Movies And Trash

Perhaps the first movies to develop cult followings were B movies—those quickly made, cheaply produced films that had their heyday in Hollywood's ''Golden Age.'' B movies began to proliferate in the mid-1930s, when distributors felt that ''double features'' might stand a chance of luring increasingly frugal Depression audiences back to the theaters. Their strategy worked—audiences of devoted moviegoers thrilled to cheap B movie fare like The Mummy's Hand (1940), The Face Behind the Mask (1941), Cobra Woman (1944), and White Savage (1943). Often (but not always) horror or science-fiction films, these movies were inexpensively produced and usually unheralded—except by their fans, who often found more to enjoy in these bottom-rung ''guilty pleasures'' than in the high-profile epics their profits supported.

B movies were cheaply made, but were not necessarily poor in quality. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, however, a number of rather inept films were made that have subsequently developed substantial cult followings. The ''trash'' movie aesthetic was founded on an appreciation for these low-budget movies. Struggling with severe budgetary limitations, directors were regularly forced to come up with makeshift costuming and set design solutions that produced truly strange and sometimes unintentionally comic results. The trash aesthetic was later borrowed by underground filmmakers like Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Jack Smith (1932-1989), and the Kuchar Brothers (George [b. 1942] and Mike [b. 1942]), who also made their films in the cheapest possible way.

Most of the original trash cinema failed miserably at the box office, and has developed a cult reputation only in retrospect, after being reappropriated by a later audience with an eye for nostalgic irony. For the most part, the films were not products of the big Hollywood studios; most of them were made independently, often targeted at the drive-in theater market, and some were made outside the United States. Such films include the Japanese monster epic Godzilla (1954) and its low-budget Danish imitation Reptilicus (1962), as well as shabby Boris Karloff vehicles like Die Monster Die (1965), and bizarre sexploitation films like The Wild Women ofWongo (1958). Today, many movie buffs are drawn to the camp, kitschy qualities of these movies— their minimal budgets, low production values, and appalling acting. Many such films were made by Roger Corman (b. 1926), who originally specialized in quickie productions with low-budget resources and little commercial marketing, including Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) and Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961). Corman's place in cult film history is also assured by his unrivaled eye for talent; among the many notables who were employed by him at a very early stage in their careers are Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, James Cameron, and Peter Bogdanovich.

The unrivaled king of trash cinema was undoubtedly Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1924-1978), whose output— films like Bride of the Monster (1955) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)—are considered the nadir of naive charm. These movies have been much celebrated in retrospect because of their unique and endearing ineptitude and for the implausibility of their premises. Like most other ''bad'' cult movies, Wood's films lack finesse and wit, but are loved by their fans for precisely this reason. Significantly, cults have also recently grown up around more contemporary ''bad'' movies. For example, almost immediately after the theatrical release of Showgirls (Paul Verhoeven, 1995), which recouped only half its $40 million cost, the film opened in Los Angeles and then in New York as a midnight cult movie. This phenomenon suggests that the cult movie aesthetic is not necessarily antithetical to the big-budget, mass-market mode of production nourished by the major Hollywood studios.

This crossover also raises the question of the distinction between ''cult'' and ''camp.'' Generally speaking, camp began in the New York underground theater and film communities, and is a quality of the way movies are received, rather than a deliberate quality of the films themselves. Indeed, camp, according to critic Susan Sontag, is always the product of pure passion—on however grand or pathetic a scale—somehow gone strangely awry. To be considered camp, it is not enough for a film to fail, or to seem dated, extreme, or freakish; there must be a genuine passion and sincerity about its creation. Camp is based on a faith and emotion in the film that is shared by director and audience, often across the passage of time, contradicting the popular assumption that camp is concerned only with surfaces and the superficial.

The two concepts—camp and cult—clearly overlap in a number of ways, and many films develop cult followings because of their camp qualities. For example, many studio films have attracted a retrospective devotion through a process of reappropriation on the part of gay audiences. This is especially true of films that feature gay icons, like Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, Liza Minelli, or Barbra Streisand, in particularly melodramatic or pathetic roles. Such films include Mildred Pierce (1945), The Best of

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