David G. Hughes talks to Dr Iain Robert Smith about his research in cult cinema, the highs and lows of being a scholar of B movies, and why Turkey’s Star Wars rip-off is genuinely excellent.
Dr Iain Robert Smith is a Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at King’s College London and founder of the Remakesploitation Film Club. Dr Smith is at the forefront of academic research in film, while at the same time an intellectual renegade who specialises in cult cinema and film remakes—all the stuff that “respectable” academia considers unworthy of attention.
Dr Smith was delivering a lecture organised by the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, an educational community that organises events featuring specialist guest speakers dedicated to the study of horror. They kindly invited us to a talk entitled “Remakesploitation! The Horror Meme from Turkish Exorcist to Dracula in Pakistan” delivered by Dr Smith and based on his book, The Hollywood Meme: Transnational Adaptations in World Cinema (2016).
The premise of the book, tersely summarised, is that Hollywood imagery becomes “memes” that propagate across cultural barriers, witnessed in transnational film remakes that adapt Hollywood stories into their own national context. Not merely financial exploitation, the book makes the case that these remakes, including a “Turkish Exorcist” that replaces Christian iconography with Islamic, indicate a universal impulse and positive cross-cultural exchange. We read the book and found it to be an insightful and entertaining contribution to studies in globalisation and a nuanced understanding of cultural exchange.
Following his fantastic lecture, we met up at King’s College London’s Maughn Library to converse on topics high and low, including academic elitism, cultural universalism, the perverse pleasures of cult cinema, and his love for Turkish Star Wars.
electric ghost: With a project like The Hollywood Meme you’re dealing with a lot of obscure, disreputable films that are, quite literally, forgotten about. I was interested in the practical realities of a study like that. For example, securing copies of the films, which are difficult to find. You have academic resources, but how difficult was acquiring and then translating the films? Because they were not designed to be shown abroad.
Iain Robert Smith: Yeah, there’s so much there that I can talk about. The project started by me coming across rare films from bootlegger dealers online. Initially, they started with video nasties; they would hook you up with Cannibal Holocaust , Tenebrae , and then they broadened out into weird world cinema. When I was doing my Masters, they made available on bootleg DVD Turkish Star Trek [Turist Ömer Uzay Yolunda, 1973] and Şeytan —Turkish Exorcist. I bought those two films. They didn’t have subtitles. I don’t speak Turkish. So the project started from the question: “What are these films?” I had no context.
Then that slowly led me to more examples of films from Turkey, the Philippines, and India. Slowly I started to map out a PhD subject. These are films that haven’t been written about in scholarship, that people writing history books on Indian and Turkish cinema tend to ignore. They don’t really fit the idea of quality world cinema that people tend to push. So I was thinking: “Okay, here’s an opportunity to write this book,” but it’s also impossible to do; I don’t speak Turkish, I’ve been learning Hindi but not at all fluent. It did involve working with other people to help transcribe the films, and then I would do the fansubbing so they would have subtitles. It would involve collaborating with historians, film scholars in other countries, just to make sure that when I was writing this project I knew what I was writing about. But it’s now got to the point where I am now working with the rights holders in Turkey to help restore the films, to get them screened in cinemas. We did a tour of Turkish Star Wars all across the UK last year—it played in Picturehouse cinemas! These films that were circulating as bootlegs and almost entirely forgotten are now being introduced to audiences on the big screen.
“There is a slightly perverse side in me that enjoys the position of not doing what everyone else is doing.”
Turist Ömer Uzay Yolu’nda / Ömer the Tourist in Star Trek (Hulki Saner, 1973) promotional poster.
It’s such an esoteric subject, so what was your personal motivation in specialising in transnational remakes? It’s not often that you see it in a respectable academic scene. Was it intellectual curiosity?
