As a lifelong fan of strange movies, the Baffler essay “The Streaming Void” has given me a lot to think about. Subtitled “Has the era of the cult film come to an end?,” it posits that the popularity of the “so-bad-it’s-good” movie The Room is evidence of a fundamental decline in human society—a society that worships Tommy Wiseau and Donald Trump:
It makes an unfortunate sort of sense, when you consider our current political reality, that we’ve spent so much time and money celebrating the stupid, misogynistic vanity project of a self-described real estate tycoon with piles of possibly ill-gotten cash. Cult movies used to be scruffy, desperately original, and intermittently brilliant works of transgressive art that left audiences energized, and sometimes radicalized. The Room—which is bad art, but art nonetheless—does the opposite. The mirror it holds up is the underside of a dirty metal spoon; the reflection you see in it is blurry but genuine. So what’s sadder: that it set the prototype for the twenty-first-century American cult film or that it might wind up being our last enduring cult hit?
And that’s the other big hypothesis of the essay—that perhaps the era of the genuine “cult movie” is over. That maybe…The Room (and Internet culture, and, I would imagine, the Geeks) killed it.
My first impression of The Room—which, due to its extreme absurdity, snapped me out of a suicidal depression a number of Christmases ago—was that this was one man’s whacked-out “lens” on the world that “did him wrong.” I’ve known numerous men in my life who, if you gave them a film crew and a budget, would produce a thinly-veiled “auto-biographical” spectacle such as The Room.
Yes, in Wiseau’s view: a) he is the romantic hero whose bare ass society was dying to see immortalized on film, b) the “girl who did him wrong” is a shrewish cartoon with no depth or redeeming factors, c) screwing apparently takes place above the woman’s crotch, somewhere around the belly-button region.
Yes, The Room presents us with “the underside of a dirty metal spoon.” It’s unintentional satire. And the danger always is, especially in today’s society, that Poe’s Law kicks in and people take it seriously. That Wiseau’s aesthetics and values are taken at face-value and without irony.
Several things here: I don’t think The Room has “killed” the cult movie. I do think fan culture—worshipping and enshrining into dogma certain iconic elements in a manner that becomes detached from wider context—is a bigger culprit. I certainly think movies like The Disaster Artist, which portrayed the making of The Room, is a bigger culprit.
Look at the way a cult movie like 1983’s A Christmas Story becomes officially “recognized” by the media years or decades later—producing awful sequels and “remakes,” and tone-deaf merchandise.
I also am having a harder and harder time seeing the mainstream Hollywood machine—or its “hip” 1990s offshoot, via Tarantino etc.—as being that much more “legitimate” than Wiseau’s schemes. Between shady investors, unsafe work conditions…rape. I dunno.
And while many of the classic “quality” cult films we’ve enjoyed are creations of a diverse, collaborative, and highly creative confluence of ideas…many are also born out of those same questionably legit origins, some containing material that in retrospect can be considered misogynist, racist, etc.
Here is the argument regarding “quality” cult films vs. “crappy” ones as I understand it: Divine ate dogshit on camera for 1972’s Pink Flamingos. The idea is that, because Divine eating freshly shat-out dogshit was a choice deliberately made in the name of Art, it was meaningful. Wiseau made a movie that he thought was great, but it wasn’t great. He lacked “intention.” Had he only held the intention to make a satire about an egotistical lunatic—clearly understanding that the character of Johnny was indeed an egotistical lunatic—it would have been “quality.” But he didn’t, and so that makes him a cretin who shouldn’t be rewarded for his ineptitude.
Maybe the real conflict here is between art films and cult films. Not every art film is a cult film, not every cult film is art, and etc.
The Baffler piece ends by painting a dystopian vision of future American cinema:
Meanwhile, The Room thrives in midnight screenings, propped up by a dark populist, Dionysian death cult that celebrates an entertaining monster, elevates a work of art less subversive than the typical blockbuster, and unites itself in a cherished collective pastime: public ridicule. Given the death of IRL counterculture, it is likely the last American cult film, in the Nietzschean sense as well as the literal one. “We have discovered happiness,” say its fans, and they blink.
Again, the popularity of The Room is tied in with the rise of the Trump era; the elevation of an “entertaining monster.”
But Divine’s character in Pink Flamingos was literally a dogshit-eating serial killer who used the media to broadcast a “live homicide.” Divine, in this and other films from cult movie director John Waters, played the very conscious definition of an “entertaining monster.” Perhaps those Waters films were prophetic. Certainly some fans got a sheer thrill simply by watching Divine being as rotten as humanly possible; that’s how you get horror icons like Freddy Krueger and Jason too.
I’m no fan of Trump, but he didn’t “invent” all this. Hero-worship of nasty individuals has been going around for a long time. Questionable businessmen like Wiseau have been operating in Hollywood for a long time—in the major studios, and surrounding the most humble low-budget picture. The dirty side of the spoon has always been there. The supreme misogynistic egotism of Wiseau’s vision has always been there—often enshrined, unquestioningly, as the mainstream Hollywood hero.
What Wiseau—and Trump, for that matter—does is unintentionally bring that dirty side of the spoon out for full view and inspection. To my mind there would be no #MeToo without Trump’s presidency, because perversely the operatically nasty quality of his very nature pretty much “forces” the point. In contrast, during the 1990s, under mostly Democratic leadership, some of the biggest excesses of Harvey Weinstein et al took place. Why was there no Me Too movement then? Why did those things continue to go on? I would posit because on the “surface”…the tone of the country seemed “civilized.” There was no immediacy.
But now…there is immediacy. Now, we are being led by a Disaster Artist.
Wiseau is the patron saint of the entire underbelly of a Hollywood machine which is well into the process of being exposed for what it really is. Into the snare of his mystique figures like James Franco fall…first, as a fan; second, as an exploiter of the “cult” for monetary gain & “artistic” currency; and third, as a person who has possibly seen his own secrets exposed in the process.
I mean, is it any coincidence that the character of the trickster god Loki in the Thor movies looks like Wiseau?