The Movie: The Room
The Scene: Birthday Party
The Editor: Eric Chase

This essay was originally written as by final paper for my Aesthetics of Editing class, taught by Rafael Parra, in Fall 2014 at The New School.

The Room is a masterwork of surrealism in film. This may not have been intentional; director Tommy Wiseau, is known for his inscrutability and has given confounding explanations for what he was trying to accomplish with this movie. But the purest form of surrealism is accidental, which is why it works as well as it does in this case. The Room’s strange editing strategies underscore this sense. In this vein, the birthday party scene features a particularly fascinating mix of continuity and discontinuity elements. The film is made competently, both narratively and technically, but there are certain odd aspects that call attention to themselves and create a surreal ethos.

The birthday party follows the strategy of individual scenes having their own beginning, middle, and end: Johnny arrives at his surprise party, there is a conflict when he confronts his best friend Mark over his affair with Johnny’s future wife Lisa, and then Johnny demands that everyone leave the party. But there are moments within this standard technique that do not follow the rules of editing, or they do follow the rules but in a compressed or expanded way, resulting in disorientation. Thus, the juxtaposition of the strange and the familiar highlights the surrealism, which is best conveyed through a warped version of reality, rather than a total disconnection from it. There are many questionable editing rhythms throughout The Room, but the birthday scene is the epitome of that element, because of the structure within which these strange rhythms are contained.

The rhythm is most prominently set by the establishing shots. The scene begins with Johnny wandering the streets of San Francisco in the evening. This is in the last half hour of the film, so this city has already been well established as the film’s setting. Not once does the narrative leaves the confines of San Francisco. So this moment is not meant to establish the general setting but to establish the beginning of a new scene and to indicate that Johnny has been by himself for the last couple of hours. But one wonders if the main point of these establishing shots actually was to reiterate the setting, as this scene then proceeds to return the establishing shots of the city multiple time. Perhaps surprisingly, none of these particular establishing shots is a tracking shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, which is featured several times in other parts of the film. But the repetitive nature of these exteriors is still inexplicable.

Save for the last establishing shots, which indicate that time has passed since the end of the party, there is not really any narrative purpose to all these exteriors. They do not signal a switch to a new setting, nor does there appear to be much of a passage of time, at least not significantly. They are possibly being utilized to make sure that the transition between the interiors and the exteriors at Johnny and Lisa’s backyard are clean. But that is not really necessary, since most of the characters can be seen walking through the door. These establishing shots would seem to indicate that there is something significant in between the moments that immediately precede and follow it, but nothing else suggests that that is the case.

The full extent of the birthday party’s discontinuity must be understood within the context of the entire film. This is best exemplified by the character of Steven, who does not appear in any other scene, but plays a major role in this one. A case could easily be made that he leaves the biggest impression of any character in these 10 minutes. Much of the tone of the movie is melodramatic, and he delivers lines like, “I feel like I’m waiting for an atomic bomb that’s about to go off,” with more melodrama than anyone else.

As Lisa starts to reveal her devious ways, Steven and Michelle confront her, insisting that she must come clean or risk sowing discord among this group of people. Michelle’s actions here make narrative sense; she and her boyfriend Mike have been established as two of Johnny and Lisa’s closest friends. But Steven seems like a random busybody who does not know Lisa nearly well enough to presume to talk to her with this sort of familiarity. Since there is information left out of any film’s narrative, it is certainly possible that Lisa and Johnny have friends, even close ones, who have not been seen or heard from up to this point. There are in fact other partygoers who are also appearing for the first time in this scene, but they do not play as significant a role as Steven does. He could be someone who just did not happen to interact with his friends earlier over the course of the events of the film. But when constructing a story, it is usually wise to introduce most major characters early, because new characters suddenly being important at the end is likely to confuse the audience.

The thing about Steven, though, is that he does not seem like a new character. His point of view sounds like it could naturally fit in to some earlier segments. This is hardly an accident. Steven was essentially a replacement for the character of Peter, Tommy’s psychologist friend whose main narrative purpose had been to offer relationship advice. The actor playing Peter left in the middle of the shoot, before all of his scenes had been completed. Instead of re-writing those scenes so that they could work without Peter, Wiseau instead chose to slot in a new character to deliver the lines that were supposed to be Peter’s. This strange utilitarianism increases the sort of surrealism in which a random new person can essentially take the place of a friend without anybody questioning it.

Further contributing to the rhythmic absurdity is the speed with which conflicts and major plot developments are resolved or not resolved. This is a characteristic present throughout the movie, and the birthday party provides multiple examples within minutes of each other. In the middle of the scene, Johnny announces that he and Lisa are expecting. (The shot lingers on Johnny just a few more seconds than seems natural right before he makes this announcement. The effect is slightly disturbing.) Almost immediately, Lisa reveals to Michelle and Steven that there is no baby. This could be information that Lisa withholds from Johnny to devastate him later, but it never comes up again. Narratively, it is essentially pointless. Johnny already knows the depth of Lisa’s betrayal, as he has discovered her affair, so there is no need to pile on the deception to make a dramatic point. Not that that is how it is used anyway. It is one of several points throughout the film that is dropped almost as soon as it is brought up.

The fight between Johnny and Mark provides one of the strangest examples of resolution, or lack thereof. When Johnny finally gets fed up, he starts a shoving match that lasts about five seconds. He and Mark are pulled away from each other, suggesting that perhaps cooler heads will prevail. Then there is an establishing shot of San Francisco, and then they start going at each other again, and it is essentially the same fight as the first one. It feels as if two takes from the same sequence have just been shown back-to-back. This scuffle lasts longer than the first one, but is hardly any more damaging. The point of these conflicts is just as frustrated as Johnny is in the heat of the moment.

Underlying the sense of everything being just slightly off is the sound mix, which feels haphazard but it is too technically well-done to be meaningless. It is more odd than sloppy. As everyone sings to Johnny when he enters, he mutters, “All right, thank you,” throughout the serenade, and his dialogue is clearly audible. It could be that Johnny is just a strange person who chatters away while people sing “Happy Birthday” to him, but either way, it is an odd thing to focus on. During shots that track around the living room, the ambient sound consists of barely audible dialogue and light party music. The sound levels could very easily allow for louder conversation, which would seem to be advisable to give an indication of how everyone is feeling, but instead there is just a hint of noise that teases the viewer with whether or not it is important. When dialogue is clear, the lines are often strange (“You invited all my friends – good thinking”) to the point that it makes perfect sense that these people feel at home in this surreal environment.

The scene ends with Johnny declaring, “I fed up with this world!” This leads into the conclusion, during which he commits suicide. That line is a little on the nose in how closely it signals the ending, though it is in character and serves a useful narrative purpose. It is an effective moment, as it suggests a classic style of narrative momentum that it is undercut by a rule-breaking decision at almost every other occasion.