Citizen Kane Vs. The Room
When I was first told that Tommy Wiseau’s The Room “was the worst movie ever made,” I was skeptical. There’s no dearth of bad movies in the world, and I’ve actively sought out the worst of the worst.
I thought, “How could it possibly be as bad as Howard the Duck? Or Sex and the City 2, with all of its blatant product placement and cultural insensitivity? Or as bad as the Michael Schultz-directed Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which featured Peter Frampton, the Bee-Gees, and everyone else who was alive and famous in 1978 in a film with a shoddily-constructed plot which was entirely subordinate to the Beatles catalog?”
But then I saw The Room, and it was like something of an epiphany. It’s not merely a “so bad it’s good” — it’s so bad, it’s enlightening. It makes Howard the Duck look like Doctor Zhivago. But then, let’s not compare apples to oranges. All of these other films mentioned were high-budget misfires from educated makers who had historically cleaned up at the box office. These other films (Sex and the City 2, and whatever) were the handiwork of people who should have known better, whereas The Room is Wiseau’s intellectually devoid vanity project. It’s Tommy Wiseau’s $6 million dollar celebration of Tommy Wiseau.
Who is Tommy Wiseau, and how did he manage to secure $6 million? That’s the thing. Nobody really seems to know, and Wiseau is at least business-savvy enough to not disclose much personal information, lest he spoil the marketing ploy that is his own enigmatic existence.
But for what it reveals about the inherent complexity of film making by its remarkable display of ineptitude, it has been dubbed “The Citizen Kane of bad movies.” It’s fitting, because its construction calls so much attention to its own moronic artifice. Just as Orson Welles demonstrated how a film could be enriched by the use of certain narrative devices, innovative applications of photography, and a superbly crafted script, Wiseau showcases what happens when a naive filmmaker, with only the most pedestrian understanding of how a film is made, secures way too much money and haphazardly sets about “reinventing the wheel” without understanding how movies are made or why movies are made.
Let’s compare and contrast the two for a minute. With Citizen Kane, Orson Welles had pioneered Deep Field focus photography. What this means is that in so many of the shots, everything you’re seeing, foreground and background, is in crystal clear focus. This was achieved with the use of optical printers. It provides for an image which was spatially rich in a way that a motion picture had never been before. With The Room, Wiseau reportedly didn’t understand the difference between digital HD and 35 mm, and just decided to shoot the film in both!
In Citizen Kane, Welles employs the “unreliable narrator” trick from literature, wherein multiple subjects offer conflicting recaps of historical events, and the reader (or viewer) is left to piece together some sort of cohesive, believable story from these various, second-hand scraps of information. It’s a brilliant device, and exploits the artifice of both literature and filmmaking in an ingenious way. In The Room, Wiseau can’t stick to a meaningful, central narrative, and ends up manically fighting to insert as many little arbitrary and ultimately uninteresting twists and surprise story elements as possible — for instance, we’re told a character has breast cancer. This is brought up once and never mentioned again.
Both films fetishize inanimate objects. In Citizen Kane, it’s the “Rosebud” sled, and in The Room, it’s a framed photograph of a spoon that Wiseau’s character keeps in his house. “Rosebud” functions to move the story along. Why are there framed photographs of spoons? Your guess is as good as mine.
One of the things that is interesting, though, is that Citizen Kane was an extremely high-profile film that Orson Welles was contracted for at the height of his popularity. Because it was largely a less-than-flattering depiction of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, Hearst wielded his vast influence to bury the film. He limited press coverage of the film, and also limited the number of theaters which could screen it. While the film is generally regarded by critics as one of the best (if not the very best) Hollywood films ever made, it was a box office flop because of Heart’s intervention, and this permanently damaged Welles’ relationship with RKO Productions. The celebrated work of a genius fails at the box office, while someone like Wiseau can mindlessly produce a piece of garbage like The Room, and become famous and wealthy because of the demerits of his work.
There’s much to learn from all of this, including this little uplifting nugget of wisdom: the world is unfair, and it’s especially unfair to artists. You can spend a lifetime cultivating your genius so you can pour your heart and soul into something and never reap any benefits from any of it…OR, you can be a Tommy Wiseau and become famous for undertaking a project that you are artistically and intellectually incapable of undertaking.
Still, I’m looking forward to the day when screenings will host both types of films back-to-back, highlighting the strengths of the one and calling attention to the numerous flaws of the other. Both films, in their own way, serve to strengthen our understanding of the mechanics of film making. After all, what good is the sweet without the sour?
Author Bio: Kate Voss is an entertainment and film blogger with Direct-Ticket.net. She is a cult classic connoisseur, with her favorite movie being “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” She lives and works in Chicago.