Monthly Archives: November 2013

“If you’re the judge, then what is our crime?”

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Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct: The Beautiful and the Damned

(Spoilers for the Paul Verhoeven movies Basic Instinct and Total Recall, though these movies are so well known that it is expected the reader is familiar with both, and no attempt is made to summarize them. After reading Robert Littell’s essay on the Fitzgerald book from where I take this post’s name, The Beautiful and Damned Is A Timeless Tale”, I should explain that the small difference in the names is that in Fitzgerald’s book, the adjectives apply to the same characters, whereas in the movie I think there is only one who enjoys the overlap: Catherine is beautiful, Nick is damned, Elizabeth is beautiful and damned. This note of explanation was added on December 22nd, 2013. The movie’s lousy screenplay is by Joe Eszterhas, and the excerpts are taken from the version found here, at Daily Script.)

This post might be thought the second in an ongoing series of attempts to deal with what might be generically and euphemistically referred to as “writer’s block”. The first, “The Room: My Funny Valentine” was in turn halted by the same affliction; a substantial second part of this post going off on an entirely different tangent on bad movies remains unfinished. This post attempts to deal with the problem by writing about a bad movie I would usually have no inclination to write about, or frankly watch, Basic Instinct.

I am cheerfully tabula rasa as to what others have said about this film, avoiding the curse mentioned by many, though my memory focuses on Huysmans’ A Rebours, where one’s reading limits one into reiterating, or making awkward and failed attempts to avoid, what others have already said1. I have chosen it as a remedy for my ills, but not entirely haphazardly; it has the ideal qualities for a movie about which one wishes to write. I have just spoken of it as a bad movie, and this is almost entirely the fault of the screenplay, maybe one of the worst ever produced for this kind of very expensive production. If one can imagine a crazed billionaire funding an erotic thriller with the stipulation that all the dialogue had to come from comments on youtube, it might produce a similar creature2. You might look at the movie as an example of the lunatic movement of money, entirely unmoored from common sense, this time deciding to make a movie out of a disturbed child’s english homework – though of course somehow this bet paid off, with the movie a huge financial success. The gap between the script and the high quality of the production, the masterful cinematography and design, are what compel analysis. The emptiness of the screenplay becomes opacity. There is seemingly nothing to the characters, nothing to their relations with each other, but the richness (the word is not chosen arbitrarily) of the images compels one to believe there must be something within. The movie is like a cryptic device, seemingly useless but beautifully ornamented, found in a pharaoh’s tomb. Someone so powerful must have had some reason for owning this antique, but what?

So, I describe what I think is the most obvious perspective of seeing the film, and though I think this perspective is entirely natural and without awkwardness, it may very well be one entirely without intent of the movie’s makers. I also think I am describing the most obvious way of seeing the film, and as a tender virgin ignorant the film’s commentary, I think I may well be saying things that have been said many, many times before3.

Basic Instinct can only be seen, and only makes sense, as a movie about movie watching and the fantasies they inspire in the audience, and the way they differently affect men and women. It might be seen as a companion piece of the Paul Verhoven film right before it, Total Recall. That movie was about a man having a fantasy made real, but it’s also about the vicariousness involved in movie watching and how those fantasies are not without malevolence. The character Doug Quaid may well experience the fantasy of an escape from his life by playing the role of a secret agent, but we in the audience are given an equal escape too, the role of Arnold Schwarzenegger playing this very part. The film itself gives a discreet nod to this in one of the few moments when we break from Quaid’s perspective and are with another Rekall client and her potential fantasy: the screen showing what awaits her features a massive bodybuilder form suggesting nothing less than our own hero. Our desires, however, are not entirely noble: the fantasy of Doug Quaid involves brutal killing, his use of a body as a human shield, and shooting his wife with a machine gun. We eventually learn what underlies this cruelty: Quaid is actually a double agent, part of the malevolent and ruthless government which he serves, so deep undercover that his secret mission is unknown even to him. That our role playing involves cruel acts more appropriate to a villain than a hero suggests that the fantasy does not involve being a hero at all, but to play, briefly, at evil.

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

After an opening dream sequence, Recall begins in the bed of Quaid and his wife. Basic Instinct opens in a bed as well, one which we first see entirely in reflection in the ceiling mirror; the movie is not about sex in real life, but images of sex. The plot which follows, all red herrings aside, is ridiculously simple: a mystery writer named Catherine Tramell4 is suspected of the opening murder, and becomes the target of an investigation led by Nick Curran. Tramell writes books which seem to foretell killings, whether that of her parents or Johnny Boz, the rock star killed in the opening. Detective Nick Curran becomes increasingly obsessed with Tramell, suspecting her of a slew of murders, including that of her parents, but we’re unsure if his investigation is a cover for his own infatuation or the other way around. Eventually, we learn that Curran’s former girlfriend, a police psychiatrist named Elizabeth Garner is also obsessed with Tramell, and has been ever since they went to school together. The movie’s open ending reveals that Garner is the one behind the killings, intended to frame and destroy the object of her ardor, Tramell, yet somehow when the movie closes with Curran and Tramell in bed, there is an icepick on the floor which Tramell tentatively reaches for, but then, for the moment, leaves aside.

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

The movie, like Recall, often has the ambiguous quality of a dream; there are scenes that seemingly cannot be real, from which we expect the characters to awake, but they never do, suggesting the entire movie is a dream life. Curran is a veteran cop, but when he tails Tramell by car, he is so close and so obvious that he immediately gives himself away. Curran goes to a nightclub shabbily underdressed and easily the oldest person there, yet no one seems to notice or give any dismissive stares; the club itself feels like a vision of what an older man might imagine such a club would be like. On the way to her interrogation, Tramell is asked a series of questions in the car about writing books, and her answers here are first given as a reflection in the rearview mirror, a reflected image like that which opens the movie:

It must really be something making stuff up all the time.

Yeah, it teaches you to lie.

How’s that?

You make up believable stuff. It’s called suspension of disbelief.

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

The dream-like sequences we see, of Curran tailing Tramell in a manner more obviously than any cop would ever do, or Curran unnoticed in a nightclub, destroy the movie’s own suspension of disbelief. What we see cannot be real, it must be Curran’s dream.

Tramell, the center of this dream, seems to have an uncanny insight into Curran. We later learn she may have had access to an internal police report on him, but her knowledge appears to precede this, as if she knew him intimately before the movie began. Though Basic Instinct gives no evidence that Curran knew her before, there appears such a close connection between them that he is frequently asked if he did. Curran is both the movie’s protagonist and a character in one of Tramell’s fictions, which uncannily predicts exactly how Curran’s partner is killed. That Curran’s character dies in the book implies that he’ll die soon as well, though perhaps only after the film ends. In her books and elsewhere, Tramell appears to have precognition; she is like a goddess or demon from outside the dream, summoned into it, who knows perfectly how it works and what will take place, but without any power over the consequences5. “I don’t make any rules, Nick,” she says during the famous interrogation scene. “I go with the flow.” She stares out at the camera during a lie detector exam, all-seeing, knowing that eyes are always on her6.

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

Basic Instinct is a mystery set in San Francisco, and it feels like a play on that other mystery set in San Francisco, Vertigo. There are, of course, the overhead shots of winding staircases, and there is the cop haunted by the mistakes of the past, this time two tourists killed when Curran worked as an undercover agent in a drug sting. The swooning strings suggest the scores of Bernard Herrmann and Tramell’s house is on the coast of the ocean in which Vertigo‘s heroine tries to drown. The detective of Vertigo is obsessed with a mysterious woman while a neglected love stands by. Here, the neglected woman is equally obsessed, and it is not the object of obsession who is remade into the ideal, but this obsessed woman who remakes herself into an image of the femme fatale7.

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

I have said that the movie’s opening implies that the film is entirely about our obsession with images themselves, and it is only in this relation that the movie makes any kind of sense to me. Tramell is the iconic movie character and its associated celebrity, and Basic Instinct might be a metaphor for the fantasies we have about such things and the influence of such fantasies on our own lives. Tramell is set apart early on from the other characters, a woman with a massive house outside of the city, the bounty of the extraordinary wealth she inherited when her parents died. She is supposedly a figure of malice, yet she is the only character who over and over again wears white, the traditional symbol of purity. This, to my mind, does not represent purity at all. Tramell is the central light whose rays fall on all the others. The other characters almost always wear suits, in drab colors, that blend in with the blah interiors of the police station. Garner is as gorgeous as Tramell, but she’s stuck in dull browns. Almost all the characters work for the police department, doing what’s considered difficult, necessary work, while it’s the multimillionaire maybe serial killer heiress who embodies the ideal of freedom and wealth so often celebrated in movies. This, I think, nakedly and without apology does what so many movies do, celebrating a material ideal achieved through corruption and death, the corrupt means an afterthought: this is not a movie driven by its moral lessons, this is a movie about wanting the multimillion dollar mansion of a murderess8.

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

I don’t think the references to Vertigo are there to simply place this movie in the tradition of Hitchcock thrillers, but because they are at the heart of Nick Curran’s fantasies, and the relation of movie fantasy to reality. Curran is a man who I assume, based on the age of Michael Douglas at the time, to be in his late forties or early fifties. The icy blondes of Hitchcock movies are the erotic fantasies of his youth, and in this dream, this icy blonde is given pornographic life, and Curran finds himself in a fantasy which unsettlingly shares some of the qualities of Vertigo. The icy blonde of his fantasy has remained eternally a thirty year old, while he has aged into an old man. As said, when he meets her in the club, he is very obviously and uncomfortably the oldest man in the room9. Whatever their absurdities, he does not wish these fantasies to be questioned or examined. The objects of these fantasies, Catherine Tramell and Elizabeth Garner, are also his opponents, and, not coincidentally, they both have a background in psychiatry. Their expertise lies in examining the desires of others. Curran resists anything like such questioning, explicitly so during a psychiatric examination. “When you recollect your childhood…are your recollections pleasing to you?,” he’s asked. “Number one: I don’t remember how often I jerked off, but it was a lot. Number two: I wasn’t pissed off at my dad…even when I was old enough to know what he and mom did in the bedroom. Number three: I don’t look in the toilet before I flush.” Curran doesn’t want to look at the shit in the bowl, and he doesn’t want to look at the shit in his head.

