It is safe to say that Tommy Wiseau (pictured) has singlehandedly turned my notions of success and celebrity on their heads. I am befuddled.
In 2003, Wiseau created — no, no, unleashed — a film called “The Room.” Why it is called “The Room” you may invent for yourself, since the movie makes its title irrelevant. The movie is bad. Let me say it this way: It’s terrible in a way that perplexes you with its awfulness. Not because it is poorly written or directed or acted or shot or contains poor special effects or has a storyline (that is its basic plot from one scene to the next) that in the most sympathetic sense of the phrase, is “illogical to the point of being mentally defective.” It is not a bad movie for any or a few of these reasons, but for all of them. And probably more. If ever a film set needed an intervention, this was it.
But so what? There are plenty of bad movies. They’re released, people see them or don’t, and they drift away into the past, never to be heard from again. This sort of thing happens all the time. However, in the case of “The Room,” the simplest question to ask becomes the most stifling to answer: why is this movie still around?
Oh, and it is (around). The film is shown at midnight on the last Saturday of every month at the Laemmle’s Sunset 5 in L..A. This has been going on for five years. For a few of those years, Wiseau paid for a billboard out of his own pocket to advertise. FOR A FEW YEARS, he did this.
First, let me tell you about seeing the movie. The easiest description is “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” crossed with “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” (In fact, check out the RiffTrax for it).
People dress up like characters from the film, there is a sense that everyone in the theater is a part of the event, and everyone mocks the film. Except with “Rocky Horror,” the audience becomes a part of an established event, they are integrated into it. For “The Room,” the event people are there for is the tearing down of the film itself. The audience becomes the main event and the film itself is the sideshow.
And let me tell you, the show is amazing. There is even almost a script to it. Boring exterior shots fall into three major categories, each of which has a corresponding chant: Shots with water in them are met with “Water!” The five to 10 with Alcatraz are met with “Alcatraz!” And any shot panning across a bridge is cheered with “Go! Go! Go! Go!” If the camera makes it from one side to the next before cutting to another shot, it wins and everyone cheers.
Characters constantly play football in the film (often under-handed tosses of 3 feet or less), so people throw a football back and forth around the theater (during the movie). A character’s mother announces early-on, “Well, I got the test results back. I definitely have cancer.” Anytime she enters a room or touches someone, everyone shouts “Cancer!” When the lead actress kisses someone, everyone makes a chomping, munching noise. There is an audience-imposed “Intermission,” and people leave the theater, even though the movie doesn’t stop.
Probably the most famous gag involves spoons. Somewhere, sometime, someone noticed a framed picture of a spoon in an apartment in the film. This information was distributed in some manner and people found it amusing. It is. Now, anytime the Spoon is in-shot, people yell, “Spoon!” and all of a sudden, hundreds of plastic spoons are thrown — in the air, at the screen, behind you, it doesn’t matter where, it just matters that you throw them. This happens at least 15 times during the movie.
But it’s not all scripted. There are random comments made here and there, and for the most part, at least in the theater I was in, people weren’t all talking at once. And, for the most part, the comments were really funny, and I got the impression over half the audience were regulars. Their timing was flawless, sometimes pre-emptively yelling out a set-up so that the actions on-screen became the punch line.
Going into the movie, I was curious to see what the attitude would be. Would it be 200 hipsters passing judgment on something “beneath” them? Would the comments be genuinely funny or coy and snarky? I was pleasantly surprised and utterly fascinated. There seemed to be one all-encompassing rule: Tommy Wiseau, himself, is off-limits.
All the acting is terrible, but one actor was singled out for total ridicule: Juliette Danielle, who plays Wiseau’s unfaithful girlfriend. If she is on-screen, the jokes are flying. And the thing is, her acting is bad, but it’s not any worse than anyone else in the movie. The reason she’s treated so badly is because her character mistreats Tommy Wiseau and here, that is the unpardonable sin.
From about 10 p.m. on, people are lining up outside for the movie. By 11:15, the line is well-over 500 people strong and is wrapped around an area at least as large as a football field. A little later, the line’s down the stairs. About 11:45, Tommy Wiseau himself shows up to applause that can only be described as uproarious. For the next 15 to 20 minutes, he walks the entire line, greeting people and taking pictures. People run up to him, smiling, shake his hand, snap pictures, hoist out copies of the film for him to sign. Everyone is smiling. No one goes inside until he’s done.
When we do, he is standing in front of a large poster for the film and is again surrounded. Another 20 minutes go by. Wiseau goes to each theater for a five to 10 minute Q&A before the movie starts. This allows the theater to stagger the start times and avoids everyone exiting the theater at once after. It also allows Tommy to interact with his fans. His persona is like his film: weird, ridiculous, and so impossible to take seriously you can’t help but find yourself rooting for him. People ask him funny questions, like “What’s the difference between the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds?” (His response: “There is none.”) but there’s no trace of malice, only anticipation at how he’ll respond.
