Screening Tommy Wiseau’s THE ROOM
As discussed in previous posts, I am teaching “Topics in Film Aesthetics” this semester, with a focus on what is known as “trash cinema.” For those unfamiliar with this term, trash cinema refers to films thathave been relegated to the borders of the mainstream because of their small budgets, inept style, offensive subject matter, and/or shocking political perspectives. All semester long my students have watched marginalized films like The Sex Perils of Paulette (1965, Doris Wishman) and Sins of the Fleshapoids (1965, Mike Kuchar), interrogating and debating their style, subject matter, and ideology. Why are these films considered to be “bad” movies and what do we have to gain by studying them?
We also spent much of the semester discussing how and why certain films (The Rocky Horror Picture Show [1975, Jim Sharman], El Topo [1970, Alejandro Jodorowsky]) were able to achieve cult status as midnight movies and what drives audiences to perform elaborate rituals at film screenings. In keeping with these discussions, the class project was to host, promote and run a screening of a contemporary cult film, the notoriously awful The Room (2003, Tommy Wiseau). Since my students had read so much about midnight movies and the great lengths that theater exhibitors would go to draw in potential ticket buyers (known as “ballyhoo”), my hope was that the class would put some of those lessons into practice.
Early in the semester the class broke themselves up into working groups: promotions, advertising, booking the venue, etc. The advertising group was responsible for designing flyers, posters and ad copy for the promotions group to implement. Although money is tight in my department, my chair was kind enough to allow us limitless copies for our flyers and $50 for two large posters (I limited my role in this project to obtaining funds for the $100 screening license and for adveritising materials):
Once posters and flyers were created, it was time for the promotions group to start spreading the word. In addition to putting flyers up around campus and doing a word of mouth campaign, they started up a Facebook group for the event and convinced a writer for the campus newspaper, The East Carolinian, to mention the screening in an article about campus happenings.
Nevertheless, as the night of the screening approached I was a little nervous: I had not seen many flyers up around campus and I was beginning to doubt the class’ enthusiasm for the project. To make matters worse, the screening was held on a rainy night (ECU students are relcutant to do anything unless it’s 70 degrees outside and precipitation free) when District 9 (2009, Neill Blomkamp) was playing for free in the same building as part of the Student Activities Board’s fall film series. Finally, our event was booked in a difficult to locate area of the student union. It therefore made sense when barely 50 seats were taken 10 minutes before the start of the event.
I could tell that my students were also starting to get nervous — part of their grade would be based on how many people they could entice into the theater (after all, a theater exhibitor who couldn’t fill seats would lose his/her business). With a few minutes to spare, audience members began to appear in droves, wet from the rain but ready for a good time. By the time we started the film, we had at least 200 attendees:
Most of the people entering the theater took a bag of props to throw at the screen including: plastic spoons (whenever a framed picture of a spoon appears in the mise en scene), chocolates (during a supposed-to-be-erotic scene involving a box of chocolates), and footballs (several scenes feature the male characters tossing around a football, presumably because this is what Wiseau assumes American men do to bond with each other):
I told the students that in addition to gathering a large crowd they needed to foster a participatory screening environment. A silent audience was simply not acceptable. To encourage participation, audience members were handed a photocopied list of rituals selected by the class:
“SPOON!” – Nearly all the artwork in the film features spoons. When they appear in the shot, yell “Spoon!” and fling yours at the screen.
“DENNY!” – Used to herald the arrival/departure of the tragic kidult. “Hi & Bye” is encouraged.
“SHOOT HER!” – Yelled during Lisa’s couch conversation with her mother. The throbbing neck is the cue. Also acceptable, “QUAID, GET TO THE REACTOR!”
“BECAUSE YOU’RE A WOMAN!” – Useful after any comment made in regards to a female character. Considered a dig at the film’s casual misogyny.
“FOCUS! UNFOCUS!” – Frequent shots slip in and out of focus and it is customary to yell “FOCUS” when it gets blurry. Feel free to yell “UNFOCUS!” during the gratuitous sex scenes.
