Why Is Hollywood Obsessed with Celebrating Failure?

James Franco’s ‘The Disaster Artist’ is an ode to one of the worst films ever made, the latest in a series of films preoccupied with a lack of success.

Dave and James Franco in The Disaster Artist © Warner Bros.

The Room (2003) is universally known as one of the worst films that has managed to make it onto the big screen. The story of its making is the basis of a new film which in turn is one of the front runners for the Oscars this season. The Disaster Artist is a superb film in its own right, telling a frankly bizarre tale of how such an awful movie was made in the first place.

James Franco not only directs, but also takes on the starring role of Tommy Wiseau, a mysterious wannabe auteur who befriends a young actor (Dave Franco) and convinces everyone around him to join him on making his semi-autobiographical opus. The Room is a multi-million dollar independent film, which rightly flopped on release following some of the most damning reviews imaginable. There’s no getting around it — Wiseau’s film is atrocious.

We’re not too concerned with Franco’s endeavours to bring this journey to the screen in 2017 with The Disaster Artist. It is a compelling effort with great performances and a light-hearted tone that is heart-warming in many ways. No, what is a problem however, is the cult surrounding The Room, and many other crimes against cinema like it.

Take Showgirls (1995) for example. A sleazy attempt to ride the nineties phenomena of big screen erotic thrillers. It was an odd time, before the widespread use of the internet (and certainly before the arrival of broadband or anything approaching high-speed communication online), but after the VHS boom of the ’80s. DVDs were still a few years away, and those rich enough were still plowing on with laser discs.

© United Artists

Following on from the success of Basic Instinct (1992), director Paul Verhoeven tried to up the ante with the salacious Showgirls. Where as his previous film was able to combine some explicit scenes (think Sharon Stone famously uncrossing her legs) with a decent crime thriller mystery and A-List cast, Showgirls scrapped the barrel with a bargain basement assortment of TV talent and barely recognisable ‘stars’. This mediocre line-up was necessary to facilitate the making of the film, which opted for more nudity and more sex in an attempt to win over audiences. It didn’t work, and the film became one of the biggest flops of the decade and for a time at least, byword for cinematic failure.

That should have been the end of it, a blight against all involved that deserves to be dismissed as a foolish endeavour that never needs to be spoken about again… and certainly one that should not be watched by any right-minded film lover.

Just as with The Room, however, the ugly phrase ‘cult classic’ began to be bandied about in reference to Showgirls. The terminology around these films (and other like them) centres on how they are ‘so bad they are good’, which is an oxymoron of epic proportions, and one that doesn’t really stand up to any scrutiny whatsoever.

Ed Wood (1994), Tim Burton‘s black and white biographical take on filmmaker Ed Wood, is similar to The Disaster Artist in that it is a worthwhile project that focuses on a critically reviled film (or series of films), yet manages to tell a wider story of what was going on at the time. Again, the problem isn’t with Burton’s film, or even the subject matter, but with the reputation of Ed Wood’s films (such as 1959’s Plan 9 from Outer Space) as somehow being worth watching. The B-Movies Wood is famous for are hated for good reason… they are abysmal.

Johnny Depp as Ed Wood © Buena Vista films

The three films we’ve picked out aren’t the only ones that have a cult following despite their terrible reviews. In fact, it’s now commonplace for any commercial flop or critical failure to gain some sort of redemption via late-night screenings at independent cinemas. London’s Prince Charles Cinema has repeatedly played The Room, even hosting Q&A sessions with the director afterwards. Fans quote along to the wooden acting and inexplicably bad dialogue as if it’s entertainment, something Wiseau himself has said he fails to understand in the past. In the mind of the director, his film is a masterpiece, free of irony.

It might seem like we’re being killjoys, and we’re certainly not saying that anyone’s enjoyment of a film should be dictated by a critic (or anyone else for that matter), but can we drop the pretence that these are good films when they most certainly aren’t?

A previous version of this article was published on Culture Trip, where all of Cassam Looch’s work can be read.

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