It’s hard to sell the pleasures of watching one of the worst movies of all time with an audience of unruly hecklers. It actually kind of sounds like a circle of movie-critic-hell. But with the right movie and the right audience, it’s actually a pretty great way to spend a saturday night.
Just last month, the movie was absolutely right, but the audience left a little to be desired. Here’s how an audience plagued by the mindset of nerd culture almost ruined my very first screening of the cult masterpiece-of-shit, The Room.
If you aren’t familiar with The Room, you should first watch this trailer. I’d say it’s a safe assertion that The Room is the most watchable terrible movie ever made. There are worse movies, and there are more enjoyable mediocre B-movies, but nothing captures the same alchemy of ineptitude that makes this film so relentlessly rewatchable.
That’s probably why a cult following has slowly developed around this entrancing cinematic cesspool. Over the years since the film’s release in 2003, theaters all over the country have started hosting screenings of this ball of misguided filmmaking. Rocky Horro-esque rituals started to develop around these screenings, too. These include throwing spoons at the screen whenever a framed picture of what appears to be a spoon graces the movie, rooting for one of the many establishing bridge shots to finally make it to the other end of the bridge, simply shouting along with the worst lines in the film, or even something as knee-jerk as echoing the films mysoginy and shouting “because you’re a woman” every time someone disparages a female on-screen.
These rituals were all in full effect during my very first screening of the film last month. It’s all in good fun, and it does create a sort of raucous comeraderie in the theater. I started to feel like all of us were on the same team, like the film was the enemy, and all we had as weapons were witty derision and shocked horror.
There were obviously some veterans in the theater, too, which sort of reinforced the feeling of being part of a larger tradition. One particularly clever and forward-thinking audience member had a bag of plastic forks ready, as a counterpoint to the constant spoon-shouting and spoon-throwing, for a scene near the end where we finally see a fork on-screen. It was, on balance, a pretty great experience in audience participation and revelling in the sheer awfulness of a piece of culture.
The one problem, which became increasingly annoying as the film wore on, was that everyone felt a need to display their own familiarity with the movie, not just have fun with it. It was like people were competing for who knew the movie better: people were saying lines minutes before they actually appeared onscreen, they were shouting about plot developments that wouldn’t be happening for another half hour, and they were re-collecting the spoons to make sure they could keep throwing more and more of them until the bitter end, long after the joke had become tired.
I think the problem was that some people weren’t actually there for the shared experience of horrible culture. Some people were there because they were genuinely geeks about this film. They genuinely obsessed with its minutia, making their interaction with the film less Rocky Horror play-along and more Star Wars Episode 1 cosplay.
Not too long ago, Patton Oswalt wrote a piece about geek culture and how it works. His final point about the cycles of culture was interesting, but my experience with The Room made me think of something else from the essay. He spoke about how people become obsessed with a piece of culture until they are retreading the same ground over and over, not really creating new culture. During this screening, there seemed to be a lot of people really intent on retreading their previous The Room experiences and content to just demonstrate their encyclopedic Wiseau knowledge.
The thing that makes a screening like this so fantastically enjoyable is that everyone’s on the same page. We all know what the film is, we are all aware of what things it’s doing (and failing to do), and we all came here to enjoy those things together. The most clever among us make surprising jokes, and the least clever throw spoons, but we all get to enjoy the experience in our own way. Such a feeling of cameraderie and fun is derailed when someone seems determined to prove that THEY are better at watching The Room than YOU are.
When a screening is tainted by these people, some of that spontaneous magic of a shared virtual cinematic colonoscopy is drained, leaving the room dominated by geek culture obsessives who don’t even appear to be having that much fun.
I don’t know what caused this misfire. Part of it was probably the very young (12 years old!) children that were shouting off-topic and inappropriate things at various points in the movie. But I suspect it was actually mostly the guy who set the whole screening up. He insisted on giving an opening talk about how important the interactivity was, explaining a lot of the jokes and games people play. I think this kind of knowing, self-important rhetoric encourages the geek clique attitude of some participants at a screening like this.
But I don’t want to get bogged down in the bad. Because the experience was overall a really great one. That feeling of cameraderie managed to persist, despite the loud-mouthed derailers trying to fizzle it. We were, for a few brief hours, the last bastion of sane society, pitted against all that is insane about the world. And we triumphed.