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b. 7 January 1964, Long Beach, California, United States

My first viewing of Mandy (Cosmatos, 2018), one of the films that sparked the late 2010s Nicolas Cage renaissance, occurred under tense yet absurd circumstances that parallel the tone of both the film and Cage’s own distinctive performance style. I had booked tickets to the Australian premiere of Mandy at the Melbourne International Film Festival weeks in advance: it was one of my most anticipated films of 2018, given I have admired the work of the film’s production company, cult and horror film specialists SpectreVision, since their breakout success, the Iranian Vampire Western A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Amirpour, 2014). I also love the haunting electro-orchestral music of the film’s composer, Jóhann Jóhannsson (who tragically died in February 2018, before Mandy’s theatrical release). Perhaps above all else, I have long been a fan of Nicolas Cage. 

However, in my excitement and haste to secure tickets, I forgot to save the screening into my calendar as an appointment. By the time that Friday came around, the date of the screening had slipped my mind, and I had booked a 4-course dinner at a fancy Italian restaurant that night to celebrate a work achievement with my partner. As we progressed through the courses, I kept telling my partner I had a niggling feeling that I had forgotten something: left the door unlocked? Forgotten to feed the dogs? Missed a writing deadline? Halfway through the main course, I finally figured out where this persistent tugging was coming from: I had forgotten that Mandy was TONIGHT. In fact, it would start in 30 minutes. Refusing to admit defeat, we powered through the remaining courses with a speed the waiter had clearly never witnessed, ran to the nearest train station, and sprinted full pelt from the train into the theatre for the sold-out screening. Just as we triumphantly yet breathlessly took the only two seats left, which were in the front row, the film started. Especially from our vantage in the front row, the film’s cosmic neon hues and meditative yet ominous music ensconced us immediately, cultivating a feeling that we had been plunged into its world which was enhanced by our relief that we’d somehow made it just in time. Mandy’s mystical atmosphere is established from the dizzying opening shot of a forest, which is rendered otherworldly and somehow aquatic by the floating aerial camerawork, the shot’s bluish hue, and the Panavision anamorphic format. In the first 30 seconds, the words “Nicolas Cage” filled the screen, which were met with a mix of scattered applause, excited gasps, and woops from the audience. 

The film itself, like my journey to it, is nerve-shreddingly tense yet excessive to the point of absurdity. Mandy’s hypnotic world is seemingly grounded in a realist setting (the Californian Shadow Mountains in 1983), yet it is constantly on the brink of implosion into the dark but beautiful incoherence of an LSD trip. Narrative-wise, it is a bare-bones revenge thriller. The film follows Cage’s Red as he seeks bloody vengeance on a deranged, LSD-obsessed hippie cult responsible for the senseless and gruesome murder of his girlfriend, the eponymous Mandy, who is burned alive before Red’s eyes while he is bound and gagged. The film’s appeal and artistry, like so many cult films, lies not in the complexity of the narrative, but in the complexity of the aesthetics, which are stitched to Cage’s typically unpredictable performance style. The film seems to bleed out from the volatility of Cage’s acting approach and persona, which has been cultivated over four decades across a diverse body of films. Cage’s style is characterised by a surface-level steadiness underpinned by barely concealed emotional intensity that threatens to erupt into mania with every twitch of the eyebrow or curl of the lip. Self-reflexively accentuating this duality, at the beginning of Mandy, Red is introduced as a subdued and quiet character. Early scenes depict Red and Mandy’s simple domestic bliss in their isolated mountain cabin. Cage’s trademark emotional eruption – which the internet has dubbed “Cage Rage” – occurs after Mandy’s death, in a long take that depicts Red in his bathroom in his underpants, downing a bottle of vodka between screams of rage and despair. The scene recalls Cage’s Oscar-winning performance in Leaving Las Vegas (Figgis, 1995), in which his character, alcoholic screenwriter Ben, skulls a bottle of whisky as part of a despairing attempt to drink himself to death. As was evidenced by the audible reactions to this moment in the theatre, this much-anticipated Cage outburst in Mandy offered the audience catharsis from the horrors of the prior sequence depicting Mandy’s death, the audience’s own emotional release paralleled on-screen by Cage’s guttural moans and shouts. 

Mandy evocatively captures the inner workings of Cage’s artistry via its knowing and enthusiastic embrace of the absurd excesses of the actor’s performance style. As . As I will outline in this Great Actors profile, this absurdity and excess resonates with the subversive spirit and oppositional aesthetics of cult cinema. My experience of watching Mandy in the cinema, which remains one of my most powerful viewing experiences, is typical of the heightened aesthetic experience Sexton and Mathijs associate with cult cinema, which they term the “phenomenal experience” of cult film 1. While the few scholarly examinations of Cage’s star persona and performance style have focused on his status as a “good” or “bad” actor and the discourse surrounding this dichotomy 2, Cage’s allegiances with cult film remain underexplored: in Egan and Thomas’ anthology on cult stardom, for instance, Cage does not feature, nor is he mentioned in Mathijs and Sexton’s examination of cult stardom in their influential book on cult film. 3

