Baby’s First Cult Classics: The Room

Stephan Cho - April 21, 2017

For as long as I’ve been a bad movie aficionado, The Room, and its enigmatic creator Tommy Wiseau, has has been venerated by a particular kind of cinephiles—one that willfully enjoys the film's violation of practically every rule of basic film storytelling and, seemingly, of realistic human interaction.

On its surface, there is very little plot to discuss in The Room. Johnny (Tommy Wiseau) is a successful banker who commits suicide after his fiancée Lisa (Juliette Danielle) cheats on him with his best friend Mark (Greg Sestero), the relationships between these characters are only established through clunky exposition reiterated throughout the film, rather than through any sense of realistic human interaction captured in its performances or script. By all measures, The Room is an objectively bad movie, and if made by someone other than writer/director/star Tommy Wiseau, would be an unmemorable one as well.

However, what makes The Room a transcendent experience, and what has made it one of the most iconic cult classics in recent memory, cannot be contained in a mere plot summary. The factors that make The Room a great-bad movie, rather than one of the many objectively bad but unremarkable movies that come out all the time, are the many seemingly illogical choices that Wiseau makes in his ill-fated quest to tell a competent, dramatic story: characters inexplicably breaking away for football games in the middle of dramatic scenes, a chicken impersonation that comes from an alternate dimension of chicken sounds, and sex scenes that seem to be filmed by someone who has never seen two humans interact before. If you’re someone who actively seeks out and appreciates poorly-made movies, The Room simply must be seen to be believed.

I was late on the train to The Room, having first heard about The Room phenomenon from a video on the Yahoo! homepage when I was twelve. By the time I first found this video, it had already become a full-fledged midnight movie phenomenon, with the tropes of The Room screenings (like throwing plastic spoons at the screen whenever a framed picture of a spoon is shown onscreen, or shouting “GO! GO! GO! during the movie’s many unnecessary establishing shots of the Golden Gate Bridge) already fully established.

As a shy thirteen year-old without access to a car or to these screenings, I was fascinated by the myth of those screenings, and by the idea of sharing this experience with like-minded individuals also interested in the art of making fun of bad movies. Unable to reach one of these screenings, my first The Room screening was hosted alone in my bedroom, with the VLC scroll bar at my disposal to scroll past the movie’s many awkward sex scenes. (Even as a bad movie aficionado, bad sex scenes are something I still find hard to sit through; I cringed through most of Fifty Shades Darker, for instance.) Even given these conditions, my first experience with The Room was a transcendent one. Crowd interactions are crucial to The Room screening experience, but The Room is bizarre and compelling enough as a film experience in itself.

I thought I’d moved past The Room fandom by the time the opportunity came up to attend one of these screenings and meet Tommy Wiseau last Saturday, having now been exposed to underrated bad movies like Fateful Findings and Foodfight. But as a fan of bad movies (and as someone who will always take up a good Instagram opportunity), I had no choice but to meet the artist behind one of the most fascinating bad movies of all time.

I came into the screening with some skepticism, after waiting in line with hardcore fans wearing shirts with The Room quotes, and after having learned that “Tommy” would only take pictures with people who bought his merch. What would The Room experience be like in 2017, well past its peak as a cult phenomenon? Would fame change Tommy Wiseau; make him more ‘in on the joke’?

My skepticism resurfaced when the trailer for Wiseau’s next project, Best F(r)ends, came up on the screen prior to the screening. The project, written by Greg Sestero, who plays Mark in The Room, is credited to Sestero as the writer of The Disaster Artist, the book that Sestero published in 2013 on his experience working on The Room. Based on the trailer, it seemed as though Wiseau was trying to recreate the magic that came up spontaneously during the production of The Room. I still can’t tell whether Wiseau is ‘in on the joke,’ or how he feels about making his living off screenings where people make fun of his passion project, which is now considered one of the worst movies ever made.

Thankfully, the Tommy Wiseau I met was just as strange and full of irrational self-confidence as the person who reportedly spent $6 million making The Room in 2003. At the merch table, he sold TOMMY WISEAU-branded underwear alongside more conventional items such as The Room shirts and posters (I personally opted for the “Anyway, how is your sex life?” model. In the Q&A with Wiseau prior to the screening, he also seemed to sincerely discuss his creative process while making the movie. Of course, being the great “disaster artist” that he is, I couldn’t fully read if Tommy Wiseau was being truly sincere, or if he was simply creating the illusion of sincerity in order to sell more The Room shirts and TOMMY WISEAU briefs to the gawking crowds.

While I still had questions about Tommy Wiseau’s sincerity, there were no such questions about how much enjoyment the audience at my screening found at every absurd turn in the movie. It was immediately clear how sincere everyone’s enjoyment was, between all the spoon throwing, football tossing, and shouting “BECAUSE YOU’RE A WOMAN!” during the movie’s many instances of questionable gender politics.

There is a certain level of irony associated with bad movie fandom, but in my experience, my enjoyment of these movies is entirely sincere. Plenty of bad movies disappear without a trace all the time, but the rare truly transcendent ones like The Room are worth seeking out and sharing in all their bizarre, hubristic glory. Even when their creators become self-aware, like Tommy Wiseau seems to be with The Room at this point in his career, they don’t hold nearly as much power as the people roasting their creations in the audience.

Check back next week to read about my first time watching the cult classic Rocky Horror Picture Show

Stephan Cho

Stephan Cho is a junior studying political science and film at the University of Pennsylvania. His interests include pop culture criticism, creative writing, and music production.