I think the idea of a fantasy preserved in memory, an erotic image made static is crucial to my perspective on this movie, yet I struggle to covey it as precisely as possible. The iciness of the Hitchcock blonde is not simply that of temperament, but a flower frozen in ice, Vertigo‘s Carlotta Valdes is Vertigo‘s Madeleine is Vertigo‘s Judy is Basic Instinct‘s Catherine Tramell; the beauty is eternal because there is something in the beauty that is already dead. As said, I attempt to describe something that is crucial, but I fail; I think, however, Norman Mailer comes closes to conveying it in his essay, “The sinister art of film”:

Think of a favourite uncle who is gone. Does the apparatus of the mind which flashes his picture before us act in another fashion if we ask for a flash of Humphrey Bogart next? Perhaps it does not. Film seems part of the mechanism of memory, or at the least, a most peculiar annex to memory. For in film we remember events as if they had taken place and we were there. But we were not. The psyche has taken into itself a whole country of fantasy and made it psychologically real, made it a part of memory.

We are obviously dealing with a phenomenon whose roots are less defined than the power and glory of king and church. Yes, movies are more mysterious than theatre; even a clue to the undefinable attraction of the movie star is that he remains a point of light in that measureless dark of memory where other scenes have given up their light. He has obviously become a centre of meaning to millions, possessed of more meaning than the actor next to him who may be actually more attractive, more interesting – definition of the phenomenon frays as we try to touch it. But has the heart of the discussion been sounded? Does it suggest that movie stars partake of the mysterious psychic properties of film more than other actors? That something in them lends itself to the need of memory for images of the past one can refer to when the mind has need to comprehend something new before it?

We have to be careful. It is perhaps not so simple as that. The movie star may also suggest obsession, that negative condition of memory, that painful place to which we return over and over because a fundamental question is still unresolved: Something happened to us years ago which was important, yet we hardly know if an angel kissed us then or a witch, whether we were brave or timid. We return to the ambiguity with pain. The obsession hurts because we cannot resolve it and so are losing confidence in our ability to estimate the present.

Obsession is a wasteful fix. Memory, when it can be free of obsession, is a storehouse to offer up essences of the past capable of digesting most of the problems of the present; memory is even the libido of the ego, sweetening harsh demands of the will when memory is, yes, good. But the movie star seems to serve some double function: The star feeds memory and obsession – one need only think back to one’s feelings about Marilyn Monroe! The movie star is welcoming but mysterious, unavailable yet intimate, the movie star is the embodiment of a love which could leave us abject, yet we believe we are the only soul the movie star can love.

Catherine Tramell is an image preserved in stasis, a kind of eternal blonde, and there is a kind of stasis, if not entropy, in the movie overall; when fantasy begins, real life stops. There are no children or families in the film, none of the police seem to have any relatives. Hazel Dobkins was convicted of killing her family, Tramell’s girlfriend, Rocky, was convicted of killing her younger brothers, and Tramell is suspected of killing her parents. Basic Instinct suggests that underlying a movie that is ostensibly about a flawed hero of the community, a representative of the state, a policeman, is a worship of a Nietzschean ideal unencumbered by christianity, fellowship, or community, an all powerful goddess among men, the wealthy and isolated Catherine Tramell; the women of the movie express the other side of this: they destroy the foundation of community, the family, not by namby pamby cultural warfare, but through actual murder. Despite themselves, Curran and his partner, Gus, are drawn to Catherine Tramell, this corrupt ideal. The movie deliberately establishes that the fantasies of Curran and Gus are not those of a corrupt coastal elite, but that of average flyover country Joe Q. America, the movie taking pains to make this clear: one of the longest discussions between Curran and his partner, Gus, takes place in a honkytonk bar, with Gus sporting a cowboy hat and bolo. His partner warns his friend of what might happen through his involvement with Tramell, but he’s also deeply envious of his friend’s entanglement. “You think I’m getting any? Sure, I can get laid by blue haired women!” he complains. “I don’t like them!”

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

Curran covets this woman as a man might covet a movie star ideal, but she is obsessed over as well by Liz Garner, who wishes to be her but hates her as well. Without doubt or qualifier, I find Garner to easily be the most interesting character of the movie10. This has nothing to do with the writing, and entirely because of the actress. Just as Tramell’s presence flows exclusively from Sharon Stone, the fascination of Garner is wholely due to Jeanne Tripplehorn. There is no erotic charge to any of the couplings in the movie; the only one which one imagines carrying any such electricity is between two characters who never share the screen: Garner and Tramell. Garner is stuck in a world of ugly, older men – the only exception is detective Andrews (Bruce A. Young) who may or may not be considered invisible in this context. Douglas is lit sympathetically in other movies, but here his face is made to look either like melting clay or a cave fish. His character is a charmless sleaze who treats Garner abysmally. In their only sex scene, he forcibly bends her over and sodomizes her. Every conversation, every moment they have together is, as they always say, about his drama, not hers. Garner’s house has paintings on the wall, books, antiques, ornaments, suggesting substance as well as a hunger for new things, places unknown, whereas Curran’s has nothing. Curran is given no rivals for her affections, she is given no hint of a better choice.

Garner is the only female character among the police, and her position is a subservient one. Curran acts like she’s dirt, and in her psychiatric analyses she is always accompanied by older men who take the lead in the analysis – Dr. Lamott (Stephen Tobolowsky) in one, Dr. McElwaine (James Rebhorn) and Dr. Myron (William Duff-Griffin) in the other. Where Curran soon comes to idolize Tramell in his sexual obsession, Garner hates the world she’s stuck in and idolizes her in a different way: she becomes the femme fatale Tramell is supposed to be, killing off a series of men. She wishes to be like Tramell, and yet she hates her as well, the way a woman might hate a beautiful actress or model whose looks she is constantly unfavorably compared to. Her killings are born out of frustration with Curran ignoring her, in favor of loving this ideal: her dying words to Curran are “I loved you.” The irony, of course, is that Garner has all the qualities that Tramell has. Garner’s body is gorgeous and her lips are sensuous. The movie plausibly tells us that Garner is the killer in the opening scene, and that the beautiful sexual dervish we see there is Garner. “She’s evil! She’s brilliant!” Garner warns Curran about Tramell, and she’s actually warning him about herself. Everything that draws Curran to Tramell should draw Curran to Garner, but he is trapped within the confines of his own fantasy; we are told that he is not drawn to Garner out of any erotic attraction, but pity. “Sometimes I think he started banging her just to get Internal Affairs off him,” says one cop to Gus, who replies “He ain’t that way. He’s got a heart.” Garner is a police psychiatrist, she knows exactly what a police officer with a drawn gun will do when she pulls her hand out of her pocket, and so she does exactly that: she is sick of this world, and so she forces her escape11.

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

That Curran’s own illusion will end is inevitable as well. He wishes for the fantasy to persist eternally, yet for it to unroll as well as if it were real life. Curran and Tramell discuss how the novel about his character will end:

The detective falls for the wrong girl. But he doesn’t die.

So what happens to him?

They fuck like minks, raise rug rats…and live happily ever after.

It won’t sell.

Why not?

Somebody has to die.

He persists with trying to hold onto this conflciting vision, my life will be an erotic thriller but with a family as well, up till the very last scene. “I lose everybody,” says Tramell, because she knows this dream must end. Shortly after meeting Tramell, Curran takes up smoking again, and these dreams are like cigarettes in movies, a stylish pose, which one affects without giving any thought to the aftereffects, but are ultimately a habit you end or they destroy you12. After they have sex, Tramell asks, “What do we do now?” and Curran somehow tries to attach a normal life to this erotic fantasy. “Fuck like minks…raise rug rats and live happily ever after.” Tramell, however, is a creature only of erotic fantasy, and she knows that children are antithetical to this: “I hate rug rats.” Curran wants so badly what he has to persist that he abandons it immediately without negotiation, “Fuck like minks, forget the rug rats…and live happily ever after.” But Tramell knows that erotic fantasy is destroyed not just by children, but that fantasies themselves are self-destructing. Dreams are inherently ephemeral, inherently transient: the dreamer has to wake up. Inevitably, without logic or reason, somehow Tramell is the murderer as well, and sooner than later, Nick Curran will die.

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

(Edits for aesthetic reasons and clarity were made on November 27th, 2013; apologies are made for the poor readability of this piece on its initial posting, the day before. A still from Total Recall of Quaid using a body as a human shield that I decided was just too explicitly graphic was removed on November 27th as well. I originally misremembered the name of Huysmans’ book and gave it a title which was an incoherent combination of various french sounds. That was also corrected on the 27th. On November 29th, the text involving Noman Mailer and the obsessive images of cinema were added, as was footnote #4, where Verhoeven describes Catherine Tramell as demonic. The actress Jeanne Tripplehorn was briefly renamed Jeannette in this post; on the 29th, she was given back her rightful name. Footnote #5 on Catherine Tramell and Madonna’s Sex, and footnote #9 on who the true killer is, were added on the 29th as well. Footnote #1, the example of the sterling writing of the movie, was added on the 30th. Footnote #7, quoting the passage from The Wolf of Wall Street, was added on December 1st. Elizabeth Garner originally was stuck with a d in the middle of her name; this change, along with a clarification on how I see the last actions of her life, footnote #10, were made on Decemeber 22nd, 2013. On December 24th, 2013, the material dealing with the supporting script excerpt was added to footnote #10. Footnote #8 on the ages of Gus and Nick was added on December 25th, 2013. The additional notes on the inspiration for Catherine Trammell in footnote #5 was added on December 27th, 2013. Footnote #1 dealing with Huysmans was added on January 9th, 2015, with the following footnotes incremented. On May 18, 2015, the footnote referencing the Seven Types of Ambiguity was added.)


