Universalizing Art: 'The Disaster Artist' and 'The Room'
Image by Courtney Nicholas
The Disaster Artist is a book about the making of a film called The Room, which came out in 2003 and has since achieved a glorified cult status as possibly one of the worst movies ever made; its director/lead actor/writer, Tommy Wiseau has been called the Orson Welles of bad directors. The book is co-written by one of the actors in the film, Greg Sestero, and the journalist Tom Bissell, who wrote about The Room for Harper’s in 2011, and it gives an insider’s account of how such a strange and strangely beguiling film was made.
The book reads like the combination of two Paul Thomas Anderson film scripts: Boogie Nights in its focus on a group of optimistic outsiders trying to be artistic with a project that defies all artistic pretentions, and The Master with its arrangement around a bizarre mentor-pupil relationship. The other references that come to mind, and they are mostly film references because it is a book about film and the film industry, are Sunset Boulevard, with the masterful way it takes on Hollywood as a vehicle to talk about the blurred line between reality and performance, and The Talented Mr. Ripley, the Anthony Mingella film (as well as the Patricia Highsmith book) in the way that Tom Ripley transforms himself, or attempts to transform himself, in order to infiltrate a social world that he would otherwise be locked out of. Because this book, The Disaster Artist, is about a bad movie, and because Tommy Wiseau could be so easily mocked, one can see how such a book could turn into a thin recounting of all the crazy things that happened, simply to make fun of them. Instead the book is both a great portrayal of hopefuls coming to Los Angeles to pursue their ambitions, and an even greater examination of what it means to be a creative person with a dream, and trying to make it come true in a form that is just as much a business, and an insider social group, as it is an art. The structure of the novel, alternating the focus of the chapters between the making of the movie, The Room, and the relationship between Greg and Tommy back when they first came to Los Angeles creates a fluid energy that keeps the narrative moving and opens up the implications to more universal applications by making the account about more than just the facts.
Tommy Wiseau is undoubtedly a “character,” a mysterious, self-made man whose origins and age are unknown, who somehow has enough money to spend 6 million dollars making and promoting his own film, buying all the equipment in the process. He looks like he is from Bram Stoker’s Transylvania: ageless, muscled, sweet, and scary; he is part vampire, part Hollywood dreamer, part gangster, part Ed Wood, and super lonely.
One of the keys to the book is its examination of Tommy without simplifying his ineffable qualities, much like Norma Desmond’s portrayed in Sunset Boulevard. There are two major levels within Tommy: on the surface he is a driven madman who wills a movie into being because he knows he will never be accepted by the Hollywood establishment otherwise. This surface-level Tommy is wacky because he has a whole set of beliefs, sayings, and behaviors that don’t match up with accepted modes of socializing. This wacky persona is only intensified when he goes into production because as the writer/director, he is in charge of a group of people and he needs to communicate his vision to them. Normally, out in the wilds of life, people could just stay clear of him, but when he is running the show on the closed quarters of a movie set, his co-workers are forced into intimate proximity to him and must try to engage. And what is more, they get to know him even better because they are filming his screenplay, and taking his direction; they are taken deep into the strange world of Tommy Wiseau. Of course, many on the crew could not put up with the situation and quit, but Greg Sestero, like William Holden’s character in Sunset Boulevard, stays the course and tracks Tommy from beginning to end.
As the authors of The Disaster Artist have chosen to alternate the book’s focus, it touches on two of the major components of being an artist, in Hollywood and everywhere else: trying to “make it,” and bringing your artistic vision to fruition. Here we get a wonderful narrative of attempting both in Los Angeles: the small apartments, the auditions, the weird projects one does just to be able to work. The more personal chapters that follow the making of the movie give us a look at an extreme version of movie-making, one where there is an inexperienced dreamer at the center who obviously needs help but refuses to ask for it because he has been let down so many times before. He is a bull with his vision, forcing it onto everyone because he has learned that the only way he’ll get anywhere is by independence.
This is the deeper level of Tommy: he is just a lonely little boy who wants love. He, like so many people with stars in their eyes, sees film not only as a medium of expression, but the gate to acceptance. It is the place where his work will find like-minded people who will learn to love him through his work, not only because of it. This is the hope of most artists, and the book turns Tommy’s sometimes ridiculous struggle into a paradigm for those wishing to be creative in a world where it is usually too hard to be.
In so many ways, Tommy c’est moi.
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