The main image I am stuck with after seeing a screening of The Room is not one from the film itself, it’s one of a sea of plastic spoons, cascading off the screen to howls of delight and pain from the audience.
Every few months, dozens of converts (or masochists) and curious first-timers make the journey to the Luna Outdoor Cinema in Leederville, to watch what is often called the worst film of all time—The Room.
Originally in theatres for around two weeks and making a pittance, it is now one of the biggest cult films in the world, with regular screenings taking place even in our little old Perth.
Its popularity has reached even higher heights after the release of The Disaster Artist—the James Franco starring film which chronicles the catastrophic production of the movie.
The screenings are designed as an experience, made up of strange rituals and rules that need a guidebook to be understood (once the movie starts, the rules are pretty easily understood). The aforementioned spoons are dumped on the audience before the movie starts, and it’s up to each person to create their own stockpile, ready to be thrown at the screen at the next inexplicably awful moment. The cinema supplies a viewer’s guide, telling the audience what to yell at the screen at what time, and the screening is open for anybody to shout their own sick burns.
The Room’s plot is mostly nonsensical, but generally follows the tragedy of Johnny, an all-American man who is betrayed by those he loves. Johnny is the perfect man: he saves the bank he works at lots of money, has lots of friends, and even pays for Denny’s tuition—a creepy teenage boy who he has become a father figure to. His “future wife”, Lisa (the movie never calls her his fiancé), inexplicably starts to hate him—although she seems to change between loving and hating him every scene—and begins an affair with Mark, Johnny’s best friend. Various subplots are brought up in one scene and never mentioned again, like Lisa’s mother’s cancer diagnosis, and Denny’s unpaid debt to a drug dealer.
Part of The Room’s enduring appeal is the complete ineptitude of every aspect of its production. Around 40% of the film’s shots are an out of focus, blurry mush. The acting is wooden at best, inhuman at worst. Attempts are made at metaphors that either make no sense, are repeated ad nauseum, or seem completely unintentional. There are numerous sex scenes (three of which appear in the first 30 minutes) that last around five minutes of screen time, each an exercise in sustained cinematic torture. I could go on and on. The movie seems to have been made by an alien with no understanding of our social interaction, or any aspect of human co-existence.
The theory of the film being made by an alien isn’t far off from the truth. That being is Tommy Wiseau, the writer, director, producer, star, and generallyl insane person who dragged The Room into our world from the further corners of his mind. He’s an enigma; no one knows exactly how old he is (he says he was in his twenties during The Room, but looks about 46), where he was born (he says New Orleans but has a thick Eastern European accent), and how he gets his finances (it’s rumouredhe has gangster ties).
The Room is obviously very personal to him, he made himself its lead character after all. It’s both a masturbatory power fantasy and an exorcism of his personal demons, and is as painfully raw as that description sounds. It’s also a completely paranoid movie: its main message seems to be about the dangers of having any kind of relationship with another human being.
The movie’s views on women are troubled—to say the least. In enduringu’s world, all women are manipulative, sociopathic seductresses, determined to destroy his life at any cost, and yet also hopelessly dependent on men for survival and direction. This dimension of the film is so famous that it informs one of the screening’s most common responses to be shouted: BECAUSE YOU’RE A WOMAN. The already obvious subtext behind scenes where Lisa’s mother tells her she can’t provide for herself, and can’t make a conclusive decision about her life, becomes painfully, hilariously clear after a chorus of this from the crowd.
The difficulty with this kind of ironic bigotry and satireis that it can be hard to tell what the person really thinks underneath it all. It can be used as a shield against criticism of behavior, because it’s just a joke, and only suckers can be offended. Some of the rules and lines, including “BECAUSE YOU’RE A WOMAN”, seem to be actively participating in and glamorising Wiseau’s insanity. A response that involves shouting “CANCER” every time Lisa’s mother enters a scene leaves a particularly sour taste in the mouth.
The guru who introduced the rules to the audience was quick to stress that we are making fun of the tone-deaf representation and sexism of the movie, rather than participating in it, but it can be a little hard to believe this when the person next to you drunkenly shouts “WHORE” at the top of his lungs every time Lisa shows up on screen.
This aspect of the screening is made all the more uncomfortable by the fact that James Franco, who played Tommy Wiseau in The Disaster Artist, was accused of sexual harassment by multiple women (after he was caught messaging underage girls).
The Disaster Artist is arguably rather kind towards Wiseau, sanding off his more unpleasant characteristics and portraying him as a hapless dreamer. In some ways, it feels like our laughter at Tommy Wiseau is sanitising the dangers of misogyny, turning his genuinely toxic worldview into a harmless eccentricity.
Ultimately, though, it feels like a form of collective catharsis, taking some completely deserved pot shots against an antiquated worldview that’s slowly dying.
The screenings of the movie are a negotiation of shared rules and levels of acceptability, with the unfunny, offensive jokes being quickly weeded out after no one laughs at them.
There’s a real sense of camaraderie that develops between the attendees; we all have to band together to make sure we survive the torment.
It’s a bizarre kind of ritual, of a group of strangers bonding over a completely awful piece of media.
And shaming it with a mountain of spoons.
Head to Luna Outdoor Cinema’s website for screening information.