Filmmaker Tommy Wiseau. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Review: the fissure between filmmaker Tommy Wiseau and the fans of his cult classic, “The Room”

About a decade ago, a few friends and I grew addicted to watching the most terrible movies we could find. The habit started one night while wandering the racks of Athens’ venerated Vision Video store, where I spotted a hand-drawn paper cover for a movie called Troll 2. Scrawled there more prominently than the movie’s actual title was a proclamation: THIS IS THE WORST MOVIE IN THE STORE. I needed to see whatever possibly inspired these shoddy laurels, so I added the case to my stack. I ended up watching Troll 2 three times during that rental, each time with a larger group of companions.

I soon learned that this inane, clumsy film from 1990 already had a flourishing cult. Later, in 2009, there would be a documentary directed by Troll 2’s then-child-now-adult lead, Michael Stephenson, about the phenomenon. It was called Best Worst Movie, and by catching up with other actors and detailing the effect that film has had on their lives, it cranks out a pretty endearing story, in turn enriching the experience of Troll 2. The documentary speaks to one aspect of the cult phenomenon: that curious ability to expand outside its clumsiness and pull fans into some kind of family.

By the late 2000s, Troll 2 had been largely unseated from the throne-of-awful by The Room (2003), a drama written and directed by a mysterious persona named Tommy Wiseau (who also plays lead character Johnny in the film). Again, my like-minded pals and I watched The Room four times the first weekend we laid hands on the DVD. Now, years later, we are all still speaking in Johnny’s sweet-awkward cadence, which is partly a result of whatever Scandinavian or Eastern European roots Wiseau has (Wiseau claims to be American, but nobody’s buying it), and is otherwise due to whatever chemical arrangements are happening in his unusual brain.

Naturally, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to see Wiseau in the flesh for his scheduled appearance at the Plaza Theatre on Ponce. Currently, Wiseau is touring cinemas around the country to answer audience questions, promote a series he created called The Neighbors and, apparently, to sell brightly colored men’s underwear bearing his name. The Plaza is a long-standing hub for the film, showing The Room the last Tuesday of every month. That showing has a regular crowd of regular attendees, many of whom have developed their comments to match the film, calling back to the screen in the rollicking-but-organized way of an actual comedic routine, one bred over time and repeated viewings, in the dark, with heckling so routine it feels almost scripted. And so, going to see The Room at the Plaza isn’t really about watching a terrible movie. It’s about watching other people watch a terrible movie.

That tradition creates an odd alchemy when the filmmaker himself is in the house. Wiseau remains a mixed bag of attitude, wanting to convince us he’s in on the joke while also being heavily on defense. The clips Wiseau showed of The Neighbors — a series he began in 2012, originally in collaboration with comedy duo Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim — felt far too intentionally weird, too goofball, as if his weirdness is now just something he can monetize. At the same time, Wiseau opened the screening with a photographic montage to prove that The Room did have a script — each image showing actors and crew leafing through the pages. It is a fact that doesn’t seem to be in major dispute and is pretty sidelong to what’s so bizarre about the movie. After all, if The Room didn’t have a script, its idiosyncrasies might have a valid excuse. Instead, the knowledge that one person, with his mind, intentionally created this thing — a narrative that feels more like an approximation of human experience by someone that has never actually been human than it does like a real dramatic tale — bewilders in a range of continually unfolding ways.

The kind of bewilderment that you feel about The Room, whether you’ve watched it once or a hundred times, is probably the best reason for the Q&A portion of the program, which followed The Neighbors. Without surprise, however, Wiseau was no help in his answers. Instead, he stood on stage behind sunglasses, his lank, dyed hair hanging loose above bound-looking shoulders. Around his waist was a complicated slung arrangement of multiple studded leather belts. And mostly, he stood there parrying whatever jabs he thought were coming his way with prickly responses of his own. Each woman that asked him a question received the counter, “Do you have a boyfriend?” a response that might have served as either indictment or vindictive come-on, it’s difficult to tell.

That insider experience was pretty distinct from, say, the separate peace made by Troll 2’s once-embarrassed actors in Best Worst Movie. As much unbridled fun as watching The Room that night was, one couldn’t miss the endless separation between Wiseau and his fans. As eager as we all were to get a photo with him, speak to him, call him Tommy — there is no accessing whatever is in his mind. We are not part of some family of The Room. We are not drawn in, and never really can be.

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