Jamie Bircoll: Reexamining “The Room” as a critique of post-9/11 America

Wednesday, March 16, 2016 - 5:41pm

Spoilers for “The Room” follow.

This weekend, scores of moviegoers, myself included, will line up at the State Theatre for the annual midnight showing of the 2003 film “The Room.” We will be treated to 100 minutes of a cinematically incongruous, confused anomaly of a film. During this spectacle — which features plot points that arise only to be dropped immediately following their mention, several anatomically ignorant sex scenes in the first 30 minutes and a medley of football-tossing shenanigans — we will laugh, we will hurl both insults and plastic spoons at the screen and we will toss footballs. This is all a ritual honoring the cult classic film that many regard as the king of worst films ever.

I’ve never seen “The Room” in a theater, and so I look forward to partaking in the shared experience of mocking and interacting with director-producer-writer-star Tommy Wiseau’s widely regarded fiasco of a film. And it’s very, very easy to mock. “The Room” very deliberately breaks all of the rules of cinema at every angle: a script that defies the bounds of the English language, camera movements that ignore the established setting (for example an effortless swipe left through what should be a wall), a complete lack of character direction so that characters appear and vanish at Wiseau’s will, overdubbed dialogue that doesn’t quite match up the movements of the mouth, etc. “The Room” doesn’t do just most things badly — it does everything badly. 

But to dissect every single problem the film has is best reserved for actually viewing the film. After all, that’s where much of the fun is. I’d rather try something more interesting and take a stab at analyzing Wiseau’s vision, if he even has one. No director, even if they’re the insane, probably stranded extraterrestrial that is Tommy Wiseau, sets out to deliberately destroy every accepted convention in film and achieve that destruction so successfully. “The Room” had a point, and it is perhaps worth examining what that point is.

An appropriate one-sentence summary I found for the film reads, “A happy-go-lucky banker sees his world fall apart when his friends begin to betray him one by one.” The banker, Johnny, is friendly, caring and honest and treats his fiancée, Lisa, to expensive gifts and frequent sex in what appears to be Lisa’s navel. This apparently solid relationship begins to unravel when Lisa decides she no longer loves Johnny and begins a passionate affair with Johnny’s best friend Mark. Ultimately the love triangle leads to a series of confrontations that result in tragedy.

This series of unfortunate events ignites 10 minutes into the film when Lisa’s mother Claudette comes to visit her daughter. Lisa tells her mother about her change of heart about Johnny, that he is “so … boring.” Claudette responds with an argument that switches between reminders of Johnny’s love and acknowledgements of Johnny’s wealth. Johnny, she says, “supports you, provides for you, and, darling, you can’t support yourself,” and “his position is very secure. And he told me he plans to buy you a house.” Lisa responds to her mother with reluctant acceptance, her face smoldering with disappointment.

With this telling first encounter, we come to realize that Lisa has been pigeonholed into the position of housewife. Her mother clearly views her as inept and incapable of fulfilling any role that is not as a sex object. And it is clear this is the role Johnny desires for his fiancée; that the very first meeting we see of this couple is their navel coitus, ended only by Johnny’s leaving for work, establishes Johnny as breadwinner and Lisa as concubine.

Compounding this relationship, which is reminiscent of 1950s values, with the obvious age difference between Johnny and Lisa (Johnny’s face bears the marks of a grizzled, hardened Vietnam vet and contrasts with Lisa’s sprightly 23 year-old visage), we come to understand that Johnny and Claudette represent the old world while Lisa embodies the generation that came of age either just before or just after September 11.

Yes, “The Room” is a study of the expectations and limitations of two warring generations, vying for dominance in this post-9/11 America. Johnny and Claudette embody the Old World, and adhere to the old order with which they grew up and have lived for some time. Lisa, by contrast, personifies the new generation that sees how the Old World has failed to nurture its citizens and has repressed the young to elevate the established. Now the new generation, as Lisa says, “wants it all” and looks to upend the old — in cheating on Johnny, Lisa rebels against the Old World. Every scheme she concocts — creating a fake pregnancy and claiming Johnny has become abusive, while simultaneously defending and even glorifying him — mocks the old system and furthers her utter dismantling of it.

And it seems others too are shifting away from the Old World, as evidenced by Johnny’s encounter at the flower shop. “Oh hi Johnny, I didn’t know it was you,” the store owner says, despite the fact that 1) Johnny is evidently her favorite customer and 2) it is impossible not recognize a face that looks like Wormtongue from “Lord of the Rings” but was left just a little too long in the kiln. Indeed, society is leaving Johnny behind.

At the heart of this struggle between Old and New is Mark, torn by his friendship with Johnny and his equally powerful attraction to Lisa. Mark writhes under the weight of his actions, reaching his peak frustration when he very deliberately attempts to throw one of his friends off a building, only to schizophrenically and immediately revert back to his normal, amiable self. Each encounter between Mark and these two other indomitable forces draws him further into the fray, tugging at his loyalties whether through games of catch in the park with Johnny or sex with Lisa; it is the battle for Mark’s soul that provides the beating heart of this story.

The final confrontation between Johnny and Mark, a fistfight at a surprise birthday party for Johnny, solidifies Mark’s rejection of Johnny and the Old World. Johnny, despondent and tortured by remembrances of all he has lost, destroys his apartment and everything in it — the physical markers of his broken, capitalist system. “Why? Why is this happening to me?” he beckons, only to realize, “It’s over.” He puts a loaded gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger.

And so the two symbols of the Old World, Johnny and Claudette, are destroyed — Johnny by his own hand and Claudette by her inevitable demise due to the breast cancer that she mentioned in passing at one point. His body positioned cross-like, recalling the Christ, Johnny must die for the building of a new world. What that world brings is uncertain. Perhaps Mark and Lisa will build a life together — despite his insisting she “drop off the Earth, that’s a promise” (whatever that means), Mark stays with Lisa to comfort her and Denny, Johnny’s creepy ward — perhaps they won’t. Perhaps Denny will learn from Johnny’s mistakes, or perhaps he’ll embrace the murderer inside him that is clearly seeping from just below the surface. The aftermath simply cannot be known.

What is known is almost every scene in “The Room” begins with someone entering a space, and ends with someone leaving it, and if that is not symbolism then I do not know what is: our time in a space, in a room, is finite, just as a ruling system begins and will eventually break under its own weight. How we perceive usurper and usurped depends on our positions within that system, but the system will certainly, one day, fall.

Destruction is the thematic core of “The Room,” mirrored in Wiseau’s destruction of every convention of film. What I previously described as problematic bad cinema might actually be Wiseau dismantling the old for something new. How we view “The Room” — as a comedy of errors or as a critical anti-film — speaks to an artistic vision, or megalomaniacal vision. Choosing which option is a privilege I leave to you, lest you be otherwise torn apart.