The Enigma of Tommy Wiseau
At some point in the last two or three years, the internet spilled out into the real world, and now there’s no way back. When today’s youth are asked by their grandchildren to tell tales of the early 21st century, they’ll have to explain it as “that time in history when everyone pretended to love cupcakes and bacon more than they actually did, to seem more interesting than they actually were.” Everyone’s fighting to be more self-aware and ironic than the next prick, each carrying a tray of Star Wars cupcakes and clad in t-shirts where a unicorn farts out a rainbow.
Cult has disappeared, drowned beneath a thrashing sea of faux-twee, embroidered-onto-a-cushion references, in a world where everything is cult and people talk only in memes, reciting words they’ve seen in white Impact font on a jpg, while planking on top of a bin outside the train station. There’s no depth beyond, just two-dimensional references laying across the surface. References stomped out punchlines; a hipster shorthand where you don’t need to say anything, or to have a deeper knowledge, point, or personality, because it’s enough to just refer to a thing, through a mouthful of your own chuckles.
All of which which brings us to The Room. Blimey, Millard, you’ve got your finger on the pulse ain’t you? You’re tackling The Room? Please do follow up with a critique of Gigli and Troll 2! I’ll be honest, I thought that too. What’s left to say about this most waffled on about entry in the shitty movie canon? But here’s the thing – as evidenced by the opening paragraphs, I’m cynical about anything that gets labelled as a cult. Are people throwing out quotes because it’s truly worthy of such attention, or is it just another meme that’s transcended the internet to become irritating on the solid, concrete pavements of outside? I needed to know, just for my own peace of mind, if The Room’s spot in the pantheon of cult is genuinely deserved, or if you’re all pretending to like it because you don’t want to go back to the days when nerds were stuffed into lockers, and not the self-appointed tag of 95% of the under-40s population. The speed in which The Room ascended to a massive in-joke makes me suspicious, at not even a decade old, but something drew in my curiosity. To give a hint, that something resembles a lumbering, bee-stung caveman in a Russell Brand wig. That something, is Tommy Wiseau.
I am, of course, aware of Wiseau’s place in popular culture. At first glance, you’re not sure if he’s a burn victim, or someone wearing a Halloween mask of his own face, but beyond the visuals, the crux is, just how self-aware is he? People are so desperate to not be fooled, that they have to quickly get in their protestations of how everything’s an elaborate Andy Kaufman smoke and mirrors con, where Wiseau peels off the hair as soon as he gets home and starts enunciating like Brian Sewell. Is he a Shaye St. John-esque performance artist, who never drops kayfabe, or just a proper nutter? Having seen Wiseau before, just not the film, my mind was pretty firmly settled on him being an actual mental case who didn’t realise he was different until people started mocking him, at which point, he embraced the nuttiness, and is now considered ‘in on the joke’, like a slow kid in highschool who laughs uncomfortably as the jocks sarcastically pat him really hard on the back. We’ve seen this before in Gary Busey, who’s out of his fucking mind, but knows enough to play it up, and in Nic Cage, who’s suddenly become typecast into the complete delirium he spent most of his career trying to keep a lid on, and is now encouraged to gibber all over our screens. Their personalities have become a character that they ‘do’, and the line became so blurred, that they could no longer go back, even if they wanted. Charlie Sheen tried it, but went too far in the wrong direction, and had to do an embarrassing climbdown, where he’s now one thing nor the other, and just another ex-junkie celebrity bore, apologizing for all the things he said during that five minute period when he was interesting. Wiseau though, straddles a curious line, being that his Wiki page lists him under the categories of both ‘living people’ and ‘internet memes’.
The film immediately has an odd quality of being from no time at all – and certainly not from the 2003 of its setting – like those strange imported European kids shows that ran on British TV throughout the 80s, with eerily off-kilter aesthetics, wobbly music, and speech that doesn’t match up with the lips. From the first line of dialogue, it’s clear that we’re in a cinematic no man’s land, with words spoken like aliens trying to pass themselves off as human. The phonetic sounds are there, and the words are ones we know from the dictionary, but the intonation is so unnatural, it stops being language. It’s like that dog on That’s Life who said ‘sausages’ when its owner moved its mouth up and down, it’s an imitation of speech, nothing more. Forget those films made by someone who’s never seen a film before, The Room is a film by someone who’s never seen people before. Wiseau writes and directs like a foundling, a Kaspar Hauser, fresh from the cave in which he spent the first 45 years of his life, and The Room‘s culty hook is the childlike mark of its auteur; writer/director/producer, Tommy Wiseau. When I started to put my own stuff out there, part of me wondered if I’d expose some as-yet unrealised character flaw visible in the material; to be the one person in the room who nonchalantly said “I wipe standing” while a dozen, sitter-wiping jaws hit the floor. Metaphorically, this film is Wiseau’s innocent admission that he wipes by hanging his arse out of the window and letting the crows pick it off with their beaks. As with a lot of bad writer/directors, the characters all speak with one voice. Wiseau’s voice happens to be that of someone completely unfamiliar with the rules and moves of human social interaction.
