Paratext, Bitches: How Best F(r)iends Subverts Mainstream Film / Katharine Coldiron

Tommy Wiseau (left) and Greg Sestero in Best F(r)iends (2017), directed by Justin MacGregor

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This essay is not about Tommy Wiseau. And it’s not about The Room.

What this essay is about: Best F(r)iends, the two-part film by newcomer Justin MacGregor, which received a fragmented theatrical release last year and finally dropped on Blu-Ray at the end of January. It’s about the way the film makes weird weird again, how it uses audience foreknowledge to its advantage, how it surprises and delights a totally jaded viewer. It’s about questioning how we move forward in American film, how we find a way out of the deadening bigness and loudness that Hollywood insists we want. And it’s about paratext.

A wide release was not possible for Best F(r)iends and its teeny-tiny production, but the film got national attention because of its stars: Greg Sestero and Tommy Wiseau, formerly of the infamous The Room, working together again after fifteen years. This time, Sestero, rather than Wiseau, is at the creative helm. He wrote and produced the film, and has toured indie theaters to screen and promote it basically without cease since its initial theatrical release in March 2018.

Two different marketing platforms for this film exist. Publicity has been based entirely on the first, more attention-getting one: Wiseau and Sestero together again! In another wacky indie project! Come see a second Room for the first time! It’s a sensible way to promote Best F(r)iends, because fans of The Room are legion, they are devoted, and they are accustomed to midnight screenings and weird shit. But the fact is, Best F(r)iends has almost nothing to do with The Room. Although comparisons between the two are likely to sell the former to fans of the latter, it does Best F(r)iends a disservice to consider the film only as a follow-up to The Room (and to The Disaster Artist, Sestero’s book about Wiseau, later adapted into a film of its own).

The other platform is Best F(r)iends as an indie movie with its own merits. This is a far harder angle to sell, for any production, and it’s pointless for a production with a preexisting platform to build a challenging one from scratch. So I understand why the production team sold the film the easier way. But it means that the film may not reach much beyond Room fans.

Which is a shame, because I liked Best F(r)iends more than any other 2018 film. Mainly because, unlike any other 2018 film, it surprised me. I wasn’t expecting it to be especially bad or good, but I was expecting it to be ordinary—to copy the form and style of contemporary cinema on a smaller budget. It is not. It does not.

For example, its montages don’t communicate the way montages normally do. A montage of a trip to Las Vegas shows Harvey (Wiseau) and Jon (Sestero) having substantive conversations with each other and unexplained, but clearly significant, encounters with people and landmarks. It’s as if the montage depicts real, specific scenes that have been chopped up and muted, rather than joining clips that gesture to clichéd scenes. As if the montage is cutting together, let’s say, character-building encounters between the coach and the boxer, rather than cutting together the boxer’s training and progressive victories, which are predictable enough that they don’t require full scenes. Montaging scenes that evidently matter is a novel choice.

The film alternates between long periods of silence and rapid, often improvisational dialogue. The characters talk in circles in an irritating way, but they also say things I’ve never heard in contemporary film: a nervous CPA type who runs a hotel says “Don’t forget to sign the guestbook…bitches,” and Jon, when his girlfriend snoops in his carry-bag, says “I know it’s weird to see a mask, and teeth and shit, but it all adds up.” The use of music feels a little bit uncontrolled, but this film is a study in the distinction between inexpert filmmaking and fresh filmmaking. I tend toward believing MacGregor capable of the latter.

Overall, Best F(r)iends and its characters carry a pervasive weirdness. And not the acceptable, Hollywood kind of weird (Steve Buscemi’s characters, for instance), but really fucking weird. Harvey runs a private morgue where he makes silicone death masks and extracts teeth, which he saves, for no apparent reason. There’s a whole scene involving a dead clown on the mortician’s table, fully decked out in rainbow wig and floppy shoes, and a cheerful discussion about how the clown ended his life with two candles in separate orifices. An old hippie locksmith (picture Dr. Jacoby in Twin Peaks) turns out to be a greedy, sadistic killer. The only genuine cliché in the film is Rick, a dude obsessed with football and pussy who owns a .44 Magnum and a vintage Ford Bronco. Somehow it’s the intensity of the cliché that causes him to fascinate, that makes his every line of dialogue hilarious. The varietal of weirdness on display in Best F(r)iends is compelling because it’s so abnormal, but so harmless. Like Wiseau himself.

