June 26, 2012

Notes on The Room - Towards a Theory of Bad Movies

by Allen Irwin

The Room (2003) - dir. Tommy Wiseau

I love bad movies. Even though my “serious” film viewing is often neglected (much to my ever mounting anxiety) in favor of films that ultimately seem… less than important, I keep coming back to the Bad Movie. Recently, when the urge to watch a bad movie comes knocking on my door, I’ve given in without much of a fight because bad movies are just so much fun. Not only that, they are also simply astounding, logic-defying and incredulity-challenging. Can a set look that fake? How can a line of dialogue be delivered so badly? Can a plot hole be that vast?

If nothing else, bad movies inspire in us a kind of terrifying awe (an ailment best treated by viewing them with a hardy group of friends). Just as the great paintings of the past draw admiration and contemplation; just as the grand edifices of skyscrapers inspire in us a sense of wonder; just as the immensity of the pyramids or the exquisite detail of classical sculpture make us marvel at the ingenuity of a more distant time – a bad movie brings to mind the same root of fascination, the same realization both mundane and mysterious, horrifying and humbling: someone made that.

Even accepting this as a possible baseline for our fascination with the Bad Movie, and without delving into an Andrew Sarris-like (R.I.P.) essay length dissection of the many possible delineations of Sub-Par Cinema, it’s worth noting there are some movies that are both unequivocally bad, and yet work in some strange, almost mystical way. Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003) is one of those movies.

In the special features on the DVD, Wiseau (who seems to be some kind of bizarre cross between Crispin Glover and Arnold Schwarzenegger, with the former’s sallow complexion coupled with the latter’s command of English grammar) assures us that every scene, shot, and line in The Room was “meticulously planned.” I believe him. The Room is so strange, so self-serious, and so ridiculously inept at even the slightest bit of clear-minded storytelling that it couldn’t be anything other than the byproduct of a strong (mis)guiding force behind (and in front of) the camera.

Yet through some form of holy foolery, willpower or sheer dumb luck, The Room accomplishes what only a select few bad movies do: it makes you really believe that this story is happening to these characters and they are having these reactions. It’s like a rift has occurred in reality and allowed us to see through into a bizarre alternate universe for 99 minutes. It is not showing us a bad story, bad acting or bad directing; it is showing us a bad world. It somehow makes total sense that Johnny (Wiseau) would have an apartment that is all red, with flowing, gauzy curtains and a spiral staircase made of what looks like plywood. It is only a matter of fact that his girlfriend, Lisa would decide that she needs to “Live, live, live!” and cheat on him with his best friend, Mark (Oh Hi!). Normal people wouldn’t have an ambiguously aged man-child constantly wandering in and out of their apartment and interrupting sex scenes, but it all makes perfect sense within the hermetically sealed universe of The Room.

Possibly more than any other aspect, Tommy Wiseau’s performance is what holds the film together. His screen presence is so singularly odd and magnetic that it seems to pull the rest of the movie into a new equilibrium of weirdness. You believe in his character, Johnny, because he commits to it. When he finally gets to the delivery of the film’s most famous line…

…Johnny totally makes you believe that he feels like he’s being torn apart – and that makes it all the more hilarious.

What I’m getting at here is that some movies, seemingly by accident, are able to strike a very specific resonance, where their universes, while not corresponding to any known reality, make a deranged kind of sense, bad acting and all. It has something to do with internal consistency, and also with a certain kind of seriousness on the part of the people making the movie (Troll 2 notably comes to mind). We, the audience, know that we’re watching a horribly produced, written, and acted movie, and yet there is something whole about it that is both appealing and immensely amusing. In a way, this is just a variation on what makes good movies good: you believe in the world they create. Doing it with a bad movie just seems to be something that requires a good bit of luck as well.

But still I want to press further. Perhaps the key to the joy inherent in a bad movie (the joy that can be exponentially increased, supplemented and savored through a certain kind of vocal audience participation), lies in its ability to invite its audience’s belief, its audience’s trust. For example, a movie which I consider bad in the least fun way possible is Birdemic: Shock and Terror. The effects are horrible, and blatantly added in post-production, while the plot and acting, while initially amusing, quickly become grating and (the cardinal sin of any bad Bad Movie) boring. There is no way to fully believe in its universe, and therefore, no way to fully give in to its absurdity. You must first accept the movie’s universe before you can acknowledge it as joyfully “bad.”

This acceptance or “giving in to” of the Bad Movie lies at the core of what makes watching bad movies such great fun. A Bad Movie Night is one of the most social movie-viewing experiences one can have. It is a time when you and your friends enter into a strange universe where nearly everything has latent potential for comedy, and you are able to contribute your own jokes and references to it. An active building and stacking of jokes drives each viewing, and it is experiential in a way most movie viewing experiences are not. Each viewing of a Bad Movie is different, and therefore is in itself a significant event. In many ways, you need to be able to trust a Bad Movie like a friend in order to fully enjoy spending time with it, and that requires a certain conviction on the part of the movie. A good Bad Movie provides a reliable, sturdy base on which you can build your viewing experience, time and time again. The integrity of that base is a function of how much you can unapologetically, whole-heartedly accept a movie on its own terms.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons cults have arisen around the viewing of Bad Movies: it preserves a feeling of communal viewing many have claimed is slipping away. It also fosters feelings of safety and camaraderie – requirements if everyone is to commit themselves (not unlike Tommy Wiseau) to the experience. Not everyone can agree on whether “good” movies are good, but through a group viewing of the right kind of Bad Movie (with a consistent universe that a group a friends can fully give themselves over to, relishing every second of it) there always exists the potential for a great experience.

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