Intellectual curiosity was a big part of it. It was also that this just hadn’t been done. I was very consciously during my Masters thinking, “What do I know about that hasn’t already been writing about exhaustively in Film Studies?” I was looking around for PhD topics and had a whole range of topics that were very different. I have never tried to be a scholar of art cinema, I never saw myself in that way. I’m really interested in popular cinema, and I also have that cinephile obsessive nature—trying to watch as many as I can, track down more and more films. Part of what draws me to these films is my love of trashy, popular cinema. But I’m not particularly interested in researching what’s already been done.
Just off that, have you ever felt a pressure to justify your topic or be a scholar in art cinema?
I think that pressure exists. There is a slightly perverse side in me that enjoys the position of not doing what everyone else is doing. Everyone else is writing great scholarship on art cinema, and festival films, and experimental cinema, and I am doing really trashy, terrible B movies. I am aware I am doing that. I remember being at a conference and one of the professors said that I’d be a really good scholar once I got over this “cult stuff.”
As if I was going through a phase and once I grow up a little bit…
Once maturation hits?
Yeah! At that point, I’ll be good. Until then, it’s a little bit juvenile.
How do your students respond to the topic?
Generally, they enjoy it. It depends on which module I’m teaching. I teach a world cinema module, and I think the students are expecting the “Great Works of World Cinema.” So when I am showing them Turkish Star Wars and clips of Turkish Exorcist, or 3 Dev Adam [English: 3 Giant Men, 1973], where Captain America teams up with Santo from the Mexican wrestling films to battle an evil Spider-Man, they’re like… “That’s a bit curious.” But if there was a whole module on that they would be frustrated. They’d be like: “Okay, I’ll dip my toes into that as Iain seems really into it,” but, generally, that’s not what they signed up for. I also teach a class on cult cinema and generally they know what they’re in for, so they’re up for it. Students tend to enjoy the films but feel this isn’t sufficiently… serious.
“It’s not just America travels around the world and the world becomes America. Actually, that culture is being transformed and adapted in complicated ways.”
3 Dev Adam / 3 Giant Men (T. Fikret Uçak, 1973, Turkey).
Getting into the meat of the theory, what impressed me the most when reading your book was that you convincingly complicate a lot of readily accepted notions, such as cultural appropriation, cultural imperialism, and Hollywood hegemony. It’s big intellectual stuff that gets referenced a lot in seminars, but few people consider the nuances of it. Your text does that through schlocky B movies. Would you say a hyperlinked, interconnected phenomenon like film is inherently difficult to classify in terms of cultural allegiance?
Certainly one of my goals with this research was to use these films as a window into larger debates about cultural appropriation, how our different cultures are interacting, and the politics of those processes. I think one of the things I was lucky with was that people are generally familiar with the films that are being re-worked. Rather than just doing a straight world cinema book in which people are not familiar with Turkish cinema, here there is a fun hook in: they know The Exorcist  and Star Wars .
In a sense, the whole project is designed to nuance those theories of globalisation, about how American popular culture influences the world. To what extent is that cultural imperialism? Disneyfication? Coca-Colaisation? This is a way of exploring the implications of that through different national industries that rework the material. It’s not just America travels around the world and the world becomes America. Actually, that culture is being transformed and adapted in complicated ways. I don’t feel like this is an attempt to argue that there is no American cultural imperialism, that we should not worry about this, but that it complicates those models.
The films are unfashionable, but the universalist aspect of the book is also unfashionable. I think that aspect of film—its cultural hybridity—is self-evidently true. I’m reminded of a time I was travelling in Dubai and I was in a Taxi, and the driver got wind of the fact that I was a film student. So all he wanted to do was talk about Jean-Claude Van Damme films! Luckily, I’ve seen my fair share of Van Damme films. So there was this cultural melting pot moment in which a young, British person is bonding with an older Emirate, himself an immigrant, talking about a Belgian star in American movies, who himself was made famous by Asian martial arts. Your book, to me, encapsulated the way in which film sits between those cultural exchanges.
