The Magic and Tension of The Room
Tuesday, December 24, 2013 :: Tagged under: essay culture. ⏰ 5 minutes.
Hey! Thanks for reading! Just a reminder that I wrote this some years ago, and may have much more complicated feelings about this topic than I did when I wrote it. Happy to elaborate, feel free to reach out to me! 😄
The Room is one of the most entertaining and engrossing movies I've seen in my entire life. There's really nothing like it, and I find it both beautiful and a bit bit tragic that I'm unlikely that to ever produce anything as engaging as it.
I just finished The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room and thought I'd write up a few thoughts I have.
What is _The Room_?
Succinctly, it's a fractally terrible piece of art. There are no redeeming features in terms of craft -- the plot is inconsistent and hackneyed, the dialogue and characters speaking it are inhuman, the design elements (set, costumes, sound design) are divorced from any reality you've ever lived in.
And yet, unlike most other "bad movie" cult favorites (e.g. Troll 2, or Silent Night Deadly Night 2), The Room has an odd feeling of integrity. Behind the gloriously awful production, you see glimmers of the entire cast struggling to make this work. The script is genuinely trying to tell a story, and watching it ineptly fail is like watching a baby flamingo walking for the first time: inevitable failure, and hilarious. Given that the movie aims to be a humanity-affirming successor to Tennessee Williams, it strange that its failure produces a human element that so many better movies lack.
It doesn't suffice to say it's "the best bad movie ever." You really can't be told how it manages to be engrossing and terrible, you just need to see it, and yesterday. The Onion AV Club and Entertainment Weekly do a great job covering its magic. And do checkout the soundboard for some more fun after watching.
The Bell Curve theory of bad art
I have a way of convincing myself to enjoy a piece of art once it's clear that it's one of the worst things I've ever seen. I think of a normalized bell curve:
Most art will be about average -- that's the fat part of the curve. There is nothing remarkable about this; consume it and move on. But at the way right of the curve are masterpieces: those pieces that inspire you, the life-changers. There are only a few of these.
Once you realize you're watching something like The Room, something uniquely poorly-done, look at the way left part of the bell curve and remember that they are just as rare and hard to find as the masterpieces. Anybody can suck: it takes something special to suck just that much. And better yet, the ones at the bottom 5% were trying to be the top 5%! The masterpieces aimed high and got high - the losers aimed high (or at least level) and went marvelously in the wrong direction. It's like trying to build a rocket and instead making an exceptional drill.
I find that most things I don't enjoy aren't even that bad -- they're just unremarkable (Tevis Thompson touches on a similar notion -- though he seems to find the boring actually bad -- in his excellent piece on videogame reviews and the failures of BioShock: Infinite). Paraphrasing, Sestero and Bissell mention about Sestero's first meeting Tommy in an acting class in San Francisco: "Yes he's the worst, but I have to do a scene with him, since he's the only person in this class whose scenes I look forward to watching."
Whether in The Room or anything else, remember the bell curve. Ask yourself "if I tried to make something this bad, could I?" Because sometimes the answer is a very shakey "no."
I'd say the one thing that most surprises people watching The Room, no matter how they're prepped, is the sheer number of questions you're left with. How the hell did that line get spoken, let alone written? Who decided spoons in picture frames were acceptable set pieces?! HOW IS THIS SEX SCENE SO LONG?!?
No joke, I showed it to someone last week and they grabbed me by the my lapel-less shirt, shaking me: "I Just. Don't. Understand, Pablo. I Just. Don't. Understand. How! How! How!"
These are fueled by the same thing that makes it so amazing to watch, and it's also why, after 7 viewings, I'm beginning to feel some tension in enjoying the movie as much as I do. Because there's a very simple answer to why the movie is so gloriously incoherent:
Tommy Wiseau is "not all there," mentally.
And if you accept this as a reason for The Room to be what it is, well... we're all collectively laughing at a guy who's trying to tell us something, play the game of life with us, and is literally incapable at it.
Brains and my family, my family and brains
I've mentioned before that my sister has spent much of the last 5 years recovering from a brain injury.. When she first woke up from her coma, 3 months after collapsing, she was unable to speak, walk, or feed herself. Over the next 4 months of rehab, day by day, she learned to do those things. Her memory grew from remembering virtually nothing ("how old am I?"..."18"..."how old am I?") to about 7 seconds, to a few minutes, to, after a few months, the span of a few hours.
The process was grueling, and the most terrifying part was the knowledge that this could be it at any given time. There was no guarantee that Annalisa would continue to heal and become an independent member of society. Annalisa's therapy usually included group sessions with people who'd been there for years. There were some who got kicked from therapy because it was clear their accidents and traumas left them in a state that they'd never be independent members of society.
Annalisa has healed, thankfully. There are still artifacts of the illness and ways in which it affects her, but she's succeeding at her Master's program at Columbia and in life such that I don't worry any more than any other 22 year-old sister I could be so lucky to have, trying to make her way.
But you don't lose the memory, and so many of Tommy's creative choices and the anecdotes provided in The Disaster Artist really support the idea that his brain is working differently than ours:
- Most obviously, thinking The Room is good, let alone presentable. But this could also be attributed to vanity -- almost everybody thinks their work is great, that their kid was best in the school play, &c.
- His very simple narratives about the world: i.e. women are gossippy, love shopping, vain, manipulative, and are a people who need to be "gotten," unlike men, who are obvious and the default (The Room contains so many lines of guys saying variations of "I don't get women, man").
- The only character whose profession is named is Peter, the psychologist. Most other characters are generally "busy," Lisa names "clients," and Johnny works at a bank and at the computer industry with confidential clients, but only Peter has a named job, and it's one that someone who is working up from a brain injury would be very familiar with.
- Sestero & Bissell note that Tommy takes medications, in passing (cast members thought he was on drugs).
- Difficulty keeping continuous narrative threads in his mind. Barring the simplicity, Sestero & Bissell describe a scene that begins with Lisa and Claudette talking on the phone, and ends with Lisa walking Claudette to the door. Never mind moments that never go anywhere, like Chris-R/drugs, Claudette/Breast Cancer, Mark shaving, tuxedos, and alley football.
- Near obsession and/or single-mindedness on a topic that's interesting to him. In The Disaster Artist, there's a scene where it's implied Tommy watches Greg's film reel after filming Retro Puppet Master for many hours. Then, to get his SAG card, Tommy films a commercial modeled after his favorite part of the reel. That, and the fact that Tommy breaks into Greg's mail to see his first big acting paycheck.
Don Wiseau of La Mancha
haha Frog parser.
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