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The Scarlet & Black

Cult classic proves how good a bad movie can be

In his review of last year’s adaptation of “Robin Hood,” Matt Zoller Seitz makes a distinction between actively bad and passively bad movies. Passively bad movies are sluggish, muddled, confused about their own purposes and exhaustingly unfun to watch. Actively bad movies, on the other hand, are a precious commodity. Seitz describes them as being either technically slick but nonsensical or “so astoundingly inept in every conceivable way that they’re mesmerizing.” He points out that the greatest films of this type think that they’re masterpieces and thus “carry themselves with an unearned aura of importance.” These films are bold. They have their own style. Whereas the passively bad movie wanders in circles, lost in its own neurotic confusion, the actively bad movie leaps boldly into uncharted aesthetic terrain—that is, terrain that no competent or self-respecting filmmaker would ever want to chart.

Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room” is a quintessential example—perhaps the quintessential example—of this breed of badness. It is now more a cult phenomenon than a mere film. And so much of its appeal is linked with Wiseau’s unique persona that I am unsure as to what would be more informative for someone new to the film—a description of “The Room” or a description of Wiseau.

I’ll start with Wiseau. Many of you have probably noticed the black-and-white poster of him hanging in the JRC. I promise you that he is even more terrifying in color. He is the writer, director, producer and star of “The Room.” He is a foreigner, but no one knows where from—perhaps France, or somewhere in Eastern Europe, or Russia. He is grotesquely muscular and his skin looks like wax. His cheerful mannerisms are so lethargic and his eyes so glazed over that he always appears to be on the verge of a coma.

And his dialogue is even stranger. His characters speak robotically and employ the kind of overly literal and colorless diction that we normally expect from instructional videos or pornographic movies—indeed, many newcomers to the film will think they have stumbled into the latter for the first twenty minutes or so. The awful writing causes Wiseau to speak through his characters. He transforms the English language into his own clunky alien code, thereby making his creative presence palpable, even when he’s off-screen. We know, for example, that only he could be responsible for everyone in the film using the term “future-wife” in place of “fiancé.”

Wiseau claims to study psychology “as a hobby,” but his myriad misunderstandings of human nature, sexuality, romance and the most basic conventions of Western civilization make one wonder what kind of psyche Wiseau has been studying. I suppose this would be an appropriate time to discuss the film’s story, which is a melodrama about the tribulations of Johnny (Wiseau). Johnny is a great guy. We know this because nearly everyone he encounters refers to him as such. He works at a local bank. The most information we get about his job at the bank comes from Johnny himself, who mutters offhandedly, “Yeah, I work at the bank, make lots of money.” Despite his lucrative career and his unanimously confirmed goodness, Johnny is not much appreciated by his haughtily self-centered future-wife Lisa (Juliette Danielle), who starts an affair with Johnny’s best friend Mark (the Christ-like Greg Sestero).

Silly and clichéd though this narrative is, it does seem to come from somewhere real and dark in the mind of Wiseau. Like many of the best bad movies—Kevin Spacey’s comparably mesmerizing “Beyond the Sea” comes to mind—it is a vanity project, one about the martyrdom of Wiseau’s beloved and beneficent alter ego. I suspect that the film’s enjoyability ultimately stems from the fact that this was a personal endeavor for Wiseau. He wasn’t trying to do camp. He was, I think, trying to explore genuine emotional terrain involving heartbreak, betrayal, and the corruption of otherwise noble men. And it is, I say regretfully, mostly men who are noble in this film. Wiseau wanted to make a truly powerful film and the seriousness of his effort is what holds the film’s illogicalities together. This is a bad movie made the way bad movies should be made—with a personal vision, an internal dramatic logic, and without a hint of irony. Now that “The Room” has become an ironic success, Wiseau must be aware of how aesthetically inane his vision really was. He appears at his midnight screenings looking disoriented, weary, disillusioned, unclear as to what it is he has “accomplished.” Maybe this is the fate of those naïve creatures who make actively bad movies—utter dejection. And so maybe, just like Johnny, Wiseau has become a martyr figure after all.

-Colin Carr ’12

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    SGA FilmsFeb 25, 2011 at 10:29 am

    Delightful description of the man — “verge of coma” sounds about right