“I genuinely love The Room. I never have a bad time, which is why I’ve been eight or nine times so far. Oftentimes when I’m feeling down or depressed, I’ll wish I could live forever in the dark space of The Room, where you can say whatever you want, people will laugh, and you never have to worry about the consequences of your actions. Forget booze, the real intoxicant is the film itself. Let the earnest ineptitude wash over you, and submit to the unholy power of The Room.” —Jon Danforth-Appell, The Room superfan
“Hi doggy.” —Tommy Wiseau, The Room
November 8, 1990. That was the day The Rocky Horror Picture Show was finally released on VHS, and for a dwindling audience of cultists, the day the midnight movie was officially declared dead. After a long holdout that managed to outlast the video boom of the 1980s, the film had reached that crucial tipping point where the communal experience of dressing up and yelling at the screen every weekend had lost to the temptations of ownership and private viewing. And with it came a symbolic and perhaps decisive shift of film culture from the movie theater to the living room. Part of the reason I write this column every week is to patch together some of those living-room cultists who catch up with movies on DVD and are looking for a safe space to obsess. Because where else can people like us get together?
But the midnight movie wasn’t entirely laid to rest—its emaciated zombie lives on in the smattering of theaters still hosting midnight shows around the country. You could make an argument for several movies given new life by the witching hour—Donnie Darko, Showgirls, and Troll 2 leap immediately to mind, and Road House seems to be gaining momentum—but Tommy Wiseau’s The Room may be the first true successor to the Rocky Horror throne. Since ending a two-week run at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 theater in Los Angeles in 2003, Wiseau’s self-distributed anti-gem has nurtured a cult following through once-a-month midnight screenings. And in the time since, as devotees continue to plumb the mysteries of its mesmerizing inanity, the audience has taken ownership of it: They throw spoons. They shout a repertoire of canned and spontaneous zingers at the screen. They reenact whole scenes in front of the theater. They toss the ol’ pigskin around.
Thanks mainly to an excellent Entertainment Weekly piece by Clark Collis, what was once a well-kept L.A.-only secret—or as secret as anything promoted by a bizarre billboard could be—has recently been spreading throughout the country, popping up in sold-out shows in New York and other cities, and on a recent episode of Tim And Eric Awesome Show Awesome Show, Great Job! Approaching the film as a Chicago-based outsider, with a healthy skepticism of L.A. phenomena of any stripe, I’m now convinced that it’s the real deal. It may not have the staying power of a Rocky Horror, if only because midnight-movie culture just isn’t as sustainable as it once was, but in the annals of bad cinema, The Room deserves shelf-space next to Ed Wood’s Glen Or Glenda? Both are personal and shockingly amateurish laughers that put their directors in front of the camera and are all too revealing of their odd peccadilloes. Wood has a thing for angora sweaters; Wiseau has a thing for pillow fights, red roses, and the Golden Gate Bridge. Who are we not to luxuriate in their fetishes?
Collis’ article covers the story behind The Room pretty thoroughly, so most of that background, I’ll leave to him. But here’s an amazing factoid: It cost $6 million to make. That figure includes marketing, too—no doubt five years’ worth of billboard space takes a toll—but the film looks like it was shot for 1/100th of that budget. Wiseau also apparently shot it on 35mm and HD simultaneously, with both cameras on the same mount, which might explain the problems he has with focus and what could euphemistically be described as “creative” use of offscreen space. The vast majority of the film takes place in one haphazardly decorated room—a room, not the room of the title, which remains tantalizingly enigmatic—and all expense was spared on competent crewmembers and professional actors. I’m imagining Wiseau as Zero Mostel in The Producers, selling 25,000 percent of his movie to a gaggle of little old ladies with the intent of producing a bomb and running off with the losses. Except that Wiseau’s scheme seems to have worked.
(Now would be a good time to refer you to A Viewer’s Guide To The Room, an exhaustive document prepared by Jon Danforth-Appell and his chums, who asked to be credited as “House Of Qwesi.” Since I’d never seen The Room before—and didn’t see it with an audience—I asked Jon to give me some background on the ritual. I’m grateful to him and his friends for going way beyond the call of duty.)
Virtually all the scenes that are interiors were shot in Los Angeles, but make no mistake: The Room is set in San Francisco. How do we know this? Most of the transitions from one scene to the next include a pan across the Golden Gate Bridge, so many that the audience cheers “Go! Go! Go! Go!” as the camera tracks across it. (Cue the deflated sighs when the camera doesn’t make it all the way across.) And in case the Golden Gate Bridge is too obscure a landmark, Wiseau also supplies a shot of Alcatraz and B-roll footage of himself, as spurned loverboy Johnny, hopping on a trolley. Golden Gate and Alcatraz seem to have some sort of symbolic value, but it’s never clear what, exactly; so it goes with the visual metaphors in The Room, where Wiseau makes a point of showing a young man chomping on Eve’s apple without following up with temptation or sin.
