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The Westing Game

posted by Jen on 9/27/01

Literati and media moguls alike bandy about the expression cult classic to describe every book and movie imaginable. From "Trainspotting" to "Girl, Interrupted," we can heave a collective sigh that we are "down with cult classics" if we have been privy to any of these medium, according to these professionals. My trusty dictionary assures me that a cult is religious worship or faddish devotion to someone or something. So if the media darlings and Webster's are correct, then Mandy Moore and Britney Spears have inspired "cult" followings because they have over 100 ILUV HER OMG internet fan clubs devoted to them. And yet, this term just doesn't seem to fit the bill for carbon cut-out performers. To me, the term "cult classic" implies something much more significant than blonde hair and pseudo-vocal skills. There seems to be a hiccup between the way we define cult classics and the way the media thinks we should.

The Culture Club

And so, just as I have undertaken the goals of defining intelligence and happiness for previous articles, I will now assume the equally onerous task of defining the elements in a cult classic.

First, an entertainment vehicle can only be considered for cult classic status if it inspires respectable Halloween costumes. Think of someone trying to make a Halloween costume out of a Good Will Hunting character. What's your plan here? Are you going to wear a janitor costume and solve equations on a portable blackboard? Or paint a picture of a sailboat and talk about how you like the Red Sox? Nobody's going to give you any candy for that shtick.

What about putting on a blond wig and holding a microphone? Sure, you could be LeAnn Rimes or Jessica Simpson, but really, is that an impressive costume? Now think about this: if you dress in head-to-toe black leather, wear goth-white face paint, a black disheveled wig, and hold a large pair of scissors, you are guaranteed to score a big jack ‘o' lantern full ‘o' candy. Why? Because I like using lots ‘o' quotes when I write articles? No, because movies like Edward Scissorhands and other cult classics to be discussed later produce memorable, multi-faceted, nostalgia-inducing characters. Not just diverse, token characters plopped on the scene to prevent under-represented groups from writing in protest; cult classics don't employ characters for the sake of filling up space. Cult classics, if done well, never utilize a character to meet some invisible quota. Each character, however minor in appearance, is replete with his own idiosyncracies, foibles, and intentional flubs where appropriate.

Cult of Personality

Second, for anything to be considered a cult classic, it must be deemed as such by the dark horses of cool. Now, for those of you who aren't sure who exactly are the dark horses of cool, allow me to paint the picture. These are the guys who drink Yuban coffee (because Starbucks panders to capitalist pigs) and despise anything that has been picked up and propagated by mass America.

(Click here to send a Yuban postcard to your favorite dark horse friend!)

They wear black and tan only, but want you to think they don't think about their outfits before they leave the house. These are the same guys who love literature and art but refuse to patronize Barnes & Noble and Pearl because they are successful corporations. The dark horses hate finding out that someone like myself has the same taste in music as them, and stop listening to their CD's when Z100 starts playing them. They have a knack for picking out the most obscure references and use words like "dirge" and "bailiwick" to punctuate their rhetoric. As much as I enjoy poking fun at their obsessive drive to appear nonconformist and blasé, part of me still wishes I could conform and be selected in their group.

Dark horses are part of this cult

As I said to my roommate last night, "Nicole, I am really so dark and unique. I don't know if you realize this, but I am an artiste. (It's important to note that dark horses are artistes (pronounced ARR—TEEESTS not ARR—TISSTs)." Then she asked if I wanted to go to Banana Rep with her and, like, pick out an outfit, and I was like, "OK, maybe latah'!!1"

Dark horses use the expression "pop culture" with loathing and detachment. They claim they would rather attend to the forgotten film heroes of our time or that they are too busy etching the shadows of their brains to focus on "media torture devices" when in reality, they just don't like to admit to liking what the rest of America likes. So, rule of the dark horses? Cult classics cannot be mass-customized.

Fan of the occult, reader of "Handbook for the Recently Deceased"

Third, cult classics ideally express societal discontent in some fashion, or provoke us to express disgust with the downturn society has taken since their syndication. "Greenacres" and the "Small Wonder" equally inspire cult classic status for these diverging reasons. "Greenacres" inspires us to wonder whatever happened to true love, and then, whatever happened to our society. "Small Wonder" makes us cringe as we watch Ted's boss Mr. Brindle shamelessly ripping off Ted's ideas, not to mention begs the question "Can robots take on human emotions?" Really, what has become of our society?

Fourth, cult classics cannot be produced in the nineties. Because as we all know, the nineties is just an amalgamation of the sixties, seventies, and eighties. It's really sad, when you think about it; look at the fashion industry of the 90's. First, they ripped off the 60's pucci-inspired pants and baby-doll dresses. Then, the disco era was copied and discarded in the mid 90's. And now people are scrambling to buy Vans and Izod shirts to look 80's. Look at the music industry. Sure, we had some cool bands wafting in from time to time, but 80% of the music consumed at Tower Records is compilation hits from the 70's and 80's. I just formulated that percentage completely out of thin air to add authority to my statement about the 90's. I don't even know if it's true.

