The mythic cult film whose popularity is growing, The Room , will be presented with two special shows at the Piedmont Theatre in Oakland, with in-person appearances by its cult star and filmmaker Tommy Wiseau, on Friday, August 29 and Saturday, August 30, at midnight each night. We celebrate this special occasion with two appreciations of The Room by Dennis Harvey and Tien-Tien L. Jong.
by Dennis Harvey
We’ve all seen a “midnight movie” sensation or two that did nothing for us. I confess eternal indifference toward sacrosanct The Rocky Horror Picture Show , despite having been precisely its ideal audience—a gay Heartland teen looking for affirmation in the late 1970s. Perhaps a cinema snob was already born, but it just seemed so … obviously, lamely “camp,” even when first seen circa 1978.
Yes, Reefer Madness is funny the first time, but did anyone really need to see it again and again? Not while the Russian literary canon goes unread, honey. Speaking of films that hugely benefited from the ingestation of illegal libations, The Harder They Come was a great raggae promo but a very poorly crafted film; Pink Floyd’s The Wall was airhead surrealist profundity for suburban air-guitarists everywhere. Boondock Saints ? Don’t get me started, frat-fanboys.
I’m just naming personal non-favorites; there are plenty of midnight movies I’ve loved, from early John Waters features and Eraserhead to ? . But they’re all divisive—the bad taste or stylistic delirium or ineptitude or whatever that strikes some viewers as “Sooooo booorrring” (or amateurish, etc.) while delighting repeat viewers.
There is one such movie, however, that may never fail to astound, even as it sometimes repels or perplexes. Has anyone, ever, failed to be knocked sideways—and I don’t mean exclusively in a pleasant way—by Tommy Wiseau’s The Room ? THE midnight phenomenon of the last decade, it remains the gold standard for collective-viewing cultdom eleven years after a decidedly low-profile premiere run that could hardly have been more ignored by critics and audiences.
What happened since? And why, Jesus, why? So much about The Room remains inexplicable—and that is the absolute crux of its appeal. No one will ever fully explicate The Room . It is the ultimate example of that ultra-rare cinematic species, the movie that appears to have been made by people who view “people” from the unmistakably “off” perspective of space aliens. As portrayed here, human behavior has a general familiarity, yet the precise details and rhythms are so skewed they come off as an unconsciously perverse imitation of normality. Ditto the film’s craftsmanship, which both reaches for glossy conventionality within its low-budget means, and feels entirely severed from the realms of standard narrative, technical, et al. continuity.
Some movies astonish because they seem made by beings who’ve never actually seen a movie before … but they’ve heard about them. They aren’t just bad, they’re transcendently other. To a short list that claims the likes of 1966’s Manos: The Hands of Fate and 1990’s Troll 2 , The Room is a chart-topper. It is guaranteed to flabber your gast like it’s never been flabbered before.
The Room is in outline a very simple, earnest story, no matter how utterly irrational it may play out in moment-to-moment plot and psychological details. Johnny (Wiseau) is a stand-up guy with really big rockstar hair, a massively pumped body and unplaceable former-Soviet-territories accent who’s just your everyday banking executive in San Francisco. Everybody loves Johnny, and why not: He’s virtue personified, chirping “Hi!” to everyone who crosses his doorstep, resisting inebriate substances, and helping ambiguously “at risk,” very old-looking teenager Denny (Philip Haldiman) by being a role model.
There’s one person, however, who appears not to love Johnny as they ought. Sadly, that person is his live-in girlfriend Lisa (Juliette Danielle), who is getting bored and looking to cheat on him just because she is that kind of [insert expletive of personal choice here]. Though her own mother (Carolyn Minnott) tells her she’s a fool to give up such a generous “provider,” and though Lisa moans on cue during several soft-focus candle-lit sequences with Johnny (whose granite-like hindquarters always seem to dominate the frame), she is an ingrate. Worse, she sets about seducing Johnny’s own best friend Mark (Greg Sestero). Tragedy ensues.
So: Nice guy, bad girlfriend, doomed triangle. Simple enough. But somehow nothing is ever simple in The Room , where the most elemental actions or statements often defy logic. (Starting with the title … no particular “room” is ever highlighted in this story.) Everything about this movie is Officer Doofy to the tenth power. Particularly the efforts of the other actors to act natural around the spectacular idiosyncrasy of Wiseau, who is like a wax museum Vlad the Impaler trying to pass as Tom Hanks. You can quote tin-eared dialogue, you can enumerate the film’s incredible gaps of plot, character, and even scene logic. But nothing can truly encapsulate the Room experience. You truly must see it yourself to disbelieve it.
I’d watched The Room several times on DVD before ever seeing it with an audience. Viewed in isolation, it’s a wonder. But the community aspect is surprisingly enchanting: It adds a whole different dimension to sit with a theatre full of fans shouting “Who ARE you?” (at the film’s many arbitrary introductions of characters we’re presumed to already know), parroting Wiseau’s unique line readings, or throwing plastic spoons at the screen (an in-joke not worth explaining, but hysterical in context). The jokes aren’t mean-spirited so much as they accentuate the movie’s utter, unintended absurdism.
