Recently in LA, I sat down with Kyle Kilday, the director of the forthcoming documentary The Last Scene. Kyle invited me to talk about the turn-of-the-millennium burst of mainstream interest in pop-punk, hardcore, emo, and “emo.” We had a great conversation, and I’m looking forward to seeing the final product. If you’d like to support or learn more about the project, you can do so at the official website, here.
My friend Nick Huinker, a co-founder of Central Cinema, came by my American Popular Culture class (AMST/GEOG 423) yesterday. We had a great discussion about how independent theaters have been reintroducing a distinct local flavor and sense of ownership to the moviegoing experience. As you can tell from how companies like Regal have been adopting practices held for generations by locally owned theaters (alcohol, personalization, fundraising events, screenings by homegrown directors and producers, etc.), it’s a pretty great idea.
As I’ve often discussed in the class, art-house theaters have been purposefully resetting film to its classic context, in many respects: produced for a communal, interactive experience. For the first half-century of film, it was considered a low-brow art, something that true thespians would never touch. In other words, it was a wonderful cauldron of innovative, thought-provoking, and genre-transcending/defining art. Unfortunately, a lot of this has been lost to history. Central Cinema and theaters of their ilk are doing great work in bringing it all back to the nickelodeon era (as well as the Nickelodeon era, screening Good Burger soon).
Thanks again to Nick for taking the time to come through! Stay tuned to this blog for more updates on new projects in the Geography of American Popular Culture, and if you haven’t yet, take a dive into the wonderful rabbit hole that is Cinema Treasures. You’ll be glad you did.
I’m excited to announce that I will officially be teaching GEOG 423: American Popular Culture again this Spring. Now let’s celebrate with some shots of Uncle Jemima’s Pure Mash Liquor!https://player.vimeo.com/api/player.js
Not only is this brief sketch one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on television, it provides a perfect encapsulation of (1) what a national treasure Tracy Morgan is, and (2) how baked-in racism and racist caricatures are in American popular culture. When I first did my lecture on the thick undercurrent of the Minstrel Show in pop culture, I realized how little context I had to understand how brilliant this sketch was when it first aired in 2000 (or so).
I was only vaguely aware of Song of the South, as much as Disney was still largely capable of keeping it under-rug-swept at the time, a few years before streaming video and user-side online reference became the norm. I don’t remember if I had yet connected the dots between Splash Mountain, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” other relics of the post-War/pre-Civil Rights era with the beautifully modulated satire here. Then and now, it was an exceptional use of television as a medium for sketch comedy and one of my favorite moments in SNL’s decades-long, peaks-and-valleys history.
I had an absolute blast teaching 423 (cross-listed with American Studies) for the first time this past Spring, and my department has rewarded me by adding a section during what would otherwise have been an off-year. A colleague has invited me to present this as a guest-lecture in a course on race and racism next month. I also hope to incorporate this into my discussion on symbolic gentrification at Relix Mic Nite on November 8th. It’s all coming together…slowly.
I’m appearing in a new documentary called The Last Scene, which covers pop-punk’s millennial epoch and surprising transition. The director, Kyle Kilday, approached me with questions about scene dynamics and the social role of rock music, and I show up (briefly) in his sizzle reel, embedded here:
It’s always weird seeing myself on camera – particularly as a talking-head “expert” in a documentary. As someone whose love of bands like The Get Up Kids and Hot Rod Circuit helped him endure the end of high school, I can’t wait to see where the project goes. I’ve already been invited to (production pending) re-film an extended interview in LA this Fall.
Kilday has set up this IndieGoGo page for those interested in contributing!
Growing up watching In Living Color spoiled me. For one thing, it made it impossible for me to enjoy MAD TV when it hit the air in 1995, one year after ILC ended. From what I recall, Saturday Night Live was at its nadir (it had yet to be resurrected by Will Ferrell and Molly Shannon, the latter having appeared in ILC). Like Saturday Night Live before it, the writers of In Living Color leveraged recurring characters to keep viewers invested in the show and to keep writers able to fill weekly half-hour time blocks with limited ideas. Some early-90’s sketch comedy, like The State, lampooned this top-down pressure to use and overuse characters. When FOX first aired MAD TV in 1995, it enjoyed the typical “Wild West” phase of wierdness while it was getting its feet under it (Kato Kaelin featured prominently on the first two episodes), then quickly reverted unapologetically into character-based humor. The problem for me was that, even Will Sasso’s hilarious (though increasingly plot-shredding) Kenny Rogers send-up, none of these recurring characters said anything. They were shameless gimmicks, and their audience devoured it.
