On “The Room,” Creative Writing, and the Value of Bad Moviesby Jamey McDermott · March 02, 2015
I’ve been thinking a lot about Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 opus The Room lately. This isn’t uncommon, really. The legendarily inept movie has had a large cult following for years, and I developed a minor obsession with it in early 2009, when I was a junior in college. Ah, yes, 2009: I was twenty-one years old, we were only a few months into the recession, President Obama had just been inaugurated, Kanye had only recently embraced vocal Auto-Tune, the Academy Awards were starting to experiment with expanded lists of Best Picture nominees, and I was growing increasingly confused and terrified about what I might be able to do with a Film B.A. after graduating.
I say this not because it’s at all relevant or necessary, but because it seems appropriate to waste time with extraneous scene-setting when talking about The Room, a film that never misses an opportunity to deploy an establishing shot of San Francisco’s most well-known landmarks, no matter where or when a scene is taking place. Are the characters at a party in the protagonist’s apartment? Let’s use an establishing shot of Alcatraz at dusk. Are they at, say, the same party a few minutes later? Let’s show one of San Francisco’s famous streetcars traversing the city in broad daylight. Tommy Wiseau—the film’s writer, director, producer, and faux-Brandoesque leading man—is to interminably sluggish shots panning across the Golden Gate Bridge as John Woo is to balletic slow-motion gunfights. And this is leaving aside the movie’s more obvious deficiencies: the dialogue, the woefully disjointed plot (which reads like a space alien’s attempt at splicing Tennessee Williams with an ABC Afterschool Special about infidelity), the bizarre tonal shifts, etc., etc.
But I digress. The main reason I’ve been thinking about The Room is that I’ve been teaching an Intro to Creative Writing class, and realizing—to piggyback on a piece Clare Beasman wrote at Ploughshares a few weeks ago—that examples of poor storytelling can occasionally prove instructive in ways that good stories can’t. There are endless possible decisions a writer can make while working on a story, after all. As Flannery O’Connor put it, in one of her characteristically perverse maxims, “A writer can do anything he can get away with, but no writer can get away with much.” In other words: boy, is it ever hard to prescribe guidelines for fiction writing. I can show my students stories I love by O’Connor, by Donald Barthelme, by Denis Johnson, by Lydia Davis—but I can only introduce them to a limited range of possible approaches, if only because the class lasts a single semester.
This film, on the other hand, contains myriad examples of storytelling choices that unequivocally don’t work in the context of a serious, character-driven story. It’s the kind of movie whose badness is totally self-evident. It’s obvious enough that somebody who has never thought seriously about writing or filmmaking craft will still almost certainly notice the lousy decisions on display. I’ve already talked about its clumsy use of setting, but it’s also a handy reference for awkward dialogue, uneven characterization, and incoherent plotting. For example, if two characters are best friends, there are plenty of effective ways to demonstrate their relationship without having both characters explicitly say, “He’s my best friend,” a dozen times or more over the course of a story. If your protagonist is going to shoot himself at the end, we should probably understand why—to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, the story needs an “objective correlative” to make us believe the character’s angst—and, perhaps more importantly, we shouldn’t be totally surprised to discover in the final scene that he owns a gun. If a major supporting character mentions that she has terminal breast cancer in an early scene, it should probably come up again at some point; similarly, if a different major supporting character is nearly killed over his debt to a pistol-wielding drug dealer named “Chris-R” halfway through a story, you might consider exploring the ramifications of that scene rather than completely ignoring it. If your story involves multiple sex scenes, each one should ideally provide further character development, and the spatial relationships between the characters in those scenes should remain clear and, um, physically viable. And so on.
Look. I could keep listing The Room’s most obvious problems for days. I’ve noticed new problems each time I’ve watched the thing. Centuries from now, academics will still be finding new bizarre crevasses within the film, perhaps writing doorstop exegeses with conflicting interpretations of what each confounding choice could possibly mean.
But the real point is that ineptitude can occasionally be not only instructive but also weirdly inspiring. When I listen to the Shaggs, for instance, I learn more about the craft of rock music than I ever could from listening to, say, Abbey Road or OK Computer. The latter examples are too polished, too deft—too good, by most traditional definitions of the word—to really teach me much about how to make music. The creative process has vanished. It’s been totally eclipsed by the final product. But when I hear the Shaggs, each botched drum beat and off-key guitar chord tells me something practical about how songs are constructed, arranged, and played.
Similarly, when I watch Wong Kar-Wai films or read Flannery O’Connor, I see something to strive for, sure. It’s great art, obviously, but it’s occasionally hard to extract clear practical lessons from great art. I’m not seeing O’Connor’s mistakes, after all. I’m not seeing the draft upon draft upon draft that she, if she was anything like most writers, almost certainly would have needed to work through before ending up with the version of “Good Country People” I’ve read. When I watch The Room, on the other hand, I feel like I’m watching a documentary about an aspiring filmmaker making mistakes. It’s frequently hilarious, and just as frequently tragic. But it’s also, however unintentionally, as revealing and transparent about the creative process—and its attendant pitfalls—as John Barth or Jean-Luc Godard at their most self-reflexive. That’s part of what makes it worth revisiting. It’s almost like a Scared Straight ad for aspiring writers and filmmakers: “Look, you might think you can get away with it, but if you’re not careful, you might not be happy with the results. Just look at what happened to Tommy.”