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May 24, 2010 | by  | in Film |
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So bad it’s exquisite: Examining our love of hating

The Room – Roof Scene : Oh Hi Mark

The Room – Full Length Trailer

The other day, I perused an internet forum, as I am wont to do. On this forum, a discussion was being had on the nature of the brouhaha surrounding the film The Room. For those unfamiliar with Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 film, The Room tells the tale of Tommy Johnny (played by Wiseau), a man whose relationship with his ‘beautiful’ girlfriend Lisa is destroyed by the web of lies and deceit she weaves out of sheer boredom. Billed erroneously as a film “with the passion of Tennessee Williams”, it cost $7 million to make and shows absolutely none of it, bearing the production values and acting of a high school drama production. It’s but the latest in a long line of abysmal films made by people with the talent of a muskrat and the ego of a muskrat high on paint fumes.

The Room’s following, however, is the kind of thing that only comes along once in a bad moon. After making less than $2000 in its initial theatrical run, it grew into a sensation when Wiseau, buoyed by numerous emails thanking him for the film, began screening it once a month at a theatre in Los Angeles. Rituals began—spoon throwing, football throwing, insult throwing—and the cult slowly grew to the gargantuan proportions that exist today. The Room’s popularity has seen it played as an April Fool’s joke for the last two years on Comedy Central’s Adult Swim; Veronica Mars had an extended scene in one episode discussing the film; Alec Baldwin, Kristen Bell and Frank Black count themselves as fans. It is a cultural phenomenon, as pervasive as Tommy Wiseau’s pock-marked arse in the film’s myriad sex scenes and as addictive as the drugs Denny may or may not have purchased at one point during the film.

In the aforementioned serious internet discussion, one fellow referred to his dissatisfaction with the following surrounding The Room, calling it “forced”, and musing that people became part of it “because it was expected of them”. Naturally, I disagree, but the conversation that arose from this curmudgeon’s theorising gave rise to a consideration I hadn’t, um, considered. Namely—what makes us fall for a bad film? What is it that draws us inextricably to these creations, and, perhaps more importantly, what makes us choose these bad films? There’s plenty of awful cinema out there, but what is it that draws us to films like Plan 9 From Outer Space or The Room instead of the likes of Space Mutiny or The Happening?

The most obvious answer, on the face of it, is hubris. Many of the films that gain their popularity for being awfully brilliant are loaded with a misplaced self-importance or conviction in the necessity of their creation. The Room’s “passion of Tennessee Williams” has long overridden Wiseau’s attempts to retcon the film’s intent by saying it’s a black comedy; Plan 9 and other Ed Wood films are full of a sincerity that’s hard to shake; Neil LaBute’s remake of The Wicker Man is 100% all the way serious, misogyny and bear suits and bees and all, something validated by his earnest, borderline-pretentious director’s commentary on the DVD. We seem to find amusement in the delusions of others, laughing uncontrollably at just how completely inept they are at realising their own ambitions. It’s the cinematic equivalent of falling into a sewer and dying, as opposed to the cinematic equivalent of a papercut (which is arguably the trap The Happening and Snakes on a Plane fell into—there wasn’t enough of a fall).

However, evidence points to plenty of arrogant sons-of-bitches making bad films and not getting the following that others do. Perhaps, then, it’s less hubris and more a general sincerity. These people don’t believe they’ve made bad films, nor are they so egotistic as to claim their films are the best ever made; they’ve struck a middle ground between self-importance and honest passion. Ed Wood was utterly convinced that he was an auteur making films that spoke to people; Wiseau’s attempts to ‘fix’ the public’s perceptions of his films fail so emphatically that one can’t help but see how serious he once was; LaBute’s belief that his Wicker Man remake was a good film is solidified by the commentary and interviews in which he has been quoted as saying, among other things, that “All the good bits and none of the music” of the original were retained in his film. In comparison, David R. Ellis (Snakes on a Plane) and Joseph Kahn (Torque) were very much aware that what they were creating was over-the-top and comedic; and M. Night Shyamalan’s exceptional arrogance meant that audiences turned off The Happening and never embraced it in quite the same way they embraced The Room or Plan 9.

On top of that, however, there’s a key element which, when combined with the intentions of the creator, makes these cult films theoretically irresistible—how ridiculous the films actually are. Heightened drama, absurd stunts, bizarre characterisations, over-the-top acting, unnatural and ludicrous dialogue: all these factor into how we assess these films. While films like Plan 9 and The Room may be the cinematic equivalent of falling down a sewer and dying, it’s how fast they fall, how deep the drop is, and what they hit on the way down that makes it even better. The Happening may be hilarious, but a genuinely interesting conceit and flourishes that hint at competence wear down its acceptability as a truly awful masterpiece; in contrast, The Room never once hints at anything above idiocy. It is a film where a man can dry-hump a red dress and be presented as tragic. It is a film where a woman can mention she has breast cancer and never, ever have it brought up again in the narrative. It is a film where people throw footballs a metre between each other while wearing tuxedos. It’s lovably incompetent, and that, combined with the director’s genuine belief that he’s saying something that needs to be said, makes it spectacular.

That’s why we watch bad films and love them, I think. Not because it’s expected of us. But because they’re too ridiculous and too honest to deserve otherwise.

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Comments (4)

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  1. Jess says:

    The Room is brilliantly, hilariously awful. Everyone should see it once in their life even if it fills you with incadescent rage at how it’s so shit and makes absolutely no sense. The Embassy needs to screen this so people can experience the shittiness on the big screen.

  2. Elle says:

    Birdemic is showing as part of the International Film Festival in Wellington in July. Looks like a winner

  3. Adam G says:

    So is The Room. Everyone MUST go. It should be amazing.

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