When my friend Emily invited me to watch what is generally thought of as the worst movie ever made I couldn’t say no.
I had been interested in The Room since a film colloquium at UofT on ‘bad’ movies (my topic was black comedians doing effeminate gay characters). I learned that it was a horribly misguided vanity project by one Tommy Wiseau, a scraggily haired European whose origins are just as shady as his financial backing. The movie, which Wiseau wrote, directed, produced AND executive-produced, views like a giant revenge fantasy against his ex-girlfriend. What an amazing way to get closure, although considering how it turned out, she may be the last one laughing. The presenter did not dwell on the awfulness of the film (although I do remember him mentioning the set breaking every rule of interior design and the sex scenes being “anatomically incorrect”), but rather the cult following the movie has developed since its release in 2003. Here was a Rocky Horror Picture Show for the post-modern age: whereas Rocky Horror is deliberate camp, The Room is totally sincere. I worried that the audience’s laughter at the awkward dialogue, grotesque sex scenes and ludicrous plot twists would be mean-spirited, the bully laughter that greets ‘Star Wars Kid’ or the overweight people on epicfail.com. I feared for Wiseau when I learned that he attended some of the screenings, doing post-show Q&A sessions and hocking DVDs and t-shirts. Little did I understand that the movie’s followers actually love him.
The line outside the Royal Cinema on College went down the block, but luckily Emily’s boyfriend and his buddy had gotten there early and were in the front. The buddy was wearing a tuxedo and I overheard him explaining, “I’m not dressed as any specific character, but there’s a scene where they are all wearing tuxedos for no reason.” Also in the cue were people wearing long black wigs, others dressed like drug dealers in toques and shades, and a young woman wearing a necktie around her forehead. Lots of people had plastic spoons. What had I gotten myself into?
I am not a fan of Rocky Horror. In fact, I know the final quarter of that movie off by heart because I’ve counted backwards the scenes until the end. It’s an odd dislike, because I really love camp (have written whole essays on it) and can understand that Tim Curry created a legendary character never seen before. I think it’s the fans that make me uncomfortable; their costumes; their screaming of rehearsed lines; their forced hedonistic writhing. I guess it’s a tad too literally ‘cult’ for me (writes the person who actually wore a sequined flower to Sex and the City 2).
After we took our seats, and a group in front of us began throwing a football around in a deliberately incompetent manner, someone in our group handed me a plastic spoon. “You’ll want this.” I only learned what it was for when the Royal Cinema guy who said a few words before the film started (don’t you love how these midnight screenings have that? Takes one back to the old time movie era, when seeing a film was an Event) asked us not to throw our spoons at the screen. The lights dimmed and the movie began. The first shot was the production title ‘Wiseau Films’ (or some such thing) with a graphic that looked like I had designed it on my family’s old 1995 Mac. The audience cheered. They clapped even louder for the first (of many) credit cards for Tommy Wiseau, shown against what appeared to be stock images of San Francisco landmarks. A couple of the other actors received applause, but poor Juliette Danielle, who plays Wiseau’s untrustworthy (that is the kindest word I can use) girlfriend, received boos.
The Room principally takes place in a room, the set looking more like that of a third-rate sitcom than a feature film. It has many framed pictures of spoons (they must have been on sale at Pier One or something) and quickly us virgins learned that every time you can see a shot of one you throw up your spoon and scream “SPOON!” As three hit you in the head, you are thankful that they are plastic. Emily’s friend who sat next to me, who had also never experienced The Room got particularly into this part, bending over to scoop up as many as she could off the floor to be ready for the next time. Afterwards I realized she had totally missed the spoon portraits and had no idea when or why we were throwing them. The manic fun of launching a handful of plastic spoons in the air or at someone was reason enough to do it on its own.
Watching a bad movie (and I mean a truly bad one, not one you simply don’t like) engages you in the process of film-making in a way that good movies don’t. Much of the lines yelled out from the audience (and they were thankfully not in the scripted-sounding way of Rocky Horror) had to do with editing, inconsistencies, plot holes and props. “Who are you? Where did you come from?” yelled the audience when a new character appeared, acting as though she had been there the whole time. “What happened to your cancer?” was screamed at the mother, who announced she had cancer in the first scene but was never mentioned again. “That scene was so useful!” someone said sarcastically after a scene which served no purpose or plot development. Perhaps my favourite audience line attacked the disconnect between the script and the production assistants: as Danielle attempts to seduce Wiseau’s best friend, he comments on things that do not appear on screen. “What are you trying to do?” he asks. “Candles…” “WHAT CANDLES?!” yells the audience. “…romantic music…” “WHAT ROMANTIC MUSIC?!” “…nice dress…?” “WHAT NICE DRESS?!”
Since the plot is rumoured to be heavily based on Wiseau’s life, it is easy to conflate his character with the real person. In the movie, Wiseau is a completely innocent man, a gentle soul hidden in the body of a KISS rocker sans make-up. I felt so on his side that I began to forget his creepy aura and his Dr. Nick from The Simpsons accent. It’s not just the character that endears you, it’s the real man himself, or rather, the total sincerity and naïveté in which he made this travesty. He spent so much time and money on something that was terrible, pulled along only by his commitment, that you almost have to admire him. By the end, and I won’t give away the finale but it’s a doozey, the entire audience stood up and cheered, exiting the theatre with the mass-euphoria of a revival tent meeting (speaking of cults…).
Wiseau now claims that the movie was not meant to be serious, that he always meant it as a black comedy, which cast members decry as bullshit. At first this would seem to hurt his masterpiece’s reputation of sincerity, but it doesn’t because it adds yet another layer to the film maker’s innocence: by insisting that the movie was meant to be laughably-bad he continues to miss the entire point of the phenomenon, that it’s his movie’s (and his) authenticity, impossible to fake, which has audiences rolling in the aisles and cheering him as a hero.
Despite not understanding why, Wiseau has written himself into cinematic history. I wonder what his ex-girlfriend feels about leaving him now?