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.

Hollywood studios, after all, can be seen as akin to the mainstream art world's gatekeepers. When a major film company puts out a bad movie—ahem, The Lone Ranger—it rarely becomes as cherished as The Room has. It's just seen as a failure to correctly adhere to or transcend the established rules of cinema and the marketplace. Similarly, “a lot of the mainstream art world focuses largely on formal and aesthetic issues that play out within their own sense of art history,” Russell says. “But it doesn't really connect to the raw sources of art.” However silly they appear to viewers, Wiseau’s shrieks and contortions are undeniably raw. In one scene, probably The Room’s single most mocked performance, Johnny reenacts wholesale a famous part from Rebel Without a Cause. James Dean’s desperate cry “You are tearing me apart!” becomes “You are tearing me apart, Lisa!” It was melodramatic, unimaginative—and deadly serious.

Because of its superlative status The Room is frequently compared to the original “worst movie ever made,” Plan 9 From Outer Space, the 1959 sci-fi fiasco was written and directed by the indomitable B-movie man Ed Wood. Fair or not, Plan 9 has been known as “the worst movie ever made” for longer than any other film. (It was anointed in Harry and Michael Medved’s 1980 book on bad film, The Golden Turkey Awards; its selection, though, was actually based on a reader poll.) The evidence offered in support of this designation is long, and usually includes the movie’s flimsy cardboard “tombstones,” its chronic night-day continuity mishaps, and, most infamously, its attempt via editing and a much-taller body double to present Bela Lugosi as a main character—despite the fact that the Hungarian died just before filming.

Like Wiseau, Wood was enormously proud of his work. He was an earnest eccentric, a scrapper with imagination for whom financing was always just out of reach. (He had the entire cast of Plan 9 baptized in order to get funding from the Baptist Church of Beverly Hills, an event that only added to his reputation as an oddity.) Plan 9, like The Room, is also a midnight movie favorite, and has been made into a play as well. Wood was also obsessed with moviemaking, and spent nearly all of his life working on B-movies and exploitation films. Cut off even from those at the end of his life, he turned to pornography.

As time has passed, however, Wood’s talents have been reevaluated. In a 1995 essay for Screen, Northwestern professor film critic Jeffrey Sconce observed that "Wood is now seen, like Godard, as a unique talent improvising outside the constrictive environment of traditional Hollywood." The title of a 2009 Wood biography is Mad Genius, suggesting that the public is at least ready to hear Wood defenders out even if they’re still laughing at Lugosi’s “cameo” in Plan 9. In the future, perhaps Wiseau will be extended a similar mercy.

Looking at Wood and Wiseau as outsiders shouldn’t excuse their failings, but it could put them in a different light. The Disaster Artist seems to have anticipated this. The story of The Room, Bissell says, “was a story I could tell about America, and art, and friendship.” For her part, Klein doesn’t actually think Wiseau has actually done anything wrong. Indeed, those who judge The Room so one-dimensionally might want to leave their stupid comments in their pocket. “There are no rules in cinema,” Klein says. “You should be able to do what you want.”