The Cult of Trash: How Do We Explain Our Taste for Really, Really Bad Movies?
You're tearing us apart, Tommy!
The first time I ever saw the worst film ever made, I was with my brother and two of my cousins. We sat down in my living room in my old basement apartment, pulled up a pirated copy that was streaming on YouTube (because my efforts to buy it off of Amazon were unfruitful), and gazed in amazement while it played on a tiny sub-screen at 1.5x normal speed (typical format for pirated shit).
When the credits began to roll, we all just sat there, silent, awkward, and confused—confused by the absurdity of what we just consumed, but also confused by our genuine non-rejection of it, a non-rejection that quickly grew into full-blown love and then obsession. One of my cousins turned to me and asked, "What the f*** did we just watch?" I was like, "The Room."
Being the savagely snobby cinephile that I am, I kept asking myself why I loved this movie. Everything about it wasn't just bad, it was wrong. The dialogue, the story, the weird grown-man-being-a-father-figure-to-a-man-not-that-much-younger-than-him relationships, all wrong. I wondered if I had messed up on my journey to become a real pompous POS film lover and zigged toward Wiseau when I should've zagged toward Welles. (I still have never once seen Citizen Kane, and I blame that on Tommy Wiseau.)
But then I realized, "I've always loved these shit movies." Night of the Demons, Dr. Giggles, Pumpkinhead, and all of those terrible horror flicks from the 80s that my dad found appropriate for children under 10. Yes. I began to think that maybe bad movies were in my blood, because the people that watched The Room with me in that basement apartment were the same people who watched some demon chick named Suzanne jam lipstick through her nipple when I was a kid.
So, why? Forget why...how? How can I love so many of history's greatest films and so many of its worst at the same time? How can anyone? Vox actually dug into this topic in one of their latest videos. To understand why anybody would submit themselves to repeated viewings of bad films like The Room, they explore the world of "paracinema" and talked with Tom Bissell, co-writer of The Disaster Artist, to gain some insight into the culture of trash film.
"[The Room] is like a movie made by an alien who has never seen a movie, but has had movies thoroughly explained to him."
Films like The Room, Troll 2, Robot Monster, and pretty much every movie showcased on Mystery Science Theater 3000 all fall into the category of "trash film," films that are characterized by their small budgets, amateur productions, and deviation from mainstream filmmaking. It might come as a surprise to some that there is not only an entire genre dedicated to movies that lack the creative awareness and technical skill that so many filmmakers work so hard to achieve, but that there is also a rabid cult following attached to it.
But according to Keyvan Sarkhosh, postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, it's an inevitable proclivity that develops among viewers were are looking for something they can't find in mainstream cinema. He explains in this article from The Independent:
Trash films appear as an interesting and welcome deviation from the mainstream fare. We are dealing here with an audience with above-average education, which one could describe as 'cultural omnivores'. Such viewers are interested in a broad spectrum of art and media across the traditional boundaries of high and popular culture.
Though the people who love Wiseau, Wood, and Fragazzo may not be the same people who love Scorsese, Spielberg, and Lucas, they may be the same people who love David Lynch's short films, Maya Deren, and Alejandro Jodorowsky, because these directors subvert mainstream standards. They experiment with the medium, stretching it into unrecognizable shapes that don't really fit into any box we know of, and although it probably wasn't Wiseau's intention to be transgressive or subversive with The Room, it undoubtedly is.
These trash films are pegs that don't fit into any of cinema's familiar geometric holes. They shock us out of the fantasy classic Hollywood cinema has so carefully and methodically built for us, because they are so bad that we absolutely know we're watching a movie—they are the squeaky wheel in the cinematic machine, and to be honest, none of us really want to give them oil.
Instead, I'd rather cozy up on my couch with my wife and ask her, "Do you want to watch the worst f**cking movie ever made? It's absolutely glorious."