If you subscribe to Netflix or any other streaming service, you know—or you’re at least made to feel—that even if you’re not yet ready to return to theaters, you’ll never run out of things to watch. That should be exciting. So why isn’t it? The unending supply of that thing with the deeply unromantic name content is dispiriting: we’ve become a league of prisoners waiting for our rations to be dropped from the sky. Of course, thanks to streaming, we can watch just about anything we want, of any genre or from any era. But what if we’re eager to connect with others who have also just watched the same film we did? From our individual snow-globe worlds, how do we assert our individuality while still feeling part of a film-watching community? How do we affirm for anyone, let alone ourselves, our sense of what is good, bad or outrageous?
Behold—the rise of the instant cult classic.
Before you protest that the phrase is an oxymoron, remember that we’re in the midst of a pandemic whose scope we couldn’t have imagined a little over a year ago. While this has been an inordinately painful period for most of us, time has also, weirdly, flown by. It used to take years for a film to become a cult classic, to find its way to audiences who would ultimately adore it—at first by word of mouth and midnight screenings, perhaps later via repertory programming or academic reassessments. A true cult classic tends to be an oddball outlier of some sort, either a mainstream picture that flopped at the box office—like the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski—or a low-budget film with some indefinable vitality—like John Waters’ Pink Flamingos or David Lynch’s Eraserhead. When we think of cult classics, it’s generally movies like Edward D. Wood Jr.’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man and Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls that spring to mind, movies that draw viewers hypnotically over a span of years and decades.
But in the past year, our sense of time has become both compressed and elongated. Even before the pandemic, social media had become our chief way of communicating with one another about things we’d seen and loved. Once we all began working from home—or, more crushingly, not working at all—even the face-to-face conversations we might have had with co-workers were no longer an option. Cult movies are basically the result of communities of like-minded people finding one another over a period of time. As we reach the one-year mark of living these extremely interior lives, it’s little wonder that we’re collapsing that time, consciously or otherwise. We don’t want to wait months or years to find that merry band of outsiders who love the same odd little movie we do. We need their companionship right now.
Take Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, a willfully ridiculous candy-colored comedy about a duo of 40-ish friends—played by the movie’s writers, Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo—who try to banish their middle-aged ennui with a sunny resort vacation. Recently released on streaming platforms by Lionsgate, Barb and Star is hardly an outsider’s movie. But you might call it a smart dumb comedy, an enterprise—along the lines of the Farrelly brothers’ Dumb and Dumber and Adam McKay’s Step Brothers—that transports you beyond caring whether or not your enjoyment of it marks you as a person of good taste.
Perhaps because nobody really knows how to market a film during a pandemic, Barb and Star emerged somewhat out of left field. But the movie’s stealth arrival worked in its favor: the reviews were good, but more significantly, the word spread fast in the town square known as Twitter.
If you can’t accurately call Barb and Star an instant cult classic, you can probably call it an instant cult favorite. Even if the film wasn’t really a small, secret treasure, it still gave viewers the illusion they’d unearthed one. What’s the harm in that? There has to be some value in belonging to a club of people who, from their respective caves of semi-misery, are laughing at the same thing at the same time.
But in the age of streaming, the question of what makes a cult movie is up for debate anyway. How much of a pioneer are you when you discover a new-to-you movie that’s available for everyone to see? (And as physical-media adherents will tell you, not every movie is available online—and those that are may not be accessible forever.) There must be some element of exclusivity, a sense that you alone have glimpsed the genius of a film that the mainstream world—-whatever that means, in this era of hyper-connected niche groups—has rejected.
Christopher Nolan’s intricate sci-fi thriller Tenet was released in U.S. theaters in early September. Because so few theaters were open at the time, Nolan fans who could see it were part of an elite group; everyone else was left out of the conversation. When the film became available to stream, in mid-December, it began to find ardent fans online—almost as if it had failed at the box office in the traditional sense and somehow needed to be rescued or revisited. What’s more, Tenet’s complicated plot invites multiple viewings; the suggestion is that you need to be part of the brainy Nolan elite to even understand it. Tenet seems headed for cult status whether it deserves it or not.
Other types of spontaneous cult classics have bubbled to the surface on social media in the past few months. In November, the 2012 film The Impossible—starring Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor and Tom Holland, and based on a true story about a family of tourists who survived the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami—quietly slipped to the No. 1 position on Netflix’s most-watched movies. We shouldn’t be ruled, or fooled, by algorithms: Who really knows why a bunch of people start watching one movie, impelling others to follow? But aside from two simple explanations—curiosity about Holland’s pre-Spider-Man career and the fact that a lot of people find disaster films comforting—it’s not really clear why The Impossible became a mini–cult favorite eight years after its release. One hallmark of true cult films is that their popularity seemingly arises from nowhere. In that sense, The Impossible’s resurgence fits the bill.
Besides, the movies that generate the most chatter on social media these days aren’t always new. The Internet erupted with joy when Disney+ announced, in early February, that the 1997 version of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella—starring Whitney Houston and Brandy—would stream later that month. You could write that enthusiasm off as pure nostalgia. But even nostalgia is a complicated emotion, especially at a time when it feels impossible to move forward. In that context, returning to a childhood favorite, especially a movie that might have made you feel seen and valuable as a kid, seems nothing but logical. And last summer brought us a milder but no less passionate glimmer of Twitter activity surrounding Martin Scorsese’s 1993 version of The Age of Innocence, which everyone in certain circles seemed to be revisiting at once. What would Edith Wharton have made of this tiny gang of enthusiasts, fainting with pleasure over a 19th century love triangle? Our collective yearning for tenderness and connection has no sell-by date, certainly not in a pandemic.
Can a movie like Barb and Star end up a true cult classic, so entwined with our memories of living through a pandemic that it comes to stand as a symbol of it? Maybe we’ll look back and recognize that it wasn’t really that great—but at least it was there when we needed it. Amid all the “Big-screen moviegoing is dead” discussions, we still haven’t reckoned with what it would mean to lose forever the experience of watching a preposterous film with a group of people all looking for the same sense of elation. If repertory theaters survive—and let’s hope they do—in 20 or even 10 years’ time we might see midnight “Movies of the Pandemic Era” festivals. We’ll need some way to mark our shared experience, and to commemorate all that time—was it a year, a decade or a century?—we spent alone in front of our TVs.