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The Remarkable Success of the Worst Movie Ever

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Until recently, The Room was just another unsuccessful indie film flop -- a drama, independently financed for around $7 million by writer-director-producer-actor Tommy Wiseau and released in a few theaters with no support from studios, that was panned by the few critics who saw it and went nowhere. Except that, thanks to years of relentless midnight screenings at a Los Angeles movie theater and the film's poster (at left) plastered on a Highland Avenue billboard for nearly five years (at a cost of $5k/month), it became the movie that wouldn't die, and a cult following has grown up around it not unlike that of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Against all odds, seven years after its inauspicious release, The Room has become a kind of so-bad-it's-hilarious hit, selling out shows and bestowing upon its creator a modicum of notoriety/fame. It is, according to one professor of film studies, "the Citizen Kane of bad movies." Wiseau is now saying that the film was made to be intentionally funny, a claim disputed by his actors (and almost anyone who's seen the film). This is a kind of bad-ness you just can't fake; a kind of cinema magic that comes along maybe once a generation.

Let's start off with the trailer, and go from there. Just watch this ...

But the magic of the film can't really be captured in a cut-to-pieces trailer -- it plays out in the bizarre pacing of the scenes and the off-kilter line readings that have made it a favorite among Hollywood comedians like Paul Rudd and Jonah Hill. An EW article reveals how on the set of Role Models, "to Room" came into use as a verb --

'When we do a take, and it seems bad, a comment about The Room is often made,'' says Joe Lo Truglio, who played the jolly knight in Role Models, and is yet another fan of The Room. '''Dude, your heart was in the right place, but the acting wasn't. You Roomed it!'''

So let's get down to the nitty-gritty and watch some scenes. This little montage of three scenes captures one of the hallmarks of the film -- weeeiiiiird pacing.

This scene feels like the script supervisor lost a page of dialogue or something; abrupt emotional transitions are another thing that make The Room such a strange viewing experience.

The most famous line from the film, akin to Brando yelling "STELLA!"

In this scene, Wiseau gets so angry at Lisa that he goes all Bruce Banner tears apart a room (the room?), throwing a TV out the window. But his rage is so strange and slow, so awkward -- like he's just swallowed a fistful of Xanax.

In this scene, Wiseau orders a hot chocolate at a coffee shop. For some reason, the orders of all the customers in line before him are recorded in meticulous detail.

Finally, it's worth mentioning that football plays a special role in the film -- an attempt by its Austrian director to make the movie seem more "American"? -- and the characters are forever awkwardly throwing one around. Another notorious scene features a group of guys playing football in tuxes.

So why do audiences love this movie so much? I don't know, but they do -- watch these audience reactions after a screening. Some of them have seen it fifteen times!

Apparently, screenings of the film are filled with audience participation -- people laughing, shouting at the screen, reciting lines along with the characters -- and whenever a spoon shows up in the film (there are framed pictures of them that appear now and then), this is what happens:


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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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