Why do some people love bad movies? Considering how much of my life I’ve given over to watching unquestionably bad films, this question is anything but academic for me. Whether “enjoying” them in humor-enhanced Mystery Science Theater 3000 style, or straight up, as god and the filmmakers intended, I’ve put thousands of hours of my life into watching some really bad movies. Some of them I didn’t know were bad when I started, but with many — maybe most — I knew full well what I was getting into, and yet I did it anyway. Why do I do this? And perhaps more important, since I am far from alone in this, why does anyone do it?
To understand the appeal of bad movies, it’s necessary to understand the appeal of good ones. I never went to film school, so I can’t offer any fancy ivory tower theories on the topic. What I can say, based on those thousands of hours of actual observation and close to that many hours of thinking about the topic, is this: Setting aside technical considerations (competence in areas such as sound, lighting, special effects and the like), what makes a film “good” is how well it depicts some universal constant of the human condition. The rapture of falling in love, or the rending pain of losing it, are two easy examples, and a good film can make you feel both those things in a ninety-minute span of time.
Of course, to create something like that, you have to understand it yourself. I’ve long believed that none of us really live in, or operate upon, the “real world.” We operate on mental maps of the world built of everything from our religious convictions to our own first-hand experiences. They tend to be full of distortions and inaccuracies, and plagued by gaps and missing information that we either fill in with shit we make up (or get from movies) or just ignore and hope for the best. The more accurate this map is, the better things turn out for us. The less accurate it is, the more we find ourselves asking, “Why did this happen? How did I fuck this up so badly?”
So great filmmakers have a good-to-great understanding of the world and their place in it, at least within the limited sphere of the topics their films cover, and the ability to put that understanding on the screen. A maker of bad films, or at least the kind of bad films that are somehow endlessly entertaining and fascinating to people like me, has a weird, warped or simply broken map of the universe in their head. No matter how competent they may be in the craft of filmmaking — and many, though by no means all, of them display a reasonable degree of competence — their films are always going to have that certain air of “what the fuck am I looking at?”
My prize exhibit in this discussion is Tommy Wiseau’s disasterpiece The Room. The film is plagued by technical issues out the wazoo, but that is not what makes it the enduring icon of crap cinema that it has become over the past decade. Almost any student film or direct-to-dvd trash can offer the same levels of technical ineptitude, and it’s not like most of those have rabid cult followings. No, what makes The Room special (or “special,” if you prefer) is the bizarre insight it offers into the mind and worldview of the one and only Tommy Wiseau.
It’s misogynistic. It’s misanthropic. It makes you wonder if you’ve suffered a severe head trauma in the recent past, and no one’s seen fit to tell you. It offers a singular, unique view of humanity that makes you ask, “Has this person ever met any actual humans, and if so, what horrible things did they do to him to make him think this way?” And, most important, despite the film's utter alienness, it is nigh impossible to look away from. That, friends, is a special kind of accomplishment, even among the best bad films.
Hell, it’s The Room I have to thank for this theory, because it was somewhere during my third or fourth viewing of the film that I began to ask myself why the fuck I kept watching this thing. Why did I keep coming back to it? My theory is the best I can come up with, and it fits well. Talking to Tommy Wiseau himself only strengthened my conviction — there’s no doubt, after speaking to him, that The Room is exactly the film he wanted to make: It is a perfect expression of his view of the world, as strange and disturbing as that may be to the rest of us. Speaking recently to his line producer and co-star Greg Sestero, I floated an abbreviated version of this theory and he confirmed it — you look at The Room and you’re seeing directly into the mind of Tommy Wiseau.
That’s the fascination of great bad film. No one who ever made a great bad movie thought they were making a bad movie. They thought they were making a great movie and, in many cases, they probably believe they did. You look at the screen and instead of getting that beautiful, moving resonance with the universal constants of the human condition, you get a weird, disturbing, possibly nausea-inducing look into the mind of someone who, if not an actual crazy person, could pass for one without trying too hard. That’s pretty great, actually, and it sure beats watching another sappy love story.
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See Greg Sestero’s behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of The Room, plus hear him read from his memoir The Disaster Artist, Friday, February 27 at the Alamo Drafthouse, then go see The Room itself at midnight at the Esquire. For tickets and more information, visit The Disaster Artist event page at the Alamo Drafthouse, and/or the Esquire’s website.
Find me on Twitter, where I tweet about geeky stuff and waste an inordinate amount of time: @casciato.