“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”–Beckett
Last night we got together and watched Tommy Wiseau’s film “The Room”—a cult favorite for bad movies. Amidst the hilarity of reused sex scenes, erratic characters, plot lines that are acknowledged and then go away forever, I suddenly felt panic. This is like my novel I said out loud, and though everyone laughed I meant it.
In Tom Bissell’s review of the film for Harper’s Magazine he recounts how he went to a midnight screening in Portland, Oregon where the audience was informed that The Room “doesn’t work in the way other movies work.” I agree that the form was unusual but not unfamiliar. The process of watching this movie felt extremely similar to the bad days at home with my novel, and I have the feeling that most folks who are in the process of writing a long form may be confronting the same kinds of problems that Tommy Wiseau decided to just, well, roll with.
Without having to stretch it, Wiseau and The Room are the perfect metaphor for the writer and her novel. Wiseau wrote, directed, produced and starred in his film so his emotional involvement with the work really does equal what a writer puts into with the novel. Whether we like to admit it or not, writers do star in their novels (yes, that main character is just like you) and we definitely fund its production.
When I think about my novel in the worst case I think of how my characters just don’t make any sense, and how I catch myself, when nothing is happening, relying on melodrama. When there’s an exclamation point in the dialogue you know there’s a problem.
Take, for example, this scene from The Room. This is just after Denny is held up by gun point, and Johnny and Mark save the day.
Let’s set aside the fact that there was no lead up to the bad man that holds Denny up at gun point. Let’s also set aside the fact that this is the first indication that Denny owes anyone, let alone a drug lord, money. The point is that since we aren’t emotionally invested in the characters we don’t really care and so, to make up for it, the actors and the dialogue have to contain all of our emotion, the writers, and the actors too. Essentially, the film is foreseeing its own problems—that there wasn’t any opportunity for the viewer to become emotionally invested.
With my novel I often find myself confronting problems that I didn’t foresee as I go along and I got the sense that Wiseau, as he filmed the movie, had the same sort of issue. I offer example number two:
Who is Tommy talking to when he walks upstairs? Himself. Why is he doing that? To move plot along. The issue about him supposedly hitting Lisa is a lie told by Lisa. It was Wiseau’s way of letting the viewers know that Tommy now, somehow, knows about the lie that she’s been telling. It moved the plot along so that he could say “Oh, Hi Mark” and begin a complicated scene between the two best friends, both of whom are sleeping with Lisa. (Yeah, I know.)
And then there’s the issue of just needing to make something happen. Like this scene, where the bros play catch with a football while only standing two feet apart:
The scene already doesn’t make any sense. And the filmmaker, aware that it makes no sense needs to make something happen. So suddenly the weird spikey haired guy gets a mysterious football injury which creates emotional drama, makes something happen, and attempts to distract the viewer from the fact that there’s no point to the scene at all.
A problem I think Wiseau and I share is that we can’t let go of our original plot ideas. What Wiseau seems to have been confronted with while making the film was that the plot was opening—he saw more opportunity, more crazy events that needed to fit into the world he was creating. But he couldn’t let go of what was already there. He couldn’t dash “all his little darlings.” This is the issue with revision. Today, a friend reminded me of what is actually inherent in that word—it’s a re imagining, a way of re seeing and discovering beyond what’s already been created. The only way to get there is to take Beckett’s advice. Keep failing until you fail better than before. Even when it never becomes a masterpiece, even when the whole thing still seems trembling on the verge of becoming open it up and fail again. Remove the football trope, Wiseau. Let your characters make regular chicken clucking noises. Please, please don’t reuse that sex scene. Though, the fact that this movie is bad is what makes it so good. So maybe I should just lay off of it and declare that this movie failed best of all.
But even bad movies, and even the more aggravating parts of my novel have their moments. Sometimes it’s just one line. And for all the absurdity, there’s something beautiful about this sentence:
“Leave your stupid comments in your pocket.” Surprisingly poetic.