Tommy Wiseau's cringingly-awful The Room (2003) is about to become Australia's latest late night must-see 'bad-film' experience. Wiseau is a multi-hyphenate – writer-director-actor; and having seen the film, I could add a few more hyphens...
The film's success – no, wrong word – reputation precedes it, after a year of well-attended midnight screenings at the Laemmle Cinema 5 multiplex in West Hollywood. The interactive experience offsets the film's earnest histrionics – audience members gather at the bottom of the screen and scream Wiseau's name until he looks down at them; each time a recurring image of a spoon appears, cinemagoers hurl plastic cutlery (Melbourne's Cinema Nova and Sydney's Chauvel will be handing out spoons to patrons at the Saturday night screenings). The theatrical event has won over celebs like Paul Rudd, Kristen Bell, Jonah Hill, Will Arnett and Anchorman director Adam McKay, all of whom have openly declared their love of Wiseau's indecipherable, out-of-focus opus.
Given that The Room is truly awful, why didn't it just disappear? It's not like it is an intentionally-bizarre arthouse experience aimed squarely at the wigged-out film-going denizens of the night, like say, David Lynch's Eraserhead (1976), Barry Shils' Motorama (1990) or Adam Rifkin's The Dark Backwards (1991).
No, every critic has hated The Room since it crawled from the primordial sub-conscious of Wiseau's mind. Variety critic Scott Foundas called Wiseau “a narcissist nonpareil” and that the primary goal of the film “is to convince us that the freakish Wiseau is actually a normal, everyday sort of guy”.
And yet the film lives on, when many, MANY better films just fall by the cinematic wayside. Wiseau self-distributed the film in June of 2003, even purchasing a billboard display-ad on Highland Avenue in downtown LA to trumpet the premiere. The ad, featuring an enormous image of a droopy-eyed Wiseau looking as if he'd just been punched (let's not rule it out), overlooked the city for five years and is credited with much of the ongoing interest in the film. Its impact in 2003 was minimal, though – the film grossed US$1,900 in its first two weeks.
But rising like a little piece of vomit that burns your throat is a new challenger for Wiseau's Worst Film Ever crown – Birdemic: Shock and Terror. Directed by software salesman James Nguyen, it's the story of a software salesman that saves a small Northern California town from marauding eagles – the kind that attack school buses and defecate in unison. Ambitiously, Nguyen cites Hitchcock's The Birds (1963) as an influence, even going so far as to brazenly insert archival footage of Tippi Hedren. He also points to Apocalypse Now (1979) as an inspiration, as well as enviro-doco An Inconvenient Truth (2006).
Nguyen's incompetence as a filmmaker is every bit as compelling as Wiseau's. Birdemic: Shock and Terror features the same level of woeful editing/acting/dubbing/framing/humping as The Room. The use of CGI birds to incite terror seems misguided, as they appear to resemble less a talon-wielding threat to humanity as they do feathered Space Invaders; a TV news report features a 'Getty Images' watermark. And, like Wiseau, Nguyen is a stop-at-nothing promoter of his film – he drove to the 2009 Sundance Film Festival in a blood-and-birdshit stained RV to get the film noticed by Robert Redford (it did not feature in competition).
Through the 1990s I worked for several of the now-defunct VHS home video distributors, so I saw a lot of really awful films (if you need a fix, check out George Elanjian Jr.'s Syngenor, 1990; Danny Steinmann's Savage Streets, 1984; or Claudio Fragasso's Troll 2, 1990). But none have enjoyed the retrospective fame or played to SRO midnight screenings like The Room or Birdemic: Shock and Terror now do. What Z-factor do these films possess that see them revered as the worst of the worst?
Comedian Patton Oswalt, co-star of so-bad-they're -just-bad films Failure to Launch (2006) and Balls of Fury (2007) has become the self-appointed leader of the cult-fanbase for Birdemic: Shock and Terror. In an interview with The Village Voice, Oswalt put forward a perfectly reasonable theory as to why films such as The Room find favour with audiences. As bad as the movies are, these filmmakers exude sincerity.
"There is no winking at the camera," Oswalt explained. "It's that great feeling you get with weird stuff like Plan 9 from Outer Space. The filmmaker has implied, 'Yeah, I know I've done something pretty amazing. You're welcome.' You can tell there's no irony in this guy's daily life, so why would it be in this movie?"
Oswalt also notes the bewildering worldview that the likes of the legendary Ed Wood, Tommy Wiseau and James Nguyen bring to their finest film hours. "It's like everyone escaped from that lodge in Twin Peaks,” he says, referencing midnight-movie favourite David Lynch's bizarre TV series. “The cars behind them and the clouds in the sky move at a regular pace, but (the cast) is not moving at a regular pace. (The films) are at odds with reality."
Where Wiseau and Nguyen differ is in understanding how their films are being interpreted by their adoring fans. Wiseau has lightened up considerably since 2003 – he joins in on the madness of the midnight-screenings of The Room, as well as turning a tidy profit in appearance fees and soundtrack sales. In December 2008, in a 5 page feature (!!) by Entertainment Weekly profiling the growing cult behind the film's resurgence, Wiseau assured readers it was always meant to be a comedy and that bad acting and focus problems were all part of the gag (an un-named cast member refuted this claim: “He is a nice guy. But he is full of shit. He was trying to put together a drama. It was basically his stage to show off his acting ability.'')
Nguyen, however, stands by the environmental message and self-importance of Birdemic: Shock and Terror. He knows people are making fun of it, but also told The Village Voice that key 'message-moments' in the film are getting applause, such as when one character says “Man is the most dangerous species on Earth”. One wonders if Nguyen appreciates the irony of the environmental footprint his film's production would have created. It is unlikely, as 'irony' does not seem to be high on the man's list of personal attributes.