Notes on “The Room”
I’ve never been a big proponent of watching terrible movies just for the fun of it. I’d rather watch a good movie. However, occasionally my curiosity gets the best of me, which is why I’ve watched what is arguably the worst film in history, “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” and the Joan Collins’ bomb “Trog.” And I’m a huge fan of “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians,” a bad film with a goofy charm that’s tough to resist, and a defender of “Showgirls.”
A few years ago I became aware of the cult surrounding the awful 2003 film “The Room” from a Harper’s magazine article by Tom Bissell. The phenomenom intrigued me, and I put the movie in my Netflix queue, even though “The Room” sounded like the sort of thing that was best experienced on the big screen, in a room full of “Room” devotees. So when I heard that Proctors was screening the film at the end of May, I decided that I had to go.
“The Room” is an odd little item — a passion project created by a group of talentless people. Films this inept are rare. By the end of it, I felt like I could buy a video camera tomorrow and make a film that’s about 10 times better than “The Room” ... though probably not so hysterically awful and strange.
Of the film’s writer, director and star, Tommy Wiseau, Bissell writes, “He tried to make a conventional film and wound up with something so inexplicable and casually surreal that no practicing surrealist could ever convincingly ape its form, except by exact imitation. It is the movie that an alien who has never seen a movie might make after having had movies thoroughly explained to him.” Later in the article, Bissell wonders, “What does it say about contemporary American culture that the Rocky Horror Picture show of our time is not a winning exercise in leering camp and butt-shaking grooviness but an earnest melodrama distinguished by what it is unable to provide? Why are so many people responding to a megalomaniacal feat of formal incompetence? Is it the satisfaction of seeing the auteur myth cruelly exploded, or watching an artist reach for the stars and wind up with his hand around a urinal cake?”
The appeal of “The Room” is a bit bewildering, at least at first. Like many cult films, I suspect it takes a couple viewings to really appreciate what it has to offer. Watching it with an audience is a lot like watching the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” — people throw plastic spoons at the screen, and yell comments throughout the entire film, some of which are spontaneous but most of which have been uttered at countless “Room” screenings throughout the country. For the uninitiated, the rituals surrounding “The Room” are pretty easy to pick up on. Throughout the home where much of the film is set there are framed pictures of spoons, and whenever one of these pictures appears on screen, audience members chuck spoons at it. One of the film’s distinguishing features is the abrupt introduction of seemingly significant plot points that are immediately dropped and forgotten; at one point, a major character announces that she “definitely has cancer,” but no one ever mentions this fact again. Whenever the male characters hang out, they toss around a football while standing between three and five feet apart, sometimes while dressed in tuxedos. Non-sequitors are common; while eating in a restaurant, one of the characters turns to another and asks, out of the blue, “Anyway, how’s your sex life?”
“The Room” does have a plot. It involves a love triangle between Johnny (Wiseau), his girlfriend Lisa and Johnny’s best friend Mark. Essentially, the film is a melodrama, about an evil woman (“The Room’s” relentless misogyny kind of takes your breath away) who betrays her boyfriend even though he supports her and gives her everything she wants. What makes the film fascinating, even, at points, riveting, is its unusual aesthetic — sort of a cross between a poorly-made daytime soap opera and amateur soft-core pornography (The film’s extremely long and up-close sex scenes will make you want to shield your eyes) — and total lack of self-awareness.
Little is known about Wiseau, but “The Room” makes you wonder what type of guy he is. Did he make “The Room” after his girlfriend left him for his best friend? Scott Tobias at the A.V. Club correctly points out that Wiseau doesn’t appear to understand human beings — women or men. Wiseau, he writes, is “like an alien anthropologist, trying to glean behavior patterns from the teensiest morsels of observation. As he understands it, guys do the following things: 1. Toss a football around from three feet apart. Sometimes in tuxes. 2. End conversations with a complicated series of handshakes and fist-bumps. 3. Taunt each other with ‘CHEEP CHEEP CHEEP’ chicken noises. That’s really all he’s got. Love and friendship in Johnny’s world tends to run one way: He gives and gives and gives, and in return for his endless generosity, he tastes the bitter ash of betrayal.”
My immediate reaction to “The Room” was that it was an OK viewing experience. A strange, fascinating and awful film, and not something I would ever feel the need to revisit.
Three days later, I’m reevaluating my initial assessment of the movie. Now that I know all the lines and the jokes and bizarre visual cues, I think the film would strike me as even funnier upon subsequent viewings, and I could definitely see watching it again. In fact, I’m wondering whether any of my friends have seen “The Room,” and whether I should make them watch it. As I sit here writing this, I’m chuckling over the memory of watching the film. Which is the sort of reaction, I suppose, that explains how a cult movie gets born.
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