In addition to violating most of the rules of competent film making, The Room (2003) also violates Aristotle’s law of noncontradiction. It is both really bad and really good at the same time. In fact, the reason why it is so good is because of how really bad it is. Here is a film whose success rests precisely on its failure and whose failure is its success. By ignoring most of the advice for good story telling delineated by Aristotle thousands of years ago in Poetics, writer/director Tommy Wiseau has created an inadvertent masterpiece whose grand achievement is made clear by the effects it produces in audiences. The proof of the film’s worth is in the pudding. Each month hundreds of people repeatedly attend midnight screenings of The Room in order to participate in a ritual of group catharsis that Aristotle would, I think, be forced to admit is a symptom of some sort of aesthetic achievement.
I, my wife and some friends tried to get in to see The Room one Saturday night last month, but were turned away because the show was sold out. This surprised and intrigued me, so I made sure to buy advanced tickets for the next midnight screening the following month.
This time, arriving at the Clay Theatre in San Francisco about 30 minutes early, we encountered a huge mob of people, engulfed in a billowing cloud of marijuana smoke, milling around on the sidewalk socializing. The atmosphere was boisterous but good natured and friendly. Many of the attendees, in addition to being stoned, were obviously also very drunk. When we took our seats in the fully-filled movie theater, a group of young women seated behind us yelled in uninhibited inebriation, their shrieks nearly piercing our eardrums. “I want nachos,” one of them moaned. “This is a Landmark Theater, not Cinemark!” her friend chastised. “They don’t serve nachos.” Yes, this was obviously a classy place. No nachos here.
Before the film, a black-clad, rocker host gave a short introduction, asking that attendees refrain from throwing objects at the screen during the show and warning that there would be no refunds for any reasons whatsoever. He then chose 5 young men from the audience to participate in a contest in which they did their best impressions of Johnny, the main character in The Room. “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” each of them exclaimed in turn, clenching their fists and staring skywards in emulation of Johnny’s wooden acting. Prizes were distributed (a rubber duck, a poster, a small statue) and then the movie began.
In Poetics, Aristotle outlined the necessary elements for successful dramas. According to his account, all dramas are forms of artistic mimicry, with comedies mimicking ridiculous people while tragedy mimics the actions of noble people. The goal, in both cases, is to produce catharsis in the audience; a purging of emotion that occurs when audiences either laugh or cry. A good comedy causes laughter and a good tragedy provokes tears.
The way that catharsis is produced is through the skillfulness with which the author of a drama balances a number of structural elements. A drama must be well organized, having a beginning, middle and end. Without this, events will be chaotic, the audience will become confused, and thus they will not be emotionally absorbed in the story. The plot should also be of the correct magnitude, not too long or too short, but lengthly enough to be interesting and not so lengthly that it cannot be “taken in by memory” [Poetics 1451a5]. An audience member should be able to hold the entire trajectory of the plot in his or her mind so that it can be appreciated as an entirety. Furthermore, the events in the drama should unfold according to the rules of probability, otherwise things will appear logically implausible and thus fail to evoke an emotional reaction in the audience.
A quick, cursory description of the plot of The Room gives no obvious indication of its incompetence. The movie tells the story of Johnny (Tommy Wiseau), a banker who is engaged to marry Lisa (Juliette Danielle). Lisa, however, does not love Johnny, and so she seduces Johnny’s best friend, Mark (Greg Sestero). Johnny discovers the affair and ends up killing himself. The film appears to be intended as a tragedy, and insofar as it has a clear beginning, middle and end with a magnitude that can easily be encompassed in thought, Aristotle would, on the face of it, have no objections as far as this goes. It is only when trying to describe the film’s chain of events in more specific detail, however, that its sloppiness really starts to become apparent.
Johnny and Lisa live together in a San Francisco apartment, and they are frequently visited by Denny (Phillip Haldiman), a young man who Johnny apparently takes care of. Denny pops in and out of their apartment unexpectedly throughout the film for no apparent reason or purpose. In a sense he seems like the goofy neighbor in a silly TV sit-com; the one who suddenly materializes in order to utter some familiar catch-phrase that the audience chuckles at in knowing recognition. However in this movie, there is no indication that his presence is intended to be humorous. In fact, he doesn’t appear to serve any purpose in the plot at all. His character is superfluous; like a third nipple. Nevertheless, he is also the central protagonist in another brief subplot involving a drug dealer who threatens to shoot him. This encounter, like Denny himself, appears and then suddenly disappears for no apparent reason. Thankfully – unlike Denny’s character – this story strand never reappears after it is introduced.
