Monday, January 9, 2012

The Room (2003)

The Room (2003)
seen @ Sunshine Cinema, New York NY

There are many unknown filmmakers out there who believe their work to be of high quality - and some of them are. The odds against them achieving any kind of fame are long, but still they persevere. Now imagine yourself as one of them for a moment. You've taken film classes, you've studied the work of the great directors of film history, you've refined and reworked your screenplay over and over with the help of friends and teachers and you've got a solid cast and crew. You believe you've got what it takes to become the next Spielberg or Scorsese. Then along comes some guy who makes a horrible, horrible film by every stretch of the imagination - one that, against all logic, becomes a cult hit. How would that make you feel?

I don't believe anyone truly sets out to make a "bad" movie. Some filmmakers may aim for camp or parody or satire, and in so doing, deliberately lower their standards, but I don't think that's quite the same thing. That's more like being in on the joke. One is led to believe that quality will eventually win out over time - a statement that can apply to any creative medium. However, thanks to the Internet, we live in an age where both the good stuff and the bad stuff can not only be preserved, but analyzed and celebrated, to a degree, for all time - and word of mouth is much quicker.

Celebrating junk, preserving it and keeping it alive, isn't the same thing as learning from the mistakes of others, which is a vitally important part of the creative process, as any artist will tell you. I'm as guilty of it as most people. There are a number of websites I follow, such as this one, that revel in the silly, disposable pop culture detritus of the past, good and bad. I've written about bad movies here before and I'll continue to do so, occasionally. I find that after a long stretch of good movies, they make for a nice break every once in awhile, and yeah, if they're bad enough, they can be unintentionally funny and a trip to watch. But the lengths some go to in order to keep them alive boggle the mind sometimes.

Which leads us to The Room. I had heard bits and pieces about it a year or two ago, but didn't pay it much mind. Then, one night I was at Andi's apartment and I met her roommate Melissa. We got to talking about movies, among other things, and she brought up The Room and how much she loved it. So I figured okay, perhaps I'll keep an eye out for it. Last year I found out that it was playing at the Village East at midnight, and I had invited John and Sue to see it with me, but I had underestimated how popular it truly is: the film was sold out by the time we got there.

Curious about the film, however, John and Sue decided to rent it on their own and they got into it. When they read about another midnight showing, this one at the Sunshine last Saturday night, they invited me to it. So while this would be my first time seeing it, it would be their first time seeing it with an audience.

And what an audience it was. It looked like it was close to a sellout, with mostly young people. Like a typical Rocky Horror Picture Show outing, people came in costume (one hairy dude with a goatee came in a blonde wig and red dress, mimicking the lead female character Lisa) and they came bearing props - a few guys had footballs, for instance, which figure prominently in the film. 

And then there were the spoons. Oh my god, the spoons.

There's not much of a plot to The Room. Set in San Francisco - which we're constantly reminded of - it's a simple love triangle story, in which one chick must decide between two different dudes. Most of the action is set in the living room of an apartment in which people come and go at a surprising frequency.

As a cinematic achievement, it fails on every level. The dialogue is banal, the acting uninspired, the ludicrously-staged love scenes go on for far too long (and are further undermined by make-out love songs that would be awkward in a blaxploitation movie), and the characters are uniformly one-dimensional and unsympathetic. However...

...the audience was not exactly made up of film students clinically dissecting the movie with a dispassionate eye. The overwhelming majority of them had seen The Room multiple times, and in true Rocky Horror fashion, not only did they recite lines of dialogue, but they hollered their own insults and one-liners back to the screen. In fact, in places the audience shushed each other before a particularly choice line was about to come up, which I found fascinating. There are several scenes in which some of the characters toss a football around, and sure enough, at one point a few guys ran to the front of the auditorium and did the same thing, to the cheers of the crowd. In the titular room, among the decorations include something that's easy to miss on DVD because it's so small and unimportant: a framed image of a spoon. While peculiar, it's never prominently displayed; still, that did not stop the audience from making it rain plastic spoons whenever it entered the frame (and sometimes when it didn't!). And they sung along with the love songs!

My enjoyment of The Room - and I did enjoy it - was purely based on the audience experience, though I'm pretty sure John and Sue also like it for its camp value. I tossed my share of spoons around, and I even ad libbed a call-back or two. It's impossible to not get caught up in an environment like that. To return to my original statement, however, is it right that a movie this bad gets so much attention lavished on it? 

Whether you're talking about any of the Transformers movies or a recent low-budget horror movie that inexplicably took in $34.5 million dollars on opening weekend after getting lambasted by the critics, sometimes  - a lot of times - bad movies defy the odds. One could make a distinction between a studio film that spends an obscene amount of money catering to the lowest common denominator and an indy film that aspired to greatness, but got irretrievably lost somewhere along the way, but I'd say the end result is the same; it's simply a matter of degree. In a bizarre way, The Room's unexpected popularity is actually inspiring - or would be, if it wasn't popular for all the wrong reasons. I don't know what the answer is, but I can't deny the level of affection the audience felt for the film, even if it may be misplaced.

A few other observations: there seems to be a belief that Lisa is fat. She's not; she's just not a stick figure like most Hollywood starlets... At Saturday night's screening, there was what appeared to be a homeless dude sitting in the back. He was probably looking for a place to get out of the cold for a couple of hours, but of all movies to pick, he picks this one? The funny thing is, from what I saw afterwards, I think he liked it!

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't say a word about writer-director-producer-star Tommy Wiseau, who has developed a cult following of his own. He's no sex symbol, yet we see far too much of him in the movie, if you know what I mean. John and Sue suggested the possibility that his European(?) accent and his public persona may be an act; I doubt it. If he did intend for The Room to be a serious film initially, he appears to have embraced its unexpected cult status. At this point, I doubt he has much of a choice. (Personally, I dread the possibility that one of my old mini-comics from the 90s will turn up on some comics website and get mocked.) Wiseau has been able to ride the "success" of The Room pretty far, but one can't help but wonder if he's learned anything about making better movies as a result. It would be a shame if he didn't - but if he became a better filmmaker, would he retain his popularity with the midnight movie crowd? Strange how these things work out, isn't it?


  1. Great post. There really isn't anything like seeing The Room at a midnight screening. I had the pleasure of seeing The Room with Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero in person. Tommy was clearly soaking up the cheers and admiration, and milking the crowd for all it was worth. Greg didn't seem as thrilled, heh, but he did say that he is working on a book about his experiences with The Room. That ought to be an interesting read.

  2. An interesting read for sure!

  3. worth seeing as a followup to any The Room experience. I would have never made you experience that film, but now that you have:

  4. I saw screen captures of that when I was looking for pics for this post. Didn't think it was real. I guess it is.

  5. I agree with the irony of film students having to live with the fact that they make things no one will see while THE ROOM becomes a cult hit (one of the RiffTraxx guys said the same thing), but there is a cost to being a hit in this particular fashion. Most of those students would not want their work poked fun at to the point that their film sets a new-low standard of badness. It would kill them just to get a bad review, or a negative reaction from one of their friends. That said, Tommy Wiseau is a success at being a failure while those hard-working students were never discovered at their quest to be good, or great, not bad or downright bottomfeeding awful. And yes, sure, Tommy is taking that camp value to the bank. But the man had millions beforehand.

  6. Your mini-comics would not get mocked; they're too good.


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