By Stephen Swanson, WCCO-TV
What distinguishes a mere cult movie from a midnight movie? Some cult movies, like The Warriors and The Big Lebowski, have become well-worn on the midnight movies circuit (a racket, in Minneapolis, firmly in the grip of the Landmark Theatres chain, for better or worse).
I’ve seen both flicks with swollen audiences at The Uptown in the past few years. The crowd in the former made for a memorable 90 minutes. The latter? Pure tedium. Several Lebowski fanatics/drunkards recited the first 25 minutes line by line, then slowly slid into a chorus of snores. And I can’t forget the half-empty house at Cannibal Holocaust, especially the lady who decided to show up in full SS apparel. (But all in attendance shared the chain of shame that evening, fashion and socio-cultural faux pas aside.)
These three cult movies contain several hallmarks of your typical midnight movie: sex, violence, gore, and stoner-approved humor. One movie capitalized on these traits with groundbreaking results: 1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Ok, the violence was campy, and the gore was brief and tame, but the necessary and scandalous elements were there, and a phenomenon was born.
Fans still show up weekend after weekend, donning costumes of their favorite characters. But the most peculiar yet enticing bit of innovation championed by the fans of Rocky Horror is audience participation. Fans throwing rice or toast on cue. Mass shouting at the screen to coincide with a bit of dialogue or a character’s entrance. Basically, a highly unusual yet intoxicating occurrence when film and audience merge into one large, pulsating organism, for better or worse. Now that’s a true example of a midnight movie.
Unfortunately, Rocky Horror seemed to be the only significant film to really fall under that category, as a film which cultivated and maintained such a level of rabid cult loyalty over 35 years, with the essential yet rare aspect of a proactive crowd. But thanks to one brave and delusional man, the fire’s been inadvertently stolen. That man is Tommy Wiseau.
His magnum oops-us is the 2003 independent drama The Room — the story of a kindhearted San Francisco banker, Johnny (Wiseau), who is unaware of his position in a softcore love triangle with his cheatin’ fiance, Lisa (an actress obviously hired due to her slight resemblance to Britney Spears and her willingness to perform topless), and his best friend, Mark, a hunky, low-functioning adult.
Yep, that’s it. No space transvestites, kitschy street gangs or cannibalistic Amazonians. So how could a movie that’s clearly suited for the late-nite schedule of Showtime become the savior of the true midnight movie? Well, because Wiseau wrote, produced, directed, and starred in perhaps the greatest terrible movie ever!
Somehow Wiseau, a man imbued with a curious yet mysterious European accent (he dodges his origin in interviews), was reportedly able to gather $7 million (?!) to fund the project. He portrays the betrayed banker with the charisma of a sleepy junkie, writes himself into a libido-vaporizing sex scene (that’s later pawned off as an entirely new sex scene, essentially shown twice within the first 25 minutes!), and “directs” actors while clearly unable to fathom the craft (he waits so impatiently for his next line, he forgets that pesky “reacting” element of acting).
Throw some other godforsaken actors in the mix, inexplicable subplots and supporting roles, and you’ve got one of the funniest moments ever committed to 35mm and HD simultaneously. (Wiseau decided to film in both in order to write a currently unrealized book contrasting the formats.)
Thanks to word of mouth and some influential fans like Kevin Smith, David Cross, and Alec Baldwin, The Room has become THE midnight movie of the 21st century, complete with the elusive element of audience participation, one which has made repeated engagements at the Uptown theater in Minneapolis (where, of course, Rocky Horror was once a midnight staple for years on end).
From throwing plastic spoons towards the screen whenever spoon-oriented artwork appears (which is often), lifting one’s cell phone or lighter during the R&B tune that accompanies the recycled sex scene, to loudly mocking the frequent and bizarre laughter that Wiseau emits every few seconds while on screen, participation counts big time. (For some detailed tips on making the most of your “The Room” experience, check out this viewers guide compiled by The Onion.)
Wiseau is adamant that the film was always intended as a “black comedy,” a claim that reveals Wiseau to be both a bad liar and one who is unaware of the definition of “black comedy.” But I will say The Room does solidly prove Wiseau as a pure auteur. He informs every moment with his dicey understanding of acting, drama, narrative structure, basic human interaction, and the mechanics of playing catch with a standard American football. And he wants us to love his simple yet ludicrous tale of a tragic love triangle … in addition to his long, stringy dyed jet-black hair, and his well-toned, yet H.R. Giger-inspired body.
Well I love the whole damn package. I love Tommy Wiseau, who is still the only person to reject my Facebook friendship. And though I’m firm in my position that Wiseau should be barred from any future solo or collaborative creative efforts, I implore you to gather with family/friends/foes this weekend and stand in line (bags of plastic spoons in hand) with your fellow Twinasotans for the sake of filling the Uptown with warmth and dangerous levels of laughter … for better or worse.