Sunday, July 27, 2014

What Makes The Room So Great?

The Room's Johnny asks "Why is this happening to me?" -- reflecting
the sentiments of many who watch this film.

I recently re-watched Tommy Wiseau's The Room (2003) -- my fourth or fifth viewing now, I believe -- in order to share its greatness with my girlfriend. During our post-screening discussion she asked me a very provocative question: Why is The Room such a gleeful pleasure to watch while the Star Wars prequels are not? If all these films are flat-out terrible (which they are), how and why does The Room cross over into "so bad it's good" territory while Star Wars Episodes I - III cannot?

While the Star Wars prequels are as badly written and directed as The Room -- and I say that in complete earnest, no hyperbole intended -- the thing that makes them disturbing and gutting rather than fun is that we know that their creator, George Lucas, is capable of delivering at least decent, and sometimes even great, movies.* So Lucas' numerous artistic and technical failings on the prequels are haunted by the possibility that those movies could have been good. If Lucas would have brought on additional writers, surrogate directors, etc. and just focused on the one thing he knows how to do well, i.e., deploying special effects, those movies might have been at least watchable and maybe even enjoyable. As it is, they are some of the worst movies ever made -- incoherently scripted, boringly shot, and abysmally directed -- and it is confounding to think that they could have been, with just the slightest bit more thought and effort, something more. That could have been aspect is a major part of what ruins the fun and makes those films unwatchable.

Not so with The Room. There is no better version of The Room out there, haunting our viewing experience of the version we have. No, The Room as it exists today is a perfectly realized, painstakingly crafted, highly accurate expression of Tommy Wiseau's complete lack of understanding of what constitutes a watchable movie. It is so terrible as to be miraculous. The Room looks as if a third grader with no understanding of American life or storytelling conventions was given the money and equipment to make a movie, and did so. Its understanding of human motivations, and its approach to the art of filmmaking, are so infantile that it is a total pleasure to watch, constituting as it does a truly unique artifact in the history of failed cinema.

 Meet the only two believable characters in The Room, Michelle (Robyn Paris) and an unnamed party guest who delivers many key lines in the film's climax despite having never been previously introduced as a character.

The Room is not merely a bad movie in the technical sense. In fact, the lighting, sound, design, etc. are passable, and the camera work, while dull and unimaginative, is no worse than that which pervades the Star Wars prequels (again, I am being serious -- no hyperbole intended here). And The Room's glaringly obvious and fake-o greenscreen work is, again, no worse-looking than the same techniques as relentlessly abused in the Lucas prequels. No, the thing that makes The Room such a true masterpiece of badfilm is the complete seriousness with which it takes its ridiculous self.** It does not seem to know that it is one of the worst movies ever, and that naivete and earnestness is what makes the film a perfect and delightful masterpiece of camp.

In her seminal essay, "Notes on 'Camp,'" cultural critic Susan Sontag observes that
Pure Camp is always naive. Camp which knows itself to be Camp ("camping") is usually less satisfying. The pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead serious.
Now this factor alone would not fully explain why The Room is camp whilst Lucas' failed prequels are not, for I assume that Lucas also was "dead serious" when he made those shitty movies. But Sontag elaborates:
In naive, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naive. When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it's often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn't attempted to do anything really outlandish.*** 
And this is where the Star Wars prequels fall short -- they lack outlandishness or artistic ambition. They may be technically ambitious in the sense that they (over-)depend upon digital effects to achieve their aesthetic ends, yet there is little imagination or fantasy or passion to be found in them. As others have pointed out, the prequels mainly rehash imagery from the original Star Wars trilogy and show little interest in wowing us with their exciting new ideas or deeply felt commitment to the art of producing exciting cinema. They just feel like badly scripted, mediocre retreads of something that used to be pretty great. 

Tommy Wiseau says: "I'm a strange, emotionally infantile weirdo 
trying to be serious -- and that's funny!"

Jar Jar Binks says: "I am a disturbingly racist caricature 
trying to be funny -- and that's depressing!"

By contrast, The Room is incredibly ambitious -- director Tommy Wiseau seems genuinely convinced that he has created a true cinematic masterpiece that all Americans should see multiple times in order to suss out its deep nuances. And as badly written, directed, and acted as it is, no one can fault writer/director/star Wiseau for lacking passion for the project. If The Room does not possess Sontag's "proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naive," then I don't know what does. It is a perfect storm of pure Camp. And hence, immensely enjoyable. I recommend it highly.

* By my reckoning, I count American Graffiti and THX1138 as decent films, and the original Star Wars and its sequel The Empire Strikes Back as good, possibly great films. I will return to this subject in more depth in my discussion of Empire, which is entry #53 on EW's 100 Best Films list.
** badfilm refers to fringe films deliberately championed for their technical badness and/or outlandish, grotesque visual and thematic content. I picked up this term from Jeffrey Sconce, who discusses badfilm and other forms of "paracinema" in his sharp, interesting essay "Trashing the Academy," found in Screen 36.4 (Winter 1995).
*** Sontag, "Notes on Camp" in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (Picador, 2001) p. 282, 283.

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