On Watching 'The Room'
My experience of watching ‘The Room’ in cinema.
The Phenomenon Of ‘The Room’
“Art must must carry man's craving for the ideal, must be an expression of his reaching out towards it; that art must give man hope and faith. And the more hopeless the world in the artist's version, the more clearly perhaps must we see the ideal that stands in opposition - otherwise life becomes impossible! Art symbolises the meaning of our existence.”
― Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time
I, alone on a train, sit and read 'Sculpting In Time' by Andrei Tarkovsky, who claimed to be one of the best filmmakers in the history of cinema, while commuting to watch 'The Room' by Tommy Wiseau, claimed to be one of the worst filmmakers in the history of cinema. I am about to watch his famous film on the big screen. It feels like I am close to achievement. I am about to do something that not many people dare to do. I understand them, but only now, before the screening.
I found out that you can watch 'The Room' on a big screen in London when I went to the Prince Charles cinema to watch Scorcese's Taxi Driver. Greenish Tommy Wiseau's face was on a poster on the facade together with other announcements. 'Wait, what?', I thought. 'What rational human being is gonna watch it?', I thought. Two years have passed after that moment and now that rational human being is me.
I jump out of the Tube on Oxford circus and hurry through the semi-masked hectic crowd, through drunk crawling Soho, and under the red blanket of sky lanterns of Chinatown towards Leicester Square and The Prince Charles cinema.
It is the only place I've been to where I could feel my love for films. The cinema maintains a unique atmosphere and attitude to details. It resembles cinema theatres I saw in American movies of the 80th and 90th. That was the only image of a cinema I had in my mind before age of 18 (I will come back to it later) that makes the whole experience a bit nostalgic and almost surreal. You watch arguably the worst movie in the "ideal" cinema a few minutes after reading the book by the best filmmaker.
I join the queue outside. A ticket on my phone is checked and I am warmly welcomed to the screen. I go downstairs, my QR code is scanned and I hurry to my F4 through dim darkness. I sit down and get ready to waste my £14.25.
Next to me on all sides, there's no one but social distancing. Sits are covered with blankets with a white print "This sit is on furlough". I wait through ironic ads, anti-plague guidelines and trailers of ‘Alien’ and ‘Die Hard’. Then Tommy Wiseau appears on the screen in his now canonical image – shaggy man in sunglasses, shirt, vest and tie. He intimately wishes us to enjoy 'The Room' and the film beings.
The screening of 'The Room' is not a usual film screening. Not because of the film itself, but because of the people and how they watch it. The audience participate in the film. If you know iconic 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show', you know what I mean. This film is more than a film. It's a phenomenon, a cult, a piece of culture that has outgrown its medium becoming something else. Don't expect darkness and silence. A viewer is supposed to participate in the screening, often dress accordingly, and learn special phrases to shout during them as reactions to what happens and what characters do.
It was too late but I learned that 'The Room' is in the same category, maybe not as much as The Rocky Horror but more than most of the films I know. And at the same time, I learned that due to the plague, you aren't allowed to "participate" in the screening of 'The Room' now. You can't shout or throw spoons towards the screen, as viewers usually do. My disappointment was preliminary and although I didn't get "the whole experience" it was still not like any other screening I'd been to.
Although it was politely forbidden to shout, a few guys were still doing it. They shouted "Meanwhile in San Francisco!" every time the scenery of the city appears on the screen. They shouted "Best Friend!" every time Johny says to Mark that he is his best friend. They shouted "Shut the door!" every time a character in the film don't do it after coming in or going out (and they do it quite often). They shouted “Who the fuck are you?” when a not-established character appears in the last 30 minutes. They shouted "Scotchka!" when Lisa makes a famous scotch-vodka cocktail for Johnny.
It was only the smallest possible fraction of what it could be without the anti-plague restrictions. Let's thank the guys who were brave enough to break the rules and allowed us to see 'The Room' as it was supposed to be seen.
