USyd’s secret cult movie is more tragic than The Room

You're tearing me apart, DEEJ-a!

DEEJ has a curse. You watch the web series, and through primal instinct, are compelled to show it to someone else, spreading it like a virus, unloading the burden onto others and perpetuating the cycle again and again. Nearly 7,000 times across Facebook and YouTube to be precise. The four-episode season, which launched in March this year as part of the USU’s 2017 Bright Ideas grant program, is so bad it’s good—and it lacks the veneration it deserves.

DEEJ is yet another variation of Molière’s 1665 play, Don Juan, which follows a seductive, manipulative fuckboy who ends up in Hell. However, in 2018, Deej is a queer-identifying man whose own perdition is being trapped in a conventional, nuclear family unit, burdened by the responsibilities of fatherhood.

“The topic [of the original play] always came back to misogyny […] So rather than Don Juan being a heroic figure […] especially in light of Harvey Weinstein, he becomes not particularly attractive, not particularly great, his actions aren’t good at all,” said DEEJ’s director, producer, writer, principal photographer, and supporting actor, Eugene Lynch.

Like Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 classic The Room, you hardly know what’s going on in DEEJ, and the more you watch it, the less it makes sense. Between the bland shots, jumpy editing, left-field concepts, and plot holes, you’re either shocked into silence or laughing aloud.

Alfred Hitchcock believed that drama was “life with the dull bits cut out”, but it’s the dull bits that make DEEJ more exciting. It’s unclear what’s experimental choice and what’s mistake: background noise buzzing in the background, unfocused cameras, distracting French sequences and poorly characterised, one-dimensional female characters. Clearly DEEJ tries hard to be a postmodern masterpiece, but falls short as a disjointed, anticlimactic fever dream—and that’s okay.

“You have to look at where it comes from. Our [Bright Ideas] budget wasn’t necessarily big and everyone was trying to do it around work and uni commitments. You kind of get what you get, and I think it’s about the ideas that can be developed,” said Lynch.

“I think that’s the point of the Bright Ideas program. Rather than producing finalised works, I think it’s the beginning of the start of a conversation […] to see where it develops out.”

As Dr Rodney Taveira, a Lecturer in literature, film and television at the United States Study Centre explains, subjective responses mark “the limits of [one’s] imagination and intelligence” and come down to taste.

Dr Taveira’s own response to DEEJ transitioned over time: “cruel” laughter, annoyance, reflection, an “‘at least they are doing something’ begrudging appreciation” to a final “let them be.”

We lap up The Room because it throws our expectation of film under a bus. With an inordinately large budget, the obscure concepts and narrative conflict with professional standard of filming. DEEJ emphasises the former—calling on surrealism, 20th century European cinema and auteur theory—but on an amateur scale and with significantly less financial allowance.

As Dr Taveira points out, products like The Room gain notoriety by being “missed or misrecognised by the majority of consumers the first time around”. The smaller initial audience, he explains, expands until the film’s appreciation shifts from a niche to cult status.

“Cult films get read ‘against the grain’, that is, viewers see something in them that the makers, distributors, most critics or mainstream audiences didn’t like, refused to see, or didn’t know was there,” Dr Taveira says.

Yet some cult films age like a fine wine; obtaining a “later appreciation for being untimely, they are recognised for being so of their time that the time in question couldn’t see it.”

Perhaps this is what we’re missing with DEEJ: it’s so 2018, the audience doesn’t even know it yet. Lynch justifies his succinct medium of choice as a product of our time: “Netflix is the way of the future, and so I think you have to try and create content that people will see […] and also I don’t think people’s attention spans are that great”. Extra episodes were cut in hopes to preserve quality and time.

But the choice to make DEEJ a web series, which by nature targets young people who wouldn’t necessarily have come across Don Juan unless they had a theatrical or literature background, without contextualisation, is contradictory. Audiences shouldn’t have to be familiar with the play to pick up the the title’s pun, or understand the web series at all.

That’s why it needs to evolve beyond a streaming product. The series is worthy of being shown once a month at a USU venue, with devoted fans yelling iconic lines at the screen for 17 minutes, and throwing an equivalent to the plastic spoons used at The Room screenings—despite DEEJ’s own minimal motifs.

This way it can be appreciated not as a standalone product, but as an interactive experience. It should be consumed less as a complex text needing intellectual digestion, but rather as a unique, entertaining show that strikes at our core, innermost emotions. While virtual word-of-mouth has spread DEEJ into an underground nichety, it deserves a public cult following.

When I ask Eugene if there’s another season on the horizon, he seems cautious but optimistic: “Who knows? We’ll have to see what [the USU] says in a couple of months”.