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A gloriously bad film

by Robyn Gallagher

I was sitting in my seat at the Paramount's main cinema. By my side I had a toy football, a pair of men's boxer shorts and 100 disposable plastic spoons. It was a Saturday night. I was ready to watch cult film The Room.

The Room is a 2003 production by auteur Tommy Wiseau. This mysterious fellow with a non-specific European accent, wrote, directed, produced and stars in the film, a tale of tainted love.

It's also a really bad film. A gloriously bad film, and with a massive cult following.

Audiences don't just sit and watch and laugh at the film's awfulness. They interact, Rocky Horror-style, throwing things at the screen and yelling out snappy comebacks to the bad dialogue.

Despite being seven years old, The Room has been enjoying its first cinema screenings in New Zealand as part of the Incredibly Strange programme in the New Zealand International Film Festival.

We follow the story of Johnny (played by Wiseau), his fiancee Lisa who's cheating on him with his best friend Mark. And there's Denny, the curious manchild neighbour, who is sort of Johnny and Lisa's foster child, only he's an adult and he likes to watch them pashing. There's also Lisa's man-hating, bitch-face mum Claudette; other couple Mike and Michelle who like to use Johnny and Lisa's couch to play sex games involving chocolate; and a selection of random characters who show up, fall over, then are never heard from again.

Actually, that description doesn't make it sound too bad. But it's the execution of the film that makes it come alive with the magic of awfulness. It’s said that no one ever deliberately makes a bad film, and indeed it’s the seriousness of The Room’s production mixed with accidental incompetency that give it its unique spirit.

For example, early on Claudette tells Lisa, "I got the results of the test back - I definitely have breast cancer." In a normal film, one would expect further mention of the cancer; perhaps a polite query as to how the chemo is going. In The Room, the cancer is never mentioned again.

In another infamous scene, devilwoman Lisa tries to tempt Johnny off the wagon by luring him with a drink. She brings out two tumblers half-filled with Scotch, and diabolically tops them up with vodka. This does the trick - "It tastes good," Johnny remarks as he sculls his Skotchka.

And, of course, the spoons. Johnny and Lisa's apartment is decorated with framed photos of spoons. Why spoons? No one knows. But the frequent shots of the spoon art have led to one of the most fun moments of audience participation. Whenever a spoon photo is shown, audience members hurl handfuls of plastic picnic spoons. Moore Wilson in Wellington sells 100 packs for $2.10, so by the end of the evening, the front of the Paramount was covered with cutlery.

But for a film that's never previously been released in New Zealand, how is it that New Zealand audiences know exactly what to do in the screening?

We can put this down to the power of the interwebs. As well as the film being a cult hit at midnight cinema screenings, it also has a huge online following. YouTube is full of choice clips from the films, footage of audience screenings, and fans re-enacting their favourite scenes from the film. There are webpages with list of things to do at the screenings, and the DVD can be purchased online.

But it's not all rote responses. During a fight between Johnny and Lisa, one Auckland audience member spontaneously yelled out "Cook your own damn eggs, Jake Heke!" Chur!

It's nice to be part of an audience where you're not obliged to politely applaud, where you can yell and throw things (two of my favourite pastimes). It's a powerful experience when the audience can transform a lame melodrama into a hilarious comedy.

The Room is currently making its way around the country as part of the Film Festival, and it’s rumoured to be making a return with some midnight screenings later in the year, so audiences can again unite, throw spoons and yell Johnny's signature line, "You're tearing me apart, Lisa!"

Robyn Gallagher blogs beautifully at robyngallagher.com

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