By Zachary Stein
There is something special happening in Oakland. It is an unparalleled cinematic phenomenon -held in the highest regard by a select audience fortunate enough to experience this eclectic monthly event. For those unfamiliar with Tommy Wiseau’s independently produced film The Room, (2003) it is a simple story of a San Francisco set love triangle starring Tommy Wiseau as Johnny, the lead character being cuckolded by his girlfriend Lisa (Juliette Danielle), and his best friend Mark (Greg Sestero). There are many other subplots introduced and quickly abandoned such as drug deals gone wrong, terminal illnesses and so on. If you haven’t seen Wiseau’s warped debut, do yourself a favor and don’t take the comfortable route of watching the film in your own home.
Though the film industry is constantly bending over backwards to meet the convenience of the audience, there is still a good number of “Cinerds” (I coined this one) who will not substitute their unique theatrical viewing of The Room for all the pixelated splendors of the web-driven buffered image. The Room demands the type of prestigious, audience-driven presentation that it receives at midnight on the third Saturday of every month at the historic Piedmont theatre.
As the writer and director, Wiseau becomes his own narcissistic Superman of the film, and his character Johnny is an all-around successful pillar of the community who is adored by all. He cares for a feckless orphan boy called Denny (Phillip Haldiman), who suddenly appears and exits in several scenes without reason. At these screenings one would expect the crowd to vilify Tommy for such a clumsy vanity project, but they embrace him and he is praised for his heroics and emotional fragility. On the other hand, Lisa, who sets back women’s liberation indefinitely, is completely ripped to shreds by an audience who are savvy enough to appreciate the absurdity of this trite stock character.
To settle any speculation, objectively, The Room is not a “good” film, but its merits are upheld by the passion of the creative force behind it. One will never fathom how this simplistic tale managed to acquire a budget of $6 million, because certainly the money is not on screen. The Room is one of those rare gems of “bad” movies, produced from the mind of a filmmaker whose vision and voice has been codified by an amalgam of pop culture filmic tropes. The way scenes are constructed and the manner in which they unravel represent a disconnect in the perception of the “American” way of life through the screen, all processed and misunderstood by the enigma that is Tommy Wiseau. A brief search online pinpoints this man’s origin from Louisiana by way of Europe, although I like to think of him as an organic creation mutating from the cutting room floor of a T.V. movie.
Whilst this may read as an insult towards Mr. Wiseau, I actually have the upmost respect for what his film has become. It takes a certain type of unadjusted person to be able to embrace the designation of a work that quickly became known as “the worst movie ever made.”—Wiseau often makes appearances around the country to thank fans as they lampoon and tear apart his labor of love with the utmost respect and adoration. Released in a very limited run, it was quickly pulled after a few weeks, but was seen by enough people for traction to build. It made its impact in the no-holds-barred midnight circuit where it took on an audience-interactive Rocky Horroresque mode. Today, all around the world special midnight showings of The Room pack in the crowds ready to take part in the unique experience.
It’s here where my opening line stolen from Moneyball (2011) loses its authenticity because the film is globally ridiculed and adored, (although the Piedmont might be one of the only venues still regularly showing it.)— The Room opens the discussion of the theatrical experience and what can be done to maintain its popularity. These immersive audience presentations are not a new thing, it all dates back to the induction of added spectacle with the advent of 3-D, Cinerama, Vista-Vision and other more gimmicky methods such as “Percepto!” for William Castle’s The Tingler (1959), and “Odorama” for John Waters Polyester (1981). The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) has been running revival shows with live dancers in drag costumes for years, and sing-along features like The Sound of Music (1965) and Grease (1978) have also been very prominent. Whilst The Room was never intended for such theatrical modes, it has found its own specialized audience of devotee’s who understand that the work is a unique product that cannot be emulated. The secret of the films warped success seems to lie in the fact that it earnestly tries to be legitimate; the lavish, clumsy use of green-screen and the extensive original soundtrack are enough to show the effort and passion of the filmmakers.
The Room in “Spoon-o-Rama,” (again that one’s mine) is definitely this generation’s cult audience-engagement movie. The jokes that have grown out of these showings were influenced by multiple dedicated viewings by a legion of fans, forming what is now a densely comical presentation. One of the base running jokes throughout the screening involves the audience hurling a barrage of plastic spoons in the air whenever the unexplained framed photo of cutlery appears. It is this kind of attention to detail that many of the jokes seem to stem from, not just a communal bashing of the lackluster acting. This may be why the screenings are so enjoyable; the actors and the story are easy targets for cinematic vultures. In contrast, the audience will call attention to the filmmaking on display, particularly in its formulaic editing. The overused establishing shots of San Francisco are coupled with the bellowing in unison of “meanwhile in San Francisco,” giving insight into the collective perception of the film as being an equivalent to a melodramatic soap opera. A giant chant begins during the horrifically long and repeated transitions as the camera pans from one side of the Golden Gate Bridge to the other. Here the screening quickly morphs into a day at the races, with a huge celebration once the transition reaches the end of the bridge. It’s also important to mention that as the years have gone by the jokes have also evolved. In previous years whenever a shot would be too fuzzy, the audience would scream “focus!” This has now modified to the audience calling out the films cinematographer with a passionate cry of “fuck you Todd!” These are, however, only the basic jokes present at each screening, and I’ll stop here because I would feel terrible if I robbed someone of the experience of their first midnight show of The Room.
As we are entering a time of media saturation, it would seem that many films and television shows are simply made to be consumed, enjoyed, and quickly forgotten. The fact that Wiseau’s film is still lovingly appreciated by so many is a difficult notion to process. One distinction offered to The Room is being “the Citizen Kane of bad movies” and the contrast to Orson Welles is rather interesting. Whilst Welles’ career peaked early and suffered from bad reviews, failed ambitious productions and a tarnished reputation causing a lack of funding, Wiseau has seemed to excel on his lack of expertise, and it would appear that the failure has bought success. I won’t say The Room is an inspirational tale, but it does show what can happen when all hope appears to be lost. Like Welles and Kane, Wiseau will always be remembered for The Room, and will most likely try and live off its cult status.
As noisy seniors and kids on cellphones mar most screenings these days, many are turning to the comfort of their own homes. For the cinematic experience to persevere it seems that we need more outlets like The Room for those whom feel the need to run rampant as the lights go down. Whilst I will never condone this behavior at a normal screening, I am however, happy to spend my time in the beer fuelled theatre joined by a bunch of fools throwing spoons in the air and chanting for Tommy to “fuck that dress.”