Tuesday, 17 August 2010

On the greatness of Tommy Wiseau's The Room


“You must be kidding, underwear – I got the picture!”

The Room is a celebrated cult phenomenon (the latest in a long line of movies dubbed the ‘worst ever’) and, as such, has unsurprisingly spawned a great deal of discussion. I want to take a slightly different approach to it than many, however. Rather than focussing on a run-down of its countless dreadful pleasures or the participatory culture that has sprung up around it, I want to look in detail at one short sequence to try to explain something of how it works, and what this can tell us about the film as a whole. I have a few reasons for doing this.

Firstly: although one of the great things about the kind of cult fandom The Room has attracted is that it encourages a focus on details (The spoons! The football!), I haven’t read many accounts of the movie that try to discuss how these details add up to form patterns of (wonderfully absurd) meaning within sequences or the film as a whole. Secondly, one thing I find slightly offputting about fan screenings of the film is that they tend to fetishise these marvellous individual details to the point where noticing them (and yelling out the traditional responses to indicate that they have been noticed) drowns out any sense of the peculiarly unorganically-organic flow of their scenes, and of the movie more generally. The extreme oddness of how The Room’s scenes feel as scenes (not merely as successions of quirks) is one of the things that makes the film so brilliant, and I think a close analysis should allow me to capture some of the feeling of this.

Finally, I want to look at The Room in this way partly simply to reward it for being the extraordinarily entertaining and fascinating thing that it is. In her excellent blog entry about teaching the film to students, Amanda Ann Klein suggests that watching ‘bad’ films like this one “makes us feel better about ourselves”, arguing that “when we watch The Room and mock it we are essentially saying ‘I am better than this. I am superior to this’.” There is doubtless an element of truth to this: the very act of enjoying something for its ‘failings’ does necessarily involve a kind of assumption about one’s own superiority. Yet a part of me also wants to resist this characterisation of my relationship to the film. I can honestly say that I deeply love this movie in no less a sense than I deeply love, say, Vertigo (which, incidentally, as another San Francisco-set tale of romantic obsession, has its parallels in The Room: the two even share some locations!). The nature of this love is certainly different, but it is no less real. This is an important point to make about cult pleasure in general. As with Trapped in the Closet, I value The Room not because it is ‘bad’, but because it is ‘bad’ in very special and very strange ways – ways that are unique to it alone, and which, even after multiple viewings, I still can’t quite master. In order to feel superior to something one must first feel one understands it; I am far from being able to say this of The Room. Close analysis is a way for a critic to show that s/he is not above a film, passing judgment from on high, but rather wants to live up to it by briefly existing within it, exploring its intricate workings, honouring it with time and attention. For me, The Room most certainly deserves such treatment.

So – to begin.

Some context: the film tells the story of Johnny (Tommy Wiseau - also the writer and director) and the way in which his life unravels after discovering that his fiancĂ© (or, as she is only ever called, “future wife”), Lisa (Juliette Daniel), is cheating on him with his best friend, Mark (Gregg Sestero). From this basic set-up Wiseau is able to weave a rich tapestry of confusing secondary characters, sub-plots, and superfluous scenes; I want to look in detail at one of these scenes. It’s approximately two minutes long, takes place around forty-five minutes into the film, and is structured around Johnny’s friend Mike (Mike Homes) recounting to Johnny something we saw in an earlier scene about fifteen minutes previously – specifically: that (a) he and his girlfriend were caught almost in flagrante by Lisa’s mother (Carolyn Minnott), (b) they left quickly, only for Mike to realise that he had left behind his underwear, upon which he (c) embarrassedly returned to retrieve it, only for (d) Lisa's mother to embarrass him by snatching the boxers from his hand and holding them up to inspect them publicly.

It is a scene whose many glorious mysteries I have (despite the grandiloquence of my build-up and the length of what follows!) only begun to get to grips with. Let’s break our consideration of this scene down into a few parts. First:


The first thing to say about the scene is that it is entirely redundant to the plot. This is also partly why it can stand as a beautifully representative moment of the film, since excessive narrative redundancy is one of The Room’s defining and most endearing characteristics. This scene, however, is not merely redundant in the way that, say, Denny’s dramatic encounter with a drug dealer is (which, like Claudette’s revelation that “I definitely have breast cancer”, establishes a major sub-plot that is never to be revisited) – no: this scene takes redundancy to the next level by existing solely in order that we may be retold of something which we have already witnessed: Mike’s “underwear issue”. To pile inconsequence upon yet further inconsequence, the original event to which the anecdote refers was itself wholly surplus to narrative requirement, a moment of ‘comic relief’ whose relevance we have already likely had cause to wonder at. Indeed, since Mike takes part in no other significant action throughout the entire film, the whole reason for his character existing – as difficult as this is to countenance – seems to be solely to take part in the original incident, and then tell us about it again.