This is anti-cinema at its finest. The very tearing down of the film becomes the event. The destruction doesn’t precede the replacement for the film, it is the replacement. If the midnight showing consisted solely of entering a theater and silently watching “The Room,” there would be no following. People show up specifically because they are allowed to participate. And so in a way, Tommy Wiseau has achieved anti-celebrity, which is not the same thing at all, by the way, as infamy.
Infamy is being well-known for doing something bad. Tommy Wiseau is well-known for doing something badly. Probably no one believes he is a great or even competent writer or director or actor or producer, but when his name shows up on-screen, people howl and cheer like he’s a rock star. They adore him because he has provided a setting for this event to take place and has allowed it to continue. People know how rare this is. This is an instance of anti-cinema started not by the artist but by the audience. Wiseau has gotten out of the way of his own movie, and people have responded by loving him for it, which inadvertently puts him back front-and-center of the whole night, which probably goes a long way toward his getting out of the movie’s way. It doesn’t matter that his film is terrible, because seeing the movie and making fun of it isn’t terrible. It’s enjoyable and great. Wiseau accidentally created something more entertaining and important to people than if he had made a good movie. He has provided the necessary conditions for a wonderful experience.
Which explains (sort of) why it is still around, though not how it came to be. In an age when movies are out of theaters in two months with $300 million in their pockets, this is a stupefying anomaly.
It’s maybe the only time bad word-of-mouth has turned into good word-of-mouth (I’m resisting the urge to dub it “anti” word-of-mouth). It’s beyond even a cult classic. It is word-of-mouth that didn’t simply inspire repeated viewings and new recruits, it evolved the way the movie was viewed at all. It’s also specific to the current generation. This sort of thing seems out of place in the ’80s or ’90s. An ironic and cynical view of the entertainment industry and the notion of celebrity are so much a part of our culture right now that the idea of this movie sounds almost too good to be true. It seems like the quintessential example of American society.
I have to admit when I first heard about it, I wanted to go to see the train wreck. But being there, seeing Wiseau and the way everyone treated him and acted, there is an underlying (and completely unspoken) sentimentality to it that took me by surprise. People are protective of him. When someone shouted that this was the worst movie of all time, they were immediately booed. The fact that people genuinely like him and actively refuse the opportunity to mock him is kind of moving. It goes against everything we normally do as a culture. Wiseau has disarmed us by allowing the whole thing to take place. Whether calculated or not, a gesture like that fosters admiration, not mockery.
But now here’s the thing. People absolutely do mock the movie, which wasn’t made as a joke. And it is so bad that if someone made that movie sincerely, then it’s possible and likely that that same person might be unaware how people view that movie. It’s hard to explain this, because artistic ability and social intelligence are not inherently connected, but this movie is essentially Tommy Wiseau’s mind captured on film. It’s ALL him. Watch him in interviews. He seems to wear blinders to many aspects of his own artistry and audience. Is this okay? Is this a good thing? Is he deluded or wise? Does it matter that people don’t like his movie if they genuinely like him?
Well … now here he said he’s adapting “The Room” into a musical and is trying to get financing to take it to Broadway. I hear that and think he can’t be serious. How can he expect it to succeed? It makes me think he’s not in on the joke, that he has mistaken the kindness of fans as an indication of quality. This material can’t sustain daily viewings. The audience isn’t big enough. Plus, does anyone in New York care that this was an L.A. phenomenon? Isn’t it more likely they’ll see it as just a terrible musical? Does he expect the musical to develop the same sort of following where people come in, throw spoons and mock it but love him? When these sorts of practical applications are made, the proceedings take on a sad quality.
It’s almost like Wiseau was created a fantasy of success that accidentally became a reality, but not in the way that he had hoped or maybe even realizes. I wouldn’t want him to read this article, but I do want him to be able to make a living off of “The Room.” I would be fascinated to see him make another film. Is that patronizing? Am I using him an artistic lab-rat at that point? Have I made him into a hypothetical situation instead of a human being? Or am I being too harsh? He’s a grown man, he’s not mentally disabled, he makes his own choices, and he wants to show his movie. He has an audience that genuinely likes him and wants to see his movie and enjoys the opportunity to make fun of it and is very up front about all those things. I have no idea if Tommy Wiseau watches the film every month, but surely he has at some point. And so the question I want to know is, what does he think of what he sees?
Jason Eaken is on Twitter at http://twitter.com/EAKEN.