On The Room, And Other Cinematic Oddities
I'm looking forward to Jonathan's pop culture lists covering the last 35 years. I think pop culture definitely plays a part in who you are, whether you decide to jump on board or eschew the mainstream.
I've had this running dialogue in my head for some time now about what exactly makes a movie like The Room a sub-pop culture sensation. The argument in my head goes like this:
Man, The Room is such a bad movie. Why do people watch this thing? Yeah, we make fun of it, but if you take a look at any Netflix or Redbox selection, there are a number of movies that could be chosen for ripping. Why this one?
So, I decided to examine this phenomenon a little deeper. I think we actually have to examine a movie like The Room just as you would examine a movie like The Godfather, not so much in terms of cinematic quality, but their paths to success. How many times do you read about a monster success story, and find out that there was a great deal of luck involved, whether it's casting, an odd choice that pays off, finding the right people to work with each other, or some other unforeseen thing?
Here's a quick example: Johnny Depp's performance in Pirates of the Caribbean. Disney's top franchise relies almost entirely on the Depp performance, which he patterned after Keith Richards and Pepe Le Pew. And Disney thought the performance was ruining the picture. They could have fired him. They obviously were talked into it, and that's good for them. The franchise has made over $2.5 billion (and will add more this year when On Stranger Tides arrives), almost strictly because of Depp's character.
The intensely bad movie that comes back to garner cult status has the same kind of miraculous events. Unfortunately, it seems easy to make one of these movies. I think a market is being created by which aspiring filmmakers believe they can just make a bad movie and think it will be picked up on video. What these filmmakers don't know is that you can't set out to make a movie as bad as The Room. I don't think you can do it on purpose unless you are a genius, and I don't think too many geniuses aspire to make bad movies. It takes several remarkable events to make a movie like this. I will discuss them in detail. But first, I'm going to go over a few notable productions that either discuss, dissect, or try to emulate this phenomenon.
The process of making a bad production on purpose has been covered brilliantly by Mel Brooks with The Producers. The plot of the movie-turned-musical-turned-movie-musical is that a Broadway producer finds out from his accountant that making a flop can be more profitable than making a hit if you are certain the production will fail. That's the mistake Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom make, because self-conscious awfulness tends to find a voice. There's a great line, "I picked the wrong play, the wrong director, the wrong cast. Where did I go right?" And that's exactly what happens with "Springtime for Hitler." The audience is unnerved at first, but then decide that it's a brilliant parody, because nothing so dumb could be serious.
With that in mind, there's another part of the spectrum and that's Snakes on a Plane. Snakes looked primed to be that knowing kind of bad movie where we could all be in on the joke and celebrate its campiness. In the end, Snakes on a Plane is just a poorly-done comedy when it comes down to it. I'm pretty sure this was going to be a try for a solid B-picture when it was first being made, but then self-awareness came into the fray and suddenly Samuel L. Jackson was asked to say a line that was invented by the internet. "I'm tired of these motherfucking snakes, on this motherfucking plane." Now that the filmmakers were in on the joke, we no longer had the power to be.
And in another part of the spectrum, there's Mystery Science Theater 3ooo. From 1988-1999, Joel Hodgson/Mike Nelson and two robots voiced mainly by Kevin Murphy and Trace Beaulieu/Bill Corbett starred in a show in which they were forced to watch bad movies. They threw billions of sarcastic quips at the screen over the years, and a great many of those episodes are funny. Many (probably most) of those movies are unwatchable, even with sarcastic barbs being provided. The movies that this gang watches, and makes fun of, also don't qualify. Even the movie that comes closest to having a life outside of MST3K, Manos: The Hands of Fate, is so bad that it is difficult to generate real laughs. The character of TV's Frank (Frank Conniff), one of the show's minions, comes out and tells you, the audience, "We're sorry for this one."
The reason why Manos: The Hands of Fate and other MST3K "classics" probably couldn't make it on the outside is that the audience, in general, would have to follow the MST3K script. It's not true audience participation if the script for making fun of it is already written. And there's not much you can add to Manos. It's not only a bad film, but a really boring one bordering on abuse.
So what makes a movie like The Room, its ancestors Plan 9 From Outer Space and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and its contemporaries Troll 2 and Birdemic, successful failures? I'll look back to Ed Wood to start.
Back in 1994, Tim Burton made what will likely be his best film ever in Ed Wood. Johnny Depp portrayed Wood, the writer/director of 1958's Plan 9 From Outer Space, the movie that has been labeled "The Worst Movie of All Time" by many. Wood is portrayed as a guy who is extremely enthusiastic about movies, a man who is awed by Orson Welles and hopes to make films like he does. But knowing what is good and knowing how to make it are two different things.
So let me state the obvious. The number one event that needs to occur is a discernible lack of talent. The second is the one that goes hand-in-hand with that aspect, and that's an incredible enthusiasm. Enthusiasm plus lack of talent gets you halfway there. Then the third is being unaware that what you are doing is bad.
We see Depp's Wood shooting scenes and remarking, "That was perfect," after nearly every take. A lot of it has to do with the fact that he has no money to do more takes. And the other thing is that he has entirely too much regard for the people he's directing, especially when the aging Bela Lugosi (in the Oscar-winning turn by Martin Landau) is involved. So, even when they are bad, Wood doesn't want to admit that it was bad.