This is perhaps testament to Cage’s ambiguous positioning between cult and mainstream film cultures, a liminality the actor has embraced since the beginning of his career. In the first decade of his career, Cage played: a leading role in the fantasy comedy-drama film Peggy Sue Got Married (directed by his uncle, Francis Ford Coppola, 1986), in which he notoriously adopted a nasally voice inspired by the animated horse Pokey from The Gumby Show (NBC, 1955-1968); an eccentric small-time criminal who kidnaps a baby to start his own family in Raising Arizona (Ethan and Joel Coen, 1987); an insane literary agent who believes he is turning into a vampire in the horror-comedy Vampire’s Kiss (Bierman, 1988); and a parodically over-the-top Southern outlaw in Wild at Heart (Lynch, 1990). Like Mandy, all of these films toy with absurdity. In amongst this eclectic body of films, Cage also appeared in these early years in the romantic comedy Moonstruck (Jewison, 1988), a commercial success for which he garnered mainstream attention. This balancing act between cult/avant-garde and commercial mainstream cinema has long characterised Cage’s career. After winning an Oscar for the critically celebrated, low-budget Leaving Las Vegas, for instance, Cage went on to star in a trifecta of blockbuster action films which, as McGowan, points out, diminished his newly achieved critical prestige and artistic legitimacy. 4 Cage’s career has endured peaks and troughs of critical acclaim and derision, and the actor is currently experiencing a peak thanks to a string of critical successes in the late 2010s and early 2020s, including Mandy. 

As Mathijs and Sexton note, few performers “attain the status [of] both a cult star and a mainstream star at the same time.” 5 Cage is one of these few, as he has long traversed the chasm between mainstream leading man and gonzo cult icon. It is important to note at this juncture that Hills asserts that while cult film stardom is defined in opposition to mainstream tastes and norms, it “isn’t always coherently set against mainstream stardom”, 6, and Cage embodies this ambiguity. Rather than being fully accepted as either a mainstream success or a cult figure, the actor is equivocally positioned in relation to normative metrics of success, good taste and prestige. Yet, I contend that this ambiguity and liminality animates Cage’s aesthetic power. In this Great Actors profile I illustrate how, in the spirit of cult film, key to understanding the allure and artistry of Cage’s approach is his play with the boundaries between good and bad taste, quality and poor acting, naturalistic authenticity and over-the-top excess. The popular suggestion that Cage is “so bad he’s good” encapsulates the actor’s subversive experimentation with such categories. Attempting to position the actor on either side of the good/bad dichotomy misses the point of Cage’s appeal: he would not be so good if he wasn’t so bad.  My analysis in this article addresses the importance of excess and absurdity to Cage’s work and highlights how these elements are also crucial to the aesthetic dynamics of cult film, with which, I contend, Cage has a deep philosophical and artistic allegiance. 

Cage and Cult

In their edited collection on cult stardom, Egan and Thomas describe two types of cult star: actors renowned for their work in cult films and “atypical performers who nevertheless have a presence within mainstream film and media.” 7 In line with his subversive liminality, Cage represents both types of cult star. Since the beginning of his career, he has starred in films that can be understood as “cult” classics in the multiple senses of this thorny term. For instance, Cage’s bizarre performance in Vampire’s Kiss – a tonally, generically, and narratively confusing film – was negatively appraised by reviewers at the time, 8 but has subsequently become a beloved cult favourite. The film and its key attraction, Cage’s performance, thus aligns neatly with the common understanding that films become cult classics via the “accidental consequence of their fractured reception trajectories.” 9 As Mathijs and Sexton describe, these films tend to be “failures upon their initial release” that frequently encounter “obstacles in their search for audiences” yet they eventually develop “committed followings… [and] go on to enjoy long lasted fandom.” 10 This cult reverence is thus often further fuelled by the film’s initial critical and/or commercial failure, and defies typical or “mainstream” definitions of good taste and quality. Instead, as Mathijs and Mendik articulate, cult films offer audiences a sense of rebellion garnered from resistance to or deconstruction of accepted taste hierarchies and markers of quality and esteem 11

Cage’s performance in Vampire’s Kiss has been retrospectively appreciated in such a context: while prominent reviews at the time of its release aligned with Caryn’s declaration in The New York Times that “the film is dominated and destroyed by Mr Cage’s chaotic, self-indulgent performance,” 12 it is now considered a masterpiece of Cage ridiculousness. Vampire’s Kiss was featured in MIFF’s 2018 “Cage-a-thon” – a 12-hour celebration of Cage – and the most ludicrous moments from Cage’s performance have been commemorated and re-contextualised in countless memes and video clips. For instance, a close-up of Cage’s face manically contorted in wide-eyed mock surprise as he berates his secretary is the source of what’s known as the “You Don’t Say Meme”, which manifests as gifs, captioned screenshots, and a contour comic drawing. On YouTube, CurlyXP’s compilation video “Best Scene from Vampire’s Kiss” has 1.1 million views, and is described as offering “Nicolas Cage at his finest”. I will come back to the role of meme culture in solidifying Cage’s subversive cult appeal at the end of this article, but I highlight these examples at this juncture to indicate how Cage’s style has been reassessed in the twenty-first century in line with the “marginal or oppositional reading strategies” of cult film. 13 What is appreciated in these Vampire’s Kiss memes and videos is how these instances of “Cage Rage” defy social norms and exceed the acceptable limits of human emotion and behaviour in ways that are both hilarious and disturbing. 