Sestero has said in interviews that he wanted to assemble a project that would showcase Wiseau properly, and this film certainly is that. More than once, the film depicts the way people commonly react to the real Wiseau, as described in The Disaster Artist. The encountering characters have a similar unsettled, slightly angry look on their faces, and they each struggle to maintain control over their side of the conversation as Harvey says one strange thing after another. In particular, a scrap salesman, Andrei, acts as a mirror for audience reactions to Wiseau. He asks where he’s from, what drugs he’s on, what even is his whole deal. No answers satisfy. Again, though, Best F(r)iends isn’t really about Wiseau. It blows the Wiseau wad pretty early, in fact, and the rest of the film is sort of a grim crime caper, involving road trips, a dental underworld, and an impenetrable safe made out of an ATM.

There are missteps. The famed Black Dahlia case is integrated really unsuccessfully as an element of Harvey’s backstory, and the way Jon’s girlfriend Traci transforms from a real person into a stereotype, pitted against Jon’s best male f(r)iend, is disappointing. Plus, I mean, the title. There’s something bold about going ahead with a title that cheesy, but the one doesn’t redeem the other.

The total run time for the two volumes is about three hours, and watching them back to back demonstrates that there’s an awful lot of padding—establishing shots, repetitive conversation, long and loving shots of Sestero in fading light. It’s not lyrical slowness like Tarkovsky; it’s dead time. The actors are reasonably charismatic, and the level of novelty in the film’s structure, editing, and story maintain audience involvement. But it’s still pretty soft in places.

In truth, I don’t really understand why the film wasn’t cut together into a sharper single volume once it went to home video. It was a unique choice to put together two film releases several months apart, doubling the press (and the publicity burden on the cast and crew). But now that Best F(r)iends is on Blu-ray for all time, the hoopla that accompanied the film in theaters—and the excess run time that made its dual nature possible—could have been stripped away, leaving behind one hell of an interesting film rather than two pretty interesting ones.

Then again, cutting or changing the films for home video would remove some of their paratext. In literary studies, paratext is stuff like a book’s back cover summary, epigraphs, and any introductions or acknowledgements. The unavoidable accompaniments. I’m borrowing it here to mean the affiliated but not integrated elements of Best F(r)iends, like the trailer, The Disaster Artist, audience knowledge of The Room, and the film’s unusual release strategy. Conceptually, these elements resemble context, but they’re more closely attached to the film than the context that floats around it.

Best F(r)iends blends its paratext with its text in a way I haven’t really seen before—in a way that transcends Easter eggs. In the theaters I went to, screenings of both volumes were accompanied with a video for the Neighbourhood’s “Scary Love,” which stars Wiseau, even though the video and the film are otherwise unconnected. A teaser for the second volume immediately follows the first volume, both in theaters and on the Blu-ray. The teaser clashes with the integrity of the joined volumes—as if the filmmakers had inserted a teaser for the second half of Amadeus or The Sound of Music immediately before its intermission—but it also points back to the existence of trailers and film promotion generally. A close-up on a basketball that Jon and Harvey use shows that it’s official Wiseau merchandise; the shot makes visible the URL for The Room’s official website. The film stock varies between somewhat grainy DV and a cleaner medium, with no obvious logic, in a way that makes it plain we’re watching an indie production. Which reminds us all over again of what we’re watching and why.