To say that I owe most of my pre-college knowledge of African-American culture to the writers and producers of In Living Color (many of whom, I acknowledge, were white) is probably the finest critique of the education I received growing up. I don’t recall any of my teachers discussing the 1992 riots in Los Angeles with my classmates and I, most likely because (1) bringing any kind of radical politics into white suburban classrooms was taboo, (2) they were successfully convinced to sympathize with the LAPD, or (3) they didn’t think it really affected us. We were on the other side of the country and the riots were framed as a “black” issue. To any of my teachers who did mention it in a current events discussion, I apologize, but the longest-lasting allegorical lessons about the riots came via David Alan Grier, Jim Carrey, and their cast-mates.
The greatest strengths of In Living Color, other than the obvious re-elevation of African-American culture within the overwhelmingly white medium of sketch comedy, were the socio-political statements that their recurring characters made. Some, like Lil’ Magic (Kim Wayans), an overzealous little girl from the projects pining for her big break, no matter how humiliating, were sold so well they became sad. Only one or two of the show’s recurring characters (Fire Marshall Bill and Vera DeMilo, both played by Jim Carrey and, like most of the recurring characters, excruciatingly quotable) skirted sociopolitical statements in honor of flat-out absurdist humor. This was important, though, tilling each half-hour episode with eclectic writing and themes. It worked, too, since I’ve seen almost every episode of the show, and I could count on one hand the number of episodes that didn’t have at least one good sketch.
One of the show’s most impressive feats is, considering how long ago it ended and how admittedly-dated some of the humor can come across in 2018, just how prolifically In Living Color has been a gift that’s kept on giving. Throughout my time as a teaching assistant in introductory Geography courses at Long Beach State, I would routinely share particular sketches that remained relevant well into the 2010’s as companions to the lecture topics. “Using sketch comedy to teach cultural geography” could easily become the title of a future journal article, considering how long I’ve been doing it and how much I’ve thought about the idea. I managed to bookend a lecture on minstrelsy in popular culture with two different Tracy Morgan sketches, both of which fit the themes like a glove.
Yesterday, I led a discussion on mass incarceration for my Geography of Human Rights class, and my favorite of the ILC recurring character stable, Oswald Bates (Damon Wayans), came to mind. I didn’t plunge my class down that rabbit hole too far, but I couldn’t shake one particular sketch from my mind. Barbara Bush (Kelly Coffield) pays a visit to some prisoners who have learned to read thanks to her ambitious literacy program. You can watch it below:
The Bates character had already been well established by this season (as evidenced by the crowd cheering at his appearance – a FOX TV hallmark). I’m unsure as to how much freedom Wayans had to ad-lib, but he sold this character beautifully from Season One. Despite how his mouth has gotten him in understandable trouble in recent years, seeing these sketches is a reminder of what a talented performer Wayans was at the time. Only once or twice in my memory did he ever crack, despite spewing increasingly profane (yet still air-able) psychobabble that would put even the most obscurantist academic in stitches. Although I’m sure the show got criticized for taking potshots at erstwhile illiterate prisoners, Oswald always appeared fully in control of his position, and even more remarkably, he was actually understandable. Here is one of my favorite Oswald Bates moments, where he applies for parole and the incongruity of his reading comprehension forms a graceful punchline in the middle:
Oswald Bates spoke to one great contradiction within our prison system: the liberal appeal to humanitarian treatment (which is good) without addressing the factors that put him in prison. They addressed a few facets of his past, including that he has a son who is just as confused as him. He is also clearly the product of a sub-par literacy program; he reads at a post-graduate level (albeit, sex-ed pamphlets and such) but has no context for what any of it means.
Did I immediately recognize all of the layers as to why this was so funny when I first saw it over twenty years ago? Of course not. I did, however, understand the message almost immediately, and even more impressive on the part of Wayans and the writers, they still make me laugh today and continuously pop into my head when discussing topics as serious and bleak as mass incarceration. Considering how often American film and television go to lengths to romanticize (and in doing so, trivialize) prison and prisoners, Oswald Bates and the In Living Color producers contributed to the conversation about their underlying humanity and ambition. Most of their recurring characters did.
MARK: You guys are too much. Hey, are you running Bay to Breakers this year?
JOHNNY: I am, sure.
PETER: Not doing it this year.
JOHNNY: Hehe, chicken, Peter, you’re just a little chicken. Cheep cheep cheeeeeep [unidentifiable high-pitched noises]
PETER: Who you calling a chicken? I just don’t like all the weirdos. There’s… too many weirdos there.