As such, one of the most magnificent things about the sequence is that it forces us to grapple with the question of why, in a film so prepared to summarily drop what in any other movie would be major plot points, are we being subjected to such a lengthy reminder of something this meaningless? Our bewilderment is only heightened as the scene continues: we are already initially surprised when Mike begins to tell Johnny about the incident, and grow moreso the longer he goes on (“Go on, I’m listening,” urges Johnny, and later, “Tell me more…”); then, when Denny enters the discussion continues, our surprise now heightening to become incredulity; finally Mark arrives and the characters are, somehow, still talking about Mike’s underwear. By this point our inner Aristotlean, who craves order and motivation in our art, is screaming, “NO! NO!! NOOOO!!!” while at the same time the mischievous part of us that desires precisely this kind of assault on storytelling logic – the part that deeply loves The Room – is satisfyingly murmuring, “Yes, oh yes, OH MY, YES…”

So why is this scene in the movie? One answer seems to be that it is an attempt to show day-to-day life, and, as such, needs to be understood in the context of the way in which The Room constantly seeks – and spectacularly fails – to achieve a sense of naturalism.

Naturalism and performance style

On one level the scene is clearly meant to be a demonstration of the minutiae of everyday life, which here consists of friends chatting about the funny things that have happened to them lately, and – crucially – a casual catch-and-throw football session. This activity famously crops up an awful lot in The Room (leading to the ubiquity of American footballs at fan screenings). Indeed, throwing a football around seems intended by Wiseau to almost be a basic signifier of ‘normality’: this is, the film suggests, simply what men do when they get together. Unfortunately (by which I of course mean fortunately), two things significantly scupper this sense. Firstly, there is the fact that it happens quite so emphatically often, thus highlighting the extent to which it is being used as a flashing sign that reads “This Is Usual, This Is Real Life – You Probably Do This Too”. Secondly, there is the notorious tininess of the distances that the ball is always being thrown, which draws attention to the fact that the action’s other function is to serve as a strikingly strange answer to the perennial question faced by film directors: what should characters be doing whilst talking? (The games of catch don’t just accompany throwaway ‘comic’ sequences like this: at other points it also goes hand-in-hand with serious heart-to-hearts.) First and foremost, the characters need to be close to each other when throwing a ball so that dialogue can take place; the resulting oddness is merely a brilliant side-effect.

What the attempted naturalism also causes is an awkwardness brought on by what appears to be the extensive improvisation going on in the scene, leading to odd, mis-chosen words and phrases. For example: Mike setting up his story by saying “I’ve got a little bit of a – a tragedy on my hands…”; the bizarre wonderfulness of “me underwears” (that strange mis-hitting of casualness again); Mark’s weird questioning, “Underwear? What’s that? Underwear, man…?”, and so on. Of course, what makes all this quite so peculiar is the clash with the extreme un-naturalism of everything surrounding such statements. It would be difficult to find many melodramas that fail harder than The Room does at convincing us that they are presenting a credible world, yet here its actors are, visibly straining to replicate the messiness of real-life conversation. Maybe in another film, with other actors, lines like “I don’t study like that” / “He doesn’t” might convey the awkwardness of speech, but here they convey the awkwardness of Tommy Wiseau’s unique conception of filmed drama. If it has not been felt already, the unbridgeable gulf between these two modes – ‘naturalism’ and whatever it is that The Room offers – comes crashing spectacularly and deliriously into focus when Mark somehow manages to send Mike flying into the trash can, supposedly causing him to be hurt badly enough for someone to ask whether he needs a doctor.

Ending scenes

Speaking of the ‘accident’, this needs to be seen in relation to the great difficulty The Room has with ending its scenes. Apparently completely unwilling to indulge in (or perhaps functionally unaware of) the accepted convention of cutting away from a scene which has run its course, Wiseau instead seems to feel the need to have characters exit the space where a scene has taken place. As well as the ubiquitous “Oh, hi!” which will often begin sequences, “I gotta go” is one of the most repeated phrases of the movie (as this montage makes clear). It is almost as if Wiseau is afraid that the viewer will be confused unless s/he has been explicitly told scenes have begun and finished. Occasionally, as in this scene (as well as in another entirely extraneous football-throwing-gone-awry sequence) Wiseau even resorts to an act of unexpected violence to bring the action to a close. These mini climaxes come at the expense of earthly motivation, and have precisely the opposite effect to the one intended: far from providing closure for the scenes they belong to, such moments open up whole new sets of questions – “For what conceivable reason did that just happen?” being chief among them. (The confusion is even more extreme here because of the shift in tone caused by the music, which changes in the final seconds from the comic oompah-pah that helpfully underlined the joviality of the football-throwing, into the dark, moody strings that accompany Mike’s treacherous tumble. How seriously are we being encouraged to take this injury?)

The wonderfulness of Johnny

So why does this ‘accident’ take place? One answer comes in the scene’s final moments. “Mike, listen,” says Johnny as he helps his friend up from the floor, “if you need anything call me – anytime, alright?” With this it becomes clear that this moment is another of many in the film which serve to reinforce quite what an outstandingly great guy Johnny is. Mike needs to be hurt, in part, so that Johnny can show him compassion. The same thing motivates the whole discussion of the underwear: it is Johnny’s desire to be a good friend that prompts Mike to keep talking (“I’m listening…”), as well as Tommy’s exclamation “That’s life,” which is delivered with a mysterious and undue emphasis on the word “life”, transforming throwaway platitude into wistful philosophical observation. (In retrospect it might remind us of his later pained cry to Lisa, “Do you understand LIFE? DO you?!” Clearly Johnny does understand life only too well, and knows that it sadly necessarily consists of such things as underwear “tragedies”.)

