There is nothing more mysterious in film than the recipe of the cult classic. That’s probably because no two cult classics are ever the same—lightning never strikes the same place twice.
No one ever makes a film hoping that it will inspire a cult following in the next 20 years. Cult classics depend more on who watches them, who talks about them, and who champions them in spite of the box office telling them otherwise. Perhaps cult classics are ahead of their time. Maybe they lack the throbbing spectacle that the big screen demands, or maybe it takes time to peel the layers back. I would contest that watching cult films remains one of the few ways to experience movies in their purest form, without the wrappers of advertising or celebrity they come packaged in.
In a way, cult films contradict the logic of modern movie production, which is obsessed with mammoth opening weekends and frenetic marketing campaigns, trying to squeeze out every penny in the short window before the next big blockbuster arrives on the silver screen. Sometimes it’s because these films resist marketing by their very nature. For instance, when David Fincher‘s Fight Club was released in 1999, the executives at Fox could not decide whether to market it as an arthouse movie or a big-name feature film. Critics, too, were divided and largely confused by the movie. Fight Club seemed destined to be written off as a failure. Then came the rescue: when the DVD was put on shelves, people lapped up the dense and layered narrative that Fincher had sculpted, and word of mouth spread like wildfire—in years to come, Fincher’s edgy, violent film would go on to attain the elusive status of a cult classic.
Cult films usually do require rescue, and there is possibly no greater rescue mission in the history of cinema than the one that pulled The Man From Earth out of the depths of obscurity. It’s a strange film with a strange name. There’s hardly any action to speak of and the entire movie is shot in a single room. After all, the entire movie is just about a group of university professors listening to their colleague tell them his life’s story before he leaves town for good. But it’s one hell of a story.
Of course, there have been what I like to call “talking films”, where characters simply converse without the need for a plot—the Before movies are the most well-known examples. My Dinner With Andre is another pioneer in the sub-genre. However, The Man From Earth isn’t devoid of plot like these other films. On the contrary, the protagonist John Oldman’s tale is full of juice and intrigue. His alternate history/sci-fi tale could have easily been brought to life in images even without modern computer graphics. However, the film’s allure is in its refusal to visually represent Oldman’s extraordinary yarn. The protagonist tells his story and we must hear it—whether in wonder or disbelief—just as the listeners do in his drawing-room, glued to their chairs by the sheer magnetism of his recital. We sit there with them like children around a fire.
Some might say that film may have been the poorest medium to tell such a story; perhaps it would fit the podcast format better. But much of the resonance of a good story comes from watching the storyteller’s mannerisms, the movement of the hands, the shifting of the eyes. It’s the subtlety that our eyes catch but our ears cannot.
I would be remiss not to mention that the script was penned by Jerome Bixby on his deathbed, which probably coloured some of the themes of the story. The crux of the protagonist’s autobiographical tale is that he is a biological anomaly who has lived through the ages of history. Bixby’s own impending death must have made the idea of eternal life seem irresistible, while religion also features heavily and unexpectedly in what is in essence a science fiction flick.
Even with its offbeat appeal and uncommon narrative, The Man From Earth was financially dead on arrival when it was released. It may never have seen the light of day had it not been for the internet. The film was saved by people who downloaded the movie from peer-to-peer sites and told other people about it online. That’s what is so startling about this particular rescue mission—even in the age of bite-sized entertainment and fast-paced thrills, there were enough people who enjoyed a film to beat the odds and bring it back to life.
One of the film’s producers, Eric D. Wilkinson, went on record to publicly thank these anonymous netizens for saving the movie, even though a vast majority of the sites they used are outlawed. A film like this was destined to fail, but didn’t—because film cults treasure brave storytelling over box office numbers. They scavenge through the rejects of the movie machine and defend their black sheep jealously.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.