Thursday, April 23, 2009

Watchmen, The Room, and the Shared Experience

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing two films recently that I enjoyed very much, for wildly different reasons. What I want to focus on in this post is the audience response to these films: in one case, unusually divergent, in the other case, eerily similar.

Watchmen has led to a lot of debate amongst people I know and fellow bloggers. Opinion is definitely polarised – and in my opinion, more so than most films. People are responding to the same film in very different ways. I liked the sex scene set to 'Hallelujah' – for others, it’s the height of ludicrousness.

Which brings me to the other extreme.

On Monday, I had the pleasure of seeing The Room for the first time. If you enjoy 'bad movies', you have to see this film. Put simply, it’s the greatest 'bad movie' I have ever seen. The Room is so funny and particular that watching it was a sublime experience, and one I'm looking forward to repeating.

And something I found particularly fascinating was that The Room manages to create a very similar shared experience across viewers.

The four of us who saw it found it hilarious. We laughed at the same points – we made a number of ‘original’ wisecracks. Following up on the film the next day, we realised that most of our off-the-cuff observations were echoed across the Internet – sometimes down to nearly exactly the same line. What we found funny about the film was precisely the same stuff that the legion of Internet/LA fans find funny.

As a result of this, The Room has actually built up a ritualistic set of audience responses in the same way as the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Self-styled super-fans enjoy the shared experience of shouting lines (and spoons!) at the screen. It sounds like they get pretty much the same experience time and time again.

It got me thinking about authorial intention in cinema.

Is The Room a success for delivering such a consistent response, and Watchmen a failure because the audience responds so differently?

Is the aim of screenwriting to get the audience to feel a certain way about your work? And do you fail as a screenwriter if the audience doesn't respond as you expected?


d f mamea said...



it depends.

(more to follow after Project Runway.)

d f mamea said...

(yeah, good riddance Suede, you poxy, posing, pretentious git.)

haven't had the um, pleasure of experiencing The Room, so can't comment there. i think Watchmen succeeds insofar as getting a wide range of audience responses.

(i'll change my mind and) no - because the screenwriter's role (one of many) (which i pick and choose from as the mood suits) is to tell a story and take the audience on a journey. how the audience responds to such rampant manipulation is the audience's responsibility. which i think (hope) answers the third question.

i suspect, however, i have misunderstood your questions. i'll be back in the weekend.

kirsten said...

I suppose the writer is meant to be able to express his/her story/intentions/emotions to others. However, what with everyone's experiences being so different, I think it's only right that different people take different things from a film.

I think success for a writer is the ability to elicit an emotional response from the audience. Which is the only reason why I have decided to stop ranting about Paul Haggis and Crash, which I recently had to watch and ABSOLUTELY couldn't stand. (Interestingly, Crash is also one of those films people either love or hate. I chose hate.)

Sean_Molloy said...

Hi guys - good to hear from you.

David: Helen and I really liked Suede!

Not sure whether you've misunderstood my questions, and not sure that matters! I'm starting to feel my initial questions were ill-formed, and striking towards something rather than perfectly capturing it.

I think my basic interest is whether or not we as screenwriters are aiming to create a similar emotional experience in our audience.

David and Kirsten: I agree that we can't take on board the weight of expecting everyone to feel the same, because it's up to the audience and everyone has different experiences that affect their experience of the film.

However, there are moments we tell that are meant to be highs, there are moments that are meant to be lows. Now I don't ask everyone to get the same reaction from a film, but if no one gets those highs and lows then surely we're not being successful as a writer?

Or is it successful when the audience feels anything - which could be as opposite to our original intentions as disdain and hilarity (such as viewers responses to The Room)?

Surely as screenwriters we don't actually want people to hate our films?

Or do we? If David dislikes Suede and Helen and I like Suede, we'll still both watch him... That makes him a potentially commercial success regardless!

d f mamea said...

