Earlier this month saw one of my yearly teaching highlights, the annual screening of ‘the best worst film ever,’ 2003 melodrama, The Room.
It is ironic that a film renowned in part for such poor performances became the ultimate performative text, prompting a whole range of audience behaviours at its regular screenings.
Every year for the past three years, a participatory screening of this film has served as the climax of my third year Cult Film module, and it is promised to students at the start of the module, as a reward for their hard work and inevitably enthusiastic contributions over the course of the eleven week undergraduate module.
The screening is always billed as being participatory both in the module handbook and throughout the module and with the permission of the extremely tolerant staff at The Phoenix Cinema in Leicester, I supply my student audience with a few hundred plastic spoons and a couple of inflatable plastic American footballs, along with A4 cheat sheets that list the most frequent call-outs before the screening takes place. Other than this I am keen to not lead the students too much, following Wiseau’s own philosophy that ‘The Room is [a] safe place. You can laugh, you can cry, you can do whatever you like, express yourself, just don’t hurt yourself.’ I must add though, I specify that students mustn’t break anything, climb on the seats or hit the screen with projectiles.
This year the screening took place at 11am on a Monday morning. For the previous two years the screening has been held on a Friday, on the last day of term before the Christmas break. As a result spirits are high. This year I was therefore concerned, that with the rest of the final week of term still to run, students may not be as enthusiastic as previous years had been.
There was also one other noteworthy change that occurred prior to this year’s screening. This year this cult classic has actually crossed over into the mainstream, due to the release five days before our The Room screening, of James Franco’s The Disaster Artist.
Whilst for the past two years a small handful of students might have heard of The Room and an even smaller portion of that demographic might have seen it or segments of it, some may even be familiar with actor Greg Sestero’s book The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest bad Movie Ever Made, which details his experience of making The Room, but this year every student in the class was familiar with the film and almost all of the students claimed to have either watched The Room in its entirety or watched segments via the internet. Some had already been to see The Disaster Artist before our participatory screening.
It would be fascinating to hear Wiseau’s thoughts on his opus’ shift towards the mainstream, with any attendant cultural capital that that might carry, as The Room despite being an ironists dream, was clearly initially intended as a straight text, being originally, somewhat misguidedly sold as ‘a film with the passion of Tennessee Williams,’ and clinging on to general release, in the face of huge financial loses, for the requisite number of days to qualify for Academy Award nomination.
Of course, you could take the opportunity to question Wiseau about his directorial intent at any of the numerous live audience/director Q&A meet and greet sessions that are regularly held along with sell-out screenings at independent cinemas around the world, such as The Prince Charles in London’s Leicester Square, but I suspect you would not get a straight answer.
And really that’s beside the point. Once the unanticipated reception context of ironic appreciation became apparent, Wiseau, in a feat of showmanship of which William Castle would have been proud, shifted his position on his film, describing it as a ‘black comedy’, recognising and exploiting a growing mythology around both it and himself, and subsequently fostering what seems to be a genuine affection amongst a loyal and enthusiastic fan community who, as film scholar Richard McCulloch  observes, reject the exclusivity commonly associated with cult fan communities and instead are generally keen for The Room to reach a broader audience.
This is fortunate as owing to The Disaster Artist’s good critical reviews, high profile star/director, Franco’s collaboration with Seth Rogan and the existing fandom around The Room, it is currently enjoying a much wider release and more immediate box office success than The Room ever did, being shown as it is in multiplexes across the U.K and subsequently raising the profile of Wiseau and his film phenomenon further.
Not unlike Tim Burton’s fond homage to inept B-movie director Ed Wood in the biopic of the same name, Franco’s The Disaster Artist is more pastiche than parody, more a celebration of the idiosyncrasies of the film maker and his product than a travesty. Franco’s affection for his subject is apparent but clearly has not blinded him to Wiseau’s character flaws and idiosyncrasies. Nor is Franco beyond gently mocking and playing with these aspects of Wiseau’s persona in his promotion of The Disaster Artist.
In promotional interviews, frequently adopting Wiseau’s distinctive accent and idiom, Franco discusses the ‘meta,’ self-referential nature of his film. The Disaster Artist is after all, a film about a man making a film and the considerable time spent applying the prosthetics required to transform into Wiseau meant that Franco frequently had to direct ‘as’ Wiseau, which as he himself acknowledges, led to a frequent slippage, as the temptation to fully embody the director whilst directing, at times proved too much, to the amusement and at times, befuddlement of fellow cast and crew members.
It is this performative aspect of The Room, not just in terms of the heightened awareness of performance one gains from the particularly poor execution and delivery of the original film, or the focus on Franco’s performance as Wiseau (and the critical acclaim that has received) in the second, but the performances outside of both of these films, by audiences and by Wiseau in response to The Room that fascinates me.
The night before my participatory screening and into the early hours it had actually snowed heavily, yet still a large number of the class were in attendance on the day, joined even by a small number of students who were not signed onto the module but had contacted me in advance to ask if they could also join the fun. There was a genuine buzz.
Seated in the cinema auditorium, the students happily posed with their spoons for a poor quality photograph which I subsequently posted on Twitter (see below). I then seated myself at the front of the auditorium, so the students felt less exposed and could be less inhibited in their responses, and so they could witness my own (limited) interactions with the film should they want to. We were off.
As has been the case every year, their response was loud and enthusiastic. Spoons were thrown, (I know this as many whizzed past me and a few hit the back of my head) and a small number of students took to the aisles and tossed the inflatable footballs to one another across the auditorium. Students hooted with laughter and shouted lines of dialogue well in advance of their filmic delivery, often at humorous and pertinent moments, very much bringing to mind Bourdieu’s description of habitus (a key aspect of cultural distinction) as ‘a feel for the game’ . Indeed, in many ways, this was a game. Later, in the post-screening seminar, they observed that their ironic engagement and searching of the text for alternative rewards and pleasures made the consumption of this truly poor text bearable. They discussed the screening as a feat of endurance, a challenge to be met as well as a humorous group bonding activity. Indeed, some students simply could not see the screening through. One approached me during the screening, through the dark, whispering beseechingly ‘I can’t take it anymore. I’m going to have to leave.’
The majority who stayed for the histrionic plot climax gave Wiseau a standing ovation, presumably not because of the calibre of his performance, but out of sheer gratitude that the film was hopefully soon to be over.
I obviously cannot vouch for the levels of spontaneity, improvisation, innovation or autonomy in the student’s responses during these screenings. I cannot claim this activity as an even remotely credible example of participant observation. I have prompted these students, by providing sanctioned props, a cheat sheet, making them aware of internet engagement with the cult of The Room, encouraging them to read academic articles on the audience for and reception of the film and by sitting in the front row of the auditorium throwing my own spoons and occasional call outs, but the student’s engagement with this text, their participation in and performance of this very unique mode of spectatorship is a valuable, atypical teaching approach which seems to offer considerable rewards for my students and is a truly joyous teaching experience I look forward to and relish every year.
*I am thrilled to say that I will be discussing the phenomenon of The Room and its audience with Richard McCulloch for a Here’s Looking At You podcast in the next couple of days.*
Quote from James Franco in his interview with Simon Mayo for The Disaster Artist http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09fytf8 [accessed 20/12/2017]
McCulloch, R. (2011) “‘Most people Bring Their Own Spoons”: The Room’s Participatory Audiences as Comedy Mediators’ in Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies. Vol , Issue 2 (Nov) pp.189-218
Bourdieu, P. (1990) The Logic of Practice. Cambridge: Polity Press p. 66