According to Sestero’s rather terrific book published last year The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made (co-written with Tom Bissell), the film’s creation itself was even more of a comedy of errors than you might imagine. He met the mysterious Wiseau when they were both taking acting classes in San Francisco, first at American Conservatory Theater, then the Jean Shelton. With his all-American California boy good looks and suburban upbringing, Sestero cut a conventional aspiring-young actor figure. Then there was Tommy, a flamboyant long-haired figure of indeterminate older age and Old Country accent (Wiseau still keeps a tight lock on that intel), his broken English as distinctive as his bizarre performance choices in class. Intrigued rather than alarmed, Greg was just about the only person actually willing to do scene work with this loose cannon, and an unlikely friendship was born.
Still, he was surprised when some time later, after he’d moved to try his luck in the Los Angeles “industry,” Wiseau—seemingly driven to competitive action by his pal’s early professional success—announced he was producing, directing, writing and starring in a feature film. Sestero, naturally, would be the second lead.
He wound up wearing a lot more hats than that during The Room ’s production, largely because Tommy proved so unpredictable and irresponsible wearing his self-assigned ones. You’ll have to read The Disaster Artist to get all the delicious details. Suffice it to say, Wiseau’s alternately officious, tardy, arbitrary, rude and insecure behavior during the shoot—not to mention the unique problems raised by his “WTF?” screenplay—created an atmosphere of barely contained chaos. Multiple d.p.’s came, saw, and quit before principal photography was done. Those with less experience, notably the actors, imagined their fledgling careers going down in flames if The Room ever saw the light of day.
Which it did, to everyone’s shock. “Wiseau Productions” finally opened the film in 2003 Los Angeles, taking out huge billboards all over town featuring Tommy’s dessicated-rock-star visage and the puzzling tagline “Can You Really Trust Anyone?” (Just where the money for that or the film itself, came from remains murky—though Wiseau had once lowered his personal iron curtain of secrecy enough to show Sestero the clothing business he owned in S.F.) But the few reviews were as brutal as they were baffled, and there were more metaphorical tumbleweeds rolling through the theater than there were ticket buyers. It made a reported total of $1800 during that presumably four-walled 14-day run.
But intrigued, two film students did buy tickets, and were so enthralled they basically started its cult following all by themselves. Their enthusiasm eventually gained prominent supporters in L.A.’s starry comedy community, which in turn gradually attracted mainstream media attention. Private screening parties led to public ones that became recurrent midnight shows in an ever-growing number of cities. Audience participation rituals a la Rocky Horror evolved en route.
This was, no doubt, not precisely the kind of fame Tommy Wiseau had envisioned for himself. But he seized it nonetheless. He rebranded the film as a “black comedy” (“Experience this quirky new black comedy, it’s a riot!” says an unattributed “press” quote on the DVD cover), pretended all the humor subsequently thrust upon an almost entirely humorless film was deliberate, and was characteristically vague when pressed on any point. He sustained his own personal mystery, whether deliberately or not. (When I did a phone interview with him several years ago, the reception made it sound like he was standing on a mountaintop in a windstorm, though he cheerfully declined any explanation.)
He announced several lofty followup projects, including a Broadway musical version of The Room . No one was surprised when they failed to materialize. But one spinoff does seem highly likely to happen: Seth Rogen’s company has acquired rights to Sestero’s book, with James Franco possibly attached as director and star. James Franco is many things, but he is no Tommy Wiseau. No one else could even get close.
The Room has been running regularly as a midnight at S.F.’s Clay Theater for quite some time now. It plays Oakland’s Piedmont on Friday and Saturday, August 29-30, with The Man himself in person. If you’ve seen Wiseau do a personal appearance before, you may know what to expect: The somewhat impatient, thinly veiled tolerance of a man trying to ride a wave he started without admitting that it’s now powered by fascinated, somewhat affectionate, but basically ridiculing laughter at his expense. As Sestero writes, “The magic of The Room derives from one thing: No one interprets the world the way Tommy Wiseau does.” But if the writer-producer-director-star imagined he might dazzle us with that insight, instead he has hypnotized us with its inscrutability. He’s famous now, a personality that fascinates, but not exactly in way that’s taken seriously. It’s like he was aiming for Daniel Day-Lewis but hit Jerry Lewis instead.
We’ll leave the last statement to Sestero and his fine book: “In the end, the phenomenon of The Room has allowed me to realize that, in life, anything is possible. The Room is a drama that is also a comedy that is also an existential cry for help that is finally a testament to human endurance. It has made me reconsider what defines artistic success or failure. If art is expression, can it fail? Is success simply a matter of what one does with failure?”
Dennis Harvey has been publishing film reviews since the era of the typewriter. He’s a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and currently writes for Variety, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and Fandor.
