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Culture Warrior: Making Sense of ‘The Room’

By  · Published on October 12th, 2010

Culture Warrior

The Room is different from other bad movies. Anybody who has seen it knows this. Its success is so potent, and the film is so rewatchable and addictive because it resides in an exclusive liminal space between the token wonderfully bad genre movies (e.g., Plan 9, Hobgolbins, Troll 2, and everything in between) and infuriatingly incompetent beyond-amateur crap like Manos: The Hands of Fate or Birdemic.

The Room is so incredibly unique in part because, at a $6 million investment from the enigmatic Tommy Wiseau that covered everything from production to advertising, this is bad filmmaking on a relatively “large” scale. With The Room, Wiseau found himself in the impossible position of being able to – as the film’s sole source of funding – exercise total creative control while simultaneously displaying unwieldy incompetence regarding the entire filmmaking process.

I don’t mean to use such emphatic rhetoric lightly, for as Tom Bissell appropriately puts in his analysis of the film in the August issue of Harper’s Magazine, “A collaborative medium like film is structurally designed to thwart people like Tommy Wiseau,” later aptly describing The Room’s scope of independence as both “glorious” and “horrifying.”

I expressed a similar sentiment regarding the cinema’s (occasionally overcome) industrial-systematic ability to weed out basic incompetence in a 2009 post on Obsessed in which I also made the point that the power of bad movies rests in its potential claim of ownership by an audience who makes the experience their own in a way contrary to the intentions of the creator. This may still be the case, but the serendipitous success of The Room is something of a double-edged sword.

The “language of cinema” is a term familiar to anybody from the casual film fans to the academic film semiotician. The idea behind the term is basically that cinema has an audiovisual syntax of its own learned through conditioning by cinemagoers (whether they are aware of it or not) which creates and signals meaning. It’s an obvious idea, and informs something as variable as when a close-up should be used for the most effective dramatic impact to an image as simple as that of an establishing shot which signals a change in time and location.

As Bissell points out with the example of The Room’s endless establishing shots around San Francisco that exhibit no coherent impression of time and space, “Wiseau understands the placement and required tone of such conventions but not at all their underlying meaning.” The Room is so unique because in terms of its inceptive efforts in implementation of tone and its basic skeletal structure, it possesses most of the initial signs of a typical feature film, but it is in the execution of all these conventions that any initial impression of coherence is catapulted into oblivion, resulting in so many golden moments. The Room is a serendipitous collision of uncontested ego, incredible happenstance (the third-act entrance of an unexplained minor character, of course, only happened as a result of the actor who played the psychiatrist unsurprisingly leaving the set), and absolute incompetence.

Perhaps showing his knowledge that cinema’s language somehow exists without knowing the first thing about what it is, Wiseau speaks in an interview with Bissel about his frustration with the medium’s “limited presentation”: “You have comedy, you have drama, you have melodrama, and that’s about it, basically.” (Note: no.) So, in a way, if Wiseau’s goal was to make The Room a film that transcends beyond these limits of representation, beyond the designed meaning structures of cinematic syntax, then The Room is, unintentionally, a massive success. Its audacity lies in its almost subtle ability to deny delivery and satisfaction of our most basic expectations of a feature film viewing experience, even expectations we might not have even known we had.

The Room reveals the range of assumptions that we possess going into conventional narrative cinema and evades them at each and every turn, creating a new form of enjoyment as a direct result of not experiencing the things we repeatedly enjoy when watching a movie. The Room, then, as many authors have posited, becomes a work of accidental Surrealism: an extension of the spirit of Dalí and Buñuel not through the aggressive modernist iconography of unapologetic hedonism or melting clocks, but a Surrealism in the most postmodern sense in that it was born of irony and manifested unintentionally from the bowels of low culture (that is, the melodramatic soap opera).

While The Room achieves its transcendence by both exhibiting and destroying everything we thought we wanted from a movie, its continuing success is rooted in a rather depressing agree of cognitive dissonance from its accidental auteur. Wiseau has struggled to redefine what The Room is since its cult emergence and its establishment as a midnight movie ritual, defending his artistic integrity by stating, against all evidence, that the film was intended initially as a “black comedy.” As occurs so often with both good art and with bad films, the creation no longer belongs to its creator, yet Wiseau attempts time and again to make sense of this disconnect, touring with the film all around the country and doing Q&As in which he contradicts himself, earnestly proclaiming that The Room is there to be enjoyed any way you want.

This takes me to an aspect of bad movie consumption that isn’t typically acknowledged, and that is the condescension necessary for such a movie to become a cult phenomenon. We crack up at movies like Troll 2 mostly guilt-free for several reasons, from the fact that we can also be fans of the actors because we see them as unknowing “victims” of bad filmmaking, but also because bad genre cinema often suggests little creative and personal investment in the material. But what do we do with the laughably bad passion project, or the astoundingly incompetent film that its his heart, soul, and bank account into?

Don’t get me wrong. Anybody that makes a film is taking a risk and is susceptible to the judgment of their audience. Wiseau is no exception. However, one can’t help but admire his almost inhuman bravery in exhibiting a film that he thought was profound so that “fans” all over the country can laugh at it. (These screenings historically range from showing Wiseau anything between sincere admiration to outright cruelty, so there is a limited amount of solace taken in the fact that people are enjoying a film that would otherwise never be seen one way or another.) But this must also be something of a cognitive defense mechanism for Wiseau, a survival function of the super-ego that prevents him from experiencing the otherwise devastating reality of these incredible contradictions, and a futile attempt to reclaim ownership of his work. Wiseau possessed the same cognitive dissonance when making The Room without comprehending cinema’s basic language as he does when experiencing its success without understanding why. Or, as Bissel puts it,

“We are all of us deeply alarmed by the Wiseauian parts of ourselves, the parts that are selfish and controlling, that crave attention at any cost, that imagine ourselves as superlatively gifted, that arrange all sources of light – whether literal or metaphysical – to be flattering. To watch The Room is to see that part of ourselves turned mesmerizingly loose.”

In the words of Errol Morris, filmmaking is Wiseau’s “unkown unknown.” And for that reason, The Room will never happen again, at least not for Wiseau. While his many gestating projects sound equally brilliant in their ineptitude, nothing kills bad filmmaking more than self-consciousness, either on behalf of its audience or its creator. So while The Room has entrenched itself in a potentially permanent place amongst filmgoers, it’s difficult to say the same for Tommy Wiseau.

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