Last week a friend called and invited me to a movie. It was a one-off screening of a film called The Room. I had heard him talk about this movie before. It is becoming increasingly notorious around the world for being the worst film ever made, and people go to it because it is so bad that it is good. I went to it with my friend last Saturday.
The Paramount was nearly full. Nearly full of mostly youthful, urban hipsters who were in the know. I was not in the know. One thing I didn’t know was why everyone in the audience was clutching handfuls of plastic spoons. A man came out and introduced the movie. He asked people who had seen the movie before not to call out the “best” lines in the movie before they were delivered. He suggested that this was the equivalent of holding up an illuminated sign that said “I am a cock” above your head. I’m glad he said this. The best lines in this movie have to be heard directly from the auteur’s mouth to be believed.
After the grandiose production company logo (the words Wiseau Films spinning around a globe) we get the credits which reveal that Tommy Wiseau is every second person in the movie both in front of and behind the camera. After the incredibly awkward opening ten minutes in which we are introduced to the two lead characters via an overlong, unpleasant and frankly bizarre sex scene the movie settles into its groove (sorry). It’s groove is a series of conversations that appear to be a game of who-can-say-the-next-non-sequiter, intercut with random shots of San Francisco, and glaring continuity problems. After the audience had hurled its third wave of plastic spoons at the screen I realised that in the background of the main character’s living room were a series of small photo frames on a side table – each frame containing a photo of… spoons.
There’s no real need for me to summarise the film. It’s all over the internet and you should go and get it out. It’s the hardest I’ve laughed for a long time. I think you should watch it with a few friends so that you can enjoy mocking it together. The best thing I have read about the film and the man who made it is this.
The obvious comparison to make when watching a bad movie is to the director Ed Wood. I have watched Plan 9 and Glen or Glenda by Mr. Wood. They’re bad. Glen or Glenda is much worse that Plan 9, but it is also way more intense. My abiding image of that movie is stock footage of buffaloes rumbling across the savannah as Lugosi shouts “Pull the string!” It is both an unaccountably affecting moment, and a hilariously incongruous one.
I think that what a great, bad movie needs is a “visionary” with great conviction directing and writing it who hasn’t unfortunately the time or talent to think the screenplay through properly, and only has a fumbling and inadequate understanding of the convention of film. This kind of film is a different kettle of fish from a normal bad movie which usually suffers from the sin of slick, mediocrity. The great bad director is free of cynicism or irony. I think it might be this combination of conviction and a lack of cynicism that allows these directors to take people with them; both a crew to make the movie and an audience to (eventually) affectionately laugh at it.
But what a curious legacy it makes.
My favourite scene from Ed Wood is the one below. Martin Landau plays Bela Lugosi and is probably the star of the movie. When I was going through my Ed Wood phase I watched a whole stream of Bela Lugosi movies. They are really terrible. Although he started his career with a huge hit (Dracula… he was Dracula) it was never going to work out. A very wooden performance and a funny accent work quite well when you are playing the undead from a foreign country, but has little ability to crossover into other roles. Bela ended up being type cast in garbage or languishing in resentful anonymity. The fact that he turned down Frankenstein must have haunted him his whole life.
I suppose that wanting to be remembered for something that will live after we have gone is a common human trait. It is one reason to make films, or art of any kind for that matter. Of course bad art can create an unintended legacy.
I read that there is a Tommy Wiseau party trick of showing up to screenings of his films and reciting Shakespeare sonnets for the audience at the end. I suppose this is funny because of his ridiculous delivery of lines, but it also seems sort of suitable because there are quite a few sonnets about how the sonnets themselves will grant the subject immortality.
Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone besmear’d with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
‘Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lover’s eyes.
Apparently Tommy won’t do recitals of sonnets anymore after screenings. He has probably figured out that the audience was laughing at him. He also must have figured out that people love his movie for reasons he did not intend. I suspect that once the great global guffaw dies down around this movie in a couple of years Tommy might have a long and unhappy post-The Room career. This is sad. Not because I think he is a misunderstood genius who deserves fame and riches, but because it’s not nice to see someone change from unblinking, uncynical conviction to bitterness and suspicion. Which is why when I think of Tommy Wiseau, his character in The Room, and what will probably be his unhappy career path I think of this rather beautiful and very sad part of a wonderful movie:
Good luck to you Mr. Wiseau.