October 04, 2010
Make Room! Make Room!
Last week, I saw The Room for the first time. I had been aware of its dodgy reputation for a long while--friends in Hollywood had told me about the perplexing billboard that stood there for a good five years, as well as the various midnight screenings that took place around the Los Angeles area--but there were two roughly concurrent assessments of the film that finally prompted me to sit down and watch it. The first was Newgrounds' "The Room Tribute", a Flash game that recreates the events of the movie as a 16-bit RPG. The other was Alex Jackson's brief paragraph in a comment on the FFC Blog: "Speaking as a 'bad movie' buff, I actually hated it. Made me feel like it would be cruel to laugh. The content is just not abstract enough to benefit from Wiseau's ineptness." Whether it was bad or merely "bad," this was something that I needed to have in my life.
Now, I'm hardly an authority on bad movies, but it's always fun to hunt down the most infamous titles and find out how you react. Sometimes you laugh, sometimes you cringe, and sometimes you find something worthy of honest appreciation. One of the biggest surprises was Phil Tucker's Robot Monster, which was so many kinds of fucked-up that, deep down, it seems somewhat aware of its own ridiculousness; not blinded by Ed Wood's giddy appreciation for cinema, but a story that needed to be told nonetheless. It was only a matter of time before I got around to The Room, but I can't remember the last time I reacted so violently to a "good" bad movie.
The follies of The Room are well-documented: characters repeat the same lines with bizarre regularity; subplots involving breast cancer and a violent drug dealer are forgotten almost as soon as they're introduced; character motivations seem to change mid-sentence. I have to disagree with Alex on one major point--it would be cruel to laugh, but only because the movie is impossible to comprehend. A man, Johnny (actor/writer/director/producer Tommy Wiseau (he gives himself a title card for each role)), his "future wife" Lisa (Juliette Danielle), his "best friend" Mark (Greg Sestero) and his surrogate son Denny (Philip Haldiman)... it's true that the film's attempts at narrative are meager and straightforward (woman cheats on her fiancé with his best friend), but the execution goes beyond the pale. No matter how "good" The Room was supposed to be, or how much entertainment value it could provide as a "bad" film, I had no idea what I was watching. The film assumes that we know the characters more intimately than we actually do--did the final cut accidentally leave out a reel? The image looks a little out of place, a little too hazy, for something released in 2003--was it shot in 1987? The first half-hour alone features three sex scenes with the same woman, complete with some repetitive R&B--did Wiseau start out with a porno and fail spectacularly? Why do these people spend so much time playing catch with a football? Why do they fall down so often? Why? Why? Why?
Now, I haven't seen Best Worst Movie, so I can't say whether or not that film provides insight into the phenomenon of "so bad it's good." I have, however, seen Troll 2, the film whose fan base it documents. The dialogue is improbable and the leaps in logic are simply too far to make, but I don't recall ever being bewildered by the structure of it, exactly. It always feels broken beyond repair, but never outright dismantled. I laughed at Troll 2, but The Room's most inexplicable moments are lobbed at the viewer with such aggression that my first instinct was to curl up into a fetal position. The very least of these moments burrowed deep under my skin: when characters call each other "chicken," they don't cluck, they cheep--and Wiseau cheep-cheep-cheeps so many times throughout the movie that I began to wonder if he was making fun of me. Yes, watching The Room confused me, frightened me, and made me just a little paranoid. It's as if there was a joke, and I wasn't sure who was playing it, or whom the intended target was.
Wiseau is a somewhat terrifying figure in his own right. He's a mysterious character whose background is fuzzy at best, with an accent that's impossible to place. How did he finance this thing? Again, the details are vague. Wiseau apparently wants to maintain some control over his image. (A one-sided "interview" with the director on the Room DVD also suffers from the movie's most glaring technical flaw--several lines from Wiseau's pre-chewed lectures have been looped in ADR.) But one thing's been bothering me ever since I met The Room with wide-eyed incredulity. If it's so unfathomable and the artistic failure is so complete--and, furthermore, if I can't laugh at it--why can't I regard Wiseau with the same sympathetic eye that I offered the fictional Joaquin Phoenix of I'm Still Here? "They don’t understand The Room was done intentionally to provoke the audience," Wiseau once told LAist, and that was certainly the impetus behind Phoenix's act. But while The Room certainly provoked me, I never actually believed that it did so intentionally. I feel that, if Wiseau ever tried to tell us that his escapades were a hoax, I would ferociously reject that claim. Why? If I embrace the fake clown but deride the real clown, doesn't that make me just as ignorant as Hollywood's condescending Oscar mill?
Part of the problem has to be that Wiseau is difficult to pin down in terms of precedent. In fact, the closest approximation to The Room that I can imagine is a parody of bad cinema. More specifically, a collection of cartoons produced by Something Awful in 2008--the saga of Peezle Ward. What began as an April Fool's Day joke eventually blossomed into a full-blown series about a fictional hack writer who has penned "more than 10 but less than a billion short stories." By "adapting" Ward's scripts in a brusque monotone, Dave Kelly and Josh Jones attempt to understand artists like Wiseau and pick apart the reasons for their failure. The first few episodes (Lawyer Street, Escape from Satan's Ass) establish Ward as obsessed with very important issues without knowing how to approach them: "I know rape is a very sensitive subject, but I believe I handled it very tastefully. It changes Frank forever. In the end, he believes in God. That's called character development. The self-rape was an analogy for time travel; I call it quantum rape." The rest of them (Ghost Unit, Fire Killers, Brave Aeronauts and Christmas in Essex) revolve around one all-conquering hero whose professional brilliance excuses his personality: "That black family thanked me for saving their lives. They didn't care that I had to hack up a dog to do it. May I remind you, officer, it was a black family."