Variations on the “You Don’t Say Meme” taken from Vampire’s Kiss

Cage’s style is thus associated with particular aesthetic qualities that resonate with those of cult films. While studies of cult stardom tend to focus on reception rather than aesthetics, understanding Cage’s appeal demands consideration of this constellation of “cult” aesthetic qualities. In her consideration of Cage’s style and that of other screen performers similarly committed to expressionistic excess, Zucker points to an established taste hierarchy that privileges naturalistic and supposedly “realistic” rather than exaggerated screen performance styles, 14 a hierarchy that has persisted in the decades since Zucker’s piece was published. Cage recognises how his oft-criticized approach operates in a different register to such commonly valued “good” acting: for instance, responding to “Cage Rage” memes about Mandy, Cage suggested that his artistic goals are “abstract and more ontological fantasies with film performance” which is why he likes “playing people who were crazy, or … who were on drugs, or supernaturally possessed.” 15 Cage’s exaggerated and “abstract” approach aligns with Mathijs and Sexton’s description of cult films as “so unique that they defy interpretation, and operate on an affective and visceral level… These films are defined through their representational and stylistic excess.” 16 

Like many of Cage’s films, Vampire’s Kiss included, Mandy operates on this visceral and intensely sensory level: the film’s power, as I intimated earlier, lies in aesthetic and affectual resonances that are not always logical or coherent but are driven by “representational and stylistic excess.” 17 In a climactic scene, for instance, Cage’s Red battles a chainsaw-wielding foe with another chainsaw, their duel lit by blinding spotlights and accompanied by throbbing, metallic non-diegetic music that collides with the diegetic sounds of whirring, clashing chainsaws. This representational excess continues beyond the climax: after he fulfils his bloody revenge, Red’s face is captured side-on in medium close up as he drives away from the scene, his visage covered in pink-red blood, a colour which melds with the red-hued sky surrounding him. This image crystallises how the film bleeds out from Cage’s performance and vice versa. Cage slowly turns to look directly at the camera – and viewer –, his blank face transforming into a wide-eyed, maniacal grimace not unlike the expression from the popular Vampire’s Kiss “You Don’t Say Meme”. At this moment, the audience is brought into communion with Cage in the wake of the film’s sensorially exhausting climax: breaking the normative fixation with immersion in a coherent fictional world, this disconcerting shot “invoke[s] the presence of the spectator”, 18  to use Zucker’s description of Cage’s work in Vampire’s Kiss. Cage’s direct-to-camera leer solicits a perverse intimacy with the viewer, in an example of the “phenomenal component” of the cult film viewing experience. 19 This moment is also “phenomenal” because it incites a bewildering combination of affectual responses, as was evidenced by the audience reactions to the screening I attended. There was laughter at the darkly comic absurdity of the moment; sighs, perhaps of relief, that the film had reached its end and we had successfully endured its sensory assault; and also gasps and inhalations that seemingly reacted to the grotesque tragedy of this shot – after all, the implication of this moment is that while he has killed all the bad guys, Red has now fully descended into madness, as he is smiling at the sight of his dead partner sitting next to him in the car. The shot subsequently sparked applause spurred by the jouissance of this communal experience of intense but mixed emotions.

Mandy

The Aesthetics of Absurdity and Cage’s Cult Spirit 

The oppositional aesthetics and subcultural appeal of Cage’s style thus is intimately connected with a subversive form of excess and absurdity that is common to cult film. In his writing on how the Monty Python film The Meaning of Life (Jones, 1983) plays with cult film’s characteristic unruly absurdity, Mathijs explains how the film exhibits cult DNA through its hyperbole and excess, which blow “aesthetic rules out of existence” via a “crazy abundance of elements”, “explosion of utterances”, and “bodily discharge and fluids”, “instances of transgression that are typical for cult cinema.” 20 As Mathijs contends, the film’s grotesque excesses and hyperbole construct “absurd considerations” of typical human behaviour and social expectations, illustrating “the idea that whatever flows from the messy insides of people to the highly controlled presentation of self that is one’s outside, challenges good behaviour until it blows up.” 21 Mandy’s fixation with bodily fluids such as blood, tears, and vomit, and its sonic cacophony of animalistic groans and grunts – which tend to displace sustained and coherent dialogue – aesthetically renders a similarly absurd but provocative aesthetic. Notably, Red is a character of few words, and one of his longest passages of dialogue in the film comes in the form of his faltering explanation of what happened to Mandy to his friend, Duke: “ they lit her on FIRE! They were weirdo, hippie-types, whole bunch of ‘em. And then there was some muscle – it didn’t make any sense. There were bikers, and gnarly psychos, and… crazy evil.”  This description is far from coherent, but Cage’s desperate and confused tone evocatively captures Red’s trauma as he attempts to verbally articulate what he has just witnessed. This moment emphasises how words bent into sentences could never adequately “explain” Red’s experience, while also playfully underscoring the absurd hyperbole of the film’s premise. 