Fifth, and most importantly, cult classics must have substance. It's not enough to have all of the above, under any circumstances. While movies like Xanadu and Labyrinth might inspire dark horses to don elfin costumes and run around the block hunting for candy, you just won't walk away from these movies with an appreciation for anything but the fact that you didn't star in them. So, above all, substance is key.

Blue Oyster Cult

Bonus elements of cult classics include the use of double entendre, personification, hyperbole, and exaggeration (imagine that, hyperbole and exaggeration) to demonstrate the creator's profound mind at work. Take H.R. Pufnstuf, the 70's cartoon characterized by that venerable talking dragon who saves Jimmy and his friend Freddie the magical flute from the evil clutches of Witchiepoo. People simply could not get enough of this cartoon, with its talking trees, candles, animals, and magical flowers. Personally, I just think people like saying "Pufnstuf" because it reminds them of the now obsolete Oreo Big Stuff cookies. And as we all know, that is one cookie that should have been a cult classic. I could start my own cult devoted to Big Stuff cookie-eating!!1

Screw these, bring back the Big Stuff

So, without wasting anyone's time, really, I will review the book that I predict will be the cult classic for our generation. The book that will stump your creative mind, challenge your left brain, revitalize your chi, and boost your confidence. And to think, you heard it here first! The Westing Game, aside from being my favorite book ever has all the trappings of a cult classic in the making. Oh, and it's a 200-page book targeted for 10-year olds. I am a wunderkind!!1.

First, it's a murder mystery, and as we all know, murder mysteries inspire murder mystery dinner parties and, more importantly, excellent Halloween costumes. With 16 main characters like Turtle Wexler, Theo Theodorakis, and Dr. D. Denton Deere, the very names reveal a symbolism so rich you can almost taste them, and considering that James Shin Hoo is a chef, there is much tasting to be done indeed. Each of the 16 characters, with their multi-hued ethnic backgrounds, are brought together as the nieces and nephews of Sam Westing, the multi-millionaire. They face the task of uncovering who among them is a murderer, and whoever does this successfully, inherits the fortune. Since characters are paired for the assignment, Ellen Raskin creates perfect character foils among each of the pairs. For example, she pairs Dr. D. Denton Deere, the alleged first-rate, brilliant doctor with an invalid who cannot walk or speak. And yet we come to realize that the invalid is actually the genius, the doctor is the chump. Each character could be duplicated into a Halloween costume just clever enough, just out there enough, that if The Westing Game developed the cult classic status it deserves, you would earn a bag ‘o' loot at every house!

Second, the dark horses would have to enjoy this novelette. While the book has won the prestigious Newberry Medal for children, it still hasn't won the approval of mass America. It's not like Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood type books that have been mass publicized by Oprah and "The New York Times." And as we all know, the dark horses can't take part in mass approval such as this!

Third, The Westing Game makes a blatant statement of societal disgust, expressed by each and every character. The most blatant expressions are embodied in Grace Windsor Wexler, the uppity socialite, who deems herself untouchable to the rest of the crew. In an attempt to sound intelligent, Mrs. Wexler insults Mr. Hoo's wife and culture by saying, "She does look young, but it's so hard to tell ages of people of the Oriental persuasion…Your wife is…so inscrutable." Now, how many ten-year olds know what inscrutable means? Raskin does this intentionally to demonstrate that impeccable grammar and vast vocabularies do not always translate into intelligence. Raskin manages to touch on many of the issues of bigotry in society today, but she doesn't patronize children with obvious lessons and rules. She simply puts it out there, so you can recognize it and disapprove for yourself.

Contains live, active cultures

Fourth, The Westing Game was published in 1978, which, is coincidentally my birth year. Further, it was republished by Puffin Books, perhaps, in honor of H.R. Pufnstuf.

Fifth, and most importantly, this book borders on almost being too substantial. No exaggeration, nearly every line in this book bears relevance to the end of the book, from the ambiguous references to "purple waves" and "twins" to the Westing Paper Products marketing propaganda "Buy Westing Paper Products today!". Each pairs' set of clues is uncannily meant for them, but not really, and each one struggles to understand what old Sam Westing meant when he said "it's not what you have, it's what you don't have that counts." Quite honestly, the entire book is a metaphor for life, and nearly each character and scene imparts a mini-lesson upon us.

As a bonus, Raskin spins irony and double entendre like DJ Scribbles spins records. (OMG Jen is funny.) For example, when Angela announces her profession as "none" her fiancee becomes distressed at the idea that he's marrying a nun. Raskin also describes Grace as an heir pretender with a pretentious air about her. Raskin simply does not mess around.

And so you see, this book is truly worthy of achieving that elusive cult classic status. It's just deliciously suspenseful and mysterious enough without being irritating. I'm actually in the middle of reading it again, and I always convince myself that I'm shocked at the end when the murderer is revealed. Honestly, it will take you at most two hours to read. You won't walk away with a different perspective on life or a greater appreciation for friends. But you will be entertained. And we at Whatever-Dude aim to entertain.

A cult classic!!1

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