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September 21st, 2011 12:01 am AARON MESH | Cover Story

Professor Xbox

Tom Bissell is Portland's finest writer. Why is he spending his time on video games and bad movies?

Bissell’s second night in his Pearl District apartment was also the first night The Room ever screened theatrically in Portland. When he went for a walk around the block on Aug. 15, 2009, he found a crowd of 500 people waiting in line at Cinema 21 to watch a six-year-old movie.

“It’s proof that you don’t have any fucking idea what life has in store for you,” Bissell said over Moroccan kebabs and beer before he took me to another late show of the movie. “The Room and Portland seem made for each other.”

The Room was released in 2003, a self-funded project by Tommy Wiseau, a director of indeterminate Eastern European origins. He meant it as a statement about emotional betrayal. It became a Plan 9 From Outer Space for a generation looking for its own Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The dreadfulness of Wiseau’s opus is obvious. Characters appear without introduction, speak without feeling and behave without motivation. Wiseau himself plays the all-American hero, who seems more like a barbiturate-addled bouncer at a Budapest nightclub. The movie’s best performance is given by a gun-wielding drug dealer on screen for 90 seconds.

BISSELL’S FAVORITE FOLLY: A scene from The Room (with director Tommy Wiseau sprawled out). Bissell’s co-author, Greg Sestero, is at right.
IMAGE: theroommovie.com

Portland has embraced the movie with typical ironic ardor. Menomena drummer Danny Seim held private shows at his house before the Cinema 21 screenings began. The lobby of Cinema 21 is currently decorated with Tommy Wiseau bobbleheads and a poster explaining what audiences should shout at the screen

Bissell believes Portland’s love for The Room has something to do with the city’s rejection of conventional success. “The culture around The Room is this valorization of an indie, do-it-yourself aesthetic,” he said. “There’s a celebration of the outlaw aspects of The Room. But this is not just Portland: A large part of the [national] audience sees this film without trying to figure out what human sadness lurks underneath the surface of it.”

The Room is a naked statement of Wiseau’s personal feelings. The plot (such as it is) is effectively a teenage boy’s self-pitying fantasy of how, if he killed himself, everyone would regret how mean they had been to him. The abject solipsism is an invitation for giggles. Many people have taken Wiseau up on that invitation.

Bissell saw the opportunity for his great nonfiction novel. In August, Bissell started the book. He wrote 80 pages in a week.

He has compared Wiseau to the hero of The Great Gatsby, another self-funded outsider seeking lost love. “Jay Gatski,” he chuckled. “Part of my goal with this book is to take those skinny-jeaned hipsters and make them think twice about laughing at The Room too hard ever again.”

As soon as Bissell’s girlfriend, Miller, arrived in Portland, he wanted her to view his Room DVD. She has now watched the movie 15 times.

“What does he see in it?” says Miller, an actress now performing in the Artists Repertory Theatre production of God of Carnage. “Gosh. What does he not see in it? I just think he realizes…the 100 percent sincerity [with which] Tommy Wiseau makes every artistic decision in the film. I think a lot of creative people like us wish we had that much self-confidence.”

Bissell published an essay in Harper’s last summer contemplating the film’s “sincerealism.” One of the readers was Greg Sestero, a male model who played The Room’s linchpin character Mark, Johnny’s turncoat best friend. Bissell and Sestero met in Los Angeles, and soon began work on a memoir of the actor’s fraught friendship with Wiseau (tentatively titled Locked Inside The Room, it’s slated to be published in 2013 by Simon & Schuster). Bissell kept the stories in a notebook titled “My Sestero Journey.” 

“I think Greg’s and my desire is the same: to write something first-rate about something fifth-rate,” Bissell said. “At some point I kind of realized: This could be the novel I never write.”

It sounded, I ventured, like Bissell was trying to create his In Cold Blood. 

“As pathetic as that sounds, that’s kind of how I’m trying to think of it, yeah,” he said. “I want it to be that riveting.” 

Two weeks ago, at Sellwood’s former funeral home-turned-concert venue the Woods, Bissell stood on the small stage for the music and literature weekend This! Fest and read a story about a blowjob.

It was a passage from his story, “A Bridge Under Water,” which was selected for the Best American Short Stories 2011 collection. The selection—which described the giving of oral sex from the point of view of the female protagonist—was daring and funny and sad. 

“She wondered why they were otherwise getting along so well,” he read aloud to laughter from the audience, “and had the brief, horrified thought that maybe couples in newly dead marriages got along in a way akin to the cheerfulness of people about to kill themselves.”

