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The Room (USA, 2003)

I first heard about The Room in this AV Club article from March last year. It’s an indie 2003 melodrama that has become a midnight-movie audience-participation sensation, because it’s so bad and so weird. This weekend I finally saw it for myself, going with NotKate and R the Judge.

The Room was written, directed, and produced by its star, Tommy Wiseau. His character, Johnny, is engaged to Lisa, but Lisa embarks on an affair with Johnny’s best friend. This tears Johnny apart. Alongside this core triangle there are many unexplained asides including a character announcing she has breast cancer (never referred to again), a character tearfully admitting his involvement in the drug trade (never referred to again), and a character having an embarrassing underwear-related incident (the character later gives a detailed description of the incident to another character in case you slept through it the first time; after this, it is never referred to again).

We saw it at the Paramount and the cultish midnight movie crowd were enthusiastically in attendance. Two young men came in costume as Johnny and Lisa. Masses of plastic spoons were hurled at the screen. Everyone chanted “go! go! go! go!” as the camera panned across the Golden Gate Bridge. I suspect I lost about 1/3 of the dialogue in the film to the din of audience catcalls. It was a bit wild.

Even in this chaotic environment, this film got to me.

First up: it is a terrible piece of filmmaking. The script is awful, the performers are all over the place (including Wiseau himself who is on another planet entirely), the set dressing is absurd, the cinematography is rubbish, the pacing is bizarre. It’s a whole other level of bad filmmaking.

But these weaknesses I think enhance the crazy power of the film. By the end my mouth was hanging open. I was astonished by what I’d just witnessed (and, thanks to the audience engagement, been part of.) The Room is Wiseau’s unique view of the world. It is impossible to imagine that this story is not drawn heavily from autobiography. As the AVClub article says, someone hurt Wiseau, badly.

The title is perfect, because this film is immensely contained. Almost everything happens in one room, and the plot and the characters likewise seem trapped there, venturing out into sunny San Francisco from time to time but returning over and over to that one space. Despite Wiseau’s prominence in the material around the film, we see a lot more of the unfaithful Lisa. She is a compelling villain; her vicious lies and extreme selfishness seem to stem primarily from the fact she’s a woman.

Others have noted that nothing much happens in the film; there’s a lot of incident, but very little plot development. I’d describe it slightly differently. I think that lots happens in this film, it’s just that it’s largely the same thing happening over and over again with slight variations. Johnny finds out about the affair three times in three different ways. The characters declare their core statements repeatedly: “I’m going to have some fun,” “He’s my best friend.” The same sex scene happens twice, using the same shots edited together in a slightly different order. All of this is in no way linear. (In fact, another AV Club article points out that time in this film doesn’t advance; although lots of things happen, the wedding is a month away at the end of the film just as it was at the start.)

It has instead the character of obsessive rumination. These are the tortured thoughts of someone lying awake at night going over and over everything that could have happened, all the different ways their partner might have betrayed them, all the good times that are irreversibly tainted, all the ways they might resolve this situation. You’re trapped in these inwardly spiralling thoughts for the duration of the film. It is a deeply intense experience. For me, it made the climax of the movie hugely shocking and viscerally powerful.

I almost want to think of the film as a piece of outsider art. Wiseau was helpless before his drive to create this film as an expression of his thoughts and feelings. He has radically exposed himself, and seems oblivious to this fact. What he has made does not fit within the standard mode of production for film or storytelling. It’s a deeply personal expression that creates its own world.

And, lest it seem like I’ve forgotten: it’s deeply terrible. It deserves every bit of the loving mockery it has gathered.

I found going to see this in the cinema was an incredibly worthwhile experience. I don’t know that I’ll ever go again – being trapped in Tommy Wiseau’s sweaty, clenched nightmares is not exactly my idea of a good time, even if there’s a bunch of other people there shouting out amusing comments. The Room lived up to its billing as an amazing late-night experience; to my surprise, I think it lived up to Wiseau’s personal hopes far more than he might ever have realized, and exposed far more of him than he could possibly have understood.

(Aside: this is one of the very few times I’ve seen Happy Birthday sung on-screen. In fact, I can’t recall another specific time. All due to copyright claims and related issues.)

{ 11 } Comments

  1. Pearce | November 15, 2010 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    I’m sorry to have missed it.

  2. Scott A | November 15, 2010 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    one evening, with ale and whiskey to hand, myself, B-Boy, Smackdaddy and some others tried to watch this.

    Only lasted about fifteen minutes before we got terminally bored and put Tokyo Zombie on instead.

  3. Jenni | November 15, 2010 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    Oh hai Morgan, what’s new witchu?

  4. morgue | November 15, 2010 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    Oh hai doggy
    Oh hai Danny
    Oh hai Mark
    OH HAI JENNI

  5. Jon | November 15, 2010 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    I can’t believe Kate went and saw it a second time…

  6. Svend | November 15, 2010 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

    There was one woman in it that seemed weirdly out of place, possibly because she seemed like she could act. I don’t know — by the time she turns up (she’s Liz’s friend), I was a bit numb.

  7. David | November 16, 2010 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    (insert tiresome bitchy comment about rewarding ineptitude and throwing good money after bad – honestly, you’re better off with this precis)

  8. Pearce | November 16, 2010 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    I have to say that I can empathise with Scott A – the main reason I’ve largely ignored The Room is because it is not a genre movie. A large part of the joy I usually get from bad movies comes the way some of them disfigure genre conventions.

    Ed Wood’s movies were all exploitation movies that were bizarrely deformed by his demented obsessions. Yes, I would laugh at some of the ineptitude of Glen of Glenda, but more than that I would enjoy the way that he attempted to shoehorn his own personal observations, horror movie tropes, and “shocking” exploitation tropes into one package. Which then exploded.

    Robot Monster tries to create a villain that will terrify, using just a gorilla suit and a diving helmet. It tries to establish an “otherworldly” atmopshere, but all they have to suggest this is a bubble machine. You can consistently see what the filmmakers are trying to do, and it’s the immense gulf between where they are and where they want to be that provides the entertainment.

    An inept tale by a self-indulgent guy blatantly exorcising his own demons seems less interesting to me personally, regardless of how bizarre he is. It seems to me that without being able to enjoy the deforming of genre, I’d have to get on side with the guy (which doesn’t sound appealing); get so far off-side with him that I would just be mocking his misery (also not appealing); or just sit there waiting for it to end (done that far too many times already with other movies).

    I’m not criticising anyone else’s love for this movie, or suggesting that anyone else would respond to it like this. I’m not even saying that I would not watch it if the chance arose again. I’m just saying that I’m deeply dubious that I would enjoy it.

  9. Sean M | November 16, 2010 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

    Great post Morgue. You go a long way towards articulating my own feelings about this film. (For the record, I’ve seen it five times now. And can imagine going back in again.)

  10. Kate | November 17, 2010 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    Jon, seeing it the second time was quite a different experience. The first time had a shock value. The second time was more of a shared experience. I had spoons.

    Johnny and Denny and Mark and Peter and the-guy-who-replaced-Peter are all like friends now. I look forward to them walking on screen, into the room, so I can say ‘Oh, hi!’.

    Svend: That was ‘Michelle’. She and Mark were my picks for the Best Actors. Though, Lisa’s mum has a certain scene-stealing charm.

  11. Jet Simian | November 19, 2010 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    I’ll have you know that face haunted my Wednesday night dreams, Morgue. He was absolutely barking (not literally) in them as well.