The Symbol of Love: Romancing The Room by Megan Weireter Just a few days before the close of 2009, I watched The Room – again – with two good friends who were Room newbies. These friends know from movies, and I knew this was something they had to see. Their reactions were just what I was hoping for: they laughed uproariously, yet were completely baffled. And then, only a couple days later, I caught them quoting lines from the movie to each other. “Admit it,” I wanted to say. “You can’t stop thinking about it. Just like me.”
To spend too much time thinking about this film is surely a form of madness. And yet here I am, consumed with it, as I have been ever since my first viewing some time in 2008. The thing is, The Room is more than just a terrible movie: it’s a transcendent failure, a film whose insanity is so compelling as to be loveable. In the self-conscious age we live in, The Room is refreshing for its heartbreaking, wide-eyed sincerity, for its complete commitment to even the most questionable artistic decisions. As Sontag said, pure camp is always naïve, but when was the last time you saw a film as honestly naïve as The Room? Over time, elements of camp have become so mainstream (I blame the spate of camptastic movies based on TV shows from the ’70s that have plagued us for two decades) that even the squarest film executives seem to know how to market films that are knowing and self-referential. Intentional camp is everywhere now, from minor internet phenomena of the decade like Snakes on a Plane, to the entire body of work of The Asylum, to the walking hunk of sentient camp that is Bruce Campbell. To be clear, I am a gigantic fan of all of these, especially Bruce. But this kind of thing contributes to the danger of camp going downright mainstream and losing its subversiveness.
The Room is so amazing, particularly for this decade of film, because of the naïvete of director/producter/screenwriter/actor Tommy Wiseau. This is a deeply personal movie for him, a showcase of his talent and sensitivity. Even at its most awful – which you could argue is almost any scene – there’s more real feeling, more anguish, in The Room than one would expect in a movie that is so self-evidently terrible. And that’s why it’s a cult film: fans sense the something genuine at stake. The closest experience I can think of to watching The Room is reading the diary of a troubled teenage girl: even though she doesn’t express herself well, and even if all her problems seem insignificant, you can still sense the tremendous pain she’s feeling. Does this sound like uncomfortable experience? It almost is. Tommy Wiseau has said many times that all he really wants is for people to have a good time watching this movie, no matter what we may think of it. He seems to be giving us permission to laugh. But every time you laugh at The Room (and you can’t not laugh at The Room) it feels a little bit dangerous. It’s one thing to laugh at the films of an asshat like, say, Michael Bay, who has too little invested in any of his movies to care what we think. It’s quite another thing to laugh at The Room. It’s actually kind of thrilling—which I think it why it’s hard to stop thinking about.
We’re not the first website to discuss The Room as part of what made the decade in film great, and we won’t be the last. Like all good cult films, this one has been written up and marveled upon all over the web (though The Room has taken the concept of “cult film” further than most—its endorsement by such comedians as David Cross and Tim-&-Eric have given the movie an odd hipster cred that almost seems not in keeping with its spirit). And yet, in an independent film landscape marked by digital technology and internet marketing, The Room won audiences over in as old-fashioned a way as can be imagined. The film was shot simultaneously in 35mm film and in high-definition video, was chiefly publicized via one massive billboard in Los Angeles, and has revitalized the venerable institution of the midnight movie through showings that are still mushrooming nationwide. By the time I caught The Room at a midnight showing at my local cinema, I’d already seen it multiple times on DVD, but watching it with a sold-out crowd of people screaming back callback lines was pretty amazing. I used to go see The Rocky Horror Picture Show a lot too, but by the time I was of an age to hit up screenings, the audience’s counter-script (as it were) already felt like it was written in stone. The phenomenon of The Room, though, is still so new that the live experience is raw and messy, just like the film itself.
The movie that has inspired this old-fashioned cult following itself tries to be kind of an old-fashioned melodrama. Not much really happens in The Room, except when everything happens. But here’s what does happen: Lisa, the fiancée of Johnny, decides she doesn’t love him anymore and seduces his best friend Mark. Most of the rest of the movie shows various players trying to figure out what to do about this. In between, we’re treated to mind-warping non-sequiturs, like an encounter with a violent drug dealer on a rooftop, the shocking revelation that Lisa’s mother Claudette has been stricken with breast cancer, or the almost-as-shocking revelation that strange people sneak into Johnny and Lisa’s apartment to eat chocolate off of each other’s bodies, even though they are clearly adults and seem to have homes of their own. Drugs, cancer, chocolate—it’s all meaningless, because none of it ever gets resolved or even brought up again. Yet these ambitious head-scratchers of plot threads make for some of the more unforgettable scenes in The Room. Wiseau seems to wish to connect the central story of the infidelity to outside drama that would be recognizable to us as more complicated, perhaps more universal. There might be a vague thesis here that the poison of unfaithfulness at the center of these people’s lives can’t help but manifest itself in everything else around them, or that, as Claudette observes, “everything goes wrong at once.” But Wiseau can’t help but bring the film back, over and over again, to what he knows best—which seems to be men throwing footballs and women being bitches.
