Laughing at Sincerity: The Room, Tommy Wiseau, and The Earnest Failure


The Room
has quickly become one of my favorite movies. I cannot, and could not, begin to call it a good film, but it is enjoyably and transcendently inept. The movie’s premise is a love triangle between Johnny, a well-meaning banker, Lisa, his fiancée, and Mark, his best friend. But that basic description does not begin to capture all that is The Room.

The internet has exhaustively documented the film’s numerous flaws and the insanity going on behind the scenes, but in brief, Tommy Wiseau, the film’s writer, director, star, and overall creative visionary, produced the perfect storm of terrible movies. The writing is embarrassing; the acting is weak and wooden, and the dialogue is quotable for all the wrong reasons. Plots are picked up and dropped seemingly at random; characters emerge and disappear for no reason, and the film is so poorly directed and edited that it could be considered avant-garde if people believed it were a deliberate departure from the norm.

I’ve watched this unintentional masterpiece five times. I have shared it with my fiancée, with my parents, and with multiple groups of friends, because it’s one of the movies that just has to be seen to be believed. It’s the type of film that you would never expect to actually come to fruition. Its vision is too singular. Making a movie involves too much effort from too many people for one individual to be able to create something so unique and so awful. In short, The Room is a cinematic train wreck that is as breathtaking as it is bewildering.

But recently, a comment about the movie’s questionable notoriety gave me pause. Greg Sestero, one of the film’s “stars,” is writing a new book about the film. In an article about the book’s release, one online commenter complained about Sestero capitalizing on Wiseau and the movie’s infamy, arguing that,“at some point it feels like he’s exploiting a man who’s not all there.” It made me wonder if there’s something wrong about the joy I derive from The Room.

 

I swear there's a moment in this scene where Sestero, pictured above with Wiseau in the background, makes a face as though he's acknowledging how terrible his lines are.

 

Despite the poor quality of the film, and despite the more questionable parts of the production, there’s a certain defenselessness to Tommy Wiseau. As the book’s co-writer, Tom Bissell, pointed out in his profile of Wiseau for Harper’s, here is a man who earnestly tried to create art, and failed miserably. And while he seems to have made some cobbled-together peace with the sneering affection for his work, Wiseau strikes me as a man who claims to be in on the joke, but who still sincerely meant every frame of his film. That, in and of itself, makes The Room as much of a rarity as it is an oddity.

After all, what isn’t ironic these days? What isn’t meta? What isn’t already self aware, genre-savvy, and harnessing the medium’s conventions at the same time its commenting on them?

And while I complain, I’m also an enabler, because I love it. There’s a certain facet of me as consumer of art that is equal parts Abed from Community, Comic Book Guy, and Quentin Tarantino. It’s the part that loves a work that can connect with what its audience already knows. It’s the part of me that loves the venerated episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Captain Picard and his alien acquaintance communicate entirely through references to their respective cultural lore. It’s the part that loves when writers and directors call back to a past work, or a literary tradition, or cinematic conceit, because it accomplishes two things:

First, it eases the audience into whatever new creative world they’re being drawn into. It uses what’s come before as a subtle signal about what mood the work’s creators are trying to evoke, or a deft bit of foreshadowing, or maybe even give us a window into the unspoken thoughts of a character. At its worst, in something like the Star Wars prequels, this technique becomes little more than an attempt to feed on the goodwill of past triumphs. But when done correctly, it conveys emotions and themes using a common network of art and commentary that allows it to not only resonate, but to do so without reinventing the wheel.

And second, it says “us too.” It tells the audience, “we know what you’re thinking, we know the metes and bounds of the medium that we’re working in.” It allows a work’s creator to be both presenting something to the viewer and to be sitting right next to them commenting on it. There’s a sense of community, a sense of connectedness, between the author and their audience that takes away some of the sting of the inherent artificiality in almost any creative work.

 

Abed, from the show Community, is the poster child for this movement in television. He also enjoys playing paper football.

 

But while almost every artistic work stands on the shoulders of giants by definition, there seem to be few works these days that try to truly stand on their own. And, what’s more, many of the people involved in public life, artistic or otherwise, put up a similar aura of winking self-deprecation.

So why there aren’t more works that are truly just speaking to their audience, not with them? And why aren’t there more people standing behind those works honestly and forthrightly? Why are people so scared to put themselves or their efforts out to the world in a way that they’re willing to stand behind wholeheartedly?

It’s because that bit of winking, those hints of self-awareness, are a protective sheen. In the same way that they make the audience more accepting of the artifice in art, they also protect the creators from some criticism. And they protect individuals from judgment.

And nowhere is that clearer than in Seth MacFarlane’s Oscar performance. As much as I enjoyed his tour of duty as host, MacFarlane kept his guard up. Rather than stand behind his ribald, edgy humor, he opened the show by framing it as a nose-wrinkling “can you imagine if I did that?” that was as much a bout of self-effacing protection as it was a way of softening the blow of his brand of humor for a broader audience.

 

What, me worry?

 

He’d deliver a groan-baiting remark while simultaneously riffing on his own jokes. (“I thought we cut that one.”) He delivered some of his more controversial material through the mask of a CGI teddy bear. At a celebration of the peak of an artistic media, meta was in, from the master of ceremonies to the show’s final moments where the upper echelons of politics and the film industry came together to crown a film about the intersection of politics and the film industry.