1 This turned out to be a mistake; this idea is not in Huysmans’ book at all. It is, however, in Plato’s Phaedrus. An excerpt from Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows gives a good overview:

Early in the fourth century BC, when the practice of writing was still novel and controversial in Greece, Plato wrote Phaedrus, his dialogue about love, beauty, and rhetoric. In the tale, the title character, a citizen of Athens, takes a walk with the great orator Socrates into the countryside, where the two friends sit under a tree beside a stream and have a long and circuitous conversation. They discuss the finer points of speech making, the nature of desire, the varieties of madness, and the journey of the immortal soul, before turning their attention to the written word. “There remains the question,” muses Socrates, “of propriety and impropriety in writing.” Phaedrus agrees, and Socrates launches into a story about a meeting between the multitalented Egyptian god Theuth, whose many inventions included the alphabet, and one of the kings of Egypt, Thamus.

Theuth describes the art of writing to Thamus and argues that the Egyptians should be allowed to share in its blessings. It will, he says, “make the people of Egypt wiser and improve their memories,” for it “provides a recipe for memory and wisdom.” Thamus disagrees. He reminds the god that an inventor is not the most reliable judge of the value of his invention: “O man full of arts, to one is it given to create the things of art, and to another to judge what measure of harm and of profit they have for those that shall employ them. And so it is that you, by reason of the tender regard for the writing that is your offspring, have declared the very opposite of its true effect.” Should the Egyptians learn to write, Thamus goes on, “it will implant forgetfulness in their souls: they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.” The written word is “a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance.” Those who rely on reading for their knowledge will “seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing.” They will be “filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom.”

However, there is an excerpt from A Rebours which might be relevant to this movie:

The servant brought him a new series of books. These oppressed him more. They were books toward which his taste had gradually veered, books which diverted him by their very faults from the perfection of more vigorous writers. Here, too, Des Esseintes had reached the point where he sought, among these troubled pages, only phrases which discharged a sort of electricity that made him tremble; they transmitted their fluid through a medium which at first sight seemed refractory.

Their imperfections pleased him, provided they were neither parasitic nor servile, and perhaps there was a grain of truth in his theory that the inferior and decadent writer, who is more subjective, though unfinished, distills a more irritating aperient and acid balm than the artist of the same period who is truly great. In his opinion, it was in their turbulent sketches that one perceived the exaltations of the most excitable sensibilities, the caprices of the most morbid psychological states, the most extravagant depravities of language charged, in spite of its rebelliousness, with the difficult task of containing the effervescent salts of sensations and ideas.

2 The most egregious example of the terrible terrible terrible writing in the movie is the first encounter with Tramell:

Good afternoon. I’m Detective Curran. This is Detective Moran. We’re with the San Francisco Police…

I know who you are. So, how did he die?

He was murdered.

Obviously. How was he murdered?

With an ice pick. How long were you dating him?

I wasn’t dating him. I was fucking him.

What are you, a pro?

No, I’m an amateur.

My dismissal of Eszterhas’s writing is almost as artless and witless as the object of dismissal; thankfully, those looking for an artful and skewering blade can find one in Joe Queenan’s review of Eszterhas’s advice book The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood, “Basic Instinct”.

3 After writing this post and making a few aesthetic edits, I found that innumerable people had looked into the connections between this movie and Vertigo, though not quite taking the approach I have here, where Catherine Tramell is an erotic fantasy formed from the memories of Hitchcock’s icy blondes. Among those who do insightful work into the connections between the two movies are Molly Lambert in “The Fuck of the Century”; a comparison between the looks of Novak and Stone is “Vertigo vs Basic Instinct” by nom de guerre TheClaud; and there are a few references to Vertigo in a detailed discussion of the costumes of Instinct, “Basic Instinct: Sharon Stone, Devil in a White Dress” by Christopher Laverty.

4 I’m not sure where Eszterhas came up with his heroine’s name, but I came across this in William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, with the germane parts bolded:

But, in general, complexity of logical meaning ought to be based on complexity of thought, even where, as is proper to the second type of ambiguity, there is only one main meaning as a resultant. For instance, if it is an example of the first type to use a metaphor which is valid in several ways, it is an example of the second to use several different metaphors at once, as Shakespeare is doing in the following example. It is impossible to avoid Shakespeare in these matters; partly because his use of language is of unparalleled richness and partly because it has received so much attention already ; so that the inquiring student has less to do, is more likely to find what he is looking for, and has evidence that he is not spinning fancies out of his own mind.

As a resounding example, then, there is Macbeth’s

If it were done, when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly;

(double syntax since you may stop at the end of the line)

If the Assassination
Could trammell up the Consequence, and catch
With his surcease, Success; that but . . .

words hissed in the passage where servants were passing, which must be swaddled with darkness, loaded as it were in themselves with fearful powers, and not made too naked even to his own mind. Consequence means causal result, and the things to follow, though not causally connected, and, as in “a person of consequence,” the divinity that doth hedge a king. Trammel was a technical term used about netting birds, hobbling horses in some particular way, hooking up pots, levering, and running trolleys on rails. Surcease means completion, stopping proceedings in the middle of a lawsuit, or the overruling of a judgment; the word reminds you of “surfeit” and “decease,” as does assassination of hissing and “assess” and, as in “supersession,” through sedere, of knocking down the mighty from their seat. His may apply to Duncan, assassination or consequence. Success means fortunate result, result whether fortunate or not, and succession to Vhe throne. And catch, the single little flat word among these monsters, names an action; it is a mark of human inadequacy to deal with these matters of statecraft, a child snatching at the moon as she rides thunder-clouds. The meanings cannot all be remembered at once, however often you read it; it remains the incantation of a murderer, dishevelled and fumbling among the powers of darkness.

5 The idea that Catherine is clairvoyant to a supernatural degree, implying a demonic figure, not simply an evil character but one whose powers are those of an eternal, all-powerful being, is made as well by director Verhoeven in the documentary that was part of the film’s DVD reissue in 2001, Blonde Poison. It can currently be found on youtube, in three parts: part one, two, and three. These comments occur in part one, from 5:28 to 6:10:

GARY GOLDMAN (script consultant)
She’s beautiful, she’s feminine, and yet she’s also completely and totally masculine. She’s a superheroine in a way, say, that Sherlock Holmes and these characters are superhuman in their cleverness.

That was extremely contrived, but worked very well. And that I thought, okay, how can I make that true to myself? I say, okay, “she’s the devil.” That basically makes her supernatural in some way, she could forsee with more insight than anyone else…to be so clairvoyant, to be so, let’s say, clever in planning. And it works.

I am grateful to Spencer Everhart for making me aware of this documentary, in his post, “Blonde Poison: The Making Of ‘Basic Instinct’”, from the blog The Seventh Art.

6 The lines that so very aptly describe Tramell are very appropriately found from a book by a woman who shares many of Tramell’s qualities, and may well have been the model for the maybe murderess, and that would be Sex by Madonna. Basic Instinct makes everything gleaming, the entire movie bright with light and money in a way that signals an extinct era, with the audience that might have once fantasized about having a fraction of Tramell’s wealth is now fighting for its life – when reading the essay “Film”, from Norman Mailer’s The Spooky Art, on watching Last Tango in Paris, I came across this sentence which I think adds a felicitous ring: “Perhaps it is the five dollar admission, but this audience has an obvious obsession with sex as the confirmed core of a wealthy life.”

Sex made the mistake of going for a raw zine like aesthetic, to make it look like the kind of cheap porno mags that people used to find discarded in the woods – the kind of artifact that exists now only in memories, like in this great piece by David Sedaris on This American Life, “The book that changed your life”. Madonna needn’t have bothered. We no longer bought our porno in paper bags. We were all outlaws now.

The lines are from the beginning of the book:

I’ll be your sorceress,
your heart’s magician.
I’m not a witch.
I’m a love technician.
I’ll be your guiding light
in your darkest hour.
I’m gonna change your life.
I’m like a poison flower.

My reaction to most of the writing in the movie can be found from a fragment in the same book: “Some people know how to talk and some don’t.”

I am not the only person who sees the other blonde icon as the inspiration for Catherine Tramell; so did Janet Maslin in her contemporary review of the movie at the New York Times, “Sure, She May Be Mean, but Is She a Murderer?”:

Neither the detectives nor the audience has seen anything quite like Catherine before.

Or maybe they have: Madonna is an obvious model for this rich, controlling woman who turns her sexuality into a form of malice, deliberately mocking and inverting ordinary notions of heterosexual seduction.

Eszterhas, however, gives an entirely different source for the character of Tramell, along with the basis for the charater of Curran, in “The Nerve Interview: Joe Eszterhas”:

Is there a key to writing a great sex scene?

I’ll be frank with you. I’ve always loved sex. I think it’s one of the most enjoyable things in life. I pay attention to it. I have “researched” it all my life. When I was doing research for Showgirls — this was before I met Naomi — I had my producer with me, and after our third night of “research,” he looked at me and said, “Man, you are relentless.” And that was accurate.

That’s funny, because I was going to ask how you research films like Basic Instinct and Showgirls.

I began my career as a police reporter, and I met a cop who just liked the action too much. He was always in the middle of shootings. He was a great cop on one level, but on another, you suspected he liked it too much. That’s what Nick Curran does in Basic. As Catherine says in the movie, he got too close to the flame. He loved the flame.

In terms of Catherine herself, when I was in my late twenties, I picked up a young go-go dancer in Dayton, Ohio. We left when the place closed, and we came up to my hotel room and did what we were there to do. And afterward, she reached into her purse, and she pulled out a .22 and pointed it at me. She said, “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t pull this trigger.” I said, “I didn’t do anything to hurt you. You wanted to come here, and as far as I know, you enjoyed what we just did.” And she said, “But this is all guys have ever wanted to do with me, and I’m tired of it.” We had a lengthy discussion before she put that gun down. Those two random characters are where those parts of Basic Instinct come from.

7 Verhoeven discusses the influence of Hitchcock’s Vertigo in part one of the short documentary mentioned in the previous footnote.

From 6:58-7:40:

I was really delighted, especially when I started to realize, how wonderful, and how beautiful, a city San Francisco was. And, of course, realizing at the same that I was shooting in the city of Vertigo. And Vertigo being one of my, with North by Northwest, probably my most favorite Hitchcock movies, that I studied forever, that I still study…I knew Vertigo by heart. So, a lot of things that Hitchcock had done in Vertigo you will see back in Basic Instinct clearly. All changed a little bit, you know. I didn’t go back to the movie to check it out, you know, what I remembered of Vertigo, I applied, you know. And if Hitchcock took the Golden Gate Bridge, I would take the next bridge.

