The Mad Genius of Tommy Wiseau by John Keefe

Evolution requires mutation. Mother Nature’s bastard offspring provide a quick beta test for the next iteration of lifeforms, trying new features and weeding out bugs. The mistakes of nature are all too often simply misplaced in time, born before the habitat in which they could thrive, like an air-breathing fish stuck in a tide pool, or a Gulf seagull that can’t eat crude oil. Many artists have known the pain of having their innovations mistaken for defects, from Van Gogh to Robert Johnson to Adam Sandler (history will vindicate Blended, mark my words). Evolution requires mutation… and mutation isn’t always pretty.

It is from this primordial soup of artistic genius and failure that Tommy Wiseau first came to the world. Slope-backed, Neanderthalian, indecipherable, and surprisingly muscly, Wiseau spent three years and six million dollars giving his Citizen Kane to the world. The resulting film, 2003’s The Room, has gone down in history as one of the worst pieces of cinema ever unleashed, paradoxically earning it thousands of fans and netting Wiseau a lucrative career mocking himself for audiences’ pleasure.

The film’s plot, if you want to be so generous as to suggest it has one, follows Johnny, a jovial longhaired banker played by Mr. Wiseau himself. Though hardworking and good natured, Johnny is shiftless in life, incapable of moving outside his world of comfortable mediocrity. This is complicated by his duplicitous girlfriend Lisa, who takes up an affair with Johnny’s best friend Mark and then brags about it to her mother for absolutely no reason. There are some superfluous scenes involving a drug deal gone badly, a mentally challenged boy who wants to kiss Lisa, a breast cancer scare with Lisa’s mother that’s treated like a mild rash, and a bunch of scenes of Johnny and Mark throwing a football back and forth, neatly reflecting the film’s inability to pick a subplot and stick with it. It ends with Johnny learning of his girlfriend’s infidelity and trashing his apartment before committing suicide. Throw in some atrocious acting and a few sex scenes lifted straight out of a softcore porno as produced by Lifetime and you’ve got an instant anti-classic.

The troubled production of The Room was documented in a bestselling book by cast member Greg Sestero. Titled The Disaster Artist, the book’s film rights were purchased by James Franco, with a feature film adaptation currently in the very early stages of conception. The Room still tours at sold out venues across the United States and beyond, attracting a devoted following of participants who turn each and every showing into a singular experience. They recite lines with religious devotion, they throw plastic spoons and footballs in reference to little in-jokes better experienced than explained. And in so doing, they allowed this ugly duckling of a film to blossom into a beautiful swan.

Wiseau claimed his drama film was actually a dark comedy after sensing the swell of cult appeal it held for the midnight movie crowd, and even after a decade of Room fever, you can still find the man touring with his flawed masterpiece, doing Q&A’s with fans, reciting sonnets, getting photographed, and generally running his own little Rocky Horror Picture Show. Make no mistake, The Room is terrible. A quick trip to YouTube will provide you with all the evidence you can handle. But that’s hardly relevant. What you need to know is that Tommy Wiseau accomplished what most artists can only dream of, all without the benefit of filmmaking experience, talent, or sanity.

The Room, though broken on every level, captures perfectly a moment in time.

Consider the hordes of drunken revelers, ironic hipsters, film buffs, bloggers, and live Tweeters who attend each Room showing so they can revel in a film that fails as hard as any movie can fail and somehow is arguably more important to our culture than Schindler’s List. These people gather to express some emotion we have not yet named; a happy melding of love and hate, an ironic celebration of failure that somehow becomes passionate and real through sheer force of energy. We worship incompetence. We watch NASCAR for the crashes.

This is the world we’re living in now, where a film does NOT have to be good to be brilliant and important. It simply has to hold the attention of an entire generation of rubberneckers eager to look at an artistic eight car pileup.

Was it Tommy Wiseau’s intention to hold up a mirror to our contemporary freak show culture? Who cares? Accidental brilliance is still brilliance. Alexander Fleming didn’t intend to discover penicillin, but here we all are, tossing peanuts at our modern day Elephant Man.

Honestly, I’d feel bad for Tommy Wiseau if not for two things:

  1. He’s made the GDP of a small nation off of The Room, and
  2. The joke, in the end, is on us.

We, the meme-obsessed tolls in pursuit of irony and kitsch, we accidentally-on-purpose launched this weird little caveman and his movie he wrote in crayon into eternity. Viral marketing is a force of nature no one could have predicted and Wiseau’s The Room is the first great masterwork of this new cinematic style. Movers and shakers have taken notice. Remember Snakes on a Plane? How about Sharknado? Or Tusk, or Teeth, or Birdemic? These movies are hashtags first and films second, weird little entries into the camp movie lottery that Tommy Wiseau so deservedly won. Quality is officially a non-factor when talking about a film’s relevance now. A glorious train wreck will serve you just as well.

Please don’t mistake all this apocalyptic presage for pessimism. Quite the contrary, I’m firmly convinced that the revival of “so-bad-it’s-good” cinema is a wonderful sign for film as an artform. First of all, because it’s never been easier to get your movie to an audience than it is today, and if Wiseau can do it than so can you. And second of all, in subtracting quality from our discussions of films we’ve allowed a far more important factor to become relevant once again.

Passion.

Specifically, the passion to let your freak flag fly, to spend years telling your story, even if it isn’t “good”, even if it doesn’t make sense. To succeed in this brave new world of YouTube and Kickstarter, all you need to do is to stand out, and to stand out all you need to do is be yourself as hard as you possibly can. Share your perspective, even if it’s weird. Wreck your train as hard as a train can be wrecked. You may not strike at our souls, but we will watch and we will clap for you. Ironic applause is still applause to the starving artist, and when you’re sitting on your throne above thousands of fans, it might be hard to tell the difference.

It’s possible that, like Johnny, you will become disillusioned with being used and destroy this comfortable little room you’ve built for yourself. But that’s the risk all artists run.

Evolution requires mutation. Be a mutant.

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 John Keefe is an author, actor, editor and playwright operating out of Chicago, Illinois. A graduate of Columbia College Chicago, he now works as a featured author for websites such as The Editing Room, JayIsGames.com, and The Six Thirty, as well as a writer and performer for The Group Project, a Pilsen-based theater troupe.