So four is having almost no money to make your movie. Not wanting to admit takes are bad for various reasons comes down to the lack of talent you have. Low-budget productions are made all the time and good filmmakers find a way to bring the most out of them. Much of a low-budget movie's success is determined by how ambitious the project is, so you have to realize that on your tight budget, you're not getting lavish sets or great actors or good special effects. Horror movies shot on a low budget are generally the winners here, because it takes no money to make horror good.
Number five is complicated, and this is where Plan 9 might differ from the movies that have made a living off of being bad. In sports, they refer to star players having that "x factor," that intangible, indescribable thing that makes them better than good. With a bad movie that suddenly finds success, it requires a draw that an audience unknowingly considers a draw, a multi-layered badness. A bad movie has to have multiple scenes that you will find interesting in some way, and usually in this case, it's not what the filmmaker intended.
I argue Plan 9 From Outer Space doesn't even qualify as a movie like The Room. It really only contains a few scenes an audience might participate in.
In The Room, most of the accidental humor comes from Tommy Wiseau, the film's writer/director/producer and stars as Johnny. Wiseau has an unplaceable accent in addition to no acting skill, so his scenes are almost always filled with oddball deliveries in addition to just plain sounding funny. The hallmark of The Room is Wiseau's "You're tearing me apart, Lisa!" screamed in the middle of the movie in a scene not calling for melodramatic overacting. Wiseau completes the line with his arms and elbows, hands balled into fists, tugging down from the sky to emphasize his pain.
But that alone wouldn't be enough. It's a gateway scene. It's the scene that's included in the trailer, which now touts the movie as being a "comedy," like Wiseau meant for it to be that all along, that might get you into a midnight screening of it. There are many Wiseau scenes like that, all aided by his acting and accent.
Then we go to the script. Lisa's mom mentions, very casually, and in newspaper parlance "buries the lead," that she has breast cancer in the middle of a conversation. She says it so nonchalantly, like she had biscuits and gravy for breakfast. And then it's never mentioned again. There's also a kid named Denny (Philip Haldiman) that sort of appears and disappears throughout the movie. We hear that Johnny and Lisa (Juliette Danielle) "adopted" him or something, even though he's just a college kid, a neighbor. There's a scene on the roof of the house where Denny is accosted by a drug dealer. Denny's battle with drugs never comes up again and has no bearing on the story.
The scenes that are bad are multi-layered in their awfulness, which I think contributes to its draw. Like, we have this couple (Michelle and Mike) that shows up early on in the movie, somehow has access to Johnny and Lisa's apartment, and they start making out, only to get caught by Lisa and her mother before it goes too far. Somehow Wiseau tries to make this scene worthwhile and worthless at the same time. It's an incredible feat. No one bothers to question how this couple got in the house, or that it might be disrespectful to fuck around on your friends' couch, especially while they're not there.
That's just the surface, really. Audience participation amps up when the movie inexplicably contains pictures of spoons all around the apartment, and audience members throw spoons every time they appear.
This is how The Rocky Horror Picture Show became such a phenomenon. It was bad, but it had cool songs. The cool songs were the draw, then the audience found a way to fill in the fun when the music numbers weren't playing, usually involving grade-school sex humor.
The fact that there are so few of these movies shows how insanely hard it is to get one made. You have to be inept on another level to get a movie like The Room to connect somehow with audiences. One of the movies trying to make this connection is Birdemic, a horrible eco-conscious film where birds start attacking people because of their environment-ruining ways.
Time will tell if Birdemic becomes another one of these types of movies, but it doesn't contain much in the way of multi-layered badness. If there is an area where a smart-ass could attack with venom it's in the phony environmental message. There's a hammy line when Rod (Alan Bagh), exclaims after watching a movie on a date, "That was a good movie...An Inconvenient Truth." Plus, Rod is successful on a level in which Warren Buffett could not dream. Almost every deal he is involved in makes millions of dollars, and it seems like he does it all in a day or two.
Plus, the birds don't attack until about an hour into the movie. The bird special effects are where the movie really "shines." They are awkward-looking onscreen, with no dimension, just pasted there like "good job" stars on a child's test.
Where Birdemic may have a hard time catching on in this realm is that it is often boring and annoying. It gets into that Manos: The Hands of Fate territory. The actors are bad, but not in that "special" way, and there are few scenes that are memorable for an especially wrong reason.
So here's something for you to look forward to: Birdemic 2: The Resurrection 3D. The problem the sequel presents is that now the filmmakers, such as director James Nguyen, are now in on the joke. Birdemic 2, in 3D no less, violates the rule of not knowing that what you are making is bad.
As for Troll 2, this movie has a number of great stories. It's a movie that earned its cult status on video and a number of viewing parties. The documentary Best Worst Movie focuses mainly on the film's top star, George Hardy, a dentist from Alabama, and slightly on the film's director Claudio Fragasso and writer Rossella Drudi. In this case, you see the minds of filmmakers who have no idea of their lack of talent. Fragasso is seen on a couple of occasions getting visibly angry at the Troll 2 theatre viewing parties with Q & A's where people ask questions that insult the movie. He seems oblivious to the fact that the movie is called Troll 2, has no bearing on the original Troll, and contains no trolls. It also has spawned a YouTube sensation with "the worst scene in movie history," where a guy says, "They're eating her! And then they're going to eat me! Oh my Gooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooood!"
Troll 2 is bad, but it might be the only movie of the five I've mentioned that can actually be watched without making fun of it. The movie does a good job of that by just being.
I think I've pretty much figured out what it takes to make a successful bad movie, and I hope I've articulated it here. Anyone else have any thoughts?