Witness the super-long love scene at the beginning, that feels like someone told a pair of kindergärtners to play mummies and daddies. “What happens in sex? There’s roses, right? And rain? Come on, let’s grunt too!” All of the (excruciating) sex in The Room plays like the footage on those 4am adverts for a 12 CD set of Best Ever Ebony Love Songs, for just 49.99; a misty QVC instructional of doin’ it, in soft lit, arch-backed, bump ‘n grind-o-vision. Even the list of gifts Wiseau’s character has bought for his girlfriend – clothes, a car, a ring – is a child’s view of love, where seduction happens with candles, sexy dresses, and phrases like “loverboy,” or “I want your body.” Similarly, when people are drunk, they wear ties around their heads, slur their speech, and drop things, and the entire film is painted in the broadest of broad strokes, like a toddler’s coloured handprints on a fridge door.
There’s an ethereal tone that brings to mind the hypnotised cast in Herzog’s Heart of Glass, but beyond that, it truly defies comparison to anything that’s gone before. There’s a level of disconcerting artifice throughout, where curtains billow into the room, in a synthetic, perpetual dusk, and it’s shot like a sitcom, with no fourth wall giving it the tone of a school play, where people enter and leave through a door you never see the back of, and you’re made to feel like an uncomfortable, front row spectator. The obvious dubbing adds another layer of unreality, and the performances are so stilted, it’s as though the whole movie is sleepwalking, one blast of an airhorn from snapping awake and wondering what the fuck is going on. You’d have a hard time replicating the performances in The Room, as they go beyond shitty acting into something else altogether. The many I love you‘s are said with all the passion of someone whispering “pardon me” after quietly belching into an empty room, and the line “I definitely have breast cancer…” is thrown out there so casually, you probably need to see it for yourself.
Wiseau moves like he knows people are watching; hyper aware of himself, his lank, jet-black hair is constantly being flicked, while his arms hang loose and knowing, the posture of a background extra in a mid 90’s rock video. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast has the chemistry of a getting-to-know-you game at a meeting for survivors of childhood molestation, and are so detached from what’s going on around them, it may have been shot on the set of The Phantom Menace. I’d always imagined doing a bad movie review-review of this film, where I broke down all the funny bits, taking the piss with over-egged similes, but The Room is less a movie, than a portrait of the world as seen through the eyes of someone not like us at all. It’s John Doe’s notebooks put to film; Louis Wain’s cats. Wiseau has a tiny frame of life-reference, seen in how the characters throw a football between each other in six or seven scenes, because, I guess, that’s how Earth-people spend their leisure time. All of it. I’m assuming that Tommy is so far on the Autistic Spectrum that he beats himself around the head every time Tom Cruise mentions taking a bath.
The Room is a strange morality play, with Wiseau cast as the wise, sensitive, and tragically doomed hero, martyred by the whoredom and betrayal by the people he loves. Offscreen, I wonder what women did to him where he ended up like this? You only have to imagine that stilted voice plying his best, and thoroughly alien chat-up lines around the LA bar scene, and a string of bemused, giggling rejections that tore him apaaaart – that is, until The Room became cult groupie-fodder, and he probably wore all the skin off his dick.
Wiseau’s final breakdown is nightmarish, taking that flu-dream aesthetic and pumping it full of rage, with the be-wigged Frankenstein’s monster sweeping things off shelves with all the urgency of someone who’s just found out they definitely have cancer. If Ian Curtis had watched that scene on the night of his suicide, he’d have killed himself twice, just to be sure. The part where he wipes his eyes with the ‘sexy’ red dress before, honestly, dry-fucking it, had me reaching for the rope myself.
A few other random things I noted:
* Eating chocolates off a lady’s windpipe is the height of erotica.
* “…me underwears.”
* The loud ADR slurps whenever anyone takes a drink.
* “Leave your STUPID comments in your pocket!”
* The worst chicken impression this side of GOB Bluth.
* That weird scene involving drug money and a gun, which is a hysterical PSA seemingly edited in by mistake, then never referred to again.
* Saying “Oh, hi (person’s name)” every single time a character appears.
To sum up, The Room is definitely worthy of its midnight movie status, but it completely stands alone. It’s an uncomfortable fit with your Plan 9’s and the usual cult fare, because it’s so detached, and made by someone who’d only ever ‘belong’ by being in on the joke of his own oddball nature, I consider it full-on outsider art.
At some point, hopefully sooner than later, I’m going to make a movie. Maybe I’ll expose myself as a guy who’s been seeing the world wrong all this time, but hopefully I’ve already laid down enough track as a weirdo where, if it really stinks, people might think I’m Andy Kaufmaning it.