I transcribed the above dialogue as accurately as possible from one scene from Tommy Wiseau’s self-produced 2003 film The Room. In it, two of the film’s main characters, Mark (Greg Sestero) and Johnny (Wiseau) share a moment with their psychologist(?) friend Peter (Kyle Vogt) in Johnny’s living room. Wiseau, who also wrote the script and directed the film, seems to have little grasp on (1) how “guys” talk when they hang out or (2) editing. The script goes out of its way to mention the Bay to Breakers run, a San Francisco institution that began in 1912, throwing yet another local-ism onto a haphazard pile of ways through which Wiseau “places” his film.
The Room is, by some measures, up there with Vertigo (1958), The Rock (1996), and Homeward Bound 2: Lost in San Francisco (1996) as quintessential ‘San Francisco’ films, which is ironic for multiple reasons. Most obviously, outside of Hitchcock’s masterpiece, none of those films are regarded as AFI-level cases of cinematic genius. The Rock, for one, is a loud, stupid and incredibly fun Bay/Bruckheimer film that reinvented Alcatraz and gave us the greatest piece Elton John-related dialogue in cinema history. The Homeward Bound films were family-friendly crowd-pleasers that starred adorable, wisecracking pets. The Room, however, is its own beast. Despite being, by many measures, one of the worst (or at least surreally stupid) films ever made, it demonstrates how valuable poorly-made films can be in understanding representation of urban landscape.
Film and Urban Geography
Cities provide ample inspiration to artists of all media, and in turn become drawn, filmed, sang about, and ultimately interpreted based upon their art. This phenomenon has been well-documented among cultural geographers. In film, Chris Lukinbeal has published numerous pieces about the multi-faceted geographies of the film industry, both part and parcel of Los Angeles and how other landscapes are interpreted through cinema. Many geographers have expounded upon the relationship between music and place, and Lily Kong wrapped many early examples into her 1995 call for greater involvement of music in geography. Steve Hoelscher has dedicated much of his recent work to the Magnum photography archive and even examined the effect of photography on historical urban geopolitics. Creating a comprehensive catalog of literature here would be a herculean task.
Back to The Room. Like most who attempt to break down its threadbare plot, pointless characters, and insanely counter-intuitive production values, I struggle at explaining just how bad it is. Cult audiences equally celebrate its awfulness as the worst film ever made as they do flock at a chance to see it in a communal (often intoxicated) environment and engage in a culturally-circulated set of practices that go with the screening. Audience members scream along with silly lines of dialogue, shadow-cast questionably useful scenes with the main characters tossing footballs to one another, and even shower the screen with plastic spoons at various specific cues. Film scholars like Matt Foy have gone into great detail about these sub-cultural rituals, even in cases, succinctly (as possible) explaining what the movie is about:
In addition to Johnny, Lisa, and Mark, the key players include Denny (Philip Haldiman), a good-natured but awkward man-child who lives next to Johnny (Johnny pays his college tuition) and seems to lack basic social skills (early in the film, he joins Johnny and Lisa in bed pre-coitus to “watch them” but seems unaware of the sensitive nature of his request), and Claudette (Carolyn Minnott), Lisa’s mother who simultaneously praises Johnny while encouraging Lisa to exploit him financially because she cannot support herself. Other characters meander in and out without affecting the plot, mostly as foils to establish Johnny’s pristine character or Lisa’s manipulative heartlessness. The result is a film so earnest yet strange that it attracts audiences through morbid revulsion (Foy 2012, 5).
I’ve written previously (for a course on Global Soundtracks) about how The Room reinforces the importance of bad movies in the conversation on film music. Where great films with iconic and/or Oscar-winning scores have been teaching young filmmakers and cinema scholars the “do’s” of film music, bad films could be equally valuable in teaching the “don’ts.” This dynamic applies equally in understanding how films reflect and represent urban spaces, particularly in the United States, and even more particularly in San Francisco. Where Vertigo demonstrated how Hollywood films can work with, and flourish through, urban iconography, The Room provides a beacon of trying too hard to do so, and looking silly in the process.
Tommy Wiseau’s San Francisco
Though Los Angeles is well regarded as “the world’s most photographed city” (cf. Thom Anderson’s brilliant Los Angeles Plays Itself), San Francisco is definitely among the top runners-up in that category, as well as among the most mythologized and laid-bare in its iconography. The Golden Gate is probably North America’s most iconic and grandiose bridge outside of Brooklyn, Alcatraz is among her most storied and infamous small islands (and prisons), and the Painted Ladies row of houses has embedded itself into our national subconscious both through films featuring Robin Williams in drag and through sitcoms featuring Bob Saget working clean. Rice-a-Roni commercials carved such a hegemony in the 1980s and 1990s that cable car operators could not avoid mentioning it to over-zealous, jingle-singing tourists on their routes.