The Disaster Artist: An Appreciation
by Tien-Tien L. Jong
As with a lot of films that go on to become cult classics, on a first viewing, The Room is all but unwatchable: hopelessly incompetent, uncomfortably cheesy, deeply confusing whenever it’s not painfully boring and—above all—supremely alienating. Unexpectedly, on a second viewing, the movie actually gets a little better, and funny even, with its strangeness and delusions of adequacy approaching Grey Gardens levels of craziness. By a third viewing, you’ll be hooked for life.
“Imagine a movie so incomprehensible that you find yourself compelled to watch it over and over again. You become desperate to learn how (if) on earth it was conceived: Who made it, and for what purpose?” This introduction in The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room , the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made to Tommy Wiseau’s most infamous creation is as good of a description of the film The Room as any other you’re likely to find.
The Disaster Artist is a memoir written by Greg Sestero (who plays “Mark,” the closest thing to a conventionally attractive person to be found in The Room ) recounting his experiences during the making-of the film and, more significantly, examining his relationship with the legendary Tommy Wiseau. Part of what makes The Disaster Artist such a sadly pleasurable read is its promise to reveal some of the methods behind the madness of The Room . Part of why it’s hard to turn away from The Room as a film, even as an exceptionally bad one, is because of how gratuitous and confounding the entire movie is. One of the first real ultimatums the movie gives its audience is a bewildering and painfully overlong sex scene at the beginning—featuring two entire, off-putting “original songs’” worth of unpleasant rolling around between Tommy Wiseau (“Johnny,” our hero) and leading lady Juliette Danielle (“Lisa”). But maybe I’m just projecting—like most of the film, I’m not sure who this scene was made for.
It’s rare to see such an extreme level of solipsism and seemingly gleeful disregard for nearly all of the conventions of classical Hollywood narrative as is on display throughout most of The Room ‘s filmmaking. Much of the film could be mistaken to be the brainchild of someone who has never, personally, seen a Hollywood film before—so tortuous and aggressive is its insistence on meaningless non-sequiturs and incomprehensible narrative flow. The singular popularity of The Room is a topic I’ve spent a fair amount of time considering, and I think part of its strange magnetism can be boiled down to this: consider that we, as humans, have a long legacy of telling and sharing stories, that storytelling is a common form of communication that has been found in all cultures and eras of human society. As Walter Benjamin observed, part of why we are so attracted to stories is because they give us a way to recast our shared experiences; our natural inclination, even, is to tell and re-tell stories. In this light, The Room ‘s absolute inability to provide this basic, centuries-long-established social function is a large part of what makes the film and its creator so hilarious and fascinating, and likewise, what makes The Disaster Artist so appealing (despite its own frequently bizarre and laughable writing style, such as this actual example of prose from the book: “Gobs of oncoming headlight filled the car and withdrew.”)
One of the (many) leaps of faith The Room demands of its audience is the impossibility of accepting Johnny/Tommy as a product of his environment, the northern California landscape. With his thick European accent, “Cro-Magnon profile, wild black hair, and Blade Runner sunglasses,” it’s not surprising to see why Tommy Wiseau is such a subject of fascination, and The Disaster Artist manages to give us a tantalizing glimpse into Tommy’s mysterious origins, while leaving us wanting more.
“How clean and untroubled these young-Tommy eyes were, especially compared to the eyes of the man standing next to me, and their spook-house repository of secrets….I leaned in for a closer look at the fridge-door Tommy as the following thought passed coldly through me: Something really awful happened to the guy in this picture.” (page 56)
“I suspected that Tommy had probably had a normal life at one point. Then, I presumed, some kind of personal calamity—nervous breakdown, midlife crisis, heartbreak, addiction, something—caused him to grow his hair long and go into hibernation, only to come out broken and different. I was catching Tommy as he emerged from that reclusion, and the thing powering his emergence was his reignited desire to become an actor. I was curious to learn as much about Tommy as I could. It felt like I was seeing a case study of what happens to someone whose dreams had been stifled.” (page 86)
The story of Tommy Wiseau told in The Disaster Artist is one which returns again and again to a jarring sense of alienation and nonbelonging, and so one of the most remarkable twists in the story, both in the book and in The Room ‘s afterlife as a midnight favorite, is the way in which the incomprehensible story of The Room—against literally all odds—has found a cult audience and fulfilled the social function of bringing lots of different people together around one experience. Reading The Disaster Artist, you get a sense that, although it’s not always pretty when people follow their dreams, it can still be a weird and wonderful thing.
In a former life, Tien-Tien Jong worked as the Director of the Dartmouth Film Society and as a coordinator for the shorts division of the Telluride Film Festival. She loves animation, silent film, and film noir, and has a soft spot for ballet and opera in British, French and American films from the 1940s-’60s. Her favorite theaters are the beautiful Paramount in Oakland and the Castro in San Francisco.