Cult Conversations: Interview with David Church (Part Two)

What are you currently focusing on for your next project?

I’m currently working on a mini-monograph about the Mortal Kombat video game series from 1992-97, with particular focus on how the games spawned both a moral panic about video game violence and a transmedia franchise. Part of the project looks at the influence of martial-arts cinema upon fighting games, and how the games singled out by moral reformers all had especially cinematic qualities due to the digitization of photographed actors. Another piece explores how the controversy was rooted in parental fears about collapsing the disreputable space of coin-op arcades into the domestic sphere (shades of my previous work on grind houses) during the rise of 16-bit home consoles. Another connection back to horror and exploitation cinema is Mortal Kombat’s focus on gory fatalities as a generic innovation that became much-imitated by a cycle of poor-quality clone games, and debates between fans over whether the game’s blood/fatalities were a mere gimmick or a constitutive part of gameplay. So part of the project is also a reception study of the different games and how the constraints of their home ports became a referendum on not only fighting games as a genre, but also on the technological platforms where they were played.

And then there’s a long-simmering project on a recent batch of queer films that I see as nostalgically filtering past periods of queer history through a “post-ironic” approach to genre conventions, as a reaction to our homonormative present. I’ve already published chunks of the project that discuss It Follows (Cinema Journal, Spring 2018) and Interior. Leather Bar (Jump Cut, 2016), so that may or may not turn into a fully-fledged book, depending on whether the unpublished chunks cohere together or get parted out into freestanding articles.


You mentioned earlier a ‘rather limited umbrella of texts that tends to be explored under the rubric of ‘fandom.’ Can you expand on that point? What are your thoughts about fan studies in 2018?

 Although my two books are very much interventions in the field of fan studies in their own way (and I also teach courses on fan cultures), I personally feel rather alienated from most of the objects that currently dominate that field. Since my own predilections tend to veer toward either end of the cultural-taste spectrum and I find most of today’s mass/ mainstream /middlebrow media difficult to get very excited about, which has meant that the mainstreaming of “nerd/geek culture” as synonymous with all of Fandom can be frustrating. Maybe it’s because I’m also a historian, but there are so many fascinating fandoms—including those devoted to old/retro media and past historical texts—that fall outside the purview of whatever is being shilled at Comic-Con this year, and thus prove an ill fit among the field’s presentist biases.

Although anyone working on fandom (myself included) is deeply indebted to his work, I don’t share Henry Jenkins’s “critical-utopian” faith in fans or scholar-fans working in conjunction with the media industries to make the world a better place—nor do I think community and mutual support outweigh competition and conflict as more constitutive forces within fan cultures. If anything, recent events like GamerGate, the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, and the rise of the “alt-right” prove that fans can be as toxic and corrosive influences upon society as anyone else—if not more so—and the field of fan studies is only belatedly coming to terms with that reality now that those voices are far more amplified (via social media) than they previously were.

More to the point, so much current scholarship on fandom tends to focus in a quasi-celebratory way on the micropolitical minutiae of how fans engage with the latest TV shows, Tumblr blogs, or social-media hashtags that more important macropolitical perspectives often get lost in the flow. For instance, too much work in fan studies becomes an implicit form of corporate boosterism by enthusing about whatever new show, new networking platform, new technology, etc. allows fans to do something vaguely interesting or politically progressive, and seldom returns to the bigger question of “so what?” By working in conjunction with media producers or hair-splitting to find micropolitical “silver linings” in whatever is currently trending, I fear that fan studies scholars are helping to further transform universities into neoliberal R&D wings for corporate interests. Perhaps this is a bit of leftist nostalgia on my own part, but fan studies needs a strong dose of old-fashioned Marxist scepticism if it wants to evolve beyond an inadvertent corporate cheerleader in our current moment.

 How do you think that ‘fan studies scholars are helping to further transform universities into neoliberal R&D wings for corporate interests”? Can you expand on this point further? I’m sure that fan studies scholars believe the opposite. How are fan scholars imbricated in corporate cheerleading from your perspective?

