There's an old joke about secrets.
A young man visits a Buddhist monastery; ancient and stately, overgrown with creeping vines, the kind you'd see in a movie. A monk provides the young man with a tour of the grounds. The young man stops at one door and asks, "What's behind there?" Sagely, his guide nods. "Can't tell you. You're not a monk."
The rest of the joke goes like this: the young man, so intrigued, trains dutifully for years to become a monk. There are long nights of solitude and early mornings of chores, all channelled toward his spiritual self-possession. After a while – years, decades – he's invited to join the monastery. He's finally granted passage behind that secret door. And do you know what he finds behind it?
Can't tell you. You're not a monk.
Without parsing the fineries of what is essentially a stupid joke, the gist is that the listener will suffer through all these details to find out what's behind the door. That they never gain this knowledge isn't stymieing, but cathartic. We would rather the mystery than the thing that cracks it. Give us the sense that there's a figure in the carpet and we'll forgive its elusiveness, its inscrutability. Give us the secret.
The Disaster Artist is a book filled with secrets. It was written by Greg Sestero, star of the 2003 melodrama The Room, a film most famously hailed by Entertainment Weekly as "the Citizen Kane of bad movies," and co-authored by Tom Bissell, who in a 2010 Harper's essay approached the cult success of The Room as if he were unlocking the mystery to whole patterns of post-camp cultural formation. Swirling at the centre of The Room 's unlikely production (it was independently financed for $6-million USD) and even unlikelier success is its writer/producer/director/star: Tommy Wiseau. Sestero's tell-all promises keys to the enigma of Wiseau, that stalwart guardian of the perplexing incomprehensibility of The Room.
In the semi-underground circles of Room fandom, plenty of rumours have circulated about Tommy Wiseau: that's he an Eastern European warlord who bankrolled a film as a money-laundering vanity project, that his stony complexion resulted from some disfiguring accident, that he's a literal vampire. The Room is so bad – a bafflingly bungled domestic melodrama that feels like the fun-house mirror image of a real movie, as if an alien glimpsing Earth through some high-powered telescope saw snatches of three or four movies and said, "Okay, I think I get this" and set about making a movie of its own – that the first, and always most pressing question it raises is: "Who would make this?"
Wiseau's weirdo mystique, and the promise of understanding it, serves as the entry point into The Disaster Artist, even more so than its more superficial narrative of Sestero struggling to "make it" in the unforgiving trenches of Hollywood. The book is a back door into The Room, offering a fresh perspective through the eyes of its "baby face" (as Wiseau affectionately calls him) star. Cross-cutting between Sestero's time spent on the set of The Room and the weirdly fortuitous events precipitating it – meeting Wiseau in a San Francisco acting seminar, palling around with him as a scene study partner, sharing an L.A. apartment separated by a heavy black curtain – Sestero traces his relationship with his friend/confidante/pseudo-sugar-daddy (The Disaster Artist 's latent homoerotic subtext rivals that of The Room itself).
The book's attempts at some grander universality, its bids to tell the story of an L.A. hopeful-wannabe whose dreams lurk unrealized beyond some ever-receding horizon, feel a bit thin. Stories of ambitious young actors are dime-a-dozen (see: the excellent TV show Party Down), and reading about Sestero's own largely disastrous attempts to succeed in Hollywood feel calculated to appeal beyond a target demographic of Room superfans.
Given Sestero's bounty of first-hand anecdotes, like Wiseau's original first-draft Room ending that had his character driving into the sunset in a convertible à la Grease, and the abundant, sometimes mean-spirited, pleasure he and Bissell take in making a party game of simply describing Wiseau (variously depicted as "an escaped Muppet," "Gene Simmons after three months in the Gobi Desert," "his face as lumpy as white as an abandoned draft of a sculpture," etc.), it's hard not to want more eye-witness exposition in place of accounts of Sestero's attempts to land jobs, apartments and acting gigs.
As for solving the riddle of Wiseau, The Disaster Artist magnifies the mystery instead of unravelling it. Sestero offers a biographical sketch of Wiseau through the imagined character of "Pierre," a young man who escapes Eastern Europe for France, then heads to America where he eventually amasses a small fortune selling novelties on the San Francisco pier. But given that these details come from Wiseau himself, the story is often confusing, contradictory and essentially unfactcheckable, the work of a second-hand unreliable narrator.
No matter. For all their educated guesswork, Sestero and Bissell manage to stoke the fires of secrecy that blister behind the almost unfathomable oddness of The Room, that unresolvable aura of mystique that keeps fans coming back: reading the contorted anguish of Wiseau's howling face, the crags and divots of his dappled hocks, like the proverbial figures in the carpet.
John Semley is the online editor of NOW Magazine in Toronto.