Thursday, April 1, 2010

A Room with a View

As a young, aspiring filmmaker, hope can be in short supply. Steady, fulfilling work often seems like a mere pipe dream. That is why, once in a while, I need to see a film that gives me hope – a film that proves how no lack of funds or experience can stop a great filmmaker from succeeding. That is why I need to see films like The Room.

Tommy Wiseau's story is an unequivocal manifestation of the American Dream. The man came to this country with only a check he could not cash because it was from out of state, the clothes on his back, and a story to tell. While Wiseau already had a formidable body of work – a 500-page novel version of The Room, as well as a stage adaptation – he clearly felt that the story was best suited for the screen. Yet the Hollywood studios shunned him, predictably overlooking the value of his incisive vision. Here, many of us would have given up, but Wiseau never relented, starting a lucrative leather jacket import business and, slowly but surely, acquiring every dollar he needed to fund his film.

It may be surprising, then, that The Room is a tragic story. Wiseau plays Johnny, a kind-hearted computer technician/banker. The first few moments of the film frame Johnny's life as idyllic. He lives in a comfortable walk-up in the heart of beautiful San Francisco. He lives with Lisa (Juliette Danielle), his girlfriend, who is also very beautiful. Johnny has given Lisa everything and, at first, she could not seem happier.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the passionate, three minute-long love scene that comes early in the film. Here, Wiseau ably communicates every drop of earnest adoration Johnny has for Lisa. Where other filmmakers may settle for something more tawdry – rushing to shots of partial nudity, then getting on with the plot – Wiseau allows us to peer through Johnny's eyes and languish in the bliss of his romance with Lisa. It is a vital, calculated choice on Wiseau's part because it sets the audience up for the very same fall that Johnny is about to suffer.

Johnny is woefully ignorant of Lisa's true nature. She is, in fact, a femme fatale in the grand tradition of Phyllis Dietrichson and Brigid O'Shaughnessy. Lisa is deeply discontented with the life Johnny has provided for her, and she is actively plotting her escape from their engagement. The centerpiece of her plan is the seduction of Johnny's best friend, Mark (Greg Sestero), but she hardly intends to stop there. Through conversations with her miserly mother, Claudette (Carolyn Minnott), Lisa slowly reveals her petulance, and the audience must watch helplessly as she goes about methodically tearing Johnny apart.

Resurrecting a sexist archetype from the 1940's may sound unseemly, but Wiseau's script is not afraid to address the inscrutable nature of women head-on. In addition, the sexual politics of The Room are explored with penetrating visual conceit. Wiseau makes inventive use of mis-en-scène to create Lisa's surreal landscape of lust and deceit.

The film is never so heavy handed as to overtly explain the meaning of the title; there are numerous fascinating readings that Wiseau leaves open to the viewer. Literally speaking, though, much of the film takes place in one room – Johnny's living room – and not since Rear Window has a director made such potent use of a single set. The overwhelming red of its walls suggest not only passion, but blood – perhaps borne of violence, perhaps menstruation. Subtle expressionistic touches, such as the bizarre artwork and furniture placed at odd (even illogical) angles, create an impressive amount of visual tension.

The spatial qualities of the room also appear fluid – chairs seem to move between shots, characters' eyelines do not meet up and drinks will enter and leave characters' hands without cause. With such techniques, Wiseau slyly plays with viewers' unconscious minds. They allow us to enter the psychological environment that the eponymous room symbolizes.

As the room exerts its power ever more effectively, the characters' morality becomes mercurial. Watching Lisa seduce Mark is a sickening experience. One moment, Mark is resolute in his loyalty to his friend. The next, he is openly accepting Lisa's advances. He seems to have a limited grasp on his own desires, hopelessly tangled in Lisa's web.

Yet its influence is even present in her absence. Characters seem to enter and exit the room at random with vague intentions, as if they are each plotting their own scheme. A scene midway through the film finds two strangers slinking into the room for an afternoon tryst, too overwhelmed by desire to consider any potential ramifications. Even the film's most innocent character, Denny (Philip Haldiman), falls victim the very first moment he steps into the room. He lifts an apple to his mouth and, with the most fleeting flash of menace in his eyes, sinks in his teeth.

With extensive ability on display as both a writer and director, Wiseau astonishes by excelling most of all in his portrayal of Johnny. His craggy exterior and harsh accent may not make him the predictable choice for such a role, but this was undoubtedly calculated. Wiseau is an average man and he is uniquely suited to play Johnny as such. His harsh exterior only betrays Johnny's inner pain in small, almost imperceptible, nuances. Not one line goes by where he does not elicit cringes with Johnny's tragic naivety, but he only succeeds at this by underplaying as much as possible.

Midway through the film, in a fit of exasperation, Johnny asks Lisa, "Do you understand life?" It's an incredibly telling line on Johnny's part, exposing that he still believes Lisa is the one who is lost. Make no mistake, though: This line is coming straight from Wiseau's mouth to the audience's ears. The Room may choose to focus on sexuality, but its lessons are relevant to every aspect of life. Subjectivity is an immensely powerful force. The Room illustrates its dangers well, but Wiseau also knows its benefits. When everyone in Hollywood was telling him that his film could not be made, he stuck to his guns, insisting on getting it made. Looking back, it's a saddening and ironic thought: Without delusion, The Room may never have been made.

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