Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Room – Wonderfully Bad

by Anton Krueger

After being tipped off by Tom Bissell’s excellent essay about this monumentally bad movie in Magic Hours (McSweeneys, 2012), I took the first opportunity of streaming it for myself.

The Room was released in 2003 and bombed spectacularly at the box office. The Washington Post called it “A train wreck of almost incomprehensible proportions.” And yet, Tommy Wiseau (writer, director, producer and leading man) inexplicably kept paying the rent on a massive billboard of his inscrutably pockmarked face, which glowered from a Hollywood hill for a solid four years after the premier.

Somehow, Wiseau became the Florence Foster Jenkins of cinema and people are now packing houses across the world to see for themselves how bad this movie actually is. In the last few years it’s been shown as a cult classic at midnight showings all over America (and more recently in Europe and Australia) where fans dress up as their favourite character and partake in odd rituals like tossing bouquets of plastic spoons at the screen. The Onion has called The Room “the first true successor to the Rocky Horror Picture Show”.

In its new guise, the film is being pitched as a “black comedy”, but it’s really sui generis, a completely unfamiliar creature. It’s been accused of having terrible production values, but actually the sound and image aren’t too bad. What really sets this film apart is its heroically appalling script presented with acting of legendary feebleness and directing which could euphemistically be described as random. It ambles along, scene after scene, trying to imitate a good movie: the actors stand, sit and move about; but there seems to be no intelligent design behind it all. In every scene the principal cast seem surprised to see each other, and one of the catch phrases of the film has become the “Oh Hai” with which characters cheerily greet each other, irrespective of any given context.

“Oh Hai Mark” – On the rooftop

What sets this film apart from other films vying to be the worst movie ever made (like Santa Claus and the Ice Cream Bunny) is that it takes itself seriously. There are any number of films trying to be quirky; but The Room isn’t trying. And because it was made sincerely, it manages to be unpretentiously awful, and it allows unfettered access to a very peculiar mind. Not since Robert Wilson made high end theatre with scripts by autistic kids have audiences been given such wholesale leeway to a clearly sub-normal mind.

Reading interviews with Wiseau, he sounds brain damaged or on drugs, comparing his film to Citizen Kane and his own acting to James Dean. One feels sorry for him, and yet, he’s clearly relishing the attention. The astonishing thing is that he refuses to be laughed at. When an interviewer asks him how he feels when people say that his film is “so bad, it’s good” it baffles him. He refuses to believe it.

Original marketing interview

Here are some of the oddities of this marvel: characters, themes and sub-plots unaccountably drift in and out of the story quite haphazardly. One character reveals that she has breast cancer, but it’s never brought up again. Later, a therapist trips while playing football in a tuxedo (don’t ask), and then disappears from the film altogether.

The manipulation of the author’s lazy hand is palpable throughout. When he wants to move everybody out of a room he simply has a character say “let’s all go outside to get some fresh air”, and the room clears with marine-like precision in a matter of seconds. When he needs them back in the room, she says “let’s all go inside for some cake”, and everybody returns. It seems that Wiseau is unfamiliar with real social interaction, and perhaps he imagines that this is what a real party might be like.

The Room uses standard Hollywood tropes: tossing about a football shows all-American camaraderie; candles and roses signify romance; a guy sporting a van dyke and a beanie is clearly a drug dealer. But these are used in such a ham fisted way that one realises the absurdity of the gestures themselves. The misalignment of the meme reveals how thin the formula is, and the film mixes up its clichés to such an extent that it becomes a joke about the industry itself.

Denny’s inexplicable drug trouble

Cult films are an odd phenomenon. What is it about a movie that makes people go for Klingon lessons and order white Russians? In many cases these films attract a following due to a desire for community. People are drawn to the idea of belonging to a counter culture (like in Withnail and I) or an alternative slacker society (as in The Big Lebowski) or to a mythical community (such as the Trekkies). There are few cult films, however, which explore a romantic relationship. Why have people never dressed up as Ethan Hawke and slept outside cinemas for screenings of Before Sunrise? Perhaps it’s because romance concerns the individual, whereas wars against aliens (or the status quo) demand a team effort.

Since The Room is ostensibly about a failed relationship, it makes it an unlikely candidate for a cult movie. So what keeps people coming back for more? Perhaps audiences are united in realising how badly its made, and their coming together is an expression of their knowledge of the norm. And yet, the fact that it’s so far off the mark also makes this film startlingly original. And very funny. We’re so used to market-driven, audience-tested scripts that to see something which looks like a movie and sounds like a movie, but which is utterly outlandish, is a refreshing experience.

Whatever the case may be, The Room has become so popular that fans have created a flash fiction game of it: Wiseau claims to be adapting it as a novel and a play for Broadway, with a 3D version in the works. It’s unmissable. If you’ve got the bandwidth, there’s no excuse not to see it.

Hitler watches The Room