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The Lens: A cult above

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 14, 2010 - There are many kinds of cult movies: Those depending on a feverish fan base ("The Wizard of Oz," "Gone With the Wind," "Rebel Without a Cause"), those that crept up from the underground ("Eraserhead," John Waters' films), even those that simply became recognized for a level of ineptitude so great that dumbfounded late-night TV viewers simply couldn't believe what they were watching (the films of Ed Wood and Oscar Micheaux).

But in an age where "Napoleon Dynamite" or "Donnie Darko" open on hundreds of screens nationwide and are as likely to be found in a Wal-Mart in Beloit, Wisc., as at a midnight screening, is "cult" anything more than a marketing label? Can any film really spring out of nowhere and develop an authentic cult following before it inspires a line of T-shirts at Hot Topic?

"The Room" may be the last true cult movie, creeping into public awareness on a subterranean level and developing a following whose interest in the film stands almost entirely in opposition to whatever claims of quality might be made for the film itself. In Los Angeles, where "The Room" has had monthly midnight screenings since its premiere in 2003, a "Rocky Horror"-like audience has developed, with ritualized responses to elements of the film's decor and its odd tendency to have characters throw a football back and forth in even the most confined places.

As that audience grew, what might have easily have become a (deservingly) unknown film left to rot in a warehouse has inspired a genuine cult audience, the subject of cable-TV comedy , mash-ups, oblique references on TV shows and in-jokes by stand-up comics . If you haven't heard of "The Room" yet, just keep your eye on the pop-culture maelstrom for a few weeks. It's there - you just might not have noticed it yet.

Let's make one thing clear: "The Room" is a very bad movie. Not just in terms of content - although the script is incoherent nonsense of a particularly pretentious kind - but in almost every way that a movie can be bad.

Watching it, you could almost believe it was made by people not just of limited talent but with absolutely no concept of acting or drama or how a film is made: Characters change their personalities from one scene to the next. Lines that should spark sub-plots ("I got the results of the test back. I definitely have breast cancer.") turn out to be non sequiters. Simple outdoor scenes that could have been staged anywhere are conspicuously filmed against a bluescreen. No one in the film seems to have ever heard the word "fiancee." Where a filmmaker like Ed Wood brought a kind of feverish (if utterly misguided) intensity to his transvestite heroes and paper-mache special effects, "The Room" doesn't really get anything together, but that's part of its weird charm. There's a perverse kind of heroicism to the film, as it persistently struggles through one awkward moment after another.

The real mystique of "The Room" comes not from its opportunities for audiences to toss back one-liners but from its own strange history, and the relentless yet naive ambition of its producer-writer-director-star and biggest fan, Tommy Wiseau.

Wiseau, whose long-haired image graces most "Room" publicity, gives interviews but is not exactly forthcoming about his past. He hints that he is French, though his accent suggests otherwise. He's vague about the source of the film's budget (sometimes listed as $7 million, though you'd never guess it) as well as about its grosses. (For about five years, Wiseau's company paid for a prominent billboard hawking the monthly midnight shows - and costing more than they could ever have earned).

But he's also an unapologetic supporter of the cult reaction, appearing at most screenings to introduce the film and sell T-shirts. While the film was originally billed as high drama (the trailer compares it to Tennessee Williams), Wiseau has since adopted the Pee-Wee initiative and claims that the comedy is intentional. (He allowed "Comedy Central" to air the film as an April Fool's Day joke.)

And you have to admire his determination. Having already written "The Room" as a novel and a play before committing it to film, Wiseau now hopes to turn it into a Broadway musical. Having shot the film simultaneously on film and video, he's got a book in the works about the difference between the two formats. (Some crew members suggest that he simply didn't know what he was doing, but the Pee-Wee excuse works here as well.) Deliberate or not, Wiseau's naive self-promotion is every bit as interesting as the film itself. It's "Ed Wood" with a happy ending.

The Lens is provided by Cinema St. Louis.

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