Sporting an accent of indeterminate Eastern European origin, Wiseau sounds a little like Peter Stormare as the cable guy in Logjammers, the porn-movie-within-a-movie in The Big Lebowski. (“That’s why they call me, I am expert.”) His Johnny is the noblest of boyfriends and most capable of lovers: He’s a stable provider. He’s faithful. He’s a steadfast supplier of cheesy silk dresses and red roses. And his horrific lovemaking features all the careful stagecraft and R&B grooves of a Three Times One Minus One video. But none of that satisfies his fiancée Lisa (Juliette Danielle), a wicked Jezebel whose boredom with Johnny manifests in a brazen affair with his best friend Mark, played by the dreamy Greg “Sestosterone” Sestero. Lisa’s seductive powers are clearly too overwhelming for Mark to resist, in spite of his serious misgivings as Johnny’s best friend and all. And did I mention that he’s Johnny’s best friend?
Between the four enervating love scenes that provide The Room with its Skinemax-ready raison d’être, Wiseau introduces a range of other characters who have a stake in Johnny and Lisa’s happiness. There’s Lisa’s scolding mother Claudette (Carolyn Minnott), who drops by for five-minute visits to beg Lisa to hold onto Johnny for financial security alone, because marriage isn’t about love. (Claudette also slips into conversation what may be the funniest non sequitur ever uttered: “I got the results of the test back. I definitely have breast cancer.”) Stopping by as well is Denny (Philip Haldiman), a fresh-faced “kidult” who seems like a voyeuristic creep until it’s revealed that he’s an orphan Johnny has taken under his wing. Johnny’s fatherly relationship to Denny comes into play later when he thwarts a drug dealer who has come to collect from the boy; the details of his drug problem (what he uses, what he owes, the severity of his addiction) are subsequently dropped. Then there are the minor “Who the fuck are these people?!” characters, including a couple who surreptitiously sneak into Johnny and Lisa’s place for a disgusting chocolate-enhanced snog, and another guy who shows up in the third act to castigate Lisa for making him feel like he’s sitting on the “atomic bomb” that is her sabotaged engagement.
At the core of all this superfluous nonsense is genuine, unmistakable, nakedly personal pain: Somebody out there hurt Wiseau badly, and The Room is his attempt to come to terms with it. His conclusion? Women are terrible, irrational, manipulative creatures who get off on toying with the hearts of good men. (The film’s runaway misogyny has not gone unnoticed by its devotees, who have turned “’cause you’re a woman” into “the Room equivalent of adding ‘in bed’ to a fortune-cookie fortune.”) Wiseau goes out of his way to excuse Mark from having any culpability in his affair with Lisa, hence the constant “He’s my best friend” recitations and the impression that her quirky, Kristen Schaal-like attractiveness is the feminine equivalent of Rohypnol. When she can’t persuade anyone that Johnny’s affection (and ox-like lovemaking technique) is suffocating her like a hothouse flower, Lisa starts making up stories about him drinking and hitting her, and cooks up a fake pregnancy in the eleventh hour. Even for someone of Johnny’s gentle temperament, it’s enough to tear a guy apart:
For as much trouble as Wiseau has figuring out women, men are just as profoundly baffling. He’s 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.
The sad impression left by The Room—and maybe the whiff of regret that could ultimately short-circuit its potential as a lasting midnight phenomenon—is that Wiseau is a lonely man who can’t comprehend even the most basic forms of human interaction. That’s also, of course, what makes the film so deliriously misguided and funny. In the years since The Room was made, Wiseau has pulled an “I meant to do that” on its perceived shortcomings as drama; “Experience this quirky new black comedy, it’s a riot!” screams the DVD cover. (Nice try, bud.) The average so-bad-it’s-good entertainment can only offer so much mileage, but The Room, like Glen Or Glenda?, is stranger and more revealing than a mere stinker. Through a film as unvarnished and florid as an adolescent’s diary, Wiseau offers himself up to the audience as few have the courage to do. He may get ridiculed in return, but deep down, in our most confused and humbling and vulnerable moments, isn’t there a Tommy Wiseau in all of us?
April 2: The Iron Giant
April 9: Jan Svankmajer’s Alice
April 16: Spirited Away
April 23: The Triplets Of Belleville
April 30: Millennium Actress