As a Foucauldian, I completely understand that the micropolitical is still political—but I also become concerned when much (but certainly not all) current research in fan studies takes such a micro-specific focus on the intricacies of individual case studies that it seems to miss the forest for the trees when it comes to the increased penetration of capitalist interests into what were once more de-centered subcultures. (Of course, I’m well aware that someone could just as easily say the same of my own work, so it’s not a very high horse that I’m sitting on!) Which is not to say that I subscribe to the old Birmingham School theories that subcultures are inherently “resistant” or “anti-consumerist,” but comparatively speaking, I think rediscovering the value of “resistance” is all the more apt at a time when major media conglomerates now pander to big-spending fan cultures and interpellate everyone as potential fans.

When I say “corporate cheerleading,” I mean a generalized (but not universal) tendency within much of fan studies to enthuse about the latest trending show, the newest wrinkle in social media, or the crumbs of progressive representation and aesthetic self-reflexivity increasingly sown into texts as fan service—all of which, even beneath the auspices of micropolitical critique, spiritually feeds back into lining media conglomerates’ pockets. Whether writing from their own fan investments or out of an understandable desire for one’s academic writing to have wider cultural relevance, it isn’t so much a conscious desire to collude with corporate interests—but it also comes at a time when many universities would love nothing more than their humanities departments to become think tanks for scholarship that can be monetized for the benefit of major companies. To put it another way, the question Jenkins poses in Convergence Culture about whether we should see working more closely with media industries as “buying in” or “selling out” seems a bit quaint for those of us precariously employed scholars among the “great unwashed” of the new academic caste system, struggling to pay rent and keep the internet on. I still feel myself part of the field of fan studies—even if the types of media objects I focus on tend toward the “cultish” margins—but at a time when the products of fan devotion, both inside and outside the university, are more monetized (directly or indirectly) than ever, it would be refreshing for more scholars to deprive as much oxygen as possible to the Disneys, Facebooks, Twitters, and other promulgators of fandom’s move into the mainstream.

You mention Henry Jenkins’ work and what you describe as his “critical-utopian faith in fans or scholar-fans.” Can you expand on this? What do you think of Jenkins’ more recent work into ‘the civic imagination’ and his project’s empirical findings that clearly demonstrate that some fans are ‘doing politics’ through the lens of popular culture (and not necessarily from social media platforms, either)? Admittedly, much of that political participation is targeted through a “rather limited umbrella of texts explored under the rubric of fandom,” which is to say that it does tend to be (so-called) ‘geek texts’ that provide the lens that fans tap into regarding the micro-politics of participation. But perhaps that side of things is more to do with the fact that it often is the ‘geek’ contingency that are ‘doing politics’ through this limited umbrella, in empirical terms. I am, for example, unaware of political activists tapping into vintage porn or grindhouse cinema as a site of the civic imagination (but I stand to be corrected on this). I am neither defending nor criticising Jenkins—not least because of where this interview is published. But on a personal level, I strongly believe that Jenkins’ has often championed the exploration of texts that cannot be located within “the limited umbrella of texts” of which you draw attention to. For example, Jenkins has also written on porn, such as in Pamela Church Gibson’s edited collection More Dirty Looks: Gender, Pornography and Power (2010), and on this very blog, as well as being on the editorial board of the Porn Studies journal. He has written about exploitation cinema—for example, on Stephanie Rothman’s Terminal Island—on Matthew Barney’s The Cremaster Cycle; on WWF wrestling; on Kelly Sue Deconnick’s Bitch Planet and other comic artists and writers not considered part of the ‘big two’ machinery of DC and Marvel—and so on and so forth. Could you expand also on what texts you see as being part of the “limited umbrella of texts explored under the limited rubric of fandom”? What is missing; and what directions do you believe fan studies as a discipline should be exploring to avoid limitations of this sort?

There’s a lot to unpack there, and I’ve already jabbered on too long! I fully agree that Jenkins’s own scholarly object choices are more wide-ranging than the ones dominating the field of Fan Studies proper that his work largely spawned—although some of his work on more eclectic topics tends to be less focused on fandom per se. I suppose this could be a logical case of following the most visible manifestations of civic engagement via pop culture—hence why fandoms that generate fewer participatory or transformative works may fall to the margins (though I would argue that some fan-made retrosploitation media are deliberately political in theme, much as some folks in the vintage porn world are trying to “de-shame” historical forms of porn by bringing them out of the private sphere to change the public conversation around male sexual privilege, the stigmatization of sex work, and so on).