It is through these cinematic representations of his adopted hometown that Tommy Wiseau weaves his overbearing establishing shots. Where most filmmakers implement one or two establishing landscape shots of the city setting, Wiseau inserts at least twenty. The first two minutes of the film become a veritable catalog of cliche’d imagery of the Bay Area. The viewer sees, interspersed with the opening credits, a wide shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, a bucolic fishing dock on the North Bay, another wide shot of Alcatraz Island, a shot that tilts up from the Bay to a San Francisco skyline silhouetted through fog, a (slightly) tighter shot of a cruise boat passing under the Golden Gate Bridge, a shot that slowly pans across the Palace of Fine Arts (the site of a dramatic scene in The Rock), a shot that tilts down Nob Hill, a shot that tilts down with the Painted Ladies houses in the background of Alamo Square Park, a shot of a cable car (with our hero on it… a true man of the people) passing in front of the Grace Cathedral, and ultimately, the often-recycled exterior shot of Johnny’s condo.
To the Western viewer, any one of those shots might be sufficient in establishing where the movie takes place, but Tommy Wiseau doesn’t know the meaning of cinematic restraint. (Seriously, he may literally not know the meaning of the term). He removes any doubt whatsoever of where we are, and despite having an ‘insider’ knowledge of San Francisco, he runs lovingly into the arms of cinematic cliche and reinforces the most mainstream, ‘outsider’ perspectives of that city’s icons.
Taken as a whole, these are examples of how filmmakers (both talented and less so) conflate the “real” with the “reel.” The “real” here is the fully extant city of San Francisco, which is a living, functioning, and constantly changing city that millions of people pass through each day. The “reel” in this case is a socially accepted and publicly ascribed cinematic landscape that completely disregard’s the city’s hinterland and even most of its forward-facing public sphere. In real life, Tommy Wiseau grew a minor clothing empire, accumulating enough independent wealth to purchase a building not far from the tourist Mecca of the Marina District and Pier 39. In reel life, Johnny (no apparent last name) makes good money working some nondescript job in a bank and lives in a nondescript condominium.
Wiseau’s script (the incongruity of which could probably formulate its own MFA thesis) often conflates the real and reel. For example, in another selection from the inane dialogue bullpen, Mark tells Johnny about a girl he knew who had been abused to the point of winding up “in a hospital on Guerrero Street.” Wiseau, for reasons only known to him, either used this line as a cute way to work Guerrero Street into the script, or he just could not think of any other street than the ones he had previously lived on. In the real San Francisco, there has never been a hospital anywhere on Guerrero Street, but because of Wiseau, there is one in reel San Francisco.
As with this apocryphal hospital and the superfluous conversation about Bay to Breakers, Wiseau takes special care to “place” his film in San Francisco, going out of the way with incorporating verbal/contextual representations of the city as much as he does with tired visual representations. Where the common mantra implores artists to “show, not tell,” Wiseau has managed, with his city, to show AND tell in a manner that is as overbearing as much as lacking in self-awareness. Granted, his motivation to do so renders these indiscretions marginally understandable.
The “Roof” and a Distorted Skyline
As the story (specifically, Sestero’s believable version) goes, the duo met in an acting class in the late 1990’s. Wiseau decided that he wanted to break into Hollywood, so he wrote The Room and decided to shoot it himself when he (for some reason) couldn’t find a major studio to produce it. They did all the principal filming in Los Angeles between a sound stage that played their condo, one that played a basketball court, and a couple of exterior shots in an alley near the lot where their camp set up. A number of the movie’s most popular scenes (e.g. the “WHAT KIND OF MONEY?” scene involving Denny’s near-deadly run-in with completely incongruous Armenian-American gangster Chris-R; the aforementioned Guerrero Street conversation; a stoned Mark nearly throwing Peter to his death when confronted about his affair with Lisa) took place on the condo’s roof.
This “roof” was actually played by a ground-level scene set built in front of a poorly-lit outdoor green-screen that, as Sestero explained, rendered these scenes with an otherworldly, unsettling glow. The San Francisco skyline digitally placed behind the actors, manipulated liberally, may constitute one of the film’s greatest “crimes against geography.” Though these rooftop scenes purported to “place” the film among the San Francisco skyline, they only confuse the viewer trying to obtain some sense of the condo’s location (real or reel). If this were a real location, either the building would have had to rotate or the buildings would have had to flip locations around them. Perceiving the reel location, however, accounts for the appropriate suspension of disbelief.