Then there is Lisa’s mother, Claudette (Carolyn Minnott). Claudette repeatedly appears and then suddenly disappears from the apartment giving Lisa the opportunity to complain to her again and again and again (and again and again) about how she does not love Johnny. Claudette advises her daughter to go ahead with the marriage anyway, since Johnny is rich. At one point Claudette reveals that she has breast cancer, but no one seems all that concerned. This crisis (like the one involving Denny and the drug dealer) is ignored by the characters and goes nowhere at all.
While these sorts of superfluous elements in The Room violate Aristotle’s demand that a drama be plausible and economical, with no loose ends or unresolved conflicts, it is these same glaring incongruities in the film’s plot that appeal to fans of the movie. When Denny makes his numerous unannounced appearances, veterans of The Room stand up from their seats, yelling “Where the Hell did you come from?” at the screen. When Claudette abruptly leaves after speaking only briefly with her daughter, these same folks scream, “Where are you going?” After announcing her cancer diagnosis, the audience chants, “Cancer, cancer, cancer!” during Claudette’s subsequent appearances. When Lisa confesses, yet again, to her mother that she doesn’t love Johnny, the audience screams, “You already said that!”
In addition to superfluous subplots, The Room contains a string of equally superfluous, and incongruous, scenes that follow one after the other with no logic. At one point some of the male characters appear in tuxedoes while tossing a football in a city alleyway. Why they are there is never explained. During a party scene, a character who has not previously been introduced suddenly appears to catch Lisa and Mark kissing. The audience, at this point, yells, “Who the fuck are you!” in mock confusion. Throughout the movie, various characters mysteriously rendezvous on the apartment’s rooftop patio, apparently by coincidence. Johnny, after being addressed by name in a floral shop, is then told by the florist that she didn’t recognize him. The flowers he buys from that florist, incidentally, transform in the next scene into a different bouquet.
Then there is the repetition: of over long, unappealing, unerotic sex scenes; of tracking shots of the Golden Gate Bridge; of bodies of water; of footballs being tossed between characters. The audience knows when these will occur, and they are ready. During the sex scenes, they make loud munching noises – Myowwww, myowww, myowww – mocking the sound of French kissing. During the tracking shots, they yell, “Go, go, go, go!” anticipating the camera’s arrival at the end of the bridge. In scenes where the movement from one end of the bridge to the other is not completed, they moan in disappointment, “Awwwwwww!” When the camera does victoriously reach the end of the bridge they cheer in delight, “Yahhhhhhhhh!” Whenever water appears, they chant, “Water! Water! Water! Water!” When a football appears on screen, groups of movie goers gather in the aisles and throw their own footballs back and forth. At each appearance of an odd, framed picture of a spoon that sits on a table in Johnny and Lisa’s living room, the audience yells, “Spoon!” and then lets loose with hundreds of tossed plastic spoons that fly through the air like a cloud of swarming locusts.
I found myself doubled over in laughter while watching this movie; not so much because of what was transpiring on screen, but because of how passionately members of the audience were interacting with the movie and with one another. The absurdities of The Room are endless, and the creative ways that viewers find to highlight those absurdities are absolutely hysterical. Johnny, who is supposed to be a rich and successful American banker, appears to be nothing of the sort; what with his long greasy hair, ill-fitting suit and unidentifiable Eastern European accent. When Lisa’s mother asks her daughter why she doesn’t discuss her problems with Johnny, one audience member yelled out, “Because he doesn’t speak English!” When Charlotte asks Lisa why she doesn’t listen to her mother’s advice, someone yells, “Because you’re a whore!” At any point that two characters interacted with one another in any way, someone (sometimes more than one person) inevitably yelled out, “Why don’t you just fuck already?!” Yes it was all very juvenile. Yes it was all very crude. But it was also outrageously sidesplitting.
Aristotle was an empiricist, and so he demanded that conclusions about the merits of dramatic art be supported by observable evidence. Since he claimed that the final goal of any drama is to produce a cathartic release of emotion in audiences, to determine whether any particular drama is successful or not he would want us to observe the effects produced before judging it a success or as a failure. In the case of The Room, there is nothing in its objective, formal structure alone that would indicate that it is anything but an atrocious, incompetent, ill-conceived failure. In fact, I would say that there would be very little point to watching The Room at home alone on your DVD player. What makes the film a success is the addition of a stoned, drunken crowd that is familiar with its numerous incongruities, absurdities and lack of logic. It is then that what was intended as a tragedy is transformed by the powers of the audience into a comedy. They are the true authors of this event, and it is their enthusiasm, creativity and passion that makes a midnight screening of The Room so cathartic.