The intriguing point that Hitchcock would have liked to have made as explicit a movie as Basic Instinct is raised by Verhoven early on in the documentary. From 0:13-0:19 of part one:

Hitchcock would have loved to do, I think, a movie that has the explicitness that Basic Instinct has.

We know this claim to have some basis in fact. Hitchcock worked for a long period of time on a movie about a male serial killer set in America, to be titled Frenzy – though it was to be a very different movie than the Frenzy that was eventually made about a serial killer which was shot in England. Patrick McGilligan’s Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light provides some idea of its plot, and makes clear that it would have featured explicit sex and nudity:

“Frenzy” evolved into an American manifesto—even offering a passing glimpse of the President of the United States himself. At the same time it was going to be a very personal Hitchcock film, a triumphant reprise of his signature themes. Hitchcock envisioned the mother of the killer as a professional actress, playing with the idea of the mother giving a Broadway performance, while suspecting her son of horrible deeds. (The police are slow to suspect the real killer, of course, although at one point a traffic cop pulls him over.) At the end of “Frenzy,” the mother would agree to help the police trap her son—a kind of apologetic reversal of Psycho.

The “Frenzy” murders would all be triggered by proximity to water, which had been a source of danger in other Hitchcock films. The first victim (a UN employee) would be slain in broad daylight near a waterfall in a secluded patch of woods outside New York City; the second, an art student, would be wooed to a shipyard and viciously murdered amid abandoned World War II freighters. The “Mothball Fleet” sequence would be a nail-biting cinematic crescendo, a Hitchcockian tour de force.

Hitchcock wrote the waterfall murder as a bucolic love scene that ends up as the shocking annihilation of an innocent. He planned ample nudity featuring both women and men (“an insistence on sex and nudity,” Truffaut later pointed out), and a vignette where the killer’s mother interrupts him masturbating in his bedroom.

“The first scene,” [Dan Auiler, writer of the Hitchcock Notebooks] reports, “is of the young model getting up from bed in her New York apartment. She’s nude as she rises in the scene—lit only by natural light—and walks to the bathroom. The camera remains fixed as it does a full 360-degree pan of the apartment—starting with her rise from the bed and following her around to her entry into the bathroom.

“The second scene is at the artist’s studio, where the young killer meets the nude model. There are several dollies and elaborate pans of the artists (including the young man intended as the killer) at work.”

It was the greatest film Hitchcock never made.

8 Some passages which I came across by happenstance in recent reading which best convey this intertwining of hidden desire, the sexual and the materialistic, are in Jordan Belfort’s memoir The Wolf of Wall Street, where he gives a speech which gets at the urge, the fear, that pushes on his team of stock salesmen (also known as the Strattonites because the name of Belfort’s firm is Stratton Oakmont). It imagines material desire as something so urgent that one could think it justification for murder, which makes it an appropriate tangent for a movie where the murderess is the secret hero. Another detail that makes this speech apt for a post on Basic Instinct is that Belfort’s memoir takes place around the time of the movie’s release:

“Listen to me, everyone: There’s no nobility in poverty. I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor, and I choose rich every time. At least as a rich man, when I have to face my problems, I can show up in the back of a strech limousine, wearing a two-thousand-dollar suit and a twenty-thousand-dollar gold watch! And, believe me, arriving in style makes your problems a helluva lot easier to deal with.”

I shrugged my shoulders for effect. “Anyway, if anyone here thinks I’m crazy or you don’t feel exactly like I do, then get the fuck out of this room right now! That’s right – get the fuck out of my boardroom and go get a job at McDonald’s flipping burgers, because that’s where you belong! And if McDonald’s isn’t hiring, there’s always Burger King!

“But before you actually depart this room full of winners, I want you to take a good look at the person sitting next to you, because one day in the not-so-distant future, you’ll be sitting at a red light in your beat-up old Pinto, and the person sitting next to you is gonna pull up in his brand-new Porsche, with his gorgeous young wife sitting next to him. And who’ll be sitting next to you? Some ugly beast, no doubt, with three days of razor stubble – wearing a sleeveless muumuu or a housedress – and you’ll probably be on your way home from the Price Club with a hatchback full of discount groceries!”

Just then I locked eyes with a young Strattonite who looked literally panic-stricken. Hammering my point home, I said, “What? You think I’m lying to you? Well, guess what? It only gets worse. See, if you want to grow old with dignity – if you want to grow old and maintain your self-respect – then you better get rich now. The days of working for a large Fortune Five Hundred company and retiring with a pension are ancient fucking history! And if you think Social Security is gonna be your safety net, then think again. At the current rate of inflation it’ll be just enough to pay for your diapers after they stick you in some rancid nursing home, where a three-hundred-pound Jamaican woman with a beard and mustache will feed you soup through a straw and then bitch-slap you when she’s in a bad mood.

“So listen to me, and listen good: Is your current problem that you’re behind on your credit-card bills? Good – then pick up the fucking phone and start dialing.

“Or is your landlord threatening to dispossess you? Is that what your problem is? Good – then pick up the fucking phone and start dialing.

“Or is it your girlfriend? Does she want to leave you because she thinks you’re a loser? Good – then pick up the fucking phone and start dialing!

“I want you to deal with all your problems by becoming rich! I want you to attack your problems head-on! I want you to go out and start spending money right now. I want you to leverage yourself. I want you to back yourself into a corner. Give yourself no choice but to succeed. Let the consequences of failure become so dire and so unthinkable that you’ll have no choice but to do whatever it takes to succeed.”

9 That Curran is acutely aware of his age, that he feels himself to be incredibly old, is the only explanation for what is one of the stranger moments in the film. It is most likely the result of a European director in an American milieu; the result, unintentionally or not, is Curran expressing how he feels like a very old man now, someone of a bygone age. Gus and Nick arrive at the murder scene, and Gus asks about Johnny Boz. “Rock and roll, Gus,” says Curran. “Never heard of him,” says Gus. “Before your time,” says Curran. This dialogue makes complete sense in the script. Gus is a much older man than Nick, sixty four to forty two. From their introduction in the screenplay:

Winter in San Francisco cold, foggy. Cop cars everywhere. The lights play through the thick fog. Two Homicide detectives get out of the car, walk into the house.

NICK CURRAN is 42. Trim, good-looking, a nice suit; a face urban, edged, shadowed. GUS MORAN is 64. Crew-cut, silver beard, a suit rumpled and shiny, a hat out of the 50’s, a face worn and ruined, the face of a backwoods philosopher.

It would make sense that a man of that age in 1992, the year of the movie’s release, would know nothing of a rock producer like Boz. The line, “before your time,” is clearly a joke, meaning after your time, after you were a teenager. To make the joke obvious, the script’s full line is “before your time, pop”:

Who was this fuckin’ guy?

Rock and roll, Gus. Johnny Boz.

I never heard of him.

Before your time, pop.
(a beat)
Mid-sixties. Five or six hits. He’s got a club down in the Fillmore now.

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

In the movie, Nick and Gus are played by actors who are the same age. Physically, Gus appears to be slightly older, but only slightly. When Curran says the “before your time” line, it’s now “before your time, cowboy.” Curran no longer grins, or makes any acknowledgement that it’s a joke, when he says the line. This is what is so strange for me in this moment: given how closely the two men appear physically in terms of age, the line no longer makes sense as a joke, and there’s no hint that this line is intended as one. For me, the scene only makes sense as a way of Curran expressing how old he feels in this dream world. This music actually is before Gus’s time. Curran is older than his older looking partner.

10 Whether coincidentally or not, one finds the names of the three principals line up with ancient rulers. Catherine and Elizabeth are the namesakes of famous queens, one infamous for her sexual appetites (how well founded the rumors are I can’t be bothered to look up right now) and one for her tactical brilliance, respectively and appropriately. Nick takes after Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia, notorious for his weakness and his pliability in the hands of his stronger wife.

11 That I believe Elizabeth to be the one behind all the murders is not the majority view. The documentary “Blonde Poison” gives the views of the movie’s editor Frank Urioste, the composer Jerry Goldsmith, the movie’s script doctor Gary Goldman, and Verhoeven on the subject, with the director making himself very clear that he considers Tramell to almost certainly be the true killer. The movie’s screenwriter, Joe Eszterhas, does not appear in “Blonde Poison”, for what I assume is his usual reason, some feud with someone or other.

From 4:32-5:03 in part two:

Everyone has their opinion about the end.

To this day, I’m not even certain that she was really the killer.

I still don’t even know if she’s the murderer.

The last movement, the movement in bed with the icepick, is the final revelation. And the way that it’s done, in Hitchcockian fashion, by simply focusing on it, is the language of cinema telling you this is the answer to the story. It was quite an argument, and quite the fight, to keep it that way, but I think it’s actually the best possible ending.

From 6:42-6:56 in part one:

Of course, Jeanne Tripplehorn is guilty too, in some way. For a long time, there is the suspicion that she is the killer in it, and at the end, the police think she is, but we know better…probably.

The activists who protested the movie’s depiction of a bisexual woman did so by trying to spike the box office through giving away the movie’s ending, which they considered not an ambiguous qualifier, but the movie’s final revelation. I have not brought up the issue in this piece, because outside the contemporary context cited by the group – yet another movie with a queer villain – I don’t think there’s anything here that registers with Elizabeth or Catherine as queer stereotypes. There is nothing in Roxy that makes her stereotypically butch. At no point do they connect gayness with physical ugliness. If I see this movie as one about the different ways a man and a woman relate to an image, a role, a celebrity, that fuels erotic fantasy, it is not to make excuses for the film, but because this is, for me, the most natural and obvious way to see the movie.

From “Blonde Poison” (part three), 1:45-2:28 the activist Annette Gaudino, along with Verhoeven’s dissent:

Throughout the entire protests, we had been labeled as censors. We had been told that we were trying to censor this film, that we were trying to stop expression. And we thought about that, and we realized, what better way to sort of turn that around, than to name our group “Catherine Did It!”. Catherine, of course, is the killer in the film. By giving away the ending of the film, we were challening Hollywood to see which is more important to you, is our freedom of expression any less valuable than the freedom of expression of the filmmakers? You can know that Rosebud is a sleigh and still think Citizen Kane is a great film. If giving away the ending of this movie takes away its value, that’s really not our fault.

