I may be a bit of a snob. Many of my friends have the ability to fall in love with songs, TV shows or movies because they’re kitschy. To me, kitsch is just an excuse for allowing yourself to enjoy something that is clearly stupid or inferior. I think it’s a good idea to limit one’s intake of stupid and inferior in one’s media diet, and that we shouldn’t allow a term such as “kitsch” to exist which allows us to maintain or increase our intake of stupid and inferior. That’s how things like Fuller House happen.
But I’m not made of stone. I can’t deny I had a riot watching the dramatic masterpiece that was Godzilla 2000. While I quickly grew tired of Aqua’s “Barbie Girl,” I still get a kick out of the equally stupid “Lollipop Candyman.” (Did the band July Talk, consisting of a sweet-voiced lady singer and a gruff-voiced guy singer, steal Aqua’s act? That’s a topic for a future blog entry.) And aren’t we, as a civilization, the better for such TV pinnacles like Charlie’s Angels, Baywatch and Family Feud?
The 2003 film The Room is on a completely different level. Its awfulness is of a mystical quality. Somehow, everyone involved in its creation did everything wrong, to the point that the movie now exists as a curiosity. The Room is so bad, it has to be seen to be believed, and many still line up at midnight screenings to see for themselves a decade and a half later. I think the key ingredient in the film’s ability to be simultaneously horrible and watchable is the self-delusion of its producer, director, writer and star, Tommy Wiseau.
Wiseau truly believed he was making a profound piece of art. In 2015, Doug Walker (better known on the internet as the Nostalgia Critic) interviewed the filmmaker. During their discussion, Wiseau referred to himself as a “pioneer of New Hollywood” and explained The Room’s initial critical and financial failure by saying, “Hollywood was not ready for something different.” He also revealed that he submitted The Room for Academy Award consideration. So, let’s take a look at the film in which Wiseau holds such pride.
The Room is the story of a couple named Johnny and Lisa. Johnny loves Lisa and constantly refers to her as his “future wife.” Various characters throughout the movie refer to what a wonderful person Johnny is. He even acts as a pseudo-father to a troubled teenager named Denny. Throw in such utterances as, “If everyone love each other, the world would be a better place to live in. Let’s go eat, huh?” and Johnny suddenly becomes a Messianic figure of indeterminate ethnic origin. Lisa, clearly, could not find a better man – but wait….
Lisa, inexplicably, has grown bored of Johnny. Instead of telling him (which everyone advises her to do) so perhaps he can learn to excite her like he presumably used to, she seduces his best friend Mark. (We know he’s his best friend, because every character refers to this amazing friendship.) Lisa, throughout the movie, repeatedly has sex with Mark and only talks about leaving Johnny. When our hero finds out, he makes her admit the truth, and then blows his head off with a never-before-seen gun. The end.
Tommy Wiseau cast himself as Johnny (of course). I’m making gigantic assumptions here, but I feel very secure in making them: While the plot of The Room, such as it is, would have been lucky to survive a pitch session in The Young and the Restless writers’ room, the only way Wiseau could have possibly thought he was creating a profound piece of art is if he had based The Room on his own history. I’m guessing a younger Tommy Wiseau was in love with a pretty girl, but she became involved with his friend. Based on The Room’s screenplay, it’s clear that Wiseau views himself as a victim completely free of fault, and holds a frightening amount of resentment towards his lost love. Or I could be completely off base. At any rate, the film is clearly not as deep, insightful or innovative as Wiseau seems to think it is.
But it’s the gravitas that Wiseau infuses into The Room’s “subject matter” that makes it so hilarious. He actually invokes James Dean’s “You’re tearing me apart” wail from Rebel Without a Cause. That’s not something you do if you’re only aiming to make borderline porn The Room achieves. (Unless you’re making a porn version of Rebel Without a Cause, which a Google search suggests has been done countless times.) The Room also is in no shape to shoulder the burden Wiseau’s numerous allusions to Jesus Christ places on it. (Johnny preaches the importance of loving one another, complains of betrayal and, with his last words, asks for God’s forgiveness.) It’s clear to me that Wiseau desperately wanted to write and film something for the ages, but had no idea how to pull it off, nor the willingness to learn how.
And therein, I believe, lays the secret to movies that are “so bad it’s good.” I think it’s impossible to make a movie like The Room with the intent of it receiving the reception it’s gone on to have. Wiseau and similar filmmakers like Ed Wood, Darren Doane and Neil Breen, are those infuriating people with access and resources, but nothing of value to which to apply them. They aren’t trying to be ironic or insincere, and they aren’t aiming for parody. They completely believes in every word they write and every frame they shoot, and don’t become aware about how misplaced their confidence was until the cinema goes dark and the projector turns on.
