John Lucking on the business of bad movies…
Imagine a clown takes centre stage at the circus, imagine he falls on a banana peel, imagine the audience laughs, imagine the audience mocking his portrayal of King Lear.
With the release of Sharknado 2: The Second One the Internet has begun its now regular attempt to recreate the furore and virality of Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 unintentional masterpiece The Room. It’s almost mandatory to dissect any film dubbed ‘so-bad-it’s-good’, repackage it as brief clips, montages or quotes and then send these out into the dark of the Internet where they can act as a beacon to similar-minded people. Entire communities will then form around the mocking of a single film, and it’s up to that same community how long the film remains in the public consciousness; GIFs, images, parodies, live recreations, midnight screenings, DVD re-releases, live readings, dedicated websites, even Q&As with cast and crew. There are many ways to extend this life-cycle, but eventually there is nothing to left to see or do and so people will move on, hungry for more. The Room is not the first film to experience this (as evidenced by Troll 2 and its companion piece documentary Best Worst Movie), but The Matrix didn’t ‘invent’ bullet time either; The Room was the first film to do so on a global scale since the widespread adoption of social media, and as such became the template to follow.
So what happens when you’ve exhausted every avenue of comedy? Well, if a film as unintentionally hilarious as The Room did not exist, then it would be necessary to create one. The next step is finding an heir to the throne, searching until you stumble onto a Miami Connection or a Showgirls and the cycle can begin anew. The problem is that people become desperate to find and be responsible for the next big thing, to show the Internet something it simply will not believe exists and then revel in it. This sentiment itself is already somewhat hollow, but in actively searching for these films the bar has already been set for whatever they might find. For a film to approach the status of The Room it has to happen organically, it has to overcome whatever critical faculties the viewer had through sheer absurdity or incompetence and do so with a certain charm. Any viewer actively searching for this phenomenon will place every awkward sentence or mistimed edit under a microscope and then be surprised when another viewer sees nothing. This is precisely because they are not viewing the film through a lens tinted with expectation, and why if you look hard enough you can see anything in clouds. The real issue, however, is not in the viewer’s interpretation, but the creator’s intention.
In the wake of The Room’s success a minor debate arose as to the nature of its creation; with Tommy Wiseau saying he knew exactly what he was doing and everybody else saying he did not. In Greg Sestero’s tragically funny 2013 book The Disaster Artist he outlines not only his friendship with Tommy, but the imagination and creative process of a man who has detached from reality after a series of horrible incidents in his youth. It becomes clear that a lot of The Room’s most bizarre elements do in fact stem from Tommy’s honest desire to connect with people (certainly not all of them – Greg couldn’t explain Tommy humping Juliet’s dress). Even the age gap between Tommy and the rest of the cast is less about vanity and is instead his attempt to recreate a youth that he never had, because the only alternative is to never have it. In other words, The Room is an honest attempt at drama. It’s this honesty that informs its most bizarre exchanges, and why a viewer can see fragments of a rational drama through Tommy’s kaleidoscopic imagination.
With the unparalleled success of The Room two things became clear: that people wanted more of this, and that there was money to be made. In short, it doesn’t matter to a studio why a person is buying their DVD just as long as they’re buying it. The market was never in need of more terrible films, but up until this point if a film had a title like ‘FrankenSquid’ or Roger Corman was involved then it was more than likely listed as ‘exploitation’ or a ‘B movie.’ Even The Asylum studio, famous for their “mockbusters”, trafficked not in ironically detached movies but in duping unsuspecting viewers into buying their product. As late as the mid-2000s the awfully spelt ‘SyFy’ channel were still producing films such as Mansquito and Sharkman which, while terrible, were nothing more than innocuous B movies designed to entertain people too drunk to operate a remote. It wasn’t until roughly 2010 that SyFy began producing a non-stop procession of hybrid monster movies such as Dinocroc vs. Supergator or Piranhaconda. This is also around the the time that The Room-mania was peaking, despite its initial 2003 release. The reason for this disparity in release date versus height of popularity is that, while it did have a loyal contingent of followers from the beginning, it didn’t truly gain global exposure until the Internet took hold and social media made it a cause célèbre among young adults. This ever-pervasive social media is perhaps the strongest tool for publicity in any film studio’s arsenal, and if you can have people do the promotion for you then all the better. Thanks to the success of The Room SyFy realised the only thing they needed for a hit was irony, but this wouldn’t come from SyFy; it would come from the audience.
There’s an implication that in mocking a film it means you understand what makes a film good. The editing was child-like? You must know editing. The dialogue was wooden? You must know good dialogue. So what about a film where you could do everybody’s job better? Wouldn’t you want to see this and show it to your friends? It appeals to the narcissist in us all; skipping right past logic and going straight for the ego. A film that makes you wonder how this could have possibly been made by rational-minded people, and your jaw drop at the absurdity of its premise. In truth it’s nothing more than cold, calculating, business. The viewer is not unearthing a bizarre gem that somehow burrowed its way to the surface against all odds; they are being fed a very specific recipe for self-perpetuating publicity while subconsciously stroking their own ego. The thought of using a tornado made of sharks to destroy a city is about as crazy as a man combining blue and red to make purple. It’s easy to look at an exploitation film from previous decades and see a producer’s hand all over it (gratuitous nudity, ample gore, brief running time), but modern audiences make the mistake of underestimating that same producer’s intelligence and ability to adapt to today’s audiences – even celebrities have now made cameos in the Sharknado series, rife with an air of ironic detachment and eager to prove that they ‘get it’.
Purity of intention is what separates something like The Room or Troll 2 from anything SyFy have produced – a personal and spectacular failure will always be infinitely more impressive than orchestrated insanity. The clown I mentioned at the beginning feature is not attempting King Lear; he is cognisant and aware of how others see him – it is the audience bringing their own mistaken assumptions about what they are watching who are mistaken when they mock him for failing to meet expectations. While SyFy haven’t quite mastered this approach they’ve done as well as can be expected. In reality they have several over-sized hybrid monster movies, but only Sharknado and its sequel have captured the public imagination to any real degree, and this is perhaps a necessity. If a slew of these same films started populating movie theatres then the public would catch on and derive no pleasure from intentionally clunky dialogue – they would realise that it was no longer the topless teenager about to be hacked to death who was being exploited thanks to a B movie, but rather them.