At the risk of vastly oversimplifying the concept, Jenkins’s “critical-utopian” ethos suggests that fans as dedicated media consumers-cum-participatory producers actively enter the feedback loop of cultural production via social media and other de-hierarchized platforms. By leveraging a combination of discursive buzz and spending power, fans can pressure the major media industries into both improving “official” products and also creating more equitable space for fans to make their own “unofficial” types of participatory culture. When I teach the idea of media convergence to first-year students, I often show HCD Media Group’s 2009 video of Jenkins explaining some of the underlying concepts (collective intelligence, transmedia storytelling, etc.)—but I tend to cringe when he discusses the 2008 Obama presidential campaign as the biggest success of transmedia storytelling as applied to the political sphere. In hindsight, it’s not so much the cruel optimism that rings hollow, but rather the knowledge that our current President’s rise to power was fuelled by these same transmedia storytelling practices. Fans are indeed “doing politics” through the lens of pop culture, but which politics is another question altogether. We can readily admit that toxic forms of fandom don’t comprise the majority of fans (even if they may be among the loudest voices), but when our reality-TV president still garners such high approval ratings among his own fans by using his Twitter megaphone to promote social division and push us toward nuclear war, a “critical-dystopian” perspective on fandom might make more sense. Much as I repeatedly caution my Cinema Studies students that the “newest” in movies does not always equal the “best,” “smartest,” or most “enlightened” stuff out there, a wider historical perspective could be useful for the field of fan studies to push back against its breathless fetishization of “the new” and instead cast a wider net toward other types of fandoms—but those are my own biases showing!

As a closing aside, since you mention his foreword to the Church Gibson anthology, I think Jenkins’s views on porn pedagogy are quite valuable—although the piece perhaps shows its age in his caution that scholars hold off on teaching porn until after earning tenure. I myself was casually cautioned that a book on pornography would be best left as a post-tenure project—but, in today’s job market, when even tenure-track jobs have become a luxury of the privileged few, I think it behoves junior scholars not to shy away from difficult topics, even if it means taking bigger risks to confront the chilling effects created by a larger social reticence to reinvest in the humanities for their own sake. As an example, during a very depressing two years between earning my Ph.D. and gaining full-time academic employment, I lived in a notoriously expensive city where adjunct work was nearly impossible to find. I worked for minimum wage in a mouse-infested factory by day, scanning used books for online sale at the same time I was finishing up my second book by night. I also taught community-education courses a few nights a week through the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF)—including a very popular class on the History of Porn, which subsequently evolved into the Seattle Erotic Cinema Society (SECS). Because SIFF was more adventurous in that regard than many universities would be, I also had a far wider variety of students than found in most university classrooms—including older women, adult industry workers, new media professionals, members of the local kink community, and even fellow academics. With their second annual SECS Fest erotic film festival upcoming shortly, I’m often reminded that there are a far wider range of fans out there, beyond the ones whose visibility becomes reinforced in the university fan-studies classroom. But, like I said earlier, we all try to find our own silver linings!

And finally, what five films would you recommend that you feel represents ‘the best’ that exploitation cinema can offer and why?

 If only five choices are allowed, then I’m not going to go for dark-horse favorites or deliberately obscure choices here. Nor are these necessarily the most influential or historically significant ones. In fact, one of the pleasures of studying exploitation cinema comes from less of a focus on individual “great” texts than looking at multi-film cycles and generic cross-pollinations that follow novelty value into strange tangents. But these ones all seem to crystallize some major trends from one of the big decades for exploitation films.

Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion (Shunya Itō, 1972)

This Japanese production is miles ahead of any other women-in-prison movie, in my personal opinion, with plenty of pure genre thrills and a compelling mix of realism and deliberately theatrical staging. Meiko Kaji, who would also star in the Lady Snowblood films, features here as a young woman who has been sentenced to hard time for attacking her corrupt ex-boyfriend, a police officer who left her to be raped by the yakuza. Fending off rival prison gangs as she plots her escape to take revenge, there is action, violence, and nudity galore—but the film’s energetic visual style marks its superiority to other women-in-prison films, bringing it closer to the flashiness of the era’s best chambara films.


