WHO OWNS THE ROOM?
by Chris R. Morgan
Like everyone, I am subject to fits of what some call “black dog” moments. Moments in which the various tribulations life throws my way are less bearable than usual. They press on my skull, slow my pace, paralyze my thoughts, and embank me in so low a state that redemption seems if not impossible than hardly worth the effort. Again, like everyone. And like everyone I have my method of coping. Maybe it’s not the best, but it’s likely not the worst. I like to find a quiet place, a nice spot by a creek, for instance, where I close my eyes and run through a series of what-ifs. What if things had been different? What if I had been less neurologically afflicted? What if I was more socially aware? What if I was charming? What if I was better looking? (Or just had better hair?) What if I was more ambitious or disciplined? What if I was less fear-stricken? What if Queen Elizabeth had not defeated the Spanish Armada?
I’d like to think that such an alternate timeline is out there for these questions. One where this blog, and all the writing that preceded it, does not exist because I have a more suitable profession, maybe as a programmer for a startup, based in Santa Monica with a ragtag bunch of coders. After working on our sure-to-be-game-changing app, we head out at 3:30 to longboard down Venice Beach and drink some Lagunitas. We each play our best devil’s advocate in favor of single-payer healthcare. Then I hit the I-10 back to Echo Park to the bungalow I share with my long-term girlfriend, a gestalt therapist who writes essays about our open relationship for Hello Giggles and Salon, and two cats. I listen to Uncle Tupelo on vinyl before I hit the gym (Equinox is the wrong amount of phony so I just go to the Y). I meet some friends later at the bar where we drink more Lagunitas and lament the younger generation’s addiction to screens. A girl from Pepperdine confuses me for a member of Parquet Courts, but I “respect women” and play it cool. I’m on Twitter but only tweet maybe twice a week, most of those are retweets of Alain de Botton, Stephen Colbert, Christiane Amanpour, and Nietzsche quotes. My name is not Chris but probably Bradley or Webster. I go by “Dane” for reasons I cannot recall. I was raised Episcopal but prefer to go the Interfaith Atrium to meditate and discuss karma over Lagunitas. I don’t need therapy, but I like to go anyway because I think perspective is important.
But of course alternate timeline does not always mean preferable. Soon, Los Angeles would be in chaos. Its citizens running rampant in the streets, looting shops, burning piles of tires, and attacking and maiming one another with no rhyme or reason. My bungalow would be ransacked, my laptop smashed, my two cats impaled in the yard on sharpened croquet sticks, my records disordered and defiled. I’d escape north with my girlfriend provided I did not bargain her away already for some gas and Lagunitas. As the chaos spreads, I’d be last seen roaming Death Valley in search of an outlet for a smashed Android. The cause of this breakdown would be hotly debated for decades to come, but I’d know precisely the source. None other than Tommy Wiseau, director, writer, producer, and star of The Room, who in a fit of ego decided to let the cat out of the bag, preferably with the utmost subtlety, that he knew it, all of it. The joke? He was in on it. His masterpiece? Not “the worst film ever made” but the spectacle of it all: the cult obsession, the books, the films about the film. All of it.
I hope, anyway, that that is the exclusive fate of my alternate life, for I fear that such a devastation is every bit as possible here. Because on top of climate change, supervolcanoes, and thermonuclear war, the revelation that Tommy Wiseau is not the entertainingly clumsy outsider artist of international renown but a cold and guileful showman is one last disaster we do not need. The workaday normie may chuckle at such an insinuation, but a whole swath of the creative class, and their sophisticated millers-about, have their perceptions so wired to the former that it fortifies a worldview unto itself. Any slight suggestion to the contrary acting like a Death Star-level design flaw.
When I first saw Tommy Wiseau, I did think he was a creation. It was in 2009 and he was appearing on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! as himself. Tim and Eric had an almost Arbusian flair for filling their show with awkward and unconventional performers, for which Wiseau fit the bill in spades. Even when they showed the incomprehensible flower shop scene from The Room I still wasn’t sure if it was real. When I read about the film on The AV Club later that month, I was finally filled in. By the time I actually watched The Room in a friend’s basement I understood the ins and outs of it and its phenomenon.