Even in mainstream commercial blockbusters, Cage’s unpredictable style tends to lean into the absurd in ways that rebelliously skewer social and aesthetic norms. For instance, in the blockbuster action film Face/Off (Woo, 1997) Cage plays a homicidal sociopath, Troy, whose face is transplanted with that of an FBI agent, Archer (John Travolta), who has a personal vendetta against him because Troy killed his son. Thus, throughout much of the film, Cage is not only playing a crazed, homicidal villain, but an over-the-top caricature of a crazed homicidal villain: a baroque performance enacted by a vengeful undercover FBI agent attempting to infiltrate Troy’s inner circle. Cage’s performance pushes this already quite ludicrous conceit to its extreme limits. For instance, in one scene, while under the influence of drugs, “Troy” (Archer with Troy’s face) is startled by his appearance in the mirror, after the FBI agent temporarily forgets that his face has been swapped with the violent, evil sociopath who killed his son. His first reaction is to point his gun at the face in the mirror, before regaining composure and reminding himself out loud “I am me” (in this case, “me” seems to refer both to the villain, Troy, and the FBI agent, Archer). He then abruptly contorts his face into a mask-like, exaggerated grimace with bulging eyes, which he fixes in place as he slowly turns around. Cage holds this bizarre, painful looking expression as Troy’s sister approaches him. “I thought you were dead?” she inquires, to which he replies, pointing to his face, “I’m not dead. I’m me”, while maintaining the crazed grin.

The exaggeratedly maniacal facial expression upheld throughout the scene is deeply uncanny, but it also comically personifies the absurdity of the film’s conceit. Furthermore, on a basic level, the human behaviour on display in the scene is so odd that coherent verbal conversation breaks down completely. The only response Troy’s sister can muster is to slap him hard across the face, which finally breaks his facial expression and ends the interaction. As Loacker and Peters assert, absurdity emerges with the collapse of coherent meaning in a way that “erodes, undermines and counter-acts common, apparently rational logic(s) and order(s)”, a deconstruction of meaning that can provoke both unease and laughter. 22 Cage’s exaggerated play with the breakdown of the action movie villain / victim dichotomy also resonates with Sefler’s meditation on absurdity. Sefler describes how Albert Camus, who prominently theorised and narrativized the aesthetic value of absurdity, reflects on the ability of absurd aesthetics to unsettle our cultural attachments to coherent structures and binaries such as clear victims and villains: “the good guy no longer wears a white hat; the bad guy black. The characters wear motley-colored hats – if they wear hats at all” in ways that “foreground the uncertainties of existence” and “a sense of confusion and futility in its full existential absurdity.” 23 Even in a blockbuster action movie like Face/Off, Cage’s performance revels in the carnivalesque breakdown of coherent narrative structure, characterisation, and meaning in ways that playfully foreground such existential confusion. The film’s critical reception captures both the pleasures and disappointments of the logical collapse created by this absurd excess: Schulgasser’s review in The San Francisco Examiner called Face/Off  “idiotic”, 24 while Corliss in Time responded positively to the film’s affectual overload, stating it “isn’t just a thrill ride, it’s a rocket into the thrilling past”, a mythical time when a film could “scare you” due to the level of “emotion packed in”. 25

Face/Off

Throughout, his career Cage has regularly selected material like Face/Off that captures the aesthetic and philosophical potentials of absurdity, enabling him to inject a cult film “spirit” into movies that we may not otherwise define as cult films. Some of these films, like Mandy and David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, are more explicitly aligned with this cult “spirit”: Lynch has embraced the absurd across his oeuvre, and like Cage plays with the boundaries between mainstream and cult/avant-garde films. Arp and Brace describe how Lynch’s approach to narrative and (ill)logic creates “a sense of the random and absurd happenings all around his characters and … a sense of order out of chaos”, 26 and Loacker and Peters point out that Lynch regularly “draws on the nexus between humour and the absurd.” 27 Wild at Heart is no exception, and the film opens with a confronting display of Cage’s potential for dangerously volatile excess, highlighting the resonances between Lynch’s and Cage’s approaches to absurdity. In this scene, the life of Cage’s character, Sailor, is threatened by a hitman set upon him by the insanely controlling mother of his lover, Lula. As Sailor realises what is about to happen, he erupts into prolonged and unrestrained violence, beating the hitman into a bloody pulp. He then turns towards Lula’s mother, Marietta, who has been watching the violence unfold from a nearby flight of stairs, and fixes his gaze upon her. Panting animalistically, a cigarette dangling from his mouth and wild defiance in his eyes, Cage raises his blood covered hand and points at Marietta, a pose he upholds for an unnerving duration. As Nochimson articulates in her book on Lynch, these actions, which introduce us to the film’s supposed “hero”, are “an ugly display of force that makes the audience very uneasy since [Sailor] greatly exceeds the requirements of self-defence.” 28 The film, she points out, functions as a “carnivalization of Rambo-like heroism” 29 – a subversion that is enacted largely through Cage’s performance – which subverts familiar Hollywood action movie structures in a disturbing but also comically absurd manner. 

