Thursday, December 21, 2017


Tommy and Greg meet at a theatrical audition in San Fransisco. Greg fenceposts his way through a scene from Beckett. Tommy storms through the iconic "Stella!" moment from Streetcar. They pair up as potential acting buddies. Moving to L.A. they fail steadily until the inspiration strikes and Tommy decides that the only way out of the vicious circle is for them to make their own movie. Using Tommy's apparently bottomless pit of money they buy equipment, hire crew and cast actors and off they go to make a film that has become the world's current champion of cinematic rubbish. Through this we get Tommy's erratic mood swings and exhausting delusional behaviour and a premier that would crush the thickest-boned film director in history. This is a true story. Or is it?

Writer/director/star James Franco doesn't seem to mind. He fashions a polished account of the psychological maelstrom that created a film as a vanity project, beginning with a series of recognisable Hollywood figures attesting to the phenomenon of the film, The Room, before plunging into an imagined origins issue. Sometimes going for the laugh, sometimes starkly mocking, sometimes appreciative of the effort, Franco never gets close enough to his subject to find any single anchor point from which to float any comedy, drama or any substantial development. What we get is very little more than the late night screening audience's responses of the original film.

This is the problem. My reservations about the film were from a worry that the young and confident Franco, a contemporary Hollywood winner, would spend his screen time punching down. But who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel? Well, he does. Beyond the merest smudge of recognition that Wiseau might have serious problems Franco goes for the jugular in the hope that it's close enough to the funny bone to grab some collateral laughs so this can be both a pisstake and an earnest tribute to force of personality.

Comparison's with Tim Burton's Ed Wood are impossible to ignore. Burton took pains to tell us how, for all his risible missteps and gormless optimism, Ed Wood at least wanted to make good films and had ideas about how to do that. Cast above reality as a kind of bright lesser god we had no problem seeing the admiration at the heart of the laughter. If you watch Plan 9 or Glen or Glenda without expecting a laugh fest you will see real movies in there, ineptly executed but made for real. Burton also gives as perspective with a fictitious meeting between Wood and the genuine film god Orson Welles who, drinking in defeat, lets Ed know that the problems in cinema Olympus can be as niggling and infuriating as they are down there on Skid Row. James Franco gives as a Saturday Night Live sketch stretched wincingly over an hour and three quarters, ignoring the opportunities already in the screenplay (e.g. that Tommy would make a better villain than romantic lead) that might have led him to create something more powerful and profound with the forces of avowed fiction.

I went to a screening of The Room with a friend who had been to several. It began at midnight and we took our seats after arming ourselves with a bag of plastic spoons handed to us by the ushers. Lights down and the session started, the titters starting with the name of Tommy Wiseau on almost every credit. And then from the first scene on the heckles stormed from the audience. Every time a set of decorative spoons appeared on screen there was a rain of plastic spoons aimed at it. At first resistant I joined in, really finding it funny, throwing spoons, the lot. I laughed till it hurt.

But what did I find funny? The Room is a poorly made movie with a serious error in judgement every few minutes. Poor acting, bizarre action blocking, a narrative that lifts and falls like an autumn leaf in winter and an overall dreariness that saps the lifeforce of any of its audience members. In the crowd I succumbed willingly, joining the tidal response the way that Winston Smith is caught up in the shouting during a Hate Week screening in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Everyone would. If you didn't you would suffer the worst spite alienation since that time at primary school. If you watched it alone you wouldn't laugh; you would turn it off after a few scenes from annoyance or boredom something similarly oppressive. The midnight screenings of The Room are neither film appreciation nor interactive like Rocky Horror sessions, they are the Bear Pit and the Orwell Hate Week of today. To be in that crowd is to join the purgative good taste that Picasso correctly warned us was the chief enemy of creativity, a philistinism that shouts as deafeningly and laughs as woodenly as only norm-seeking cutlural explosions can: it brings us back the great middling void and from there we get to guffaw openly at this lame little misstep. When I checked Youtube for phonecam clips of midnight screenings I heard every single taunt I'd heard at the screening, each last one learned by rote and uttered as though fresh, night after night.

James Franco does not convince me that he's doing anything more than repackaging the mediocrity of these screenings, getting a chance to double the fun by playing the delusional narcissist at the phenomenon's centre with an accent as perfect as the wig. He can find none of the meaning Tim Burton found in Ed Wood and is left with another syllable correct heckle refined from a Youtube moment. And, really, when the warmest and most satisfying moment of your feature length film happens after the credit sequence it's time to reassess the expense of your time and effort.

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