The experience was less fun than if I had been flying blind, but I was still amused. How could I not be? Watching Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a primary mechanism for getting through my inept childhood. And like all nerds who were finely attuned, for good and ill, to their imperfections, I leapt toward all things imperfect, regardless as to whether they reflected me or elevated me. It was through this portal that I discovered many of my present interests: noir, horror, drive-in culture, punk rock, zine-making. All of independent culture lives in this nether realm, and because The Room is more independent than most, its sophisticated audience was practically assured. In fact, Room fandom has become a paradoxical marker of sophistication, like being blocked by someone kind of famous on Twitter.
In narrative terms, The Room is a mercifully straightforward film, telling of a relationship that deteriorates and leaves a man so hurt and isolated that he commits suicide. In production terms it is less simple. Everything that has been said about how poorly made The Room is has been confirmed over and over again. It is demonstrably bad in almost every aspect. Tommy Wiseau possesses neither technical training in nor natural talent for the cinematic medium. Many, in fact, look on the film as though it should not exist, or that its existence is the result of a collective cultural unconscious being made flesh. Things just don’t happen without a reason.
In the 1999 Simpsons episode “Mom and Pop Art,” a botched attempt to build a backyard barbecue pit gains Homer entry into the art world when it is mistaken for a sculpture. He is hailed as a genius by the likes of Jasper Johns (guest appearing of course) and much to the dismay of Marge, a trained but unsuccessful painter. But when his repetitive work wears on his admirers, he wows everyone—Marge included—by flooding Springfield. The accidental genius trope is a common enough one in comedy; in fact The Simpsons revisited it from a literary end with Moe as a brilliant poet. It speaks to the peculiar relationship that sometimes sparks between artists who may or may not be outsiders and outsiders who make art. The difference doesn’t seem very stark or significant on the surface when one has a grasp of arts vast and general history, and even in the face of classic examples of the relationship it still doesn’t seem very unique. That’s mostly because the relationship has a use so limited it seems almost protected.
While I hesitate to declaim certain forms of art to be more legitimate than others, it is unavoidable that certain forms of art have a broader, more consistent appeal to the point that standards of some form are made clear. Art is the extension of the artist’s priorities, experience, and skill, but artists also recognize a canon, which they invariably comment upon whether in homage or defiance. Francis Bacon, for instance, had no formal training as a painter, but used classical portraiture and photography to refine his craft. Art also has “things” to “say” about “life” that can be easily registered, even while not wholly correct, through the unique framing of the artist. If imagination can be chained by discipline and still walk, then it is canonical art. “Outsider art” recognizes no such strictures, existing entirely for its own sake, and hence gives off the impression of naivety. Sitting as outsider art’s patron saint is Henry Darger, a Chicago custodian with a history of being institutionalized. His magnum opus is The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, which he worked on for most of his adult life. At over 15,000 single-spaced pages it is both beautiful and disturbing. It was also not known about until after Darger had died when his landlords discovered it and his other manuscripts. Free of the drive or knowledge of the promotional arts, there is an air of the happenstance, even the fateful, in the outsider artist. While Daniel Johnston is without question a good songwriter, I’m left to wonder how his present notoriety would have played out had he not been working at a McDonald’s in 1980s Austin.
Wiseau is not gifted to the same extent as Darger and Johnston, but his cluelessness makes him appear as though cut from the same cloth. The original 2003 release of The Room was marked by a single billboard ad over Highland Avenue in Hollywood displaying Wiseau’s unsettlingly vacant stare. Of Wiseau’s background we have little to go on, but we know at least that he is not from the United States and gained just enough understanding of American norms to know that they exist but not how they function. The Room is painfully earnest; in fact that is its one artistic saving grace. “Viewers leave The Room with a raw impression of Wiseau’s alienation from (and hostility toward) the women who have bruised him,” Scott Tobias wrote, while “viewers leave Birdemic knowing nothing about [director James] Nguyen that can’t be broadcast through a megaphone.” Whatever The Room’s faults, there’s no overlooking its purity of vision. And purity is a creative attribute prized by the impure. In addition to Tim and Eric, Wiseau has developed a following among generation X and millennial comedy performers like Kristen Bell, Alec Baldwin, Seth Rogen, and James Franco. A cynic has an ideal climate. He or she can revel in its unadulterated vulnerability while reframing it with in his or her own joke as he or she sees fit.