Cage’s work with Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze, who also regularly work in a darkly satirically surrealist mode, similarly harnesses the absurd aesthetic and thematic potentials of the actor’s approach, yet in quite a different tonal and generic register than Wild at Heart. In Adaptation (directed by Jonze and written by Kaufman, 2002), Cage echoes his performance in Face/Off by appearing as two different characters: Charlie, an exaggerated version of the film’s writer, Kaufman, and David, Kaufman’s fictional twin brother. This conceit is used to explore the neurotic excesses of Kaufman’s approach to the screenwriting process, with the dual characters manifesting Kaufman’s obsessive self-doubt: Charlie is riddled with anxiety and indecision, while his brother David, is outrageously overconfident. Like Lynch’s Wild at Heart, this film deconstructs Hollywood conventions and narrative structures, emphasising their inherent absurdity, via Cage’s character/s. Cage’s Charlie is tasked with creating a film adaptation of a book about orchids. Charlie is determined to make a “simple movie about flowers”, rather than a classically-structured Hollywood popcorn movie brimming with violence, sex, and drama. However, as Landy articulates in his analysis of Adaptation, “Charlie’s” films – both the one Cage’s character writes in the film’s diegesis, and the Kaufman film the audience watches – end up delivering exactly what Charlie desperately resists. The narratives of both Adaptation and Charlie’s film become increasingly ridiculous, falling into every writing trap that Charlie has been neurotically attempting to avoid, from the overuse of voice-over to convey character motivations, to a series of unbelievable deus ex machinas. 30

An additional layer of absurdity can be found in Adaptation’s very premise. While Charlie repeatedly laments “why can’t there be a movie simply about flowers?” – a point that the audience is seemingly invited to empathise with as a noble aspiration – as Landy points out, “why would anyone want to make a movie simply about flowers? … Why does Charlie (or Kaufman, for that matter) accept the challenge, rather than laughing at its patent absurdity?” 31 In Adaptation, both Charlie’s imagined “film about flowers” and the overwrought and unbelievable popcorn movie the film eventually becomes destabilise the logic of Hollywood form, style, and character development. Cage’s dual Kaufmans embody this layered destabilisation. As Charlie, Cage sweats profusely, twitches, mumbles self-loathingly to himself, and utters hysterical streams-of-consciousness into a tape-recorder in an excessive parody of the tortured screenwriter. By contrast, David effortlessly churns out trashy Hollywood movie scripts, and blithely and vacantly lumbers around the brothers’ shared apartment, often lounging around in the background while Charlie suffers over his “simple” flower movie. The brothers embody the apparent dichotomy Adaptation sets up between aesthetically deficient popcorn movies and prestige art-house dramas. Yet, in the spirit of cult cinema, this taste hierarchy collapses in on itself as Charlie, and the film as a whole, are consumed by the absurdity of excess. 

Across these generically and tonally diverse examples – none of which would typically be categorized as “cult” films – Cage’s performances energetically capture absurdity’s “persistent reversion and questioning of conventional boundaries and distinctions that define what is ‘real’, ‘normal’ and logical and what is ‘unreal’, abnormal and illogical.” 32 However, Cage’s performance style has also been deployed in ways that highlight how absurdity is not “solely about lack of meaning and order, but about other orders and logics of ordering.” 33 For instance, in addition to Mandy, production company SpectreVision have provided another fitting vehicle for Cage in the form of Color Out of Space (2019), an ambitious adaptation of Lovecraft’s famous short-story, directed by eccentric cult filmmaker Richard Stanley. In Color Out of Space, Cage plays committed family man Nathan, patriarch of the Gardner family. Following the premise of the short story, a meteorite lands on the family farm, and the mysterious extra-planetary material emits a strange and apparently indescribable colour that eventually infects the whole property, driving the family insane and causing some of them (along with their pet llamas) to undergo grotesque biological anomalies. As the situation worsens, the audience is primed to anticipate Cage’s trademark chaotic eruption of “Cage Rage”: outbursts of extreme emotion or bizarre behaviour that will puncture the façade of the jovial and dedicated dad. 

