The Rocky Horror Picture Show
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.
When I first watched Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003), in preparation for my Trash cinema class, I watched it alone. I thoroughly enjoyed this experience but it was not until this week, when I screened it for 21 undergraduates, that I got the full effect of this masterpiece of cinema terrible. I had prepared my students for what they were about to watch: I told them the film had a strong cult following, that it has been dubbed the “Citizen Kane of bad movies,” and that fans had developed their own set of rituals, such as spoon-throwing. But, my students’ enthusiastic, joyous response to the film truly exceeded my expectations.
The moment Tommy Wiseau enters the frame in the film’s first scene and utters the words “Hi Lisa” in his strange, unidentifiable European accent, the room erupted in raucous laughter. And it only built from there. Usually, when I screen a film for students they remain quiet, laughing or gasping when appropriate and occasionally making a stray remark. But when watching The Room my students immediately sensed that it was acceptable to laugh, whoop, and even yell at the screen. When, for example, Lisa (Juliette Danielle) has a prolonged, Cinemax-style sex scene for the 3rd time one of my students exclaimed “But we saw this already, right?” And when a random couple appears in Johnny’s (Tommy Wiseau) and Lisa’s apartment (as characters often do in The Room), another student yelled “Who the hell are they?” When the film was over the students burst into applause, something which has never happened at a screening in my 7 years of teaching film classes to undergraduates.
In our discussion of the film yesterday in class, I asked the students to consider several key questions: Why is The Room considered to be a “bad” film? What codes, conventions, and expectations does it violate and why do these violations provoke laughter (as opposed to boredom or annoyance)? And if this film is so poorly made, then why do audiences gain so much pleasure from watching it?
Here is what we determined:
1. It’s Just Plain Bad
The movie violates almost every rule of storytelling: characters pop in and out of scenes with little explanation, plotlines are addressed and then dropped forever (Lisa’s mother’s cancer, Denny’s [Philip Haldiman] drug problems, etc.), and character dialogue is frequently nonsensical. Wiseau inserts establishing shots of San Francisco into the middle of scenes for no apparent reason and spatial continuity is nonexistent (does Johnny live in an apartment or a house and how do they get up to that roof deck anyway?). These problems are so pervasive that it almost seems as if Wiseau is making these blunders on purpose–but according to reports from his former crew, Wiseau was simply inexperienced.
Wiseau’s senseless dialogue:
One of many scenes that make no sense and do nothing to further the plot:
Who takes wedding photographs one month before the wedding?
Wiseau’s arbitrary use of establishing shots:
The film’s inability to convey the passage of time:
Is it “tomorrow afternoon” already?
2. It’s Camp
The Room is enjoyable precisely because it proposes itself seriously and yet we cannot take the film seriously because it is so over the top. Susan Sontag writes that, “Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste.” My students agreed that in terms of bad taste, The Room is as good as it gets. For example, in one of the film’s many sex scenes, Wiseau employs rose petals, gauzy bedding, bad R & B music, and a sinewy man thrusting away at a woman’s pelvis (I would include this clip but when I uploaded it to YouTube it was determined to be “pornography” and was removed). As my students pointed out, these sex scenes bring together every cliché of the Hollywood sex scene and the effect is overwhelming.
3. It’s Passionate
In Land of a Thousand Balconies: Discoveries and Confessions of a B-Movie Archaeologist (2003), Jack Stevenson argues that a great camp film is “the product of pure passion, on whatever grand or pathetic scale, somehow gone strangely awry… pure camp is created against all odds by the naïve, stubborn director who in the cynical, hardball, bottom line movie business can still foolishly dream he is creating a masterpiece without money, technical sophistication, or (orthodox) talent.” Indeed, The Room is infused with Wiseau’s passion. From its awkward dialogue to its nonsensical plot, the film is the embodiment of this strange, quixotic man. Watching The Room is, in many ways, like the reading the diary of a tortured teenage writer. My students agreed that it was Wiseau’s unadulterated passion and hubris that made the film so engaging to watch, despite its frustrating plot and characterization.
The best example of this passion can be found in the infamous “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” scene, a blatant rip off of a similar scene in Rebel without a Cause
But, if The Room is so very personal, if it is Wiseau’s soul up there on the screen, then is it wrong to subject this film to scrutiny on a regular basis? Is mocking this man’s art akin to walking into an art gallery and pointing and laughing at a painting that you think is shit? Or going to the theater and yelling at an actor for being bad at his job?
Fans react to “You’re Tearing Me Apart, Lisa!”:
4. It Makes Us Feel Better About Ourselves
This leads me to the final characteristic of watching The Room: it makes the viewer feel better about him or herself. In his famous study of taste cultures, Distinction (1984), Pierre Bourdieu writes, “Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make, between the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar, in which their position in the objective classifications is expressed or betrayed.” When we watch The Room and mock it we are essentially saying “I am better than this. I am superior to this.” For example, during the following scene my students howled with laughter–and when we rewatched it during our class discussion they laughed even harder. Why? As one student put it, “This scene is intended to show us that Johnny’s character is a good guy because he is always buying roses for Lisa. But it just FAILS.”
So are we cruel for laughing at Wiseau’s film, for laughing at Wiseau himself? On this point my students were divided. Some said yes, that they felt guilty for laughing because the film was so personal. Others argued that the moment Wiseau made his film and put it in a public theater, he agreed to public ridicule. Personally, I am torn on this issue–but that won’t keep me from watching The Room. And laughing.