Midnight screenings, shows like Mystery Science Theatre 3000, and YouTube channels like Red Letter Media and Movie Nights, provide exposure for movies that fit into the “so bad it’s good” mold. They have helped ludicrous movies like Samurai Cop and Undefeatable find second lives with new audiences. There certainly is a level of joy that can be drawn from that, especially since these are low budget features made without the help or guidance of a major studio. Finding movies like these can feel like uncovering a lost gem – or a gem of no actual worth other than sentimental.
But what happens when established writers and directors produce a turkey that somehow finds an audience? Can a movie that had every chance to be good turn out to be “so bad it’s good”? A lot of fans of the 1995 bomb Showgirls would say yes. I’m not so sure. Director Paul Verhoeven, with gems like The Fourth Man and Total Recall in his filmography, certainly knows what it takes to make a good movie, let alone a competent one. Similarly, writer Joe Eszterhas was not new to the business, having penned the hits Flashdance and F*I*S*T, and he previously teamed up with Verhoeven on Basic Instinct. What excuse did these guys have for making anything bad? It’s possible that Eszterhas is a catastrophically overrated screenwriter, and that both he and Verhoeven share a tendency towards smut for smut’s sake. Showgirls definitely has some laughably bad moments that don’t seem to be intentionally funny, and in that way it’s similar to The Room, but unlike Wiseau’s film, it has no excuse for having them, especially considering the talent and resources involved. Call me a killjoy, but I am less able to enjoy badness when I can’t find justification for it. For that reason, I can’t welcome big budget travesties like Batman and Robin and Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla into the “so bad it’s good” community.
The Carlton Cinema in Toronto screens The Room once a month, and a friend of mine wanted to go. So, for the first time in my life, I recently payed money towards entertainment I knew was bad. I was already familiar with The Room, having watched reviews of it on YouTube and viewed a friend’s DVD copy in their living room. I had heard that cinematic screenings were an experience until themselves. So I shelled out $10 for admission, bought myself a beer and settled into the third row from the back.
A hostess from the theatre welcomed us and said we were welcome to shout anything we wanted and throw anything we wanted as long as it didn’t hit the screen. She was soon drowned out by the boisterous crowd. I saw how noisy this was going to get, so I chose to just roll with it and join in.
For anyone who wanted to try to watch The Room at this screening, the subtitles were activated. That really wasn’t what the night was about. We were there to mock this crappy film loudly and gleefully. We were there to tear it a new asshole. Every line Wiseau brayed in his bizarre accent was mercilessly parroted back. Plastic spoons were tossed backwards and forwards whenever the framed spoon artwork that served as set dressing appeared. A small toy football was tossed around the cinema during the three scenes in which Wiseau plays the sport – once in formalwear, and never displaying any knowledge of how the game actually works.
I had a blast. It was such a release to sit in a theatre and holler at the screen while pointing out every flaw of an awful movie. As the lights came up after its botched tragic ending, everyone was grinning ear-to-ear. Watching The Room in a movie theatre is a ball.
On the way home, I wondered if what we did qualified as “watching a movie.” I don’t think we absorbed anything on the screen. I think we all entered the theatre with our pre-determined opinion of the movie, and our full intention was to mock it. The audience was just as much the show as Wiseau’s movie – probably more. The question: Are screenings of bad movies excuses for mob behaviour?
On the surface they appear to be. Everyone is just trying to mock the movie harder than the next person. If the subtitles weren’t on you’d miss half the dialogue. If the Queen looked in on us, I’m sure she’d have been horrified, called us a coterie of ne’er-do-wells, and kicked Canada out of the Commonwealth. So yeah, we are all there with the intention of being bad moviegoers. If, on top of that, you consider that Wiseau honestly believed in the movie he made, then you would have to admit that the audience is being a little bit cruel.
But I don’t think there is really anything wrong with it. It’s not the audience’s fault the movie is so bad, and Wiseau is getting richer with every ticket sold. Also, there isn’t a sincere viewer of The Room in the cinema to disrupt, so the rowdy mob can’t truly be called disruptive. Nobody loses. Everyone wins.
I don’t know when I’ll see my next “so bad it’s good” movie. I’ve heard that Ed Wood’s 1953 film Glen or Glenda is a riot, but I don’t want to make this a habit. I have my snobby reputation to maintain.