by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Last night’s “feature” was an unlikely item: a 2003 independent production called The Room, a romantic-triangle story set in San Francisco produced, directed, written by and starring one Tommy Wiseau, a tall, dark, not all that handsome but not all that unattractive either type who claimed Orson Welles as his inspiration (well, they do have something in common: six-letter last names beginning with “W”) who somehow managed to put together $6 million to make a film that attracted enough of a cult following that Tom Bissell wrote an article about it in the current (August 2010) Harper’s that piqued my curiosity and made me order a copy of the DVD.
Besides Welles, his apparent role model, Wiseau told Bissell he also admires the work of Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean (and the dialogue of The Room features enough of the “cheep-cheep-cheep” challenges to the various characters’ masculinity Wiseau copied from Rebel Without a Cause that an imdb.com commentator listed this film as “referencing” Rebel), and The Room originally was intended as a wrenching, Williams-esque drama in which Lisa (Juliette Danielle), live-in girlfriend and fiancée of Johnny (Tommy Wiseau), drifts into an affair with Johnny’s best friend Mark (Greg Sestero). When Wiseau screened the film theatrically and found audiences were laughing at it, he resourcefully changed his marketing pitch and called it a “black comedy” even though there’s nothing funny about it except by pure unintention.
Bissell’s article made it sound like Wiseau is the 21st century Ed Wood, which he is and he isn’t: the opening scene is in color and in focus, and Wiseau acually has a somewhat interesting camera eye even though most of his visual ideas were done far more beautifully and engagingly by Josef von Sternberg decades before Wiseau was born. (There’s also an addiction to candle-lit sex scenes, with bad soft-rock songs in the background, which makes it seem like Wiseau saw the Streisand version of A Star Is Born and had an orgasm then and there.) Where The Room comes off as Wood redux is the quality (or lack of same) of the acting and the weirdly elliptical character of Wiseau’s writing.
The Room begins with an establishing shot of the Golden Gate Bridge — Wiseau shot enough footage of the bridge from enough different angles during his second-unit trip to San Francisco (the interiors were shot at a studio in L.A.) that every time we see it we’re reassured that it’s still there, suggesting that maybe instead of a romantic melodrama Wiseau should have made a terrorist thriller with himself as a baddie plotting to blow up the bridge, which would probably have been equally stupid but also a lot more entertaining. The Room cuts from the bridge to the interior of the titular room — where at least three-quarters of this 99-minute movie takes place — and a scene in which Johnny brings Lisa a low-cut red dress, she puts it on and they make love — after they get rid of Denny (Philip Haldiman), an 18-year-old whose plot function we have no idea of at first, who insists on remaining with them, though since all they’re doing when he shows up is throwing pillows at each other doesn’t seem all that much out of line: he just wants to be in on the pillow fight, too!
Then Johnny leaves and Mark arrives, and Lisa seduces him; he’s reluctant at first (“Johnny’s my best friend!” Mark protests — in fact he and Johnny call each other their best friends so often during this film Charles suggested Best Friends might have been a better title for it) but ultimately he pounds away at her. There’s also a dizzying array of dramatis personae Wiseau plugs into the action while only giving us a dim awareness of who they are or how they relate to his central characters, including Lisa’s stereotypically nagging mother Claudette (Carolyn Minott, who comes closer to acting than anyone else in the film), who pleads with her daughter not to blow it with Johnny because he’s doing so well in his job (which is either working in a bank or doing IT consulting for banks, we’re not sure which) and is in line for a promotion — which he doesn’t get — and another couple, Mike (Mike Holmes) and Michelle (Robin Paris), who for reasons Wiseau doesn’t explain (there’s a lot of character background Wiseau doesn’t give us, less because he’s being post-modern and more because he’s just being sloppy) have to meet in Johnny’s apartment to have sex because they can’t do it where either of them actually live.
The bulk of the film deals with the quirky friendship between Johnny and Mark and builds up the suspense of how Johnny is going to react when he finds out that Mark is having an affair with Lisa — but we get quite a few other extraneous characters, including Peter (Kyle Vogt), a psychiatrist whom Mark nearly kills by throwing him off the roof of Johnny’s apartment building; and Chris-R (Dan Janjigian), a (white) gangsta type (though frankly he did more for me physically than either Wiseau or Sestero did) who shows up at the apartment building to terrorize Denny into paying a debt that somehow involves drugs. Johnny, Lisa and Claudette catch Chris-R in the act of threatening to shoot Denny with a distinctive-looking silver gun and Johnny absurdly easily pulls Chris-R off Denny, after which Chris-R leaves and Lisa and Claudette lecture Denny about letting himself get in debt to a drug dealer. “I owe him some money,” Denny confesses, and Lisa says, “What kind of money?” — which Bissell lampooned (“Why does Lisa appear to believe there are different kinds of money?”), somewhat unfairly: it’s an established fictional convention that “What kind of money?,” used in reference to a debt, is slang for “How much money?” — particularly, “What order of magnitude of money?,” since a debt in the thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars clearly has a quite different plot significance than a debt in the hundreds.
