Friday, November 4, 2011

Spreading the Cult Jam

Werth: Wise.  

Wise: What's up, Werth?  Do I sense a classic Werth conniption coming on?  

Werth: No... but maybe some traditional Werth righteous indignation.  That list I posted earlier this week— 

Wise: Nerve's 50 Greatest Cult Movies of All Time?  I remember.  

Werth: Well, I've been thinking about it all week, and as much fun as their compilation is, there are some extraordinarily weird, great, compelling cult movies that did not make their list— 

Wise: And it's up to us to redress the situation?  

Werth: Exactly. They neglected wonderfully awful movies like Trog (1970), Querelle (1982), The Terror of Tiny Town (1938), Hardcore (1979)—

Wise: The Land of Oz from The Shirley Temple Theatre TV series—

Werth: —and not a peep was made about one of my favorite cult movies, the 1991 television documentary Dancing Outlaw.  

Wise: That could have also been the title for the Shirley Temple show...  

Werth: Dancing Outlaw is a documentary about tap-dancing, multiple personalit-ied criminal Jesco White. And if you think that sounds made-up, it should be—but it isn't. Director Jacob Young went into the hills of Boone County, West Virginia and ferreted out Jesco and his family for a public broadcasting program. The result is a jaw-dropping look at white poverty in the backhills of America.  

Wise: Made you homesick?  

Werth: Jesco is the son of locally famous folk-tapper D. Ray White (Mother White says with a straight face, "He knowed 52 steps more than any other tap dancer in the world") and longs to reclaim the dancing heritage he squandered from years of gas huffing, spousal abuse and jailtime. Jesco's problems stem from his multiple personalities: Jessie—the sweet, loving one; Jesco- "the devil in hisself"; and Elvis—... Elvis. 
Jesco and his wife Norma Jean's trailer is the site of death threats over fried eggs, Elvis karaoke in the "Elvis Room" and pleadings for some lovin' for Priscilla. And at the White Family Compound (they call it a "holler") amidst the rusted out cars and household appliances every couple of days the larger family gets together to drink beer and drive their trucks around in circles in the muddy, grass-less front yard.  

Wise: Sounds like a typical afternoon with the Vanderbilts and Astors, too.  

Werth: What makes this documentary so strange is that amidst this haystack of insanity lies a needle of pathos. Jesco legitimately longs to honor his murdered father and to capture that golden moment in the spotlight that so many people professional or otherwise long for. The cult success of this film actually nabbed the attention of Rosanne Barr and Jesco was brought to Hollywood to tap dance on her television show. 
That kind of notoriety eventually led to a theatrical documentary, The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia released in 2009. But in Dancing Outlaw, it's apparent that Jesco is a unique creature of Appalachia, a rare, airplane glue-sniffing orchid that would die outside of his double-wide greenhouse. His hilariously performative mannerisms when telling a candid story are more relaxed than when Young tries to elicit a comic performance from his subject. Jesco is at his best tap dancing on a cardoor in his backyard, vowing that he's going to blow his wife's brains out if she doesn't get out of his head. It's a simple existence that would be ruined by the complications of fame and fortune.  

Wise: One of my favorite cult movies is Spanking the Monkey

Werth: Is that a movie or something from a deleted scene in The Wizard of Oz?  

Wise: Hi-larious.  Spanking the Monkey is David O. Russell's first feature film about college student Ray Aibelli (Jeremy Davies) who hopes to spend the summer between his freshman and sophomore years as an intern in the Surgeon General's office in Washington, D.C.  That plan is scuttled when his traveling salesman father insists that Ray stay home to nurse his mother (Alberta Watson) back to health while she recuperates from torn ligaments in her leg.  
Left alone with his mother, Ray begins to realize how miserable his parents' marriage really is.  That knowledge, plus the intimate care with which he tends to her, brings the two of them uncomfortably close.  

Werth: Is this where the spankings come in?  

Wise: I don't want to spoil the ending.  Instead I'll say how well this movie dramatizes the conflict between Baby Boomer parents and their Gen X kids.  Ray's father is desperate for adventure while his mother hungers for emotional fulfillment.  The combination forces Ray to assume adult responsibilities that he's not prepared to take.  

Werth: Which means he totally did his mom.  

Wise: The film itself is messy and energetic, full of ideas and conflict, contending forces and squirm-inducing desires— 

Werth: This posting is inducing some squirming.  

Wise: But Spanking the Monkey is definitely worth a second look... if you have the stomach for it.  It's not everyone's taste, but for a small film with a particular vision, it really packs a punch.  

Werth: So, readers, what do you think about Nerve's list?  Anything you'd like to add or subtract?  Join us in the comments below and tell us your favorite cult hits.  

Wise: Just don't forget to join us next week for the cult of Film Gab!

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