My friend Dan Miller, an aspiring film scholar, has taken an exacting eye to Tommy Wiseau’s grossly underrated 2003 dramedy The Room. The following is an abstract for what will hopefully be his doctoral thesis:
It is not often that film can perfectly imitate life. It may not even be possible. When one sees a movie one is suspending their own reality by sitting in a darkened cinema and accepting the existence of another world. We hand ourselves over, briefly, to this existential film universe, with the existence of the film needing to proceed the essence. In this scholarly work I will be discussing the relation between postmodernism and existential loneliness in the film The Room. More specifically I will talk about how the incredulity towards multi-narratives effects the structure, form and style of the film and how the reactions to existential loneliness effects the actions of the characters with a focus on the themes of trust, betrayal, and death.
Keeping with the theme of postmodern irony The Room eschews multi-narratives by first proposing them. Early in the story we are introduced to many subplots that are never revisited. Lisa’s mother Claudette mentions how she has breast cancer but there is no further mention of her condition. There is a young ward named Denny who is seen early in the film purchasing drugs and getting accosted by a drug dealer but this plot is later abandoned as well. The reason this is done is of course to be ironic. Multi-narratives are parodied by these empty stories which in some cases are introduced and never returned to (as in the aforementioned ones) and in other cases are only seen near their end with no explanation to their beginnings. Characters are introduced relatively late in the film and treated as if they were important friends of Johnny and Lisa.
These obvious plot holes serve two equally supportive purposes, they draw attention to the narrative and its strange irony, and they place the viewer in an excessively obvious and undeniable position as the viewer. This prevents the viewer from losing him or herself in the film. As I mentioned before, people leave their lives when they go to the cinema. However, when viewing The Room they are constantly barraged with moments of sheer absurdity and thus forced to reexamine their roles as viewer. This reinvention of roles is another hallmark of the postmodern aesthetic.
By drawing attention to the narrative the film is forcing the viewer into an uncomfortable position where they become aware that they are watching a movie. They are forced to constantly reevaluate their relation to the film. Also, many basic characteristics of classical Hollywood cinema/viewer relations are ruined here. The audience cannot build up a relation to any of the characters and are thus alienated from the plot. They are aware that they are watching a film but are unaware of how to react. When a shocking moment is introduced it is not uncommon to hear laughter from The Room’s audience. Many people consider The Room to be a poor movie, but it is important to note that Waiting for Gadot was unpopular too when it came out. The Room challenges all notions as to what a film can be and as such would work best on an audience that had never before experienced cinema. But film does not exist in a vacuum. People gauge movies by other movies. Thus the modern viewer is left baffled by many of the film’s sequences, and in a confused state many will just laugh. This is not a sign of the movie’s comedic value but rather the uncomfortable position it places the viewer. The Room is made to confront the modern viewer, and its difficulty to grasp coexists with the difficulty of its higher subject matter.
In the postmodern world humanity is affixed with new ailments which are explored to great depths here, one central theme is the destruction of civil people and the community in the favor of empty self service, and anonymous urban existence. One negative consequence associated with the world of today is the demise of community in favor of self-serving relations. Johnny is a caring individual who treats his future wife Lisa “like a princess”, he has a very strong relationship with his best friend Mark, and he even takes care of a local ward named Danny whom Johnny is trying to help through college. Johnny seems to be the perfect model for how a well functioning person should live their life. But instead of being rewarded for his good heart, and trusting nature he is punished. With deliberate postmodern irony both his best friend and future wife betray Johnny when they engage in a long lasting affair which serves as the main plot function in the film. Betrayal is perhaps the strongest narrative theme in the film. Johnny puts his trust into Lisa who responds by getting him drunk so she can spread rumors about him. Johnny of course does not drink and this element is representative of his own innocence and naivety. She lies to him about being pregnant, and she tries to pit him and his best friend Mark against each other. In the frightening self-serving world of today nobody can be trusted and selfish opportunists will punish a good man. In the end the honest soul cannot win. Everyone will cry over his body in death but they never truly loved him in life; except for Danny who truly did.
The demise of Johnny represents the demise of trust in society, the demise of personal relations between people, and the impeding cold world of technology that we are left with. The Room is a film about the changing world; it both embraces and effaces this world. When Johnny takes the gun to his head and proclaims, “I’m sick of this world!” he is talking about the new world that has grown up around him. It is a world that he cannot understand. The question is not whether one can flourish in a world of Lisas and Marks, but whether one can survive. Danny is hopeless without his provider, and is sure to fall back into the life of unspecified drugs. He is not one of this world either. Johnny is like an alien: he speaks in an incomprehensible accent not native to any region on earth: he is like everybody and nobody all at once. He kills himself to escape pain but the postmodern pain of his existence is not truly escapable, even in death the film is bitterly ironic as Lisa and Mark mourn for him. And in the background the sounds of sirens, a nondiegetic addition, announce it is all but over. Pain and struggle, life and death, actions and reactions, all encapsulated within ourselves, like a room. When it comes to the incredulity to multi-narratives and existential postmodern loneliness, no film captures these difficulties in such a brazen and ironic way. Mourn for the death of Johnny, but save a tear for all of us. Tennessee Williams could not have done a better job himself.