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

I felt that they were all absolutely wrong, and that the movie proved them wrong.

My point “she knows exactly what a police officer with a drawn gun will do when she pulls her hand out of her pocket, and so she does exactly that” perhaps requires clarification, since Curran demands that she take her hand out of her pocket. The moment she sees him with his gun out, she puts her hand in her right pocket. He demands that she take her hand out several times. She starts to move it out, but while holding onto her keys, so that Curran thinks she has a gun that she’s about to draw on him, and this is what causes him to shoot her. I think she knows that this action dooms her, and she does it on purpose, knowing that she’ll do exactly this when she puts her hand into her pocket at the beginning. Her second to last line, “What’s wrong with you?”, I hear as not being asked about what he’s doing now, but his behavior throughout the movie, why he treats her the way he does, why he sees her the way he does.

The point is perhaps more obvious than in the script, where she starts out with both hands in her pockets, or the script makes the point more obviously than the movie where “She moves a hand in a pocket and moves towards him fast –” while she has a drawn gun on her. Before she makes the gesture, she smiles strangely. She has no purpose for moving her hand in her pocket; unlike the movie, there are no keys, there is nothing:

He hears something. Gun in hand, he runs towards the SOUND. He stops, gun in hand, listens again. He runs again, hears nothing.

Behind him, we see a figure.

He spins suddenly, gun, in hand. Beth Gardner is there.

She wears a windbreaker. She has her hands in the pockets.

What are you doing here?

Put your hands up!

She stares at him.

Put your fucking hands up! Don’t move.

I got a message on my machine to meet Gus here. Where is he?

She smiles a strange smile. She takes a step toward him.

(a beat)
I know about your husband. You still like girls, Beth?


She smiles strangely again, takes a step toward him.

Take your hands out of your pockets!

She moves a hand in a pocket and moves towards him fast —

What is wrong with you?

And he FIRES the gun. She is hit in the chest, goes down.

A long beat, and then he goes to her. He gets down on the ground. Her eyes are open. He empties the pockets of the windbreaker — first one, then the other the pockets are empty.

(in a whisper)
I loved you.

And she dies.

One might read in Garner’s last gesture in the film a symbolism that is no doubt unintended, but is surprisingly fitting and consistent. Garner holds in her hand the keys to Curran’s apartment, the ones she never returned. She has access to the inside of his home, but he has no interest in the interior of hers. She is very much trapped in his dream world, and from which she wishes to escape. It’s the gesture of pulling the keys out of her pocket that gets her shot, the keys are her exit from Curran’s dream house. Curran’s dream is one centered around a sexual fantasy that’s remained frozen, ageless, and so there’s something appropriate that these keys are on a key ring with the eternal child, Bart Simpson. There is something juvenile in this fantasy, and this makes this ring ornament a fitting symbol as well. Curran’s best moment, the one that comes off as most deeply felt, is his agony at killing her over this key ring that he mistook for a gun. He reacts to the ridiculousness of it all, but if you want to give it the context that this is all his dreamworld, it is his juvenile dreams that have brought them to this moment, and when he sees this cartoon memento, he recognizes this, and he is suddenly overwhelmed with regret at what his dreams have destroyed.

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct

12 I am unsatisfied with my attempts to describe the connection between smoking and the ephemeral nature of this dream. I read La Diva Nicotina: The Story of How Tobacco Seduced the World by Iain Gately, to try and find some mention of history or social custom that would prove the felicitous image. Gately’s book has some interesting insights before it descends into a misrepresentation of those fighting against cigarette companies as a bunch of money grubbing opportunists. On this particular area of history, it is an embarrassment, its insubstantial scholarship in contrast to the definitive work on the subject, The Cigarette Century by Allan Brandt. Given the stakes involved in the fight, this embarrassment is not just a squalid one, but a despicable one as well.

As said, before reaching this ignominy, there are many colorful insights, but none that conjure the proper image (I think more in terms of images justes than mots) of association. The first branding of tobacco, by John Rolfe, seems apt for this movie, not the product of our time, a piece of mass manufactured relief for their nerves, but an entry to an exotic other world:

He named Virginia’s product Orinoco, a word, at the time, suffused with the mysteries of Eldorado as described by Sir Walter Ralegh. Lighter in both colour and flavour than its Spanish and Portuguese competitors, it burned with a unique and delicate fragrance, described by a contemporary poet as ‘sweeter than the breathe of fairest maid.’

There is a Victorian firm’s cigar advertising campaign:

Copes published a series of popular wall hangings and calendars illustrating this united nation of tabagohiles. ‘In pursuit of diva nicotina’ is a typical example. It depicts a throng of happy smokers, many caricatures of great or notorious men, rushing towards their temptress, La Diva Nicotina.

A description of Seville; the book’s account of the bandoleros of Spain, who smuggled tobacco in when Napoleon blockaded Europe from American imports like tobacco from Virginia, might be its best moment:

Seville is the birthplace of tobacco’s association with sex in the Old World. It had given Europe cigars and many of the romantic associations attached to their consumption. Cigars were for bandoleros, for dashing cavalry officers, and they were prepared for these heroes’ lips by beautiul, semi-naked Andalusians, who also smoked. Seville, its women and its cigars had also made a deep impression on the Frenchmen who had occupied it earlier in the century, and it became a favourite destination of French literati in 1830s, who celebrated a new use for tobacco – as a sexual ambassador – on their return to France. The first of these to venture south and document the phenomenon was Prosper Mérimée, a prominent figure in the French Romantic movement. Seville’s tobacco factory gave him the material for his most famous work – Carmen – the tale of a gypsy temptress who breaks hearts and steals watches. This is how Carmen dressed for work at the Fabrica:

She was wearing a very short red skirt, beneath which you could see her white silk stockings with holes in them and dainty red morocco leather shoes fastened with flame coloured ribbons. Her mantilla was parted so as to reveal her shoulders and a big bunch of acacia flowers which she had in the front of her blouse. She had another acacia bloom in one corner of her mouth, and she moved forward swaying her hips like some filly out of the Cordoba stud. In my part of the world everyone would have crossed themselves at the sight of a woman dressed like that but there in Seville everyone paid her some risué compliment on her appearance.

Carmen would have removed everything but the stockings and flowers when she sat down to roll cigars.

Interestingly, Carmen the fictional heroine may have been drawn from life. The cigarerras were as wild as their reputation and the Fabrica’s records from the tune of Mérmée document the expulsion of one Maria del Carmen Garcia, a dark haired black-eyed 15-year-old firebrand who had been disciplined numerous times, and who was finally expelled from the factory after she attacked a workmate with a pair of tobacco shears.

The only part of the book which comes close to capturing what I think is there is a very short one, on the global trade of the product which would supplant pipes, cigars, snuff boxes, and other tobacco products, the newly developed cigarette: “The Japanese had also taken to this most Zen of smoking devices, which consumed itself in fire for pleasure.”

(Images from Basic Instinct and Total Recall copyright Carolco Pictures; images from Vertigo copyright Paramount Pictures.)

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“This did not seem like the future.”

There are many moments in Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs when I find him exasperating. In “(anti-homeless interlude),” where he bewails a beggar for her disturbing him, the irony does not quite play as well as he thinks: it’s supposed to be about the writer’s self-absorbtion, but the woman remains an inhuman prop. In something like “Every Dog Must Have His Every Day, Every Drunk Must Have His Drink,” his sloppy arguments in favor of Billy Joel remain are a petulant whine, touching in their sincerity while empty of persuasion: the cool kids don’t like Billy Joel because he lacks the je ne sais pas of coolness. They make me wonder if I overestimate the thoughts in his head; his repulsive remarks about Lucinda Williams in “Toby Over Moby” make me want to throw a bottle at it. You keep going, however, because he can often be a very funny and insightful writer. The essay, “Porn”, on the seaminess of the early internet, shows him off at his best; here is a fragment:

People always forget how new the Internet truly is. I was a senior in college during the spring of 1994, and I knew exactly two people who had e-mail addresses. They wrote e-mails to each other. It seemed completely impractical and a total waste of time. From what I could tell, the only people who were sending e-mail were people who drank Zima, and they mostly used the Internet to discuss properties of calculus or to send Steven Wright jokes to other weirdos in Canada. They were mostly CompuServe users. I can recall an extremely antisocial MC Hammer fan in my dormitory who had a Macintosh in his room and once tied up the phone line for five hours while he downloaded the Batman logo for no apparent reason; soon after, he unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose of Ibuprofen. This did not seem like the future.


The Case for Internet Commentary as Crucial Historical Document

The post title gives all necessary introduction, the comments are from Politico‘s “Why Terry McAuliffe barely won” by James Hohmann, on the victory of McAuliffe in Virginia. I make some attempt to place them in the sanctum of collective memory because we are so often told that these sentiments do not exist, exist only on the fringes, or that any such feeling exists only in the stereotype of the Tea Party conservative, the stereotype of the contemporary Republican. The question is sometimes asked why there are so many fringe conservative politicians, and it’s because there are so many fringe conservative voters; and this is not the fringe at all. The issue is sometimes brought up as to why such voters are not reasoned into a more mainstream conservatism, and what is actually asked is: why can these voters not be reasoned to a place where their sentiments deliver the same policy goals of the Republican elite without embarassing them? Part of the answer, I think, is in the comments below. Do they suggest rational sensibilities who might be persuaded by reason or fact, or do they suggest a paranoid dreamworld which has been abided and abetted for decades?

Note, as I said, that these comments are not from the fringe. The first was the most popular comment on the article, the firstmost when comments were sorted by bestmost. This was not a marginal article where fringe feeling might amass unchecked, but one of the most popular articles on the Politico site (thirdmost in overall popularity on November 7th when this was posted, the day after the article was published,). The first numbers in parenthesis represent the number of upvotes, the second the number of downvotes. Screen name links go to the specific comment.

Coranne (653) (62):

Very sad in Virginia when a corrupt political hack with no experience wins the governorship. I guess I really shouldn’t be all the surprised since the same thing happened in the past two presidential elections.

