I first heard about The Room in 2009 from my friend Alex Gilwit. She was like a one-person street team for the thing. She was so emphatic that everyone needed to see it that she asked the owners of the local pseudo-Mexican restaurant if she could play it on their patio. They agreed. Gilwit was stoked.
The crowd that showed up that night was made up of a lot of Gilwit’s friends, kids who were really into Tim and Eric and Everything is Terrible, but there were also people there who I didn’t know, and who I’m pretty sure Gilwit didn’t know. One group had a football with them, which I thought was weird at the time.
The movie started, and Johnny, Lisa, and Mark’s torrid love triangle unfolded on the screen. And whenever Tommy Wiseau took to his roof with Denny and Mark, these guys would get up and start throwin’ the ball around. Until they almost knocked over the very expensive projector. After that, they had to stop.
The Room is a terrible movie. I love terrible movies. That night, I did not love the Room. Too many awkward sex scenes, in my opinion. But I can’t deny the important role that the film plays to people of my generation. Even my most beloved bad movies couldn’t create the kind of culture that The Room still maintains more than a decade years after its original release. In fact, at the end of this month, just minutes from my house in Oakland, Tommy Wiseau will atttend an 11th anniversary screening and answer questions from the audience. The movie’s official website, which looks like it was built on Angelfire, advertises a 2014 “Love is Blind” tour with plenty more in-person appearances.
How did this happen?
In every generation, there is a Chosen One, or more likely Ones, movies with reputations that spread through word of mouth and that become a special experience long after their home video release. The ‘60s had Night of the Living Dead, the ‘70s Pink Flamingos, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Eraserhead, and Alejandro Jodorowsky. Evil Dead and Liquid Sky dominated the ‘80s, and we were introduced to a young Hugo Weaving in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in 1994. These films are all very different but share a certain quality. They all offered shock value and, maybe more importantly, most of them are true cinematic treasures that kicked off long-lasting, critically acclaimed careers.
Still, it’s been slow going for the Midnight Movie genre (if you can even call it a genre) since the ‘90s. An article in Complex Magazine claims that Donnie Darko was the last real midnight movie success —omitting The Room entirely. The Room isn’t Eraserhead, and Tommy Wiseau isn’t David Lynch, no matter how hard he tries to shrug off his bomb as some sort of over-our-heads black comedy. His film makes little sense and has even less artistic merit. But it has still surpassed everyone’s expectations, except maybe for Wiseau’s own.
It didn’t happen immediately. Despite Wiseau paying for a billboard on Highland Avenue in Los Angeles for five years after The Room’s release, the AV Club credits an Entertainment Weekly long read with really bringing the film to the masses. In 2008, Clark Collis wrote about the rise of The Room, which extended beyond normal folks like you or I. Celebrities were in on the joke too, from Paul Rudd to David Cross and Kristin Bell. It eventually would air annually on Adult Swim, and independent theaters in cities across the country host late-night screenings to this day. While my Room experience featured football, others have spoons. If you’ve seen the movie, you know why.
It’s hard to believe that there aren’t more Midnight Movies these days, something that can pick up when The Room becomes to next generations what Rocky Horror is to hip film goers today, a phenomenon that’s known about on a wide scale but that young people don’t feel the same pull to participate in. And something that’s actually good, hopefully. Our modern times should be the perfect incubator for aspiring Tommy Wiseaus. Cinematic-quality cameras and professional-level editing software are available at consumer-friendly prices, and the internet and social media capable of creating immediate buzz (imagine what would have happened to The Room if it had been picked up on Twitter in its earliest days).
Until then, we’ll have to settle for “You’re tearing me apart Lisa!”
Susan Cohen decided to leave her career in journalism to go back to school — for journalism. She's still not sure if she made a mistake. Visit susanjcohen.com to learn more about her.