“That’s Meeee”: Forays into the Real San Francisco
Once the principal filming in Los Angeles had wrapped, a skeleton crew including Wiseau and Sestero (who also line-produced the movie, because why not) went up to the Bay to shoot these scenes that would reinforce the viewers’ imagined geography of The Room. These included all of the establishing shots from the beginning of the film as well as those used for scene transitions, many of which were filmed at varying levels of legality. Three of these scenes included dialogue between Johnny and Mark, two of which are both deeply carved into the “best worst movie” canon.
One of these three only features cursory, dubbed dialogue of the two running together around Golden Gate park, ultimately tossing a football and tackling one another homo-erotically. The two others include one confusing scene (“anyway, how’s your sex life?”) filmed in a cafe and another filmed in a Flower shop. Before I discuss the Flower Shop scene, please take a 6-minute break to listen to this amazing excerpt of Greg Sestero reading his account of how the scene came to be, and then watch it here:
I’ve gone on record saying that one could probably write a whole peer-reviewed academic paper about everything that’s wrong with this scene (my favorite assessment being Roadtrippers’ dubbing it a “black hole of human interaction” on their page of The Room locations). That being said, the Flower Shop scene provides one of few moments throughout the movie where the reel and real converge.
While the scene exists primarily to reinforce Wiseau’s narrative that Johnny is a perfect person (he is the florist’s favorite customer, after all), the location coheres both inside the shop and outside at the establishing shot on the corner of 16th and Dehon Street. While the Flower Shop scene may be one of the most terribly crafted scenes in one of the most terribly crafted narrative movies, it is the most geographically honest moment in The Room. The exterior shot was real, the interior of the shop was the real interior, the owners were the real proprietors, and that old pug on the counter (“Hi, doggie!”) was an authentic fixture of the shop as well. Only the skeleton crew’s makeup artist (seen looking at cards near the register) and Wiseau are pure fabrications of the reel.
Despite the film’s shocking $6 Million budget, The Room‘s stripped-down construction of place is a great tool for teaching these fundamental aspects of cinematic geography. Whereas other movies like Homeward Bound: Lost in San Francisco (much of which was filmed in Vancouver, a city known for playing everywhere but itself in Hollywood films) provide a cursory glance at the discrepancy between the reel and the real, Wiseau’s inept production hits you over the head with this contrast. The establishing iconic landscape shots, while themselves intended as a manifestation of Wiseau’s love of San Francisco, are so overdone, cult screening audiences often take to call-and-response screaming of “WHERE ARE WE? / SAN FRANCISCO!” and “GO! GO! GO!” as the camera slowly and clumsily pans across the Golden Gate Bridge.
None of this, of course, fazes Wiseau. As Sestero wrote in his book’s introduction:
The magic of The Room derives from one thing: no one interprets the world the way Tommy Wiseau does. He is the key to The Room’s mystery as well as the engine of its success. Tommy had always predicted his film would become a classic, embraced worldwide – a notion that could not have seemed less likely. Yet he was right. The Room became every bit the blockbuster that Tommy had envisioned, though not, of course, in the way he envisioned… Tommy continues to believe that his is the greatest film of all time” (2013, xv).
Similarly, this relationship between this great terrible movie and San Francisco only reinforces my enjoyment of The Room. Throughout my last two years living in Washington, DC, my friends and I would attend monthly midnight screenings at E Street Cinema, often dragging unsuspecting friends into the fold. The first time I went to see it, I invited a friend who had just been through a rough time in her life. Within months, she was organizing outings to the screening, even celebrating her following birthday at a screening. In July 2010, Wiseau and Sestero visited a screening there. Two of my friends, both wondering what the hell was going on, wound up sitting next to each other. They exchanged numbers, and six years later, are newly married. It does take a certain kind of appreciation of the surreal and the absurd to enjoy this movie, and the people I grew to enjoy it alongside became some of my best friends from my life in DC. Now, as I begin a career teaching cultural geography, I’ve found surprisingly relevant ways through which this great horrible movie has informed my research. Though Stefan Popescu (2013) may be correct that “the best worst movie” craze may not be sustainable, but as a singularly charming flagship of that movement to the media scholar, The Room is Tommy Wiseau’s demented gift that keeps on giving.