But The Room has its own fateful aspect: what if Tommy Wiseau didn’t have any money? Wiseau has been coy about the precise source(s) of his funding for The Room, the budget of which ballooned to $6 million. There was mention of importing clothing form South Korea, as well other entrepreneurial and real estate ventures that suggest phenomenal business acumen, but it is all pure speculation until Wiseau decides to articulate himself. More fascinating than the film itself is the process by which it was made. Thanks to his costar Greg Sesteros, who wrote a memoir of the experience, we have a better idea of it. Wiseau exerted total control over production, with no one to overrule any of his decisions, such as filming completely gratuitous scenes and repeatedly firing cast members and whole crews rather than just himself from either (though there is a bizarre feud over directorial credit). It’s almost as if, for Wiseau, product mattered less than production. That he had the ability and resources to wield power on set makes him a filmmaker. And here, Wiseau has a point.
True independence is hard to come by, and the feeling is often better than the results. James Franco has channeled the fruits of his talent as a comic actor into a series of wasteful vanity projects. He acquires advanced degrees like designer handbags; he published a collection of sub-writing workshop-quality short stories and starred in the adaptation; he directed forgettable cinematic carnival rides of out Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy. He appeared on General Hospital over the course of several episodes and wrote it off as “performance art.”
Wiseau has one thing in common with some of the most revered cinematic stylists today: he is not very prolific. Once The Room was reborn into its current infamy, Wiseau rebranded it as a “black comedy,” albeit with little success. A decade after his debut, Wiseau produced a series called The Neighbors, a sort of bizarro Melrose Place by way of the single-camera sitcom in which he stars as the both the building manager and a petty criminal. Originally considered for Adult Swim, it is streaming on Hulu. “[Wiseau has] become a beloved midnight-movie staple, a carnival barker who plays up his ‘mysterious weirdo’ persona for monetary gain and fan service,” goes the F-grade AV Club review. “As a result, he seems to be counting on his many devotees to unquestioningly follow along on The Neighbors’ misguided experiment in low-budget entertainment. But whatever lightning in a bottle that birthed the man’s unprecedented success is long gone.”
Agency, in a way, is more crucial to the artistic life than independence. For those who are steeped in creative industry—with firmer ambition, clearer direction, and a supply of good fortune—following instincts has few obstacles. The outsider artist has less maneuverability, however, being dependent on various “mentors” who understand the world into which they have stumbled. Escaping them seems impossible. Critics plucked Jean-Michel Basquiat from graffiti art obscurity, dubbing him with honors like “the radiant child;” he jumped from art dealer to art dealer producing numerous but increasingly predictable paintings to fund the heroin habit that killed him at age 27. Not that actually finding agency is any better. For decades the identity of the reclusive Texas musician “Jandek” was a matter of notable if not heated speculation. After the release of the 2003 documentary Jandek on Corwood, interest reached a fever pitch, the redhead frequently seen on the record covers—Sterling Smith—started performing live for the first time. A tribute album followed, then everyone lost interest.
Whether Wiseau was trying to improve his work or capitalize on his notoriety, he hit a wall in doing so. His talent, to be sure, played a significant role here, but so too did the onlookers who erected it in the first place. No one asked for The Room to be made. But once it was made, people gladly accepted it for their own whims. Assessing Joy Division, Peter Saville said, “The two works are Unknown Pleasures and Closer, and that’s it. Everything else is just merchandising.” The same, for all intents and purposes, applies to Wiseau and The Room, though switch out merchandising with commentary. A film like The Room never seems truly finished, at least not until everyone has had their say, whether from spoon-throwing fans, The AV Club, RiffTrax, the Nostalgia Critic, or myself.
But to let Wiseau comment on anything, let alone through his own work (admittedly he never clearly comments on his work), seems unfathomable. We need not hear what he may have to say on, I don’t know, the state of cinematic art, the role commerce plays in it, or even the emotional extremes to which we are pulled by love. That’s too much noise, and also quite dangerous, particularly now that James Franco is directing and starring in an adaptation of Sesteros’s memoir The Disaster Artist. Perhaps the alternate timeline is the preferable timeline after all, one where I would be spared a world destroyed several kilotons over by the most unprecedented chain reaction of meta in the history of postmodernism.
Funding for this post has been provided in part by Pabst Brewing Company.