Should Gloriously Terrible Movies Like The Room Be Considered 'Outsider Art'?

Tommy Wiseau's cult classic and Plan 9 From Outer Space are bad, but their perspectives and artistic visions are rarely included in mainstream Hollywood.
Wiseau Films

The 2003 film The Room was a failure by nearly every conventional measure of filmmaking. It took more than four months to shoot and reportedly cost six million dollars to make, but by the end of the film’s initial run it had earned all of $1,800 in box-office sales and had played in a single Los Angeles-area theater for two weeks. Among its many (many) cinematic sins, multiple plot threads stubbornly refuse to resolve themselves, characters converse like mysterious non-native English speakers, and soft-core sex scenes go on ... and on. Speaking for nearly every review of the film, one commentator quoted in a 2008 Entertainment Weekly article called it “The Citizen Kane of bad movies.”

But The Room was wildly successful in one important way: putting Tommy Wiseau’s singular, unedited vision out into the world. Wiseau, an inscrutable former clothing salesman with an unplaceable, seemingly European accent, was The Room’s writer, producer, director, financier, and star. The story he wanted to tell was supposed to be simple: a happy-go-lucky stockbroker named Johnny (Wiseau) must navigate romantic complications involving his stay-at-home fiancée, Lisa, and his best friend, Mark. On screen, it became absurd—but it was his absurdity. "Tommy Wiseau doesn't just make some mistakes; he makes every mistake," says Amanda Klein, a professor of film studies at East Carolina University who kicks off her class on “Trash Cinema and Taste” by showing the film. “If he had just made some mistakes it’d just be an average movie, an annoying movie”—not a contender for worst movie ever made.

The Disaster Artist, a new book by Room costar Greg Sestero (Mark) and journalist Tom Bissell, offers more than 250 pages of proof that Wiseau’s solitary vision elevated The Room from just a bad film to one of the most beloved bad films of all time. The book makes it clear that Wiseau’s commitment to the film in his head was unyielding—much to the continual horror of the movie’s cast and crew members, many of whom left the production and had to be replaced. Describing a typical reaction to one of Wiseau’s directorial decisions, Sestero recalls that a crew member’s face “underwent at least five distinct changes of expression: puzzlement, dismay, shock, incredulousness, and finally bleak acceptance.” About the only change made in postproduction was to shave three minutes off one of Johnny’s sex scenes with Lisa. 

Wiseau’s authoritarian approach is what made The Room so bad, but it’s also what made it so special. Film, perhaps more than any other art form, is a collaborative medium. As director-financier-star-producer-writer, Wiseau didn’t have to collaborate. He had the rare liberty to do exactly what he wanted to do. “Movie studios don’t let people like Tommy Wiseau make them,” Bissell tells me. “Someone should have just pulled the plug on it at some point, and no one did.” When Hollywood—or really, anyone with some sort of power—fails to intervene, The Room happens. And, according to Wiseau, rightfully so. “This is real life,” Sestero remembers Wiseau telling his weary crew. “You want to be fake? Not me. I hate fake stuff.”

For most viewers, little in The Room bears even remote resemblance to real life. One of the film’s most cherished lines, judging by YouTube views, is when Mark exhorts a nosy friend to “leave your stupid comments in your pocket!” For Wiseau, however, this expression made some kind of strange sense. So much so, in fact, he “wasn’t going to let any of us move on until he had this ridiculous line of dialogue in the can,” Sestero writes. What else made sense? A scene with four men, each in tuxedos, tossing a football around while standing only a few feet apart. And, the idea that a stockbroker with a randy stay-home woman is the apex of American achievement. The Room may be a non-native’s laughable, even grotesque caricature of modern American life, but it’s an incredibly sincere one. 

Given this context, it might be useful to think of Wiseau as something of an outsider artist. Outsider art—also known as visionary art, or art brut— “describes the work of untrained, self-taught people who make art,” says Charles Russell, author of the book Groundwaters: A Century of Art by Self-Taught and Outsider Artists. Marginalized from society, or at least the art world, due to disability, isolation, or lack of artistic training, outsider artists “are basically following their own personal vision,” Russell says. The label has traditionally applied to painters and sculptors—Sarah Boxer gave an overview of the genre in a recent issue of The Atlantic—but it’s hard to see why it couldn’t also refer to Wiseau or any other thwarted, un-self-aware filmmaker. 

Presented by

Adam Rosen is an editor at Soomo Publishing, an online academic press based in Asheville, North Carolina. He is a contributor to the forthcoming book Pulp Fiction: The Complete Story of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece.

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