Of course, it takes zero effort to link a dearth of talent to an enormous ego. But the Peezle Ward series tackles the very basic components of The Room by forcing its characters to spout exposition in long strings of static dialogue. More fascinating, and more important to this conversation, is how that dialogue is comprised almost entirely of circuitous insults from the author's surrogate/Mary Sue, Pete (or Tim, or Pip). The profane stream of consciousness mirrors Wiseau's belligerent direction quite well, and by the end of each cartoon you understand Ward as a terrible writer, a screaming misogynist, and utterly self-absorbed... and then you anxiously click over to the next installment, unable to look away. How will Pete stick it to his superiors this time? How will he (improbably) save the day? It makes just enough sense to force you into wondering where it's all coming from, and where it's all going. The series is a great satire because it's completely engulfed by the original source(s)--and if it doesn't completely decipher films like The Room, it explains their allure all too well.
"The Room Tribute" finally puts the rest of the pieces together. The player takes on the role of Johnny, and the game is presented exclusively from his point of view as he wanders in and out of the story proper. Plot holes are filled where necessary--the player has to take drug dealer Chris-R to the police, and we're there when Johnny learns that Lisa has accused him of domestic abuse--but most everything else is taken verbatim from the movie. (It even faithfully recreates the plodding soundtrack in chiptune.) An inventory and a turn-based battle system nominally make it a video game, but these conceits don't actually add up to a challenge. Collect spoons! Make sandwiches! Catch the ball! Throw the ball! Push your best friend! It's more about reacting to the silly plot than anything else. Johnny starts off with some six million dollars, and he never spends more than two hundred--not including the $50,000 used to pay Denny's college tuition in a single, negligible instant. So how can he possibly complain about an elusive promotion at the bank? By utilizing, and then ignoring, the interactivity inherent to the medium, "The Room Tribute" engages a conversation with the player/viewer about how Wiseau ignores nearly everything necessary to create dramatic tension.
"The Room Tribute" succeeds so well not just because it highlights the oddities of The Room, but because it acts as an interpreter of sorts. Now, the game cannot make sense out of the movie, per se. The new dialogue stands so far apart from the recreations of Wiseau's script that it cannot dilute the wackiness of the original work. Rather, it presents The Room as a supernatural dreamworld. An earthquake cuts the characters off from the rest of San Francisco, defining the playing field in a move reminiscent of "It's a Good Life." Levels are divided into days, and most of them begin with a sequence inspired by the ending of "Super Mario Bros. 2". Every store in the four-block area is operated by the same woman (the owner of the flower shop in the movie), who always makes it a point to mention that Johnny is her "favorite customer."
The game goes to great lengths to demonstrate that Johnny is everyone's favorite--the banker's favorite employee, the cops' favorite citizen, San Francisco's favorite donator. To drive the point home, it's soon revealed that Johnny's big, "confidential" client at the bank is none other than Tommy Wiseau himself. Despite the fact that it sees the movie as beyond all reasonable logic, "The Room Tribute" knows that if it operates within a dreamworld, it must be Wiseau's dream. Again, that's hardly a revelation, but what the game does is isolate Wiseau's ego and labels it as the lone source of all that wackiness. The conclusion is that The Room isn't bad because of the stilted dialogue--it's bad because Wiseau has so little respect for the cast, the medium and the viewer. At the end of "The Room Tribute", the player can either act out the climax of the movie with Johnny, or lead him outside first. In the latter scenario, he will take his anger out on the various people who have wronged him throughout the week. As he says in the film, "Everyone betrayed me; I'm fed up with this world." Tommy/Johnny is the hero of the story, the saint and the martyr, and that's all the more obvious when he becomes a video game protagonist from the late '80s/early '90s... one who barely does anything to deserve canonization.
What all of that means is that by "interpreting" The Room, "The Room Tribute" also cuts through the bullshit that makes it so difficult to approach. In the final analysis, what's so hard to grasp about an act of transparent narcissism? Portaying him as strange, artless, and not of this Earth, the game does see Wiseau is a provocateur, but not in any way that matters. "Joaquin Phoenix" was a passive character until we responded negatively to his public antics, and from there he revealed our prejudices about art and movie stars. With this big film about big important things ("do you understand life?"), Wiseau came out swinging, demanding our accolades right from the start, like a spoiled child. His artistic aggressiveness comes not from the inanity of his work, but from his self-satisfaction, and weirdness aside, that just makes The Room a run-of-the-mill bad movie. He prodded his audience, and contrary to his later claims, I don't think he ever expected them to prod back. True to his ego, he took in all in stride and grabbed all the attention he could get. The joke that drives "The Room Tribute" (ostensibly another outlet for Wiseau to exploit) is that it's the only tribute that The Room could possibly warrant. I laughed--and it was a catharsis that I desperately needed.
A subsequent viewing of The Room held no additional surprises for me--indeed, despite having a grand old time playing "The Room Tribute", I didn't take much joy from watching the moments that I now recognized as cult iconography. The veil of nonsense had been lifted, and the husk that remained just bored me stupid. I can't say anything for the midnight showings--they might be fun, after all--but they've given Wiseau license to peddle this film as an intentional comedy. No one actually believes him, but it's the mystique of the ultimate bad movie that keeps it alive, and that's far more than what the real movie deserves.