Saturday, April 23, 2011

Why 'The Room' is a Masterpiece

Foremost, I must suggest if you ever watch this film, watch it with a friend the first time around and not at a theater. Seeing a crowd react is something of a curiosity but detracts from the finer details. Like the likes of La Dolce Vita or Synecdoche, New York, this is one picture that must be seen twice to fully appreciate. This writing regards Tommy Wiseau's The Room which I'll assume you haven't seen. Its impact on a viewer is not that of one which goes away quietly, yet of an impression that lasts and summons discussion.

In the past, I've posted movie reviews consisting of a few lines rather than paragraphs, merely as part of an effort for people within an e-community to give and gain insight from like-minded users, in addition to any they get from critics or elsewhere. They were done only with fun in mind. Reviewing is a great exercise in refining, as well as reasoning, what you like and why you like it. Then along came The Room to warp my perception of what makes a movie great. It has since slowly crept its way onto my top five—just above Paris, Texas and below Badlands.

Film criticism would not well serve a world that disbelieved some elementary, deep-rooted truth. A coherent pattern at our core allows for the assumption that some movies will be better received than others. Yet that rhythm may be more thin and flexible than we currently consider. As is the case with critic Armond White, people have expressed distrust of a man who repeatedly vows for generally abhorred films while discrediting generally well-liked films. He could be a troll, or his definition of that essential truth may just be enough on the far end of our spectrum as to confuse anyone it confronts.

The general critical consensus currently leans toward the serious. Rarely does the Academy give credit to light-hearted efforts when considering best picture. Typically the awards are inundated with stories depicting a heavy-handed, serious message. Often times these movies are great, as tales of darkness are best at expressing the importance of empathy and optimism. Often times they're dull and vague, so I'm not surprised some run from weighty stories and head to the theaters for only Michael Bay. I see no reason for a distinction. Classics like My Neighbor Totoro or The Princess Bride serve as great examples of movies with messages steeped in optimism and clarity without excessive cynicism or seriousness. It's simply a different perspective. It reminds me of Hayao Miyazaki, a self-proclaimed pessimist, who is decidedly against imposing his negative worldview on youth, opting instead to "bless the child" with his art.

In Roger Ebert's review of Dr. Strangelove he reiterates the comic principle that people trying to be funny are never as funny as people trying to be serious and failing. With The Room, Wiseau may have reached its high point. Despite numerous viewings I'm a bit baffled as to whether it could have been planned. As a cynic I claim it's unintentional on the grounds of being impossibly good. The intellectual depth required here would imply a mastery of comedic sense, unbelievable foresight, an immensely wicked inner troll and a skill equivalent to Martin Scorsese on steroids. Nothing short of a modern-day Michaelangelo could perform it, and even then it's his Sistine Chapel.

Ebert also states that a bad movie is not reason enough to avoid it, rather suggesting being "bad and boring" is an unforgivable sin. It's a good starting point to ponder the line between genius and madness. Walking through Chicago with an acquaintance I randomly asked if he had seen The Room and what he thought. Without hesitation he responded, "It's a masterpiece, whether he realized it or not." Ed Wood, a movie made in homage to cinema's worst director, would stand as a less questioned masterpiece. The interesting part of that story is the credit given to a man's insane enthusiasm and dedication to his often impeded grand intentions, and the recognition that his releases, despite how poorly received, were in some strange way a palatable product. Ultimately I'm led to believe it doesn't matter what a director's intentions were. No one faults a director for having good luck, and likely some of cinema's greatest moments came that way. Is a bad director worth scrutiny instead of the same leeway?

In The Room's case, blind drive and enthusiasm paired with inconceivable incompetence and bad luck to create a work no less confounding and awe-inspiring than Citizen Kane. The end result was good luck: reaching status as a cult classic, selling out venues nationwide and screening around the world. Perhaps his fame could be explained by our admiration of courage. As the adage by Hemingway states, "Courage is grace under pressure." Wiseau not only showed tremendous drive in financing, writing, directing, acting, and producing his picture, but also grace amidst the ensuing chaos. When a lesser man might've barred its release, he toured, tossed footballs, and participated in Q&As. By allowing audiences to enjoy it anyway they like, he chose to focus on the bright side of his artistic effort instead of becoming subdued by ridicule.

My affinity for The Room is described well in the critically praised documentary Best Worst Movie. The rabid fans of Troll 2 have an inexplicable fondness for it, some of which is less mocking than genuine. In a telling segment, a horror movie journalist explains the importance of honesty and sincerity, saying "[Some bad films are] thrown together cynically. There isn't a cynicism in Troll 2." Having enjoyed The Room countless times, a new pleasure always presents itself. I adore the rekindled movie memories, the alluring, offsetting score, the unconscious irony, the absurdity that mimics our universe, the exploration of life through the eyes of an incompetent mentor. Particularly, a panning shot of a water fountain near the start that has come to represent my idyllic Heaven—pure and sifted of all seriousness.

Art by my perception is the "creation of beauty." It doesn't matter which way a river passed through land and deformed it into an interesting indentation. What matters is if the lasting image ultimately resonates. It seems no serious film critic has tackled The Room, perhaps to not discredit themselves by the potentially pointless examination of a cult phenomenon. It's a discussion worth having, as it alone challenged the basic way I value and rate art. Dissecting the film wouldn't do them a disservice. It might even be an act of courage.


  1. Brilliantly explained and displayed. Film critique at it´s best. For the on-going success and lasting cult screenings, I think the key is here, in your words " When a lesser man might've barred its release, he toured, tossed footballs, and participated in Q&As. By allowing audiences to enjoy it anyway they like, he chose to focus on the bright side of his artistic effort instead of becoming subdued by ridicule." Mander