Jeffersonian527 (246) (24):

Republicans already have enough to overcome with the voting nannagins, If they had put the money and support behind CC he would have won by three last night….no doubt about it….out spent 10/1 in the final weeks who can overcome that? That is the lesson I get anyway it’s hard to beat the longtime clinton bagman with all the cash at his disposal and the opposition scraping by.

Jeffersonian527 (217) (23):

And now again another State must live by the leadership the citizens in one County of the State see as their ideological equal, while the rest of the entire State votes for a different leader. There will come a time when the States separate the large City and stop having to live by their set of principles. And vice versa

Zoltanne (238) (34):

There are 3 (D) Districts here in Virginia. They are heavily populated and as you say, those 3 regions control this vast state.

What we have is metastasized Socialist-cancer and if this isn’t stopped in other states, we won’t have an America left. We aren’t far off as it is…..By next year, more than half of our population will have been financially injured by Obamacare, while many will be physically harmed because of these socialist measures. Obama lied and now he’s covering up his own words, though they have been recorded and preserved. Corruption and lying doesn’t matter…..”the end justifies the means” and these corrupt snakes will harm lifestyles, destroy families, and kill Americans to push their ideology through.

tehe3 (130) (23):

The public is catching on! This ACA may be exactly the wake-up call that the nation needed to fully appreciate the curse of big government. True, the future will be hard and the road to recovery will be long. But it starts with a first step.

This ACA is opening the eyes of many who thought that elections and some socialist policies administered by a Big Central Government could be beneficial, but that dream will be shattered over the next 12 months!

This is the non-fatal heart attack that will cause us to change our daily lives and our outlook for the future.

Zoltanne (86) (22):

Definitely. And those of us who have prepared for the takeover and economic collapse won’t be sharing with the gimme-dats. They’re so used to being taken care of, they’ll think they can rob and pillage, but when the free-well runs dry then they’ll try to depend on others and their charity.

In our household, charity is through the churches for its members. And we are a conservative lot. We take care of our own, not the Progressives….they are The Walking Left and there’s only one way to deal with a mass like that.

Terry (37) (4):

Sure you do…I volunteer for second harvest …mainstream churches such as Episcopal,Methodist give much in both money and time…we don’t even bother asking the Evangelical churches who believe in the prosperity gospel.

In case the comments are deleted or otherwise disappear:

politico internet comments pt1 politico internet comments pt2 politico internet comments pt3 politico internet comments pt4

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Tommy Wiseau’s The Room: My Funny Valentine

(This movie has such a select and devoted audience that I make no attempt to summarize it, but assume that its plot is already well-known to the potential reader. Obviously, spoilers are below.)

I write of this movie, one now infamous, with affection1, as a thing that has provided me with uncountable hours of relief from this sorrowful life. In “Teaching The Room, Amanda Ann Klein writes that one possible aspect of the movie’s pleasures is feeling superior to those within it, “I am better than this. I am superior to this.” This, to me, might be the predominant aspect of enjoying reality TV, and I think it is soul destroying, and if it were any part of the essential joy of this movie I would not watch it again and again. I have never been part of a Room event, and I have no desire to give myself over to its sometime cruel laughter; when I laugh during this movie, I do so with malice to none, simply grateful to the great escape that any comedy gives us. What follows is not an attempt to jeer at this beleaguered film, but to examine sincerely my own enjoyment: why does this movie make me laugh so much, why does it work so well?2

There is the first striking difference between The Room and other such favorites, like Plan 9 From Outer Space, Glenn or Glenda?, Rocky Horror, etc: there is nothing exotic in its subject, no cross dressing, no alien plan for the undead, no madness. The Room should have no possibility of belonging to this class, of exceeding most of its members, because it is a simple character study, very much a movie that started out as a play, one of innumerable movies about romantic life and its difficulties, among which you might include Kicking and Screaming, Swingers, the Before Sunset trilogy, etc. In conception, it is closer to an earnest Henrik Ibsen play then any mad vision, without tinfoil spaceships, without monster make-up, and yet it becomes something strange and hilarious.

One of the first things to be noted is there in the opening credits, the movie’s music. We might expect a lo-fi minimalist score for this small scale drama, and instead we get something that sounds like the theme for a medieval epic, though a slightly cut-rate one: it is a sweeping score that sounds as if it is done entirely on a home synthesizer. It is music for an ancient story, but also an incredibly important one: every note that plays over the introductory San Francisco footage is full of dramatic weight, signaling that this is a story for the ages.

Many have described the plot and dialogue of The Room as maddeningly strange, yet this, I think, is a mis-reading. The Disaster Artist by Greg Sestero, the actor who plays Mark, and Tom Bissell, gives some grounds for puzzling out what undergirds the project. Though the book is entirely from Sestero’s perspective, rather than an oral history of the project, at no point do we feel he throws anyone over the side for his benefit. Nothing he says ever raises the reader’s skepticism, not even his portrayal of Tommy Wiseau, who he describes with a mixture of sympathy and understandable exasperation. The book no doubt benefits also from the work of Bissell, who never intrudes into the text (it is told entirely from Sestero’s “I”), but whose perspective we assume to be the same which made his Extra Lives, a book about video games, so good; an attitude not of hostility or superiority, but genuine enrapturement, who wants to understand the nature of the spell.

The Disaster Artist reopens The Room — and uncovers even deeper mysteries” by Nathan Rabin sees a movie embodying the tension in the book between two aspiring actors, Sestero and Wiseau, with the latter coveting the beauty, youth, and success of the former – Sestero is much younger than Wiseau, and was a former model. The Room‘s Lisa, possibly the most malevolent character in the movies who doesn’t kill anyone, embodies the fickleness, the malice, the superficiality of Hollywood itself, choosing Mark over the achingly virtuous Johnny. Though I think Rabin’s analysis is sound, I can only see the movie as being about another of the book’s themes, one which immediately gives sense, for me, to much of the movie’s strangeness.

Wiseau is a man who has kept much of his life secret, and though Disaster Artist retains a discrete veil over many things, it does give us a portrait of the most essential things. Wiseau is a man from the former Soviet East Bloc who led an extraordinarily difficult life before finding success as a businessman in America. For Wiseau, America is truly felt to be a promised land, and he has a love for the country which is sincere and unfeigned. He flies two massive American flags from a building he owns; he insists that the crew for The Room observe a lengthy moment of silence on the first anniversary of September 11th, berating those who break it and extending it until it’s finally fully observed3. I see The Room as an expression of this love, as well as a desire to more fully belong to the country from which, despite his success, he still feels apart. He does so by making a movie in which he stars, to be part of what he feels to be an American universe, by being in a film made in the style of a distinctly American form: the old-fashioned sitcom.

Despite its often serious nature, The Room has all the earmarks of this form, its seriousness often resembling that of a sitcom’s very special episodes. The cast, with the exception of Wiseau, are a smooth featured photogenic ideal. The actors of Plan 9 are incompetent, while those of The Room are efficient professionals. You don’t have any difficulty imagining them in other, similar work; Sestero had a part on Young and the Restless while Carolyn Minott, who plays Lisa’s mother, Claudette, and is easily my favorite actor in the movie, was on the sitcom parody That’s My Bush!. We also see the various types which might populate a sitcom: the best friend, the girlfriend, the nagging mother, the adorable scamp orphan. The movie’s title reveals another definitive trait it shares with sitcoms: it takes place almost entirely in one interior, just like Friends or Seinfeld.

The show is a tribute to this form, but like other tributes to a form which produce something extraordinary, the blueprint has gotten mussed. We might liken it to the westerns of Sergio Leone, which are passionately, unironicly, westerns and yet are also entirely alien and distinct from the very movies from which they take their cues. The Room is a replica of a sitcom, but one built with mismatched and otherwordly parts, so it becomes something funnier and more memorable than its source. It is there in the parts of Denny and Claudette, who Wiseau has read correctly as being, respectively, younger and older than the rest of the parts. This is correct, but he then makes both parts much older than they should be. It is not just that Lisa is in her twenties, and we expect her mother to be in her fifties and not older; it is that she has the formal bearing of a much older woman. That she might have known hippie life if she’d lived all her life in San Francisco is never a possibility for the audience, because her whole manner suggests someone born far before that. As a character, Claudette doesn’t quite fit as a mother of a woman in her twenties in 2003 – yet she makes sense as an imitation of another type, the girl’s mother from a sitcom out of 1993 or 1983.

We don’t notice this mistake as much in Claudette, but it is just ridiculous in Denny. When I watch the movie, the character’s unsettling mixture of ersatz naiveté and mischievousness always makes me refer to him as Serial Killer Denny. Wiseau clearly perceived the abstract of the child sitcom character, someone of indeterminate age who is both precocious and yet in an entirely innocent state about sex and love, played by an actor who is older, sometimes much older. There is an indeterminacy of age which allows the character to seemingly persist for years and years without getting their first serious girlfriend or graduating high school. The abstraction is correct, but the representation in The Room goes ludicrously wrong. The way Denny acts in much of the movie makes sense if the character were much younger, nine, ten, or eleven, at the outer limit, and would be unremarkable, rather than sinister, if the actor appeared to be that age. It makes sense for a young boy to be clueless about sex, and to leap into the bed of Johnny and Lisa to pillow fight. His confessional to Johnny that he feels something for Lisa makes sense if Denny is a young boy. Even the gesture which baffles everyone, when Denny eats an apple after the lovers ascend the stairs, makes sense in this context: a young boy ignorant of sex slowly gets a sense of what it is after his older friend, Johnny, goes to the bedroom with Lisa, and this knowledge is symbolized by his eating the apple. As said, all these things become elements in the movie’s insanity because of Denny’s age. He is not simply not a boy, but someone in college. Philip Haldiman, who played Denny, was in his twenties when the movie was made and looks much younger – but not young enough to make his innocence look anything other than a creepy act.