Yeah, on the side of universalism/particularism, I guess I’d side more on the universalist argument. I’m aware of the problems of that as a position; I’m aware of the liberal humanist universalism ignores the particulars.
Having respect for the validity of different cultures?
Yeah, by focusing on the ways that cultures are similar and borrow from each other, there’s a danger of losing sight of cultural differences and falling under a banner of an unthinking universalism, that is not attentive to the different experiences of different cultures. Nevertheless, I do think that there is an old-fashioned liberal humanist underpinning to my political position, one that draws on Todorov’s later work trying to carve out enlightenment humanism that is still relevant in a post-colonial world.
I think I picked up on that, as I have sympathy for it. Your book indicates that the truest representation of a culture is not necessarily its exported art house films, but where they offer mutation. Foreign national cinemas are often discussed in opposition to Hollywood, so I was wondering why it is that we have to have a pure, untainted version of a foreign culture? Is it fair to consider Şeytan as emblematic of Turkish culture as Once Upon a Time in Anatolia ?
There’s always a danger in seeing any particular part of a culture being emblematic of a larger whole. Savaş Arslan’s work on Turkish cinema [Cinema in Turkey: A New Critical History, 2010] is really useful in moving away from the art house, exported cinema as being what represents Turkish cinema internationally. He feels that these are not the films that people in Turkey are watching, are not films even designed for Turkish audiences. They’re often designed to win awards at European film festivals. There’s often a sense in which film festival films play up to a stereotypical idea of that national culture, as that exports well. There are various examples of that from a whole range of different film industries around the world; films seen within that national culture as stereotypical and not at all representative, but nevertheless are the films picked up because film festival audiences are often looking for that window into this traditional, culturally distinct cinema. These hybrid, culturally mixed films don’t fit into that model.
“I’m fairly cynical about whether we can ever come up with a model of value that isn’t problematic on some level, partly because my own tastes in cinema are so often to films that many other people do not value—at all.”
The Hollywood Meme: Transnational Adaptations in World Cinema by Iain Robert Smith (Edinburgh University Press, 2016). 192 pages.
Talking about the methodology of your work, you use Richard Dawkins’ concept of “meme”, which, to quote him, is a “cultural inheritance that behaves like a gene”. It’s a term from evolutionary biology, so to what extent do these memes, in as far as they replicate and mutate in an evolutionary sense, have a natural appeal to people—that they are “fit”, so to speak, to survive in this world? The broader implication of that, to put it crudely and controversially, would be that these stories are better than other stories that do not have this infectious aspect, in as much as they survive. Is this taking it too far?
I am fascinated by that argument. Linda Hutcheon [Professor of English at The University of Toronto] at one point tried to make a similar argument. After she’d done her A Theory of Adaptation  book, she did a journal article that tried to talk about the meme as a model. She tried to say that rather than seeing adaptations in terms of fidelity arguments that become tedious very quickly and rely on subjective attribution value, she tried to come up with another way of valuing adaptations. She was making that argument: those that proliferate and survive are the strong memes. I’m fairly cynical about whether we can ever come up with a model of value that isn’t problematic on some level, partly because my own tastes in cinema are so often to films that many other people do not value—at all. So even making the slightly perverse argument that these are better films because they proliferate, I am not quite on board with.
Talking about memes, I think the most interesting phenomena that genre or memes—things that repeat or mutate—is comparable to is religion. It’s hard to think of anything as culturally successful as Hollywood than religion. Do you think there is a fair parallel in the sense that in these memes and stories, the author disappears? Superhero mythology is similar in that the mythology self-perpetuates and people come in only to add to it, with no sole author. Your book explains very well the socio-cultural context of how Hollywood memes spread, but you never talk about why they spread. Meme reminds me of Joseph Campbell on mythology and Jungian archetypes. I was wondering if that was something you’d be interesting in going into—not so much the how, but the why?
