When I first watched Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003), in preparation for my Trash cinema class, I watched it alone. I thoroughly enjoyed this experience but it was not until this week, when I screened it for 21 undergraduates, that I got the full effect of this masterpiece of cinema terrible. I had prepared my students for what they were about to watch: I told them the film had a strong cult following, that it has been dubbed the “Citizen Kane of bad movies,” and that fans had developed their own set of rituals, such as spoon-throwing. But, my students’ enthusiastic, joyous response to the film truly exceeded my expectations.
The moment Tommy Wiseau enters the frame in the film’s first scene and utters the words “Hi Lisa” in his strange, unidentifiable European accent, the room erupted in raucous laughter. And it only built from there. Usually, when I screen a film for students they remain quiet, laughing or gasping when appropriate and occasionally making a stray remark. But when watching The Room my students immediately sensed that it was acceptable to laugh, whoop, and even yell at the screen. When, for example, Lisa (Juliette Danielle) has a prolonged, Cinemax-style sex scene for the 3rd time one of my students exclaimed “But we saw this already, right?” And when a random couple appears in Johnny’s (Tommy Wiseau) and Lisa’s apartment (as characters often do in The Room), another student yelled “Who the hell are they?” When the film was over the students burst into applause, something which has never happened at a screening in my 7 years of teaching film classes to undergraduates.
In our discussion of the film yesterday in class, I asked the students to consider several key questions: Why is The Room considered to be a “bad” film? What codes, conventions, and expectations does it violate and why do these violations provoke laughter (as opposed to boredom or annoyance)? And if this film is so poorly made, then why do audiences gain so much pleasure from watching it?
Here is what we determined:
1. It’s Just Plain Bad
The movie violates almost every rule of storytelling: characters pop in and out of scenes with little explanation, plotlines are addressed and then dropped forever (Lisa’s mother’s cancer, Denny’s [Philip Haldiman] drug problems, etc.), and character dialogue is frequently nonsensical. Wiseau inserts establishing shots of San Francisco into the middle of scenes for no apparent reason and spatial continuity is nonexistent (does Johnny live in an apartment or a house and how do they get up to that roof deck anyway?). These problems are so pervasive that it almost seems as if Wiseau is making these blunders on purpose–but according to reports from his former crew, Wiseau was simply inexperienced.
Wiseau’s senseless dialogue:
One of many scenes that make no sense and do nothing to further the plot:
Who takes wedding photographs one month before the wedding?
Wiseau’s arbitrary use of establishing shots:
The film’s inability to convey the passage of time:
Is it “tomorrow afternoon” already?
2. It’s Camp
The Room is enjoyable precisely because it proposes itself seriously and yet we cannot take the film seriously because it is so over the top. Susan Sontag writes that, “Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste.” My students agreed that in terms of bad taste, The Room is as good as it gets. For example, in one of the film’s many sex scenes, Wiseau employs rose petals, gauzy bedding, bad R & B music, and a sinewy man thrusting away at a woman’s pelvis (I would include this clip but when I uploaded it to YouTube it was determined to be “pornography” and was removed). As my students pointed out, these sex scenes bring together every cliché of the Hollywood sex scene and the effect is overwhelming.
3. It’s Passionate
In Land of a Thousand Balconies: Discoveries and Confessions of a B-Movie Archaeologist (2003), Jack Stevenson argues that a great camp film is “the product of pure passion, on whatever grand or pathetic scale, somehow gone strangely awry… pure camp is created against all odds by the naïve, stubborn director who in the cynical, hardball, bottom line movie business can still foolishly dream he is creating a masterpiece without money, technical sophistication, or (orthodox) talent.” Indeed, The Room is infused with Wiseau’s passion. From its awkward dialogue to its nonsensical plot, the film is the embodiment of this strange, quixotic man. Watching The Room is, in many ways, like the reading the diary of a tortured teenage writer. My students agreed that it was Wiseau’s unadulterated passion and hubris that made the film so engaging to watch, despite its frustrating plot and characterization.
The best example of this passion can be found in the infamous “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” scene, a blatant rip off of a similar scene in Rebel without a Cause
But, if The Room is so very personal, if it is Wiseau’s soul up there on the screen, then is it wrong to subject this film to scrutiny on a regular basis? Is mocking this man’s art akin to walking into an art gallery and pointing and laughing at a painting that you think is shit? Or going to the theater and yelling at an actor for being bad at his job?
Fans react to “You’re Tearing Me Apart, Lisa!”:
4. It Makes Us Feel Better About Ourselves
This leads me to the final characteristic of watching The Room: it makes the viewer feel better about him or herself. In his famous study of taste cultures, Distinction (1984), Pierre Bourdieu writes, “Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make, between the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar, in which their position in the objective classifications is expressed or betrayed.” When we watch The Room and mock it we are essentially saying “I am better than this. I am superior to this.” For example, during the following scene my students howled with laughter–and when we rewatched it during our class discussion they laughed even harder. Why? As one student put it, “This scene is intended to show us that Johnny’s character is a good guy because he is always buying roses for Lisa. But it just FAILS.”
So are we cruel for laughing at Wiseau’s film, for laughing at Wiseau himself? On this point my students were divided. Some said yes, that they felt guilty for laughing because the film was so personal. Others argued that the moment Wiseau made his film and put it in a public theater, he agreed to public ridicule. Personally, I am torn on this issue–but that won’t keep me from watching The Room. And laughing.