Tommy Wiseau, Authorship, and Mise-en-Scene in The Room (2003)
Yes, it’s really me. I might update you on my life in a subsequent post, but for now, a short piece on a favorite film.
One of the fleeting pleasures of living in Atlanta is the monthly screening of Tommy Wiseau’s trashy opus The Room at the Plaza Theater on Ponce de Leon Avenue. If you’re unfamiliar with the film or its cult status, I highly recommend that you check out Clark Collis’s article at Entertainment Weekly or Scott Tobias’s more recent account at The Onion before reading further (or see the film yourself if it’s available at your local indie exhibitor). In any case, rest assured that mere words cannot adequately describe the sheer giddiness that The Room elicits from me. I see Wiseau’s film as many things at once: a pleasure that (I’m somewhat ashamed to say) exceeds that of many of my favorites from classical Hollywood; a stunning, if unintentional, corollary to auteur theory; and an equally stunning affirmation of the notion of authorship itself.
In his seminal 1954 essay, “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” François Truffaut wrote that the worst of Jean Renoir’s films would always be more interesting than the best of Jean Delannoy’s. The Room seems to offer this corollary: Tommy Wiseau’s worst film (so far, at least) will always be more interesting than Steven Spielberg’s best film (this holds up pretty well whether you think Spielberg’s best film is Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Schindler’s List. Trust me.). Wiseau’s film exposes (again, far from intentionally) one of the chief misinterpretations of auteur theory: that a distinctive authorial stamp immediately implies some kind of absolute aesthetic value.
<raising shields>Tommy Wiseau is unquestionably an auteur.</whew!> One of the chief appeals of The Room‘s near-camp aesthetic is Wiseau’s character Johnny, whom he portrays with a thick Austrian accent and lopsided diction that, judging by interviews with him, borders on the naturalistic. Wiseau’s continuity-defying script, baffling dialogue, and unorthodox shooting style (two cameras, one HD, one 35mm, placed side-by-side) shine through beautifully in the film–despite the anecdotally-reported warnings of fellow cast and crew members. Furthermore, his hand (or a hand, at any rate) is almost literally manifested on the film image itself, in the numerous out-of-focus shots that prompt audiences to shout “Focus!” whenever they appear. If one of the chief ideas of auteurism is that of the camera-stylo, the “camera-pen,” then Wiseau wields his with bravado, like an inebriated Douglas Sirk (that Wiseau has “chosen” the generic context of the family melodrama to do his wielding makes this connection all the more uncanny; I so desperately want “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” to have been an intentional nod to Nick Ray and Rebel Without a Cause). Wiseau’s authorial stamp permeates the The Room‘s narrative fabric as well. The entire film, such as it is, reads as a thinly-veiled autobiography; Johnny’s account to his pals (including his best friend) of his early days in San Francisco, complete with a story about being unable to cash a check from an out-of-state bank, oozes a wonderful mundanity, while his conniving, manipulative future wife Lisa is almost certainly based on a former girlfriend.
Granted, applying auteur theory to Tommy Wiseau is problematic on several levels. First, he’s only made two films (I haven’t seen his documentary Homeless in America, but it is apparently not as wholly incompetent–and thus nowhere near as pleasurable–as The Room), and thus I am necessarily defining a distinctive style in the absence of an oeuvre (no way around this, so for the purposes of this post I’m choosing to ignore that). Second, it is worth emphasizing that the Cahiers critics did not seek the mark of the camera-stylo in ostentatious formal techniques, especially when it came to the cinema of classical Hollywood (where such formalism would have gone against the classical paradigm); rather, mise-en-scene–over which individual directors had a somewhat freer rein–served as the primary site of authorship (cf. Keathley, Cinephilia and History, 14). Thus, we shouldn’t put too much stock in Wiseau’s formal mediocrity as a mark of authorship, putting aside the question of intentionality or the importance of a body of work in defining said authorship.
What really gets me about The Room, though, is that the film’s mise-en-scene is central to the pleasure many spectators derive out of it. The most frequent and literally jarring (at least for those of us sitting in the fourth row) nexus of spectatorial interaction with Wiseau’s film is a picture of a spoon on a table in Johnny’s living room – a picture which, when spotted on screen, elicits shouts of “SPOON!” from the audience and (if you’re lucky) a barrage of plastic utensils hurled toward the filmic image. This seemingly insignificant detail is in many ways the film’s “hook.” First-time viewers immediately understand what the text (as in the whole text of The Room – the film plus the communal social practice) is about. Intentional? Probably not. Other than Wiseau, however, I can think of one other director who would insert such a bizzare prop into his mise-en-scene–David Lynch–and he would make sure you noticed it. The difference is that Lynch very consciously defines and foregrounds his own authorship, while Wiseau has his defined for him by his fans. The question of intentionality then becomes moot; Wiseau’s craftsmanship, in all its forms, becomes simultaneously the butt of the joke and the object of fan appreciation. And isn’t fandom really what the phenomenon that film studies calls “auteurism” is fundamentally about?
At a more holistic textual level, however, I am always surprised at the level of character identification Wiseau is able to elicit in The Room. Despite the flatness of the characters and their undeveloped, unresolved concerns and goals (specifically, I’m thinking about the inexplicably dropped subplots of Claudette’s breast cancer and Denny’s drug problem), we genuinely care about them by the end, if in a surreal sort of way. I would argue that this is because the social practice of a screening of The Room serves to facilitate character identification in the stead of narrative. Together, the communal shouting of “spoon,” the audience re-naming of Mark (Greg Sestero) as “Sestosterone,” and all the other activities that go into watching the film (here‘s a partial list) form what Gerard Genette calls the paratext – a framing set of practices that help us understand the “original,” “real” text while simultaneously endowing it with new meaning. This is made even clearer by the difference in pleasure elicited by watching the film on DVD (a baffling experience even if the spectator is familiar with it) and watching a theatrical print with an audience who knows and constructs the paratext. Watching The Room in a theater with an audience for the first time is a magical experience; the text comes to life through a kind of real-time communal writing that, in contrast to the undeniably collaborative nature of new media, is also fleeting. No screening or viewing of The Room is the same, and the very thinness of Wiseau’s original text allows for this ephemeral paratextual superstructure to be built again and again (one of my all-time favorite Room moments occurred when one spectator, upon the appearance of Mark, bearded and jean-jacketed, shouted “Kenny Loggins, ladies and gentlemen!”). In that sense, Wiseau stands as a new kind of auteur-not one who hands down meaning upon high or has it constructed by scholarly or critical discourse, but an author built from the ground up by spectatorship.