These choices aren’t exactly metatextual. They don’t refer to the practice of filmmaking as a whole, but to Best F(r)iends alone, to the personalities involved in making it, and to the whole mechanism of how films are promoted and released. A teaser for the second volume of the film is a necessary addition to the end of the first volume. It doesn’t serve as a coda to the first volume, but it does remind the audience of the film’s unusual two-part release method. To forget that would be to forget the film’s context, which includes Wiseau and Sestero as people and artists, The Room, The Disaster Artist, and everything else associated with their little solar system of creative work. Even though Best F(r)iends isn’t about that context, it cannot avoid that context. Rather than making external context the elephant in the room, the film makes it into the room’s wallpaper.

In other words, Best F(r)iends embraces the paradox at the heart of star studies—the fact that the actors we see in films are neither their characters nor themselves but an amalgam of the two. Harvey isn’t Wiseau, but he also sort of is; someone says offhand “What are you, D.B. Cooper or something?” and the scene with the branded basketball refers (and kind of panders) to the football stuff in The Room. Sestero in the film is partially Sestero, not merely Jon. Wiseau and Sestero working together again is no different than Astaire and Rogers working together again in The Barkleys of Broadway, but that film does not make references to how Astaire and Rogers impacted Depression-era audiences, nor how Astaire’s collaboration with Hermes Pan led to wide shots and long takes that showcased his and Rogers’s exceptional dance chemistry. Best F(r)iends does the equivalent of these things. It holds up a mirror not to the practice of filmmaking, as Bergman and Deadpool alike have done, but to the audience’s role, and the audience’s mental calculations, in watching films.

I’ve written about Best F(r)iends at such length mostly because it reminded me that contemporary cinema too rarely includes surprises. Three-act save-the-cat structure has become mandatory. You know who’s going to live and who’s going to die from minute six. Screenwriters have prioritized the formula above the content that goes in it, while producers have prioritized the actors above the characters. I’ve seen so many mainstream movies that I no longer enjoy them; as Debbie Reynolds pronounced in Singin’ in the Rain, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all.

It’s beyond frustrating to watch mainstream film move back into safety and common denominators—elements that occupied the art form throughout the 1980s and, before that, dominated the classical period (late 1930s – late 1960s). American film in the twenty-first century is continually getting bigger and dumber and louder. I keep thinking these elements have reached their nadir (cf Pain and Gain), but then there’s another bigger, dumber, louder sequel to something and I find I was wrong. The stakes keep escalating until trucks are crashing into helicopters and Dwayne Johnson can vault into a skyscraper. Any decent writer knows that artificially high stakes are the cheapest, most shortsighted way to entice an audience, whereas if a character’s developed properly, a dropped teacup is a nuclear bomb.

In this context, Best F(r)iends is a storyboard for the next stage of American indie film. The plot picks up gradually instead of immediately, trusting the audience instead of trying to hook it. The film makes the most of editing as a resource: cross-cutting during conversations and monologues leads to novel juxtapositions, and the second volume reverses a framing device by cutting back to the frame in the same rhythm that an ordinary film would cut to the flashback. It’s about such strange topics and characters, but that’s part of why it’s a mesmerizing story. Why not make films about benign morticians in back alleys of Los Angeles, instead of white-collar professionals from New York City?

For that matter, why not mix up what montages do? Or when the plot points land in the screenplay? The grammar of film has been the same for a century, and some of its syntax has been frozen for decades. Audiences in 2019 have been watching films at a high volume from early childhood, and they are well-versed enough in the formula that they can handle (or, you know, desperately need) a little variety. Best F(r)iends is proof that varying the formula can make an inexpensive little film into a one-of-a-kind artistic success. Or, as Harvey tells Jon at the end of the second volume, “Different is what pushes life forward.”

Katharine Coldiron
Katharine Coldiron's work has appeared in Ms., the Times Literary Supplement, the Washington Post, LARB, The Rumpus, and many other places. Her novella, Ceremonials, is forthcoming from Kernpunkt Press in 2020. Find her at kcoldiron.com or on Twitter @ferrifrigida.