“FIANCE/FIANCEE” – This term is never uttered, instead Johnny or Lisa refer to one another as their future wife/husband. That is the cue to scream “Fiancé & Fiancée”
“ALCATRAZ” – Yell this during scenes framed with bars & during establishing shots of the famous island prison. Also encouraged, “WELCOME TO THE ROCK!” (Connery-esque only)
“GO! GO! GO! GO!” – Used to cheer on tracking shots of the bridge. Celebrate when it makes it all the way across, voice your disappointment when it doesn’t.
“EVERYWHERE YOU LOOK” (Full House theme) – Sung during establishing shot of the San Francisco homes that look eerily similar.
“MISSION IMPOSSIBLE THEME” – Hummed during the phone tapping scene.
“WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU!” – Yelled when characters appear on screen that are out of place or unknown. (Happens more than you think)
“YOU’RE TEARING ME APART, LISA!” – Johnny channels his inner James Dean near the conclusion of the film. Yell along, louder the better.
While this is only a small list of ways to get involved, feel free to interject your own thoughts throughout the screening or join in with audience members who aren’t seeing the film for the first time. All we ask is for you to be safe and respect those around you. Enjoy!
The evening also opened with a brief introduction to the film and its colorful production history. Our Master of Ceremonies encouraged the audience to participate and demonstrated a few of the rituals for the audience.
These tactics seemed to work because almost as soon as the film began, with its useless, extended establishing shots of San Francisco, the crowd was yelling at the screen. They followed the suggested rituals (with “Because you’re a woman!” and “Denny!” being two crowd favorites) but also lots of ad-libbing.
Note: Not from our screening.
When, for example, Lisa (Juliette Danielle) mixes Johnny (Tommy Wiseau) a cocktail of what appears to be 1/2 scotch and 1/2 vodka, someone behind me declared “I call it…scotchka!” [note: I just discovered that this particular line is already a Room ritual]. And whenever a character commented on how “beautiful” Lisa was, several audience members would yell “LIAR!” In fact, the room was rarely silent; people booed, groaned, clapped and heckled throughout the screening.
Note: Not from our screening.
I was hoping that the students would have come up with some more inventive advertising tactics, especially given the time we spent discussing how classical exploitation films like Mom and Dad (1945, William Beaudine) were advertised and promoted. Ultimately though, the class screening of The Room lived up to my expectations. The crowd was rowdy and interactive and everyone seemed to have a great time. Most importantly, I think my students had a great opportunity to experience firsthand what they had only been able to read about.
10 thoughts on “Screening Tommy Wiseau’s THE ROOM”
November 19, 2009 at 6:33 pm
This sounds FANTASTIC. One day, I hope that my students and I will be able to put on such an event. Congrats!
November 19, 2009 at 8:44 pm
Thanks! It was a lot of fun. I am sure you and your students could easily pull off a screening of THE ROOM, BTW.
November 19, 2009 at 11:49 pm
So damn cool! Really sad I missed the event — but at least I could capture a bit of the experience from your post. You rock, Amanda!
November 20, 2009 at 12:16 pm
We had our own Denny in the audience, and he was the one who came up with “Scotch-ka” (on his own evidently). Someone needs to put his improv wit to use.
November 20, 2009 at 12:37 pm
This was a blast. What’s more, Julian Sands can rest easier now, knowing that Boxing Helena has been replaced as my worst movie ever. (Because Julian is hyperconscious of my movie likes and dislikes.)
What do you make of the raw glee from the audience when (spoiler alert!) Johnny kills himself? That response, along withthe periodic “all in good fun” homophobia of some of the audience jibes, puzzled me a bit–kind of a darker side to what is otherwise “rowdy and interactive” crowd participation. This seems different from the audience participation in what you’ve called “the film’s casual misogyny”; on that subject, the crowd’s talking back to the film itself–making fun of its misogynist cliches. When audience members shouted out “because you’re homos!” (during some of the football scenes or the scene with Johnny and Denny wrestling), that’s a different phenomenon, yes? They’re not challenging or making fun of the film’s cliches or the film’s homophobia–for all that this film may be wackily heterosexist, it isn’t homophobic. Is this a rookie mistake of audience members who failed to grasp the nature of the ribald audience critique? Or simply people taking advantage of what feels like a safe space to indulge in all of our baser impulses–an indulgence that also explains our enthusiasm over Johnny’s suicide? (Although with the suicide at least we’re also making fun of a “tragic love story” cliche, and the movie’s ham-handed use of that cliche.)