Tommy Wiseau's The Room

Tommy Wiseau's The Room

That the movie is modeled after the sitcom ideal explains the strange disconnection of its scenes. A situation comedy is built around a conceptual situation, and each episode involves a particular event, chosen for its eventfulness and comedic potential, after which the characters remain entirely unchanged. The Room can best be thought of as consisting almost entirely unrelated short episodes from a sitcom whose central premise is a great guy falls for an undeserving woman who cheats on him with his best friend. I’ll try and convey the similarities by quoting a few plotlines from the wikipedia plot list of Growing Pains episodes. Part of the ludicrousness of The Room is the way in which very serious material is there side by side with lighthearted scenes; you can see from these plotlines that this is very much part of sitcom DNA, where the morbid intermixes with the humorous:

After Jason reviews a marriage-compatibility test for his work, he and Maggie take it. They’re in for some unpleasant surprises.

Mike becomes romantically attracted to a “Madonna look-alike” (Dana Plato), which worries Maggie; Ben accidentally ruins Carol’s plant project.

After being conned out of $10 by Mike, Carol and Ben (with their parents’ help) hatch an elaborate scheme to get it back.

Ben hits puberty and–with advice from Mike–tries to hit on his babysitter.

On Christmas Eve, Ben is having second thoughts about Santa Claus; a patient of Jason’s threatens to commit suicide by head-firsting down their chimney.

Ben doesn’t have enough money to buy Jason the really good present he thinks he deserves, but Mike’s advice causes him to accidentally commit a crime.

Jokester Uncle Bob dies in his sleep during a visit; after the funeral, Mike believes he’s seeing his ghost.

Listing the scenes of The Room in comparison might establish their similarity to such sitcom plotlines, especially the most disconnected ones:

Johnny buys Lisa a dress, which she loves.

While Johnny and Lisa are away, Mike and Michelle drop by for a heavy make out session.

The boys throw a football around in the alley. Mike tells Johnny his underwear story.

Peter gives Johnny relationship advice.

Denny is confronted by a drug dealer, Chris-R, that he owes money to. Mark and Johnny manage to save him and take the dealer to the police.

Peter gives Mark relationship advice.

The boys dress up in tuxedos and play football.

Lisa throws Johnny a birthday party, during which he learns that Lisa has been cheating on him with Mark.

Johnny, overcome with grief, commits suicide.

These scenes make sense conceptually, and might make sense in a sitcom, but they become absurd within the movie. Some, as concepts, are not ridiculous at all, but only become so in execution. “The boys throw around a football” is not absurd as an idea, but becomes hilarious when they do so in close proximity. These football sessions feel like events that exist only as signifiers: it must be demonstrated that The Room is an American movie, and we will do so by showing the characters playing an American sport like football. Wiseau wishes to be part of America, and so he stars in a movie that resembles a sitcom and which clearly establishes itself as American, by the characters constantly playing football. This desire to belong might be the reason behind the subplot involving Mike and Michelle at Johnny’s house. These characters appear without introduction, and during public screenings, they are greeted by the audience shouting out “Who the fuck are you?”4

Tommy Wiseau's The Room

If we look at The Room as a movie about Wiseau’s desire to belong, then the couple of Mike and Michelle are not incidental, but crucial to the movie. Johnny and Lisa are the unhappy couple, while these two without a trace of unhappiness are a contrasting pair. Lisa, Mark, Mike, Michelle all have the smooth photogenic quality of sitcom characters, and with whom, by comparison, Johnny is a man who can never belong. Sestero describes Weiseau as a man whose appearance suggests a man haunted by secrets, and his look is that of someone broken apart and reassembled again, roughly and carelessly. His face suggests, vividly, a life lived, in contrast to those actors around him. It is a face that would not be out of place in a movie of the social realistic genre, but it becomes absurd in an ersatz sitcom setting. His appearance makes obvious the lives, or aspects of life, that the sitcom leaves out. In turn, The Disaster Artist makes clear the desperation and uncertainty of an actor which the ubiquitous physical beauty of those in movies and TV seemingly denies: the physical perfection implies a perfection of the universe, and how can there be such things as squalor, envy, hunger, thwarted desire in a perfect universe?

There is the striking contrast in appearance between Wiseau and the rest of the main cast, as well as one in performance. The first issue separating Wiseau and his other actors is that Wiseau had extraordinary difficulty with his lines, according to Sestero, requiring take after take5. The second is the extraordinary influence that James Dean had on both Wiseau and Sistero, which is given fascinating space in The Disaster Artist; the classic line “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” is, of course, a quote from Rebel Without a Cause. The line readings of the other actors are those expected in a TV comedy or drama, crisp, well enunciated, efficient. There is no mumbling in a sitcom, no talking over each other, just the simple and effective delivery of a line with an intonation denoting the obvious meaning. With or without his accent, with or without his difficulties preparing for the role, if Wiseau delivered his lines in the manner of the other actors, his dialogue would not be so ridiculous. Instead, he is surrounded by crisp sitcom efficiency, while he draws out and delivers his lines as strange, wayward poetry, full of unexpected intonations and emphasises. This turns some ordinary dialogue during a scene where he and Lisa get drunk into something hilarious and memorable. “You must be crazy,” he says, resisting. “I can’t drink this.” After they get drunk is one of my favorite moments: “I’m tired. I’m wasted,” he says. “I love you, darling.” Again, I don’t think there’s anything bad about this dialogue and there’s nothing egregiously wrong with the line delivery; in a setting where everyone gives such loose delivery, a saloon in a Walter Hill western or an artists colony in a Philip Kaufman movie, say, I don’t think it would stand out as wrong or absurd, anymore than the memorably baroque line readings of Christopher Walken do. It is only amidst the pristine context of a sitcom replica that we have absurdity. Even Weiseau’s best line, “In a minute…bitch“, would have been innocuous if delivered with regret or exhaustion, instead of being one of the funniest things ever said in a movie.

Tommy Wiseau's The Room

This highlights the fact that the dialogue of The Room, line by line, is relatively normal. There is the welcome absurdity of lines like Mike’s “I gotta go see Michelle in a little bit to, uh, make out with her”, “Did you, uh, know…that chocolate is the symbol of love?”, and Mark’s infamous “Leave your stupid comments in your pocket!” but most of the dialogue, again, line by line, is without major encumbrances. The problem is when these lines are placed one after another. One of the scenes which makes me laugh the most is the one between Lisa and Claudette, where she declares with a sigh, “I got the results of the test back….I definitely have breast cancer.” This doesn’t prompt a hug, or any move closer on the part of Lisa, but a nonchalant “Look, don’t worry about it. Everything will be fine. They’re curing lots of people every day.” However, it is not even the famous cancer line that really makes me laugh, but the one that is placed incongruously afterwards, and what makes me laugh is that it arouses greater passion from Claudette then the fact that she might be dying from a fatal disease: “Oh. I heard Edward is talking about me. He is a hateful man.” The randomness of this dialogue gives a strange spin to even the most conventional lines from what should be a stock, predictable type, so when Claudette says “Of course I’m right. I know men,” you think, god, what a slut.

Sestero describes the situation of the actors in The Room as people who aren’t naive co-conspirators in this mad fantasy, but actors doing what they always do, trying their best with what they’re given. All of Carolyn Minott’s readings are professional, they are entirely faultless and fitting with a character such as this; the very professionalism turns the performance into lunacy, an ordinary character giving solid line readings which one after another add up to insanity. This reaches its apex in the rooftop scene involving Chris-R, the drug dealer, which is surrounded by a kind of perfect storm of strangeness. These elements include, among others: the homoerotic overtones of the buff Chris-R pressuring Denny for money; Claudette and Lisa appearing out of nowhere; The Room‘s much beloved green screen; the normally calm Lisa going utterly unhinged. Though something like this situation might be found in all sorts of very special episodes devoted to drug use, and there is nothing inherently absurd in Claudette’s lines, somehow the surrounding vortex of absurdity makes her incessant nagging hilarious. I start really laughing at “How in the hell did you get involved with drugs? Were you giving them to him? Selling them to him?”, then reach the first peak with “This is not the way you make money”, before going even higher with return to homoerotic subtext part one, “Well, it is time somebody ganged up on you. For God’s sake!” followed by homoerotic subtext part two, “A man like that! Where in the hell did you meet a man like that?”, until finally reaching the crescendo of Denny’s “You’re not my fucking mother!” and Claudette grabbing the scamp: “You listen to me, little boy!”

Tommy Wiseau's The Room

Tommy Wiseau's The Room

Tommy Wiseau's The Room

Tommy Wiseau's The Room

Tommy Wiseau's The Room

The movie is an imitation of a sitcom, but this imitation is of something from a lost and ancient time. I mention Friends and Seinfeld as examples of the way such shows are usually centered around one interior, but the sitcoms it’s imitating are from before their debuts, things like Growing Pains, The Jeffersons, All in the Family or Diff’rent Strokes. The fault line is The Simpsons, which becomes an incredibly successful comedy show without laugh track that offers a skeptical ironic eye to the very form itself. There are no very special episodes in The Simpsons, just as there are no messages in Seinfeld or Friends. The Room is imitating something trapped in amber, just as the genre which Sergio Leone is re-creating had already been near dying or dead for a decade. There is something freeze dried to the love scenes of The Room as well, and something I find unexpectedly charming, though few, if any, mention it. These scenes feel like they’re imitating something from older movies also, the arty love scenes of Tequilla Sunrise or Top Gun, and what makes them hilarious is their extraordinary length. Usually a few shots are enough to convey well enough that these two characters are having sex; here, they go on and on, offering the further emphasis of Johnny’s ass thrusting up and down to properly tell the audience what’s happening. Accompanying every love scene is music by Kitra Williams and Wayne Davis, and these songs are easily the best thing in the movie. What makes me laugh when the music comes on has nothing to do with the quality of the music itself, but the abrupt break from the mood of the medieval score, and the way these songs kick in with Pavlovian efficiency every time the sexing starts. The music, as said, is trapped in something like amber as well, slo-jams very much in the style of the R&B of the early nineties. What I find unexpectedly charming is that you would never find such music in soundtracks of the early nineties for movies that featured exclusively white casts. You might expect to find it on Boomerang or Above the Rim, but not Singles or Empire Records. A native American of the time would, I think, be well aware of the racial codes that governed such things. Weiseau, an outsider, perhaps heard these slo-jams and found only one more part of America, no more distinct or alien than the sitcoms to which the movie pays tribute.

