Have We Gone From Loving Indie Film to Loving Hating it?
I think I began to notice this trend with Christopher Guest‘s hilarious 1996 send-up of small-town theater and its unrequitable aspirations toward greatness, “Waiting for Guffman.” Even though when that film came out I was fully-invested in a small-town theater and had the kinds of aspirations that Guffman’s characters had, it was fun and easy to laugh at the deluded and power-hungry jackasses who maybe took themselves a bit too seriously, expecting their slight artistic efforts would launch them onto the world stage. Guest went on to make three other films (“Best in Show,” “A Mighty Wind,” and “For Your Consideration“) with basically the same sentiment – Your singular passion is also your most bloated, farcical, ugliest form of vanity. Suck on our bile.
And while I enjoyed “Guffman,” the first Guest-directed semi-mock-doc (not to mention the Guest-starring “This is Spinal Tap,” from whence Guest seemed to discover his improvisational oeuvre), as his films went on they seemed to circle around that same theme – if you have creative aspirations, you’re a asshat and we will mock you. His targets also drew closer to the art of filmmaking itself, concluding his mockery-doc quadrilogy with the utterly-forgettable “For Your Consideration,” a film so stale and on-the-nose that it itself begs mockery from the audience. I guess one lesson is stop while you’re ahead, Mr. Guest. But around the time that Guest was mocking would-be pretentious filmmakers, a real phenomenon was taking root in the film culture. A “Rocky Horror”-esque audience participation experience that accompanied the Tommy Wiseau written by/directed by/starring “The Room.”
No Room for Quality
“The Room” is a hard film to not mock openly. It practically mocks itself. Made for a reported $6 million (and looking like about $200,000 if one rounds up), writer/director/star Wiseau rented an auditorium at the Laemmle Sunset 5 theater in Hollywood to run the movie for two weeks in order to qualify his star vehicle for an Academy Award.
And during that time, it developed a cult following as a result of its hysterical awfulness. And eventually I too succumbed to the siren song of its suck.
The film concerns a strange long-haired professional man in his 40’s or 50’s with an indistinguishable Eastern-European accent and a solid 3-foot football throw who suspects his future wife (played by 18-year old Juliette Danielle) is cheating on him with his best friend (bearded-then-clean-shaven Greg Sestero). Bad acting, cringe-inducing love scenes, and tone-deaf directing ensue. Epic bad. Hysterical bad. And now, on the last Saturday of every month, Wiseau himself shows up at the Sunset 5 and sells out TWO SCREENS, takes ridiculous questions from the audience, and shows his film to the jeering throng. Did I mention that he SELLS OUT TWO SCREENS???? That’s just in LA – “The Room” has been booked in New York as well to a similar overwhelming reception. It’s hard to know if Wiseau is simply embracing the fact that a demand to mock his film is still a demand, or if he’s deluded into believing that anyone takes his work seriously. My guess is the former, as he’s now marketing the film as a “dark comedy” in addition to still comparing it to Tennessee Williams. I seem to have missed the dark comedic overtones of “The Glass Menagerie,” but I’ll presume Wiseau would say anything to sell another copy of “The Room” and move on.
And although I admit enjoying my two trips to see the audience-participation version of this film – a movie that wouldn’t get through the first-round of judging at a film festival in a mental hospital – My enjoyment does not stem from its goodness, it stems from being part of a community that knows celebrity is bullshit and to worship a bullshit celebrity like Wiseau who is only famous for being bad is in itself a transgressive act. And in Hollywood, where we’re never supposed to say anything bad about anyone’s work, it’s relieving and a bit hilarious to heap praise at the altar of awfulness. In short, to say “we put your failure on a pedestal to draw everyone’s attentions away from our own.” Mean-spirited though it is, this behavior is beginning to sprout copycats.