Johnny eventually explains that Denny (who, being 18, naturally has a schoolboy crush on Lisa — though he doesn’t try to act on it and she doesn’t try to seduce him, which would have made this film even kinkier than it is) is an orphan he was planning to adopt, and now that he’s 18 Johnny is paying for Denny’s apartment and giving him money for a college fund. At some point in the story a football appears, and in one of the most bizarre scenes of this bizarre movie the four male principals all go out and play catch with the football in the tuxedos they’ve bought for the upcoming wedding of Johnny and Lisa. The climax occurs at a surprise party Lisa gives for Johnny, in which all his friends appear — except Peter, since Kyle Vogt apparently had a fight over “creative differences” with Wiseau and thereby got himself written out of the ending — in which a new pair of unexplained characters appear, Johnny finally catches on that Lisa and Mark are having an affair, and he responds [spoiler alert!] by reaching into a box he keeps under his bed, drawing out a gun (needless to say, it’s the same prop gun we saw Chris-R hold on Denny earlier, though as with so much else in this maddening film it’s unclear whether we’re supposed to read it as the same gun or not), sticking it in his mouth and shooting himself, leaving Mark and Lisa to discover the body. Instead of doing the obviously sensible thing — calling the police — Mark and Lisa just hang around the scene and start arguing, Mark sticks his hand in Johnny’s blood (which made me briefly wonder if the final irony was going to be Mark getting arrested for murdering Johnny), and eventually Mark tells Lisa that he blames her for Johnny’s death and doesn’t want to see her, let alone screw her, anymore.
I’ll give The Room credit for a few things — including casting the surprisingly buxom Juliette Danielle as Lisa; Marilyn Monroe was about this zaftig but these days the only actresses a major studio would consider casting in a role like this look like breadsticks with tits. But any potential this story could have had — and did in various tellings ranging from Tristan und Isolde and Pelléas et Mélisande to two truly great films with similar premises, Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night (1952) and François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1963) — gets sabotaged by Wiseau’s airy indifference to story continuity (he builds up seemingly important subplots — like Denny’s mysterious drug-related debt and Claudette’s confession to her daughter that her test for breast cancer just turned out positive — only to drop them completely) and even airier indifference to character consistency.
Had Lisa been drawn the way Fritz Lang and Clifford Odets drew Barbara Stanwyck’s character in Clash by Night — a bored, burned-out woman who married one man (Paul Douglas) out of boredom and ended up having an affair with his friend (Robert Ryan) out of still unrelieved boredom — she could have been a genuinely tragic figure and the plot of The Room might have had some broader meaning. Had Wiseau written her the way Truffaut wrote Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) in Jules and Jim — as a borderline psycho who gets off playing the men in her life against each other — The Room might also have the dramatic interest and quality it totally misses as it stands. Instead we just watch the antics of these three people with almost no clue why they do what they do, as other characters and plot situations surface around them and then just disappear again.
The Room is a wretched movie but also one whose writer-director-producer-star’s cheery indifference to his utter incompetence in all those functions is what gives it a haunting appeal. One item Bissell mentioned in his article is that “Johnny and Lisa, enigmatically, have around their apartment several framed portraits of spoons” — a detail I missed while watching the movie (there is one recognizable spoon-like shape in an abstract painting on their wall), I suspect because the “spoon paintings” simply weren’t recognizable as such on a small-screen TV playing a DVD — which has led to a Rocky Horror-like ritual of audience members throwing plastic spoons at the screen whenever one of these paintings appear. Apparently Tommy Wiseau was even more of a diva off-screen during the making of The Room than his character is on-screen: according to Bissell, “Wiseau fired the whole crew four times over” during his production, while an imdb.com “Trivia” item says he replaced the original actors cast as Mark and Michelle because of “creative differences” (their scenes were reshot) as well as losing Kyle Vogt in mid-shoot and writing his character out of the rest of the film.
Certainly The Room comes off as an enormous ego-trip, made by a man so ignorant of the basic economics of filmmaking that he not only bought (instead of renting) all his own equipment but shot the film simultaneously in 35 mm and high-definition digital video (apparently mounting both sorts of camera on the same tripod) because he was confused about the difference and couldn’t make up his mind which would give better results. The Room is one of those bad movies you can’t get out of your head once you’ve seen it, a film that at once fits into the so-bad-it’s-good and the bad-film-that-could-have-been-good categories, and the same disinterest in real human emotions and motivations that led Wiseau to make it the way he did has also made him invulnerable to criticism; Bissell ends his article with Wiseau making a personal appearance at a Los Angeles screening and beaming as much at the audience’s love for his movie as (unintentionally) hilarious as he would be if they’d taken it as the tough, no-nonsense, emotionally riveting drama he intended. “That night in Los Angeles,” Bissell wrote, “he was as famous and well loved as he has ever been and nevertheless seemed like an unfortunate cultic animal we had all come together to stab at the stroke of midnight. We were laughing because we were not him, and because we were.”