The movie, like all movies, is a massive act of faith. That the movie is so funny is thanks to the strength of this faith, its utter lack of skepticism or irony. Johnny’s virtuousness lies in his overwhelming belief in the good of others, though the good of these others is very often in doubt. Sestero gives us a picture of Wiseau as a man who bullheadedly believes as well, without self-consciousness, in his natural supremacy as an actor, or that he fully deserves the table at an exclusive restaurant. Sestero finds Wiseau’s indomitable self-confidence ridiculous, but also captivating; when Wiseau ends up getting the coveted table through his unhesitating deceptions, the reader feels as if it’s a victory for themselves. I might make here the nod to Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” and how essential sincerity is to achieve true camp, but these connections have already been made in other essays on the movie6. I note instead that there are the obvious villains in The Room, such as Mark and Lisa, but there’s also the implied one in Peter, the psychologist, the man who goes at all things with analysis while Johnny approaches all things by faith. Everyone is fine with playing football in their tuxes, but only the skeptic Peter demurs. Peter enters the room for this scene and Johnny gives his only greeting that is without enthusiasm: “Hey…Peter.” Johnny is very fit, while Peter exits this football game when he stumbles to the ground. “Gee, Peter, you’re clumsy,” says Denny, the last line said to this character before he leaves the movie entirely. Wiseau appears to be worried about whether or not he fits in, and he might take comfort in making Peter into someone who fits in even less. It is sometimes difficult to discern what in The Room is intentional and what isn’t, and I’m unsure what to make of one moment and how it might fit with the previous analysis: Mark enters the room and Peter gives him a look on which the camera dwells, and the look appears to be that of silent longing.

Tommy Wiseau's The Room

Tommy Wiseau's The Room

Tommy Wiseau's The Room

Tommy Wiseau's The Room

What the full intention of this character might have been, like the actual vision of the uncut Magnificent Ambersons, remains unknown. We learn in The Disaster Artist that the reason for Peter’s early exit from the film is because the movie had already gone far over schedule and the actor playing the part, Kyle Vogt, had other commitments. Peter’s dialogue from the party is instead taken up by another character and another actor, Steven played by Greg Ellery. I find the section before the birthday party to be a little dull, and sometimes then I have doubts whether the film can still work its magic. By the time of the party, however, I am once again laughing so hard that I have difficulty breathing. I’m laughing hard enough that tears roll down my cheeks, in part because of the endless establishing exterior shots, partly due to the non sequitur “Lisa looks hot tonight” during the camera pan, but mainly due to the work of Ellery. His delivery of every line, unlike that of the cool efficiency of the other actors, is touched by melodrama. If one might imagine a doctor dealing with a zombie plague, to be played by the unironic 1960s William Shatner, that was re-written at the last minute as a marriage counselor, I think something of the intensity with which Ellery delivers his dialogue is conveyed. His best known line is “I feel like I’m sitting on an atomic bomb, waiting for it to go off”, but it’s far from my favorite because he’s off-screen when he delivers it and we miss the accompanying intensity of his face. I prefer “How can you do this! You make me sick“, the simple question, “When is…the baby due?”, and without a doubt, my favorite is delivered after Michelle’s “You have got to be honest with Johnny,” the simple affirmation, magically said: “I agree with that.”

Tommy Wiseau's The Room

Tommy Wiseau's The Room

This has been an attempt at an analysis of the qualities of a movie I very much love, and though I try at dilligence, it is very much marked by my own inclinations of what it is I enjoy in The Room. I have, for instance, given short shrift to Juliette Danielle, an attractive woman and a capable actress, perhaps because almost all the laughter directed towards her character I find unnecessarily cruel. Danielle is burdened with some of the most inept costume choices any actress should ever have to deal with, and though I can laugh at Claudette wearing a leopard print blouse when she announces she has breast cancer, I can’t laugh at Danielle’s, because after a while they feel like a quiet persecution: Wiseau hates whoever this fictional woman represents, and he takes it out on the woman playing her. Sestero treats Wiseau fairly, I think, in The Disaster Artist, and I’m sorry to say that he comes off very badly in the sections devoted to Danielle’s burdens, where the eternally cheerful actress falls to weeping under Wiseau’s treatment. On a lighter note, I have also given short shrift to the movie’s spoons, having not even noticed their ubiquitous devotional portraits, like those of a beloved child or founding patriarch, until many viewings in. I have also given no space to what might be one of the funniest moments, because it seems to entirely elude analysis: Mike starting to explain his underwear story, Mark saying “UNDERWEAR!”, before nearly killing Mike by knocking him into some trash cans.

Tommy Wiseau's The Room

The movie and accompanying book, The Disaster Artist, are full of tangents which I have only touched on, and that I hope to return to soon. For instance, Sestero makes Tom Ripley of The Talented Mr. Ripley the guiding metaphor of his book, whereas I find the relationship of Wiseau and Sestero to be closer to that of the two men in Paul Auster’s Music of Chance, in which one man gives himself over to the recklessness of the other, and Sestero’s participation in The Room feels like a kind of surrender as well. He writes with wistfulness of his first scene in the movie without a beard and how a viewer might see in Sestero’s face then the sense of a richer acting future disappearing. It reminds one of the ancient superstition over cameras, and we might think of The Room as having this same quality of enchantment, a chamber that is a soul trap.

Though I think these last notes are necessary points, they also introduce a melancholy which I have never felt watching this movie, a melancholy with which this life has an excess, and for which I watch The Room to make joyful escape. Some have given themselves over to whether the pleasures of The Room are intentional or not, and these are questions of which I don’t care. Any relief from the horrors of this world is so rarely found that I welcome, without nagging queries of its points of origin, the brief happy sanctuary of The Room.

(I think there is even more to be said about this movie which I enjoy so very much, but for the moment I leave it at that. This post, however, remains unfinished.)

(All stills from The Room copyright Wiseau Films.)


1 Among the best known pieces devoted to the movie are “The Crazy Cult of The Room” by Clark Collis, “The New Cult Canon: The Room” by Scott Tobias, “A Viewer’s Guide To The Room by House of Qwesi – because the AV Club recently shuffled around their links, a lot of their content is off-line, and this link may not work at the moment. A novelization of the movie, by Marcus Sullivan, can be found at Sullivan’s blog. A videogame adaptation, by New Grounds, can be played at New York magazine, “Play the Room, the Video Game”. Profiles of Wiseau include “The Man Behind the Best Worst Movie Ever Made” and “Tommy Wiseau Knows Better”. However, the definitive portrait of Wiseau is in The Disaster Artist.

2 I am relying on The Room, which has helped me out so often in the past, to help me out again with this piece, to break a mild kind of writing block so I might finish the unfinished and seemingly unending “Rising Sun: The Image of the Desired Japanese” which, at the moment, stops abruptly in the midst of “Rising Sun: The Image of the Desired Japanese Part Four”.

3 From The Disaster Artist, on Wiseau’s American flags:

“You have to trust me, young man,” Tommy said. “I have resources.” He directed me toward a bank of private spots on Beach Street. That’s when I noticed the sign hanging above the corner building: STREET FASHIONS USA. I recalled seeing the logo in Tommy’s condo and remembered him saying that he’d done marketing for Street Fashions years before. Two massive American flags—so massive I suspected they could be seen from space—were snapping in the wind on the building’s rooftop.

From The Disaster Artist, on Wiseau’s observance of September 11th:

We all looked at one another. What now? It was blood-boilingly hot inside Birns & Sawyer’s cramped studio space, but once Tommy got us all in there, he asked everyone to please be quiet and “remember the American flag.” We stood there, doing our best to be quiet. Then someone laughed. Tommy furiously decamped to another part of the studio and returned with a digital timer one of the camerapeople had been using during filming. Tommy set the timer to five minutes and placed it where everyone could see it. “Because you laugh,” he said, “we now have five minutes of silence for America. Have due respect.” Ten seconds into that five-minute silence, someone else laughed. Tommy reset the timer. “If I hear any laugh,” he said, “which is very disrespectful, we do another five minutes. You can laugh the rest of your life. So you be the judge.”

It was probably the longest five minutes I’ve ever experienced. Eyes were glazed and several mouths were trembling, but no one wanted that clock to be reset. Somehow, on our third try, we made it all the way through. The timer ran out to several gasps, and I realized how many of us had been reduced to holding our breath near the end to keep from cracking up.

Tommy followed these five minutes with a little speech: “This prick Osama is the biggest asshole-motherfucker-piece-of-shit who ever lived. He think he can stop America. I’m sorry, Mr. Dickhead Osama, you don’t have chance. We are the best country in the world.” He then led the room in a chant of “USA, USA!”

Five minutes of reverent silence followed by fist-pumping mania: That was a pretty accurate encapsulation of the patriotism of Tommy Wiseau.

4 From “A Viewer’s Guide To The Room by House of Qwesi:

At one point, two characters will show up in Tommy’s apartment. They will be fucking. No one will know who they are, thus it is appropriate to shout “Who the fuck are you?” whenever they appear onscreen.

5 This results in the most well-known shot of Room public screenings, where Wiseau signals an exhausted crew off-camera that he’s ready and where, in the theater, it’s played as if he’s waving to a group of people in the corner, is a result of these difficulties. From “A Viewer’s Guide To The Room by House of Qwesi, under “Activities / Cues”:

Saying “Hi” to Tommy when he appears to look down at the corner of the screen during the party scene. This entails running down to the screen and hanging out toward the bottom-right-hand corner and then shouting as his eyes acknowledge you.

From The Disaster Artist by Sestero and Bissell:

One of The Room’s more amusing audience rituals concerns this scene. There’s a moment right before Johnny makes his announcement in which he seems to look down and to the right and wave at someone. Consequently, some audiences send a small gaggle of people to converge in the bottom right-hand corner of the movie screen, where they gleefully return Johnny’s wave. So what’s really going on here? Well, after so many blown takes, Tommy is signaling to the cameraman that he’s ready, he’s got it, let’s roll film, motherfuckers. And yes, a take in which Tommy annihilates the fourth wall by motioning to the cameraman was the best take they got.

Tommy Wiseau's The Room

6 For instance, “On the greatness of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room” by James MacDowell and “Should Gloriously Terrible Movies Like The Room Be Considered ‘Outsider Art’?” by Adam Rosen.

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