Failure Is an Option

It's nearing midnight in Hollywood, and the Urban Man has joined his fellow Angelenos on a sacred pilgrimage. I've come with a rowdy club of 20-somethings to stand outside the Sunset Five in a long and happy line to see what has become known as "the Citizen Kane of bad movies."

I mean, of course, The Room, that delicious cult epic of bad writing, bad acting, and bad direction; the film produced by, written by, directed by, and starring the staggeringly untalented Tommy Wiseau.

This is the work sent by God to assure mankind that "failure is an option" -- and really, could there be anything more important to communicate to His ever-suffering children?

The night is cold, but the mall is lit with the clean fluorescence of successful commerce -- the Starbucks and Trader Joes that dominate our lives. The crowd would prefer to be more rowdy: more stoned or more drunk or more foolish. But our own failures are insufficient: we need Tommy to clown before us.

At last, five minutes before the screening, a roar goes up: Tommy is sighted. Then he disappears. Then he reappears. Then he disappears. Then, at last, he begins walking dangerously along a parapet 30 feet above the ground, swaggering in his sunglasses and low-slung pants and long, black-dyed hair. He is a joy to behold: another strange phenomenon of the media age; a man who has parlayed his very lack of art or good sense into fame and fortune; a man who has learned, like so many here, to celebrate his degradation as a kind of greatness.

Soon, we will see Tommy's misshapen butt waggling in many bad sex scenes and his mysterious accent butchering many awkward lines. But for now, he's reveling down the line of fans, slapping hands as he does every month during screenings of The Room, not just in Hollywood, but around the world: Boston, Toronto, London, you name it. This has gone on since 2003 when film was first released to universal pans.

Apparently it's not just Angelenos who require the sweet balm of failure, but urban men and women everywhere.


Before the film starts, Tommy condescends to do a short Q & A. The questions often mock him: "Tommy, are you following the same fitness regime as when you made the film?" But it is impossible to know whether he actually feels mocked or whether he is pretending to misunderstand the question: "Yes, yes," he says dismissively. Is that vaguely Eastern European accent faked? Does it matter? Here, as everywhere these days, the line between fiction and truth has become unimportant. We have let go of that line as we have let go of so much that once defined us.

The only thing that's certain is that this $6 million independent production was at first intended to be entirely serious -- even if Tommy later, and lamely, labeled the work "a black comedy." Without that firm truth, none of it would matter.

At last the overwrought music kicks in, and we see those idiotic establishing shots of San Francisco. The camera pans endlessly along the Golden Gate as the crowd encourages it: "Go, Go, Go." Tommy, in the heroic role of Johnny, arrives to shag his plump, but disloyal girlfriend, to whom he will later cry out with superb melodrama, "You're tearing me apart, Lisa!" -- a line once repeated on The Simpsons, and now appearing on T-Shirts. We ready our fistfuls of plastic spoons, to throw when the mysterious spoon pictures appear onscreen. During one interminable sex scene, as Lisa cheats with Johnny's best friend, half the audience runs out to the bathroom.

"Intermission!" they cry.

A friend of mine, a brilliant professor of religion at a major university, once asked her class what they were most grateful for in their lives. She was startled when a woman stood up and said, "Every day I am grateful that I am not so bright as the rest of you. I give thanks to God that he made me mediocre, so I can be happy. I do not have to compete with you and be miserable like you when I fail to accomplish anything wonderful." My friend the brilliant professor says she recalls this moment often. Watching The Room, I recall it too. I think, "I would kiss that woman if I met her." Trust me, the Urban Man would not kiss Tommy, but I say to all who might listen: "Wiseau, too, has performed a sacred sacrifice."

Twenty minutes in, the screen is littered with stilted dialogue and half-formed plotlines, just as the floor is littered with thousands of plastic spoons. As we laugh, we are what? Freed. Freed momentarily from the great accomplishments, clever writing, exquisite visions, heroic meanings, talented beauties, and magnificent sex that torture us every day. We drink deeply of failure, and briefly we are free, free, free.

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