Get ready for more of that prose.

McSweeney’s is preparing a book anthology of Bissell’s magazine pieces, Magic Hours. He has finished 1,300 pages of his travelogue and cultural history about the tombs of the 12 apostles. Entitled Bones That Shine Like Fire, it is, “I hope, a kind of return to form.”

At the same time, he’s preparing to leave Portland for an entirely new kind of writing: video-game scripts.

After teaching his last PSU course this fall, Bissell plans to move to California in the winter. He won’t say the name of the video company or what exactly he’s doing—he has signed nondisclosure agreements in “an industry notoriously adamant about keeping secrets.” 

I asked Franzen, whose novels include last year’s much-lauded Freedom, if he thought Bissell was wasting his gifts on The Room and video games.

“Because he is a true talent, I’ll follow Tom wherever his interests take him,” Franzen wrote in an email. “Some of the recent work he’s done comes out of his need to make a living, and my worry is not that he’s squandering his talent but, perhaps, that he’s reining in some of the linguistic heedlessness and inventiveness that made his work so distinctive in the first place.”

After Bissell finished his reading at the Woods, I told him what Franzen had said. He looked slightly wounded. 

“The commercial contingencies of being a writer are cruel and unforgiving,” he said. “Look, I’m still writing stuff that’s more in line with the other stuff I’ve done, but I nearly went bankrupt writing that stuff. I was $20,000 in debt, and didn’t have a place to live, and came back from an intercontinental extended vacation having fucked my life up trying to pursue that stuff alone.”

Bissell then told a story that contained something grand and something silly, and took measure of himself.

“I happened to see Spider-Man 2 and Red in the same week,” he began. “Alfred Molina played Mark Rothko in that play [Red] when it was on Broadway. He’s amazing as Rothko. It’s one of the most electrifying performances I’ve ever seen. He just filled the stage with force and vigor and intelligence. And then you see him do Doctor Octopus.” 

His voice, which had been rushing excitedly ahead, hushed.

“I think Alfred Molina is a great actor, and I don’t think he had any second thoughts about being Doctor Octopus. I think he tried to do Doctor Octopus in the most humane, interesting way he could. And I thought to myself, ‘Shit, maybe my video-game stuff is my Doctor Octopus.’ If I could be lucky enough to have a Doctor Octopus, I hope this is it.’” 

A Tom Bissell Reader

On Russian and Soviet efforts to occupy Uzbekistan, in Chasing the Sea, 2003:

“Russian involvement in Central Asia was rather akin to that of an irresponsible bankrupt maxing out a stack of credit cards in order to date women who do not love him and whom he cannot actually afford. Russia wanted to be a great power and could not pretend Great Power status without its captured khanates and miles of deserts and remote mosque-centered cities.”

On calling his Marine father while stranded at the Afghan border, in The Father of All Things, 2007:

“‘Have they hurt you?’ In a moment I went from boyishly sniveling to nearly laughing. How could I tell him that the people of Afghanistan were extremely kind? That, at least in terms of safety, things actually could not have gone better? That I was not in any immediate danger at all? How could I then explain that I was so frightened I was nearly shaking? ‘No one’s hurt me, Dad. I’m just worried.’ He asked, ‘Are you speaking code? Tell me where you are.’ His panic, preserved perfectly after its journey through cloud and space and the digital guts of some tiny metal moon, beamed down and hit me with all the force of an actual voice. ‘Dad, I’m not a captive, I’m—’ But he was gone. The line was silent, the satellite having glided into some nebula of link-terminating interference. I chose not to ponder the state in which my father would spend the remainder of his Christmas, though I later learned he spent it falling apart. And for a short while, at least, the unimaginable had become my life, not his. I was him, and he was me.”

On the video game Resident Evil, in Extra Lives, 2010:

“Terrible dialogue? It was still a great game. A constant situational ridiculousness that makes The Texas Chain Saw Massacre seem like a restrained portrait of rural dysfunction? It was still a great game. And it is a great game, and will ever be thus. […] But the success of the first Resident Evil established the permissibility of a great game that happened to be stupid. This set the tone for half a decade of savagely unintelligent games and helped create an unnecessary hostility between the greatness of a game and the sophistication of things such as narrative, dialogue, dramatic motivation, and characterization. In accounting for this state of affairs, many game designers have, over the years, claimed that gamers do not much think about such highfaluting matters. This may or may not be largely true. But most gamers do not care because they have been trained by game designers not to care.” 

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