One the most fundamental pleasures of The Room is the way in which it unsuccessfully tries to be a bizarre paean from Wiseau to himself, presenting him as a great and loving man who becomes the undeserving victim of all around him (“Everybody betrayed me!” is his later anguished exclamation). Yet, as this scene shows, his character’s goodness is often expressed in ways that are by turns unimpressively conventional (buying Lisa red roses and calling her his “princess”), awkwardly expressed (being a good customer and kind to animals, always being interested in friends’ problems), and deeply weird (sort-of adopting a teenage boy [Denny], letting friends [like Mike] use his apartment for sex). The ultimate result of this is that the film comes to feel like a parody of the masculinist narcissism that lies at the heart of its conscious project, exposing the fact that this troubling ideology is troubling, and opening it to ridicule. This is one of the many things that contributes to making The Room not just a ‘failure’ but a fascinating “passionate failure” (one of Sontag’s descriptions of camp). Wiseau has poured his heart and soul into this fevered tribute to himself, and it is a mark of his specialness as an artist that his heart and soul can produce a tribute that ended up feeling this consistently baffling, and this unintentionally self-critical. I do not say this ironically.

Intention and the greatness of Wiseau

As I have suggested before, trying to work out a filmmaker’s intentions is a very important part of the process of cult pleasure; but the matter doesn’t stop there. We certainly need to assume that Wiseau was not intending to make a self-parodic comedy in order to laugh at The Room in the way that we do, but does appreciating the film for reasons other than those intended necessarily mean that we should automatically call Wiseau a ‘bad’ artist? Although the wholesale removal of the ‘intentional fallacy’ from our critical appreciation of art can certainly go too far (causing us to forget that artworks are indeed made up of a series of decisions) we are nevertheless surely long past the point at which we consider greatness to reside wholly in an artist’s conscious intentions.

To return briefly to Vertigo, my earlier example of a film which I love in a more ‘straightforward’ way: most of my admiration for this film comes from my appreciation for what I take to be Hitchcock’s extreme skill as a filmmaker, but by no means all (ignoring, too, any arguments we might want to make about collaboration). I don't know, for instance, to what extent Vertigo is the product of Hitchcock consciously working through his troubling psychological issues with women, or precisely how aware he was of the extent of the damning critique the film offers of masculine possessiveness and domination – nor, importantly, do I need to know. The film is a great work of art regardless of such matters, and Hitchcock is a great artist for having made it. In order to appreciate The Room as a great work of art, and Wiseau as a great artist for having made it, I would admittedly need to disregard the link between greatness and intention to a significantly larger extent than I do in the case of Vertigo. The principle, however, appears to be the same, and the judgment could seem to require me simply to place the two films at different ends of one single, sliding scale – not to use two different scales altogether (say, one scale charting ‘happy accidents’ and their beneficiaries, and another measuring ‘great artworks’ and their creators). As with Hitchcock and Vertigo, whether intentional or not, the endless complexity, fascination and enjoyment that I gain from The Room would, finally, simply not be there were it not for Wiseau - and, while I have no doubt that it will seem to many (perhaps most?!) that I am already giving this film far too much credit, I would maintain that I still haven’t managed to get very far in explaining the beauties of even this scene.

When I am this sure of the hidden treasures a film holds – when I feel a desire this strong to rewatch, discuss and explore – I find it hard to resist the temptation to say that I am in the presence of great art. Those who don't agree are invited either to leave their stupid comments in their pockets, or alternatively write them below.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism


Another quick post, this time to announce the launch of Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism, a freely-accessible online relaunch of the seminal – but recently dormant – British film journal MOVIE, of whose editorial board I am extraordinarily proud to be a member. I am also very happy that Issue 1 features a piece by me (my first published peer-reviewed article, in fact!) – an essay on the concept of ‘quirky’ in American indie cinema. The journal will be published bi-annually, and will aim to continue MOVIE’s tradition of providing a forum for perceptive analyses of film and television grounded in close textual criticism.

Speaking personally, it is especially pleasing that the journal is being provided in an ‘open access’ format (rather than by paid subscription) since this ensures its availability not only to film scholars and students, but also to the interested general reader. One of MOVIE’s many great strengths – and something that always set it apart from most of its peers – was its commitment to remaining accessible to a non-academic readership even after the development of Film Studies as a discipline. Blogs and free journals now provide the opportunity for the resurrection of a critical terrain that sits somewhere between the poles of academia and journalism – an entirely necessary and desirable space that has for too long been too sparsely populated. It is to be hoped that Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism will be able to play a significant role within this new context, and will once again be valued for promoting a critical practice whose belief in the necessity of detailed textual evidence (not to mention rhetorical elegance) invariably makes it not only nuanced and revealing, but also eminently readable.

With that said – I hope you all enjoy Issue 1!