@Kirsten: i think it's more than trying to elicit an emotional response. it's like telling a joke: there'll be those that laugh at the delivery and/or punchline, those who appreciate its content and nod, those who you've offended, and those who don't care for jokes. you can't please everyone and, hoary cliche that it is, if you connect with most of your intended audience (the laughers and nodders), you've succeeded with your joke (or screenplay, as it were).

@Sean: if no one gets the highs and lows, they're at the wrong movie and should FUCK OFF to the latest Rob Schneider vehicle.

in this fleeting moment of seriousness however, as a screenwriter, i'd rather have any response to the story and/or characters, both for and against, because it means the audience is getting involved. of course, there are many other, more technical, reasons for an audience not to get involved: film is a collaborative medium. this is why screenwriters should push to get their hands dirty with production - learn to let go of their script which will only ever by perfect in their minds, and collaborate to make the finished product the best that it can be.

(i'm rather soap-boxy at the moment. it must be - why it is! lunchtime.)

Sean_Molloy said...

Hix has blogged about The Room here

Anonymous said...

The game is up! Didn't know you had a blog... interesting. Hix blew your cover with a link, and then I started playing the link game. I am really just saying hello as I have seen neither of the movies you posted about... though I should say that I too rather liked Suede even though he was silly, and in case you don't know, although you probably do, there is a fabulous site called Project Rungay which you should check out (darling).


Sean_Molloy said...

Hey John-Paul,

Thanks - nice to hear from you.

I haven't heard of Project Rungay... Is there a Project Raygun as well? (there should be)

Pearce said...

"if no one gets the highs and lows, they're at the wrong movie and should FUCK OFF to the latest Rob Schneider vehicle."

But if no one gets them, then everyone has to be content with Rob Schneider.

Sean_Molloy said...

Welcome Pearce.

I remember enjoying the second half of Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo that I saw on TV once...

Lyse Beck said...

All I'll say is that if an audience laughed at a crucial point in a story I wrote when I was hoping for outrage, I'd be seriously bummed. I don't think I would have done my job as a writer and I would probably go home, polish off a bottle of draino, and throw my computer out the window into the sea.

ed said...

I guess it all boils down to what you are attempting:

The Room (unseen)
- gaining a response wildly at odds with the intention of the creator is an artistic failure,
- gaining a cult following is a commercial success and possibly a career success (allowing the guy to go on & make more films).

but also

- entertaining your audience - the opposite of boring them - is surely the quintessential primary need of a film - prior to all other concerns (profound meaning, taking the audience on the emotional journey, etc) and from what I hear 'The Room' has this in spades.

I wonder is splitting the audience bad? - a film whose audience diverges into those who Hate and those who Love your film is more of a success than a film that leaves the audience uncaring, surely?

if the creators intent does not come across (whether accepted or mocked) that is a failure (assuming that the film is being used as a method of social communication).

As d f mamea pointed out beyond its creation a film is a cultural artifact accepted by its audience on their terms - its success with us might not be the success wished for by the film creators themselves (but adulation from the crowds has a way of changing minds).

Sean_Molloy said...

Thanks Ed!

I think you're right by getting into the different criteria by which success can be measured. There's no single criteria for success, which is part of what makes screenwriting so fascinating and difficult.

Sean_Molloy said...

I saw The Room for the third time last night.

It still holds up.

In fact it gets in your head.

I expect I'll end up seeing it over and over again. In many ways, it's a highly effective piece of cinema, even if the effect is entirely undeliberate.

The Room - it's part of my life now...

d f mamea said...

dunno if i can bring myself to watch The Room, fun experience though it might be.

just finished watching Wallander and it was one of those viewing sessions where my Lovely Wife and i were giving instructions to the screen like --

-- And you're basing your diagnosis on what exactly? --

-- She's just attempted suicide, she's in hospital now and you're telling me she's not on, say, a twenty-minute suicide watch? --

-- You're the only detective in that entire station who can drive four hours to go to a remote island to find a potential witness! --

-- ... grr.


d f mamea said...

oh shit. meant to click on 'Preview'.

(trust the fingers, dave - trust the fingers.)