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Film Books - Cult Filmmakers: 50 Movie Mavericks You Need to Know

Cult Filmmakers: 50 Movie Mavericks You Need to Know
By Ian Haydn Smith and Kristelle Rodeia
White Lion Publishing
September 3, 2019
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By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I am personally interested in the phenomenon of cult films, and how could any serious cinephile not be? Sure, the focus is on marginal, discarded, and/or disreputable movies, but the fierce, devoted love lavished upon these movies is touching to me, a thing to behold. My own best cult favorites are probably Repo Man and Evil Dead II, both of which send me into paroxysms of pleasure whenever they are mentioned, and both of which I've seen more than a dozen times, and perhaps even more than two dozen (I've lost count). And I love hearing about other people's obsessions (for example, the late, great film critic Andrew Sarris was — according to legend — enamored of Alexander Korda's That Hamilton Woman, and claimed to have seen it more than 80 times).

The new book Cult Filmmakers: 50 Movie Mavericks You Need to Know tones down the idea of obsession, taking a more refined, clinical look at the concept of cult films. But it's also a fun, insightful guide, and a treasure trove of recommendations for new movies to try. Smith begins with an introduction attempting to untangle the definition of a cult film, but concludes that its territory is too far and wide to truly nail down. (One of the classic arguments brings Star Wars into the equation; it inspires fanatical devotion and repeat viewings, but it's also massively mainstream and not at all marginalized. Is it a cult film?)

Then, his selections are carefully chosen to represent a wide array of talents, from the silent era to the present, both men and women, various racial and gender identifications, and many countries other than the United States. The book opens with a recent favorite of mine, Ana Lily Amirpour, who has only made two films, but both worthy of seeing again and again to experience their many mysteries. Not long after that comes Anna Biller, whose The Love Witch is an excellent recent horror film that challenges sexual politics.

The expected names are here, including Tim Burton, John Carpenter, Roger Corman, David Cronenberg, Terry Gilliam, Jim Jarmusch, Alejandro Jodorowsky, David Lynch, George A. Romero, John Waters, and Edward D. Wood Jr.; Quentin Tarantino's image even graces the book's cover. But I'm grateful for a little love for Sofia Coppola and Abel Ferrara, who both seem to constantly struggle against impossible odds. And it's important not to forget such pioneers as Kenneth Anger, Mario Bava, Vera Chytilová, King Hu, Barabara Loden, Oscar Micheaux, Gordon Parks, and Melvin Van Peebles, whose names are perhaps not as well known as they should be.

The book even introduced me to a few new names, whose films I had not yet seen (Amat Escalante, Larisa Shepitko), and happily challenged my views on others, such as Lucile Hadzihalilovic, whose Evolution I did not care for, and Georges Franju, whose Eyes Without a Face never quite clicked with me. (I decided I will see it again.) As for Ken Russell, I have never been a fan, and I'm still not. But that's the kind of inclusive thinking that makes this book worth reading.

It will be easy to nitpick about the names left out of the book — I personally missed Monte Hellman, Sam Raimi, and Edgar G. Ulmer — and Smith himself mentions some omissions in his introduction, but he was determined to keep the number at fifty, and to give as wide a variety as possible, and I applaud that. The book's best asset is easily the wonderful, playful artwork by Kristelle Rodeia, who combines images of each filmmaker with imagery from their films. For example, Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) is shown quietly sitting, holding a hammer in one hand and a squid in the other.

Smith's essays, while impressively researched and snappily succinct, are not as dynamic as essays about cult filmmakers might be, and some could have used a little nip and tuck here and there. But they are largely effective and interesting. One other nitpick is that the filmographies are listed separately, in the index, and I continually found myself flipping back and forth to look at lists of films. Moreover, the lists are sometimes woefully incomplete, with a few major exclusions. (Female Trouble is not listed under John Waters, Zero Dark Thirty is not listed under Kathryn Bigelow, and on and on.)

The book itself is an extremely handsome little hardcover volume, that will make most of my battered movie-related paperbacks look bad. (I only wish that one of the other 49 filmmakers, someone besides Tarantino, had made the cover, but I suppose there was marketing to think of.)

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