The Room is no Rocky Horror; there’s not a single note of parody or satire in The Room. More strikingly, and despite its celebrated moments of unhinged spectacle, The Room tells a mostly internal, unshowy story. The problem with internal drama, though, is that you need characters with brains or souls to pull it off, and The Room doesn’t deliver. Dramatic tension is supposed to build with each intense look and meaningful sentence, but since these characters clearly have no internal lives, the effort falls flat. Lisa and Mark’s sexalicious encounter early in the film – in which we discover that she is his rose she is his rose she is his rose – results in a whole movie’s worth of reflection from people whose temperaments are, to put it charitably, totally unsuited to reflection. And in the end, a viewer can’t help but conclude that Wiseau has a deep misunderstanding of even the most basic interactions between humans. The film looks like a domestic melodrama operating according to the logic of realism, but its contemporary setting and plotline disguise something much, much weirder—perhaps most accurately described as some kind of softcore-porn/science-fiction musical, with a little teenage-diary-level poetic monologue thrown in.
Huge chunks of the film are taken up with Johnny, Mark, and their various male friends discussing the fact that women mystify them. Mark sums up their confusion nicely: “I don’t understand women. Sometimes they’re just too smart, sometimes they’re flat out stupid. Other times they’re just evil.” But this cogent analysis doesn’t seem to get them anywhere: it doesn’t help Mark figure out what to do about the fact that he’s slept with his best friend’s fiancée, and it doesn’t help Johnny figure out why Lisa is acting so strangely. In fact, the male characters in The Room never reflect upon their own behavior or hold themselves in judgment at all, choosing instead to talk about women in terms so boneheaded as to turn what is very real and icky misogyny into comedy. You get the sense that Peter, who hilariously overstates the case in calling Lisa a “sociopath,” would probably apply that term to any woman doing something he considered morally questionable, and that he wouldn’t be the only one of them to do so.
While Johnny and Mark shake their heads in bewilderment and misguided rage (taking solace only in the soothing toss of the football and the occasional act of senseless violence), Lisa vacillates between her two beaux with all the pig-headedness of a six-year-old: “I don’t love Johnny anymore,” but “I can’t hurt Johnny—Mark is his best friend.” At any moment you expect Lisa to stomp her feet and start actively whining, which would be about as articulate as anything else she does. Unlike the men, though, Lisa at least examines her own actions, eventually celebrating her selfishness and deceit in a speech that shamelessly exposes what I can’t help but presume to be Wiseau’s own fear and loathing of females. Even so, Lisa, just like every other character in this movie, ultimately proves incapable of rational thought or action, much less personality, which makes her as impossible to relate to as anyone else. It’s hard for an audience to relate to characters who speak and behave like aliens whose understanding of communication seems to derive entirely from elementary school cafeteria banter.
The character we are supposed to relate to is Johnny, of course. Our unfortunate protagonist is spun as the only good man in a world gone horribly bad, sympathetic and pitiable in the manner of Greek tragic heroes. The movie showcases Johnny’s fundamental goodness in scenes in which he gives Lisa gigantic bouquets of roses, pays for a creepy orphan’s college tuition, consoles friends who lose their underwear with his hard-to-dispute catchphrase of “that’s life,” and pats doggies. And yet the guy can’t catch a break, whether it’s at his very vague job or in his home life. From the second that Lisa becomes Mark’s rose, we know that Johnny’s doomed, that everyone will betray him, and it’s watching the whole mess come to a head that theoretically is going to bring us to catharsis. Johnny’s relationship with Lisa, which had saved him, will ultimately only destroy him. Not once is the possibility that Lisa might actually be unhappy with Johnny treated with any sort of seriousness, by the way—in the mythos of The Room, her infidelity to a man so good is as inherently irrational as it is inevitable. (Why? Because she’s a woman.) And yet even in the face of his tragic fate, I think The Room wants to set up Johnny as someone whom we not only relate to, but whom we want to strive to emulate—just as Denny does. Denny, the awkward man-child who bumbles through the movie with a face as befuddled as the average audience member’s, is a character who I think exists solely to remind us how great Johnny is. Or perhaps he’s some kind of cipher for the audience—after all, like us, he really likes to watch.
Because what’s interesting about a movie in which all of the characters act like malfunctioning cyborgs is that it becomes a strangely voyeuristic experience. When you can’t possibly connect with a film and its characters emotionally or intellectually, you end up just kind of staring at it from the outside. Most bad movies are unpleasant to stare at in this way for very long. But The Room is so twisted and bizarre that it makes voyeurism immensely pleasurable. And when I say that the voyeurism is pleasurable, I’m not just talking about the grotesquely corny sex scenes, each more saturated in rose petals and dubbed-in moaning than the last—though these are indeed simultaneously painful and fun to watch, though not fun, I think, in the way Wiseau intended.
In fact, “painful and fun” is as good a phrase as any to summarize the experience of this movie. Tommy Wiseau has given us a film so singular, so personal, that it’s actually incomprehensible to his fellow life forms. I can’t think of another film that I understand so poorly and like so much. But here’s what I want to make clear: I don’t think I’m enjoying The Room ironically anymore, even if I was at first. Somehow it’s haunted me. Yes: it’s a bad, bad movie, and if you don’t like bad movies, you’re not going to like this. But Wiseau bares his lunatic heart (as well as his wizened ass) to us in The Room, and even if we don’t know what to make of it, it doesn’t detract from the grandiosity of the gesture. Failure of this magnitude is usually just depressing. But failure with this level of panache makes for a movie that gives me faith in the power of pure camp.