That’s a really good question. I think that’s true. That’s fair; I don’t really go into why these Hollywood films are successful or picked up for adaptation. It’s almost taken as a given. There’s a guy called Scott Robert Olson who wrote Hollywood Planet , and he tried to make an argument for Hollywood’s international success on that more fundamental level, that these are stories that audiences respond to and it’s less to do with economic power that someone like Toby Miller [Global Hollywood, 2015] may go towards. Olson tries to make the argument that its success is due to the universal nature of its stories, the ways audiences around the world can relate to those stories that are not bounded by culture. There are some people who go down the route that some national cinemas are very culturally specific and that restricts their travel, whereas Hollywood cinema, arguably, because of the diverse nature of the American population, are making films that appeal to different types of audiences that help them travel. But I’ve never been entirely convinced by that; I don’t feel that American films lack cultural specificity. They are very American. They’re not a blank canvas. I think the industrial reasons are a big part of that.
Yes, if anything people usually bemoan the overly-American specificity of Hollywood. But there is a tension between what is industrially manufactured as popular, coerced into popularity, and what is naturally appealing to human beings. It’s perhaps impossible to tell the difference. I thought that in your talk, your map of Dracula adaptations across the globe was great; he is the ultimate meme, including with Turkey’s Dracula in Istanbul [Turkish: Drakula Istanbul’da, 1953]. Perhaps a study of why Dracula is so intriguing to people? It would definitely be something I’d be interested in reading.
Yeah, I’d love to read that as well. I wrote a chapter in Transnational Film Remakes  that is in some ways the condensed version of The Hollywood Meme and that part of the talk was partly based on, and I’m really proud of that chapter. But I don’t think I get to grips with how Dracula was such a successful meme.
You make your point in your analysis of Turkish popular cinema that these films existed in a time capsule, they cannot happen again due to the nature of copyright law and the pressure that was put onto Turkey to adopt globalised regulations. I actually felt a bit sad reading that, because I thought, “This won’t happen again”. It got me thinking about the nature of copyright law in relation to creativity. Do you think there is something inherently stifling there? Does it keep culture in borders?
There’s a good question. I’m overall critical of copyright and the way it restricts creativity but I am not for doing away with all copyright laws. I’m not on board with some of the advocates of entire removal. Similar to you, I feel sad that this has come to an end. There are still some transnational film remakes that bear some similarities, but they don’t have quite the sense of creativity and vibrancy as these 1970s Turkish films. In India now, you get licensed remakes but it doesn’t quite have the same dynamism.
“I love bad films generally, but some of the pleasures from bad cinema are from the tedium.”
Drakula İstanbul’da / Dracula in Istanbul (1953) promotional poster.
If there was one film that you would say people should see to understand your concepts and ideas—or is just the best film—which would it be?
Certainly, the best is The Man Who Saved the World [Turkish: Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam, 1982]—Turkish Star Wars. It’s by far the most entertaining film from start to finish. Çetin İnanç notoriously created a sci-fi film in which rather than creating their own special effects, they edited in clips from Star Wars, as well as music from Indiana Jones , Flash Gordon , and Battlestar Galactica . They just created a magical, wonderfully entertaining film. Not all of these films are entertaining for the whole length; they are interesting to watch and they often circulate as clips precisely because it’s interesting to see Spider-Man, Captain America and Santo in a 1973 Turkish film, but actually it doesn’t sustain audience interest for the entire running time. But The Man Who Saved the World is just an incredible film. İnanç has an amazingly vibrant editing style—a creative, slightly insane, body of ideas that he throws against the wall and sees what sticks.
When you showed the clips in your talk, they were very popular, and very funny. But I was thinking, “If you watch it for 90 minutes, how would it be then?” It’s interesting that, as you say, people may get bored in the film. To what extent do you yourself derive entertainment value from the films?
