't name a franchise launched in the past twenty years that has forged a relationship with its audience like Star Wars. Yes, Star Trek is a similar phenomenon, but it's even older than Lucas's epic. 

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