Flipping the Bird
Earlier this year, James Nguyen released “Birdemic: Shock and Terror,” and gave Wiseau a run for his money. For details of the story, check out the trailer below, but much like “The Room” it was obvious that the draw of the film was of the so-bad-it’s-fun-to-mock variety. Several people I know ran out to crowd the brief theatrical run of “Birdemic” in LA, but I abstained. Here’s why:
Firstly, “Birdemic” director Nguyen seemed, unlike Wiseau, to be sincere and not just narcissistic in his failed creative aspirations (even though he apparently has trademarked the words “romantic thriller”). Secondly, it began to dawn on me that “Birdemic” represents a greater shift in what pop culture views indie filmmaking to be – which is to say that we’re rewarding the worst of it and celebrating people who lack skill and discipline like they’re outsider artists and I would argue that they’re not. Furthermore, we’re planting the Guest-ian seed in audiences’ minds that indie filmmaking is insubstantial, vanity-based, and laughably awful. I don’t think people consciously believe that, but to me the message still seems clear – this isn’t the 90’s and we’re no longer looking for the next Soderbergh, Aronofsky, or Solondz. Now we crave the opposite of those filmmakers, ones we can mock.
And just last week, the documentary “Best Worst Movie” came out, a first-person documentary by Michael Stephenson, the child star of 1989’s “Troll 2,” detailing the long tail of fanboy-ness that has developed around that film, worshipping the unintentional surrealism that only bad cinema can deliver. The doc looks very entertaining and maybe even heartwarming, but the fandom that has flourished around “Troll 2” is not unlike the fandom around the films of Ed Wood, Jr. And I suppose to those people who queue up to watch “Troll 2” on the big screen where it was meant to be seen, that’s the point.
I Am a Hypocrite
Am I innocent, hell no. I have long blowharded about my love and personal collection of garage sale art. For a time, I was obsessed with song poems – a cottage industry built out of charging would-be songwriters for a professional recording of their amateur lyrics. No doubt, there is something fun to be found in failed artistic endeavors, even if it is garnished with bilious mockery. As a lifelong student of film and theater, maybe I enjoy the schadenfreude to be found in the lack of an artistic spark in the beginner. Or maybe contemporary films have just become so pat and predictable that audiences have to go to poorly-made movies to find something a little unusual. As an audience member, isn’t that like cutting yourself to remind yourself that you still feel?
And there’s always been an attraction to the “so-bad-it’s-good” variety of movies (and I suspect every other form of self-expression). So why am I getting all worked up over this? Maybe it’s because indie filmmaking is in worse shape today than any time I can think of before 1989. Distribution has become elusive and often unprofitable, and the Sasquatch-like “new model for indies” has yet to emerge from the underbrush of a bad economy and rampant piracy. But meanwhile, the message keeps going out, that it’s fun to make fun of failed indies and their deluded directors. In fact, we’re rewarding that behavior. And there is something funny about all of these films that endears them to us, that they have such a tin ear for dialogue, bad casting – that their entire creative house is built on sand.
The truth is that audiences are going to seek out what they want, and they’re going to pay to see it. I don’t want to take “The Room,” “Birdemic,” or “Troll 2” away from the communities that have developed around them, but I would like to focus some light in the other direction – on the indies that do merit attention and show promise. After all, where is the next generation of filmmakers going to come from if we don’t nurture actual talent? It’s a little like the phenomenon we’re seeing now, where Guest’s own Spinal Tap is touring unironically as a real heavy-metal band from the 80’s and performing their “greatest hits.” Were those hits not designed originally to be mocked? Now they’re taken seriously (or seriously enough, anyway) and the joke is buried in there somewhere, but it’s not the point anymore.
Like any art, filmmaking requires a lot of experimentation and ultimately failure before anyone gets it right. I just hope that in the rush to appreciate the transcendental badness to be found in the cult of the horrible film, audiences rediscover the joy of finding fresh, new, actually good work that comes from unexpected sources and pushes the art, rather than the art of the jeer, forward.