And by that same token, the New Yorker’s Sasha Weiss blames much of the backlash against Anne Hathaway during awards season as stemming from her very unvarnishedness, her unabashed, non-self-deprecating, and above all earnest enthusiasm for her work and her success. Weiss chalks much of this up to Hathaway failing to meet certain standards imposed on women. And while I agree with Weiss that there are sexist elements at play, I think the mindset lurking behind the negative reactions to Hathaway goes beyond gender lines.

Hathaway engendered that response by committing a grave faux pas for those in public life – presenting herself to the public without that protective shield of manufactured detachment, leaving her genuine sentiments about her work and the moment waiting for the sharpened knives of our cynical culture. Christy Wampole wrote about this problem in the New York Times, and described how people “hid[e] behind the mantle of irony.” When Wampole wants to describe the paragon of someone unfettered by the necessity for this kind of protection, she writes:

 

“Observe a 4-year-old child going through her daily life. You will not find the slightest bit of irony in her behavior. She has not, so to speak, taken on the veil of irony. She likes what she likes and declares it without dissimulation. She is not particularly conscious of the scrutiny of others.”

 

Weiss brings this example to its logical conclusion by relaying an anecdote from Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard. Knausgaard’s young daughter was attending a birthday party, and proudly presented a pair of new golden shoes, specially selected for the occasion, to an audience of her playmates. When she receives a cold reception, she quickly retreated from her forthright exuberance, chilled from offering her bare joy again. Weiss notes, “Little girls learn very quickly not to ask so openly for praise, and to modulate their excitement if they want to be acceptable.”

 

Excitement Level: Unmodulated

 

But this lesson is not limited to little girls. We all find ourselves shielding ourselves from ridicule, derision, and above all else judgment by keeping parts of ourselves reserved. Because while our society claims to value authenticity, it is just as quick to reject those who display it.

And I am far from immune. I am an admitted Applecarter – I appreciate, as much as anything, those brief moments of realness in an otherwise rigorously choreographed world. But as this site readily indicates, I am also a critic. And while I might prefer to think of myself as cutting through those walls of artifice with my critiques, I am just as likely to be uncharitably sharpening those same knives of snark and sarcasm in the face of honest efforts.

And that’s why I start to feel guilty about how much I enjoy The Room. Despite the encouragement from wise folks like Crash Course’s John Green, I have trouble separating the author from the work. Given how singular a vision The Room is, it’s particularly difficult to look at the movie without seeing Tommy Wiseau, his soul laid bare, for all the world to laugh at.

 

I can hear Wiseau's trademark laugh in my head just from looking at this picture.

 

The work, taken alone, is undoubtedly an imminently laughable one. In fact, it’s easily the funniest movie I’ve seen in the last decade. And, what’s more, the unvarnished Tommy Wiseau is not necessarily a pretty picture. Beneath the film’s exterior as an entertaining train wreck lies a perspective that is equal parts misguided, misogynistic, and more than a little troubling.1 But it is nevertheless a genuine and honest display of Wiseau’s personal vision.

Whatever the film’s worldview, Wiseau clearly saw The Room as his opus, his labor of love, and the apotheosis of his capabilities of a filmmaker and storyteller. He saw himself as delivering a part of his soul through the medium of film, conveying powerful emotions and saying something that he thought was profound. There is something shameful about laughing at that earnest intent, no matter how misguided the execution or troubling the underlying message.

And it’s made all the more shameful if, as the commenter suggests, Wiseau is “not all there.” It’s hard to know how much of Wiseau’s peculiar persona to ascribe to his own off-kilter personality, how much to a cultural and linguistic barrier, and how much to a genuine issue of mental health. Whatever portions of these elements make up Wiseau, he seems in many ways to be a child, not all that unlike Knausgaard’s daughter presenting her golden shoe to a cold room.

The raw, budding earnestness of that sort of presentation ought to be welcomed, or at least not derided, even if the end result is more than a bit lacking. I recently uncovered some recordings I made in high school. While it was easy for me to cringe at the purple prose, the simple chord progressions, and the mawkish, apocalyptic sentiments that often served as the foundation for those songs, I resisted the urge to judge my younger self too harshly. Those early, and admittedly very green, attempts at songwriting were honest efforts to express emotions and sentiments that were too great and too complex for a neophyte to wrap his head around, let alone articulate.2 They were, nonetheless, with the benefit of hindsight, noble failures.

In the same way, Tommy Wiseau’s reach clearly exceeded his grasp in his first attempt at filmmaking, but he genuinely strove to create something great, and presented it, for better or worse, without a hint of irony. There is something noble in that too, no matter how ridiculous the result. I can’t stop myself from laughing at the end product, but also I can’t escape that twinge of guilt that comes from a mocking appreciation for something deeply meant and steadfastly offered, even, and perhaps especially, when the work fails so spectacularly.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Zach Weiner and the genius of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal managed to capture the essence of the problem of valuing Wiseau’s earnestness.
  2. I find myself similarly overcritical and prone to picking away at articles on this site that I’ve written mere months, let alone years, ago and try to take solace in that idea.

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2 Responses to Laughing at Sincerity: The Room, Tommy Wiseau, and The Earnest Failure

  1. Having grown up in every European country, Wiseau was fluent in over twenty languages, and managed to amass a great fortune as a mediator in international black market circuits. With this fortune, he retired from his hospital job and turned toward something he felt more passionate about: film.

  2. An interesting discussion is definitely worth
    comment. I think that you should publish more on this topic, it might not be a taboo subject but usually folks don’t speak about these issues.
    To the next! Kind regards!!

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