Props to your students (and to Mr. Wiseau) for such a spectacle!
November 20, 2009 at 5:39 pm
Brent: Great question(s). I was not much bothered by the crowd’s glee over Johnny’s suicide–it was so hard to take anything seriously by that point in the film that his suicide was just one more ludicrous plot event in a series of ludicrous plot events. Plus, I see the entire film as catering to Wiseau’s narcissistic fantasties and so the melodramatic, slo-mo suicide scene, topped with characters weeping over him, just seemed to masturbatory. He deserved those jeers.
As for the homophobic jeers–I actually did not hear those. On the one hand I see the isolated comment “Because you’re homos!” as a funny twist on the line “Because you’re a woman!” since so many of the “male bonding” scenes come off as VERY homoerotic (due, no doubt, to Wiseau’s lack of knowledge about American male friendships). But if this comment was repeated a lot, and especially if it was paired with other homophobic comments, then I agree, this is an example of people using the darkened theater as an opportunity to indulge in their own homophobia without any consequences. Had I heard those comments, I too would have been disturbed. There were a few other comments like that directed towards female characters as well. And I remember thinking “Ugh, that was not right” when I heard it.
I wonder if these comments would have happened in a different screening environment–one that was not populated almost entirely with college students (I think there were only about 10 or 15 of us “old timers” there). I have found lots of latent homophobia during certain classroom discussions so I am not surprised that you heard some of that.
Anyway, great question–lots to think about with this…
November 21, 2009 at 2:17 am
I was at the event, and what a delightful celebration of awfulness it was. The students had a lot of fun with it, as did I. I must admit that it took me a while to participate, mostly because I was a little stunned by the WTF dialogue and uncomfortable, awkward, interminable sex scenes right from the get-go before characters were even established, all of which had me laughing and wincing at the same time. Plus, even though I knew it was directed at the guy on the screen, it was disconcerting having my name thrown around all about me early on and I felt like a dog in a park confused about where his master is calling him from. All in all, at the end of the night, my sides were hurting from all the laughter.
For this film and others like it, group participation seems to be the key to the enjoyment. While I was riveted to every awful bit of it at the venue, I would have probably turned it off immediately at home. Similarly, I’ve heard all my life about THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW and when they showed it on TV, I could not get into it. Nonetheless, it’s supposed to be a great experience at a midnight theatre. Why do you suppose ritualistic group enjoyment is so essential to movies like these? Also, what is the difference, really, between a “so bad it’s good” movie and a merely awful film? I ask b/c I could probably see this or something similar with friends again, but nothing could get me to voluntarily see THE BOX or THE HAPPENING again. Ever.
November 21, 2009 at 3:17 pm
Denny, you’re right, THE ROOM is far more pleasurable in a group setting than it is watched in isolation. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I first watched the film alone and definitely delighted in its awfulness. But when I showed it to my students? So much better! Then with the big crowd? I didn’t really stop laughing for the film’s duration.
But you raise an interesting point–some terrible films are enjoyable because they are terrible and some terrible films are agonizing to watch. I think THE ROOM is enjoyable because it is the epitome of camp–that is, it is a text that aims to be taken seriously (Johnny’s suicide) and fails in a spectacular fashion. At times it feels as if Wiseau was TRYING to make a bad film–when he should zig, he zags. It is failure on a large scale and most audience members can recognize that. It makes us feel better about ourselves.
By contrast, movies like THE BOX (which I’ve not seen, but have read about) are a different kind of bad. This movie was made by a good director and stars competent actors. Good choices were undoubtedly made at certain points, but overall the film fails in its goals. But it’s not a crash and burn fail, right? Such movies are merely tedious.
December 2, 2009 at 5:02 pm
I like how Brent’s question here prefigures Amanda’s next blog. “Precious” too has its god-awfully bad moments, which might undercut the sympathy towards its characters.
December 6, 2009 at 1:35 pm
That was a fantastic event–a nice prelude to the final formalization of the film studies minor! I bragged on your students to my class–such a great idea to do this.
I’m curious about THE BOX, so let me know if you decide to watch it. This is the guy that Entourage parodied in the Medellin chronicles (Billy Walsh was the surrogate). We ended up liking his Southland Tales more than we thought we would (though, I’d need to rewatch to say anything beyond that. It’s been awhile).