"What does it say about contemporary American culture that the Rocky Horror Picture Show of our time is not a winning exercise in leering camp and butt-shaking grooviness but an earnest melodrama distinguished by what it is unable to provide? Why are so many people responding to a megalomaniacal feat of formal incompetence?"Tom Bissell claims to have seen Tommy Wiseau's The Room twenty times by the time he wrote "Cinema Crudite: The mysterious appeal of the post-camp cult film" for the new issue of Harper's. The Room is the only example of this new phenomenon that Bissell describes, and his article consists mostly of a film synopsis interwoven with an account of a midnight showing, complete with plastic spoons supplied by the management for throwing at the screen, followed by a torturous interview with the inscrutable Wiseau. Bissell doesn't attempt to define the label he's invented, but you might infer from the excerpt above that "post-camp" means a departure from the self-evidently absurd subject matter that defined "camp" for about fifty years. What makes The Room an object of cultic fascination, Bissell believes, is Wiseau's dysfunctional realism, his unintentionally absurd interpretation of mundane subject matter.
"He tried to make a conventional film and wound up with something so inexplicable and casually surreal that no practicing surrealist could ever convincingly ape its form," Bissell writes, "It is the movie that an alien who has never seen a movie might make after having had movies thoroughly explained to him....What makes [Wiseau] interesting is the degree to which his art becomes a fun-house-mirror version, an inadvertent expose, of a traditional film."
Like many a bad film that's become a cult item, The Room inspires something more than contempt or revulsion in those viewers who become converts and proselytizers. I still haven't seen the thing, so I have to take Bissell's word on what leaves him, at least, "strangely exhilarated."
In an entertainment culture in which everything from quiet domestic dramas to battling robot fantasias is target-audienced with laserlike precision, The Room is as bereft of familiar taxonomy as a bat from Mars. In an entertainment culture in which bad and good movies alike have learned how to wink knowingly at their audiences, The Room is rivetingly unaware of itself or its effect. In an entertainment culture in which 'independent filmmaking' is more a calculated stance than an accurate accounting of means, The Room is a film of glorious, horrifying independence.
As his subsequent attention to Tommy Wiseau shows, what Bissell's trying to say here is that The Room is an incorrigibly idiosyncratic individual vision that Wiseau will not or cannot conform to cinematic narrative conventions. Bissell ponders rhetorically whether people watch the film for "the satisfaction of seeing the auteur myth cruelly exploded, of watching an artist reach for the stars and wind up with his hand around a urinal cake." The truth is more likely that people have made a cult of The Room because there they see the auteur theory confirmed.
It's possible that "post-camp cult film" is not so new if, as I suspect, it's really a mirror image of art-house auteurist cultism. Camp itself was defined by the absurdity of its subject matter or by a certain accidental performance style. The camp quality of a film wasn't necessarily identified as a director's unique contribution in the old days. Some of the early camp discoveries like Reefer Madness or the 1943 Batman serial weren't regarded as auteurist works. A change arguably began with the discovery of Ed Wood, though the change was masked by Wood's proclivity for subject matter similar to the stuff of conventional camp. The Wood cult, however, insisted that the compelling consistent badness of Wood's films was a matter of authorial style, of Wood's peculiar way of seeing and describing things. Since then, cult hunters have been on the lookout for cult directors as much as cult films; some may assume you can't have the latter without the former.
While Tommy Wiseau makes important on-screen contributions to the eccentricity of The Room, Bissell is most fascinated by Wiseau's fanatic struggle at great expense (compared to the impoverishment that so often defines cult film) to realize his unorthodox vision. Wiseau is not just a man with funny hair and a strange accent, but an auteur. Bissell suggests that the almost-invisible drama of Wiseau's authorship is part of his film's appeal.
We are all of us deeply alarmed by the Wiseauian part of ourselves, the parts that are selfish and controlling, that crave attention at any cost, that imagine ourselves as superlatively gifted ... To watch The Room is to see that part of ourselves turned mesmerizingly loose.
Reading Bissell's article strangely reminded me of something I read in one of the tribute pieces the New York newspapers ran this week following George Steinbrenner's death. Mike Lupica described the excitement of going to Yankee Stadium when Steinbrenner was at the peak of his rampaging controlling mania. The Stadium was the one place in sports, Lupica wrote, where you could feel like you were watching the owner own the team even if the man himself was nowhere to be seen by mere fans. You could argue that, as the owner, and one who changed managers and players with manic frequency, Steinbrenner was the auteur of the Yankees for nearly forty years. That made every Yankee game a double drama, a contest in its own right and a chapter in the Steinbrenner saga. The cartoonist Bill Gallo even transformed Steinbrenner into a uniformed German martinet, "General von Steingrabber," in a distinct echo of the old archetype of the tyrannical movie director. Movie cultists may respond to auteurist films, good or bad, in something like the way Yankee fans followed the fortunes of Steinbrenner, condemning his meddling or identifying with his power fantasies. Just as his drama came to the forefront when the Yankees did badly, so films that fail as conventional seamless narratives, in exposing the nuts and bolts of cinema that are usually hidden neatly away, heighten our awareness of an authorial presence that's all the more insistent and fascinating, for many people, for its inelegance of expression.
The auteur, in most cases, is the gorilla who's not in the room. The thought of him may be too terrible to contemplate, but as Carl Denham says, you can't look away. That compulsion to see what the gorilla's left in his wake is part of the stuff that cults are made of.