The film combines Cage’s penchant for the absurd with Lovecraft’s own aesthetic and philosophical commitment to cosmic absurdity. As Martin explains of Lovecraft’s underpinning philosophies, “the concept of absurdity [is one of Lovecraft’s] most important themes, the theme that communicates his perspective on all aspects of human civilization.” 34 In particular, Martin points to Lovecraft’s emphasis on “the inescapable subjectivity of human perception, knowledge, and representation” and thus “the fundamental fallibility and insignificance of all human constructs. In effect, all human beliefs are based upon nothing more than shared delusions. Therefore, blind adherence to these constructs (religious, academic, scientific) in light of the principle of subjectivity that undermines them is counter to logic. It is absurd.” 35

This existential absurdity manifests in Color Out of Space via Nathan’s fruitless clinging to his domestic life on the farm and a romanticized concept of family, even after the mysterious “colour” has perverted them into something unrecognisable. Afflicted by the colour, Nathan’s wife and young son eventually mutate into a comingled singular mass which cries out incomprehensibly in apparent pain. The depiction of the fused mother and son captures most viscerally the gruesome disintegration of the Gardner family: in a ghastly subversion of mother-son bonds, the individual identities and physical forms of the boy and his mother merge and their coherent speech breaks down into an indistinct cacophony of creaks, groans, and rasps. Yet Nathan is slow to accept the horrifying mutation of his family, forcing his teenage daughter to “spend time” with this abhorrent creature in the attic, declaring passionately while gesturing wildly “we’re a family, and if there’s one thing that families do, it’s stay together.” Towards the end of the film, while his screaming daughter is locked in the attic with the creature that was once his wife and son, he sits alone in his dark living room watching television static, acting as though he is absorbed in a program surrounded by his family. When a detective and hydrologist arrive to find out what has happened on the Gardner farm, Nathan vacantly but pleasantly greets them. He explains that his family has experienced problems with their phone and WiFi, cocking his head back and emitting a staccato laugh as he notes that these technical issues are the result of “life in the sticks.” 

As scenes like this highlight, absurdity has the potential to be both frightening and funny in its deconstruction of the rational and social structures that people hold on to to make sense of their worlds. As Martin explains, the collapse of coherence, logic, and institutions in Lovecraft’s stories tend to be philosophically positioned as “paradigm shifts” 36: in Lovecraft tales, otherworldly forces, like the mysterious extra-terrestrial “colour”, operate according to entirely different regimes of meaning than those constructed by human institutions like religion, science, and nuclear families. When characters like Cage’s Nathan in Color Out of Space fail to loosen their grip on such institutions and regimes of meaning after such paradigm shifts have already occurred, the frailty and absurdity of human nature and society is unveiled. Cage’s performance in the film increasingly plays like an absurd parody of a committed father, and Nathan’s obstinate refusal to budge from his patriarchal identity becomes both funnier and scarier as the film progresses.

Pig and the Cage Renaissance

Both Color Out of Space and Mandy have been key to the aforementioned Nicolas Cage “renaissance” of the late 2010-early 2020s. The most recent film to contribute to Cage’s critical reappraisal is Pig (Sarnoski, 2021), which has been celebrated for Cage’s uncharacteristically understated and authentic performance. 37 Such positive appraisals suggest that Cage delivers a performance in this film in line with normatively accepted metrics of acting quality. Highlighting the liminality of Cage’s persona between cult and mainstream film, this psychological drama film certainly does not have the cult status of SpectreVision’s Cage films – the positive reviews for this film have extended to awards season buzz in a sure sign of more mainstream prestige and acceptance. However, Pig deploys some cult film tactics in its intertextually-rich deployment of Cage’s star persona. Some of the marketing materials for Pig implied that the film may be a gonzo revenge thriller in the manner of Mandy: one of the posters features a side-on close-up of Cage’s grizzled face with the simple tagline “Who has my pig?”, the implication being that Cage’s character would embark in this film on another bloody revenge quest, this time seeking vengeance for the loss of his beloved truffle pig. This conceit, especially when centred around a Cage performance, certainly suggests the potential to devolve into the emotional excess, violence, incoherence, and black comedy of cult film.