 Coffy (Jack Hill, 1973)

Not one of the most important Blaxploitation movies, but one that leans into that cycle’s most outrageous excesses while also creating a singularly strong female star in Pam Grier, who had previously worked with director Jack Hill in several of his women-in-prison films for New World Pictures. Grier combines the ass-kicking charm of Russ Meyer’s women with a more politicized vigilante subplot about ridding the Black community of drug dealers, pimps, and the corrupt local politicians in their pockets. In Coffy, she also avoids the sexual victimization her character faces in the quasi-sequel Foxy Brown. And I’d like to think the rather abrupt ending signals something about the macropolitical futility of the vigilante’s quest, even if refigured here as a quasi-feminist icon instead of the macho vigilantes of the 1970s.


 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)

Soaking in Southern-fried atmosphere, this is among the greatest (and most darkly humorous) American horror movies, and was a big hit on the drive-in circuit throughout the 1970s. Made on a shoestring by a low-budget crew of then-amateurs, the film has since become seen as a treatise on such diverse topics as class conflict, industrial mechanization, animal rights, patriarchy run amok, the death of the counterculture, and so on. Despite all these possible readings, I keep going back for the little details of weirdness that make it feel like such a “lived-in” film, from the macabre set design of farmhouse, to unexplained cutaways of local color, to the assaultive editing of the dinner-table scene, and the eerie use of musique concrete throughout. (Gratuitous name-drop: Nicolas Winding Refn was very impressed when I told him that I used to go to sleep to this film most nights during high school!)


 Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato, 1980)

The main generic predecessor of found-footage horror movies, this notorious Italian production represents another nation that made many exploitation films for the export market. Coming near the end of a cycle of cannibal-themed jungle-horror films that drew upon the 1960s Italian mondo tradition (verite-style depictions of “savage” indigenous rites, actual animal mutilations, etc.), Cannibal Holocaust is easily the most fascinating (if hard to watch) entries because of its ideological contortions. A film deeply divided against itself, it criticizes Western racism toward indigenous cultures, the mass media’s sensationalism of violence, and so on—yet makes blatant use of these same audiovisual discourses in the process! The film’s blurring of political stances becomes mirrored in its blurring of very life-like special effects with unsimulated animal deaths, creating an extremely strong affective brew where it becomes more difficult to know where ballyhoo ends and reality begins.


 Café Flesh (Stephen Sayadian, 1982)

Since you asked about vintage pornography, I’ll jump over sexploitation and instead include this deservedly “cult” title from the end of the so-called “Golden Age of Porn.” This remarkably self-reflexive story about a post-nuclear world where 99% of the irradiated population are physically unable to have sex with each other, and are now merely relegated to pathetic spectators of the unaffected 1% who can still perform in a sexual cabaret show, could hardly have more contempt for the typical “raincoat crowd.” Even more timely, the film’s central conceit was one of the first to deliberately engage with the then-burgeoning AIDS crisis. I want to say this is the only post-apocalyptic, sci-fi, hardcore adult film out there, but there were actually several others a few years earlier! This one, though, has more of a punk/new wave sensibility (as did this creative team’s previous film Nightdreams) combined with a surrealist/avant-garde aesthetic during its sexual numbers—plus an ending that actually manages to have an emotional payoff as well.


David Church is a Lecturer in the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies at Northern Arizona University, where he coordinates the Cinema Studies program. He earned his Ph.D. in Communication and Culture at Indiana University, and is the author of several books: Grindhouse Nostalgia: Memory, Home Video, and Exploitation Film Fandom (Edinburgh University Press, 2015) and Disposable Passions: Vintage Pornography and the Material Legacies of Adult Cinema (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016). He is also the editor of Playing with Memories: Essays on Guy Maddin (University of Manitoba Press, 2009), and is currently writing a mini-monograph on the Mortal Kombat video game series.