Searching Beyond the Screen
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A "cult" movie seems easy enough to define. A film that usually has done poorly at the box office and developed a following later; a film that stands the test of time, remaining enjoyable after repeated viewing; a film that is outside or in opposition to the commercial film industry. There. We defined it—except that, based on our definition, the mass cultural appeal of the mass-marketed Star Wars franchise negates its classification, despite an entire mall parking lot of devoted Jedi Knights and Storm Trooper drones that would probably join forces to defend its "cult" status. The same applies to the elves, trolls, hobbits, dwarves, and wizards who'd champion that other trilogy.

So what makes a film go beyond the screen and take on a life of its own?

I started trying to come up with a working definition of "cult" movies after I heard about a group of bike messengers in New York—all fans of the film The Warriors—who initiated an annual race from the Bronx to Coney Island following the characters' route in the film. One hundred and ninety three bicyclists composing eighty-five gangs turned out one year—from Canada and LA, Virginia and Tokyo. Costumed as characters from the film and characters that should have been, they staged mock battles, bike crashes, and classic scenes from the movie.

The Warriors, one of the most surreal gang movies ever made, with its assortment of cartoon characters (including evil mimes with baseball bats) and its comic book style action, follows "the warriors," a gang falsely accused of murder who have become the target of a NY-wide manhunt. Based on a book by Sol Yurick, originally a social worker who worked with gangs, The Warriors is modeled after the Greek history Anabasis, recorded by Xenophon (a pupil of Socrates) in the 4th century BC. Can you dig it?

Stories are the transmitters of traditional culture—carrying values, beliefs, ethical structures, lessons, and symbols; first historically imparted through an oral tradition that later evolved into literature. In our modern society, mass-produced pop culture has robbed much of this heritage. Was it possible that these original values still existed in underground currents? My search to understand the culture of fiction—which, in academic circles, gave me the status of "fictional anthropologist"—now had me obsessing about what granted movies "cult" status.

My friend John was already forming a gang for that NY bike competition next year: "Seven-Ten Split." Its theme: "Hell bent bowlers biking with a vengeance!" We would wear bowling shirts with the Chicago flag on the right sleeve and a logo: a skull crossed with bowling pins that served as the Jolly Roger of ten pin alleys everywhere.

"Did you even like The Warriors?" I asked.

John shrugged: "It's not on my top ten 'cult' list."

"Me neither." I responded.

I already knew what he felt about biking—it wasn't on his top ten list of activities—but he was already sketching the logo on the back of a place mat.

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