Poster for Pig

Pig does follow Cage’s Rob, a former high-end chef turned truffle farmer, on his quest to find his treasured pig after she is violently stolen. However, while multiple scenes tease us with the suggestion that an eruption of “Cage Rage” may be imminent – most notably, one in which Rob participates in an underground “fight club” gambling ring for chefs – Cage’s outbursts in Pig do not come in the form of the heightened facial expressions, eccentric variations in vocal tone and volume, wild violence or exaggerated physical gestures we’ve come to expect from Cage. For instance, in the fight club scene, instead of unleashing in a moment of extreme and unbridled violence, Rob passively takes a beating. Yet while Cage’s performance is muted throughout the film, the absurd excess common to Cage films is delivered in a different guise in Pig. The film’s moment of “Cage Rage” comes when Rob talks to a former protégé, Derek (David Knell), who is now the head chef at a trendy haute cuisine restaurant. Thematically and aesthetically, the scene deploys the devices of prestige drama, as we watch the characters converse in the beautiful setting of an intimate dining room filled with well-dressed guests, the focus being not on violence or physicality but on the nuances of the characters’ lengthy conversation. Yet a comic visual disjuncture is established between Cage’s filthy, bedraggled farmer and his immaculate and classy surrounds, an absurdity enhanced by the realisation at this moment that Cage’s character once mentored this extremely pretentious chef. As Derek superciliously fawns over Rob in an over-the-top attempt to impress him, Cage delivers a scathing monologue, audible to the whole restaurant, questioning his former protégé’s superficial and trend-based approach to food, which is a far cry from his former dream of opening a pub. Both Cage’s calmly delivered yet eviscerating monologue and Derek’s reaction unveils the absurdity of the chef’s confected persona, and along with it, the faux authenticity of Portland’s fine-dining culture. Attempting to literally “hold face” in front of his well-heeled customers, Derek continues to grin as Rob deconstructs his flawed career path: the rising panic on Derek’s face becomes ever more visible even as he maintains his sycophantic grin, an expression which appears increasingly deranged given the circumstances. This expression is not unlike Cage’s ghoulish grins in Vampire’s Kiss and Mandy, yet this time the tables have turned, as Cage’s rough-hewn insight punctures  the veneer of the smarmy chef and erodes the very logic and value criterion upon which his prized career is grounded. In this way, Pig cleverly retains the aesthetic and philosophical commitment to absurdity that has surged throughout Cage’s career.

Pig

 Cage Memes and the Aesthetic Power of Absurdity

To close this essay, I return to the importance of memes to the current Cage renaissance and ongoing aesthetic resonances of Cage’s performance style. Cage’s over-the-top physicality and virtuosically extreme emotional range are particularly well suited to image, gif and video-based memes, particularly given this ephemeral format is also underpinned by absurdity. As McGowan points out, “Cage’s career has been significantly impacted by these representations, and they now form an important part of his overall star image.” 38 While recognizing how cult audiences have distinctive processes of fannish appreciation, McGowan suggests that this vernacular online output has contributed to oversimplifications of Cage’s star image, supporting rather than questioning the “good/bad” actor dichotomy by highlighting his more “questionable performance choices” for comic effect. 39 McGowan argues that such memes may serve to “create the assumption amongst those who have never seen the entirety of the excerpted films that Cage is an indulgent – and perhaps even barely articulate – actor, seemingly incapable of subtlety or naturalism.” 40 Indeed, some of these memes may have this effect on those uninitiated in the “cult” of Cage and in the subcultural pleasures of cult films generally. Yet, like the aforementioned Vampire’s Kiss memes, Cage memes also tend to gleefully celebrate the ludicrous elements of Cage’s performance style in ways that playfully subvert ingrained cultural assumptions about what counts as aesthetically valuable, “good” screen performance.  Indeed, Knobel and Lankshear define memes as “collaborative, absurdist humor” that also revel in “geek kitsch humor” 41 – a collective enjoyment of absurdity that questions what’s considered normal, mainstream or “cool”, and which thus resonates with the subcultural communal pleasures of cult films.

An interesting example of this memeification of Cage concerns a role Cage never actually even got to play: Superman. Cage was once considered for this role, and test footage from 1997 of Cage with long flowing hair in a Superman costume has emerged online. Screenshots and gifs from this footage have become the source of memes that visualise how Cage troubles the boundaries between mainstream film star and gonzo cult icon. Notably, Superman / Clark Kent is one of the most well-known superheros of popular culture, as well as perhaps the most straight-laced and mainstream – the archetype of the super-heroic costumed protector who humbly masquerades as an everyday Joe. The Cage-as-Superman memes underline the absurd disjuncture between the vanilla character of Superman and Cage’s eccentric style and persona: one gif depicts Cage standing in the costume, his shoulders somewhat hunched, as he stares blankly into the middle distance, the camera zooming in on his face as he looks around in slight confusion. The gif’s caption reads, “wait a minute where the hell am I”, playing with the amusing clash of cult/mainstream styles and worlds suggested by Cage-as-Superman.

Cage as Superman

Mandy has also spawned many memes, including, unsurprisingly, one that echoes the popular memes from Vampire’s Kiss. Like the “You Don’t Say Meme”, this Mandy meme depicts Cage’s maniacally fixed grimace, this time as he turns to stare at the viewer with his face covered in blood. This meme has been repurposed in numerous ways that aesthetically celebrate how Cage’s style productively skewers normative conventions of human decorum. For instance, in one variation of the meme, a gif of the shot is accompanied by the caption “(Just saying Hi)”. The juxtaposition between caption and image playfully hints at the intense and messy human emotions that often underpin a performatively relaxed and casual text message. The meme neatly captures how the beautiful absurdity of Cage’s style has the potential to peer directly into our souls and rattle our commitment to a logical, coherent human society. 

