Recently, you might have noticed James Franco on your television screen promoting his new film, The Disaster Artist. Time and again, however, the writer-director was caught in the same spot: “So, James, tell us about the film – it’s about the production of the worst film ever made.” (Or something to that effect, I forgot to record ITV’s Lorraine to check.)
Not to be too controversial, but I want to make a suggestion: The Room, the film at the centre of Franco’s comedy, is not ‘the worst film ever made’. Not even nearly.
Don’t get me wrong, eccentric auteur Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 magnum opus – a relationship drama concerning a man (played by Wiseau) who slowly – slowly – discovers everyone around him, including his best friend and “future wife”, is deceiving him – is ineptly-written, aesthetically ugly and poorly-acted by everyone involved; the majority of them complete amateurs. By all means, it’s a badly-made film.
However, The Room may be ‘bad’, but its gleefully-absurd 100 minutes is often more entertaining than watching most ‘good’ films. Let alone something as joyless as, say, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a $250m blockbuster only a remarkable 1% higher in critical esteem on the review-aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Despite more recent comments, Wiseau clearly set out to make a great film – indeed, one of the film’s iconic lines (“You are tearing me apart, Lisa!”) aspires to emulate James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause – and it is this sincerity and aspiration that separates many a ‘bad’ movie from a mediocre one.
You could say this started with cross-dressing C-movie maverick Ed Wood, who made ‘so bad, it’s good’ a kind of art, many of his films being extremely entertaining simply in their naff-ness. Wood’s wild enthusiasm and singular vision, dragged kicking and screaming from a shoestring budget, elevates his filmography beyond a mild curiosity and into a transgressive cult phenomenon that still plays. Baltimore’s ‘Pope of Trash’ John Waters can say the same, his ‘70s exploitation movies revelling in gross-out and provocative shock value are clearly the work of a subversive auteur, one who was almost impossible to critique with the same tools we did Coppola, Scorsese or De Palma. Without disingenuously claiming Wiseau quite reaches the same heights as Waters – a genuinely transformative, genius New Hollywood filmmaker – the exercise is important when considering how we critically engage with so-called ‘trash’.
Wiseau, of course, has the benefit of seeing his films transform into experiences of their own, with The Room becoming a staple of the midnight movie circuit and an audience-participation classic rivalled only by The Rocky Horror Picture Show for sheer public fervour. Usually accompanied by a Q&A, the film plays all over the globe every year to packed crowds, flinging plastic spoons at the screen, for example, whenever they see the utensil pop up on the wall of Tommy’s thoroughly artificial apartment. There’s life after death for the ‘bad’ movie, resurrected from obscurity and transformed into a touring circus, guaranteeing more entertainment and genuine heart than even the Oscar-bait biopic next door. Laughs are abundant, but here they’re more real than real, coming from a place of sheer sincerity that filmmakers who explicitly want to make ‘bad’ movies can’t quite grasp.
Forget the spin, the truth is much simpler: the worst films we’ve all had to sit through are the excruciatingly mediocre ones. The forgettable, depressing, offensive, unfunny – the films that have nothing to say or offer in terms of an emotional response, and more often than not coming from people with many more millions to spare than the $6m Wiseau clumsily spent on his passion project (mostly purchasing camera equipment he was unaware productions usually rented).
The Room, or even its fellow ‘bad’ movies like Troll 2 or Plan 9 from Outer Space, is not ‘the worst film ever made’ – it’s actually one of the most consistently entertaining and charming ‘worst films ever made’. To its critics, I can only quote Tommy himself: “Keep your stupid comments in your pocket!”
You can catch James Franco's lastest film The Disaster Artist at Picturehouse at FACT until Thursday 14 December.