It’s a mix of the two. Of the hundreds of films that I watched to put together the book, a large proportion are really interesting in terms of cultural exchange but are not films that I would introduce to friends. Some of the Turkish films are really entertaining; that’s what I have been trying to do over the last year or so—get the rights of these films just because I think they really do work. Especially The Man Who Saves the World; every time I’ve screened it, it has a huge round of applause at the end and everyone talks about it. Whereas some of the other films we’ve screened, including the Turkish Exorcist…
...which seemed the most technically competent film.
That’s the thing: it’s just a very well-done remake of The Exorcist. It’s on a lower budget, but Metin Erksan is a very talented filmmaker [his 1964 film Susuz Yaz won the Berlinale Golden Bear], even though he has a short schedule. It doesn’t quite have that same energy and dynamism. Audiences watch it and are like, “That’s interesting, and I didn’t know that existed,” but The Man Who Saves the World’s audiences come out pumped up! “That’s the best movie I’ve ever seen!” So I think as much as there are points in which during the writing of this book I’d had enough—”Oh, another film which is fairly tedious and then has a brief introduction of a character or sequence from another film”—always go back to Turkish Star Wars.
I slightly regret using the word “boring” to describe them because you yourself mention Brecht in your written analysis of this film. In the same way that you watch a Brechtian drama, you almost have to adjust yourself. I’ve had my forays into schlocky B movies and oftentimes I will get bored, but then over the years I have trained myself or learned to appreciate it in a way you would typically appreciate a “boring” art-house film. People don’t seem prepared to engage in the same spectatorship for these films compared to a more “virtuous” film. Almost as if it’s all effort and no reward.
I think that’s true; it’s something in which you have to do some work as a viewer. It’s rare that a film is just an easy, fun watch. I love bad films generally, but some of the pleasures of bad cinema are from the tedium.
It’s a strange pleasure. I would subject myself to countless direct to video action movies, for reasons I don’t really understand, as they’re often quite bad! Then I end up thinking, “What am I doing?” But I enjoy them nonetheless. It’s a perverse pleasure.
I definitely have that. I’ve devoted myself to that!
“Film is such a major part as to how I encounter the world, think through larger issues. In some ways it can be a retreat from the world, but it also one allows me to engage with various different parts of life…”
Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam / The Man Who Saved the World (Çetin İnanç, 1982, Turkey).
Penultimate question: any research projects that people should know about?
The next big project will be on cult Bollywood Cinema. It’s trying to think about what is cult Indian cinema, what would it mean in that context. Indian films are almost always ignored in the lists of cult cinema, in the major film guides to cult film. I’m trying to think through to what extent we can find a canon. The works of Kanti Shah are talked about as the Ed Wood of Indian cinema, his film Gunda [English: Antagonist, 1998] is talked about as the Plan 9 from Outer Space  of Indian film. So I am going to write a book about filmmakers like Shah and the larger question: if cult is derived from American midnight movie phenomenon, what does it mean to apply it to Indian cinema? Would these films only be cult if they cross over to Western cult film audiences? There is a growing cult in India for these films, similar to what we find in the US. To some extent, I want to de-westernise it, take it away from the anglophone focus.
Do you see cinema in a therapeutic way? Or at least as a shielding mechanism against the world? To what extent has film helped your life?
I guess I am a film obsessive. I have built my life around film in many ways. I’ve managed to create a career in which I get paid to watch films, chat about them, occasionally write about them. If I could speak to my teenage self and explain what I was going to be doing in 20 years, I’d be so pleased. Film is such a major part of how I encounter the world, think through larger issues. In some ways, it can be a retreat from the world, but it also allows me to engage with various different parts of life and society, and cultures. I have various health issues that mean that I am not particularly well travelled, but in terms of my film life, I am very well travelled. I watch films from all around the world, constantly on the lookout for films from industries I don’t know much about and want to learn more about. Even if I can’t do things physically, I can do it through the medium of film.
You can find out more about Dr Iain Robert Smith’s work by visiting his website here.