Mandy (Just Saying Hi) Meme

Essential filmography

  • Mandy (Panos Cosmatos, 2018)
  • Adaptation (Spike Jonez, 2002)
  • Vampire’s Kiss (Robert Bierman, 1989)
  • Face/Off (John Woo, 1998)
  • Wild at Heart (David Lynch, 1990)
  • Pig (Michael Sarnoski, 2021)
  • Peggy Sue Got Married (Francis Ford Coppola, 1986)
  • Raising Arizona (Joel Cohen, 1987)
  • Color Out of Space (Richard Stanley, 2019)
  • Leaving Las Vegas (Mike Figgis, 1995)
  • Con Air (Simon West, 1997)
  • 8MM (Joel Schumacher, 1999)
  • Joe (David Gordon Green, 2013)
  • The Trust (Alex and Ben Brewer, 2016)
  • Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (Werner Herzog, 2009)
  • Moonstruck (Norman Jewison, 1988)
  • Kick Ass (Matthew Vaughan, 2010)

Endnotes

  1. Ernest Mathijs and Jamie Sexton, Cult Cinema: An Introduction (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011)
  2. David McGowan, “Nicolas Cage – good or bad? Stardom, performance, and memes in the age of the Internet,” Celebrity Studies 8.1 (2017); Carole Zucker, “The Concept of ‘Excess’ in Film Acting: Notes Toward an Understanding of Non-Naturalistic Performance,” Post Script 12.2 (1993)
  3. Kate Egan and Sarah Thomas, Cult Film Stardom: Offbeat Attractions and Processes of Cultification (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); Sexton and Mathijs. While McGowan considers some connections between cult film cultures and Cage’s persona, this is not the focus of his article
  4. McGowan, p. 211
  5. Mathijs and Sexton, p. 13
  6. Matt Hills, “Cult Movies With and Without Cult Stars: Differentiating Discourses of Stardom,” in Cult Film Stardom, Egan and Thomas, eds. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 35
  7. Egan and Thomas, p. 1
  8. See Zucker
  9. Mathijs and Sexton, p. 7
  10. Ibid., p. 7
  11. Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik, “What is cult film?” in The Cult Film Reader, Mathijs and Mendik, eds. (New York: Open University Press) p. 4-8
  12. cited in Zucker, 61
  13. Egan and Thomas, p. 9
  14. Zucker, pp. 54-55
  15. cited in Andrew Pulver, “Nicolas Cage expresses ‘frustration’ with Cage rage internet meme,” The Guardian, 19 September 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/sep/19/nicolas-cage-rage-internet-meme-mandy
  16. Mathijs and Sexton, p. 7
  17. Ibid., p. 7
  18. Zucker, p. 61
  19. Mathijs and Sexton, p. 8
  20. Ernest Mathijs, “Philosophy, Absurdity, Waste and The Meaning of Life: A cult film, of sorts,” in And Now for Something Completely Different: Critical Approaches to Monty Python, Kate Egan and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, eds. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020), p. 182
  21. Ibid., p. 182
  22. Bernadette Loacker and Luc Peters, “‘Come on, get happy!’: Exploring absurdity and sites of alternate ordering in Twin Peaks”, Ephemera Journal 15.3 (2015), pp. 622 -625
  23. George F. Sefler, “The Existential vs the Absurd: The Aesthetics of Nietzsche and Camus,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 32.3 (1974), p. 420
  24.   Barbara Shulgasser, “Trading Faces,” San Francisco Examiner, 1997
  25. Richard Corliss, “One Dumb Summer: Reviews,” Time, 1997
  26. Robert Arp and Patricia Brace, “The Owls Are Not What They Seem: The Logic of David Lynch’s World” in The Philosophy of David Lynch, William J. Devlin and Shai Beiderman, eds. (Lexington: University of Kentucky, 2011), pp. 7-8
  27. Loacker and Peters, p. 622
  28. Martha P. Nochimson, The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997), pp. 47-48
  29. Ibid, p. 48
  30. Joshua Landy, “Still Life in a Narrative Age: Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation,” Critical Inquiry 37.3 (2011)
  31. Ibid., p. 499
  32. Loacker and Peters, p. 625
  33. Ibid., emphasis in original, p. 625
  34. Sean Elliot Martin, “Lovecraft, Absurdity, and the Modernist Grotesque,” Lovecraft Annual 6 (2012), p. 83
  35. Ibid., p. 84
  36. Ibid., pp. 85; 98-99
  37. See the collated reviews on Rotten Tomatoes https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/pig_2021
  38. McGowan, p. 222
  39. Ibid., p. 215
  40. Ibid., p. 216
  41. Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear, “Online Memes, Affinities, and Cultural Production,” in A New Literacies Sampler Knobel and Lankshear, eds. (New York: Peter Lang, 2007), p. 210

About The Author

Jessica Balanzategui is a Lecturer in Cinema and Screen Studies at Swinburne University of Technology. She is the author of The Uncanny Child in Transnational Cinema (Amsterdam UP, 2018), and numerous journal articles and book chapters about children in horror and other screen genres. Jessica is the founding editor of Amsterdam UP’s “Horror and Gothic Media Cultures” book series.

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