Note — Nov 10, 2019

The Cult of the Imperfect

Text excerpted from On the Shoulders of Giants, by Umberto Eco, where he uses Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Curtiz’s Casablanca to show that cult classics are cults “precisely because they are basically ramshackle, or ‘unhinged,’ so to speak.” It’s their imperfectness, the disjointed parts, that gives fans something to attach to, something to remember, something to cite. A perfect movie is it’s own thing, with no random phrase or imperfection to hold on to.

It turns out that the horrible stylistic excesses [in The Count of Monte Cristo] are indeed “padding,” but the padding has a structural value; like the graphite rods in nuclear reactors, it slows down the pace to make our expectations more excruciating, our predictions more reckless. Dumas’s novel is a machine that prolongs the agony, where what counts is not the quality of the death throes but their duration. […]

To give rise to a cult, a film must already be inherently ramshackle, shaky and disconnected in itself. A perfect film, given that we cannot reread it as we please, from the point we prefer, as with a book, remains imprinted in our memory as a whole, in the form of an idea or a principal emotion; but only a ramshackle film survives in a disjointed series of images and visual high points.