The shouts, however, are only a part of participation. Everyone was laughing, permanently, with short intermissions of the sound of darkness. I'd never laughed that much at the cinema and hardly ever at any other film. 'The Room' is a drama, a soap opera, with quite a mundane plot, but it's not a comedy, it wasn't supposed to be a comedy. But it ended up being one, and quite a good one. I felt myself an audience on a set of a cheap sitcom – poor cinematography, actors acting weird and every line or movement is accompanied by a laugh. But in the case of 'The Room', it was genuine. It felt like it was the only way of watching it. The true way.
When you watch it, your brain does not understand what's going on. You are watching a drama but you are laughing. You are watching a bad film but you are enjoying it. You are in the cinema but it feels like a friend's party. And it didn't feel like a bad film’s mockery at all. Everyone, including me, was genuinely enjoying the hilarious and almost surreal journey into the mind of the disaster artist.
So Bad, It’s Good
"Most of all I dread mediocrity : a work should either be very good or very bad, but, for its life, not mediocre. Mediocrity that takes up thirty printed sheets is something quite unpardonable." - Dostoevsky in one of his letters
There was no cinema theatre in the village where I lived for the first 17 years of my life. My cinephile self was born in a blend of cheap yo-ho-ho VHS, late-night screenings on TV, my own recordings of them on VHS, cutting film descriptions from newspaper’s TV programmes, drawing and colouring covers by hand. Same with DVD later.
In those early years, I didn’t have IMDB, RottenTomatos, Metacritic or any other website where people rate films and praise or decry them. All I had was a synopsis in a TV programme or on the back of a VHS or DVD. For me, there was no definition of “bad film” or “good film” conditioned by an abstract number. There were only films I watched dozens of times and films I watched only once. Films I forgot about and films that hold a vivid place in my memory.
But this distinction exists now. Inadvertently, I rate every film either by deconstructing it into building blocks or relying only on emotions. The question is then how our herd mentality defines what makes a film good or bad? Is there something in between? What if the goodness scale is not a line but a circle and once a terrible film crosses a certain threshold it suddenly becomes great? What is an ideal position on this circle? Where does 'The Room' lays on the circle?
There is a french word 'Nanar'. It is used to put films that are bad but enjoyable, hilarious, meme-like, "so bad, it's good", into a separate category. If you google it and check the images, you will understand what it is.
On the 'Nanar' wiki page, there's a picture of 'Plan 9 from Outer Space' by Ed Wood, who together with Tommy Wiseau is claimed to be the worst filmmaker of all time. We can argue which of them is the best at being the worst but they both became famous, they both got biographical feature films, they both took a special place in history, but not as evil film terrorists but as filmmakers who tried.
Although it primarily consists of B-movies and trash films, 'Nanar' isn't a genre. Any film and any artist can get there. But you need to be special. Your film has to have an ability to be enjoyable, fun, interesting, and meaningful for the culture at the same time with being notoriously bad in all its aspects – writing, directing, acting, cinematography. This is what makes those films different. But what is more important is how they were made.
All nanar films are sincere filmmaking attempts. They were made with cinephile’s passion, not with the lust of money being a lucrative producer’s marionette. Sometimes they are a result of someone's ego and a self-indulgent itch to be famous but the attempt is always genuine. People like Tommy Wiseau, Ed Wood, Uwe Boll, Alexander Nevsky (I bet you haven’t heard about this guy, but he claims himself the Russian Schwarzenegger, although he makes films in Hollywood) and many others who created films that last and loved by many regardless of what we call quality. They did not stop doing what they love and they did not disown their creations. Their films are enjoyable not because of exceptional drama or award-worthy performances but because they are hilarious, almost surreal and allow you to relax, switch off and have fun. The escapism of art at its best.
Not everyone can watch those films, not everyone can give themselves into the hands of nanar and forget about what a good or bad film is. You can't analyse them, you can't approach them rationally, you can’t watch them in silence, alone. They must be watched with friends with the wish of having a good time with a piece of cinema, all together. The rational and conventional definition of art and quality stops being important. What's left is purely the ritual.
Going back to Tarkovsky, If art carries my craving for the ideal, what can films like 'The Room' offer me? I hardly can answer it but, at least, the film indulged my craving for the opposite of the ideal, the ideal “bad” film.
Thanks a lot, bye!